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Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Modernity, Practice of Faith & Spirituality

 

As for modernism, modernism is now exploding from within; it’s breaking up in a paradigm which governs over modernity, which we call modernism.

Host: Given the conditions of the contemporary world, is Islam evolving or transforming in such a way that it may adapt to modernity, or is modernity evolving into something that is more accepting of religion?

Nasr: Well I don’t like the word “evolve”; of course transformation does take place historically, but I don’t believe that Islam should “evolve” to become modern. These experiments that were already made in the nineteenth century, and the twentieth century were very feeble, and sometimes with disastrous consequences, and the religion is given by God, and it’s there to make the world, not to be made by the world. If you say Islam becomes modern, then what rules over modernism? What governs over modernism? Whatever governs over modernism is ultimately God, it’s the ultimate Reality, not what you accept. So that is certainly a false attitude, however something always adapts itself to whatever condition it is placed in.  The Islam in Washington D.C. where I live today is not going to be expressed in the same way as that expressed in Samarkand, obviously. As for modernism, modernism is now exploding from within; it’s breaking up in a paradigm which governs over modernity, which we call modernism, and its roots are in the West, and then it spread to the rest of the world. So it is a very, very big crisis, and it’s not a crisis that can just be overcome with a little cosmetics and paint on the face, it’s very, very deep… And it’s breaking up, and what will happen afterwards is a very complicated matter, whether there will be a revival of Christianity in the West; there is some already as can be seen, but there is also an attack on all religions, especially in Europe, and maybe in America, atheism, and many number of people turning to Eastern religions, and some turning to Islam. All of these are possibilities that are going to happen. But modernity as such, in the whole of the modern world, I do not believe that this is going to turn more and more to Islam, but some do.

 

Host: What do you think about the very different forms of Islam being experienced both in the United States, and in Europe?

 

Nasr: When it comes to the actual spiritual realities of the religion, I don’t think there is a difference. You get up in the morning you say your prayers, you make your ablutions, you fast, you pay your zakat, you try not to lie, you try not to cheat and not to steal. The basic laws and orders of the Shariah regarding that which is forbidden and that which is not are followed by the pious Muslims in America and in Europe. What is different is the social condition. The situation of the Muslims in America is much better than in Europe. Europe, for centuries was a place that was a back center of hatred against Islam, of prejudice against Islam because the Europeans are afraid of Islam, first of the Arabs and of the Andalusia and the Pyreness and then of the Turks of Eastern Europe, and they felt surrounded by this great civilization of Islam, and that fear the inner fear is still part of the psyche of the Europeans, even those who have become secularized and lost their religions and have no interest in Christianity. I once said that it is very strange that the attitude of an atheistic professor of philosophy of the Sorbonne today and Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval Christian saint is different in every way, but when it comes to Islam it’s about the same. So America has been the land of emigrants, and of predominantly European stock and descent, yet there is also a Muslim presence there, so never has there been a more open society. And the Muslims in America are economically much better off than the Muslims in Europe, much, much better off. The large migration of workers from Algeria and Morocco in France or from Turkey that you see in Germany, or Moroccans in Belgium and what not… Most of the Muslims in America are doctors, and lawyers, and engineers, and teachers and are very highly educated. The Islamic population of America on average is much more educated in America. So, of course that is connected to economic conditions. But the reality of practicing the faith, firstly in jihad, is not that different in Europe and America.

 

There is another level in which there is a deliberate, conscious campaign of the vilification of Islam in Europe and America, and that has to be confronted. And it is very tragic that so many Muslim countries have a tremendous amount of financial means and even some political influence to combat this.

Host: Do Muslims have a certain responsibility in helping the West overcome these fears?

 

Nasr: Yes of course. And that is not an easy matter. The best way to do it is to be good, to be a good Muslim and to talk about it, to be a good human being, to help your neighbors, to be generous, to be kind, in order to set a very good example, and many Muslims do this. There is another level in which there is a deliberate, conscious campaign of the vilification of Islam in Europe and America, and that has to be confronted. And it is very tragic that so many Muslim countries have a tremendous amount of financial means and even some political influence to combat this. They have billions of dollars on their side. They could buy half of the states in the States. Of course they try to defend Islam and so forth, but they don’t know how to go about it… Well, perhaps some of them do, but in their cause, they don’t know how to go about this. There are some countries that can do very little. For example, Tunisia, what can you do? But there are a number of Muslim countries that are friends of the United States, that are politically or militarily, or financially very strong, and very powerful, and it is the their responsibility as countries to do what they can. As for Muslims within America, many of them are aware of this, and there are some that do some things. But there is also a lot more that can be done. For example, through films, through books... Even in America where there are over six million Muslims, it’s not two and a half million like is said; there are about six or seven million Muslims living in the United States – highly educated, so many of them are doctors and lawyers and so forth. They have no access to the main media, or very little. In the intellectual climate, for example the review of books, what books are read, what books are propagated, and the Muslims have a very small share, and they are shut off to a large extent. And of course, part of that has to do with the fact that the first generation of Muslims who migrated to America came to make a living, and they pushed their children to become doctors, and engineers, and lawyers. But nobody wanted their children to become writers or professors, or professors of Islamic studies, or journalists; they want others to do it for them. Now, gradually this is beginning to change. But even now the Muslims certainly in America which are no better than in Europe do not have any intellectual or cultural power equal to their population, and even equal to their financial possibilities.

 

Host: And how do you feel about this militant atheism, which is on the rise in the West? Where does this militancy come from?

 

 

Nasr: The reason why it is militant was because a monolism group from the eighteenth century thrust at this European modernism. A different religion developed in France in the 19th century. And the secularists believed that religion was receding, and was going to go more on the margin of history, and would finally die out. And they had won. Karl Marx, for example, was one of the 19th century German philosophers who wrote about this. Nietzsche said God is dead. They never dreamt that in the twentieth century there would be a revival of religion. And after the second half of the twentieth century, religion began to manifest itself much more than in the first half of the century. With all the violence and vandalism, there was a war going on but nevertheless, religion reentered the arena of the world of history for the westerners, and into the domain of politics, and everyday life and so forth. And so the agnostics and atheists who were sort of quiet, and doing their own thing, became militant by having to fight now against a religion. And I think this way of militant atheism is mainly associated with England and the United States, not so much with Germany, France and Europe. It is an English language phenomenon… Dawkins and Higgins – most of them are English writers, English speaking people. This, I think, is a pang of desperation, and since there are a number of atheists in the West that feel threatened by this revival of religion, they feel that they have to defend themselves. And so you have this wave, much of which is very silly, and very shallow.

 

All atheistic philosophies in the west in the past five hundred years have been reacting against Christianity, not reacting against Buddhism or Hinduism. And all their arguments are to refute Christianity.

Host: Well, it seems that their argument is mainly against Christianity and Judaism; it doesn’t seem as if they have studied any other religions.

 

Nasr: No, not at all. They haven’t even studied Christianity, but yes, almost all the arguments are against Christianity. All atheistic philosophies in the west in the past five hundred years have been reacting against Christianity, not reacting against Buddhism or Hinduism. And all their arguments are to refute Christianity.

 

Host: Why is that?

 

Nasr: Because Christianity is a dominant religion.

 

Host: Yes, but with Islam, it seems that they don’t react the same when it comes to Islam.

 

Nasr: Well that’s right, they don’t know Islam well enough, and they are still attacking the Catholic Church or Christian teachings in the West, that’s what they do. If you study the history of atheism and agnosticism in the West, you will see that’s what it was.

 

Host: Now it seems that in the Christian faith people are returning back to or searching for spirituality. For example, in Harvey Cox’s book, he talks about how they are coming back to spirituality. But in a world where the self is promoted like God, how do you think people will reconcile this spirituality? Because on the one hand, you have all these advertisements that promote the self saying things like “You are worth it” or it’s always “You You You,” and then on the other hand when it comes to spirituality, people think of others, as opposed to the self, and nature and so on. How do you think people can reconcile in a world where the self is promoted as an idol?

 

Nasr: When Harvey Cox and other people talk about that there is more and more spirituality in the modern world, I don’t think they mean the whole of the modern world. Because the modern world and the post-modern world is moving more and more to the extent possible towards hedonism, towards the satisfaction of pleasures, towards the worship of our terrestrial existence –  the idea that God is a woman’s body, from which they sell everything from watches to ships. But within that, something is cracking because not all human beings are satisfied with this. And so this yearning for spirituality grows to the extent that this material life goes the way it is going. And there’s also another very important element, and that is the danger to our existence here on earth and for the environment, and for the first time that not only religious people who believe in the ‘Yawm al Qiyamah,’ the Day of Judgment, but ordinary people realize that their grandchildren are not believing anymore, because of the environmental crisis, all the inventions that they are making which are very subtle and very dangerous without knowing the consequences, this worship of technology, where the oil companies say there is no danger in drilling, and suddenly there is danger. The whole ecological system of the Gulf of Mexico goes up in the air within a few hours as we see right before our eyes. That whole feeling that people now have, that there is something wobbly about the world, that the world is not as solid and certain as people thought in the nineteenth century, or the early twentieth century; that of course will turn more and more people towards seeking spirituality. I once said that almost instinctively, when the earth shakes under your feet you lift your head towards Heavens; and that’s a natural human response, now that is a very important element also.  

 

The whole ecological system of the Gulf of Mexico goes up in the air within a few hours as we see right before our eyes. That whole feeling that people now have, that there is something wobbly about the world, that the world is not as solid and certain as people thought in the nineteenth century, or the early twentieth century.

Host: In regards to the perennial philosophy, where does Islam stand among other religious traditions in light of this?

 

Nasr: Well, the perennial philosophy believes that there is One truth, the wisdom which is perennial, which God has given humanity in the very beginning. And this is at the heart of all the great religions of the world, of which Islam is the last. Islam, in the sense of surrendering to God in the sense that the Qur’an talks about, is the Prophet Abraham (a.s) and the Prophet Jesus (a.s ) being Muslim, in that sense means that religion itself is the Din al-Fitrah, the natural religion, that’s what perennial philosophy is talking about. So, it says that the first thing in Islam is the perennial philosophy, which is the center of religion itself, and has been there from the very beginning. The Qur’an says that this submission to God begins with Adam who was the first Prophet. And that’s why the word islam is used in the Qur’an even before the Qur’anic revelation, centuries before the Qur’an was revealed in the first century A.H. in Mecca to the Prophet (a.s.). The second meaning is the historical Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad (a.s) as being the last manifestation of this great chain of prophecy, and of revelation which goes back to the beginning of humanity in Islam.

 

Host: I have one last question to ask before we conclude… What is Ramadan like in the United States? Can you share your thoughts and observations with regards to how this holy month in the Islamic calendar is viewed among non-Muslims and how it is celebrated among Muslim communities in the United States?

Nasr: First of all, everybody knows about it now. When I was a student in Harvard University years ago, it was not public knowledge. Today the television announces it, the newspapers announce it, so the American public knows there is Ramadan. Secondly, many many people fast. We see it in the university; most of our Muslim students fast, and not all of the Muslim students fast, but many of the others fast, as well. The mosques are very full, and many iftars are given for non-Muslims. Christians and Jews are invited. It is celebrated in a very large scale manner in the United States in almost every state. Also they are giving charity to the poor and so forth, which is a very important part of it. But the actual act of fasting, and prayers and the Tarawih, and praying in the mosques and so forth… If you go to any mosque at 2’oclock in the morning, you’ll see that almost every mosque is full during the month of Ramadan. So it’s highly observed in the United States.

 

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