The Ancient Light of Truth

Ivan Aguéli Motiv från Visby II (1892)

The Ancient Light of Truth

by Paul Cudenec | Nov 8, 2022

A devastating fragmentation of thought today makes it extremely difficult for us to make sense of our world and our lives.

This has not happened by chance. It is a necessary function of the modern system to destroy all evidence of a reality other than its own and thus to render us blindly and helplessly dependent on its structures of control and exploitation – and on the philosophies it throws up to justify these structures.

When I was young, I was repeatedly disappointed to discover that what had seemed to be a promising school of thought turned out to be hopelessly shallow, or to contradict in some way one of my own fundamental principles.

I therefore had no choice but to build up my own personal philosophy, taking from various writers and traditions the insights that struck me as true, while feeling free to cast aside the elements with which I did not agree.

This seems like a very individualistic approach and you might imagine that it led me to a philosophy built narrowly around my own personal point of view and experience.

But no – by following my intuition, the heart of my intellect, I had stumbled across the only way of rediscovering the knowledge that has been hidden from us by the dominant system.

In digging down into my own individual unconscious, I also reached the collective unconscious, the source of the forbidden ancient wisdom of our species.

I am always thrilled to learn about other individuals who have made a similar intellectual journey and come to much the same conclusions.

One of these is Ivan Aguéli (1869-1917) a Swedish-born artist (some of his paintings are featured above and below) who was both an anarchist and a Sufi and is the subject of a recent collection of essays edited by Mark Sedgwick. [1]

Not only does Aguéli provide a general link between anarchism and spirituality (modes of thought usually declared incompatible by the modern thought-controllers), but he also provides a tangible historical link between anarchism and the birth of the movement called perennialism or Traditionalism.

This is important for me, as someone who has long identified with something I call anarcho-perennialism.

Indeed, I was honoured to discover that in his contribution to the book, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi: The Politics, Painting, and Esotericism of Ivan Aguéli, scholar Anthony T. Fiscella names me as a representative of this philosophical current, alongside Aguéli and our common inspiration Leo Tolstoy. [2]

Aguéli played a crucial part in launching the whole perennialist/Traditionalist movement associated with the philosopher René Guénon, even if that fact is inconvenient for the non-anarchists who today seem to dominate it.

Writes Sedgwick: “His personal impact on Guénon was major, as it was at his hands that Guénon converted to Islam and became Abd al-Wahid”. [3]

Aguéli’s articles and translations featured in Guénon’s reviews La Gnose (1911-1912) and Le Voile d’Isis, later known as Etudes traditionnelles (1933-1946), and thus helped shape the movement’s evolution.

Indeed, leading French Traditionalist and Sufi Michel Vâlsan (1911–74) noted in 1953 that the whole Traditionalist movement was in some ways the fulfillment of Aguéli’s original vision. [4]

So what was this vision? Let’s start with Aguéli’s anarchism. He wrote in 1893: “It is a beautiful phenomenon, anarchism. It is for certain the most beautiful in our filthy time. Imagine a sunrise and a sunset at the same time”. [5]

By this time he had already visited the Anarchist Club in London and reportedly met the exiled Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. [6]

His association with anarchists in Paris – he shared accommodation with Charles Chatel (1868–97), the editor of the periodical L’En Dehors and then of the Revue Anarchiste – led to him being arrested and held in prison in 1894 before being narrowly acquitted of wrongdoing in a jury trial. [7]

Later, in Cairo, he was in contact with members of the “vibrant” [8] Egyptian anarchist movement.

Meir Hatina describes how his outlook embraced individual freedom, equality for all without discrimination, public education, social justice, empathy for the weak and political defiance of state structures of oppression.

“In his perception, a moral society based on mutual aid and mass education was a sine qua non in an age where the universal moral compass became indifferent and fatalist. In line with anarchist thinking, Aguéli also ruled out militarism and wars, and preached universal brotherhood”. [9]

Aguéli was strongly opposed to imperialism: its centralization of power and exploitation represented the exact opposite of his anarchist ideals.

In Cairo he worked with Enrico Insabato (who later turned out be an agent of the Italian state sent to infiltrate the anarchist movement!) on an “unusual, half-political, half-theological periodical” [10] in Italian, Arabic and sometimes Turkish, called Il Convito and/or Al-Nadi. Aguéli wrote for it under variations of the name Abdul-Hâdi.


This review, says Paul-André Claudel, “developed a very critical opinion of Western exploitation”, [11] mainly singling out France and Britain, but also Germany, Austria, Russia and Spain (though not Italy!).

Indeed, Aguéli ended up being expelled from Egypt in 1916 by the British colonial authorities, who regarded him as a threat to their imperialist activities in the First World War. [12] This hostile move led to his flight to Barcelona, where he died, penniless, the following year.

One of the strangest fragmentations of political thought today involves opposition to imperialism.

In itself, this is usually regarded as a “left-wing” position, but if this same imperialism is rebranded as “democracy” or “globalisation”, opposing it now seems to be regarded as “right-wing”.

When the global empire of “development” destroys human community in the name of “progress”, it simultaneously brands all those who oppose such destruction as “reactionary” obstacles to the marvellous inclusive and sustainable modernity which it is generously spreading across the world.

But the eminently radical Aguéli “was deeply involved in the struggle for Arab cultures to retain their uniqueness in their encounter with the modern European ideas that were quickly gaining entry with colonialism”, [13] as Viveca Wessel explains.


Moreover, he and his comrades saw with complete clarity the way that so-called “progress” was used as a propaganda device to justify the worldwide expansion of private wealth and power at the expense of people everywhere.

They declared in Il Convito: “We are against the Europeanization of Muslim countries: the system has given bad results and we consider so-called ‘progress’ as a huge fraud that we must unmask. It is nothing but stupid and useless vandalism: it means the destruction of harmonies and of sentimental and architectural orders that we want to preserve at all costs”. [14]

The aim here was “to encourage a return to a more traditional Islamic identity, which was considered under threat by the West,” writes Claudel, [15] invoking “a form of ideological traditionalism, far from any ‘modern’ and ‘liberal” model’.” [16]

We thus see that the common root shared by anarchism and perennialism/Traditionalism is opposition to the global empire of greed whose centralising violence crushes all living community and culture.

The move of mainstream anarchism away from the defence of tradition and into the arms of liberal modernity, together with Traditionalism’s spurning of anarchist ideals, is a damaging fragmentation which badly needs mending.


Anti-imperialism also partly provided the basis on which Aguéli and then Guénon became Sufis.

“Conversion to Sufi Islam can be seen as a militant and political choice, a way to challenge the Western (imperialist) social order”, [17] says Alessandra Marchi.

She joins Fiscella in identifying several elements constituting a common “language” potentially linking anarchism and Islam, including resistance to oppression, contestation of human or centralized authority, and commitment to egalitarianism, universalism, and solidarity. [18]

The universalism that attracted Aguéli to Islam also led him to place his adopted religion within a broader context – a central theme of the perennialist/Traditionalist outlook which he helped create.

He wrote in 1911: “Islam has many points of comparison and contact with most other systems of belief or of social organization. It is neither a mixed nor a new religion.

“The Prophet expressly states that he has invented nothing whatsoever as far as dogma or religious law is concerned. He has only restored the ancient and primeval faith.

“That is why there are so many similarities between Taoism and Islam. This assertion is not mine, but one that has been made by famous Muslim and Chinese authors”. [19]

In defending Islam from Western hostility in 1904, Aguéli deployed the term “Islamophobia” – possibly inventing the word. [20]

But at the same time he defended Sufism from modern reformers within Islam who, says Sedgwick, “tended to dismiss it as superstitious and obscurantist”. [21]

Seyyed Hossein Nasr later depicted Sufism as the “heart
of Islam” [22] and for Aguéli the heart was the centre of “universal intelligence”. [23]

This belief in the belonging of the individual to a universal entity has led to some misunderstanding about the compatibility of Islam and anarchism.

Aguéli wrote: “The word Islam is an infinitive of the causative verb aslama, to give, deliver, hand over. There is an ellipsis: li-llahi (to God) is understood; al-Islamu li-llahi therefore means: to hand oneself over to Allah, that is to say, to obediently and consciously follow one’s destiny”. [24]

At first glance, there seems to be a clash here between the anarchist belief in individual freedom and the Islamic imperative to hand oneself over to Allah.

But when one grasps that Aguéli equates Allah with the individual’s own destiny, the apparent contradiction evaporates.

“Everyone carries his destiny within himself”, [25] he stresses. “The order consists of following one’s destiny obediently and consciously, which means to live, to live one’s entire life, which is that of all lives, that is to say, to live the lives of all beings…

“The more the life of self identifies with the life of non-self, the more intense living becomes. The fusion of self into non-self takes place through the more or less ritual, conscious, or voluntary gift.

“It is easy to understand that the art of giving is the principal arcanum of the Great Work. The secret of this art consists in absolute disinterestedness, in the perfect purity of the spirit in the act, i.e., of the intention; in the complete absence of all hope of return, of any sort of recompense, even in the world to come”. [26]

Far from being at odds with his anarchism, this statement reflects the anarchist conviction that true individuality lies in finding the strength to surpass mere individualism for greater ends.

The “giving” of which Aguéli writes is nothing other than the selflessness, the desire to give one’s life to “the cause”, which gave a quasi-religious feel to historical anarchism, even when its adherents were avowed atheists.

As I wrote in this 2018 article: “The authentic individual, the real rebel, fully embraces their own individuality in order to put it to the service of the principles that form the very essence of human existence”.

It is a question of rising up from the low ego-bound condition of need and fear encouraged by the modern system and boldly accessing a spiritual potential which that same system assures us does not exist.

“The identity of self and non-self is the Great Truth, just as the realization of this identity is the Great Work”, [27] writes Aguéli.

He explains that there are two types of reality: “The first is reality as it appears to ordinary people, meaning people in possession of their five senses and their combinations according to the laws of mathematics and elementary logic. The second reality is an awareness of eternity. In the tangible world, the one corresponds to quantity, the other to quality”. [28]

Aguéli’s role as an artist is as deeply entwined with his Sufism, his anarchism and his Traditionalism as those three aspects of his life are entwined with each other.

Contributors to the book on Aguéli describe how his “aesthetic sensitivity toward nature, landscapes, animals, and of course human beings” and to the contrasting ugliness of modern European “civilization” [29] led him to understand that “what is beautiful relates to what is true, good, and ordered”. [30]

There is an obvious parallel here with the anti-industrialist aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelites in Britain, which I explored here.

William Morris and his fellow artists regarded light in art as a representation of beauty, reality, nature, goodness and purity – qualities which all went hand in hand, according to their holistic philosophy.

This theme was later taken up by the perennialist Ananda Coomaraswamy, who explained, in his study of the medieval theory of beauty, how the form, beauty, goodness and truth of a thing are seen as deeply connected, almost synonymous. [31]

Art was the product of an inner universal light and the individual artist was the channel through which this light passed and made itself visible to us.

Aguéli, enthusing in 1911 about what he terms “pure art”, writes: “I have seen works by Picasso wherein rays of light have crystallized into a mosaic of precious cut stones and enormous diamonds of extraordinary transparency”. [32]

In a work of art, “the antithesis of line and color finds its immediate resolution in light”, he writes.

“One need only consider a drawing of the old masters: despite the monochrome or the black and white it always gives us the impression of color. Their paintings, though blackened or faded by the passage of time, always appear lit by a sun created by God specifically for each one of them… an impression of luminosity that gives a work of art its life and magic”. [33]

Art, for Aguéli, can offer a glimpse of “motionless time” or “the permanent presence of the extra-temporal and undying self” and the best kind “impresses itself directly, without any intermediary, through an internal material sensing of the beating pulse of life itself”. [34]

These reflections, which obviously informed his own art, were very much drawn from his study of the Sufi philosophy of light.

Simon Sorgenfrei notes: “Light as metaphor for divine power and illumination has a long standing in Islamic tradition (as it does in many other religious traditions)”. [35]

In the darkness of today’s poisoned world, ideas appear as mere dim fragments in the gloom around us and we often find ourselves unable to see a clear path ahead.

But the light of truth, refracted in the hearts of free individuals ready to give themselves to their destiny, will reveal the whole form behind these fragments and thus the direction we must take to reach a future which is natural and therefore beautiful.

[Audio version]

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[1] Anarchist, Artist, Sufi: The Politics, Painting, and Esotericism of Ivan Aguéli, edited by Mark Sedgwick (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).
[2] Anthony T. Fiscella, ‘Kill the Audience: Ivan Aguéli’s Universal Utopia of Anarchism and Islam’, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 93.
[3] Mark Sedgwick, ‘The Significance of Ivan Aguéli for the Traditionalist Movement’, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 176.
[4] Michel Vâlsan, ‘L’islam et la fonction de René Guénon’, Études traditionnelles 305 (January 1953), pp. 44-46, cit. Sedgwick, ‘The Significance of Ivan Aguéli for the Traditionalist Movement’, p. 165.
[5] Ivan Aguéli, ‘Letter from Paris’ (1893), Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 192.
[6] Viveca Wessel, ‘Ivan Aguéli’s Life and Work’, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 22.
[7] Wessel, p. 24.
[8] Meir Hatina, ‘Ivan Aguéli’s Humanist Vision: Islam, Sufism, and Universalism’, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 146.
[9] Hatina, p. 146.
[10] Paul-André Claudel, ‘Ivan Aguéli’s Second Period in Egypt, 1902-9: The Intellectual Spheres Around Il Convito/Al-Nadi‘, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 102.
[11] Claudel, pp. 107-08.
[12] Mark Sedgwick, ‘Ivan Aguéli: Politics, Painting and Esotericism’, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 3.
[13] Wessel, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 26.
[14] Il Convito, no. 19 (1904), cit. Alessandra Marchi, ‘Sufi Teachings for Pro-Islamic Politics: Ivan Aguéli and Il Convito‘, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 120.
[15] Claudel, pp. 112-13.
[16] Claudel, p. 112.
[17] Marchi, p. 117.
[18] Anthony Fiscella, Varieties of Islamic Anarchism: A Brief Introduction (NP: Alpine Anarchist Production, 2014), cit. Marchi, p. 117.
[19] Abdul-Hâdi/Ivan Aguéli, ‘Universality in Islam’ (1911), Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 230.
[20] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘The Enemies of Islam’ (1904), Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 205.
[21] Mark Sedgwick, ‘Ivan Aguéli: Politics, Painting and Esotericism’, p. 6.
[22] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), cit, Hatina, p. 149.
[23] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘Universality in Islam’, p. 225.
[24] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘Universality in Islam’, p. 224.
[25] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘Universality in Islam’, p. 224.
[26] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘Universality in Islam’, p. 226.
[27] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘Universality in Islam’, p. 228.
[28] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘Universality in Islam’, pp. 221-222.
[29] Hatina, p. 143.
[30] Simon Sorgenfrei, ‘Ivan Aguéli’s Monotheistic Landscapes: From Perspectival to Solar Logics’, Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 58.
[31] Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Transformation of Nature in Art (New York: Dover, 1956).
[32] Abdul Hâdi/Ivan Aguéli, ‘Pure Art’ (1911), Anarchist, Artist, Sufi, p. 219.
[33] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘Pure Art’, p. 213.
[34] Hâdi/Aguéli, ‘Pure Art’, p. 212.
[35] Sorgenfrei, p. 63.

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