From William Stoddart’s “Introduction” to What Does Islam Mean in Today’s World?
“Islam is the unknown religion.” I first wrote these words in a book on Islamic spirituality published in 1976, and I see no need to change them now. For, not only is there still in the West a widespread ignorance of the true nature of Islam, there is also, thanks to the “Islamic” terrorists, a widespread hostility.
The cause of this hostility is not hard to understand, but it is nonetheless something of a paradox, given that two of the foremost Islamic mystics—who are the true and authentic voices of Islam—have for long been known and admired in the West: I refer to the Persian poets Rumi and Omar Khayyam. One might also mention another celebrated literary work that is familiar and much loved in the West, namely, the “Arabian Nights”. Furthermore, in the field of Islamic architecture, there are the two marvels, the Alhambra at Granada in Spain and the Taj Mahal at Agra in India, which are amongst the best known and most admired buildings in the world.
These mystic poets and majestic sanctuaries are examples of an art that can truly be called sacred, for not only is its fundamental content spiritual, its very forms are in accordance with the canons of traditional art. Art has many branches, and the two sacred arts just mentioned, poetry and architecture, may be said to correspond respectively to verbal and visual crystallizations of the Divine Beauty.
Religion, of course, is not only Beauty. It is first and foremost an expression of Truth and a provider of a means of Salvation. In these few words, we have reached the defining characteristics of every revealed religion: Truth, Beauty, and Salvation. In man, each of these fundamental pillars takes on a moral quality. Truth implies impartiality, rigorous objectivity, and a love of justice. Beauty, which includes Goodness and Mercy, evokes devotion, fervor, and gratitude. Salvation lies in prayer and the essential virtues of humility and charity.
To say the least, all of this is very far from the notion of Islam that exists in the public mind today. A true notion of Islam, and indeed of every complete and uncorrupted religion, is what the present book—taken in its entirety— is all about.
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This book deals with the nature of religion—Islamic and other—and how, in the present age, it has become subject to massive betrayal and perversion. It also touches on how religion is falsified by being amalgamated with secular political programs, which are superficial and outward in the extreme, and which are either entirely devoid of principles, or alternatively, imbued with fundamentally false principles.
 Analogous examples in Christianity of these two sacred arts would be Dante’s Divine Comedy and the Medieval cathedrals. We should not forget the teaching of Plato: “Beauty is the splendor of the Truth.” To which adage, Frithjof Schuon has added: “and Truth is the essence of Beauty”.
From Harry Oldmeadow’s “Foreword” to What Does Islam Mean in Today’s World?
It is one of the most galling ironies of our times that the religious tradition which in many ways is best equipped to bring about a rapprochement of the world’s religions, and thus contribute to a more harmonious world community, is often associated in the West with strife and discord, with terrorism and with the “clash of civilizations”. Anyone seeking an answer to the urgent question posed in the title of the present volume must start with a recognition of three facts which do not sit comfortably together.
Firstly, Islam is a militant religion whose providential role is to recall a forgetful humanity to a constant remembrance of God. Given the times and the cyclic conditions in which we live, Islam must needs take up a combative and uncompromising position in confronting the many ills and evils of modernity. Not surprisingly this causes offense to those who worship the false idols which surround us on all sides and which betray an impoverished understanding of man’s true vocation.
Secondly, much of what passes for “Islam” in the contemporary world is either a parody or a betrayal of the tradition’s essential message and timeless values. That Islam’s teachings and values have apparently been harnessed to much hatred and violence is a sad testimony to corruptions and degenerations within the Islamic world. (I need hardly add that aggressive religious xenophobia also finds shelter in the so-called fundamentalism of various stripes and colors within the worlds of Christianity and Judaism, and now even within parts of the East.) One of the most telling symptoms of the dark confusion within parts of the Islamic world is the overt hostility to Sufism, the mystical heart of Islam.
Thirdly, Islam in general and Sufism in particular have a special role to play in cultivating inter-religious concord and amity, not only because Islam belongs to both East and West, but by virtue of the fact that the descent of the Koran is the last in the great cycle of Revelations, and that, necessarily, at the heart of Islam there is a universal message about the mystical unity of all integral traditions. That message was most powerfully actualized within two of Islam’s most radiant saints and sages, Muhyi’d-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī and Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī. Well-known to Sufis everywhere is the noble passage in which the Shaikh al-Akbar declares,
My heart has opened unto every form; it is a pasture for gazelles, a cloister for Christian monks, a temple for idols, the Kaaba of the pilgrim, the tables of the Torah, and the book of the Koran. I practice the religion of Love; in whatsoever direction its caravans advance, the religion of Love shall be my religion and my faith (Tarjumān al-Ashwāq).
At a time when the outward and readily exaggerated incompatibility of divergent religious forms is used to exploit all manner of anti-religious prejudices, the affirmation of what Frithjof Schuon called “the transcendent unity of religions” can only be achieved by those who understand the sophia perennis, the immutable wisdom enshrined in all the great religious traditions of both East and West. It is only in its refulgent light that we can fully celebrate and cherish religious differences as well as affirm our common humanity under Heaven. Such an understanding does not vitiate, but rather strengthens, a commitment to traditional religious forms, and deepens our understanding of the precious and irreplaceable role played by each of the traditions in meeting the diverse spiritual needs of the human collectivity.
I have alluded to a few of the many vexed issues concerning the place of Islam in the modern world; these issues are illuminated in this small but percipient volume, which furnishes us with an informed and satisfying answer to the question, “What does Islam mean in today’s world?” While the book focuses on one of the world’s great spiritual treasuries, it also has much to tell us about the nature of religion in general.
William Stoddart belongs in the Perennialist school most readily associated with such luminaries as René Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, and Titus Burckhardt, a school devoted to the explication of unchanging metaphysical and cosmological principles and the preservation of the religious forms and institutions which give these principles concrete expression. I first met with Dr. Stoddart’s work in Sufism: The Mystical Doctrines and Methods of Islam (1976), and have since richly profited from his several works on Buddhism, Hinduism, the Perennial Philosophy, the manifold forms of Tradition, and the false ideologies of the contemporary world.
Amidst the confusions and perplexities of contemporary life, Dr. Stoddart has much to tell us. He has been a resolute defender of Tradition in all its forms and, by the same token, an implacable foe of the follies of modernity. We find in his books and essays a rare combination of metaphysical insight, a deep understanding of and sensitivity to religious forms, and a style of exposition and argumentation which is lucid, attractive, and accessible without ever sacrificing rigor or compromising the rights of Truth.
 Recently republished in a revised and augmented edition as Outline of Sufism: The Essentials of Islamic Spirituality (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2012).