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The Essence of the Tradition.

A timely presentation of the core spiritual and social values of Islam comes from one of the foremost intellectual figures in Islamic history.

Shusha Guppy is the author, most recently, of Three Journeys in the Levant (Starhaven, 2001). Born and raised in Iran, she studied in Paris and now lives in London. Guppy is the London editor of the Paris Review and contributes to publications on both sides of the Atlantic.


Enduring Values for Humanity

Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Publisher:San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002

352 pp., $22.95

One of the by-products of the tragic events of September 11 has been a growing mountain of books on Islam by self-appointed experts and "orientalists." Prejudiced, often in pursuit of personal or political agendas, these authors play on the Western public's anxiety about the unknown "Other" and present a distorted image of Islam and Muslims. As a result, in the minds of many in the West, one of the world's major religions has become almost synonymous with fundamentalism and terrorism, and its 1.3 billion adherents are now identified with a few crazed kamikaze mass murderers. Words such as jihad (holy war), shariah (religious law), and hijab (veil), divorced from their original meanings, have become part of everyday discourse, and mention of "true Islam" provokes wry smiles.

In such a climate, The Heart of Islam is like a breath of fresh air. Concise, clear, and eloquent, it has the crystalline ring of the voice of reason and cuts through layers of ignorance and distortion like an intellectual laser: "There is no religion about which so much has been written in the West by those opposed to it as Islam. No such parallel can be found for Taoism, Confucianism, Hinduism or Buddhism." The Heart of Islam aims to dispel some common misunderstandings.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr is eminently qualified for the task, as among the world's foremost Islamic scholars he occupies a unique position. Born in Iran into a traditional family, he attended high school in the United States and was educated at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, obtaining doctorates in physics and philosophy. He returned to Iran to study with traditional Islamic theologians and philosophers before starting an academic career. Nasr returned to America after the revolution of 1979, taught at various universities, and is now the head of the Islamic department of George Washington University. Thus he is astride East and West, as well as being within what C.P. Snow called "the two cultures," science and the humanities. Over the last few decades he has written numerous books on a variety of topics--from art and music to the crisis of the environment and the plight of modern man, and, above all Sufism, the spiritual dimension of Islam--from the traditional Islamic perspective. In a sense this elegant book is the distillation of all his previous works.

The Abrahamic religions

Nasr begins by explaining the transcendental unity of all revealed religions. The credo of Islam is the oneness of God; affirmation of this oneness is at the heart of all Abrahamic religions, as attested by the Hebrew prophets and Christ, regarded by Muslims as part of the chain of prophecy that terminates with Muhammad. The Christian credo in unum deum is echoed by Islam's "there is no god but God." Surrounding this central axis are the core principles of Islam: mercy, compassion, justice, love. These principles enable people to live in peace and harmony and cooperate for the good of humanity, in contrast to those who "fan the fires of discord" with talk of clashes of civilizations.

The one God is "closer to you than your jugular," for "wherever ye turn, there is the Face of God" (Qur'an 2/115). He is neither male nor female; his ninety-nine names representing His attributes--perfection, beauty, majesty, mercy, charity--are divided into masculine and feminine, with their combination leading to cosmic order and harmony. Nasr bases his arguments on the Qur'an, considered by Muslims to be the verbatim word of God and the central miracle of Islam, as Christ Himself is to Christianity. He draws parallels between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, as well as other world religions, through their sacred texts and the works of great philosophers and poets, mystics, and Sufis.

The word Islam means surrender to the will of God as well as "the peace that comes from this surrender." But having given man intelligence and free will, God enjoins us to follow His commandments actively, obey the divine law and the ethical principles of religion to the best of our ability, and then be resigned to what destiny brings. Fatalism and passivism go against the teachings of Islam.

All three Abrahamic religions proclaim that the universe is a book in which the "signs of God" can be read. The creation of the world emanates from God's infinite goodness, for "it is in the nature of the Good to give of itself," as Saint Augustine said. Evil is separation from the Good. According to a hadith (prophetic tradition), God created the world because "I was a hidden treasure. I loved to be known. Therefore I created the creation so that I would be known." Man was "created to the best stature," in the image of God, as His vice-regent (khalif) on earth. The whole universe is permeated with His love, "the love that moves the sun and the stars," as Dante said and generations of mystics and Sufis have echoed.

To understand the heart of Islam, Nasr proposes, it is essential to understand the significance of the Prophet Muhammad. For Muslims he is the "perfect man," exemplifying the virtues of total humility before God and neighbor, nobility, and charity. Yet no one has been more misunderstood and vilified in the West than he has, from the beginning to today. Like the Hebrew prophets--Moses, David, Solomon--Muhammad was a leader, fully engaged in the world; thus, "to those who have been brought up gazing upon the dazzling spiritual perfection of Christ or the Buddha," whose kingdom was not of this world, he may appear less than perfect. Once established in the world, to be sure, Christianity and Buddhism were not short of worldly turbulence either.

Nasr gives a concise account of Muhammad's life and the advent of Islam. Of particular significance is the prophet's nocturnal journey (al-Meraj), when he was taken by the Archangel Gabriel through the heavens to the divine presence itself. This journey of the soul became "the prototype of all spiritual wayfaring." Laying the foundation of Islamic mysticism (Sufism), it has inspired generations of thinkers, poets, and artists.

Islamic pluralism

Contrary to Western perception, Islam is not a monolith, nor is it primarily Arab: only one-fifth of Muslims are Arabs. In the "abode of Islam" (dar-al- Islam) there are many mansions, and the Muslim community (umma) is as diverse as the Christian one. Over the centuries, says Nasr, "Islam has created one of the richest intellectual traditions of the world, comparable in its depth and diversity to those of India, China, and Christian West." One of the best ways to penetrate the heart of Islam is through art and architecture. On a trip to Iran, hearing some Persian music, the late Yehudi Menuhin said: "This music is a ladder between the soul and God." Like the great cathedral in Chartres and the Golden Temple in Kyoto, the Friday Mosque in Esfahan is a manifestation of divine inspiration.

As Islam spread through the world, different patterns appeared among its adherents. Nasr explains the two main branches, Shiism and Sunnism, the various schools of shariah law, and the development of Sufism. He points out that the esoteric is not marginal but "lies at the heart of religion and is the source of its endurance and renewal," as is observable in the Hasidic tradition of Judaism and the mystical currents of Christianity.

Of recent developments, fundamentalism is the most topical, as well as lethal for Islam. Nasr traces the spread of fundamentalism to the conquest of Egypt by Napoleon in 1798. Although colonialism had begun two and a half centuries earlier with the Portuguese, Dutch, and British domination of Asia, "that event awakened Muslims to a challenge without precedence in their history." Reactions varied: some believed that they were defeated because they had deviated from the original message of the faith and had become corrupted by laxity. Others held that the end of the world was nigh, and a savior (mahdi) soon would come.

The majority were modernists, however, who thought Islamic rules no longer applied to contemporary conditions, and that Islamic societies should modernize themselves or decline. They were admirers of Western rationalism and modern science. Ataturk in Turkey, Reza Shah in Persia, and the philosopher and poet Iqbal in India--one of the founders of Pakistan--were nationalist modernizers. Western ideologies such as fascism, socialism, communism, and nationalism spread throughout the Muslim world. Of these nationalism was the strongest, and by the end of World War II most Islamic countries had been liberated from colonial rule through nationalist movements. Unfortunately, democracy and freedom did not follow; disenchantment with corrupt, despotic rulers and the Western ideologies that had led to Auschwitz and the gulag provided fertile ground for extremism.

The progenitor of fundamentalism is not Islam but tyranny (Saddam Hussein modeled himself on Stalin), poverty, and lack of hope. One literalist puritanical sect, Wahhabism, emerged during the nineteenth century in Egypt and found a small following in Arabia. Sadly, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, was a Wahhabi and imposed his faith on the new kingdom--where, incidentally, Sufism and even the teaching of theology are banned. At first Wahhabism was confined to Saudi Arabia, but in recent decades some of the country's petrodollars have been used to build mosques all over the world. From them, self-styled imams spread the poison of hatred against the West, in particular America.

Nothing could be further from the spirit as well as the letter of Islam, whose compassion, tolerance, and acceptance of others are embedded in its scripture. It was the ecumenical and cosmopolitan character of Islamic societies that produced the flowering of philosophy, poetry, art, and science, from Andalusia to India, and led to the Renaissance in Europe; for the human spirit can only flourish in freedom--of thought, inquiry, debate. What did the Soviet Union produce except the technology it stole from the West through espionage? What could come out of the hand-chopping, women- stoning, corruption-ridden Saudi Arabia except al Qaeda and the Twin Towers kamikazes? Nasr tactfully avoids pointing fingers and leaves his readers to draw these conclusions for themselves.

Shariah, or divine law

Nasr devotes a long chapter to one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented aspects of Islam: shariah, or divine law, "by which all human life is sanctified," from daily prayers to commercial transections, and before which all men and women are equal. Shariah is based on the Qur'an and the prophetic traditions (hadiths, the acts and sayings of the Prophet). It is akin to the teachings of Christ in Christianity and the halakhah in Judaism. Understanding and complying with divine law are all the more important, as there is no priesthood or sacerdotal authority like the pope in Islam. Although "each man is his own priest before God," this has not stopped self-appointed "ayatollahs" and "imams" from abusing their power with erroneous interpretations and edicts. But while divine law is immutable, its application can vary.

It is inconceivable that God and the Prophet, who created the law for all times, would not have provided the method by which it can adapt to changing eras. For example, the oppression of women in some Islamic societies is against the shariah, not because of it, as is commonly believed. Some modern thinkers speak of "dynamic shariah," a law that adapts to changing times, in contrast to the frozen one that has become a tool of arbitrary rulers.

Divine law is also the basis for the administration of justice. Justice is intrinsic to human nature, so Muslims believe that a good society is identical to a just one. From them, "God is the supreme legislator"; although human judgment exists in the world, the ultimate judgment is His alone. But as Nasr explains, "reliance on divine justice does not remove responsibility before human law (Urf) by which human beings are judged in this world." Justice, moreover, is tempered with mercy, and the two create a "balance" (mizan)--the key symbol of justice in the Qur'an.

Perhaps no word in the Islamic vocabulary has been more abused than jihad (popularly translated as "holy war"), as much by the Western media "looking for demonizing epithets and stereotypes" as by Muslim extremists who provide them with examples. The word means striving, exertion, and refers to the effort required to lead a righteous life, do good, and avoid evil--tasks not easy in a world full of temptations. It is similar to the "spiritual warfare" of Orthodox Christianity and the Christian mystics and to the "spiritual exertions" of Hindu and Buddhist sages. Jihad in the sense of war must be only defensive: "Fight in the way of God against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Verily God loveth not aggressors" (Qur'an 2/190). Even then, "let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust" (Qur'an 5/8). In the event of war, the innocent and the noncombatants are sacred, as are fields and trees and water. "Those who carry out terror in the West or elsewhere in the name of jihad are vilifying an originally sacred term," says Nasr. The main casualty of their jihad is Islam itself.

Nasr makes illuminating remarks on human rights--he proposes a Charter of Human Duties to create a balance--and globalization: "If secularism sought to destroy the older worldviews based on the Sacred," the process of globalization as usually understood will accelerate it. "The heart of Islam is also the Islam of the heart ... which according to the Prophet is 'the Throne of the Infinitely Good and Compassionate,' " says Nasr in conclusion. He pleads for unity among civilizations: "There seems to be no other choice but to live in mutual respect with compassion and love for others or to perish together." This gentle, compassionate book helps toward that ideal.n
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Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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