Over the last decade or so, in the West, we’ve heard that “all religions” teach the same truths, or that “all religions teach peace”, and so on. So convinced have we become that a Google search for the phrase returns nearly five million results.
Yet, when Western pundits, politicians, and political activists talk of a religious unity, they do not base this assumption on the idea of a gnosis at the heart of faith (at least not one that could contradict modern, “progressive” Western assumptions). In the debate in the West, neither the individual nor society as a whole is re-orientated toward the sacred in such defenses of religion, but, instead toward contemporary Western notions of rights (which are sometimes used to defend Islam — e.g., to convince us that the religion espouses modern notions of feminism, and so on — and sometimes invoked as an explanation as to why the West must intervene in the Middle East, etc).
The modern, political, conviction about the unity of religion is agnostic.
In contrast, the conviction that the religions are, in a sense, unified, by a gnosis at the heart of each is not new. It is a fundamental tenet of the Traditionalist school of esoteric thought, founded by René Guénon during the early 20th century. And it can be found, before that, in the more mystical and ecumenical beliefs of Freemasonry (a fraternity founded in London in 1717, that initiates members through rituals designed to reorient them toward the spiritual and ethical). And it can also be found in Western esotericism more broadly.
In recent years, Sufism (which is a mystical expression of Sunni Islam) has been presented as the antidote to “Islamic extremism.” Perhaps the most prominent advocate is Stephen Schwartz, a convert to Sufism, and the author of The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony.
Though lesser known, Shi’ism is, we might say, the other, other Islam. Mainstream “Twelver” Shi’ism has much in common with Sufism, and some of its leading clerics — including Ayatollah Khomeini, incidentally — have been interested in Islamic gnosis (‘Irfan) — the direct, intuitive, and mystical comprehension of the Divine.
Here, occasionally, we also hear of the notion of the unity of the religions, based on assumptions similar to those integral to Traditionalism. (Guénon, we might note, adopted Sufism later in life, and took the name ‘Abd al-Wahid Yahya. His ideas, and his criticism of modernity and materialism, has been influential in some circles of Muslim thinkers in recent years. But the idea of the unity of religion is not new in Islam.)
“We must not consider gnosis as a religion among others,” Allamah Tabataba’i (1903-1981) said, “but as the heart of all religions.” Both a master of Islamic jurisprudence and law and an initiate of Islamic gnosticism under Mirza ‘Ali Qadi, Allamah Tabataba’i tells us that, “Gnosis is … the path for realizing the inner truth of religion rather than remaining satisfied only with its external form and rational thought.”
It is, he said, the path of love, rather than one of fear.
The notion of religious unity has more recently been aired within Shi’a Islam, and, importantly, at a time of religious strife:
“We should not think that unity is only for Muslims, but God wants us to have unity with other religions as well,” Grand Ayatollah Alavi-Gorgani said at the end of December, 2014.
You probably missed it. It didn’t get much attention in the West. But the grand ayatollah delivered his message, publicly, in response to atrocities carried out by ISIS against Christians and Yazidis — Yazidi girls and women had been raped en masse, and sold in public auctions only a few days earlier.
“Unity is the path of God and is against the goal of Satan to create differences among mankind,” RASA News Agency reported Grand Ayatollah Alavi-Gorgani saying. “Today, we witness the actions of those who have murdered and pillaged in the name of Islam… Their actions and cursing other religions and sects are not compatible with Islamic logic.”
Angel Millar is the author of The Crescent And The Compass: Islam, Freemasonry, Esotercism, and Revolution in the Modern Era.