Seyyed Hossein Nasr: A Home in the Inviolable and Sacred Center, Neither in the East nor the West
With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavour. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a pioneer who has bridged Islamic studies with the world of Western philosophy, science and religion. He is an Iranian University Professor of Islamic studies at The George Washington University, and a prominent Islamic philosopher. Nasr is renowned as one of the most important and foremost scholars of Islamic, Religious and Comparative Studies in the world today, and writes in the fields of Islam especially Islamic esoterism, Sufism, philosophy of science, art, metaphysics and environmental studies. For more details, please see (here).
Could you define Islam for the Westerners genuinely interested in understanding authentic Islam rather than relying on the distorted images of Islam often presented to them? You are recognized in American academic circles as a traditionalist and a major expositor and advocate of the perennialist and traditionalist perspective. What is your definition of tradition?
The very name of the religion, Islam, comes from the root meaning submission and peace, for the Arabic word al-islām means “surrender” to the Will of God as well as the peace that issues from our surrender to Him. In fact, Islam is the only major religion, along with Buddhism (if we consider the name of the religion to come from Budd, the Divine Intellect, and not the Buddha), whose name is not related to a person or ethnic group, but to the central idea of the religion. Moreover, Islam considers all authentic religions to be based on this surrender, so that al-islām means not only the religion revealed through the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad, but all authentic religions as such. That is why in the Quran the prophets Abraham and Jesus are also called muslim, that is, one who is in the state of al-islām.
True surrender is not, however, only concerned with our will. It must involve our whole being. A shallow understanding of surrender can lead to either a passive attitude, in which one does not strive in life as one should according to the promulgations of the religion, or to mistaking one’s own imperfect understanding of Islam for the truth and performing acts that are against God’s teachings while claiming that one is acting in surrender to God. Islam states that a person must be the perfect servant (‘abd) of God in the sense of following His Commands. But since God has given us many faculties, including free will and intelligence, our surrender must be complete and total, not limited to only certain faculties. It must involve the whole of our being. Otherwise, hidden thoughts and emotions as well as false ideas can combine with a fallacious sense of external surrender of one’s will to God to produce acts in the name of religion that can have calamitous consequences.
Islam means also gaining peace (salām) by virtue of this very act of surrender or taslīm. Islam is in essence, living according to the Will of Allah in order to gain peace in this world and felicity in the world to come. From the point of view of Islam since the goal of all authentic religions is to reach God Who is Peace and the Source of all peace, Islam, the final plenar revelation in the history of present humanity, also aims to lead its followers to the “Abode of Peace” and to create peace to the degree possible in a world full of disequilibrium, tension, and affliction.
Let me add here that for those like myself who are traditionalists tradition means truths or principles of a Divine Origin revealed or unveiled to mankind and, in fact, a whole cosmic sector through various figures envisaged as messengers, prophets, avatars, the Logos or other transmitting agencies, along with all the ramifications and applications of these principles to different realms including law and social structure, art, and the cosmological sciences, and embracing of course Supreme Knowledge along with the means for their attainment, realization and practice.
Could you tell us how you distinguish between traditional Islam and “fundamentalist Islam”?
There is first of all traditional Islam itself to consider, which, as my book The Islamic World- Present Tendencies, Future Trends has stated, is often mistaken these days for ‘fundamentalism’ as the term is currently used. What the various movements described as ‘fundamentalist’ have in common is a cultural and religious frustration before the onslaught of Western culture and the desire to reassert themselves in the name of Islam and its preservation. But their common ground stops at this point, because in trying to achieve their ends one group has had recourse to revolutionary jargon drawn from the West, while a second to a puritanical and rationalistic interpretation of Islam which would do away with the whole Islamic intellectual and spiritual tradition in the name of a primordial purity no longer attainable. This latter group, although limited in its understanding and appreciation of the inner aspects of the Islamic tradition, at least accepts a part of that tradition, namely the Sharī‘ah which is the aspect of this form of ‘fundamentalism’ closest to traditional Islam, while the former is counter-traditional in its nature and methods, despite all appearances. Moreover, in many of these so-called ‘fundamentalist’ movements, leftist ideology has simply replaced that of the classical, liberal schools of the West emulated by an earlier generation of Westernized Muslims. Also, hatred, a sense of revenge, constant agitation and blind fury have come to characterize many of these latter forms of fundamentalist movements, in place of the peace, tranquility, harmony, and objectivity which have usually characterized authentic manifestations of Islam from the beginning and which are found reflected in both the Quran and the personality of the Prophet.
‘Fundamentalism’, in the name of religious fervor, closes the door to nearly all intellectual efforts and logical deliberations about the problems and dangers which confront the Islamic world today many of which involve directly the intellectual order. Most Muslims still live in a world in which the equilibrium promulgated by the Sharī‘ah and the serenity of Islamic spirituality are to be found to some extent, despite the experiences of European colonialism, a certain degree of decadence within the Islamic world and recent upheavals. I need to add that, the newly created class of traditional Muslim scholars and thinkers who are also fully cognizant of the nature of the modern world, its schools of thought, philosophies and sciences, is bound to increase and is in fact doing so now. This trend is likely to spread, moreover, to the extent that various attempts made by different groups within the ‘fundamentalist’ camp to lslamicize society, knowledge and education without the full support of the Islamic intellectual tradition fails to deliver the results expected of them.
Likewise, serious efforts will continue to be expended to try to ‘Islamicize’ various forms of imported “knowledge” ranging from the humanities to the social and even the natural sciences. At the present moment, there are two forces at play in this endeavor to Islamicize education and the humanities and sciences in Islamic countries. One is closely allied to certain segments of that spectrum called ‘fundamentalism’ and sees the success of this process as being nothing more than the result and consequence of the re-establishment of the Sharī‘ah in society while simply adopting Western sciences. This group follows more or less the voluntarist-fideist theological position to which is added the rejection of the integral intellectual and spiritual tradition of Islam and a puritanical-rationalistic tendency going back to the so-called ‘reform’ movements of the 19th century. The second group, which is traditional rather than ‘fundamentalist’, seeks to achieve the same goal of Islamicization, but through recourse to the complete Islamic intellectual tradition combined with a critique in depth of the modern world itself based on traditional principles. While agreeing with the first group upon the importance of the implementation of the Sharīáh, it believes that the intellectual challenges posed by the modern world can only be answered by, first of all, understanding the nature of these challenges in depth and, secondly, by applying the intellectual principles of the Islamic tradition to counter these challenges and the premises of the modern world-view which oppose the sacred universe of Islam, not in this or that detail but in principle. One cannot negate the error of a particular theory of physics by appealing to and applying Islamic Law to the question at hand.
Perhaps today no issue concerning Islam is as sensitive and as often debated as that of jihād. There are divergent views on meanings given to this term. May we have your opinion on the profound differences which exist between the traditionalists and ‘fundamentalists’ in their interpretation of jihād?
The Arabic term jihād, usually translated into European languages as ‘holy war’, on the basis of one of its juridical meanings in Islamic Law rather than on its much more universal meaning in the Quran and Hadīth, is derived from the root jhd, whose primary meaning is ‘to strive’ or ‘to exert oneself’. Its translation into ‘holy war’, combined with the erroneous notion of Islam prevalent in the West as the ‘religion of the sword’, has helped to eclipse its inner and spiritual significance and to distort its connotation in the West, an error of which Muslim extremists are also guilty.
To comprehend the spiritual significance of jihād and its wide application to nearly every aspect of human life as understood by the integral Islamic tradition, it is necessary to remember that Islam bases itself upon the idea of establishing equilibrium within the being of human beings, as well as in the human society and vis-à-vis the natural world where he or she functions and fulfils the goals of his or her earthly life. This equilibrium, which is the terrestrial reflection of Divine Justice and the necessary condition for peace in the human domain, is the basis upon which the soul takes flight towards that spiritual peace “that passeth understanding” as Christ said. However, if Christianity sees the aim of the spiritual life and its own morality as being based upon the vertical flight towards that perfection and ideal which is embodied in Christ, Islam sees it first of all in the establishment of an equilibrium, both outward and inward, in our earthly life, an equilibrium that is the necessary basis for this vertical ascent, and then being able to take the vertical journey.
The preservation of equilibrium in this world, however, does not mean simply a static or inactive passivity, since life by nature implies movement and action. In the face of the contingencies of the world of change, of the withering effect of time, of the vicissitudes of terrestrial existence, to remain in equilibrium requires continuous exertion or jihād. It means carrying out jihād at every stage of life. Human nature being what it is, given to forgetfulness and suffering resulting from the domination of our immortal soul by the carnal soul or passions, the very process of life in both the individual and the human collectivity implies the ever-present danger of loss of equilibrium, in fact of falling into the state of disequilibrium which, if allowed to continue, cannot but lead to disintegration on the individual level and chaos on the scale of community life. To avoid this tragic end and to fulfil the entelechy of the human state, which is the realization of (al-tawhīd) or unity and total integration, Muslims, both as individuals and members of Islamic society, must carry out jihād; that is, they must exert themselves at all moments of life to fight a battle, at once both inward and outward, against those forces that, if not combated, will destroy that necessary equilibrium and prevent the Will of God “to be done on earth”. In its most outward sense, jihād came to signify the defense of the religion of Islam and dār al-islām, that is, the Islamic world, from distortion disruption, invasion and intrusion by un-Islamic forces.
The earliest wars of Islamic history, which threatened the very existence of the young Islamic community, came to be known as jihād par excellence in this outward sense of so-called ‘holy war’. But it was upon returning from one of these early battles, which was of paramount importance for the very survival of the newly-established religious community and therefore of cosmic significance, that the Blessed Prophet nevertheless said to his companions that they had returned from the lesser jihād to the greater jihād, which he defined as the inner battle against all the forces that would prevent human beings from living according to the Will of God and to the theomorphic norm which is their primordial and God-given nature.
Throughout Islamic history, the call for the lesser jihād has usually echoed in the Islamic world when parts or the whole of that world have been threatened by forces from without or within although there have also been cases of its misuse in Islamic history. Nevertheless, the Sharī‘ah has set strict conditions upon its practice such as avoiding the killing to women, children and old men. This call to external jihād has been especially persistent in various parts of the Islamic world since the 13th/19th century with the advent of colonialism and the threat that was posed as a result to the very existence of the Islamic world. It must be remembered, however, that even in cases where the idea of jihād has been evoked in certain places in Islamic lands, it has not usually been a question of religion simply sanctioning war, but rather of the attempt of a society in which religion remains of central concern to protect Muslims from being conquered either by military and economic forces or by ideas of an alien nature. This does not mean, however, that in some cases, especially in recent times, religious sentiments have not been used or rather misused to intensify or legitimize a conflict in the name of jihād.
All of those external forms of jihād, even legitimate ones, would remain incomplete and in fact contribute to an excessive externalization of human beings if they were not complemented by the greater or inner jihād which Muslims should carry out continuously within themselves; for the nobility of the human state resides in the constant tension between what we appear to be and what we really ‘are’, and also in the need to transcend ourselves throughout this journey of earthly life in order to become what we really ‘are’. From the spiritual point of view, all the ‘pillars’ of Islam can be seen as being related to jihād. For example, the giving of zakāh or religious tax is a form of jihād, both in that in departing from one’s wealth one fights against the covetousness and greed of his or her carnal soul, but also in that, through the payment of zakāh in its many forms, man contributes to the establishment of social and economic justice in human society. In light of what has been said the difference between traditionalist and ‘fundamentalist’ understanding of jihād should become clear. Traditionalists emphasize not only the lesser jihād but more than anything else the greater jihād, while ‘fundamentalists’, even those who do no usurp the concept of jihād for other ends, are concerned only with the lesser jihād.
According to the traditionalist perspective, what is the origin of Islamic art and the nature of this unifying principle whose dazzling effect can hardly be denied?
The question of the origin of Islamic art and the nature of the forces and principles which brought this art into being and sustained it is related to the world-view of Islam itself, to the Islamic revelation, one of whose direct radiations is the sacred art of Islam and indirectly the whole of Islamic art. The causal relation between the Islamic revelation and Islamic art, moreover, is borne out by the organic rapport between this art and Islamic worship, between the contemplation of God as recommended in the Quran and the contemplative nature of this art, between the remembrance of God (dhikr Allāh) which is the final goal of all Islamic doctrines and rites, and the role played by Islamic art of both a plastic and a sonoral nature in the life of individual Muslims and the community or al-ummah as a whole. This art could not perform such a spiritual function if it were not related in the most intimate manner to both the form and content of the Islamic revelation.
It is, moreover, to the inner dimension of Islam, to the bātin or the Islamic esoteric teachings as revealed by the Divine Truth, that one must turn for the origin of Islamic art. This inner dimension of Islam is ofcourse inextricably related to Islamic spirituality. The term for spirituality in Islamic languages is connected to either the word rūh denoting spirit or ma‘nā signifying meaning. In both cases the very terms imply inwardness and interiority. It is within the inner dimension of the Islamic tradition that one must seek the origin of Islamic art and the knowledge and power which have created and sustained it over the ages while making possible the blinding unity and inebriating interiority that this art possesses.
The art of Islam is Islamic art not only because it was created by Muslims but because it issues forth from the Islamic revelation as do Divine Law and the Way. This. art crystallizes in the world of forms the inner realities of the Islamic revelation and, because it issues from the inner dimension of Islam, it leads human beings to the inner chamber of the Divine revelation. Islamic art is a fruit of Islamic spirituality from the point of view of its genesis and is an aid, complement and support for the spiritual life from the vantage point of realization or return to the Origin.
Islamic art is the result of the manifestation of Unity upon the plane of multiplicity. It reflects in a blinding manner the Unity of the Divine Principle, the dependence of all multiplicity upon the One, the ephemerality of the world and the positive qualities of cosmic existence or creation about which God asserts in the Quran, ‘Our Lord! Thou createst not this in vain.’ This art makes manifest, in the physical order directly perceivable by the senses, the archetypal realities and truths. Therefore, it is a ladder for the journey of the soul from the visible and the audible to the Invisible which is also Silence transcending all sound.
You have written extensively about sacred science. Can you tell us what sacred science means?
The term sacred science is of course nothing other than the English translation of the Latin scientia sacra; I use this term for metaphysical knowledge itself as well as metaphysical principles which are then applied to the macrocosm as well as the microcosm, to the natural as well as the human worlds. Scientia sacra is that sacred knowledge which lies at the heart of every revelation and is the center of that circle which encompasses and defines tradition. I use the Latin scientia sacra to denote this supreme science of metaphysics which lies at the heart of all traditional knowledge whereas I use the English term sacred science to refer to the application of sacred knowledge to various domains of reality, form the physical to the cosmic levels above the physical world. Any science, be it natural, mathematical or intellectual, that places the sacred at the center of its structure is sacred to the extent that it is an application of the immutable principles of metaphysics to the world of manifestation and relativity.
Sacred science is science as the term is used today to the extent that it too deals with various domains of nature in addition to the mind and psyche of man, his art and thought and human society. But it differs drastically from science as currently understood in that it has its roots and principles in metaphysics or scientia sacra and never leaves the world of the sacred in contrast to modern science whose very premises, immersed in empiricism and rationalism, have its nexus severed from any knowledge of a higher order, despite the fact that the findings of modern science, to the extent that they correspond to an aspect of reality, cannot but possess a meaning beyond the phenomenal. But those meanings cannot themselves be understood and interpreted save in the light of metaphysical principles and the sacred sciences, including the science of symbolism, which derive from the Supreme Science.
The world today is most of all in need of wisdom, of that supreme knowledge or science of the Real which is none other than metaphysics in its traditional sense or scientia sacra as we have defined this term. But the world is also in need of sacred sciences pertaining to the domain of manifestation and contingency but nevertheless dependent upon the Supreme Science or metaphysics, sciences that can relate the various levels of knowledge once again to the sacred. Moreover, the principle that nature abbors a vacuum applies to both the domain of metaphysics and the cosmological and traditional sciences. In the same way that the disappearance in the West of authentic metaphysics led to its “replacement” by all kinds of intellectually, but not necessarily rationally, feeble philosophical constructs that have finally led to the suicide of authentic philosophy in modern and postmodernist thought, the eclipse of sacred science in the modern world has led to numerous substitutes ranging from occultism to “new age” treatments of the traditional sciences to the trivialization of the various forms of traditional and sacred sciences by their assessment through the eyes of positivism. The consequence of these happenings is the appearance of a whole array of misinterpretations and caricatures of the sacred sciences, caricatures which have become practically part and parcel of the present-day cultural scene in the West.