Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Defender of the
Sacred and Islamic Traditionalism
Jane I. Smith
I accepted the invitation to reflect on the scholarly contributions of Seyyed Hossein Nasr not only because he is a long-time colleague and friend, but because I greatly appreciate his perspective and the seriousness with which he analyzes the spiritual poverty of much of contemporary society. It is true that as a non-Muslim trained in the schools of modern Western academia I inevitably represent much of the orientation against which Hossein Nasr maintains vigilant defense. However, I find myself in real agreement with Nasr's obvious sense of alarm about the way modern man (to use his recurrent phrase) has wandered into very dangerous territory and seems to have lost, for the most part, the means for appropriation of the sacred. Thus, to the extent to which I can respond to and appreciate much of what Nasr describes, I may do some measure of justice to an analysis of the thoughts of one of the most articulate, influential, and prolific Muslims teaching and writing in this country today.
Perhaps a place to begin is with how Nasr sees his own task. His basic message is that modern man has lost sight of the essential, the eternal, in his quest for the trappings of modernity. One way to get quickly at his ideas is to note what it is that he most opposes and then what he consistently affirms. Among his targets, generally categorized as "-isms" (itself a recent formulation), are modernism, secularism, rationalism, evolutionism, humanism, materialism, and imperialism. Countering the "-isms" are the adjectives—sapiential, immutable, traditional, perennial, metaphysical, theomorphic—and nouns- permanence, gnosis, unicity—that make up the structure of Nasr's defense and the ground of his argument.
Nasr makes it clear that his writing is intended both for Westerners and for those Muslims who have come too much under the sway of the modern West. 1 On the most obvious level this means presenting the traditional Islamic perspective on questions that are presently being debated, 2 explaining traditional Islam to those who do not understand it or who have seemingly lost touch with it. Sometimes he says it is mostly for young Muslims who are the products of modern educational systems that he is concerned. 3 More specifically, in some