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November 17, 2010

One Sufi looks at religion

Reuel S. Amdur

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Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a Sufi but at the same time a traditionalist. On November 5, he addressed an audience at Ottawa's Carleton University on the topic "The Law, the Path, and the Truth in Islam."

Nasr is a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University.  He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at MIT, followed by a master’s in geology and geophysics.  Then at Harvard he earned a Ph.D. in the history of science and learning.  His views are highly influential, and he has been widely honored for his scholarship.

He began by identifying three definitions of Islam. 

The first definition was of submission to God, which encompasses the three religions traceable back to Adam.  Then, it constitutes the name of a specific religion.  Finally, it is defined in terms of the daily prayers, zakat (charity), fasting during Ramadan, etc., as spelled out in the Arch Angel Jibril Hadith of the Prophet. 

Nasr told the audience that religion has to cater to all temperaments, both the philosophical and the others.  “Only in our times, with the impact of modernism on the Islamic world, has there been created a certain disequilibrium in the totality of the Islamic message.”  That is to say, there is a driving of a wedge between the philosophical and the psychological-emotional attachment to the religion.

Modernism is, for Nasr, the enemy, not only of Islam but of religion in general.  Modernism, he holds, breeds ignorance, misinformation, and disinformation (intentional deviation from the truth), with the media as a major culprit.

He used a circle to illustrate the relationship of the three elements in the title of his talk.  There is a point, from which by use of a compass one constructs a circle.  The point in the center is the truth, the circumference is the law, and the radii are the paths, the way to the truth. To follow a path to the truth, one must be on that circumference, the law.  In the modern world, he held, there are those who deny the variety of paths from the circumference to the truth at the center, some violently.  They take the law into their own hands, attempting to claim all of Islam.  In that regard, he noted that there are secular factors at work: “There were no suicide bombers in Pakistan before the U.S. went into Afghanistan.”

Looking at American society, he sees on one side secularists and atheists and the other “exclusivists”– Fundamentalists and Evangelicals.  The in-betweens are weak.  Such a division is also present in the Islamic world, but “it is alien to Islam.”  Thus, “The attack on the Christians in Iraq is as much a disaster for Islam, with its history of tolerance.”

In discussing Sufism, Nasr decried what he called “California Sufism,” that is, neglect of the law, sharia.  Religion, he explained, is both exoteric and esoteric and cannot exclude either.  Christianity, he argued, lost the esoteric in the wave of modernism and he holds that the separation of the two components is alien to Islam.  Clearly, this is his argument against modernism and in favor of traditionalism, against those –including some Sufis–who find modernist thought compatible with the faith.  For example, elsewhere he takes issue with evolution. 

Nasr takes issue with modern philosophy, with the rejection of truth.  He pointed out that in Arabic the word for truth is also the word for reality.  To reject truth is to reject reality.  The unreal cannot be true.

All religions have law, he said.  The Qur’an spells out the law for Muslims, but other religions have their own.  For example, the sharia of Confucianism is found in the Analects of Confucius. 

In his wide-ranging talk, Nasr also pointed to the extensive influence of Sufism.  According to him, Islam came to most of the Indian subcontinent through Sufism.  Most poetry, art, architecture, and music in the Muslim world is the work of Sufis, including the Taj Mahal.  On the somewhat less positive side of things, he also indicated that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni and Syed Abul A’ala Maududi, founder of Jamat-e-Isalmi, have been influenced by Sufism.

Because of the amount of emphasis on the esoteric in Sufism, including a belief in hidden meanings in the Qur’an, Sufism is a big tent.  It includes his “California Sufis”, modernists, and some who deny that there is more than one path–their own– to the truth.  His corner of the tent is traditionalist, but by his own argument his is not the only path.

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