A Muslim Scholar Builds Bridges to the West

By Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Muslim Scholar Builds Bridges to the West


Jane Lampman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Amid rising American confusion over the nature of Islam - intensified in recent months by virulent anti-Muslim statements made in the media - comes an illuminating new book that explores the spiritual and social values of the faith of one-fifth of humanity.

In "The Heart of Islam," a renowned Muslim scholar offers to people "interested in authentic Islam and its relation to the West" an introduction into the inner dimension of Islamic teachings, as well as its external expressions in law, history, art, and community.

The book begins, for example, by exploring Islam's concept of the one God, whose essence is considered both masculine and feminine, and whose qualities "are reflected throughout creation." Man is seen not as a sinful being, but one who still carries his primordial nature within, yet has forgotten it. "[God] created man in the best of stature with an intelligence capable of knowing the One," says the Koran. The message of Islam is a call to recollect that nature and to surrender to the will of God.

Few would seem better suited to explain Islam to Westerners than Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a man steeped in the learning of both civilizations, whose formative and professional years have been spent half in his Iranian homeland and half in the US.

Author of some 50 books on the sciences and spirituality, Dr. Nasr calls himself a traditional Muslim. Neither "modernist" nor "fundamentalist," he belongs, he says in an interview, to that vast majority - outside the media glare - which has found deep meaning in Islamic tradition as it has developed over the centuries.

But the traditional viewpoint has been challenged by the coming of modernism and secularism. It's a reaction against modernism that has given rise to radical Islam, Nasr says. "Without modernism there would be no fundamentalism."

Fundamentalism has turned violent for several reasons, he adds. "First, when your identity is threatened, like a turtle you go into your shell and become hardened. Second, there is desperation - situations of political repression where solutions cannot come about by normal processes of society, or where people feel hopeless because of intractable difficulties, like Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya."

While strongly opposed to fundamentalism, Nasr also sees modernism as dangerous: "I don't accept the philosophical premises on which it is based, making man the measure of all things ... rather than God, and reason the ultimate arbitrator of truth."

This has led, he adds, to devastating consequences such as Marxism and the desacralizing of nature and the human being, which have brought the environmental crisis and unsettling directions in genetics and robotics. He believes Islam has to provide answers for the challenges posed for it by modern science, psychology, and sociology. "I am spending my life doing that," he says.

Nasr's work in the fields of science, philosophy, and religion is recognized in both civilizations. His advanced degrees in the sciences are from MIT and Harvard. He was the first non-Westerner invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on religion at the University of Edinburgh in 1980.

When he held top posts at Iranian universities in the 1960s and '70s, he planted seeds for a synthesis of Persian culture and Western thought that differed from the modernizing trends many found so alienating. …

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