I have explained on several occasions that I am not myself a Traditionalist, but rather a scholar who studies Traditionalism and the Traditionalists.
I have, however, been accused of “an undisclosed personal history with Traditionalism,” and therefore of having “a personal and undisclosed bias against Traditionalism” (a charge that was made in 2003, and repeated in 2009 and at intervals in between), and of myself being a secret Traditionalist Sufi and part of a conspiracy against Enlightenment values (a charge made in the Danish press in 2010).
It would hardly be possible for both of these charges to be true, and in fact neither of them is. I am just a scholar.
Since these charges draw on interpretations of accounts of my private life in 1990 that are available on the internet, despite the fact that I do not believe that a scholar should be asked to account for his or her private life of twenty years ago, I have written an autobiographical note for the sake of clarification.
I hope that this note will prevent further fanciful interpretations of my work today from emerging. In the end, the real test should be of the work.
The note is not a full autobiography; it covers only events relevant to my private relationship with Traditionalism and Sufism.
In 1990 I was not a scholar. I was living in Cairo, working as a rhetoric teacher at the American University in Cairo. I had friends who were members of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order, and often went to the weekly dhikr ceremonies of that order, but was not myself a Naqshbandi: I never gave the bayat (oath of allegiance) that marks entry into a Sufi order. After a while, I stopped attending Naqshbandi ceremonies. I also had friends who (I now realize) were members of the Maryamiyya, a Traditionalist Sufi order, though I did not then know its name. One day, two of these friends took me to meet Martin Lings, who was on a visit to Cairo. I was encouraged to ask him for spiritual advice, and I said something about my experiences with the Naqshbandiyya, and–according to the accounts of this meeting that are on the internet–Lings told me "you must love your Shaykh." So far as I can now remember, I took this to mean that he thought I had been right not to give bayat to a Naqshbandi shaykh. I think now that it may have been in the minds of my Maryami friends that I might myself join the Maryamiyya, but I did not, and after a while I had no further contact with them.
Between 1990 (the year in question) and 1997 (when I started my research into Traditionalism) I had become a full-time scholar. In 1997, I was completing my PhD thesis, and starting my next research project (Traditionalism). By 1997, the remaining impact of my contact with the Naqshbandiyya in 1990 was that Sufism had become one of my research areas, as it still is. The remaining impact of my contact with the Maryamiyya was, perhaps ironically, that I had become a scholar in the first place. Lings, who had impressed me in 1990, had studied English at Oxford, spent some time in Cairo, and then gone back to England to study Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where he finally took a PhD. I had studied history at Oxford and spent some time in Cairo, and thought I might do something similar. I even made enquiries at the School of Oriental and African Studies, but their programs did not suit my schedule, so I went elsewhere, and in the end my PhD was from the University of Bergen, where research into Sufism was something of a speciality.
My contact with the Maryamiyya in 1990 also meant that when I first came across traces of Traditionalism in 1996 in a different context, during my PhD research, I recognized what I had found more quickly than someone else might have done.
In 1996-97 I had no bias against Traditionalism; if anything, I still remembered how impressive I had found Lings. During the course of my research into Traditionalism over the following years, my personal attitude towards Traditionalism and the Maryamiyya was naturally modified by what I found, but this did not mean the development of any bias: it is part of the professional method of a scholar to guard against bias, to separate personal attitudes (which everyone has) from scholarly analysis (which must be objective).
My private life twenty years ago, then, has limited relevance to my professional life today, and certainly does not produce or explain bias, one way or the other.
Mark Sedgwick, August 2010