The following is the transcript of an interview by Sahil Badruddin with Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Read the interview HERE.
Boniuk Institute of Rice University brings you Sahil Badruddin’s interview with Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a University Professor of Islamic Studies at The George Washington University in Washington, DC. Dr. Nasr is an Iranian and a prominent Islamic philosopher and one of the most important and foremost scholars of Islamic, Religious and Comparative Studies. He spoke about Islam and the modern world, his criticism of and solutions to Western approaches, importance of traditionalism, the role of thinking in Islam, and his own personal search.
Sahil Badruddin: Thank you for the interview; it is an honor to speak with you.
Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Thank you. It is a pleasure.
The History of Religious Education: Christianity and Islam
Sahil: In all your time as an educator, there have been fundamental changes throughout the world, especially in religion and religious education, perhaps due to the rise of secularism, nationalism, and materialism. Can you share your general thoughts on all this change? What has been positive? What, in your view, has been negative? What have we gained? What have we lost? What are some areas that perhaps need to be re-thought?
Dr. Nasr: Bismi’Llah al-Rahman al-Rahim. Your question, of course, is a vast one. The situation is different in different parts of the world, although there are some common factors that one can observe outside of the West. In order to fully understand what has taken place and answer some of the questions you posed, one must go back a little bit.
Historically, I remember from my studies that in the West itself, education in medieval times was in the hands of the Church. It was completely bound to religion. Also, many subjects in various schools in the West were influenced by Islamic science and learning and philosophy. Even the whole university system in the West was based on the Islamic model, including even the architecture of medieval colleges.
There was a great similarity between Christianity and Islamic civilization and also therefore other traditional civilizations. However, with the Renaissance, gradually what one would call secular education became more and more prevalent, until in the 17th and 18th centuries, it became very strong, and took over most of the universities, especially the new universities that were being established. The university, as an institution, is a pre-modern institution in the West. Like the Church, it goes back to the pre-modern period of European history. Yet, it became, at the same time, the center for the dissemination of secularism. Most of the ideas that were very strongly anti-religious in the West, from Marxism to French materialism, came from those associated with university circles. It was, at that time, when the West was no longer a traditional West, but a modernized West, that university systems began to teach secular subjects. The West imposed itself upon the rest of the world as the colonial period began. We have a very different experience in different regions of the Islamic world and the rest of Asia, through the next two centuries, that is, the 18th and 19th centuries, and also the 20th century, of how this Western view of education intermingles with the existing traditional systems.
In an exchange of one dialogue I cannot go over all the details for you, because there are many complexities.
Sahil: Of course.
The Effect of Colonization on Educational Institutions
Dr. Nasr: So I would skip China, Japan, or Hindu India and concentrate on the Islamic world. In certain major areas in the Islamic world, the main colonizers were the British, the French, and as far as Southeast Asia is concerned, the Dutch, but I will not speak about Southeast Asia here.
As for the rest of the Islamic world, a part of it became colonized by mostly the British and the French; also part of it fell under the influence of the British and the French although it was not directly colonized by them. The Germans had no direct colonies. Their influence on education was not at all as great in the Islamic world as that of the British and the French. The major influences in the field of education in the Islamic world came from French and English sources, and they were very different. Both the French and the English had universities in the Middle Ages, whether it was Montpelier or Oxford, and they were close to a range of Islamic universities, but the Western educational institutions developed quite differently in the Renaissance and the 17th century. The policies of the two governments, the French and the British, were, however, very different.
Sahil: I see.
Dr. Nasr: The French were not very much interested in higher level education in the places they took over, places in North Africa such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and also in West Africa. And when they were interested in it, what they did was to establish French-style universities with little attention paid to the indigenous educational systems.
The British took greater interest in education in the colonies in many ways, especially in higher education. What they tried to do was to educate what Lord Macaulay called “someone who thinks like a British, and acts like a British, but who is an Indian”. They certainly succeeded quite well in many ways and in many places. So they established universities in the 19th century such as the Universities of the Punjab, and Allahabad, and so on in other cities such as Calcutta; these early universities were established by the British, not by Hindus or Muslims. As a result of the model of English universities, there were a lot more Western educated people in India than there were Western educated people in Morocco or Algeria in the 19th century. The British system was in a way more open as they tried to educate Indians who thought like the British but remained Indian while being subjects of the British Empire. There is quite a bit of difference between India and French colonies in this matter.
Furthermore, there were countries that remained independent and that, although dominated to some extent, were not directly colonized. The most important of these were Iran and Turkey — neither of these countries was colonized directly by the French or British. In these two countries, governments nevertheless tried to adopt Western models of higher education. This process has a long history in both of these nations into which I shall not go here.
Sahil: Right, of course.
The Dual Educational Systems of the Islamic World After Colonization
Dr. Nasr: During the time of Napoleon, early in the 19th century, Iran tried to side with the French and introduced mostly French-style institutions of higher education. In Turkey, both French and to a lesser extent German models were followed. It was somewhat different from Iran, but nevertheless, not that different, because they were trying to create within those two countries Western-style universities, which emphasized the Western sciences and engineering and things like that, but also tried to incorporate some local elements.
There is another question here that I shall not treat in length but must be at least mentioned, that is, the question of language. Only Iran succeeded at first in teaching Western science and other programs on a university level in Persian. In the early 20th century, for example, Arab universities taught science in European languages. Even in Turkey, they taught mostly in European languages, but later on Turkish and Arabic became important languages in which higher education would be carried out. This point is very important culturally and politically in every way as you can imagine.
Anyway, out of this process, we wound up with a bifurcation in the educational system in most of the Islamic world. The result was the education of two different types of Muslims trained in two different types of education institutions. The Madrasa system, the traditional system, which itself was the historical origin of the Western university, still survived although weakened in many places. Let us not forget that places like the Qarawiyyīn, which still goes on in Morocco, or al-Azhar in Cairo are over a thousand years old, and are like medieval western universities although both were modernized to some extent in recent decades.
We have within the Islamic world the Madrasa system that has survived. But it has survived under different conditions where in some countries it is stronger, and in some countries weaker. In some countries the role of the Madrasa became reduced to teaching people fiqh (law), uṣūl ai-fiqh (principles of juriprudence), Arabic, and disciplines like these, but not the intellectual sciences. Mathematics and astronomy that had been taught in Madrasas in the Seljuk period, for example, were no longer taught in many of the Madrasas, especially in the Sunni world; that is, the Madrasa became limited to purely religious teaching in the modern English sense. Whereas before, the Madrasa system in the Islamic world had embraced all disciplines. Even in Iran, which was a great center of intellectual life of Islam in many ways, this trend can be seen. In the Safavid period, when mathematics was dropped from the curriculum of the Madrasas as were the natural sciences and so forth. All of the sciences: geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy, which are called the quadrivium, were taken out of the curriculum, although their teaching along with that of philosophy continued in private circles. The continuation of the remarkable mathematical development that had taken place in Islam came to an end more or less. So you have a very patchy situation.
The Effect of Dual Educational Systems on Islamic Societies
Dr. Nasr: The Madrasas, on the one hand, continue — some of them became strong in the fields of Islamic Law and the Arabic language and so on, along with Quranic commentary. But on the other hand, they weakened in the intellectual sciences, while the Western-style centers of education began to grow. Of course, for many countries, there was a worldly advantage in sending children, especially sons, to modern style schools. At that time not too many girls went to universities in the Islamic world and their number was limited until the 20th century. For boys, to be trained in these Western-style schools offered them the chance of getting positions within the bureaucracy and the administration. All kinds of possibilities became open to them.
So what happened was that this Western education system appealed more and more to the upper classes or the aristocracy of the Islamic world. The lower classes, economically speaking, continued for the most part to send their children to the Madrasas until the 20th century when universities became accessible to the whole society in most places. This was a general tendency, but the situation was not and is not the same in all Islamic countries. We still have a semi-colonial educational system in the Islamic world. These trends continue to our own day and we are left in the Islamic world with a very peculiar situation.
We are not like, let us say, the Congo, which has had, of course, a very beautiful old oral tradition. I am not trying to denigrate that but the Congo did not have a major written intellectual and philosophical tradition of its own with centuries of universities that produced great scientists, physicians, mathematicians, so forth and so on who laid the foundation for the formation of science in the West. But the Islamic world did, and so those in the Congo do not face the same situation as those in the Islamic world.
In places like the Congo, the Belgians or the French, or whoever the colonizers were, would bring a Western educational system into a kind of virgin territory. We were not also like European countries which developed these new systems on the basis of their own institutions and culture, not from the outside. The Islamic world suddenly was confronted with an imposition of an educational system from the outside with its own values. Of course, education is not neutral, value wise.
At the same time, the Islamic world was not a “virgin land” educationally speaking but already possessed a sound educational system that had not died out and is still alive. Furthermore, it was related to the religion of the society, the ethics of the society, the worldview of the society, to the political aspects of the society, and many other things. This reality forms the background of the crisis that the Islamic world began to face fully in the 20th century, and that many Islamic countries have tried to solve in various ways.
The History of Teaching Religion in Western Universities
Sahil: In your 2014 lecture at the Ismaili Center Burnaby, you mentioned that the study of religion itself has become secularized. Specifically, you said: “What is happening now in American and Canadian universities is that you teach religion under the condition that you do not believe in it. It is like teaching music under the condition of being tone deaf. That is only done for the field of religion and not any other field.”Dr. Nasr
Dr. Nasr: That is right.
Sahil: Why is this happening and then what changes would you recommend?
Dr. Nasr: Why this is happening is very clear. The Western universities (with the exception of some Christian universities) became gradually the hotbed of secularism, except for usually the divinity schools that trained ministers and priests and so forth. Originally, many of these universities began as schools for the training of ministers or priests, like Harvard University. The oldest university in America was founded in 1636 in order to train ministers for the Puritans who had recently arrived in New England. They did not want to send their students back to England to study religion and become their ministers because they had just been expelled from that country for religious reasons, and they wanted to maintain their independence from the English religious world. That is why Harvard University was established so quickly after the Pilgrims settled in New England. You know the story.
Although this was the origin of the earliest university in America, Western universities soon became secularized. The study of religion was relegated to divinity schools or schools of theology on the side of the universities, especially in the major universities of the United States, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and places like those needless to say, the Catholic universities were somewhat different. And the comments I am making do not pertain to a large extent to Catholic universities or even some Protestant colleges and others which are denominational.
Along with various disciplines, religion as an academic discipline and as distinct from Christianity being taught in divinity schools, began to be taught in the 19th century in American universities, but it was primarily Christianity and Judaism that were taught, the latter only as a prelude to Christianity. Most scholars of Jewish studies at those times in America were Protestant ministers who had studied Hebrew.
It is later on that the Jewish population itself became very successfully able to train its own academic scholars and now they occupy nearly all the chairs of Jewish Studies in this country. At first, the other religions were not even on the scene and hardly anyone taught them academically except in passing.
If other religions were taught, they were taught in secular departments of the university in the matrix of philology or history or some other discipline. For example, one studied Sanskrit in order to study Indo-European languages or Arabic in order to study Semitic philology, but not in order to study Hinduism or Islam as religions. Or they were studied within departments of history. They were interested let us say in the history of Egypt; so students would study Islam as part of the history of Egypt.
Teaching Religion in Western Universities After World War II: Non-Believers Take Center Stage
Dr. Nasr: An authentic study of religion as a subject unto itself was not taught generally until really after the Second World War, when some Western universities began to study other religions of the world as independent disciplines. This process began somewhat earlier in 1936 at Princeton when that university established its Center of Oriental Studies, which included Islamic studies. Now, Oriental means Chinese and Japanese. In those days, Oriental studies were primarily concerned with Islamic studies —Western Asia rather than Eastern Asia. The founders of that Center were primarily specialists in Iran and the Arab world.
After the war, religious studies spread quite extensively and there began regional studies about various parts of Asia, Indian studies, Far Eastern studies, Western Asian studies, all of which involved elements of various religions. But you also began to see in the West a movement for the study of religion as a kind of cultural factor without its theology, you might say. Of course, philosophy departments were also discussing a lot of religious issues earlier. Then the philosophy departments themselves became to a large extent anti-religious with the rise of logical positivism that in this country began at Harvard and then spread to other American universities. Before the Second World War, people like Alfred North Whitehead, Hocking, and before them, William James and Emerson, the most famous Harvard professors of philosophy, all wrote positively about religion, but they were not in a religion department.
And so, after World War II, departments adopted a new philosophical position, one that was based on positivism and not Aquinas. The positivist philosophy excluded religion. Meanwhile, many felt that there should be a department of religion to study religion as an academic subject, not as part of the divinity school curriculum, not theology, but like you would study philosophy or history or some other field and as an important subject for the understanding of human history. There are many phenomena in human history that could only be understood by understanding religion. So departments of religion began to be established in many colleges and universities.
In earlier days, the study of religion revolved especially around Western religions, and religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism or Islam were considered to be cogent only if they were studied as “objective” historical facts and not as truths or living faiths. Already in the 19th century in Germany there developed what was called the science of religion or Religionswissenschaft. Then it spread to England and France and later on to the United States.
The idea was to develop a new discipline that would study religion “objectively” as if one were studying, let us say, botany. It is on the basis of that fact that I made that criticism. This outlook became a condition for studying religion in most places for religion departments in the United States, when they began to grow after the Second World War. One was expected to teach religion provided one did not believe in it. As for the phenomenological study of religion, which also began to grow, it was also not interested in the ultimate meaning of religious truth. Believing involves one’s existential participation and it was thought that such a reality would make the study of religion subjective and not acceptable in a university setting. As I have said, this is the most absurd thing in the world!
Dr. Nasr: [Laughs] You would never, as I have said jokingly, create a department of music under the condition of having only professors of music who would be tone deaf. They will be able to read a score and so forth, but they would not appreciate the music, for if they did, that would make their teachings subjective. To know but also appreciate Bach, Beethoven or Brahms would make their courses subjective. As I said, this is really absurd. Even in the physics department — I studied physics at MIT — the professors had a love for the discipline. They looked at it purely objectively in the laboratory, but the worldview of most of them was determined by physics and they had a very strong personal attachment to that worldview. They saw the world through the eyes of physics. That means that they were attached to it. Of course, science claims to be purely objective, but that claim itself is philosophically false.
A New Way to Teach Religion in Western Universities: Believers Teach Their Own Faith
Sahil: Would you recommend any changes to the current way of teaching religion?
Dr. Nasr: Yes, of course, I would recommend changes. Let me turn to my own experience. I myself have studied at Harvard and have a PhD degree from there and also taught there on occasions. My acquaintance with Western higher education was with MIT and Harvard, where I studied, and once in a while, I taught at Princeton and places like that. After the Iranian Revolution, I went to Temple University. It is a major university in Pennsylvania and at that time (1979) had the biggest graduate program in religion in this country. At Temple, they had decided that the Religion Department should be comprised of people who believed in what they taught. And so Christians taught Christianity, Jews Judaism, etc. Meanwhile, thanks to the efforts of W. C. Smith at Harvard and H. Smith at MIT, more attention was being paid to faith and the importance of participation in it in the teaching of various religions, but in neither case did a general policy develop like that of Temple.
Dr. Nasr: Yes, extremely. What happened at Temple was a “revolutionary” thing. As I said, people who taught Judaism were Jewish; people who taught Hinduism were Hindu; people who taught Christianity were Christians; and within Christianity, people who taught Catholic theology were Catholic; people who taught Protestantism were Protestant, and so forth. Also those who taught Islam were expected to be Muslims. So they brought Ismail al-Faruqi (God rest his soul — he was murdered in Philadelphia in 1986). He was a well-known Palestinian Arab scholar and he was a Muslim officially, formally, in every way. They had Christian ministers and priests who taught Christianity. There was also a famous Jewish rabbi named Zalman Schachter who was teaching Judaism when I joined the faculty. They knew that I had written about various religions and especially Islam and that I was a practicing Muslim. So Temple was the one exception.
From this point of view, what does it mean to study religion provided that you do not believe in it? Since that means avoiding the question of faith that is at the heart of religion, it is intellectually and even logically absurd. You would teach facts. It is in a sense like discussing that a particular church was built in the 4th century or 5th century, without any interest in the meaning of the rites taking place within it. To explain to the student what a church is you would be a much better teacher if you knew what a church is, ritually and theologically and even existentially, rather than just having read about it and seen it from the outside. By having been in a church, experiencing the service, the mass, you know what the function of it is. You can do a much better job of explaining what a church is, for if you have experienced the reality for the sake of which the church was built you have a wealth and depth of knowledge to convey to the students that you would not have had you merely read a book about the church or viewed it from the outside. Anyway, this is the argument that went on and still goes on very much in America in the academic teaching of religion. The situation has now become better from my point of view, that is, more attention is being paid to religion itself including faith in the study of religion.
Sahil: That is good to hear.
Dr. Nasr: In The George Washington University, we do the same thing to a large extent. We have Jewish professors teaching Judaism. I myself, as a Muslim, teach Islam, and you have Christians teaching Christianity. The battle is not, however, won by any means. In Europe, which is much more secularized than America, the intellectual and historical level of teaching religion is high, such as in Holland or France or some places in England. The theological and existential dimensions of religion are not, however, strong at all in the teaching of religion. The subject is taught in a more secularized fashion than in America and now this battle is being carried into the Oriental world itself, into the East, into the Islamic world, into India, etc. Of course, China is a case unto itself because it became communist.
“The Great Honor of Not Thinking” and Increasing Anti-Intellectualism Amongst Muslims
Sahil: We often talk about the intellectual tradition of Islam. You have said in a lecture on Islam and the modern world that “there has been an increasing trend among Muslims of anti-intellectualism, the great honor of not thinking.”
Dr. Nasr: That is right.
Sahil: You said, “In Islam, it occurred very recently, and it went against the grain of the whole of Islamic civilization that always emphasized ‘ilm, knowledge, knowing, learning, etc.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by “the great honor of not thinking”? And in other words, what, in your view, does it mean that Islam has an intellectual tradition?
Dr. Nasr: Let me answer the second part of the question first. Intellectual tradition is a tradition that deals with intellectual matters such as metaphysics, cosmology, anthropology, and certain schools of theology. Islam has been one of the richest civilizations in the world from its inception in this domain. Very quickly by the second Islamic century, Muslims began to educate themselves in intellectual matters, from philosophy to mathematics and logic, astronomy to medicine — all of these intellectual fields among others, and very soon developed Islamic philosophy, Islamic science, etc.
For seven hundred years, Islam had the highest level of scientific and intellectual activity of any civilization. That is a very long time. From the 8th to the 15th century, there were other civilizations, neighbors, and/or contemporaries of Islamic civilization such as the Chinese and the Indian, which were also great civilizations, along with the Western. Yet, during this long period, the amount of intellectual activity and achievements of Islam, as everybody accepts, was at the top, globally. So we had a very major intellectual tradition and it is to this tradition that I refer. A civilization with an intellectual tradition like that of Islam cannot let it die out and instead adopt a semi-Western intellectual tradition for its future. There are those who say that the classical Islamic civilization is dead. That is not true. That civilization has weakened but it has not died.
As for “the great honor of not thinking”, my comment was, of course, somewhat facetious, and I was referring to various forms of so-called fundamentalism in contemporary Islam where serious intellectual activity is discouraged and the classical Islamic intellectual tradition rejected.
Sahil: Of course, right.
Dr. Nasr: What I mean is that there re-developed in the Islamic world an element of that opposition to thinking about and meditating upon matters of religion, as there was also in other religions where there appeared schools of thought that said that you should only follow what “the gods” have said and not “think” about it. And so, we also observe such a phenomenon in Islam, but before modern times it was always a minority voice. The majority of schools in Islam, both Sunni and Shi’ite, always emphasized the importance of thinking, of intellection, of knowledge, following the teachings of the Quran and Ḥadīth on this issue.
The Quran equates actually being saved, being attached to God, with using our ‘aql. People who do not understand the reality of religion are not using their intellect. They do not think correctly and therefore do not understand. The Quran is based on the primacy of knowledge combined with faith, the highest of which is Lā ilāha illa’Llāh (There is no god but God), from which flow other forms of authentic knowledge.
Yes, there were some people in the Islamic world whom the West calls Fideist (they also had such a school in the West). Fideism means to believe that only by faith will one be saved. And there were some Fideists in both Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. I shall not get into that matter here. But the majority of Muslims, from Hanafis to Shafi’is, from Twelve Imam Shi’ites to Ismailis, all emphasize the importance of knowledge, and in fact finding proofs for the existence of God was considered to be a blessed act, a positive religious activity.
The Rise of “Islamic Fundamentalism”
Dr. Nasr: Then there appeared in the 18th century in one region of the Islamic world, a phenomenon which I consider to be unfortunate in many ways. As a kind of reaction to what existed at the time, Wahhabism began in a part of Arabia, in Najd, which was not known as an intellectual center of Islam. The cities of Makkah and Madinah were great intellectual centers because many ulama’ came from other parts of the Islamic world to settle there. They lived in the Hijaz, not in Najd. Najd was populated mostly by simple Bedouins, and they did not have a major intellectual tradition in that area. Out of that background came Abd al-Wahhab, who was actually highly anti-intellectual in the deepest sense. He was against Sufism, Shi’ism, Islamic philosophy, and intellectual pursuits in general.
Sahil: Yes, sadly.
Dr. Nasr: From that background there grew various forms of what is now called fundamentalism. Not all “Islamic fundamentalism” grew out of Wahhabism, but many such movements were associated with it. Some grew not in Arabia but in Egypt. For example, Rashid Rida was a Syrian who went to Cairo later on in the 19th century. He was not really a strict Wahhabi, but had an element of what is now called fundamentalism in his teachings.
Fundamentalism grew in the 20th century in much of the Islamic world, and those who follow it take pride in not thinking in the traditional Islamic sense when it comes to the matter of religion. As I said, they claim that they are good Muslims and do not have to think more deeply about the real intellectual challenges that face the Islamic world. This development is dangerous for the future of the Islamic community, especially at a time when the main challenge to Islam is intellectual.
Sahil: I agree.
The Great Challenge Islam Faces Today: Not Wars but Ideas
Dr. Nasr: When Genghis Khan and his hordes of Mongol soldiers invaded the Islamic world, the main challenge was not intellectual. It was military, because a million horses and very good fighters riding them were decimating the eastern part of the Islamic world not with ideas but with swords.
The main challenge today that the Islamic world faces is not American bombs or anything like that. It is ideas. It is ideas that are challenging the whole existence of Islam, and so our main challenge is intellectual and it cannot be answered by anti-intellectualism. On the one hand, there is the preservation of religion while confronting the West, although of course that has also weakened in certain circles. On the other hand, there is the anti-intellectualism that leaves the whole back door open. As for the Muslim modernists, they are in a certain respect the antipode of the fundamentalists, but in fact, they are on the same team in many things. For example, both are totally indifferent to Islamic art and architecture. They make Islamic cities so ugly after they had inherited some of the most beautiful cities in the world. They join hands together in the opposition to traditional thinking, to Islamic philosophy, to Sufism, to the mystical and inner life, to the spiritual aspects of Islam, all of these elements to which they both are opposed.
Yes, they are opposed to each other on a certain level, for example, to preserve the Shari’ah or modernize it. When it comes to many other elements, however, they are in fact in the same camp. I have always said that one must juxtapose both to traditional Islam, which is not fundamentalism as some Western orientalists and even Islamic scholars claim. Traditional Islam is what Islam has always been in the Islamic world. I am a traditionalist and therefore opposed to both fundamentalism and modernism.
Sahil: In that same vein, it would seem to me that without new thought, new perspectives, new ideas, all we are really left with is existing past knowledge, which eventually degenerates into an unchallengeable prescriptive corpus of dogmatic orthodoxy. What can be done to reverse or diminish these unhealthy trends?
Dr. Nasr: First of all, I do not agree with you about the negative use of the term dogmatic orthodoxy. I know what you mean, but that is also itself a prejudice of modernism. Dogma, originally a medieval Christian term, meant actually authentic belief about God and other religious doctrines, which were based on truth. And orthodoxy means ultimately Sirat-al-mustaqim, the right path, and also the right doctrine (ortho-docta). I consider myself to be completely orthodox, but I do not consider myself to be dogmatic, in a sense of trying to force my ideas upon people.
Sahil: Which is what I meant, right.
Dr. Nasr: In addition to faith, I can provide arguments for my beliefs, and I am adamant in preserving my worldview because I have studied it and gained certainty about its truth through both faith and intellection. I have written about it; I have taught about it for decades on the basis of the certainty of the truth that it contains.
Sahil: Of course.
Representing Traditional Islam in Contemporary Language for Today’s Minds
Dr. Nasr: Living religion is actually like a spring; water continues to flow from it, which then inundates and nourishes the fields around it. It does not have to change, but what it does have to do is to remain a spring, to remain active. What Islam is today, what modern is, what reformism is, are defined often by people who have mostly weak intellectual knowledge of the Islamic tradition. In twenty years’ time, who will read what they are writing now? I am sure that you have seen examples of famous reformists who were writing in Pakistan or some other Islamic country thirty years ago, but who have now faded into obscurity and no one hears about them anymore.
What is important is to represent traditional Islam in a contemporary language, to write about the eternal truths in a contemporary language.
Sahil: Yes, I agree.
Dr. Nasr: In the field of mathematics, nobody says that since two plus two equaled four at the time of Pythagoras, it is now old-fashioned and out of date.
Dr. Nasr: [Laughs.] We do not say that we are now in the 21st century; so let’s put aside these old ideas. But that is what is said often about religion. Lā ilāha illa’Llāh (There is no god but God) is in a sense for us Muslims like two plus two equals four, but it needs ever fresh interpretations for every generation.
Sahil: Good point, yes.
Dr. Nasr: We Muslims have to accept our share of blame for the difficult situation in the Islamic world today. We have to accept our own faults, and cannot only blame the West, although of course the West has played an important role in the creation of our present state. Part of our intelligentsia became disinterested in Islamic thought and culture and went to study Western thought, Western ideas, and so forth. Such people became third-rate Western intellectuals with Muslim names. The other part of our intelligentsia was the traditional intelligentsia, which did not realize the challenge of the modern world and did not respond to it as it should have from the 19th century onward. Members of the traditional intelligentsia went into their cocoons with a few exceptions here and there.
A few people became moderate modernists or fundamentalists in between who did not have the intellectual power to be able to re-establish the central norms of Islam. Some of them were stronger and some of them were weaker, but none of them could really do the job. So, we are in a situation in which we have to be able to be rooted deeply in the Islamic tradition and at the same time to be contemporary. Traditional and contemporary are not contradictory as some people think.
Dr. Nasr: I consider myself a traditional Muslim, but I am also contemporary. This is possible, and I hope, inshā’a’Llāh, that the younger generation of Muslims who are coming up, especially many who live in the West and know the West well, will not be fooled by superficial things coming from the modern West as many of our youth are in the Islamic world itself. And I hope that they will come to study matters more deeply and be able to present Islam in its authentic traditional aspect but in a contemporary way. A tree whose falling autumn leaves reveal bare branches and has an appearance of death will become full of green leaves once again in the spring. The tree may appear to be new, but it is the same tree with new shoots. The tree preserves its nature while going through seasonal cycles; it continues its identity; it bears fruit, the same fruit as in earlier seasons, but this is a new phase in its life.
On Nasr’s Personal Search
Sahil: If I may ask, what would be a question, even a faith-related question, that you are still searching for a satisfying answer to and for which you would even welcome other perspectives?
Dr. Nasr: To be frank with you, all the basic questions of life I faced when I was very young, and I discovered the answers that satisfied me and that are still satisfying me. For me there are no basic questions with unknown answers as far as the nature of Reality is concerned.
But on the practical level, I think the most important issues facing us today in the world globally are the battle between tradition and anti-tradition and the environmental crisis that is threatening the future of life on earth. I continue to seek out what is being said on these issues by serious people. Let me add that once you reject the traditional view of nature as God’s creation and turn nature into something that is only for utility, you end up with the problems that are now facing us in such a critical manner.
My question would be: what will happen in this battle between the rhythms and forces of nature and man’s destruction of the natural environment? I believe that, at the end, it will be nature that will have the final say and God will have the final word. But what happens in between, of course, is of great interest to me. And I hope, inshā’a’Llāh, that the Islamic world will play a positive role in this global struggle in which we are all engaged.
Sahil: Thank you.
About Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, currently University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, Washington D.C. is one of the foremost scholars of Islamic, Religious and Comparative Studies in the world today. Author of over fifty books and five hundred articles, which have been translated into several major Islamic, European and Asian languages, Prof. Nasr is a well-known and highly respected intellectual figure both in the West and the Islamic world. An eloquent speaker Prof. Nasr is a much sought-after speaker in his area of expertise. Possessor of an impressive academic and intellectual record, his career as a teacher and scholar spans over many decades.
He writes and speaks on topics such as Traditionalist metaphysics, Islamic science, Religion and the Natural Environment, Sufism, Spirituality, Music, Art, Architecture, Science, Literature, Civilizational Dialogues and Islamic Philosophy, and has been described as a 'polymath.'
About the Interviewer
Sahil Badruddin is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin with degrees in Chemical Engineering, Religious Studies, and History. As the host of Candid Insights with Sahil Badruddin, he conducts interviews of influencers, leaders, and intellectuals for their deeper insights on contemporary issues. Some of his recent interview guests, among others, include John Esposito, Karen Armstrong, Hasan Minhaj, and Eboo Patel.
© 2019 by Sahil Badruddin