A Muslim scholar builds bridges to the West

Amid rising American confusion over the nature of Islam - intensified in recent months by virulent anti-Muslim statements made in the media - comes an illuminating new book that explores the spiritual and social values of the faith of one-fifth of humanity.

In "The Heart of Islam," a renowned Muslim scholar offers to people "interested in authentic Islam and its relation to the West" an introduction into the inner dimension of Islamic teachings, as well as its external expressions in law, history, art, and community.

The book begins, for example, by exploring Islam's concept of the one God, whose essence is considered both masculine and feminine, and whose qualities "are reflected throughout creation." Man is seen not as a sinful being, but one who still carries his primordial nature within, yet has forgotten it. "[God] created man in the best of stature with an intelligence capable of knowing the One," says the Koran. The message of Islam is a call to recollect that nature and to surrender to the will of God.

Few would seem better suited to explain Islam to Westerners than Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a man steeped in the learning of both civilizations, whose formative and professional years have been spent half in his Iranian homeland and half in the US.

Author of some 50 books on the sciences and spirituality, Dr. Nasr calls himself a traditional Muslim. Neither "modernist" nor "fundamentalist," he belongs, he says in an interview, to that vast majority - outside the media glare - which has found deep meaning in Islamic tradition as it has developed over the centuries.

But the traditional viewpoint has been challenged by the coming of modernism and secularism. It's a reaction against modernism that has given rise to radical Islam, Nasr says. "Without modernism there would be no fundamentalism."

Fundamentalism has turned violent for several reasons, he adds. "First, when your identity is threatened, like a turtle you go into your shell and become hardened. Second, there is desperation - situations of political repression where solutions cannot come about by normal processes of society, or where people feel hopeless because of intractable difficulties, like Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya."

While strongly opposed to fundamentalism, Nasr also sees modernism as dangerous: "I don't accept the philosophical premises on which it is based, making man the measure of all things ... rather than God, and reason the ultimate arbitrator of truth."

This has led, he adds, to devastating consequences such as Marxism and the desacralizing of nature and the human being, which have brought the environmental crisis and unsettling directions in genetics and robotics. He believes Islam has to provide answers for the challenges posed for it by modern science, psychology, and sociology. "I am spending my life doing that," he says.

Nasr's work in the fields of science, philosophy, and religion is recognized in both civilizations. His advanced degrees in the sciences are from MIT and Harvard. He was the first non-Westerner invited to deliver the prestigious Gifford Lectures on religion at the University of Edinburgh in 1980.

When he held top posts at Iranian universities in the 1960s and '70s, he planted seeds for a synthesis of Persian culture and Western thought that differed from the modernizing trends many found so alienating. Yet he was forced into exile during the 1979 revolution.

Iran is still "in a period of trial and error, and it will take some time before viable institutions deeply rooted in society and accepted by the vast majority can be created," he says.

In "The Heart of Islam," Nasr corrects the Western misconception that clerical rule, or theocracy, is the classical theory of rule in Islam. In fact, Iran's experiment is the first time in Islamic history that clerics have ruled directly, he says. In classical society, caliphs, sultans, or emirs ruled and promulgated Islamic law. Clerics were independent and acted as protectors of the law - and of the people when rulers became corrupt.

Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University since 1984, Nasr has returned to Iran to speak on various subjects, including religious pluralism.

As a Sufi, he is committed to the spiritual path within Islam - "seeking a life of sanctity based on the love and knowledge of God." Sufis are the mystics of Islam, and Sufism is recognized as having significant influence in spreading the faith throughout history, including in the West.

For decades, Nasr has dedicated efforts to interfaith dialogue. His first close contact with Christianity came at age 12, when he was sent from Iran to a prestigious Baptist secondary school in the US, where he was required to attend church on Sundays for four years.

"It didn't bother me too much," Nasr says with a chuckle. "I had always a love for Christ and other religions."

In the wake of 9/11, today "is a dark period for us all," he says. "We have a situation in which those forces on both sides who want a clash of civilizations and who want wars for their own purposes and interests are strong.

"And you have a mirror image of exclusivist voices - people like [Jerry] Falwell and [Pat] Robertson [here] and others in Saudi Arabia giving sermons," he adds. "But you also have many voices that realize the future of Islam and Christianity are intertwined."

His book issues a forceful call to the faithful of all religions to confront this animosity and also the "powerful forces of globalization" that promote marketplace values rather than common spiritual and ethical truths as "the single worldview and value system."

"Nothing less than the wisdom and love of the religion of the heart can save us in a world torn apart by so much evil and selfishness, a world that has the chimerical dream of living in peace in the forgetfulness of God," he says.

Nasr aims in his book to address the relevant issues about Islam uppermost in the minds of Americans. He deals with violence and war, human rights and responsibilities, religious freedom and persecution within his discussion of Islamic values and ideals. His arguments are sometimes compelling, sometimes less than convincing to a Western perspective.

Yet one is given that rare gift of entering into a holistic worldview that, while different from one's own in particulars, is clearly rooted in the profound human yearning for goodness, peace, and justice - for, in his words, "the universal truth that was placed by God in the hearts of all human beings and that stands at the center of all heavenly revelations."

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