What Is Traditional Islam?

Tradition means truths or principles of a divine origin revealed or unveiled to mankind.

In the case of Islam, tradition describes furthermore the words, sayings and actions reported from Prophet Muhammad may Allah bless him and grant him peace, which have been recorded in the hadith collections together with the entire Islamic religion, such as the Islamic schools of law, spirituality, saintity, etc.

Islamic Tradition Not Equal “Fundamentalism:”

What Is Traditional Islam?

edited from Islam In The Modern World, S. H. Nasr [fn1]

“Two centuries ago, if Westerners (or others)... were to study Islam, they would have encountered but a single Islamic tradition.” Although there also were numerous schools of thought and interpretations, and both orthodoxy and heterodoxy in belief as well as in practice, they would however all “have belonged in one degree or another to the Islamic tradition; that is, to that single tree of Divine Origin whose roots are the Quran and the traditions of the Prophet of Islam, or Hadith,” a body of tradition that has grown from those roots over some fourteen centuries in nearly every inhabited quarter of the globe.


“Then, some two hundred years ago, the main waves of modernism began to reach the shores of the Abode of Islam (dar al-islam) and with the passage of time gradually inundated them.”

One can see how modernist influences penetrated into the Islamic world from the turn of the 19th century AD (13th H) first in “military science, astronomy, and medicine,” then “in education, sociopolitical thought, and law and, somewhat later, in philosophy, architecture, and many of the arts.” ...

 “For anyone who understood the essence of modernism based on and originating in the secularizing and humanistic tendencies of the European Renaissance, it was easy to detect the confrontation that was already taking place between traditional and modern elements in the Islamic world.”


“Only during the past few decades has a new phenomenon appeared that necessitates distinguishing rigorously between traditional Islam and not only modernism, but also that spectrum of feeling, action, and thought that has come to be identified by Western scholarship and journalism as “fundamentalist,” revivalist, or 'activist' Islam.”

Whereas much of earlier “fundamentalism,” “was still orthodox, and not a complete departure or deviation from traditional norms, ... today, however, alongside the modernist trend, which stands against traditional Islam, there is a whole series of so-called fundamentalist movements that speak of reviving Islam in opposition to modernism and 'Western civilization,' ... but that are also not traditional and in fact stand opposed to traditional Islam in basic ways. It is, therefore ... crucial to distinguish these movements that have come to be called the 'new fundamentalism,' or simply 'Islamic fundamentalism,' from traditional Islam, with which they are often confused. ”

Anyone “who has read works of a traditional nature on Islam [fn2] and compared them to those championed by the current “fundamentalists” can immediately discern basic differences between them, not only in content, but also in the whole 'climate' in which they breathe,” although “what is branded as “fundamentalism” includes a wide spectrum,” parts of which are close to the traditional interpretation of certain aspects of Islam, such as jurisprudence.

 “But the main thrust of that type of politico-religious movement now called “fundamentalism,” a term that precisely because of its ambiguity is quite problematic and would have been avoided if possible, is so basically different from traditional Islam as to warrant the sharp distinction drawn between them here, despite the existence of certain areas where some types of” “fundamentalism” and certain dimensions of traditional Islam might be in accord.


The term 'tradition' which is used here was re-discovered by René Guénon (Shaykh Abd Al Wahid Yahya)[fn5] a term which “implies both the Sacred as revealed to humanity through revelation and the unfolding and development of that sacred message in the history of the particular human community for which it was destined.”

With the onslaught of modernism and more recently the appearance upon the scene of that caricature of tradition called 'fundamentalism,' it is now necessary to define universally Tradition. Tradition is has then three aspects: - al-dín (religion, ie. what embraces all aspects of life) al-sunnah (that which - while based upon sacred models - has become tradition as this word is usually understood) and al-silsilah (the chain, “that links each period, episode, or stage of life and thought in the traditional world to the Origin, as one sees so cleariy in Sufism, which represents most of the esoteric and mystical dimension of Islam.”

Tradition implies the sacred, the eternal, the immutable Truth, the perennial [fn3] wisdom as well as the continuous application of its immutable principles to various conditions of space and time.[fn4]

“What is directly opposed to tradition is anti- and countertradition, to which we shall turn later, and of course modernism, which is antitraditional by nature and without whose existence there would in fact be no need for the usage of such a term as 'tradition.'”

If those who follow tradition “insist on the complete opposition between tradition and modernism, it is precisely because modernism, understood as a distinct worldview and paradigm, either denies truths of a religious or metaphysical nature or creates in the religious and metaphysical realms a blurred image within which half truths appear as the truth itself, thereby compromising the integrity of all that tradition represents.”


“The significance of traditional Islam can be understood more clearly in light of its attitude toward various facets of Islam. Traditional Islam accepts, of course, without any ifs, ands, or buts the Noble Quran in both content and form as the Word of God, ... uncreated in its essence and without temporal origin, including “the traditional commentaries on the Quran” and it interprets the Sacred Text not on the basis of the literal meaning alone or by the use of individualistic linguistic or historical reasoning, but on the basis of the long tradition of hermeneutics going back to the Blessed Prophet himself MHMD and relying upon oral transmission as well as written commentaries ... up to the present day.


“As for Hadíth, again the traditional school accepts the orthodox collection” Prophetic hadith. Traditional Islam is willing to consider the criticism brought forth against spurious hadíth by modern critics, “but it is not willing to accept unquestioningly the premise upon which modem criticism is based, namely, the denial of the penetration of the Sacred into the temporal order. Traditional Islam believes in divine revelation, the reality of oral transmission, and the possibility of knowledge by the Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) on the basis of direct access to the Source of all knowledge rather than from purely human agents of transmission.” ...

“The traditional perspective always remembers the famous principle of Islamic philosophy, that 'adam al-wijdán lá yadullu 'ala 'adam al-wujúd, that is, 'The nonexistence of awareness of something is not proof of its nonexistence,'” so also the assumption that what has left no traces in written records does not exist, is rejected by traditional Islamic scholarship.

Sharí`ah Includes The Exoteric And Esoteric Sciences

“Traditional Islam defends completely the Sharí`ah, or Divine Law, as it has been understood and interpreted over the centuries and as it has been crystallized in the classical schools (madháhib) of Law and considers following it to be obligatory for all Muslims. Moreover, it accepts the possibility of giving fresh views (ijtihád) on the basis of traditional legal principles, which themselves provide the means of applying the Law to newly created situations, but always according to such traditional legal principles as qiyas (analogy), ijma' (consensus of opinion), istihsán (judicial preference), and so forth.” [fn6]

“Moreover, for traditional Islam, all morality is derived from the Quran and Hadíth and related, in a more concrete manner, to the Sharí`ah. As far as Sufism, or the taríqah, is concerned, traditional Islam considers it the inner dimension or heart of the Islamic revelation, without denying either the state of decadence, in the sense of falling below or deviating from the traditional norms of doctrine and practice, into which certain Sufi orders have fallen over the centuries or the necessity of preserving the truths of Sufism only for those qualified to receive them.”

“The attitude of traditional Islam toward Sufism reflects the view that was current during the centuries prior to the advent of puritanical and modernist movements in the twelfth/eighteenth century, namely, that it is the means for the attainment of sanctity for those wishing to encounter their Creator here and now and not a teaching meant to be followed by all members of the community.” ...

“Nor does the traditional perspective overlook the disagreement that has existed between certain representatives of the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of Islam over the centuries. In fact, this disagreement is understood as necessary in light of the nature of the Islamic revelation and the condition of the human community to which the revelation has been addressed. The traditional school therefore confirms and reiterates the view of authorities such as Abú Hamid al-Ghazzálí, in the Sunni world, and Shaykh Bahá' al-Dín al-'Ámilí, in the Shí`ite world, recognized religious authorities who have been masters of both the exoteric and esoteric sciences and who have defended both dimensions of Islam while explaining why the esoteric comprehends the exoteric, but the exoteric excludes and does not comprehend the esoteric.” [fn7]

While there was disagreement between different schools ... “all these various ways of thinking belonged nevertheless to the traditional universe.“ Moreover, those who follow the Islamic tradition “do not defend only one school at the expense of others, but insist on the value of the whole intellectual tradition of Islam in all of its authentic manifestations with full awareness of different degrees of universaiity expressed by them, since all of these manifestations have issued from the teachings of the Islamic revelation.”

Art And Architecture

“As far as traditional Islamic art and architecture are concerned, traditional Islam insists upon their Islamicity and their relation to the inner dimension of the Islamic revelation, as they are crystallizations of the spiritual treasures of the religion in visible or audible form. [Followers of the Tradition] insist upon the fact that religion possesses not only a truth, but also a presence, and that the barakah emanating from Islamic art and architecture is as essential for the survival of the religion as a whole as the Sharí`ah itself. ... One cannot simply neglect the significance of Islamic art and architecture by insisting only upon the legal and ethical aspects of the religion.”

“From the Quranic revelation there issued not only regulations for how human beings should act, but also the principles according to which they should make things. Islamic art and architecture are directly related to Islamic spirituality,[fn8] and ... those who follow the Islamic tradition are “opposed to all the ugliness that is now invading the Islamic world in the form of urban design and architecture, artifacts, dress, and the like, an invasion accepted by both modernists and 'fundamentalists' in the name of compassion for human beings, expediency, and concern for the material welfare of society, with total indifference to beauty.” ...

“According to the well-known hadíth, God, who is also the Truth (al-Haqq), is beautiful and loves beauty.[fn15] ... Beauty represents the aspect of presence in religion, as doctrine represents the truth. Yet the greatest masterpieces of Islamic art appear insignificant to both modernists and 'fundamentalists,' and their view concerning the spiritual significance of Islamic art seems nearly identical.”

“If one camp now produces mosques that look like factories except for a pseudominaret or dome added superficially merely to signal the building's function, the other is known to have declared that it makes no difference whether Muslims pray in the most beautiful Mogul or Ottoman mosque or a modern factory, as if all Muslims were already saints and not in need of the external support from those traditional forms that act as vehicles for the flow of Muhammadan barakah to the individual and the community.” ...


“In economics, realism is never sacrificed in favor of an unrealizable idealism, nor is it thought possible to inculcate the virtues of hard work, honesty, frugality, and generosity simply by external force or pressure.” [fn9]...


“In the political domain, the traditional perspective always insists upon realism based on Islamic norms. In the Sunni world historically it accepted the classical caliphate and, in its absence, other political institutions, such as the sultanate, which developed over the centuries in light of the teachings of the Sharí`ah and the needs of the community. Under no condition, however, does it seek to destroy what remains of traditional Islamic political institutions, which are controlled by traditional restraints, in the hope of installing another Abu Bakr or 'Umar, but meanwhile settling for some form of dictatorship by an army officer.”

It is therefore plain to see that nowhere does “the veneer of Islamicity (that covers so many movements claiming a revival of Islam) wear more thinly than in the field of politics. There, while calls are made to return to the origin of Islam, the pure message of the Quran, and the teachings of the Prophet MHMD and to reject all that is modern and Western, one ends up by adopting all the most extreme political ideas that have arisen in Europe since the French Revolution, but always portraying them as the purest and most unadulterated of Islamic ideas.”

“In the name of a supposedly pure Islam prior to its early adulteration by the Omayyads,” one then defends secular revolution, republicanism, and ideology ... “but rarely bothers to inquire whether the Quran or Hadith ever used those terms, why a movement that claims Islamicity is so direly in need of such concepts of Western origin, or indeed why the attack against traditional Muslim political institutions coincides so 'accidentally' with those of the left in the modern 'Western world'.”

Tradition, Pseudotradition And Countertradition
“It is essential to remember that, at this moment in human history, one must distinguish, in all religions and civilizations as well as Islam, not only between the traditional and the modern, but also between authentic tradition and pseudotradition, which is antitraditional and now more and more countertraditional, but which also displays certain characteristics outwardly similar to the traditional.”

“As far as the Islamic world is concerned, these distinctions appear clearly once one is able to distinguish between the traditional, as here defined, and that pseudotraditional perspective that is often identified with one form or another of “fundamentalism.“ This type of phenomenon, while claiming to restore Islam to its original purity, is in fact creating something very different from the traditional Islam that was brought by the Prophet MHMD and that has survived and grown like a living tree during the fourteen centuries since his migration to Medina.”[fn10]

“These differences between the traditional and the anti- or countertraditional in Islam become clearer once the traditional is compared to the “fundamentalist“ in specific fields.[fn11] The traditionalist and the “fundamentalist“ meet in their acceptance of the Quran and Hadith as well as in their emphasis upon the Sharí`ah, but even here the differences remain profound as far as interpretations are concerned.”

“As already mentioned, tradition always emphasizes the sapiential commentaries and the long tradition of Quranic hermeneutics in understanding the meaning of the verses of the Sacred Text. So many of the “fundamentalist“ movements, however, simply pull out this or that verse from the Quran and give it a meaning in accordance with their goals and aims, often reading into it a meaning alien to the whole tradition of Quranic commentary, or tafsír.”

“As for the Sharí`ah, tradition always emphasizes, in contrast to so much of current “fundamentalism,“ faith, inner attachment to the dicta of the Divine Law, and lenient judgment based upon the imperfections of human society,[fn12] rather than simply external coercion based on fear of some human authority, some authority other than God.”

Modern Science And Technology

“Outside of this domain, the differences between the traditional and the anti- and countertraditional in Islam are even more blatant. Most of the current “fundamentalist” movements, while denouncing modernism, accept some of the most basic aspects of modernism. This is clearly seen in their complete and open-armed acceptance of modern science and technology.”

“Many of them even seek a quranic basis for modern man's domination and destruction of nature by referring to the Quranic injunction to the human being to 'dominate' (taskhír) the earth, as if the human being addressed in the Quran were not the servant of God ('abd Alláh) and God's vicegerent on earth (khalífat Alláh), but rather the modern consumer.”

“They engage in lengthy arguments to demonstrate how Islamic science served as the necessary background for and made possible the creation of Western science despite Christianity, completely disregarding the fact that the nature and character of Islamic science are entirely different from those of modern science.”[fn13]

“Their attitude toward science and technology is in fact nearly identical with that of the modernists, as seen on the practical plane in the attitude of Muslim countries with modern forms of government compared to those that claim to possess one or another form of Islamic government. There is hardly any difference in the manner in which they both try to blindly adopt modern Western technology, from computers to television, without any thought for the consequences of these inventions upon the minds and souls of Muslims.”


“This common attitude is in fact to be found in the domain of knowledge in general. The process of the secularization of knowledge that has occurred in the West since the Renaissance, (running counter to) all traditional Islamic teachings concerning “science“ (al-`ilm), is not only taken for granted as a sign of progress by the modernists, but is also hardly even noticed by the “fundamentalists.“ By simply equating modern forms of knowledge with al-`ilm, the latter claim to follow the injunctions of Islam in their espousal of modern science, rarely asking themselves what kind of 'ilm it was that the Blessed Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) instructed his followers to seek from the cradle to the grave.”

“Nor do they pause to ponder what the real implications are of the famous saying, sometimes attributed to 'Alí ibn Abí Tálib, “I become the slave of him who teaches me a single word.“ Could this 'word' possibly be a term pulled out of a chemistry dictionary or one drawn from some computer language?”[fn14]

“The real nature of much of “fundamentalist” thought in its relation to modernism is made evident in the whole question of the process of the secularization of knowledge in the West and the adoption of the fruit of this process in so many quarters of the contemporary Islamic world, not to speak of some of the solutions being offered to the problem of the Islamization of knowledge by followers of both the modernist and the “fundamentalist” camps.”


The case of 'ideology' is another example of some most basic aspects of modernism which is often accepted by 'fundamentalist' Islamic movements.

“The truth of the matter is in fact that traditional Islam refuses ever to accept Islam as an ideology and it is only when the traditional order succumbs to the modern world that the understanding of religion as ideology comes to the fore, with momentous consequences for religion itself, not to speak of the society that is ruled in the name of religious ideology rather than according to the dicta of the Shari`ah, as traditionally understood.”

“To fail to distinguish between these two modes is to fail to grasp the most manifest distinction between traditional Islam, on the one hand, and “fundamentalist“ and modernist Islam, on the other. In fact, it marks the failure to comprehend the nature of the forces at play in the Islamic world today.”


“A great deal more could be said concerning traditional Islam in contrast to both the modernist and “fundamentalist“ interpretations, although among the latter there are some groups that are closer to the traditional camp, while others are diametrically opposed to it and represent simply the countertraditional.”

“In conclusion, it is sufficient to add that the traditional school opposes the gaining of worldly power and any surrender to worldliness in the name of Islam, never forgetting the Quranic injunction, “The other world is better for you than this world“ [ وَلَلآخِرَةُ خَيْرٌ لَكَ مِنَ الأولَى. And verily the Hereafter will be better for thee than the present. 93-4] While accepting the fact that Islam does not separate the religious from the 'secular' domain, traditional Islam refuses to sacrifice the means for the end and does not accept as legitimate the use of any and every possible political machination appropriated from completely anti-Islamic sources in order to gain power in the name of Islam.”

“Moreover, traditional Islam does not condone intoxication caused by hatred and anger any more than it does one caused by alcohol; nor does it see such a self-righteous and intoxicating hatred as a legitimate substitute for the need to solve the intellectual, moral, social, economic, and political problems that the Islamic world faces today.”

“Despite both modernism and this latter-day “fundamentalism,“ traditional Islam still survives ...in the present-day lives of those scholars and saintly men and women who continue to follow the path of the Prophet MHMD, in the lives of those craftsmen and artists who continue to recreate those visual and audible forms that are vehicles for the grace of the Quranic revelation, and in the everyday lives of that vast majority of pious Muslims whose hearts, minds, and bodies still reverberate in response to the traditional teachings of Islam.” ...

“There has been a certain revival of traditional Islam in the spiritual, intellectual, and artistic domains during the past few decades, a revival that has gone largely unnoticed in the West. ... Traditional Islam will in fact endure to the end of history, for it is none other than that tree whose roots are sunk in the Quranic revelation.” ...

And “no matter how great the confusion, truth protects itself, because it is none other than reality.”…

fn1    Islam In The Modern World - Prologue, S. H. Nasr; from IMW p.1-13

fn2 list of traditional writers among others:

- S. H. Nasr and Hamza Yusuf Hanson in America,
- A. K. Brohi and Suheyl Umar in Pakistan,
- Abd al-Halim Mahmud in Egypt,
- Naquib al-Attas in Malaysia,
- Martin Lings, Hassan Gai Eaton,
- Abdul Hakim Murad (T. J. Winter) in England
as quoted in ”The Decline of Knowledge and the Rise of Ideology in the Modern Islamic World” by Joseph E.B. Lumbard [back to text]
Also recommended reading:
The Vision of Islam; Chittick, Murata [-AHM]

fn3 perennial: lasting or existing for a long or apparently infinite time, enduring or continually recurring.

fn4 Tradition means truths or principles of a divine origin revealed or unveiled to mankind. KS 68

fn5 see: An introduction to Shaykh Abd Al Wahid Yahya - René Guénon trg.html

fn6 Differences have existed, but cannot serve as a pretext for the rejection of the traditional Islamic worldview. IMW406 fn6

fn7 On the the ”inner and outer” dimensions of Islam, see for example: Sharî`ah, Tarîqah And Haqîqah; S.H. Nasr

fn8 On this question see Titus Burckhadt, The Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, trans. J. Peter Hobson (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2009); and S. H. Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986).

fn9 It is remarkable how close the views of modernists and “fundamentalists“ are concerning the rapid mechanization of means of production and the computerization of every sector of the economy to the greatest extent possible without any concern for their religious and human implications.

fn10 An example, sc IMW 407 fn10

fn11 Re. ”Whereas much of earlier fundamentalism was still orthodox”

fn12 This is seen especially in Islamic penal codes, which traditionally have taken into account such factors, so that they have not been applied blindly and without consideration of all the moral factors involved.

fn13 ks130ff, also S. Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, 1978).

fn14 No knowledge can be Islamically worthwhile unless it is related to a higher plane and ultimately to God, who, being al-Haqq, or the Truth, is the source of all veritable knowledge.

fn15 The norms of Islamic art are inwardly related to the Islamic revelation and the spirituality that emanates from it.

“In any case, what Westerners call civilization, the others would call barbarity, because it is precisely lacking in the essential, that is to say a principle of a higher order.”

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