Part of elementamundi.com. By author Mark David: Twitter @authorMarkDavid.
Ivan Aguéli is a Swedish mystic, painter and student of Islam. As a painter he is a grandfather of impressionism, a student of an Émile Bernard, who also happened to be a close friend of Vincent Van Gogh of all people and Paul Gauguin.
Aguéli became the first Westerner to study at the famous Al-Azhar university in Cairo where he studied Islamic philosophy. He seems to have become a Sufi mystic, studying under a mentor figure, a Shaykh Muhammad Ilaysh. Aguéli died in 1917, being run down by a train at a railway junction at L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a town in Spain. Near Barcelona, town is close to the French border. The circumstances surrounding his death are confusing, and some claim he was pushed.
Is it possible to sum up the life and career of a person like Ivan Aguéli? There is no other story as there is with this Swedish man, exhibiting a spiritual, artistic and academic depth that is truly extraordinary. It has been told, that as an artist he was decades in advance of his Swedish colleagues.
A few months before his death he wrote a letter to his old friend Richard Bergh asking him to find means so he could go home to Sweden. In this letter he also characterises himself as a painter:
“What I do now, is a direct continuation of what I did in Gotland. I was a cubist twenty years before the cubists, but my cubism, now as then, is a cubism of the lower regions, a secret shared by Our Lord and a few initiated and chosen persons. O, the real cubism is the one you cannot see.”
Perhaps, he was the one European with such a deep insight into Islam at the time of the beginning of the 20th century. It’s fascinating to think that his ideas of making peace between Islam and Christianity were formulated a century ago, and it’s a pity that his ideas were not disseminated in wider circles, let alone accepted. In a letter, written 20 years after Aguéli’s death Dr Enrico Insabato said about his friend:
“His goodness was comparable with his depth of thinking, it’s thanks to him I have understood the aesthetical side of Islam, and this not only in its art, but in the mystical and esoteric thoughts. His spirit, that had the fire of Baudelaire, was at the same time sincere and pure. He had a soul of Don Quixote in combination with that of a mystic as Moyeddin Ibn Arabi or a Böhme.”
In addition to being an artist, Aguéli studied language, in particular Arabic and even Sanskrit. This is a page of his diary, following his reading of Philangi Dasa’s Swedenborg the Buddhist.
Of Ivan Agelli, Wikipedia says:
Ivan Aguéli (born John Gustaf Agelii) (May 24, 1869 – October 1, 1917) also named Sheikh
al-Hādī ‘Aqīlī (شيخ عبد الهادی عقیلی
) upon his conversion to Islam, was a Swedish wandering Sufi
, painter and author. As a devotee of Ibn Arabi
, his metaphysics applied to the study of Islamic esoterism
and its similarities with other esoteric traditions of the world. He was the initiator of René Guénon
and founder of the Parisian al Akbariyya
society. His art was a unique form of miniaturePost-Impressionism
where he used the blend of colors to create a sense of depth and distance. His unique style of art made him one of the founders of the Swedish contemporary art movement.
He was born Swedish in 1869 as John Gustav Agelii, in the small Swedish town of Sala. As a young man he developed a keen interest in both art and religious mysticism, to the extent that he had converted to Islam. He adopted the nameIvan Aguéli in 1890 at the age of twenty-one, soon developing a consuming interest in all things esoteric, especially Islam. In the context of the time this was nothing short of a revelation. Aguéli founded the highly secretive Al Akbariyyasociety in Paris, hanging out with certain non-conformist intellectuals of the time.
In 1899 Aguéli moved to Sri Lanka in order to study Islam, then travelling to Cairo in 1902 he became one of the first westerners to enroll at the university of Al-Azhar, studying Arabic and Islamic philosophy. He was destitute, as was the case with many impressionists of the time. But even by destitute artists’ standards Aguéli seemed to have set the lower limits of poverty. His transition from European to Arab-mystic was swift, acting and dressing, even talking as a native of Egypt.
After an extensive study of Islamic mysticism, he scraped a living for a number of years working on the Italian magazine Il Convito, published in Cairo in the early years of the twentieth century. He used this work to resist anything to do with European imperialism and support the dissemination of Islamic culture in Europe.
Ivan Aguéli had been a defender of animal rights and in one incident shot and wounded a Spanish matador in Paris. He was given a suspended sentence after he successfully managed to mobilize the entire animal rights movement in France. He defended women’s rights and thought nothing of openly attacking the reputation of people who were anti-feminist. Aguéli was finally expelled by the British authorities from Egypt to Spain after they closed IL Convito down in 1916.
Aguéllis artistic style was considered unique as a founding father, perhaps the founding father of the contemporary Swedish Art movement in the late nineteenth century. He was described in detail as a Post-Impressionist, relying on vivid colors, the thick application of paint, a distinctive, bold brushwork that drew widely on inspiration from landscape and nature. Suspected to be an Ottoman spy he was expelled to Spain in 1916.
Stranded in Spain, Aguéli lacked the funds to continue back to Sweden. In Spain, Aguéli was left without money to return to Sweden and on October 1, 1917 he was killed by a train at a rail crossing in the village of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat outside Barcelona.
After Aguéli’s death, Prince Eugén Bernadotte, who was known as a patron of artists, made certain to return his paintings and belongings to Sweden.
Center for Education
1869 – 1917
Paris and Anarchism
Paris 1892 – 1895
Egypt 1895 – 1899
Within months of his release in 1895 he left France for Egypt, where he lived until he returned to Paris in 1896. It was later on in Paris, between 1898 and 1899, that Aguéli finally converted to Islam and adopted the name ‘Abd al-Hadi (meaning the servant of the Guide).
Paris 1898 – 1899
Within months of his release in 1895 he left France for Egypt, where he lived until he returned to Paris in 1896. It was later on in Paris, between 1898 and 1899, that Aguéli finally converted to Islam and adopted the name ‘Abd al-Hadi (meaning the servant of the Guide).
Sri Lanka 1899
In 1899 he moved to Colombo (in today’s Sri Lanka) where he settled down in itsMalay community and enrolled at a local Islamic school “in order to study the influence of Islam on other nations than the Arab…” However, due to monetary difficulties, Aguéli was forced to return to Paris in 1900.
Ivan Agueli at Carl Eldh’s atelier
With the blessing of Shaykh Ilaysh, Aguéli and an Italian journalist and fellow-convert named Enrico Insabato (1878-1963) founded and contributed to an Italian magazine published in Cairo (1904-1913) named Il Convito
-Nadi). To avoid writing in the colonial languages French
and English, the magazine was written in Italian. The aim of this publication was to help bridge the cultural gap between Christian Europe and the Islamic world.
Later, Aguéli would also attempt to arrange for his patron Prince Eugéne to meet Picasso and Matisse
There are many accounts of Aguéli’s enigmatic and bohemian
life: An eyewitness account from
a visit by Aguéli to the Swedish Baltic Sea island of Gotland
sometime between 1909-1910 reads as follows:
“…then there was a peculiar appearance in the street. A man with a dark beard and dark clothes, dark-blue velvet trousers, a red belt of silk carrying a dagger, a white shirt and on the head a fez, walking with a slight limp. The clothes were worn-out and dusty.
1911 – 1912
Paris Al Akbariyya 1912
As a Moqaddim of the Shadhiliyya order and Shaykh Ilaysh’s personal representative in Europe Aguéli founded the secret Sufi Al Akbariyya
society and then proceeded to initiate Guénon into Sufi Islam sometime in 1912.
Aguéli and Insabato, acting on the instructions of Shaykh Ilaysh, wished to counter British and French influence in the Islamic world by gaining Italian support and simultaneously promote the Sufism of Ibn Arabi in Europe. The political agenda of the magazine, its pro-Sufi stance and opposition to the British rule of Egypt meant that it was branded as anti-colonial and subsequently closed down by the British administration in 1913.
First World War and Spain
Aguéli’s opinions were against the British colonial administration and Lord Cromer
, the British Consul-General of Egypt, came to suspect that he was an Ottoman
spy and expelled him to Spain in 1916. Stranded in Spain, Aguéli lacked the funds to continue back to Sweden.
Aguéli sent numerous letters to friends back in Sweden pleading for money. However, his conversion to Islam and his constant poverty had made most of his Swedish friends distance themselves from him, and none came to his aid. Finally, on October 3, 1917 his friend and patron Prince Eugén Bernadotte of Sweden
of 1,000 Spanish pesetas to the Swedish consulate in order to help him back, but it was too late. In the early morning hours of October 1, 1917 Aguéli had tragically been killed by a train at a rail crossing in the village of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat
After his death, Sufis have referred to Aguéli by the epithet of Abd al-Hadi “Noor-u-Shimaal” (meaning Abd al-Hadi “the Light of the North”) for being the first ever officially named representative of a Sufi order to bring Sufism to Western Europe andScandinavia.
Centre for Cultural Heritage
With the support of the Swedish Institute of Stockholm
Gotland landscape by Ivan Agueli, courtesy of Devin Zuber
LECTURE: “Ivan Aguéli: The Significance and Importance of His Life and Opus to the Understanding of Plurality of the World” by Per Sörbom
This public lecture was held in Sarajevo on April 7th 2005
This is an introduction of the life and achievements of a most remarkable Swedish citizen, or, as Ivan Aguéli himself would have preferred, a citizen of the world.
I will use a chronological summary of the life of Ivan Aguéli as a structural aid as I try to fill in some more details and give my comments. In a sense this is a classical method used in medieval European universities, as I take the role of the glossator, the commentator.
1869 John Gustaf Agelii, son of the veterinarian and horse boarder Johan Gabriel Agelii and Anna Kristina Nyberg, was born on May 24thin Sala (central Sweden). During his first journey to France he took the pseudonym Ivan Gustave Aguéli.
At that time the little town of Sala was a provincial backwater, some two hours by train north-west of the capital Stockholm. The grand time in its history were the 16thand 17thcenturies when the silver mine, which was the reason for its founding, gave riches to the Swedish state and plentiful opportunities for work and commerce. The proceeds from the mine paid a substantial part of the expenses Gustavus Adolphus had for taking part in the thirtieth year war in the 1630s.
But already in the 18th century the yields from the mine became of lesser and lesser importance. The citizens of Sala had to make do as purveyors of goods and services for the neighbouring farming communities. The famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, whose birth 200 years ago is celebrated this year, travelled through Sala in the middle of the 19thcentury, a few decades before the birth of Ivan Aguéli. He remarked in his travel diary that Sala was “but a dusty street and a few sleepy inhabitants”.
No wonder, then, that Aguéli wanted to get away. This must have been his favouritebuilding: (Picture of the railway station.)
1879-1888 He attended school in Sala, Västerås, Falun, Visby and Stockholm and achieved modest results despite his great interest in geography and botanical studies. His hearing impairment was the cause behind his lack of success at school anddecision to leave his studies. His stay in Visby (Gotland Island) sparked an interest in drawing and painting. His father opposed John’s plans to take up art.
I am not sure that his hearing impairment is the sole explanation for his doing badly as a student. Later in his life we find a number of examples of his dislike of discipline and lack of interest for working together with other people.
He seems to have had a very problematic relation to his father as long as the father was alive, even after the fathers death was he unable to forgive him for his harsh attitude. We still have some of the paintings and drawings from his first stay in Gotland.
1889 Summer in Gotland, where he painted and drew fervently. His studies of the island landscapes in oil – his oldest artwork left – were warmly welcomed by the Swedish artists Richard Bergh and Karl Nordström. With powerful strokes of the pencil he drew the surroundings of Stockholm and Sala. He became familiar with the teaching of the Swedish scientist and mystic Swedenborg and studied great Russian literature intensely.
Visby, an old Hanseatic city with a number of ruins from mediaeval churches and an imposing, well preserved city wall, is the main town of the island of Gotland. The limestone and the surrounding sea, as well as the rather flat landscape, with a florathat differs considerably from that of mainland Sweden, gives Gotland an almost Mediterranean flavour, and Aguéli is but one of many Swedish artists who have been fascinated by the special light produced by the above characteristics.
All through his life he dreamed of going back to Gotland. In letters from Egypt, Ceylon, Paris, and Spain he talks of Gotland and the light of the island. There seems also to be an other reason for his visits to Gotland as we meet the same feminine face on a number of his sketches and paintings.
I will return later to the Swedish scientist and mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg.
1889 He returned to Gotland and painted two versions of a portrait of a girl in an unusual blue colour. In the summer he travelled to France. He visited the painting trader Père Tanguy and received a recommendation for Emile Bernard, in whose studio he later painted. He discovered the works of Gauguin. He read the Delacroix journals on complementary colours, as well as the theses of Owen Jones on decorative painting of various races and cultures and of Frédéric Portel on symboliccolours.
It is worth noting that Aguéli delved into aesthetical and other, philosophical andreligious works, when not painting. Short before his death he himself pointed to the fact that he had had five periods of practical art work during his life. As a matter offact these periods didn’t altogether amount to more than ten years in his short life of 48. He often says that he “prepares” himself to paint, he “gathers impressions”, he “waits for the right moment”. In some cases there were very down-to-earth explanations: he was too ill to think of going out, and he insisted that he was unable to paint indoors, and another reason was simply that he didn’t have the money to buy paint, canvases or good paper.
1891 Bernard introduced Aguéli into a theosophical society. He also visited anarchist circles. He worked on bringing the Catholic and Arabic worlds closer together. After a brief visit to London, where he met Princess Kropotkina, he returned to Sweden.
He spent the summer in Visby, where he continued to paint the same girl as last year, but now with influences of symbolism.
He spent the winter in Stockholm where he visited the Artist Union school and created studies of various models.
I will come back to his interest for theosophy when we discuss his studies in sufismand swedenborgianism.
He painted a series of street motifs depicting centre and suburbs of Stockholm. He spent the summer and fall in Gotland, where he painted island landscapes inspired by Gauguin’s palette and the famous poem “Correpondance” by Baudelaire which appeared in “Les fleurs du Mal”. He returned to Paris.
1893 He demonstrated deep respect for Gauguin’s work in a letter to Richard Bergh. He researched the languages, religions and artworks of the Orient most profoundly.
He had his first meeting with Mme. Marie Huot, a fervent advocate of animal protection, and an anarchist, theosoph and poet.
Marie Huot was born in 1846 in the town of Tonnerre and came from an old Spanish family, de Baon, apparently with Moorish connections. Even as an old woman she was a dark beauty. She became the most important woman, possibly excepting his mother, in Aguélis life in spite of an age difference of 23 years. The nature of the relations between Mme Huot and Aguéli are not all that clear, at least not if we speak of the physical side of the relationship. They may very well have been lovers, some of the letters between them do hint at such a state of affairs. Perhaps it’s not that important, much more so is the fact that she, during most of Aguélis life, had a profound iinfluence, both on his mind and his daily life.
Over the years Aguéli made a number of drawings and paintings of her, but when you read their correspondence it’s very obvious that she was much more interested in Aguéli the thinker, the anarchist, the defender of the rights of animals, than of Aguéli the artist. She supported him in all strands of life, both materially and mentally, but at the same time she perceived of this support as giving her the right to determine how he should lead his life.
With a modern expression you might characterise their relationship as a love-hate one. Only during short periods could Aguéli free himself from the spell she had cast over him.
In 1894 He was arrested in April under suspicion of organising an anarchist conspiracy. He was released four months later. During that long process and his stay in prison, his complex relationship with Mme. Marie Huot began anew. In September he left for Egypt in search of a “monotheistic landscape”. He settled in Cairo and renewed his friendship with Emile Bernard.
Even if Aguéli did confess that he was very excited during the street fights between students and the police in Paris, he doesn’t seem to have been involved in any subversive anarchist plots. During his life there is only one instance recorded when he took to violence, and I will come back to that. But his extensive reading included anarchist tracts and it’s obvious that his dislike of authorities fitted well with the anarchistic ideas.
Aguéli used the time in prison to read. His friends furnished him with the books he asked for, among which there were Semitic philology, religious studies and a number of other subjects, while Mme Huot helped him out with food and clothes.
In one of his many letters from prison he writes of monotheism which he describes as the essence of the Christian faith, it’s such a basic concept that the “faithful Muslim is more Christian than most Christian believers”. “You have to admit”, he goes on,
“that a landscape can represent a mental state. The monotheistic landscape is very sunny, illuminated by a penetrating sun, with a light so strong that the perspective of air can brush aside the linear perspective, so that the soul reigns over matter. Many people who have lived in tropical countries have verified that when the sun is very strong and stands right above your head, and when there are no clouds, heaven seems immense. … In our dreadful Nordic landscapes it is the other way around. Heaven seems so small. The horizon gets smaller and things in the foreground get out of proportion and become all that bigger. Religion decides over the sun in the landscape of my soul. Now you see why I love monotheism and the Arabic spirit.”
In this quote we find several of the essential thoughts of Aguéli. During the long periods when he didn’t paint he still looked at the world with the eye of a painter and he used the terminology and metaphors from art theory. We also see what an important role light played for him, both in his paintings and in his philosophy. Insufism, Neoplatonism and Christian mysticism light is a central phenomenon.
He wanted to come to a part of the world where he could be sure of an almost constant sunshine. He chose Egypt because it was a Muslim country and a place where he could study Arabic and Arabic philosophy. While still in jail in Paris he writes to a friend who had sent him, upon Aguélis request, an Arabic dictionary: “How sorry I am that I spent my youth doing other things than study Arabic. It’s not a language like the others. It’s a way to contemplate the world for a person who is wholly penetrated, saturated of knowledge of the relations, (les correspondences). I understand the fanaticism of the Arabs, I like it.”
But there was another, very understandable reason as well for his choice of Egypt – his hearing was much better in a hot climate.
1895 His visit to Assiout was the pinnacle of his stay in Egypt. Aguéli created studies of male and female portraits, as well as of Egyptian landscapes. He returned to Paris (or was led there by Mme. Huot, in the opinion of Bernard). He studied oriental languages intensely: Sanskrit, Hindustani, Arabic, Egyptian, and Ethiopian.
He attended two high schools for orientalists: l’Ecole spéciale des Langues orientales vivantes and l’Ecole pratique des Hautes- études. The artistic and humanitarian identity in his love for the Orient was exhibited more and more clearly.
The Swedish art historian, and sometime director of the National Art Museum of Sweden, Axel Gauffin, who in 1940-41 published a two volume biography of Ivan Aguéli, says about his studies of Oriental languages:
“But the language studies were not an end in themselves, they were just the road to understanding this wonderful religion, this picturesque people, to which he, in spite of their less sympathetic features, felt so attracted.
Gradually Islam becomes the all-embracing goal for him, the Qur’an the source of all wisdom. He does become aware of that this Muslim society is far from ideal, but when he starts to try to find the reasons for this state of affairs he comes to the conclusion that, simply, the holy laws are not observed, while a European society there everybody observe the laws, is bad. In the West the anarchists are as necessary as the salt in our food. These were the kind of thoughts Aguéli had during his months in Egypt, even if he didn’t give them a programmatic and clear expression until later in life. The Oriental life, as it was led under the influence of the Qur’an, had transformed theaesthetical attraction to Islam of this Paris bohemian into a fated way of life.”
Sweden’s foremost specialist in Semitic languages during the 20thcentury, Professor H.S. Nyberg of Uppsala University, has written an appendix to Mr Gauffin’s book with the title “Aguéli and Islam” (unfortunately only in Swedish). About Aguéli’s proficiency in Arabic, he says: “He mastered classical Arabic perfectly… His handwriting is as good as that of a native, and he expresses himself without any constraint and he has good and rich phraseology. Here and there you will find a grammatical carelessness, but they are of exactly the same kind as the ones the well educated efendi would let go of, when he writes without greater demands upon himself. Aguéli’s Arabic is very much alive and natural and does faithfully mirror the literate Cairo environment. As a matter of fact Aguéli seems to have had a remarkable talent for languages and a voracious appetite for all kinds of languages.”
In December this year Aguéli wrote one of his many letters to his mother in Sala. He thanked her for her generous Christmas present, consisting, of course, of money which made him able to buy an Arabic grammar he had coveted for a long time. Even if he got the book for a very good price, the affair meant that he wouldn’t be able to pay his rent in January. All through his life he was in want of money and in almost every letter to his mother he asks her to send him some. In some cases she had to borrow from relatives to be able to send him a small sum.
He seldom visited l’Ecole de Peinture Delécluse. He wrote an art critique for Encyclopédie Contemporaine Illustrée. His only meagre income were fees from French and Swedish newspapers and journals. His art critique shows his deep insights into the contemporary art scene in Paris and his articles were read and commented upon by the leading critics of the day as Guillaume Apollinaire and Marc Brésil. Perhaps it could be interesting to quote from one of his articles to illustrate his style, this is an analysis of a famous picture by the Norwegian Edward Munch, “The Sick Girl”, now in the art museum in Gothenburg, Sweden:
“His painting shows a sick child half leaning in bed, standing out against the white pillow, and to the right a woman who leans down. He does syntheticise a drama out of human life with such a deep emotion that you feel that Death in ghostly shape is present, albeit concealed, as a third actor. You could say that this child, with its vanishing profile – which you so self-evidently can complement – only gets life from the other side of the grave, and the movements of the shoulders and arms stigmatise the longing to disappear from this life. The reddish hair glows as in a vision, and at the bottom, to the right, does a red-coloured drink in a glass display a ray of purest purple. The sorrow, expressed in mute prayers, bows the woman’s head down, and over moss-green notes there hovers a grey, pearl-coloured cloud, at the same time deep and light, as the great unknown. An analysis of the artist’s technical means would be a sacrilege.”
Soon after Christmas he is informed that his father had died. In a letter to his mother he doesn’t disclose his thoughts about the dead father, but he comments upon his own religious feelings: “In the entire New Testament I have almost solely read the Gospel according to St. John and The Revelations. The 17th chapter of St. John is perhaps the greatest work written in a human language. Don’t think that adversities and ordeals are signs of the wrath of God. On the contrary. They are signs of his grace, because they are opportunities for victory and glory to him. And that is the reason for the god-fearing Muslims, the Egyptians and the Arabs to exclaim ‘Glory to God!’ in misfortune and adversity.”
When Aguéli decided to learn a new language, which happened rather often, he always tried to get hold of the Gospel according to St. John in the language in question.
He had a brief summer stay in Sweden and wintered in Paris. He moved further and further away from painting. He prepared for new journeys. He converted to Islam. As a convert, Aguéli took the name of “Abd al-Hâdi” (the servant of Him who points the Way) and wore Arabic attire. He studied Buddhism. If this really is the year when Aguéli converted to Islam is disputed, it may not have happened until the following year.
He travelled to India. In a letter to Mme. Huot he spoke of his love of tropical landscapes and the “sterile” beauty of Aden. He returned to Paris by the end of the year. He didn’t go to Ceylon and India as a painter. He naturally appreciated the climate and the light, but the purpose of the trip was to look for an inner light. In Colombo he wanted to observe “the influence of Islam on other races than the Arabic”. “So,” writes Mr. Gauffin, “is the most characteristic picture of Ivan Aguéli in India that of a white-clad pilgrim, bent over his Hindustani and Malayan volumes in a lonely chamber in the middle of the native quarters of Colombo. The studies of this linguistic genius, as well as his ethnographic research and descriptions, were only preliminary studies in order to solve the grand problem of Occident contra Orient, Christianity contra Islam.”
In a letter to friends in Paris, he writes that
“The Muslims have more of stature and buoyancy. I have talked a lot with them and they have been very open; my knowledge of Arabic and especially my face were recommendations enough. They are very noble, but very wise and reserved. They have let me know that I possibly could be used in the Muslim tuition here.
The first thing they told me was, that if I wanted to follow their religion I shouldn’t wear European clothes. I liked that. But my costume isn’t European, except for the cap, but most willingly I will remove it for a turban in it’s place. There are Afghans in the North and Malayans who wear a very chic costume. There is nothing in my painting that is contrary to their religion. If our relationship doesn’t work out I cannot see any other reason than the occult influence from the Christians, i.e. the Monks.”
On July 4th he fired a revolver at two matadors during the parade before the bull fight in Deuille outside Paris and wounded them slightly. Following his preventive impoundment, he was sentenced to parole and a small financial fine. His revolver attack and the ensuing trial process contributed to the eventual banning of bull fights which result in animal death in France.
I have not been able to find out if this nearly fanatical love of animals was something that Aguéli acquired through Mme. Huot, or if he carried it with him from his youth in Sweden. We know though, that long before the dramatic shooting incident, Aguéli and Mme. Huot used to venture out in the parks of Paris at night to save stray cats. They were carried back to her flat and all given personal attention according to their needs. Aguéli used both religious and philosophical reasons to protest against cruelty to animals.
In 1901, he wrote a powerful analysis of Daumier’s art in Encyclopédie Contemporaine Illustrée. He was introduced to the Italian doctor Enrico Insabato.
He visited Egypt for the second time and based himself in Cairo. He was introduced to a sufic tariqat. With doctor Insabato, he started the Italian-Arabic journals “Il Convito” and “Il Commercio Italiano”. The mission of the journals was the study and spread of Islam. Islamic studies led Aguéli to study the works of the medieval theosoph Muhju-din Ibn-Arabi, whose discussions he transcribed.
Ivan Aguéli wasn’t the same person on this his second visit to Egypt. During the seven and half years that had passed he had lost several youthful illusions. Neither was Egypt the same country when he now returned. The rotten finances of Egypt were taken as an excuse by the English who by and by strengthened their influence over the country, something that naturally suited their imperialistic ambitions very neatly. The British agent Evelyn Baring, from 1901 earl Cromer, was in reality the ruler of Egypt. The unrest in Turkey, with the militant opposition of the Young Turks, the massacres in Armenia and Macedonia, was an incentive for the Western powers to intervene. Everywhere, at the Dardanelles as by the Nile, you could feel in the air that there was a big power game being played.
In this situation Aguéli sits down to write a soothing letter to his mother. He tells her that, possibly, he is the first European to be accepted as a student at the El Azhar University in Cairo, and then he tries to explain the essentials of Islam:
“The Muslims at the University are the best and the most god-fearing people in the world. They believe in the same God as you do. They don’t think that Jesus was God, but one of the most important of the prophets and filled with God’s spirit. They believe that Moses is the word of God. They believe in Virgin Mary and in the immaculate birth of Christ. They admit that both the Old and the New testaments are the words of God, but that there, over time, has been some additions made.
It’s a deadly sin to drink one single drop of alcohol, be it wine or spirits. Their ethics are on a higher level than that of the Christians. The stupid stories of men being married to several wives are lies. Nobody fights, nobody makes a row. They are utmost peaceful and pray five times a day.”
The main purpose of the journals, besides spreading knowledge of Islam, was to support the religion in it’s struggle against inner and outer enemies. The choice of Italian, together with Arabic, was motivated with the argument that Italy was the nation of Europe that was closest to Islam. Aguéli was to be the main contributor to the journals, while Dr. Insabato was the financier. Aguéli wrote a number of articles on various subjects, some of them presenting classical Islamic mysticism, others on more modern themes. In one of them he wrote:
“We feel inclined to ensure that the true principles of Islam are one of civilisation’s most perfect carriers, and that we, far from prophesising it’s downfall, are happy to see it’s spread outwards and it’s purification inwards… It’s about time to end the myth of Muslim fanaticism. The Muslims are not more fanatical than for example the French are patriots and hate the Germans thirty years after the war, and Anglophobes after Joan of Arc.”
And he continues:
“The Orient, where the wonderful and blinding light does extinguish the details and transforms the proportions, is the country for this strange synthesis of the inner human vitality, that are called religions and which you should be careful to avoid to judge from a narrowness of outlook and exclusivity … Let us not do in the Orient what the barbarians have done to us. Let us leave the flowers on their grounds in peace, as well as the birds in their skies. Only by doing so will we be able to enjoy them. Let us leave the believers in peace, their sanctuaries and their faith. Then, and only then, will they be valuable partners in a common work for civilisation and mankind. It’s because they have forgotten these principles that France today finds itself without friends in the Orient.”
In an article in November 1904, signed by both Aguéli, as Abdul Hadi Magrabi and Dr. Enrico Insabato, there is one sentence in which the authors summarise the objective of the journal:
“We manifestly enrol in a defence of Islam, as this is the only way to finish a real moral, intellectual and material progress in the Orient and the only weapon to be used to civilise the wild peoples.”
In a letter to Mme Huot in March 1908 Aguéli writes:
“You should know that there are three persons whom I have to thank for my inner life and faith. Swedenborg has given me the mystical upbringing that has helped to defend myself against and saved me from all Protestantism and germanisation. You, who has given me a heart that in the end grasps overall. Mohyiddin Ibn Arabi who has freed me from violence and who has given me the universal clarity through wisdom, mildness and strength. That man is a Leonardo of philosophy.”
Emanuel Swedenborg, born in 1688, was a significant scientist, mystic, philosopher, and theologian. His father, professor of theology, and later bishop, seems to have been an egocentric of the first order, with a remarkably naïve belief in guardian angels and spirits. Swedenborg thus received from his physical heritage, as well as his childhood environment, a predisposition for the supernatural experiences that occurred in his adult life.
As Aguéli’s interest in Swedenborg only concerned his religious and mystical writings, I will pass over Swedenborg’s considerable achievements in mathematics, natural sciences and mechanics.
In the 1740s he developed his famous doctrine of correspondence, that is Swedenborg’s vision of the universe as a system of symbols permeated by divine light in different degrees, which, since the 19th century, has fascinated many poets. Its earliest systematic presentation was called Clavis Hieroglyphica, A Hieroglyphic Key, in which the linguistic origin of the doctrine of correspondence becomes evident. Swedenborg wanted to demonstrate how to transform propositions from the natural sphere into its correspondence in the spiritual sphere and from there to the divine sphere by changing a few central terms in otherwise identical sentences. Later, the doctrine of correspondence was given a very wide range, becoming a kind of universal symbolism according to which everything outward and visible in nature had an inward spiritual cause. But the linguistic origin of the doctrine is reflected in its function as an instrument for revealing the spiritual meaning of the sacred Scriptures. It’s obvious, I think, that Neoplatonism, as well as the philosophy of Paracelsus, must have been among his sources of inspiration.
For the remainder of his long career, Swedenborg devoted his enormous energy to interpreting the Bible and to relating what he had seen and heard in the world of spirits and angels. From 1749 to 1771 he published some 30 volumes, all of them in Latin, and the major part anonymously. During the ages, Swedenborg thought, mankind had removed itself so far from its origin that the Lord allowed himself to be born into the human world through a mortal woman. Swedenborg thus rejected the doctrine of Christ as the Son of God, as well as the doctrine of the Trinity, that is the one God revealed in the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Swedenborg’s visions and religious ideas have influenced a number of prominent writers, including Honoré de Balzac, Charles Baudelaire, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Butler Yeats, and August Strindberg. Aguéli refers often in letters and articles to Baudelaire, and he wanted to translate Strindberg into both French and Arabic.
In a letter to his mother Aguéli wrote:
“There is much in Swedenborg that I don’t accept, some that I even reject and criticise, but that can be because I haven’t understood him, but anyway Swedenborg is the clearest spirit that Europe has produced since the beginning of time.”
Ibn al-‘Arabi – in full: Muhyi ad-Din Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-‘Arabi al Hatimi at-Ta’i ibn al-Arabi – was a celebrated Muslim mystic-philosopher or theosopher who as ash-Shaykh al-Akbar (Doctor Maximus), the honorary title by which he is known in the Islamic world, was one of the colossal figures in the history of Muslim thought. Besides being a master of profound mystic experiences including visions and insights, he was a first-rate intellectual who could work his visions and insights into a major theosophical system. Moreover, all the important mystical doctrines that had appeared in Islam in a fragmentary and non-systematic fashion before him were incorporated into his system and given an explicit theoretic formulation. Through him, the esoteric dimension of Islamic thought for the first time found a full-fledged philosophic expression.
Ibn al’Arabi was born In Murcia in the Southeast of Spain in 1165, a man of pure Arab blood whose ancestry went back to the prominent Arabian tribe of Ta’i. It’s worth noting that Aguéli several times mentions Murcia as “the holy city”, which shows how deep his reverence of al’Arabi was.
Writing to Mme Huot in 1907 Aguéli tells her that “I have now translated my articles on Ibn Arabi into Arabic … The few people in our time who understand the Master, admit that I have fully understood his thoughts, but in a wholly new way. I have met a number of the Master’s disciples in all classes of society. They are all very interesting.”
He left Egypt in October. Following an unpleasant scene with Mme. Huot in Marseilles, he moved to Geneva.
1910 He wintered in Geneva. He reconciled with Mme. Huot in Paris. He co-operated with “La Gnôse”, a journal of philosophical and ethical studies. He studied the contemporary art of the period. He presented his sentiments in a brief essay which was featured later in “La Gnôse”, and was signed “Abdul-Hâdi.”
He co-operated with Encyclopédie Contemporaine Illustrée and summered in Gotland.
The editors of La Gnôse, “The Gnosis” proclaimed that they would not care about analytical or experimental science or modern western philosophy, neither would they deal with moral or social questions and they have nothing to do with the esoteric religions. On the other hand they didn’t count mystics or occultists among their readers.
“With one word, as we are totally uninterested in any worldly action we don’t intend to turn to the masses or make them understand us. We are not at all concerned with what the multitude think, we despise all attacks, from wherever they come and we don’t accept anybody to judge us.”
In Stockholm, he made a serious painting comeback. He became an independent student in the studio of the Swedish master Carl Wilhelmson. He painted studies of models and portraits.
1912 He returned to Paris in the fall. He continued his studies of painting. In a letter to Richard Bergh, he attempted to get the Swedish Artist Union interested in an exhibition of the works of Fauconnier, Van Dongen, Roualt, Léger and Picasso. He was invited to participate in an exhibition by the Union in Stockholm and presented some of the Gotland landscapes from his earlier work. His paintings were ignored by almost the entire press, apart from the “Aftontidningen”, an evening paper, which paid a tribute to him. He became known as an art critic in Encyclopédie Contemporaine Illustrée, whose writer of art introductions, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, attempted to include Aguéli into the editorial board.
From this year onward he was in constant correspondence with Richard Bergh, Karl Nordström, and Carl Wilhelmson. He created sketches in the Humbert studio in Paris.
1913 He spent the summer and fall in Touraine. He painted the landscapes of the shores of Loire, Seine, l’Oise and l’Indre. His artist friends helped see him out of financial difficulties. At the beginning of December, he escorted a group of French merchants to Egypt, and acted as their guide.
1914 He painted diligently in Cairo, but also at Assiout and Hour. The subject of his paintings were villages and cities, but also very comprehensive portraits of young women and men.
1915 The first official recognition of Aguéli’s painting: the Swedish National Museum accepts the “Motif from Stockholm”, offered by the Swedish writer Per Hallström.
1916 British authorities expelled him from Egypt, after he had spent ten years of his life there, because he had been visiting Egyptian turcophiles.
In February he left by ship for Barcelona.
He felt nostalgia for his native Sweden, but couldn’t get a place aboard a ship going there because he had no financial resources. He tried to publish some texts in the Swedish press, but failed. He painted Catalan landscapes around Barcelona. He intended to write a book about the masters of Spanish painting.
Prince Eugen, the brother of the King of Sweden and a renowned landscape painter himself, sent Aguéli money so he could return to the country. On October 1st Aguéli was run over by a locomotive near Barcelona (Aguéli was hearing impaired).
At the time of Aguéli’s stay in Barcelona Spain was in turmoil. There was fighting in the streets and we have proof that he was looked upon with suspicion. For that reason there are theories of the cause of his death: did somebody from one of the fighting fractions push him? As a deaf person, those argue, he would have been more attentive when crossing railway tracks than a person of good hearing. Well, we will never know for sure.
At any rate, The Swedish consul in Barcelona, who took care of Aguéli’s few belongings was about to throw his paintings away as he deemed them worthless, when he got word from the Swedish Foreign Office ordering him to send everything to Stockholm. Prince Eugen paid for the transport. He also paid a considerable sum to Mme Huot for her to let go of what Aguéli had left in Paris as she maintained that Aguéli owed her money, which naturally was very true.