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The Perennial Solidarity of the East: Esotericism and pan-Orientalism in interwar Egypt

Activity: Talk or presentation typesLecture and oral contribution

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Mattias Gori Olesen - Lecturer

Though Sufism generally was in eclipse among the reform-minded intellectual elite of Egypt in the first half of the 20th century, elements of esoteric thought nonetheless found its way into elite circles during the crisis years of the late 1920s and 1930s. The paper considers this development with reference to the discourse of Easternism or pan-Orientalism, which envisioned Egypt as belonging politically and culturally to a greater Afro-Asian East. It discusses how and why liberal intellectuals as ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Sanhūrī (1895-1971), Muḥammad Luṭfī Jumʿa (1886-1953) and the journal al-Maʿrifa (1931-34) – with its curious cast of figures ranging from modernists to anti-modernists as René Guénon (1886-1951) – incorporated Sufi, traditionalist and modern spiritualist thought in support of their shared pan-Orientalism. The paper argues that such ideas not only served to bolster their cultural project of promoting spiritualism, but also to substantiate pan-Orientalism’s political vision of Eastern unity. While al-Sanhūrī – an early reader of René Guénon – hoped to erect a ‘League of Oriental Nations’ on the ‘pre-existing solidarity’ shared by the traditional Eastern civilizations, Jumʿa, and the editorial line of al-Maʿrifa, sought to encourage unity by envisioning Sufism as one iteration of a sophia also expressed in other Eastern traditions. Such endeavors allowed the pan-Orientalists to dress the different nationalist movements of the East in one spiritual garb in an attempt to inspire and bring them closer. Despite these congruences, Sufism’s popular practice, its perceived association with resignation as well as traditionalism’s anti-modernism remained at odds with pan-Orientalism’s activist and modernizing ethos.
5 Jan 2020

Event (Conference)

TitleIslamic Esotericism in Global Contexts, ENSIE 2020 (European Network for the Study of Islam and Esotericism)
Degree of recognitionInternational event


  • Sufism, Islam, Egypt, Esotericism, René Guénon, Orientalism, Easternism, pan-Orientalism

ID: 217975943