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The Religion of the Heart

The Religion of the Heart

This is a revised translation of the essay "Religion of the Heart" from
Esoterism as Principle and as Way (Perennial Books, 1981, 1990)
by Frithjof Schuon.

In the Introduction to his “Revivification of the religious sciences (Ihya ‘ulum ad-din), Ghazali criticizes the theologians of his time, and in so doing he notes a process of exteriorization, of degradation and even of inversion which is natural to human societies, not de jure of course, but de facto. On the one hand, says Ghazali, there is a growing tendency to declare licit what is blameworthy, so as to justify worldly inclinations; on the other hand, and this is in the logic of things, there is an attempt to discredit the values that are contrary to this decadence, so as to calm one’s bad conscience and to neutralize anything that might disturb the reign of lukewarmness and hypocrisy. And since it is necessarily the spiritual life with its fervor and profundity that is the principal victim of worldly defamation, Ghazali gives himself the task of proving the fundamentally Islamic, Koranic and Mohammedian nature of Sufism which, precisely, sums up Moslem spirituality, and which is none other than the “perfect practice” (ihsan) of the Sunna; a “revivification of the religious sciences” thus includes above all the defense and the rehabilitation of the spiritual tradition, which represents a priori the profound life and the very substance of Islam. It has been said that Sufism is “sincerity” (sidq) of faith: to be perfectly consistent entails in fact the carrying over of religion into one’s heart — seat of the divine Presence and so also of metaphysical certainty — and thereby to instill into outward religion a supernatural and deifying life.

“The spiritual essence of man”, says Ghazali, “is similar to the essence of God, for God created man in his image;” also “it is because of this relationship between man and God that all men —and not only Prophets — may attain, with divine help,[1] the realization of the knowledge of God and the world”, in other words, the knowledge of the Principle and its Manifestation, or of the Necessary and the Possible, or of the Absolute and the Contingent; of Atma and of Maya.

This means that in Islam, two “religions” meet, combine, and sometimes confront one another: the outward religion — that of Revelation and the Law — and the religion of the Heart, of Intellection, of immanent Liberty; they combine inasmuch as the outward religion proceeds from the inward religion, but they are in opposition inasmuch as the inward and essential religion is independent of the outward and formal religion. On the one hand, there is homogeneity and continuity, and on the other hand there is incommensurability and discontinuity; form proceeds from essence, but the latter remains eminently free in regard to form. Red or green light is unquestionably light, since it illuminates, but light in itself is neither red nor green; the formalistic or exoteric point of view consists in affirming that such and such a color is light, and correlatively, that light is such and such a color, as if substance were accident just because the latter manifests the former.

This does not mean that Ghazali is directly aware of this irreversibility of relationships; he nevertheless demonstrates in his own way that legal Islam is a projection towards the outward from the “religion of the Heart”: to practice Islam with “sincerity” —and thus by following the example of the Prophet — is to remove the “rust’’ from the heart in disgrace; it is to release the immanent religion and thereby to verify the truth of Islam in the light of a certainty that is already divine because it emanates from the transpersonal Intellect. Just as beautiful actions (husnâ) — those, precisely, that are prefigured and recommended by the Sunna —purify the heart and contribute to actualizing its immanent and already celestial beauty, so, inversely, this beauty of heart is manifested in beautiful actions; Ghazali insists on this reciprocity, which for him is the very quintessence of Islam.[2]

Instead of “Heart”, we could also say “Love”; it is not without reason that Ibn Arabi claims for himself the “religion of Love”, and that Dante declares that “Love and the noble heart are one and the same thing.” (Amore e ‘1 cor gentile sono una cosa). The “gentle” or ‘‘noble’’ heart is none other than the heart that is purified both inwardly by Intellection and contemplation, and outwardly by acts and virtues that are in conformity with Revelation; this “Love” is likewise the “Wine” of the Khamriyah of Omar ibn al- Farid and of many other esoteric poems of Islam.[3] And it is in this Love, moreover that the spirituality of Islam and that of Christianity meet: for as soon as the emanations of the Essence enter the heart, the heart is situated beyond the formal order and has become capable of discerning the divine intentions within all forms, and consequently of perceiving Unity within diversity.[4]

*          *          *

The saving power of Islam stems from the principle that the oneness of the truth demands the totality of faith; this totality engages all that we are, and thus the Heart which sums up what we are. The only truth is that “there is no god other than the sole God”; no absolute alongside the sole Absolute.

For Christians, the only truth is that Christ alone is savior; and it is this objective oneness which demands subjective totality. Metaphysically speaking, the uniqueness of Christ means that only the Logos can save us, the Logos who created us and who is the doorway between the world and God; and basically this is a more relative way of saying that “there is no god other than the sole God”, and thus “there is no good other than the sole Good”. Be that as it may, it is to the divine Oneness that man replies by his own totality, which is nothing other than the Heart or Love.

For Christianity, Love comes from Christ and it would be inaccessible and unrealizable without the Redemption, the heart of man being totally decadent; for Islam, Love is immanent in the heart, only the surface of which has been made blind and impotent by sin; man would cease to be man if his decadence were total. But once Love has been reached, the denominational way of access no longer plays any role; Love, like the “Wisdom” spoken of in the Bible, was before the world and was before man. This means that the “religion of the Heart” is independent of the religion of the Law, in principle if not in fact.

This last reservation means that, if the Sufis almost always keep up the concepts and practices of the revealed Religion — the exceptions being extremely rare —, there are two serious reasons for this, one intrinsic and one extrinsic. The extrinsic reason is obvious: it is a question, not only of giving a good example to all the faithful, but also of remaining in accord with the Law, which cannot take account of the Spirit apart from forms; as for the intrinsic reason, it results on the one hand from certain characteristics of human nature and on the other from spiritual opportuneness, or perhaps even from necessity. On the one hand, whatever be a man’s spiritual degree, the human individual as such always remains “servant” (‘abd); Christ was “true man and true God”, and as “true man”, he prayed like everyone else, notwithstanding his inward Divinity;[5] on the other hand, it is important for the “one who is delivered in this life” — the Hindu Jivan-mukta — to maintain, in parallel with his inward state of union with Atma, a cult of bhakti dedicated to a given ishta­devata. Man would not be man if there were not within him two incommensurable dimensions, one for devotion and the other for union.

*          *          *

Nevertheless, the religious practice of one who is truly integrated into the “religion of the Heart” necessarily differs from the practice of the average man totally enclosed within the formalism of the common Law; whereas the point of view of the latter inevitably implies an individualistic and sentimental voluntarism, without forgetting a sensationalist epistemology which cuts short all “competition’’ presented by intellection,[6] the perspective of the religion of the Heart or of Love is above all intellective and thereby universal; its musical dimension pertains, not to an ideological and moral sentimentalism, but to Beauty and Love, which on the one hand remain in God and on the other hand radiate throughout both cosmic and human Manifestation.

If, for the adept of the Heart or of Love, there is no question of abandoning religious practices, the principle of esoteric transcendence can nevertheless be manifested by a certain liberty with regard to these practices, especially by a tendency towards simplification, all the emphasis being put on contemplation and its direct supports; but this liberty or this objectivity will never be manifested by a dehumanization of the human on the pretext of metaphysical sublimity, for transcendent Truth puts each thing in its place and does not mix levels. Supreme wisdom is in complete solidarity with holy childhood.

This does not mean that the general religion, in order to have the power to save, must demand the heights presented or offered by the religion of the Heart, as no doubt Ghazali would have it; but it demands a sort of tendency or movement towards them, for there is not in every respect a clear demarcation line between the exoteric and the esoteric, or the voluntaristic and the intellective domains. On the one hand, esoterism prolongs and deepens religion, or, put differently, religion adapts esoterism to a certain level of consciousness and activity; on the other hand, the two domains diverge, exoterism being the necessarily particular and particularist form, and esoterism on the contrary being the essence, by definition universal and universalistic, of the formal element. And this explains why Sufism is on the one hand integrally linked with religious formalism, and on the other hand transcends it, at least in principle and independently of its attitudes de facto. The form that one mistakes for the essence is one thing, and the form that expresses or serves as a vehicle for the essence, without being confused with it, is another.

In this context we could refer to the distinction between absolute and therefore necessary Being, and contingent or merely possible being; the theophanic mystery of the Heart is precisely that necessary Being inhabits the center of the human microcosm, so that the metaphysical and mystical certainty proper to the religion of the Heart is the certainty which God has of himself and which he introduces into the consciousness of man. Platonic recollection is none other than the participation of the human Intellect in the ontological insights of the divine Intellect; this is why the Sufi is said to be ‘arif bi-’Llah, “knower by Allah”, in keeping with the teaching of a famous hadith according to which God is the “Eye wherewith he (the Sufi) seeth”; and this explains the nature of the “Eye of Knowledge”, or of the “Eye of the Heart”.

If on the one hand this perspective demands an equilibrium between contemplative inwardness — which is outwardly reductive and simplifying — and the necessary or opportune outward attitudes, it also favors trust and quietude, for wherever there is depth and essentiality, there is Mercy; and this indicates the natural connection between wisdom and holy childhood.[7]

*          *          *

The religion of the Heart or of Love, from the operative point of view, is the power of interiorization. The Truth possesses an interiorizing quality to the extent of its loftiness; absolute Truth is absolutely interiorizing for whomsoever “hath ears to hear”.

The virtues, which by their very nature bear witness to the Truth, also possess an interiorizing quality according to the measure in which they are fundamental; the same is true of beings and things that transmit the messages of eternal Beauty; whence the power of interiorization proper to virgin nature, to the harmony of creatures, to sacred art, to music. The aesthetic sensation — as we have often remarked — possesses in itself an ascending quality: it provokes in the contemplative soul, directly or indirectly, a recollection of the divine essences. For the “pneumatic”, sensible beauty, as well as moral beauty, possesses a virtue that interiorizes; it ennobles the world while separating us from the world.

If we wish to withdraw into the Heart in order to find there the total Truth and the underlying and pre-personal Holiness, we must manifest the Heart not only in our intelligence but also in our soul in general, by means of spiritual attitudes and moral qualities; for every beauty of soul is a ray coming from the Heart and leading back to it. Just as ontologically the Heart comes before outward activity, so its domain is nearer to Mercy than is the domain of the Law, of merits and demerits; for, in the words of the celebrated formula: “My Mercy taketh precedence over My wrath.” The religion of the Heart is the primordial Religion in time, and the quintessential Religion in the soul.


[1] Tawfiq; a reservation which means: in principle.

[2] As it is of every spirituality, notwithstanding other equally possible aspects of this quintessence. “By this power of comprehension, this penetration of our being (by the Universal), our hearts will be transferred into — and united with — the Original Heart (Amida), which penetrates everything and which is the Heart of our hearts.” (Kenryo Kanamatsu: Naturalness. Kyoto 1956).

[3] Likewise in Buddhism: Amitabha is both infinite “Light” and — as Amitayus —infinite “Life”; the divine Heart is Wisdom and Love, Clarity and Warmth.

[4] For obvious historical and geographical reasons, this does not mean that the accomplished sage must concretely know and understand all religions besides his own. When Ibn ‘Arabi declares that his “heart has opened to every form”, it is of his own transcendent state rather than of foreign religions that he is speaking; we say “rather”, for one must not exaggerate either in one direction or the other.

[5] In Moslem parlance one would say: notwithstanding the penetration of his soul, inwardly, by the divine Presence.

[6] From the point of view of total truth, sensationalism is a strangely uninspired heresy, but from the point of view of religious fideism, it is morally indifferent and theologically opportune. Confessional bhakti is opposed to jnana; the Christian theologians reject Plato just as Ramanuja and other Vishnuites reject Shankara.

[7] This is the basis of quietism, whose accidental abuses can in no way invalidate its substantial legitimacy. Every esoterism is dangerous outside the intellectual and moral qualifications demanded by its nature.