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Muslim scholar
Ivan Aguéli.gif
Ivan Aguéli in Cairo.
Name: Ivan Aguéli ('Abd al-Hadi Aqhili)
Title: Sheikh, "Muqaddim of Europe"
Birth: May 24, 1869(1869-05-24)
Sala, Västmanland, Sweden
Death: October 1, 1917 (aged 48)
L'Hospitalet de Llobregat, Catalonia, Spain
Ethnicity: Swedish
Region: Europe, Egypt
Maddhab: Maliki[1]
School tradition: Shadhili, Malamatiyya
Main interests: Sufism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Comparative religion, Animal rights, Anarchism
Notable ideas: Non-syncretic metaphysical comparative analysis of orthodox religious esotericisms, the core of the traditionalist method.
Works: Écrits pour La Gnose (French)
Influences: Emanuel Swedenborg, Ibn Arabi
Influenced: René Guénon

Ivan Aguéli (born John Gustaf Agelii) (May 24, 1869 - October 1, 1917) also named Sheikh 'Abd al-Hadi Aqhili (Arabic: شيخ عبد الهادی عقیلی‎) upon his acceptance of Islam, was a Swedish-born 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 into Sufism[2] and founder of the Parisian Al Akbariyya society. His art was a unique form of miniature Post-Impressionism where he used the blend of colours 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.


Childhood and Youth

Coat of arms of the municipality of Sala, Sweden (the so called "Silver City" where Ivan Aguéli was born and raised).

Ivan Aguéli was born John Gustaf Agelii in the small Swedish town of Sala in 1869, the son of veterinarian Johan Gabriel Agelii.

The so called "Silver City" Sala is best known for its historical silver mine, which dates back to at least Medieval times and still was in operation until 1908. Sala's coat of arms depicts crossed mining tools under a crescent moon, all in silver on blue background. The crescent moon is not only the alchemical symbol for silver but also the symbol for al-Insān al-Kāmil ("the Universal man") in Islam's esoteric application of the ancient symbolism of star and crescent. Curiously the Sufi concept "Universal man" and its Taoist counterpart Chen jen ("Realized man") would more than anything else come to be decisive in Aguéli's life. And his main precursor in Sweden, Emanuel Swedenborg (Aguéli often called himself a "Swedenborgianist"), descended from a wealthy mining family and through mineralogy, metallurgy and alchemical studies bloomed into a full-fledged thesophist in the lines of Jacob Boehme.

Between the years 1879-1889 Aguéli conducted his studies in Gotland and Stockholm. Early on in his youth he began showing an exceptional artistic talent and a keen interest in religious mysticism.

In 1889/1890 he adopted the first name Ivan, the Slavic first name that etymologically corresponds to John. When first writing it, he uses Russian orthography, which underscores the possibility that this adoption was done under the influence of Russian novelists as Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Ivan Turgenev, whose books he read these days amongst other Russian literature and thinkers which he studied and sympathized with.[3]. According to Ananda K. Coomaraswamy's studies in symbolism and comparative mythology[4] the hero Ivan in the Russian folk-tales is synonymous with the mystical knight and the first Grail-keeper Gawain-Iwain, and hence described as Prince Ivan who through a perilous quest finds the way to the Water of Life[5].

In 1890 Aguéli travelled to Paris. There he came to adopt Aguéli as a French spelling of his surname Agelii, and, as some have claimed, possibly as an analogy to "water"[citation needed]. In Paris Aguéli became the student of the Symbolist painter Émile Bernard, who was a close friend of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Before returning to Sweden in 1890 he made a detour to London, where he met the Russian anarchist scholar Prince Kropotkin.[6]

Attending art school in Stockholm, he was taught by the Swedish artists Anders Zorn and Richard Bergh.

Ibn Arabi and the Koran

Records kept at the Royal Library in Stockholm indicate that he first borrowed a Swedish translation of the Koran on 11 March 1892.[7] Not only did he start reading about Islam, but Aguéli also began openly displaying Oriental character traits. At one famous occasion when visiting the exclusive café Du Nord in Stockholm he persuaded all his friends to settle down on the floor, to the great surprise of the waiters.[8]

By the end of 1892 he left Stockholm to return to Paris where he was drawn into the city's political turmoil.

Paris and Anarchism

During this period he was also active in French anarchist circles. In 1894 he was arrested for association with French anarchists such as Maximilien Luce and Félix Fénéon and although acquitted in the famous "Trial of the thirty", he spent 4 months in detention at the Mazas prison.[9] During his detention, Aguéli used his time to study the Koran and Oriental languages.

Within months of his release in 1895 he left France for Egypt, where he lived until he returned to Paris in 1896.[10] 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

In 1899 he moved to Colombo (in today's Sri Lanka) where he settled down in its Malay community and enrolled at a local Islamic school "in order to study the influence of Islam on other nations than the Arab..."[11] However, due to monetary difficulties, Aguéli was forced to return to Paris in 1900.[12]


Amongst the Truths of our religion [Islam] is that the world is as Allah has wished it to be. Hence you should only demand perfection of yourself... — Abd al-Hadi

In 1902 Aguéli moved to Cairo and became one of the first Western Europeans to be officially enrolled at Al-Azhar University, where he studied Arabic and Islamic philosophy.[13] Living a life in utmost poverty, adopting Arab dress and learning perfect Arabic, Aguéli soon won many friends among the Egyptians.

In 1902 he was also initiated into the al-'Arabiyya Shadhiliyya Sufi order by the great Egyptian Shaykh 'Abd al-Rahman Ilaysh al-Kabir (1840-1921).[14] Considered one of the greatest Sufi masters in Cairo, Shaykh Ilaysh had become a close friend of the Algerian Sufi Emir Abd al-Qadir during an exile to Damascus at the end of the 19th Century.[15]

Throughout his life, Aguéli was also drawn to the Malamatiyya Sufi order, which by many historians is deemed to explain his sometimes bizarre and highly unconventional behaviour, such as the Deuil incident related below.

Shaykh Ilaysh also gave Aguéli the title Muqaddim of Europe. This title would be of utmost importance during his future travels.[15]

Il Convito

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 (Arabic: An-Nadi). To avoid writing in the colonial languages French and English, the magazine was written in Italian. [16]

The aim of this publication was to help bridge the cultural gap between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. 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.[17]

The greatest achievement of their efforts for an Italian-Islamic dialogue was when Shaykh Ilaysh, in order to spite the British, dedicated a large mosque in Cairo to the memory of the Italian King Umberto I in 1906.

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 clearly against the British colonial administration and thus 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.

Admit, that a landscape can reflect a spiritual state ... Religion is decisive for the sun in the landscape of my within. See, that is why I love monotheism and the Arabian spirit — Abd al-Hadi

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 sent a cheque 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 outside Barcelona.[18]

Upon learning of Aguéli's death, Prince Eugén ordered the cheque to be given to his impoverished mother, who had spent all her savings supporting her son. The Prince also commanded the Foreign Ministry to under his personal supervision repatriate and preserve all of Aguéli's belongings.

At an exhibition in 1920 nearly 200 of Aguéli's recovered paintings were put on display at Prince Eugén's residence at Waldemarsudde. After the Prince and his nephew Crown Prince Gustaf Adolf Bernadotte (future King Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden) had purchased their favourites, the rest were sold to a fascinated audience.[19]

Aguéli, René Guénon and the Al Akbariyya

René Guénon and Aguéli began their friendship in 1910 while Guénon was the editor of La Gnose, an esoteric magazine in Paris.[20] It was while writing numerous articles on metaphysics, Sufism and Taoism that Aguéli seems to have awakened Guénon’s interest in Islam. 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.[21]

Abdul Hadi, as Aguéli was known in the Islamic world and later in Europe, must be given his due as a pioneer in the serious introduction of Sufism to the WestSeyyed Hossein Nasr

It is believed that the Al Akbariyya society founded by Aguéli remained highly secretive. Guénon was not openly Muslim until 1930 when he moved to Cairo, following in Aguéli's footsteps.

It is also worth noting that Guénon's book, Orient et Occident (1924) deals extensively with the metaphysical similarities between Taoism and Sufism which was the subject Aguéli had already touched upon in La Gnose as early as in January 1911 in an article named Pages dedicated to Mercury, which subsequently became his most famous article.[22] Subsequently, many scholars have chosen to follow Aguéli's lead, such as Toshihiko Izutsu’s Sufism and Taoism (published in 1984).

Aguéli and Swedenborg

As a teenager in Stockholm, Aguéli was introduced to the teachings of the 18th century Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.[23] The metaphysical teachings of Swedenborg and his unitarian approach to the Christian concept of divinity made a lasting impression on Aguéli and prepared him for his conversion to Islam later on.

It appears that although Aguéli was the first one to explore similarities between Sufi and Swedenborgian metaphysics, this was much later extensively written about by Henry Corbin in his book Swedenborg and Esoteric Islam (published in 1995).

Aguéli the Activist: Animal Rights and Feminism

As the son of a veterinarian, Aguéli had a very profound love for animals and he also participated in active protests.

In one famous incident in year 1900, outside a bull-fighting arena in the Parisian suburb of Deuil, he shot and wounded a Spanish matador with a revolver. During the trial he vehemently defended his rights and refused to apologise. Rallying the entire French animal-rights movement he was only given a suspended sentence.[24]

During his lifetime he also developed a close friendship with the equally eccentric French poet and animal-rights activist Marie Huot (1846 - 1930).

Aguéli was also outspoken on the issue of women's rights. In a letter to Marie Huot, he even states that Ibn Arabi and Sufism in many ways promote feminism, because of the existence of female Sufi saints. In one of his letters he also calls the Swedish writer August Strindberg "an idiot" for claiming that women are inferior to men.

Aguéli and Art

My art will one day explain the eccentricities of my life... — Abd al-Hadi

In 1912, while living in Paris, Aguéli began writing articles on art theory and contemporary art. One of his most exceptional pieces is an article, published in Paris, which deals with the Cubism of Pablo Picasso.[25] The article awakened the interest of the famous Parisian art critic Guillaume Appollinaire, who attempted in vain to get Aguéli to cooperate with him in a series of art publications.[26]

Later, Aguéli would also attempt to arrange for his patron Prince Eugéne to meet Picasso and Matisse.[27]

Aguéli's Heritage

Place of Ivan Aguéli in Sala.

In Sweden, Aguéli is admired as one of its most prominent contemporary painters and his paintings are considered to be national treasures. Most of his paintings are found at the Swedish National Museum of Fine arts, the Museum of Modern Art and the Aguéli museum.

Aguélis prominence in Sweden was clearly shown in 1969 when, at the centenary of his birth, six of his paintings were printed as stamps by the Swedish Postal Service.

Aguéli's remains were kept in Barcelona, Spain until 1981, when he was brought back to Sweden and re-buried with Islamic rites in his hometown of Sala alongside the central Church of Kristina, named after Queen Christina of Sweden (known for what was seemed as an eccentric interest in alchemy and for having abdicated her throne in order to change her name, set off to Rome and openly practice her previously secret Catholicism).

Ivan Aguéli´s grave in the first of October in 2006.

In Sala there is also the Aguéli museum with the largest collection of his artworks, donated by Sala's well-known physician Carl Friberg to Nationalmuseum. Since the 24th of May 2000 there is also the Aguéli place with the Aguéli monument by the large Aguéli park. The street where Aguéli lived is called the Aguéli street, also in dedication to his memory.

In 2006, under the patronage of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden the largest ever Aguéli exhibition was once again held at Waldemarsudde in Stockholm, this time also incorporating his Muslim heritage, with various lectures on Sufism.

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 and Scandinavia.

Although it cannot be said that Aguéli himself was a perennialist or a traditionalist as such, his ideas constituted a certain proto-traditionalism that was later on clarified and established by Guénon and Schuon. Spiritually, the traditionalist teachings of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon have been upheld in Sweden by Swedish Sufi traditionalist scholars such as Kurt Almqvist and Tage Lindbom.


  • Admit, that a landscape can reflect a spiritual state ... Religion is decisive for the sun in the landscape of my within. See, that is why I love monotheism and the Arabian spirit.
  • Amongst the Truths of our religion [Islam] is that the world is as Allah has wished it to be. Hence you should only demand perfection of yourself...[28]
  • Give me only bread and water, but let me paint!



  • Almqvist, Kurt; I tjänst hos det enda - ur René Guénons verk, Natur och Kultur, 1977.
  • Almqvist, Kurt; Ordet är dig nära. Om uppenbarelsen i hjärtat och i religionerna, Delsbo, 1994.
  • Brummer, Hans-Erik (red.); Ivan Aguéli, Stockholm, 2006.
  • Ekelöf, Gunnar; Ivan Aguéli, 1944.
  • Gauffin, Axel; Ivan Aguéli - Människan, mystikern, målaren I-II, Sveriges Allmänna Konstförenings Publikation, 1940-41.
  • Wessel, Viveka; Ivan Aguéli - Porträtt av en rymd, 1988.


  • Chacornac, Paul; The Simple Life of Réne Guénon, pp. 31-37, Sophia Perennis. (It has to be noted that Chacornac has depended on secondary sources for his information on Aguéli, and that hence his description of Aguéli is deeply flawed.)
  • Hatina, Meir; Where East Meets West: Sufism as a Lever for Cultural Rapprochement, pp. 389-409, Volume 39, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein; Sufism: Love and Wisdom, page X of foreword, World Wisdom Books, 2006.
  • Turner, Jade (ed.); The Grove Dictionary of Art, pp. 465-466, Grove, 1996.
  • Waterfield, Robin; Réne Guénon and the Future of the West, pp. 28-30, Sophia Perennis.


  • Abdul-Hâdi (John Gustav Agelii, dit Ivan Aguéli); Écrits pour La Gnose, comprenant la traduction de l'arabe du Traité de l'Unité, Archè, 1988.

Related literature

See also


  1. ^ No document stating Aguéli as a Maliki is known. It's unlikely this wasn't the case though, as his Sheikh, Ilaysh al-Kabir, was himself a Maliki,[citation needed] and al-Kabir's father, Mohammad Ilaysh, was the head of the Maliki college at Al-Azhar University, receiving the title "Restorer of the Maliki Faith".[citation needed]
  2. ^ Waterfield, p.29
  3. ^ Gauffin, p.38
  4. ^ Coomaraswamy, p.195, note 31
  5. ^ Ralston, p.235ff
  6. ^ Gauffin I, p.67
  7. ^ Gauffin I, p.73
  8. ^ Gauffin I, p.75
  9. ^ Gauffin I, p.180
  10. ^ Gauffin I, pp.131
  11. ^ Gauffin II, p.44
  12. ^ Gauffin II, pp.42
  13. ^ Gauffin II, pp.121
  14. ^ Almqvist, pp.17-19
  15. ^ a b Gauffin II, p.143
  16. ^ See article by Hatina, pp.389-409
  17. ^ Gauffin II, p.191-192
  18. ^ Brummer, pp.63-64
  19. ^ Brummer, pp.67-73
  20. ^ Almqvist, p.19
  21. ^ Almqvist, p.17-19
  22. ^ Waterfield p.30. For the article itself, see Écrits pour La Gnose.
  23. ^ Gauffin I, p.30
  24. ^ Gauffin II, pp.93-98
  25. ^ Gauffin, pp.218-219
  26. ^ Brummer, pp.124-125
  27. ^ Brummer, p.125
  28. ^ Gauffin II, p.191

External links



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