Gnostics, Religion, and the (Mis)Recognition of Modernity

  • Joel S. Kahn


In 1929, René Guénon’s countrywoman, Louise Eugénie Alexandrine Marie David (later Alexandra David-Néel), published a book on Buddhism based mainly on her travels in South Asia and particularly her trek to the “forbidden city” of Lhasa—the capital of Tibet—and her encounters with Tibetan magic and religion along the way.1 Unlike Guénon, she was a hugely popular figure in France in the years before World War II, due among other things to an unquenchable thirst for public acknowledgement that had already manifested itself in an early career as an opera singer. Her popularity was undoubtedly also due to a far more engaging style than Guénon’s. Unlike Gué non, David-Néel wrote accounts of Asian religion that were accessible to a general public eager for stories of the exotic East. And the appeal of these stories was significantly enhanced by a colorful personality, at least as it was packaged for a public who came to know her as a free-spirited and independent woman and feminist; a vociferous critic both of bourgeois pretension and of Catholicism and the Catholic church (her father’s family were Huguenots); a hashish-smoking disciple of a mysterious Indian guru; a member of an anarchist circle founded by a former Paris communard; a practitioner of tantric sex; and an intrepid and fearless explorer who was able to outwit both colonial authorities and Chinese nationalists bent on blocking her access to Tibet.2


Muslim World Money Lender United Malay National Organization Muslim Organization Opera Singer 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Alexandra David-Néel. 1967. Magic and Mystery in Tibet. London: Souvenir Press (French original 1929). The book was first published in English in 1931 under the title With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet, and has since gone through a large number of printings and editions.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The account of her life is drawn both from David-Néel’s own writings and the biographies by the Fosters (Barbara Foster and Michael Foster. 1998. The Secret Lives of Alexandra David-Neel. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press) and Middleton (Ruth Middleton. 1989. Alexandra David-Néel: Portrait of an Adventurer. Boston, MA and Shaftesbury: Shambhala). While both are written by admirers, the former is much better sourced and documented.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    “Buddhist doctrine does not admit the transmigration of the soul nor of any form of personality” (Alexandra David-Néel. 1911. Le Modernisme Bouddhiste et le Bouddhisme de Bouddha. Paris: Librarie Félix Alcan, 170).Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    See Michael Francis Laffan. 2003. Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma below the Winds. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 6.
    The main source for Abdullah’s ideas is his “autobiography,” The Hikayat Abdullah, published in Malay in the mid-nineteenth century. For an annotated English translation see Abdullah bin Kadir. 1969. The Hikayat Abdullah, trans. A. H. Hill. Singapore: Oxford University Press. For a more recent analysis see Sanjay Krishnan. 2007. “Native Agent: Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir’s Global Perspective,” in Sanjay Krishnan, Reading the Global: Troubling Perspectives on Britain’s Empire in Asia. New York: Columbia University Press, 95–132.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    The connections between the Cairene modernism of ‘Abduh and Ridā, the Islamic reform in the Malay world, and the role played in the spread of reformism from the Middle East into that world is documented in Taufik Abdullah. 1971. Schools and Politics: The Kaum Muda Movement in West Sumatra (1927–1933). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Modern Indonesia Project, Cornell University; William R. Roff. 1967. The Origins of Malay Nationalism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; and Laffan, Islamic Nationhood, among others. The classic account of the modernist movement in Indonesia is Noer’s (Deliar Noer. 1973. The Modernist Muslim Movement in Indonesia, 1900–1940. Singapore and Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    See Joel S. Kahn. 1984. “Peasant Political Consciousness in West Sumatra: A Reanalysis of the Communist Uprising of 1927,” in A. Turton and S. Tanabe (eds.), History and Peasant Consciousness in Southeast Asia. Osaka: Senri Ethnological Studies.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    Attracted by the new religious sensibilities and ideas being fostered by ‘Abduh and his colleagues in Cairo, young Muslims from the Malay world—Sumatra, Borneo, the Malay Peninsula, the Straits Settlements, Southern Siam, and French Indochina—increasingly travelled to Egypt rather than Mecca to pursue their religious studies in the early twentieth century. This was associated in turn with the growing influence of modernism back home, propagated by returning students (see William R. Roff. 1970. “Indonesian and Malay Students in Cairo in the 1920s,” Indonesia 9 (April): 73–87; Mona Abaza. 1994. Indonesian Students in Cairo: Islamic Education; Perceptions and Exchanges. PhD diss., University of Bielefeld; Laffan, Islamic Nationhood).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 10.
    For a history of modernist educational institutions in Sumatra, see the seminal work of Taufik Abdullah (Abdullah, Schools and Politics). A useful study of the spread of modernist madrasah, and the role of modernist Muslims in early Malay nationalism is by Firdaus (see Firdaus bin Haji Abdullah. 1985. Radical Malay Politics: Its Origins and Early Development. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk). Some information on madrasah in southern Thailand is contained in Hasan Madmarn. 2002. The Pondok and Madrasah in Patani. Bangi, Selangor: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    Non-Indonesianists are most likely to have read about modernist Muslims in Indonesia in Clifford Geertz. Religion of Java. 1976. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. However, the term that he uses to describe them (santri, a term that refers to students in religious schools) actually conflates modernist and Traditionalist Muslims (see Merle C. Ricklefs. 1979. “Six Centuries of Islamization in Java,” in Nehemia Levtzion (ed.), Conversion to Islam. New York and London: Holmes & Meier, 100–128). The literature on the history of Islamization in Indonesia is very large. The most comprehensive accounts in English are those by historian Ricklefs (see Merle C. Ricklefs. 2006. Mystic Synthesis in Java: A History of Islamization from the Fourteenth to the Early Nineteenth Centuries. White Plains, NY: EastBridge; Merle C. Ricklefs. 2007. Polarising Javanese Society: Islamic and Other Visions, 1830–1930. Singapore: NUS Press; Leiden: Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde). For a description of these modernist networks in colonial Sumatra and British Malaya, see Joel S. Kahn. 2006. Other Malays: Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism in the Modern Malay World. Asian Studies Association of Australia in association with Singapore University Press (Singapore) and NIAS Press (Copenhagen) (published in the United States by University of Hawaii Press).Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    For an example of a modernist argument in favor of women’s emancipation by a contemporary of ‘Abduh’s, see Qasim Amin. 2002. “The Emancipation of Woman and the New Woman.” In Charles Kurzman (ed.), Modernist Islam, 1840–1940: A Sourcebook. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 61–69.Google Scholar
  12. 13.
    As Eickelman points out, the printing industry (embraced by modernists from early on), and hence the “textualisation” of Islam associated with modernist reform, made it possible for the first time for Muslims to have direct access to Islamic arguments without any intervening religious authority—making it at least potentially possible for the reader to exercise “authoritative immediacy” (see Dale F. Eickelman. 2000. “Islam and the Languages of Modernity.” Daedalus, 129(1): 119–135). It is therefore suggested that Islamic modernists opposed all forms of religious authority, leaving it to individual believers to produce their own interpretations of the originary texts. However, as is the case with all self-consciously “rationalist” ideologies, modernism does not dispense with authority altogether, since it is generally recognized that linguistic and religious expertise is required before one can produce ijtihad; hence the important role of religious education/certification in the production of modernist authority. For a critique of the argument that print capitalism facilitates autonomy of individual believers to make their own interpretations, see Reinhard Schulze. 1987. “Mass Culture and Islamic Cultural Production in 19th century Middle East,” in Georg Stauth and Sami Zubaida (eds.), Mass Culture, Popular Culture, and Social Life in the Middle East. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag; Boulder, CO: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    A useful discussion of the intellectual influences on Islamic modernism, including the influence of European social evolutionists (Comte, and especially Herbert Spencer) is found in A. Al-Azmeh. 1993. Islam and Modernities. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    For a Malaysian example, see Farish A. Noor. 2004. “The Challenges and Prospects for ‘Progressive Islam’ in Southeast Asia: Reclaiming the Faith in the Age of George Bush and Osama ben Laden,” ICIP Journal 1(1): 1–30. In a similar vein, Weiss maintains that a “progressive Islam,” associated with the discourse on the “presumed compatibility of Islam and democracy … dates back to the late nineteenth-century reform movements in Malaysia and Indonesia.” See Meredith L. Weiss. 2004. “The Changing Shape of Islamic Politics in Malaysia,” Journal of East Asian Studies 4(1): 142.Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    Avoidance is a common strategy. But for more explicit critiques of the use of the term “fundamentalist” to describe Islamic movements in Malaysia, see Guilain Denoueux. 2002. “The Forgotten Swamp: Navigating Political Islam,” Middle East Policy 9(2): 56–82; Chandra Muzaffar. 1987. Islamic Resurgence in Malaysia. Petaling Jaya, Selangor: Penerbit Fajar Bakti; and Judith A. Nagata. 2001. “Beyond Theology: Toward an Anthropology of ‘Fundamentalism,’” American Anthropologist 103(2): 481–498.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 20.
    For a fuller list of references see Joel S. Kahn. 2008. “Culture and Modernities,” in Tony Bennett and John Frow (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Cultural Analysis. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore: Sage, 338–358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. 21.
    The discussion of social, economic, and political change provided in this chapter summarizes what is a very large literature on the modern (late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century) history of Southeast Asia. For a list of the sources on which it is based, see Joel S. Kahn. 2012. “Islam and Capitalism in the Frontiers and Borderlands of the Modern Malay World,” in Wendy Mee and Joel S. Kahn (eds.), Questioning Modernity in Indonesia and Malaysia. Kyoto: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, 48.Google Scholar
  18. 22.
    For a more detailed account of this process, see Joel S. Kahn. 1993. Constituting the Minangkabau: Peasants, Culture and Modernity in Colonial Indonesia. Oxford and Providence: Berg; Joel S. Kahn. Other Malays, on West Sumatra and peninsular Malaya respectively.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Joel S. Kahn 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Joel S. Kahn

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations