By Brian Welter
Nasr's conception of God and of being/ontology is based on hierarchical thinking that doesn't threaten the dignity of the person. He interweaves the ultimate equality of humans with the nature of divinely-ordered existence. God is higher than us.
Natural law, an Islamic natural law proceeding from the Greeks, undergirds much of Nasr's assumptions. Aristotle and Plato play a big role in Nasr's philosophy. He is unafraid to borrow at length from the Greeks in general, believing that they augment rather than threaten the Quran's teaching. The Greeks do not threaten Islamic or Quranic purity. Part of natural law – part of the healthy natural condition – is to accept and live according to the fact that creation is hierarchical. Nasr writes in The Garden of Truth, “On each level of being, existents both veil and reveal realities belonging to a higher level of existence.”1 God is central to the hierarchical nature of reality, and human growth can be envisioned as growth up the hierarchy. The inner, spiritual life is superior, higher up the hierarchy, than the outer, material life: “The goal of the spiritual life is to be able to lift up the veil of outwardness so as to behold the inward and subsequently come to know the outward in light of the inward. Spiritual realization enables us to see the outwardly invisible within the visible.... But that is only possible if we are able to penetrate into our own center and to life the veils within, to become interiorized, to gain inner vision.”2 In other words, the hierarchy is both an inner and an outer reality; we can climb up the ladder through our interior lives because the spiritual life is by its very nature hierarchical. Islam calls for each human to climb this ladder. In this sense, the spiritual vision of Islam is egalitarian. Each believer, Nasr points out, is a priest, and no hierarchy stands before the individual Muslim and God.
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'.'”3 He argues in The Garden of Truth that the human being exists “to worship God and to seek His help in realizing our utter dependence upon the Divine Reality.”4 He highlights the Sufis' very existence as being for this state of “servitude.” Islamic spirituality is the spirituality of submission, which demands a hierarchical view of beings, with God at the summit and humans existing as servants. Yet this servanthood is accomplished through knowledge, which throughout his writings he emphasizes as a holy and necessary endeavor, and through love. This is not the typical master-servant relationship; nor does this hierarchy work in the way that feminists accuse patriarchy as working. It is an Islamic view of hierarchy, and as such revolves around a spiritual implementation of hierarchy. In fact, the one who journeys correctly on this path, Nasr promises, can enjoy a special relationship with God, a special participation in the hierarchy itself, in other words, because journeying on this path leads to deeper knowledge about God, which leads Nasr to write, “vision is directly related to knowledge.”5
The spiritual nature of existence and all life is grounded in God. The transcendent finds its meaning in God. All returns to God. God gives meaning to all other spiritual and non-spiritual reality. Though at times Nasr the philosopher sounds heavily influenced by Platonism, and the belief in universals or at least in another world of the truth, this other world is firmly grounded in God's transcendence. “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.”6 Nasr 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.”7 Nasr again counters Western assumptions, this time feminist assumptions, about Islamic theology: “the traditional Islamic understanding of the Divinity is not at all confined, as some think, to a purely patriarchal image.”8 He aims for a fuller undestanding of God by going beyond gender: “Allah is beyond all duality and relationality, beyond the differences of gender and of all qualities that distinguish beings from each other in this world.”9
Nasr's theology also hinges on a hierarchical view of spiritual and human beings. He bases this on the workings of God, who constructs a hierarchical relationship with humans, which forms part of the essence of Islam: “This direct address from God, the One, to each human being in its primordial state requires total surrender to the Majesty of the Absolute, before whom ultimately nothing can in fact exist.”10 The hierarchical structure extends to all creatures, since “everything in the universe has its origin in the Divine Reality and is a manifestation of that Reality.”11
In this discussion in The Heart of Islam we get a sense of how God permeates the universe and makes Himself known to humans through nature without this becoming pantheism. This explanation relies on the hierarchical nature of creation's relationship to God, the unconditional surrender of all in creation to the higher being: “Everything in the total cosmos both visible and invisible is a theophany, or manifestation, of the Divine Names and Qualities and is drawn from the 'treasury' of God.”12 Nasr deftly explains how the universe is an extension of God without becoming untied in a panthesistic way with God. The words are clear and simple, reflecting Islam's clarity and simplicity: “The wisdom of God thus permeates the universe, and Muslims in fact see the cosmos as God's primordial revelation. Everything in the universe, in reflecting God's Wisdom, also glorifies Him.”13 Nasr concludes: “the very existence of beings is nothing but the consequence of the breathing upon the archetypal realities of all beings in the Divine Intellect of the Breath of the Compassionate.”14