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Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Islamic Life And Thought – Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2001)

  • religion

In this interesting book, the Traditionalist and born Muslim Nasr describes Islam from an Islamic perspective. Also he describes how Islam looks outside its own boundaries.

Being both Traditionalist and Muslim, Nasr points to elements of modern society, such as secularism, education, religion and strive. He does not write on behalf of a particular Muslim current, but is also clear about the fact that Islam is not a homogenous religion. The most interesting part (to me) is when he shows how Islam changed in different areas as it spread over the globe. Quite like that the Christianity of Southern America is different from the Christianity of Northern Europe, Far Eastern Islam is not the same as North African Islam.

It is hard to say how many contemporary Muslims are as open minded as Nasr or certain parts of Islam in the past. Of course within Islam things like Hermetism and Alchemy have been preserved because some authors found them worth studying. Muslim philosophers have studied the classical Western philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, but these are not things we hear much of nowadays.

What Nasr is far from happy about, is the influence of contemporary Western thinking on Muslims with Western style education on universities and Muslims who know more about market economy than about the deeper layers of their own religion.

What you get from this book is a nice overview of the vast subject of Islam in times past and more recent and also (possible) Muslim approaches to contemporary questions. It comes across me (practically a layman in the field) somewhat idealised, but nonetheless interesting.

2001 Kazi Publications, isbn 1930637144

The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2007)

Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a contemporary Traditionalist and born Muslim. He was born in 1933 and is still around, 87 years of age.

As the title suggests, this is a collection of his writings. The book was compiled by fellow Traditionalist William Chittick and has a foreword by Huston Smith.

Chittick made three divisions in the book. The first part is about religion, the opening texts is called “Living In A Multi-Religious World”. Then we have a larger part specifically about Islam and the last part is about Tradition.

Of course there are similarities between Nasr and other Traditionalists, but this book reads nothing like a book of Guénon or Coomaraswamy. Nasr is more academic on one side, and more traditional religious on the other. Of course he was born a Muslim in a conservative Muslim country (Iraq), so Islam is the basis of his thinking. And an interesting thinker he is! Nasr’s academic career obviously made him very well acquainted with different religions. Also he does not shun authors who were not Muslims from birth, such as Frithjof Shuon. Moreover, the different branches of Sufism are dealt with alongside the various kinds of ‘mainstream’ Islam.

As said, Nasr’s writing is quite academic. He can be somewhat extensive and his style is not really light reading. I liked the texts in which we see a modern Muslim looking at the world better than the Traditionalist texts at the end, but Nasr is good in the comparative approach and that is something I enjoy reading.

The book is undoubtedly meant as an introduction to the author and I guess you indeed will get a good idea of Nasr reading this book.

2007 World Wisdom, isbn 1933316381

The Heart Of Islam * Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2002)

Recently I reviewed Frithjof Schuon’s “Understanding Islam“. Actually I find that title more fitting for Nasr’s book, but of course Schuon was 26 years ahead. While after reading Schuon’s book I had the idea that I perhaps learned something about Islam, I did not understand it better. With Nasr’s book this is much different.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1933-) is a born Muslim (Persian) and raised in the Middle East. He studied in America where he now also teaches. He is a lifelong student of Schuon, well-respected in the scholarly West and in traditional Islamic circles and a Traditionalist (as was Schuon). Many leading Traditionalists were born as Muslims, or converted to Islam. This is not so strange, because Islam sees itself as a branch of the religio perennis. As the author writes: “Islam sees itself as at once the primordial religion, a return to the original religion of oneness, and the final religion”.

For each [people] We have appointed a Divine Law and a way. Had God willed, He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you. So vie with one another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will then inform you concerning that wherein ye differed. (Qur’an 5:48)

“The Heart Of Islam” is divided in seven parts. The first explains the quote above. In the second you will learn that there is not something as the Islam. Like there are many forms of Christianity, there are many forms of Islam. Nasr describes the big division between Sunnism and Shi’ism and currents and schools within these two. These currents and schools are roughly to be divided in Traditional, modernistic and “so-called Fundamentalistic”. Nasr is glad to conclude that the first group is still by far the biggest, but unfortunately the second is growing and the latter gets most attention in Western media. The other parts speak about more specific subjects. Divine and human laws; peace, love, beauty and compassion; the community; justice and human rights and responsibilities. Nasr discusses at length and at various places what the Shari’ah really is, but also how often the term is misused for non-religious reasons. Very interesting discussions follow about environmental issues, the decline of the world caused by the West, religion, politics, society, etc.

Now Nasr is, like I said, a Muslim by birth. He knows the ‘Islam from the desert’ and is well familiar with the Western world. When describing elements of Islam he often quickly passes over excesses of recent years. I am sure that these elements are much enlarged by our media and governments and it is not that the author is totally uncritical and tries to turn everything into something positive, but I would have liked to read a bit more about certain subjects and I totally miss the question of honour and the honour killings. It is probably true, but Nasr blames the West for all excesses as well. There were no problems before Napoleon went south and currents such as modernism and “fundamentalism” did not exist before the West came to impose the materialistic way of thinking and democracy. Basically Nasr’s book seems to be a plea to the West to leave the “abode of Islam” in peace to solve its own problems in its own way, together with, but not led by, the West and the East. I think this is a fair call.

Read “The Heart Of Islam” to learn about Islam, understand it better, think about what happens in the world since the last centuries and get acquainted with an interesting religion that is much alive and has a big role to play in the world.

When one thinks of Islam, one should go beyond the repetitive scenes on television of wars and battles, which unfortunately abound in today’s world, to behold the peace and harmony of Islamic art seen in the great mosques, traditional urban settings and gardens, and the rhythm and geometry of calligraphy and arabesque designs; read in the poems that sing of the love that permeates all of God’s creation and binds creatures to God; and heard in the strains of melodies that echo what we had experienced in that primordial morn preceding creation and our descent into this lowly world.

2002 HarperOne, isbn 0060730641