Sunday, November 8, 2009

Personhood in Islam: Harmony in Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Anthropology

By Brian Welter

Where is the holy located, in the individual or in the community? Protestants would emphasize the individual before God and the priesthood of all believers. Pre-Vatican II Catholicism would emphasize the intercessory role of the priest and the sacramental nature of the Church: extra ecclesiam nulla salvus. Certainly, Islam has traditionally located the holy in the community, the dar al Islam, the house of God. Apostates from Islam must be punished, just like the medieval and early modern Christian heretics tended to face a tough time in Christendom. But are apostates punished because the community has such a superior position viz the individual, or is apostasy such a big issue because individuals are so central to the Dar al Islam?
In Islam, what is the worth of the individual outside of the community? Does his value only consist in his adherence to the community? Seyyed Hossein Nasr has written extensively on the person and on nature, from his interpretation of Islam, and often to a Western audience that is firmly ensconced in a tradition of individual rights and the diminishment of collective identity, rights, and traditions. Yet how well does Seyyed Hossein Nasr represent Islam? Each chapter will discuss the basic arguments offered by Nasr, interwoven with possible objections by contemporary or twentieth-century Islamic thinkers such as Muhammed and Seyyed Qutub, Tariq Ramadan, and others. This will offer some possible assessments of Nasr's teaching from within Islam?
The “harmony” part of the study examines how Nasr's view of man and woman, following an Islamic view, distances itself from the Western feminist view of men and women being the same and therefore equal, to a view of women and men in harmony with each other, in accordance with Islamic tradition and the rights that it holds. This study will explore how, for Nasr, Islamic society envisions harmony rather than extreme democracy and freedom as exemplified in Western democracies today. In fact, unity, harmony, and the carrying on of tradition seem to be the focal point of Nasr's writing, the story behind the story. Likewise, Nasr's view of science, knowledge, and nature invoke harmony. Rather than dominating nature, science and knowledge should bring us into closer contact with God. Islamic science should be a spiritual science. The Islamic economy should bring about harmony rather than fierce, profit-making competition. It should build family and community rather than destroy the centuries-old human ecology and traditions, as Western-influenced capitalism is presently doing.
This study will, as much as possible, avoid references to Western or Christian thinkers in the attempt to understand Nasr within the Muslim world of thought. In his writings, it is this world of thought that Nasr tries to communicate to his Western audience. Despite this preoccupation with his Western readers, one cannot judge Nasr as a Muslim scholar except from within this Islamic tradition. How, then, does Nasr transmit his religious tradition of harmony to this West and the wider world?

Ch. 1. Dignity and Rights: Psychology and Spirituality
Nasr avoids an entitlement view of rights for the individual. He finds human dignity by locating God in the heart of the person. The Sufi mystic ultimately sees the world with God's eyes. Yet this comes through the arduous spiritual journey.
Nasr's Islamic approach parallels the Christian belief that human dignity rises from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, though Nasr does not indicate that this dignity also follows from the fact that we are made in the image of God, which is a cornerstone of Jewish and Christian anthropology: “The grandeur of the human state is not in that human beings can make complicated machines or conceptualize complex theories, but in that men and women are worthy of being addressed by God and being considered worthy of receiving His revelation and grace.”1 In a nutshell, Nasr's Islamic viewpoint does follow the Christian understanding that human dignity comes from the nature of God and the nature of human-divine relations: “To be human is to be capable of hearing the Word of God and being led back to Him.”2 Nasr pinpoints the individual's priestly function as being particularly noteworthy and full of dignity: “The fact that in the Islamic rites each Muslim – man and woman – stands directly before God in the daily prayers without any intermediary indicates from the Sufi point of view not only that each Muslim has a priestly function but also that there is a nexus linking each soul directly to God.”3

Ch. 2. Male and Female; Sexuality
Rather than equality-through-sameness, Nasr offers a traditional Islamic vision of the dignity of women and men that encourages harmony in the household and in society.

Certainly, Nasr follows the traditional Islamic teachings on sexuality.

Ch. 3.The Economy, Work and Leisure

Ch. 4. Community and Hierarchy
For Nasr, the world is necessarily hierarchical. God created the universe, and humans and spiritual beings, as well as animals and minerals and all else. God is the supreme ruler of all, and humans occupy a special place.

Ch. 5. Creation

“Esoterically speaking, all things by virtue of their existence, which is ultimately the Divine Breath, praise God, as the Quran asserts. They speak in silence of the mystery of existence, but most of us do not have the necessary power of hearing to grasp their silent words.”4

For Nasr, creation and humans, and God, who created the first two, are all linked through the dynamic mystery of God: “Although from one point of view creation is old, from another it is fresh and new. God's act of existentiation is ever present, and in fact existence is not so much a state as an act, as the existentiating command of God, 'Be!' This doctrine is of great significance not only for cosmology but also for the spiritual life.”5 Creation's youth is caused by the truth that God constantly sustains it, keeping creation in existence. Without this support, creation would cease to exist. This enchanted view of the universe, while not necessarily excluding the laws of Western science, demands something more than laws of physics and Darwinian evolution. Physics itself is an expression of God's support. Physics and the laws Western scientists have discovered depend on divine sustenance. Evolution too depends on God's sustenance; it exists because God wills it to exist. God is prior to and independent of physics and biology, and the laws discovered therein. This is the Islamic or at least Sufi re-enchantment of the world. God's generosity to creation is immediate and intimate: “In a deeper sense, every tree that we observe in the garden comes freshly from God's creative act.”6 Education is a spiritual journey, and the teacher is therefore a life teacher, a teacher of wisdom. This evokes the meaning of the Catholic terms “spiritual formation,” and lectio divina, both of which place spiritual growth above the need for a heavily critical outlook on life and the literary or religious canon and tradition. Education, for Nasr, is the guardian and transmitter of tradition, of spiritual and communal life, rather than about new discovery or revolutionary, radical thinking. This follows from his depiction of Islam as the middle way, something he also admires in the Greeks.

Ch. 6. Philosophy as Wisdom
The wisdom and teachings of the Quran govern what is valuable and not valuable knowledge. Knowledge foremost brings the believer closer to God. As such, knowledge is a lifestyle aid. It gives us the knowledge of the heart. Nasr writes at length about the intellect, which he situates in the heart. The knowledge of the heart – spiritual knowledge in keeping with Islam – governs the knowledge of the head. Science, in other words, falls under the knowledge hierarchy. Knowledge is subject to hierarch; otherwise, it would not lead to wisdom, but to the chaos of modern Western science and technology, which, Nasr repeatedly observes, is killing the planet, as well as the human traditions that dwell on it.

Ch.7. Science, and Knowledge

“Since in Islam the revelation came in the form of a sacred book, many Muslim sages have looked upon nature as a book of God...”7
Nasr portrays Islamic science and knowledge as holistic and unified around the oneness of the religion, a practice personified in the hakim. This knowledge strives for wisdom rather than for the Western-based need for advancement and the domination of the material world. Since Islamic knowledge is really a spiritual striving with God always on the mind, education and knowledge play a central role in the sacred. Knowledge in Islam is sacred, and the hakim is a kind of sacred man.8

Nasr highlights the spiritual and interpersonal nature of Islamic education, which does not seek to cultivate, above all, freedom of thought and a hyper-critical outlook, but which instead emphasizes the human dimensions of community, teacher-student relations, and knowledge itself. Knowledge builds community: “The transmission of knowledge has always had a highly personal aspect, in that the student has sought a particular master rather than an institution, and has submitted himself to that chosen teacher wholeheartedly. The relation that has always existed between the teacher and the student has been a highly intimate one, in which the student reveres the teacher as a father and obeys him, even in personal matters not connected with his formal studies. The atmosphere of these schools has been very relaxed and informal, without there being any great academic or financial pressure upon the student.”9 Nasr then ends this train of thought by gently though forcefully criticizing the modern, Western path: “Nor has there ever been the strong incentive to receive a diploma and then seek to benefit from its social and economic advantages, prevalent in so many modern educational institutions.”10 Education, for Nasr, is a sacred, personal endeavor, the goals of which are spiritual growth and community bonds: “That is why a person may often remain a student all his life, mastering one subject after another and going from one teacher to the next.”11

Ch. 8. God and Being / Ontology
Natural law: an Islamic natural law, or one too in debt to Christian law. Aristotle plays a big role in Nasr's philosophy. He is unafraid to borrow at length from the Greeks in general.

Nasr links God to the person. The individual is nothing without God: “Human beings qua human beings cannot enter the Divine sanctuary, but there is within us a reality that is already Divine. To be fully human is to realize our perfect servitude and to remove the veil of separative existence through spiritual practice so that God, transcendent and immanent within us, can utter 'I'.'”12

“The great mystery of existence is that it veils God by what is none other than Him... This truth is explicitly stated in the Quran.”13 Tells a Sufi story to illustrate: “...The moral of this story is that the in-depth understanding of the truth that God veils Himself by what is none other than God can come only from spiritual realization.”14


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