On the Term “Wisdom Traditions”: Reflections on Its Significance for Muslims in the Modern Context

“Wisdom is the lost treasure of the believer, he may retrieve it wherever he finds it.”–Prophet Muhammad (saw)

Huston Smith, the great American Philosopher of Religion and Western Academic who  in many ways singlehandedly opened the doors for Western seekers to the wisdom traditions of both East and West was perhaps the first to coin the term “wisdom traditions”. This term is very apt for an Islamic appreciation of the religious traditions of the Other for multiple reasons. To focus on one reason, such an appreciation of the religous teachings of the Other uses the term “wisdom” which in Islam is considered a universally revealed quality which can not be delimited or confined to any one person or religion, but is defined by Prophecy or Prophetic Tradition as such. We find these revealed teachings in the following Quranic verses:

“For this We sent a Messenger to you from among you to recite our Verses to you and purify you and teach you the Book and Wisdom حكمة (Hikma) and teach you things you did not know before.” (Qur’an 2:151)

“Remember God’s blessings upon you, and what He sent down to you of the Book and the Wisdom (al kitab wal hikma) in order to enlighten you with it.”(2:231)

“He Gives Wisdom to whomsoever He Wills; and whoso is Given Wisdom  has been given abundant good; yet none remember save those with intellects” (2:269)

The first Quranic verse cited binds Wisdom to the agency of Prophecy and thereby roots any expression of authentic wisdom by any historical follower of a given Prophet–be that in the form of spiritual teachings, writings or commentaries on revealed scripture, or even medicinal therapies–in the Tradition of Prophecy. The second verse along with the first in which ‘Scripture and Wisdom’ are paired demonstrates the complimentary functions of Scripture and Wisdom: ie, one can be seen to explain, preserve and apply the other for generations of religious practitioners. The third verse universalizes the transmission of revealed wisdom to all of humanity and mentions that any human being who realizes such modes of wisdom has been given “abundant good” by God Himself , among whose many revealed Names in Islam is “Al-Hakim” (The Wise)!

Now, to appreciate the nature of wisdom and its diverse manifestations in space and time through the various revealed traditions in this Quranic sense, combined with the insights of the above hadith of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) regarding the “lost treasure” of wisdom, allows a Muslim to firmly root all diverse, alien, and even ‘non-Islamic’* modes and expressions of spiritual wisdom as found in sages and revealed scriptures across religious frontiers in the reality of Revelation and Prophecy: or Tradition as understood in a universal and global sense. By way of example, to be able to recognize (or “retrieve”) the sayings of pure Non-Dualist Metaphysics of a Shankara as modes of a wisdom (hikma) elucidating pure tawhid (note that Pure Oneness/tawhid is non-Duality/advaita vedanta precisely) which at first sight may be unintelligible (aka “a lost treasure”) for a Muslim believer, can be very spiritually empowering. Such a process of “retrieval”  of a “lost treasure” for the believer can be a means of confirming a mode of Quranic and Prophetic discourse which can deepen one’s attachment to Islam through its universal openings and connection to other revealed or inspired “wisdom traditions”, which one is more capable of accessing in the modern and global context.

Moreover, to recognize the wise teachings of this same Hindu Sage for example as sacred when compared to certain modern or post-modern speculative philosophies is also to appreciate the difference between intellectual teachings which are rooted in the Sacred Tradition of Prophecy and those intellectual teachings divorced from the Sacred: ie, non-traditional. This distinction is equally empowering as it allows one to appreciate the difference between manifestations of sacred ‘wisdom’ and  profane ‘knowledge’ or ‘information’. In the Islamic worldview, any knowledge which was rooted in ‘tawhid’ (the awareness of the Reality of Divine Unity) was considered ‘Islamic’ and was easily integrated in the Islamic worldview regardless of where it was found. The saying of the Prophet whose extrinsic authenticity of ‘transmission’ is uncertain but whose intrinsic ‘meaning’ is sound comes to mind in this context: “Seek knowledge even unto China”. One need not look further than the many Muslim Philosophers and Sufis who were able to benefit from and integrate many of the teachings and sayings of Sages from religious traditions preceding Islam to make this point from an empirical or historical perspective.

What a profound change of attitude, approach, and understanding towards the “wisdom traditions’ of the Other (including traditional commentary and poetry traditions, and even traditional medicinal traditions) would such an appreciation entail, if Muslims were able to apply such universal principles as found in the Wisdom of their Revealed Sources and as found through various historical Muslim precedents in the Tradition, to the current context of religious dialogue and co-existence in the Modern West. Ofcourse, I am not advocating for syncretistic approaches to worship masquerading as ‘healing sessions’ for example. But what I am implying is that gaining an insight into the nature of Divine Reality from the teachings of a Sage (Hakim) of another ‘wisdom tradition’ can only reinforce, expand, and preserve a Muslim’s sense of the Sacred, whose Sacred Sources as well as existential context beckon him as a believer to assert his Prophetic right to finding the lost treasure of Sacred Wisdom in the Other.

All in all, such a ‘retrieval’ of a ‘lost wisdom’ can allow Muslims to be more inclusive of the Wisdom traditions of the Religious Other and view them as ‘extensions’ of a Prophetic or Traditional Wisdom that should not be confined  to one religious group (even one’s own religious group). Such a process of ‘retrieval’ which is both Prophetic and Quranic, allows the Muslim to be aware of the reality that not only where there is Islam there is Wisdom, but also and more profoundly, wherever there is Wisdom, there is ‘Islam’.



[*Please note that the phrase “non-Islamic” is to be distinguished from “un-Islamic”. A truth  or form of wisdom can be ‘non-Islamic’ and not organically related to the formal teachings of the Islam of Muhammad (saw) and still be a mode or expression of Prophetic wisdom as found in the teachings of a Prophet preceding Muhammad (saw). As such, we would deem such truth or wisdom “Prophetic”, “Traditional” and/or even “Islamic” in a universal sense as witnessed in the last line of the above reflection. In contrast, an undertstanding which is “anti-Islamic” is always error or ‘misguidance’ from the point of view of Islam.]


Suggestions for further reading:

1. “The World’s Religions”, by Huston Smith. By far, still the best work on comparative religion in English. A pure classic and a pleasure to read.

2. “The Forgotten Truth”, also by Huston Smith.

3. “Islamic Life and Thought” and “Ideals and Realities of Islam”,  both by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. These landmark books respectively open such awareness of the Islamic view on the universality of Wisdom and Revelation.

“Right Guidance” (Rushd) and the Three Levels of Islam

One of  the best ways to appreciate the different levels or dimensions of Islam is the tripartite definition given to ‘the Religion’ (al-Din) by the Angel Gabriel when he was discoursing with the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in front of his Companions, known famously as the “Hadith Jibril”. The tripartite division is categorized as: 1. ‘Islam’ or “following revealed praxis”; 2 ‘Iman’ or “faith and intellectual/creedal belief”; and 3. ‘Ihsan’ or “spiritual excellence, purification and virtue”.

The first level is defined by the Prophet upon being asked by the Angel Gabriel as “to accept the Shahada (the testimony of Faith in the Divine Unity and Prophecy), and the rest of the 5 pillars of Islam, that is, Prayer, Fasting, Charity/Alms due, and Pilgrimage. The second is defined as faith in God, the Angels, the Scriptures, the Prophets, the Day of Return and Divine Destiny. The third is defined quite elusively by the Prophet (saw) as “to worship God as if you see Him, and if you do not see Him, know that He Sees you”.

Perhaps the most profound and universal way to view each of one these levels is to recognize that each dimension of Islam pertains to a particular mode of  ‘correctly’  or ‘harmoniously’ engaging the human being in one’s connection to Divine Reality. The first level of ‘islam’ is more formal and can be seen to engage the Divine reality through the means of the ‘body’. The second level of ‘iman’ can be seen to the engage the Divine reality through recourse to the ‘mind’, and the third level of ‘ihsan’ through the reality of the ‘heart’ or ‘spirit’. Hence the first level or dimension of Islam is related to “correct”, “harmonious” or “right practice”; the second to “right understanding” and the third to “right relationship” with God, self and others.

Seekers or Practitioners of Eastern Wisdom, especially as found in Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist paths shall appreciate the terms “right/correct/harmonious” as adequate descriptors for the terms ‘way’ or ‘nature/law’ (as in the terms Tao or Dharma respectively). The beauty of the English term “right” as a descriptor is that it is very ‘non-confessional’ or universal in scope and points to an objective quality which can be seen to be in ‘the nature of things’. Whether it relates to “right practice”or “right thinking”, it does not have some of the restrictive connotations that the terms “orthodox” and even “dogmatic” may have  in their respective Western Christian contexts, yet are wide enough to include the positive function and significance of these same terms which are sacred in certain forms of Christianity. From this point of view, it is interesting to note that the Quranic term “rushd” is probably best defined in English as “Right Guidance” and fits perfectly into the spirit of one of the intended meanings of the Quranic verse, “There is no compulsion in Religion (al-Din); Right Guidance (rushd) is clear from error/misguidance” (2:256). In this light, it is worthy to note that there is no formal Quranic equivalent in Arabic of the Western term “orthodox” as one finds in certain Western traditions, although the ‘meaning’ of the term ‘orthodoxy’ can be grasped through the Quranic term ‘rushd’.

As such, these three levels or dimensions of Islam can be viewed as levels of  ‘right guidance’ which is revealed from the Prophets to humanity on high, but recognized naturally and realized willfully from within the heart of human beings without any need for extrinsic coercion. Hence there is “no compulsion” in following “right guidance” according to this Quranic verse: by definition following ‘right guidance’ should occur naturally. When a human being recognizes Truth and Rightful Guidance in whichever revealed form it manifests itself in time and space, by their very nature that same human being naturally and freely starts inclining and orienting themselves towards “right guidance” (rushd) on the levels of ‘understanding’ (iman), ‘practice’ (islam), and ‘realization’ (ihsan).

And God Knows Best.

Suggestions for further reading:

1. “Vision of Islam”, by Chittick and Murata. This whole book is the most comprehensive introduction to Islam in the English language and runs like a traditional commentary on the aforementioned ‘Hadith Jibril’.

2. “The Sage Learning of Liu Zhi”, by Murata, Chittick and Tu Weiming. A very deep and penetrating book which is a translation of a Chinese Sage named Liu Zhiu’s teachings on Islam (died crica 1700’s) which uses the revealed wisdom of Neo-Confucian thought to explain the verities of Islam to the Chinese.

What is Islamic Universality?

To answer this question as far as this blog is concerned, I will firstly try to define what “Islamic” and “Universality” mean to me within a Quranic worldview, and then proceed.

“Islam” means both ‘peace’ and ‘submission’ in Arabic and and also designates the ‘religion’ of all the Prophets in general and the final religion sent to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) in particular who appears at the historical end of a whole chain (silsila) of plenary Prophecy. The Quran, which is the ‘Word of God’ revealed piece-wise in Scriptural form to the Prophet Muhammad (saw), utilizes all these definitions in appropriating ‘islam’ in various contexts within the Quran. That which is ‘islamic’ then, is anything  or any subject which is related to a state or condition of spiritual peace and submission before its Creator. The term “islam” is therefore appreciated both in an ontological sense as well as an application of any mode of Prophetic or Revealed guidance, wisdom and/or inspiration.  That which is “universal” pertains to notions, elements, or principles which are common and  broadly encompassing as well as inclusive of all categories and applicable to all conditions, situations and purposes while not necessarily being confined to any conditions, much like the Quranic metaphor of the “olive” whose Origin is described as “neither of the East nor the West”.

Therefore the term “Islamic Universality” will  be understood here to mean those elements or dimensions of revealed or Prophetic teaching which are essential, common and universal to all of humanity and are to be found at the heart of all true Revealed Guidance (rushd) in general (be that in the form of ANY revealed scripture and wisdom  or in the signs of God as found in the different levels of order of creation) and in the Revealed Guidance of Islam in particular. That which can be said to constitute the most universal dimensions of Islam understood in the general sense as the religion of all the Prophets, and in the specific sense as the revealed religion sent to the Prophet Muhammad (saw), is to be understood here as part and parcel of “Islamic Universality”.

The most universal dimension of Islam understood as the religion sent to the Prophet Muhammad is the teaching of the Unity of Divine Reality (Tawhid). This constitutes the very substance of everything and anything that can be considered as Truth and Reality (Haqq) in Islam, that is, as both ‘orthodox’ and ‘universal’ from a Quranic point of view. Tawhid is also considered to be the heart and essence of every revealed religion in the Quranic worldview: “And We sent no Messenger before you but We inspired him saying, ‘There is no God but Me, so worship Me” (21:25). Discussions or reflections related to this dimension shall be labeled under the heading of ‘Tawhid/Divine Unity”. It can be said without hesitancy and by  Quranic self-definition that the most Absolute reality and teaching in Islam is Tawhid.

‘Under’ this level of Islamic awareness concerning the Reality of Divine Unity would be the level of Prophecy (nubuwwah) which is the means whereby teachings, communications and transmissions regarding the Divine Reality are actualized in space and time for humanity. Any discussion connected to this level of discourse which may be confined to the Prophet Muhammad (saw) or include any and all Prophets and their respective revealed wisdom traditions shall be labeled under the heading of  “Nubuwwah/Prophecy”.

The final level of Islamic awareness for our purposes will be the recognition of humanity’s perpetual, spiritual returning (ma’ad) to the Divine Reality, which is our true Origin (mabda’). Any theme connected to spiritual purification and praxis, wayfaring, the day of ‘return’, (and even the “end-times”) in any way shape or form shall be categorized under the heading of “Mabda’ wal Ma’ad/Origin and Return”.

We shall attempt to confine ourselves to those elements on each one of the levels of Islamic awareness mentioned above which are the most universal. Some may find parallels to our categories with the notions of ‘islam’ ( submitting to/following religious praxis), ‘iman’ (faith and creedal/intellectual belief) and ‘ihsan’ (spirituality, moral excellence, practice and virtue) which have been understood by the Tradition to indicate the different ‘levels’ of the revealed teaching of “Islam”.  As such, these categories shall be utilized as well to delineate the differing levels of  “Islam” and ‘Islamic Universality’ when deemed appropriate.

A final word should be said regarding the scope of “Islamic Universality”. True universality must include religious particularity and thereby exclusivity. Therefore, my understanding of “Islamic Universality” shall always acknowledge both the “outward” and “inward” dimensions of Islam, along with the universal and exclusive elements relating to both of these dimensions.  As such, the perspective of “Islamic exclusivism” is acknowledged within the scope of our universal perspective,  with a view to integrating it (implicitly, but at times explicitly) into a higher unity of awareness of religious truth which we have defined here as “Islamic Universality”. If a universalist rejects or ‘excludes’ exclusivism, than such a “universalism” is itself a form of “exclusivism”.

We say all this to recognize that we discern in the Islamic Sources of Revelation (both in the Quranic and Prophetic Discourse) modes of universality, as well as particularity and exclusivity which we believe to be “Intended” by God who is aware of the diversity of intellectual, spiritual and moral needs of serious seekers of Truth. Moreover a religion can not be a religion which vehicles spiritual truths and saves souls without the elements of exclusivity and universality bound and woven together in a manner which expresses its unique particularity. If the Divine Nature is simultaneously Absolute and Infinite, then this must manifest itself in religious forms here below through the inclusivity and exclusivity proper to all revealed religions. It is through its character of inclusivity that a plenary world religion radiates itself to “all nations”, and it is though its exclusivity that the same religion preserves its quality and integrity through vicissitudes of time and space. As such, I believe no expression or understanding of “Islamic Universality” is complete without this recognition.

And God Knows Best.


Suggestions for further reading:

1. “The Other in the Light of the One: The Universality of the Qu’ran and Interfaith Dialogue”, by Reza Shah-Kazemi. The most comprehensive academic and metaphysical analysis of ‘Islamic Universality’ in the context of interfaith dialogue. He gives the most precise meaning of the way we intend to use “Islamic Universality” on this blog from a Sufi Hermeunetical framework. He draws from a whole range of Sufi commentaries on the Quran, as well as citing many contemprary Western and Muslim authorities and academics regarding religious dialogue and creates a ‘pioneering synthesis’ much needed for our context of dialogue and coexistence.

2. “The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity”, by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Written on the first anniversary of 9/11, this book presents the universal dimensions of Islam in an unparallelled manner which speaks directly to the current context. Dr. Nasr’s sections on “The Spectrum of Islam” includes a discussion on Sunnism and Shiism. His chapter which deals with Islam’s “sacred Law” is a welcome contribution which can serve to dispell many misunderstandings created by ‘Islamophobes’. His first chapter, “One God, Many Prophets” is phenomenal in both scope and depth. He writes as a Sage who actively identifies tawhid (Divine Unity) as the heart of every revealed religion, and is inclusive of all founders of religions (especially Christ) and includes references to the Buddha and Lao Tzu whom he decribes as Prophets.

3. “The Vision of Islam”, by Sachiko Murata and William Chittick. Probably the best and most comprehensive ‘introduction’ to the depth and breadth of Islam and the Islamic tradition, in the English language. The word ‘introduction’ is put in quotation marks because this book is much, much more than a mere introduction to the subject. It truly presents and unparalleled “vision” of the whole of the universal and particular dimensions which constitute the Islamic tradition in a most succinct fashion.

Peace and Blessings! An Introduction.

In the Name of God, Full of Grace, Full of Mercy. May Peace and Blessings be unto you and welcome to this blog.

“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp that is in a glass; the glass, which as it were is a glittering star kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it; Light upon Light; God guides to His Light whom He will. And God strikes parables for men, and God has knowledge of everything.” (24:35)
I am a son to loving parents; a sibling to loving brothers; a husband to a beautiful wife; and a father to two equally beautiful children–with hopes for more children and prayers for their future here in the West. By vocation I am a Physician in Private Practice. My physical origin or land of birth is America, my ethnic origin is from the Punjab region of the Subcontinent associated with Pakistan; my religious origin is Islam; yet my ultimate identity is shared with all of humanity’s spiritual Origin which is found ‘with God in Pre-Eternity’ which is “neither of the East nor of the West”.  My interests include Traditional spirituality and Traditional thought in general, and Islamic spirituality and thought in particular; comparative religion and perennial philosophy; traditional and alternative medicines which serve to compliment my Modern Medical practice.
Upon the request of several friends, I have decided to start sharing some personal reflections upon the more universal dimensions of the Islamic Tradition as they specifically pertain to my existential context as a Western Muslim. I shall focus more on the spiritual and intellectual aspects of Islam without altogether ignoring the equally important role of the Sacred Law which defines and circumscribes all spiritual practice proper to Islam. As a spiritual seeker whose ethnic and cultural heritage hails from the East yet whose existential predicament is uniquely Western and Muslim, I often feel that I am “in” the worlds of both East and West, but not “of” these worlds. Such experiences have given me–and like minded persons I am sure–unique insights into things Sacred, both of the East and of the West. As such, this blog shall be dedicated to the inquiry of those aspects of Traditional, Revealed and Inspired Wisdom which, to use the above Quranic metaphor, are “Neither of the East nor of the West”.
My intention throughout this blog shall not be to circumvent the formal and creedal elements of the Islamic Tradition, but rather to compliment them through broadening one’s awareness of those very same elements in Islam and as they may relate to other revealed wisdom traditions. In this light, I shall focus on expressions of a Wisdom or “Light” rooted in the Sacred which is timeless or eternal, whose appeal is universal, and whose scope is ‘confined’ by “neither East nor West” yet ‘defined’ by my personal experiences in both East and West as a Muslim. I pray this endeavor to blog certain thoughts, discussions, and experiences over a few years of searching for such wisdom in Islam and other Revealed Traditions through mutually enriching intra-faith as well as inter-faith contact and dialogue may be of benefit to various seekers of Truth.
I pray these reflections lead not only to a heightened awareness of the beauty of Islam, but also to a more profound recognition of Divine Reality along with a deepening of one’s spiritual and religious practice in whichever revealed religion one finds themselves to be in. In particular I pray this blog may serve as a bridge for those Muslims who seek a similar bridging of the gap between their Western and Muslim identities in order to live in peace with themselves and in harmony with others in the Name of God. I also pray that this blog may be of benefit to those seekers across religious frontiers and global hemispheres who seek a similar bridging between a sense of “Self” and “Other” without blurring formal distinctions, all in order to bring deeper meaning into their lives. Amen.
~Hasan Awan