Sidi Ibrahim Titus Burckhardt



Titus Burckhardt, a German Swiss, was of the “traditionalist” or “perennialist” 20th century school of thought, devoting his life to the study of wisdom and tradition. A major voice of philosophia perennis, he was highly articulate in the realms of existentialism, psychoanalysis and sociology, and an exponent of universal truth in metaphysics, cosmology and traditional art. He wrote in German and in French, with a profound  simplicity of expression.


Titus Burckhardt was born in 1908 into a patrician family of Basle (though his birthplace was  in Florence). His father was Carl Burckhardt, a sculptor. His great-uncle was the art historian Jacob Burckhardt. Frithjof Schuon grew up in Basle at the same time, and Titus and Frithjof  spent their early schooldays together, closely aligned in intellect and spirit. Burckhardt attended several art schools in Switzerland and Italy. He thereafter went to Morocco “to seek what the West had lost”. In his years there, he learned Arabic, and studied Sufi classics in their original. (Later, he translated Ibn `Arabi, Jili, and Shaikh Mulay al-`Arabi al-Darqawi.) Burckhardt developed a deep and vast knowledge of Islamic art and civilization.


He was the artistic director of the Urs Graf Publishing House of Lausanne and Olten. Here he produced exceptional illuminated manuscripts for publication, and directed a series of volumes entitled Stätten des Geistes (Homesteads of the Spirit). His book, Fez, City of Islam, was part of this series. In 1972, Burckhardt was commissioned by UNESCO make an inventory of the architectural heritage of Fez, which had been placed on UNESCO’s  World Heritage List. To conserve the old city, he recommended a masterplan to safeguard and rehabilitate Fez. In the following three years he was the cultural consultant of an interdisciplinary, multinational team of city planners, architects, restorers, and other specialists, to implement an overall master plan for the city of Fez.


Burckhardt actively participated in the two Festivals of the World of Islam held in London in the 1970’s, and directed the major exhibitions of Islamic Art at the Hayward Gallery in 1976. His monumental efforts and numerous published works were instrumental in the establishment of graduate programs in Islamic art and architecture as distinct academic fields in universities around the world, and no less contributed to the establishment of the major galleries of Islamic art in many museums throughout the world.


He died in Lausanne in 1984.


In all of his writings, Titus Burckhardt intimately touched on science and art, piety and tradition, beauty and truth. His quest for the Beautiful was a defining of the science of beauty, a spiritual quest, a search for Truth.


Much of Burckhardt’s writings are in traditional cosmology, which he called the “handmaid of metaphysics”. In Alchemy, Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul (1960), he presented alchemy as the expression of a spiritual psychology and as an intellectual and symbolic support for contemplation and realization. He brought science and art together into an integral relationship and showed the importance of ‘the science of the properties of things’ (`ilm khawass al-ashya) in understanding how traditional art transforms the natural objects and materials. For example, he wrote “In the spiritual order, alchemy is none other than the art of transmuting bodily consciousness into spirit: ‘body must be made spirit’, say the alchemists, ‘for spirit to become body’. By analogy one can say of Muslim architecture that it transforms stone into light which, in its turn, is transformed into crystals.” [Art of Islam, p. 211]


What is Islamic art and architecture?  Why is Islamic art in fact Islamic? Titus Burckhardt answered these questions as no one had ever done before him. He lectured and wrote profusely on the topic. For him, the primary rules of art are that 1) the form of an object, its general form as well as its decoration, must correspond to its purpose, and 2) the aesthetic effect of a work should be obtained with a minimum of elements. Burckhardt wrote about the metaphysics of art, and saw the “form” of art as arising from the revelation which encompasses a civilization, and the “matter” of art as the techniques, materials and methods which the civilization employs, and demonstrated that Islamic art’s “form” flows from the Qur’anic revelation and that the source and principles of Islamic art arise from the inner dimensions of the Noble Qur’an. His intimate familiarity with the Qur’an and his vast knowledge of the significance of iconic art enabled him to explain why Islamic art could not be iconic, and why it could however be the locus of Divine Presence without being iconic. 


In his essay, “Degrees of Symbolism in Islamic Art” Burckhardt said “the whole world is the symbol of God – to the extent that it does not claim to be other than it is…There is here a whole science whose theme is the reintegration of the multiple in the one, which implies, amongst other things, a union of time and space, a union that is reflected in forms such as that of the muqarnas (in architecture, the spatial forms known as stalactites) which, properly speaking is a rhythmical articulation of space. Among the symbols of unity – and it is always a question of ontological unity within the cosmos, and not of transcendent unity as such – the profoundest and clearest is that of light, which the Muslim artist knows how to capture, filter, and crystallize in a thousand different ways.”


“The ornamental art of the Alhambra is a science, and in order to appreciate it fully it is necessary to know its underlying principles. One of its elements is the arabesque, which is developed in an almost unlimited variety of ways. It is not merely a substitute for figurative art, which is forbidden by Islamic law, for, apart from the fact that this law is diversely interpreted, the arabesque, with its rhythmic repetition serves quite a different  artistic purpose than does pictorial art. It does not seek to capture the eye to lead it into an imagined world, but, on the contrary, liberates it from all preoccupations of the mind, rather like the view of flowing water, fields waving in the wind, falling snow or rising flames. It does not transmit any specific ideas, but a state of being, which is at once repose and inner rhythm...the purest simile for the manifestation of divine reality (al-hakika), which is the center throughout, in each creature, and in each cosmos, without any being or any thing being able to claim to be in its sole reflection, creating an unending reflection of centers in each other. The “unity of being” (wahdat al-wudjud), however, is expressed in tow different ways in these “spiders webs of God” – by being woven from one single band, and in the way they radiate from many identical centers.”[ Moorish Culture in Spain, p.206]


Burckhardt revealed the spiritual significance of Islamic art. He advocated that the highest meaning of all Islamic art is always the Unity, and showed how it reveals and leads to the principial Unity, and as well as how it reflects the mystery of the manifestation of the One in the many, and the multiplicity in that Unity. Titus Burckhardt has been described by Syed Hossein Nasr as a noble scholar who “saw that the true goal of traditional art is to aid us to become ourselves, once again, works of art, to return to our fitrah or the primordial nature we still bear deep within the substance of our being, that primordial nature which is the ultimate work of art created by the Supreme Artisan, the Sani` without the realization of whose Reality there would be no sina`ah or art worthy of the name.” [“The Vision of Titus Ibrahim Burckhardt”]


Works by Titus Burckhardt

An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine

Sacred Art in East and West

(1941), Land am Rand der Zeit (Land on the Edge of Time)

(1960), Alchemy, Walter-Verlag Ag. Olten; trans. William Stoddart (1977), Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, Fons Vitae.

(1960), Fes, Stadt des Islam (Fez, City of Islam)

(1967), Sacred Art East and West, trans. Lord Northbourne, Perennial Books, Bedfont, Middlesex.

(1970), Die maurische Kultur in Spanien, Callwey, Munich. English edition,  Moorish Culture in Spain, trans. Alisa Jaffa, Allen and Unwin, London in 1972, McGraw-Hill, New York in 1972, reprinted by Suhail Acadmy, Lahore in 1977, republished by Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY in 1997.

(1972), Marokko

(1976), Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, trans. J. Peter Hobson, World Islam Festival Trust, London.

(1977), Mystical Astrology According to Ibn Arabi, trans. Bulent Rauf, Beshara, Sherbourne, UK.

(1987), Mirror of the Intellect, trans. William Stoddart, State University of New York Press, Albany, N.Y.


See also:

Michon, Jean-Louis (1999), “Titus Burckhardt and the Sense of Beauty: Why and How He Loved and Served Morocco” in Sophia, vol.5, no. 2, pp. 113-140.


Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1999), “The Vision of Titus Ibrahim Burckhardt” in Sophia, vol.5, no. 2, p. 141-154..