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The Library of Living Philosophers
Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is one of the acutest and clearest writers on Islam today, and indeed for a long time has been the leading interpreter of Islamic thought to the West. Born in Tehran in 1933 and educated both in Iran and later in science in the United States, his early specialization was in Islamic science. He is the author of over twenty books and over two hundred articles and is a frequent lecturer in both the Islamic and non-Islamic world. His early academic career was spent in Iran, where he rose to increasingly important university positions, but in 1979 with the revolution he was obliged to leave, and since then he has been based in the United States.
Nasr is far from an uncontroversial figure in the Islamic world, largely because of his advocacy of certain contemporary non-Islamic thinkers as significant in the tradition of perennial philosophy. One of his central theses is that there has existed a continual line of mystical thought in all religious traditions, and that this has been lost within the narrow scientism of Western culture. Science needs to re-assume its connection with values, in particular those persisting human values which are part of a view of the world based on religion, and which still exists within Islam. One of the problems with modernity is that it perceives reality piecemeal, without appreciating its holistic nature, and as a result only concentrates on partial aspects of that whole. This results in a narrowing of vision and in an inability to appreciate the ways in which one aspect of reality relates to everything else. Hence the environmental crises which are so familiar a feature of mature capitalism can be seen as inevitable concomitants of regarding the world as a site for human exploitation, as though it were just an object, and not a divinelycreated environment which human beings are obliged to preserve and guard. He follows a similar strategy in looking at technical philosophy, where he argues in favour of a broader approach to the nature of knowledge, and in particular its links with the spiritual, as opposed to what he sees as a restricted form of scientism masquerading as philosophy in much of the West, and through imitation, in the rest of the world also. Although Nasr clearly thinks that Islam is an excellent example of a faith which is capable of directing philosophers as well as everyone else to an appropriate understanding of the world and themselves, he does not restrict the possibility of such understanding to Muslims only. He often implies that many other religions can also educate their adherents in how to behave and to comprehend the world, by contrast with a complete absence of religion, which brings with it an instrumental view of reality, and so from the start puts the thinker on the wrong route. Nasr’s commitment to mysticism, and in particular to Sufism, fits in nicely here, because he can argue that each mystical tradition captures the truth in its own way and allows the seeker after truth to embody that truth within a specific religious tradition.
This has had an impact on the study of Islamic philosophy itself, where Nasr was part of the important twentieth century movement which established the significance of the Persian tradition in Islamic philosophy, and in particular the illuminationist variety of Persian thought. This tries to position itself between the analytic orientation of the Greek-influenced philosophers and strongly mystical leanings of the Sufis. Nasr also has written considerably on Sufism, and has placed the study of that influential intellectual movement within a new level of conceptual clarity. The breadth of his work has proved to be inspirational to many readers, particularly those in the Islamic world, and will doubtless mean that although he is the first Muslim to be represented in the Library of Living Philosophers, he is unlikely to be the last.
© Oliver Leaman 2000
‘The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr’, edited by Lewis Hahn, will be published in the Library of Living Philosophers Series by the Open Court Publishing Company.