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Exploring Contributions of Seyyed Hossein Nasr to Islamic Studies

By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

19 Jul 2018

Seyyed Hossein Nasr


Exploring contributions of Nasr to Islamic Studies and Need to Improve Curriculum in Universities.

Islamic Studies as a discipline and Islam as a Tradition in the integral sense of the term that includes proper engagement with the whole legacy of Islam – aesthetics, metaphysics, ontology, art and architecture, esoterism, a host of traditional sciences and much more – are absent in much of the Muslim world and its institutions. There are very few students formally trained by Islamic Studies/Comparative Religion Departments/Madrasas who are interested in or have resources for proper comprehension of works written by Muslim scholars in most of the disciplines, religious or “secular.”

All we see in most students is certain atomistic approach and recourse to some verses and traditions to buttress their understanding of Islam they often cofound with/reduce to ideology or some imagined system or book of answers or juristic-legal manuals. Absence of deeper understanding of philosophical, aesthetic and spiritual dimensions in both traditional madrasas and universities means a culture in decline heading towards a disaster and ill equipped to handle newer problems and better educated modern mind.

 Situation is especially shocking in case of Kashmir that is considered primarily a spiritual-philosophical culture. Students trained in the institutions dealing with Islam may be informed about anything in the world but not Islam as it has been classically understood and bequeathed to us. One may have done a P.G or even PhD in Islamic Studies or a course in Aalimiyet and Ifta and still can’t speak a few words about many important dimensions of Islamic cultures, say art, architecture, aesthetics, and recent developments in philosophy, theology and studies on transcendent theosophy.

One can’t, mostly, follow the debates in any good contemporary conference on world religions, theologies, poetry in Islamicate cultures, philosophy of religion or many key areas of work related to such important minds of the Muslim world as Ibn Sina, Ibn Arabi, Al-Biruni, Ibn Khaldun, Imam Razi, Hallaj, Tusi, Khusraw, Bedil and Shah Waliullah, to name only few amongst the galaxy of figures. If this despairing scenario is to be redressed, the most convenient mechanism may well be introducing everyone to the writings of Seyyed Hossein Nasr who has written on almost every significant dimension of Islam with rare balance and depth and as an insider with credentials that can’t be questioned by even his deadly critics.

 Barring a few interpretative manoeuvres that distinguish him as a scholar with a certain specific orientation/affiliation with which one may or mayn’t be in agreement, his expositions are generally marked by deep engagement with traditional self understanding of Islam spanning across fourteen centuries and enviable grasp of modern thought currents and requisite idiom to engage with them.

      Jalal ad-Din Huston Smith, the widely influential author of a modern classic The World’s Religions, calls Nasr, “one of the most important thinkers of our times.” Pointing out how his contribution has been recognized by the world, he notes that the highest honour a philosopher can receive is to be included in the prestigious Library of Living Philosophers series and a theologian can receive is to be invited for Gifford lectures and Nasr has received both. He notes that he has written Knowledge and the Sacred as one of the most important books of the twentieth century.

 He is the first Muslim philosopher, and first traditionalist philosopher to have been invited for Gifford Lectures. Nasr is now the foremost living member of the traditionalist school and is also recognized as a leading spokesman for Islam not only in North America but also world-wide. Nasr’s debate/engagement with major German philosophers such as Hans Gadamer and Jungen Habermas, and theologians such as Hans Kung are important.

 He has made some important interventions in the world heritage of Islamic Philosophy and Sciences and has contributed to theorization of interfaith dialogue, environmentalist philosophy and theology, history of science in Islam, reception of Muslim mystics and artists and now Quranic exegesis. He has helped sow the seeds for a revival of traditional education in the context of the modern university system.

      Nasr’s work is an opening to the Taj Mahal of Islam’s intellectuality/spirituality. Trained in MIT and Harvard, associated with the towering scholars in Islamic studies and seminaries, Nasr is a provocative challenge to all those who want to oppose Islam to other religions in the name of salf. He is the philosopher who has shown how we bridge the gap between intellectuals and Ulama. He facilitated intellectual exchange between Heidegger translator and philosopher Corbin and Tabatabai. Certainly “no intellectual exchange had taken place on such a high philosophical level between the West and the Islamic World since the Middle Ages.” Nasr encouraged his Persian students to study other schools and traditions of philosophy from the point of view of their own tradition rather than studying their tradition from the perspective of Western thought and this in turn convinced him that “there was an oral tradition of wisdom (Hikmah) that could only be learned at the feet of traditional masters.”

      Nasr shows/notes, among others things, that

Ali (RA) is representative par excellence of Islamic esoterism and metaphysics,

Hikmah enjoined in the Quran is, in a vital sense, enshrined in the works of Islamic philosophers or better sages.

Poets in Islamic cultures have been providential expositors of God’s word (Mawlana Thanawi’s commentaries on Hafiz and Rumi may be recalled to illustrate how) and artistic/aesthetic dimension is important for appreciating richness of Islamic culture or heritage.

Shia-Sunni division is providential noting that it has helped enrich the Islamicate world intellectually and culturally.

While we must turn to traditional seminaries who have indeed been guardian of pristine Islamic spirit, we need to be critical of their ultra conservatism and tendency to drift towards legalism. We also need to be conscious regarding what has been forgotten/ignored by these institutions in the name of preserving Islam – philosophy, many traditional sciences, aspects of metaphysics as informing many traditional sciences and arts and in practice integral concept of education.

What is wrong with both fundamentalism and modernism in terms of ignoring/writing off much of traditional heritage in the name of purism or returning to past.

What is wrong with vast majority of Muslims and Muslim scholars who are not at peace with the world because they think they are required to refute other  religions, other traditional philosophies, the classical heritage of the West and such modern institutions as interfaith dialogue and women reclaiming their lost spaces in exegesis. Huston Smith narrates how Nasr, through his mentors, helped him be at peace with the world.

How to honour differences in religions at exoteric/theological level while appreciating  that in their kernels accessed by metaphysics and esoterism, great philosophies and religions are one. This constitutes great contribution towards understanding the Quranic claims regarding primordiality and universality of Revelations/Islam. Nasr is distinguished amongst contemporary Muslim philosophers by his deft mastery of relevant hermeneutics and debates marshalled to demonstrate how religion from Adam to Muhammad (SAW) has been one and that is accessible to all and sundry who master the tools. It is not surprising that most of the foremost traditionalist scholars have been reverts to Islam as in these later times there is much to recommend the formal universe of Islam to them.

Importance of reading the canon of other traditions and how this strengthens one’s commitment to Islamic Universe while makes one appreciative how the so-called other is really an ally. Nasr himself studied Tao Te Ching and the Upanishads with Tabatabai and thus reports first hand.

Criticisms of theologians-jurists against philosophers, metaphysicians and Sufis have been convincingly refuted. For instance, he notes how Sharh al-Isharat played the major role in the “resuscitation of the Peripatetic philosophy of lbn Sina after its criticism by the Ash'arite theologians such as al-Ghazzali and especially Fakhr al-din al-Razi, for whose criticisms of Ibn Sina Tusi provides a sentence-by-sentence reply in this work.”

The deeper one goes into the heart of issues with sages, less and less relevant become Shia-Sunni, Salafi-Hanafi, Asharite-Mutazillite, Wujoodi-Shuhudi, East-West, old-new, philosophical-mystical, poetic-theological/philosophical, theistic-nontheistic and Semitic-Non-Semitic polemics or divisions. Islam becomes identified with the primordial, the universal, the call to our own depth, the language of the Self, a song sung out of gratitude for the gift of being.

The Quran is scripted in our hearts and its verses constitute the cosmos open for all who heed. Invitation to Islam one may rephrase as invitation to whatsoever is true, just and beautiful. One doesn’t own Islam to sell it – Islam is better approached not as a noun, an event, a narrative, an ideology but as a verb, a process, an attitude, a seeking, and a method. One consents to surrender or be sold in the market of Love – “Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their wealth” – and one’s religion is “whatever way Love's camels take.”

      One may read The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr for getting a glimpse of his work that clears a host of confusions and criticisms on Islam, Sufi metaphysics, philosophy, arts and Islam’s dialogue with other religions. He has his critics but no rival. He has been a factor in attracting some of the best minds to faith and environment. He shows how the heart of  world traditions, Metaphysic, can’t be denied though it can be ignored and there  would be no atheists if one could teach metaphysics to everyone.

      In a scenario where curriculum of Islamic Studies for MA and PhD has been generally failing to even introduce students to almost 3/4th of Islamic legacy – if you doubt talk to students on Islamic art and architecture, aesthetics and ontology, on Muslim sages, on religion-culture distinction or on meanings of key terms such as Allah and any key treatise on Asma-i Husna.

It is heartening to note that the Islamic University of Science and Technology (IUST), Awantipora has been able to attract the support of Nasr for its International Centre for Spiritual Studies and International Journal of Spirituality, thanks to efforts by its current Head, Dr S Iqbal Quraishi. Another good news is completion of 10 day International Summer School organized by the Department of Islamic Studies that attracted some international figures working outside India including Ian Almond, Scott Kugle, Mohammad Omar Farooq and Ahmed Javid  and began a new chapter in the history of Islamic studies in Kashmir for which IUST administration, Dr Afroz who heads the Department and his team including especially D. Miraj who had conceived the idea, need to be thanked and will be remembered by posterity.