Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
William Kelly Bill Kelly received his Ph.D in communication studies at the University of New Mexico and his dissertation focused on Japan-US relations. From 2002 to 2014, he was a lecturer in the communication studies department at UCLA. His academic articles have appeared in Public Relations Review, China Media Research, The Global Intercultural Communication Reader, and Intercultural Mirrors. Kelly is the author of A New World Arising: Culture and Political Economy in Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Islamic Civilizations.

Can Integral Theory account for the development of islamic civilization?

William Kelly

The Mythic Level of Consciousness

Wilber's theoretical assumptions cannot account for the actual state of affairs within premodern Islamic civilization.

Integral theory in the hands of Ken Wilber and those who have followed in his footsteps offers a big-picture view of world history, providing an intellectual framework for situating the major conflicts we face today. According to Wilber, these present-day conflicts are mostly the result of collisions between three different worldviews: mythic/traditional, rational/scientific, and postmodern/pluralist. Such threats to social peace and harmony are evident not only within the United States, what Wilber refers to as the “culture wars,” but also on a worldwide scale. Here, I am going to focus my evaluation of integral theory to the global dimension, and, in particular, on whether integral theory can incorporate the arc of modern Islamic history within its conceptual framework.

Wilber's The Religion of Tomorrow (2018) is a major statement of his position in which he claims that integral theory provides a comprehensive view of our world today with special reference to the role of religion. In this work, he briefly offers some intellectual guidance for mitigating the conflicts between Islam and the West. Since Wilber views the conflict in terms of opposition between two incompatible outlooks, mythic and rational, it is important to examine how he conceptualizes the mythic stage of consciousness.

The Religion of Tomorrow

Wilber gives some orientating generalizations about the religious outlook that prevails within the mythic structure; it is ethnocentric, relies on dogma and absolute values, and, as a result, “most of the world's religions preach love and compassion, while practicing intolerance and jihad.” His judgment is that this religious position is the greatest obstacle to world harmony at present, inasmuch as mythic ethnocentrism is mostly responsible for at least half of the conflicts, wars, and terrorism that exist in the world today.

For Wilber, terrorism involves fundamentalist groups at the mythic stage versus those whose way of thinking is rational and scientific. In a 2011 conversation with Raquel Torrent, he says that Muslim fundamentalist groups are probably the largest of any political organization at the mythic level, while noting that almost all terrorists adhere to a fundamentalist religion at the mythic-conformist level. However, he divides the mythic fundamentalists into two factions that politically dominate most Arab societies: moderates and extremists. The more fundamentalist they are, the more they are prone to violence.

In addition, Wilber points out that there is a clash within civilizations, not just a clash of civilizations. The fundamentalists are led by religious leaders, and opposed by middle class people, with rational business interests at the forefront of such resistance. According to Wilber, what is struggling to emerge in these societies is the rational mind which he describes as a worldcentric perspective that values universal fairness and tolerance and does not reject science. Once such mental development occurs, the justification and motivation for violence largely evaporates. The modern world with its secular rationality would no longer need to be destroyed, since traditional religions would evolve in harmony with this new stage of consciousness. In Wilber's view, all the world's religions can become compatible with reason, even though they may not be mostly driven by reason.

A Traditional Muslim Perspective on Modern Islamic Societies

How well does Wilber's interpretation of the mythic stage accord with those of Muslim scholars? Traditionalist scholars differ with Wilber over his characterization of Arab and Middle Eastern societies as divided between fundamentalists and those middle-class sectors where the way of thinking is more rational. A leading traditionalist is Seyyed Hossein Nasr who has observed that fundamentalist movements fall into two camps: revolutionary and reactionary. They share a strong resentment against the negative cultural and religious effects of the Western impact. One group attempts to achieve their ideals through recourse to Western revolutionary thought, whereas the other, better known, movement takes a puritanical and absolutist stance, wanting to get rid of the entire intellectual and spiritual tradition of Islam that has developed over the centuries.

Nasr sees a huge difference between the fundamentalist outlook and that of traditional believers. In a 2018 interview, he makes this revealing observation: “Most Muslims still live in a world in which the equilibrium promulgated by the Shari'ah and the serenity of Islamic spirituality are to be found to some extent, despite the experiences of European colonialism, a certain degree of decadence within the Islamic world and recent upheavals.”

The contrast that Nasr draws between the traditional and secular perspectives is revealing. For secularists, humans are purely earthly creatures whose rights matter more than the rights of God, not to mention the rights of religious faiths as a public reality. In Islamic thought, these priorities are reversed. Nasr explains: “If one curses God or Christ on the street today in some American city, nothing will happen legally, but if one insults an individual, one can be arrested or sued.” Another example is the Salman Rushdie affair in which a writer wrote “a blasphemous work seeking to denigrate and destroy a central part of Islamic sacred history.” For most Western people, the right of the individual to free speech comes first, whereas traditional Muslims emphasize the society's right to protect its sacred history.

In the political sphere, Nasr mentions that traditionally Muslims have had the right to justice and to struggle against injustice and oppression, although in Islamic societies, as elsewhere in the world, this right has been violated in practice. However, unlike the West where the tyranny of kings was historically identified with religion, the teachings of Islam have been seen as instrumental in protecting the people from tyranny. This is especially true today when many Muslim societies are at the mercy of dictatorships usually supported by the West so long as their policies are pro-Western and serve Western interests. Nasr points out that part of fundamentalism's appeal is based on the traditional view of Islam as being on the side of the people in their struggles against tyrannical rule.

Nasr also finds that much resentment against the West has its source in human rights issues. Westerners want Muslim women, children, and citizens to enjoy the rights which they themselves possess, but Muslims tend to feel that if Western people were really concerned about their welfare, they would not impose their views on Muslims; instead, they would ask Muslims what they thought were the areas in which they were being deprived of what they believed to be their human rights.

The Liberal Muslim Outlook

The liberal perspective on Islamic civilization's crisis also has its eloquent advocates among Muslim scholars. In comparison with Muslim traditionalists, the liberal approach does not reject the notion of progress that underlies much modern Western thought. Khaled Abou El Fadl is an excellent guide to the liberal Muslim orientation. His 2005 work The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists has attempted to clarify the nature of Islam, with a focus on the social and political dimensions as well as theological matters. He believes that mainstream Islam is compatible with the modern world.

In Abou El Fadl's view, Western colonialism and its aftermath have greatly contributed to the modern decline of Islam. He sees an ongoing battle for the soul of Islam between moderates and extremists (puritans). In this contest, the clergy has not been merely a conservative force holding back social progress; it has had a quite positive social impact, inasmuch as it has served to check the arbitrary power of military leaders and bureaucrats.

Since colonial times, the institutions that ensured that only highly qualified scholars would speak on religious subjects of importance have been gravely weakened as military defeats at the hands of Western powers led to jurists' loss of status. In addition, the place of Islamic law in Muslim societies diminished once Western-style legal systems and lawyers became entrenched. At the same time, the endowments that financed religious schools were taken over by the state, leading to the demise of many of these schools. As the religious scholars came under increasing state control and their training became more and more limited, jurists lost their ability to provide intellectual leadership. The resulting vacuum of religious authority was often filled by popular movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida under the leadership of poorly trained and insufficiently educated men.

Abou El Fadl maintains that the real intellectual decline within Islam took place not in medieval times but with the advent of colonialism. Under the leadership of jurists employing rational methods of textual interpretation, medieval Islam remained vibrant. This decline in the status of Islam and the disappearance of religious autonomy have made it easy for self-proclaimed jurists to interpret the Islamic heritage in simplistic terms and for political leaders to use Islamic symbols to increase mass appeal. Demagogues have used Islam as a symbol of power to compensate for the actual feelings of powerlessness and weakness that prevail among their followers. Furthermore, their religious populist message attracts the masses who have lost faith in traditional authority, whether secular or religious.

The Islamic world today is facing two related challenges: the attempt by puritans to turn Islam into an authoritarian and intolerant religion that can justify an anti-Western political orientation and the aggressive export of modern culture from the West. Although the first challenge is internal and the second external, they are not really separate. For the militant puritan groups are populist movements that have reacted to widespread Muslim feelings of disempowerment in modern times due to harsh and despotic rulers as well the interventions of foreign powers.

Abou El Fadl does not see the distance between Western and Islamic cultures as too great to bridge. The Islamic tradition upholds the right of all people to dignity and freedom and considers any form of oppression an offense against God; it is compatible with democracy and upholds tolerance of diverse viewpoints. Most Muslims respect the achievements of the West and appreciate the academic freedom and sense of civic duty found in the West. It is the foreign policy of Western nations, and of the United States, in particular, that draws their criticism.

Although Abou El Fadl recognizes that modern secular movements threaten the very existence of religion, he thinks the appropriate response is for religions to demonstrate their ability to make decisive contributions to human betterment and welfare within the modern world's universal structures. His acceptance of modernity, however, does not mean he is a secularist in the sense of upholding strict separation of mosque and state. Religion can play a positive public role so long as it is tolerant and does not oppress those with different views.

The vast majority of moderate Muslims judge Western ideas about them to be inaccurate and objectionable; they take strong exception to the view that there is a clash of civilization between Islam and the West. In their eyes, it makes no sense to maintain that Western and Islamic civilizations are opposites in terms of their basic values, with the West upholding democratic principles and Muslims supporting antidemocratic ideologies like those advanced by the puritans. Abou El Fadl points out that many Muslims long for democratic governments, and Muslim intellectuals often accuse the US of keeping despotic governments in power because they are aligned with American strategic interests. This Western stance has great propaganda value for puritans, since it gives credibility to their claim that the West is unalterably opposed to Islam and out to destroy it.

My examination of how Islamic civilization's modern maladies have been discussed by leading traditionalist and liberal Muslim intellectuals gives us some idea of the distance between Muslim and Western intellectuals. Specifically, though, I would like to focus here on areas where Muslim intellectuals cast a shadow over integral theory's ability to account for Islamic attitudes: science and myth, the esoteric and exoteric dimensions of religion, and the quality of the social world during medieval times. I will close by discussing the challenges that my findings raise for integral theory.

The vast majority of moderate Muslims judge Western ideas about them to be inaccurate and objectionable; they take strong exception to the view that there is a clash of civilization between Islam and the West.

Science and Myth

As Nasr explains in Science and Civilization in Islam (1968), a key choice was made in premodern times not to continue the uninhibited pursuit of scientific truths about the physical realm. He believes that this choice had a certain wisdom, because new scientific discoveries might have threatened the existing hierarchy of knowledge by challenging received truths about the nature of the universe and calling the Islamic approach to knowledge into question. The study of physical science would thereby free itself from subordination to spiritual realization and an emphasis on the symbolic meaning of the universe. As a result, the traditional worldview would break down.

A fateful consequence of keeping spiritual knowledge separate and above the knowledge about the world of phenomena was that Islamic science stopped advancing. Nasr points out that in astronomy, for example, in Muslim universities, Ptolemaic astronomy was taught within a geocentric cosmology and philosophy. Modern astronomy has been presented as an alternative perspective but it is not accorded a special status, even though it best accords with the available scientific evidence.

From my standpoint, it is possible to consider inner knowledge as “higher” without suppressing the pursuit of modern scientific knowledge. The way science is viewed and its social function, though, would have to shift greatly. The motive for scientific discovery would shift from that of seeking power to discovering wisdom, and there would be a heightened awareness of the ethics of knowledge: pursue knowledge which uplifts people and makes their daily lives richer and more harmonious. To realize one's full and true humanity, the study of the outer world should continue. But the amount of research devoted to producing scientific results that lead to unceasing technological advance would be greatly reduced. Once the desire for spiritual wisdom superseded the quest for power through technology as people's central aspiration, there would no longer be such a one-sided focus on the outer world.

Since traditional knowledge is not final; it is not the sole available path to the experience of ultimate Truth. As Wilber asserts, the great religious traditions can become more inclusive, comprehensive, and complete. The ultimate truth may be unchanging, but the understanding and interpretation of this truth within time fluctuates, since the levels of reality cannot be understood apart from the consciousness that perceives them. Modern scientific knowledge can, Wilber emphasizes, enrich the ways in which spiritual wisdom is applied to the alleviation of societal stress and trauma.

Nevertheless, Nasr's critique of the modern world brings with it some challenges to Wilber's characterization of myth. For Wilber, mythic traditionalism is an immature, even childish stage of development; it is the central issue that the Islamic world must confront today. He comments that the best chance for the future survival of religion is to update it so that it aligns with modern and postmodern realities by incorporating the latest scientific findings into its body of doctrine and practices.

Nasr seems to be identifying Islam and the other world religions with tradition and science with the modern outlook itself, which he finds to be hostile at its core to religion. In other words, he is making much of Wilber's contention that Western culture has lost its sources of spiritual wisdom. In Wilber's words, “It has no ultimate Truth as a North Star to guide its overall actions, which means, ultimately, where it is actually heading.” To my ears at least, Wilber's statement sounds like Heidegger's indictment of Western philosophy as ending up in nihilism, even though Wilber blames extreme versions of postmodernism for this development. Of course, Wilber has zero sympathy for Nasr's view that there is no evolution of consciousness within time and that past societies were, in important respects, more advanced than our present-day modern one, a stance he labels “retro-romantic.”

Yet, if mythic traditionalism is not mainly responsible for the dire straits of present-day Islamic civilization and if modern civilization has, as Wilber admits, lost its way, was the period of the ascendance of traditional religion and mythic consciousness really so backward? Nasr thinks that although intellectual progress within Islamic civilization stalled during medieval times, that era did have the great advantage of acknowledging the wisdom tradition of Islam and following the ethical compass that the tradition provided through sharia. In his view, traditional Islamic civilization was clearly preferable to what the modern world has brought.

The Exoteric and Esoteric Dimensions of Religion

It is common these days, not only among the peoples who fell victim to Western imperialism but even among Western people, to cast doubt on the accuracy of Western interpretations of Islamic civilization that appear in mass media and some scholarly accounts as well. Marshall Hodgson's three-volume history The Venture of Islam, written in the 1960s, made the decisive break with most Western orientalist accounts of Islam until that time. In recent years, Armando Salvatore's The Sociology of Islam (2016) has appeared, a theoretically sophisticated work of historical sociology.

If the scholarship of Hodgson and Salvatore on premodern Islamic civilization has merit, can integral theory account for the seemingly high level of development that premodern Islamic civilization reached? In The Religion of Tomorrow, Wilber makes the important claim that the experience of enlightenment or ultimate Truth is mediated by the structure of consciousness that is dominant within the society at that moment in history. “You can be at the mythic level and develop through all states completely, from gross to that of nondual unity consciousness, but the world you will be 'one with' includes levels only up to the mythic.” Even though the Sufi wisdom tradition was socially influential and some Sufis appeared to have experienced ultimate Truth, they could only interpret their experience in mythic-traditionalist terms so their lives and teachings did not raise the societal level of consciousness.

What is the evidence regarding Islamic civilization during the long period when Islam was not only the dominant ethical and spiritual force but Sufism and its esoteric teachings also had a great social impact? The first source of potential misunderstanding is that of the relation between sharia (the Divine Law) and Sufism (the path of the spirit). Nasr explains that they are complementary means to the attainment of the goal of experiencing unity with the divine will. Picture Islam as a circle, the center of which is the Divine Truth, the origin of all things. The radii are the spiritual path, such as the practices of the Sufi order, whereas the circumference is the Divine Law, with its ethical norms. Together they make up the Islamic community. To attain the Divine Truth, it is necessary to first be on the circumference, which means to follow the Divine Law, and then go along the road to God, the spiritual practices, in order to reach the center, the Divine Truth, or God.

For Hodgson, Islamic civilization remained vibrant for a thousand years as its formative ideals were continuously negotiated and renegotiated among jurists, ruling elites, landowners, and urban groups such as merchants, craftsmen, and Sufi orders. Urban society was mostly self-governing, relying on contract and patronage, even though rural military elites held ultimate power. Due to the key but not dominant role of the merchant class, there was more room for individual development and greater freedom and social equality than in medieval Europe which was held back by hierarchical feudal structures. Despite military rule and the lack of political freedom, Islamic societies were culturally flexible and a high level of cultural creativity was realized, even beyond the classical period. Islamic civilization during the middle periods from the fall of the Abbasid caliphate in 945 through the 17th century was vigorous, creative, and expansive.

In relation to the role of religion in the premodern Islamic world, Hodgson followed Muhammad Iqbal's interpretation of Islam that the Sufis had promoted. His focus was more on the role of the inner life of the spirit in the Quran, giving less attention to its outer dimensions. In this perspective, exceptional individuals through their lives and teaching provided guidance that uplifted the entire community. The Sufi vision was not limited to the social parameters established by sharia, yet it gave solid support to Divine Law as a bulwark of social solidarity. Furthermore, the vast majority of people were not able to navigate the esoteric and mystical realm of the spirit.

Hodgson realized, like Iqbal, that only the esoteric tradition could provide the inner focus that was required to set the modern world back on a spiritual foundation. But Western imperialism made it imperative to defend the Muslim heritage through a stricter discipline than esoteric Sufism offered, so the inner path was rejected in favor of an external focus on codes of behavior. This approach also harmonized better with the technical and quantitative orientation of the modern world.

The Social World of “Medieval” Islamic Civilization

Writing a half century after Hodgson, Armando Salvatore gives us an updated account of the premodern Islamic world's social realities. A major historical achievement of Islam for Salvatore is the degree to which it contributed during its middle periods to a society in which humanist values were widely accepted, violence was considerably tamed, and cultural creativity flourished. Unlike the modern West, the civilizing process did not centralize power and produce a disciplinary society; despite military rule, the leading political and economic sectors did not play a dominant social role. There was a crucial countervailing source of authority, the ulama (religious scholars) who provided guidance about human salvation and how to deal with pain and suffering.

They provided an alternative to the abuse of power, offering instead knowledge as wisdom. And the Sufi brotherhoods were also important contributors in this regard as they often aligned themselves with the religious scholars rather than opposed or struggled with them, not seeking to establish an independent power base. There were strong motivations for this stance, since the brotherhoods relied on the moral framework over which the ulama had authority, and many ulama were also practicing Sufis. Even though Islam had no governing organization like the Catholic Church, it still managed to spread its customs and social expectations across the vastness of Afro-Eurasia over a very long stretch of time. Such civilizational unity was not imposed by a centralized government but was due to the flexibility of Islamic institutions and the degree to which people voluntarily embraced Islam.

In Salvatore's view, the Islamic path to modernity and beyond should not be judged as failing to meet the Western standard of a successful and advanced civilization. In fact, the relatively egalitarian and cosmopolitan character of the premodern Islamic world made it a highly attractive civilization, the most influential in Afro-Eurasia.

According to Salvatore, the civilizing process is the key to understanding any primarily urban group with a literate population, and he explains that civility is the most visible and reliable outcome of the basic tension between power, the currency of politics and economics, and knowledge which is produced in the cultural sphere. Power (political economy) and knowledge (culture) do not operate independently, since they constantly interact and are entangled with each other. The cultural elites produce the codes, values, and regulations that pervade family, education, leisure, and politics while having the conditional power to legitimate the actions of the political and economic authorities. In Islamic civilization, the interaction between the arbiters of power (e.g., military rulers, landowners, bureaucracy) and the religious scholars, the major producers of knowledge, led to a certain type of civility that was unique to that civilization.

Implications for Integral Theory

I argue that the traditionalist view of Islamic religion is mistaken in its assumptions that there is one correct interpretation of Islam and, therefore, religious understanding in the Muslim world does not advance. The research performed by women scholars details the ways in which Islam violated women's human rights, treating them as second-class beings rather than as equal to men. Rational methods of criticism, introduced during the modern era, have promoted awareness of how Islam has fallen short in its understanding of gender relations.

But I am also claiming that Wilber's theoretical assumptions cannot account for the actual state of affairs within premodern Islamic civilization. Although its cognitive shortcomings are evident, its ethical and aesthetic development was impressive. The ability of Islam in the hands of the ulama and Sufis to counteract the worst excesses of military and bureaucratic governments and to give an overall ethical direction to Islamic civilization must be recognized. In my view, the level of consciousness of those premodern people was not immature and backward compared with that of modern Western people.

What's more, Islamic civilization contained rational and spiritual elements as well as a predominantly mythic orientation. It has been said that Islam is the most rational of the monotheistic religions in the sense that almost any idea can be Islamized; for instance, shura (consultation), is an analogue to democracy. In my view, the modern West has largely emphasized what Jean Gebser calls the “deficient” mode of rational consciousness, embracing instrumental rationality at the expense of ethical and aesthetic considerations.

Integral theory also does not sufficiently appreciate the need for mythic and magic consciousness to supplement a one-sided rational orientation. Wilber's notion of “transcend and include” is not sufficient in this regard. Gebser's idea of integration means that the different levels of consciousness do not succeed each other in evolutionary fashion. Instead, their efficient phases are integrated in order to achieve wholeness, the full human being. This new “mutation,” since the early 20th century, has already started to appear.

I am not raising premodern societies to a privileged position, superior to modern ones. All the different levels of consciousness have something important to contribute to the new integral mutation; for example, the mythic consciousness had a rich imagination and an impressive command of imagery. This more introverted form of consciousness was capable of thinking “big” and giving people a sense of their place in the universe. Mythology is not propositional knowledge; it points to the Truth beyond opposites. It is a different approach to knowledge than science, but not less mature or developed.

The other important area where integral theory doesn't measure up is the notion that conflict among civilizations is mostly due to the lack of fit between levels of consciousness. In other words, Western and Islamic societies have been at odds with each other because the Islamic world has not progressed beyond the mythic level for the most part. But, as I have noted, this view leaves out the role of Western imperialism in the disintegration of the Islamic world. In addition, it ignores the relation between fundamentalism and modernity. Fundamentalism is a modern development in which its proponents are creating a new form of governmentality and political culture, an attempt to build Islam into the state. It is the outcome of modernization and reform, not tradition. In Political Islam (2018) and in We God's People: Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism in the World of Nations (2021), her formidable comparative study, Jocelyne Cesari makes this point.

The history of relations among nations must be analyzed if we are to understand the sources of conflict that bedevil our world. Clearly, the Islamic world has not always responded to Western imperialism and neo-imperialism in a constructive fashion. Its reaction to outside forces would have been more effective if the renewal of and interaction between the public and private spheres had been promoted resulting in more free and liberal societies. But these pathologies are not the product of mythic consciousness as much as the outcome of fractured histories and identity confusion.

My conclusion is that Gebser's theoretical framework does a better job of accounting for developments within Islamic societies, past and present, although it, too, has its blindspots. And, in Wilber's four quadrant analysis, too much emphasis is given to the inner, social domain, that of culture, at the expense of external social developments within history. I find civilizational perspectives as applied by Hodgson and, especially Salvatore, to the study of Islamic civilization to be more persuasive. In this approach, culture and power (political economy) are continually being negotiated over time.

A New World Arising


A few parts have been taken from my book A New World Arising: Culture and Political Economy in Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Islamic Civilizations. This book also contains more extended discussions on some of the issues. But the book is oriented to a more general audience and I do not draw out the theoretical implications of my research.

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