The very Model of a Modern Muslim Eulogist. (Books).
The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity.
San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.338 pp. $22.95 (cloth).
THE CURRENT DESPERATE ATTEMPT to teach Americans about Islam, to correct their misconceptions, and calm their nerves, goes on. The ideal spokesperson would have a solid Islamic and western education (including, for starters, a thorough grasp of theology; history, and culture), would have traveled widely in the Islamic world, be conversant with the plethora of images and caricatures of Islam circulating in the media, and, finally would be blessed with a lot of patience, sensitivity; and ecumenical good will. There are, to be sure, any number of competent western scholars, such as Georgetown's John Esposito, who have recently helped to guide readers through the labyrinth of Islam, but we want to hear from a "native informant."
The distinguished Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr would seem to fill the bill perfectly. He has graduate degrees from M.I.T. and Harvard. He has taught and served as the dean (and vice-chancellor) of the Faculty of Arts and Letters at Tehran University. Now University Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University and the author of a score of books on Islam, Nasr writes fluently and passionately; and neither his knowledge nor his good intentions are ever in doubt His book comes adorned with plaudits from such noteworthy figures as Huston Smith and John Shelby Spong. So, have we at long last found our Baedeker for exploring the largest religious community on the planet? The answer seems to be a resounding Yes-and-No.
The problem is, the majority of Jews and Christians have by now accepted. begrudgingly or otherwise, J. S. Mill's laissez-faire Marketplace of Truth, where everyone is free to peddle his or her faith, theory, or ideology; and may the best product prevail--for the time being, until something better evolves. By the very act of publishing this book, Nasr has entered that Marketplace; but he engages, for all his gentle sincerity, in such a hard sell that many of his potential customers will be taken aback. He tells us that in the Islamic world the issue of theodicy "has hardly ever bothered the religious conscience of even the most intelligent people" (why not?). The verbatim revelation of the Qur'an to Muhammad by Gabriel is presented as beyond dispute. Liberal Jews and Christians may read the story of Elijah's flight to heaven in a chariot of fire as gorgeous myth, but Nasr mentions the Prophet's Nocturnal Journey as matter-of-factly as if it were a non-scheduled redeye. The reality of the afterlife and Satan i s discussed as if each were self-evident. Nasr notes (without a hint of criticism) that according to classical Shariah, death is the normal punishment for apostasy; but observes that this is "very rarely" applied nowadays, Among the worst forces running rampant in today's world, he says, is "secularist fundamentalism," which is no less virulently proselytizing and aggressive than the most fanatical form of religious 'fundamentalism'." (Though it's hard to recall the last bomb planted by followers of, say, Bertrand Russell or Peter Singer.)
"The rights of God," Nasr flatly states, "stand above the rights of human beings, and for a person to insult the religion of others is not considered a right at all, even if the prevention of such an act decreases one's individual rights." (Too bad for Salman Rushdie.) "The same holds true for questions of morality, including sexual morality.. ." Nasr enthusiastically quotes Titus Burckhardt's rationale for Islam's approval of polygyny and rejection or polyandry, along with the right of Muslim men, but not women, to marry Christians or Jews: "Man, as spiritual officiant (imam) of his family, represents the Truth; his role corresponds to the 'active' vessel, namely the Spirit, whereas his wife corresponds to the 'passive' vessel, namely the soul." Huh?
At the core of these thumping declarations is the familiar principle, which Nasr constantly repeats and stoutly defends, that Islam doesn't distinguish between the secular and the profane. Nasr keeps reminding us that the same is true of the Bible (and the Torah has a much longer list of capital offenses than the Qur'an's, etc.). For Muslims--and, Nasr might have added, for the Haredim and Christian fundamentalists--everything is "covered": "The Shari'ah is the concrete embodiment of the Divine Will, and in its most universal sense it embraces the whole of creation." (Given this stunning certainty and the fact that the great bull of the Shari'ah dates from many centuries ago, it's not surprising that, as Nasr himself admits, "It will take some time before Islamic civilization can develop its own authentic political forms.") This refusal to compartmentalize the sacred may be intellectually consistent, but it runs counter to the peace, or truce, that many Jews and Christians, particularly those in the public ey e, have made with Enlightenment skepticism toward absolutes and championing of individual freedom. Nasr will have none of that. He praises the integrity and beauty of an earlier, undivided world; but to western ears this inevitably sounds like futile nostalgia, as when he claims that "Muslim modernists or fundamentalists" never even existed until "the advent of European domination of the heartland of Islam, represented by the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798." Even more nostalgically, Nasr twice tells us that nomadic peoples never turn into atheists and agnostics, the way corrupt city-dwellers do. Bring back the Rechabites.
In the end Nasr does a good job of explaining what makes traditional Muslims tick. He eloquently celebrates the Muslim ideals of peace and beauty, justice and compassion. He makes it abundantly clear how and why he finds in Islam a rich, all-encompassing, theologically, ethically, liturgically, and aesthetically satisfying way of life. He provides a useful sketch of the complex spectrum of Islam, from Shi'ite extremism to Isma'ilism to Zaydism to Twelve Imam Shi'ism to the Four Schools of Sunnism to 'Ibadism to Wahhabism to old Khawarij to Sunni extremism. Although he's stingy with dates, and the text has no footnotes at all, Nasr's summaries are clear, concise, and as non-technical as possible.
But does this vast and impressive picture translate into "enduring values for humanity," i.e., those billions and billions of kafirs? For the average lay person indifferent to, and ill-informed about, ancient history (i.e., most Americans), why should the bloody conflict between Yazid the son of Mu'awiyyah and Muhammad's grandson Husayn mean any more than the later quarrel between Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII? If "Quranic Arabic plays a role in Islam analogous to the role of the body of Christ in Christianity," then readers with no Arabic are liable to feel left out in the cold. And every now and then, in his anti-modern vehemence, Nasr simply gets things wrong. "Modern medicine," he says, "has eradicated many diseases but has also caused the population explosion." (Actually, more abundant harvests and more efficient food-distribution, together with improved sanitation and non-medical technology, have been the major culprits there. And "modern medicine" includes contraception.)
Nasr is not a fulsome or unbending apologist, He execrates Muslim terrorists. He acknowledges that "there are, alas, also many tragic injustices" being done to women in contemporary Islamic countries. He makes a reasoned case that "the rapid destruction of both the natural environment and the social fabric of the most highly industrialized societies cannot but end in total disaster for the whole of humanity" (although evidence of Islamic ecological activism looks scant). Nasr's heart is undoubtedly in the right place; still, he makes one suspect that it will take a long time for Jewish-Christian-secular dialogue with Muslims to get beyond polite, if puzzled, tolerance. Of course, that in itself would be a major achievement.
Peter Heineqq is CrossCurrents's book editor. He is a professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, New York.
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|Title Annotation:||The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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