By Brian Welter
For Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam teaches harmony. Unity, harmony, and the carrying on of tradition form the focal point of Nasr's writing, the story behind the story. His view of man and woman, following an Islamic perspective, distances itself from the Western feminist assertion that male and female are an enmeshed, undifferentiated sameness, and therefore equal, to a vision of women and men in harmony with each other. 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 and science that unites rather than objectifies. The Islamic economy should bring about harmony rather than fierce, profit-making competition. It should build family and community rather than destroy centuries-old human ecology and traditions, as Western-influenced capitalism is presently doing.
Yet how well does Seyyed Hossein Nasr represent Islam? Each chapter will discuss the basic arguments offered by Nasr, interwoven with possible objections and alternative views 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. How, then, does Nasr transmit his religious tradition of harmony to this West and the wider world? Do other Muslims writers have similar thoughts on the dignity of men and women?
Key to understanding Nasr's thinking is his attempt to show his Western readers that they are wrong in judging Islam as backwards, intolerant, and corrupt. He envisions an elegant religion with a highly developed and highly refined spirituality. On the one hand, he argues that Westerners have misrepresented and misunderstood Islam and its treatment of, for instance, women. Head coverings for women is not Islamic so much as it is middle eastern, something Christian and Jewish women have done for centuries. He also points out that until recently, Catholic women in the West covered their hair when they attended Mass. On the other hand, Nasr challenges some Western criticism of Islam by challenging Western values. He goes so far as to argue that the West is unbalanced on issues like individualism, whereas Islam balances the individual's and the community's rights. On the issue of Islam being backwards, he points out that dynamic, greedy Western science, which objectivizes and pulverizes nature in its search for profit and control of the environment, is leading us to a dead end, and something like an Islamic science is necessary. Islamic knowledge is not about power but is seen as a Muslim's duty, as knowledge leads one to the truth. Islamic science, Nasr argues, would be holistic, taking into account the teachings of the Quran, treating nature as God's gift to humans, to be cherished rather than used. In fact, he believes that much of the West's and the world's problems could be solved by Islam.
Ch. 1. Dignity and Rights: Psychology and Spirituality
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.
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. In The Garden of Truth Nasr points to the Universal or Perfect Man as being central to Sufism, the esoteric life of Isam. He cites the French Islamist Louis Massignon, calling the notion of Universal Man “'the privileged myth of Islam.'”1 As a scholar anchored in Islam but open to universalist truths, Nasr quickly turns the discussion of this myth to the Greeks, and the idea of anthropos teleios. He surmises that Neoplatonism could very likely have been the source of this myth, but that, given the universal nature of the Universal Man, Sufis did not rely totally on the Greeks: “But even if the Sufis used certain theoretical formulations drawn from such sources, the reality they were describing did not come from earlier philosophical texts. The Universal Man is a reality independent of any philosophical descriptions of it. On the basis of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet, the Sufis were able to experience the reality of the Universal Man.”2 In other words, as regarding other topics, Nasr seems to be pointing to a universally-accessible natural law, although for a variety of issues he often uses the term archteype.
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.”3 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.”4 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.”5
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. Yet for Nasr the Islamic tradition is more well-rounded, more tolerant of human realities, than simply offering one vision: “As in the Far Eastern tradition, where males and females possess both yin and yang, but in different proportions, so in the Islamic perspective the male is not simply equated with the active principle and the female with the passive, for both the male and the female contain both elements withing their nature.”6 Nasr here offers an Islamic humanism that places human needs in the center. Yet having said that, Nasr does believe that the differences between men and women have to do with the nature of God. Anthropology and theology are linked: “The male and the female polarization is an essential part of the mystery of God's creation.”7 The yin-yang nature of the relationship is a relationship of complementarity, where together they form a circle of “perfection, totality, and completion. That is why the male and the female both vie with each other and are attracted to each other. The alchemy of marriage and sexual union has the power to transmute and complete each side through the realization of both complementarity and wholeness through a love that transcends the two sides and yet encompasses them, a love that is rooted in God.”8 Note here the traditional alchemical language, rather than the typical psycho-social academic verbiage. Nasr explains the tradition of Islam using traditional language. Though trained as a Western scientist and historian of science, he explains his tradition from within the confines of that tradition rather than from the more scientific and social scientific Western view. God is intimately involved in this love: “The bond between two hearts is made by God ... and the love of one spouse for the other is an earthly reflection of the love of the soul for God, although the male and female forms of spirituality are not the same.”9 Thus love and complementarity draw male and female together.
Certainly, Nasr follows the traditional Islamic teachings on sexuality. He argues that Christians are wrong in condemning the Prophet for having had many wives. With Christianity's traditional suspicion of sexuality in mind, Nasr notes that this has allowed Islam to see sexuality in a positive light, as a gift from God.10
In the important chapter of The Heart of Islam entitled “The Vision of Community and Society,” Nasr explains in some detail the place of women in Islamic society, and the harmonious relationship between men and women that Islam seeks. At the basis of this is justice. Islam is a religion of justice, so that any aspect of male-female relationships must conform to this pursuit. Neither men nor women can be oppressed. Nasr repeatedly points out that the Western view of Islam is erroneous, but also that Western notions of justice are not necessarily the only normative principle for justice. Islam is well within its right to establish its own norms. In fact, those norms, because beholden to God, are superior to those of the consumerist, religiously-skeptical West. That sense of justice, and of the entire relationship of harmony between men and women, is a spiritual path, he notes in The Heart of Islam: “The role of Islamic society has always been to make possible the attainment of virtue and the perfection of character,” with many Muslim authorities such as al-Farabi judging societies according to their success in fostering “this inner perfection of moral and spiritual qualities of the member of society. From the Islamic point of view, the value of a society before the eyes of God lies in its virtuous quality, its moral excellence, and not in power and wealth.”11
This challenges the Western feminist, power-based view of relationships and money. The family, and marriage itself, has become the enemy of women according to this view. Nasr's Islamic view, while also offering a critique of oppression, places much more trust in basic familial and marital relationships. Such human links are the basis of his view of Islamic society. Rather than the Western notion of freedom, he believes that humans come to their full humanity through relationships, through serving others. “The traditional structure of Islamic society is based not on quantitative equality, but on the reality of complementarity, although there are exceptions.”12 Here, Nasr outlines a traditional view, with the man as breadwinner and family protector, as the imam of the family. He is imam because his leadership comprises a spiritual role. Again, rather than the Western penchant for judging relationships according to power, money, credentials/merit, it is the spiritual value of relationships that define basic ties. He then paints a traditional picture of the Islamic woman, as the heart of family life, and not at all in competition with her husband: “The woman is the real mistress of the household, in which the husband is like a guest. Her primary duty has been seen as that of raising of children and attending to their earliest education, as well as being the basic buttress of the family. Like all traditional societies, Islam has honored the work of homemaker and mother as being of the highest value, to the extent that the Prophet said, 'Heaven lies under the feet of mothers.'”13 Femininity, like masculinity, has in its deepest characteristic a spiritual reality. Male and female are the roles that Islam lays out for them. Nasr contrasts this spiritual view of femininity and motherhood with the Western, materialist, feminist view: “Islamic society has never thought that working in an office is of a higher order of importance for society than bringing up one's children.”14
Ch. 3.The Economy, Work and Leisure
What is the role of work and the economy in Islam? How do they promote harmony? The economy and work are closely related to the basic masculinity and femininity of Islamic male and female. In an Islamic society, Nasr argues, the economy is structured around family and not solely around making money. This allowed for traditional motherhood: “an economic system was not created in the cities, where by and large, but not always, the wife was not forced for economic reasons to leave the home and her children during the day. From the Islamic point of view, the right of a child to a full-time mother rather than a nanny or day-care provider is more essential than many rights held dear today.”15 Nasr spends some time discussing the importance of the work of homemakers to the Islamic family. As the center of the family, the mother's work should ideally be at home. Economy therefore has spiritual dimensions; work is about building the family and the community, and not about career attainment or making huge amounts of money. The economy is at the service of the family. People work to build family and community. Work is therefore not an issue of the individual, but of the family and community.
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.
Nasr spells out clearly that a good community is one that allows for the Islamically good life. It should allow “its members to live the good life, in the religious sense, based on moral principles. It [the Quran] judges a community to be good to the degree that it reflects the constant presence of the Transcendent Dimension in human life and is based on spiritual and religious values.”16
Nasr equally clearly spells out just what happens to communities unfaithful to holy moral living: “the decay and destruction of communities or nations has happened, according to the Quran, not because of loss of wealth or economic power or even military defeat, but because of moral corruption and straying from the religious norms willed by God for the community in question.”17 Here Nasr raises the sense of hierarchy, with God over top all communities and individuals, who must follow His rule: “The earth belongs to God, and He allows deserving communities or nations to rule over it as long as they deserve to do so. Once they lose their moral authority, they are replaced by God with other communities or nations.”18 Harmony comes from following God's law, and communities that follow this law exist and prosper for long periods of time.
Nasr avoids setting up the problematic battle between community and the individual. Such a duality is false; the human is both individual and part of the community. “There is no doubt that Islam meant to create a community based on justice, one in which the pursuit of the Divine Law was made possible, not just injunctions for private behavior. In the debate between those who claim the primacy of society and those who emphasize the primal significance of the individual, Islam takes a middle course and believes that this polarization is in fact based on a false dichotomy. There is no society without the individual; nor can the individual survive without society. The social nature of the human being us part of the wisdom of God's creation,” Nasr writes in The Heart of Islam, turning to the Quran (58:7).19
Nasr's view of Islam locates the holy in both the community and the individual, without one superseding the other: “He [God] is present in human community as He is within the heart or center of the individual.”20
Nasr does emphasize that God's judges the individual, not the community as a whole, for entrance into salvation or damnation. While God can judge a bad community in this lifetime, in the next, a community will not face this type of judgment: “Only individual souls do so. Hence our personal responsibility before God remains, in whichever community we happen to live.”21
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.”22
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.”23 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.”24 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...”25
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.26
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.”27 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.”28 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.”29
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'.'”30
“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.”31 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.”32
Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Mysticism, A Short Introduction.
Gülen, M. Fethullah,
Khomeini, Sayyid Ruhollah Mousavi,
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein,
A Young Muslim's Guide to the Modern World.
The Garden of Truth.
The Heart of Islam.
Ideals and Realities of Islam.
Islamic Philosophy from the Origin to the Present.
Knowledge and the Sacred.
Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis in Modern Man.
Religion and the Order of Nature.
Science and Civilization in Islam.
Irshad – Wisdom of a Sufi Master.
The Unveiling of Love.
Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity.
Western Muslims and the Future of Islam.
Social Justice in Islam.