Believe Me, I Love Seyyed Hossein Nasr

March 25, 2007

I was intrigued by Ali’s post which talked about Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s experience with a tonga driver in Lahore. In short, the tonga driver figures out that Nasr is persian and on the spot, starts reciting Hafiz, Attar, Rumi et al. with what we gather, heartfelt surr.

That example — riding in that carriage that night under the starry sky of the Punjabi countryside listening to an illiterate tonga driver reciting some of the most sublime mystical love poetry ever written, reciting both from memory and from the center of his heart — shows how universal the living reality of the love for God is in the Islamic spiritual universe.

Undoubtedly, Nasr paints a beautiful picture. I let the post churn in my head for three days because something about it just didn’t sit right with me. Then it hit me. Even though there is much truth to Nasr’s observation, there exists a dark side to this spiritual universe, a quagmire that Muslims cannot seem to escape: they have difficulty manifesting this love in their daily lives. Unfortunately, connecting the batin to the zahir is an exercise that either died out a long time ago or one that Muslims have severe difficulty executing today. There is no doubt that western people suffer from deficient sexual morality. However, for the most part, western people tend to have an impeccable social morality. The Muslim world on the other hand, reciporcates this pattern to perfection. And that is a shame for people that are scions of a personality that will be remembered eternally for being the bearer of perfect morality in every sphere of life may it be inner, outer, private or social.

What use are the experiences of saints if all we can do is print them in glossy books and memorize them for recitation? The obvious rebuttal to that is that surely there is no harm in doing the above, perhaps one day some soul may gain some benefit. I disagree. Doing the abovementioned is akin to taking pictures of clothing, memorizing their details and reprinting those pictures for the world proclaiming ‘look! clothing! this is what will beautify us and this will what will keep us warm!’


19 Responses to “Believe Me, I Love Seyyed Hossein Nasr”

  1. arif Says:

    Read, pondered, and praised inside my head.

  2. fahad Says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Tasawwuf as it is meant to be practiced and/or implemented is virtually non-existant in the subcontinent, and, according to many desi uncles, is about mazar worship and living in caves.

    That said, I don’t care for Nasr’s perennialist slant.

  3. Salman Says:

    salamu `alaykum

    Great post. That is a highly insightful observation and so true.

    Another aspect that comes to my mind when it relates to this “awareness” of batini knowledge without outward manifestation is knowledge of theoritical sufism – whether by academics or otherwise. I always find myself wondering why is it that one can know so much about Ibn `Arabi, for example, his expositions, and elucidations of various points of the religion relating to the batin but none of it seems to be found in that persons external being.

    I think the statements of the scholars defining knowledge as a “light placed in the heart” and not “memorization” – which in turn implies much more – is pertinent to note here.

    I loved the clothing example you gave.


  4. not a nasr fan Says:

    Your post relies, I think, on the (unstated) observation that making knowledge of Sufi love poetry somehow equivalent to, or indicative, of a deep spirituality is really over-reaching. This assumption is prevalent throughout Nasr’s work, and I think really mars its usefulness. Random Pakistani tonga drivers memorize poetry because it’s a cultured thing to do in a culture whose lingua franca was for the longest time Persian, not because they share in some kind of universal Islamic experience with medieval poets. No one says that just because European thinkers continued to quote the Bible after the Enlightenment and modernity, they somehow shared a universal Christian experience.

    People are “religious” for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes the reason is in fact because they are trying to be religious. But to assume that’s always the case is to grant that Bin Laden et al. are representing some kind of universal Islamic experience because they can quote the Qur’an.

  5. tazkiyyah Says:

    The whole point of sufism is that
    the benefit dies when you try and dissect it like rationalists 🙂

    I’m not advocating stupid ummatis-
    Rumi was very critical of fools…Jesus could cure everything in the mathnawi but ran away from fools.

    But he was also critical of the intellect as a limited tool from which we expect more than it can deliver.
    In distinction to the burning fire of love that shams ignited in his heart

  6. Ali Jaffery Says:

    What I gather from reading this passage is that Nasr simply wants to demonstrate that there exists at least a laic consciousness about divine love amongst Muslims and there is a yearning to tread that path. The point of the story is to describe “how universal the living reality of the love for God is in the Islamic spiritual universe.”

    If people memorize poetry and recite it infront of guests — who are we to cast it off as a fradulent act of devotion? Each person is best measured by his own circumstance and level of spiritual nourishment. Surely there are recognizable stations of higher understanding, but Nasr’s point is that we are all looking in the same direction. We may achieve and experience different realities but its our blessed tradition and heritage that is rich enough to afford us, at the minimum, the melodous thoughts of divine Love.

  7. tazkiyyah Says:

    I remember reading nasr somewhere.He said that the ummah was in crisis and nowhere was holistic islam to be seen…BUT

    There were certain nice things.

    Allah preserved each of the aspects of islam in certain places.
    E.g. the beautiful qir’aah of egypt.
    the architecture of turkey.
    The poetry of persia
    Etc etc

    There are lay sufi poems that are popular in india that are strongly evocative of Love.

    E.g. Mehr ali shah’s aj sik mitra di dairi hai

    Thats a gem…most taxi-drivers in lahore can probably recite the 1st line.
    Which is amazing.But if your a fiqh scholar its not amazing.

  8. tazkiyyah Says:

    We talk about everything nowadays.But for Allah(swt)
    Its taboo to mention him nowadays.

    We talk about beards

    But The sufis
    Their books are filled with Allah


    Mevlana said
    Pour me some wine
    and speak to me of wine

    WIne here refers to the knowledge of God.

  9. molvi Says:

    arif: as long as its praised

    fahad: I for one love Nasr’s perennialist stance. its refreshing.

    Salman: good points. I think for me, I’ve always made a distinction between information and knowledge. I would categorize memorization without action, information.

    n.a.n.f: I probably would have said the same thing if I didnt find Nasr’s idealism important in its own way. I dont think it’s a matter of absolute correctness, I think Nasr [no matter how ideal or naive] has a place within discourse. All things aside, I just wanna hear nice things sometimes.

    Ali: that’s an interesting point because there ARE non-practicing people out there who, like non-practicing people who have memorize and cherish rumi, do NOT memorize and cherish rumi. I know where you are going and I agree to a certain extent. I would much rather prefer someone who atleast aspires towards, rather than someone who divorces himself from even mentioning the divine.

    tazkiyya: Here’s my beef [and it’s not with Nasr, I like him a lot]: today we find people presenting the path to Allah rather than presenting Allah himself. and to further emphasize the beautiful example of mevlana you gave, our amir sahib said one time ‘tell people to talk about islam and they will rant for hours. tell them to talk about Allah and they will last for 1 minute. this is the purpose of tableegh. Allah, Allah, Allah’

  10. tazkiyyah Says:

    Nice talk

    by seyyed hossein nasr
    listen at about 15 mins

  11. tazkiyyah Says:

    the primacy of consciousness.(in principia erat verbum)

    Luminous and Numinous
    Knowing and knowing that it knows.

    Interesting story about ibn sina and the hanging man.
    Who is suspended in mid air and doubts everything that exists..the floor..the sky.but cant doubt himself.
    hENCE this thought in islam predates descartes

  12. tazkiyyah Says:

    By the way the best article of refuting evolution that
    i have seen is by nasr

  13. tazkiyyah Says:

    But look..hes not a modernist.
    its about 12 pages
    in critiquing a modernist tafseer of evolution he says

    And so this is a crucial matter and the Qur’anic verses are extremely clear on this question. Anyone who identifies paradise with some place in Africa where Adam gradually evolved is guilty of the worst kind of heresy theologically speaking. Such people are not serious Muslims anymore. It is so explicit in the Qur’an that in speaking of the Garden where Adam was first placed it is describing a state of being which possesses a perfection that the fallen Adam no longer possessed. The word hubict is a Qur’anic term and one cannot change it to anything else. If one does that, there is nothing left of one’s relationship with the Islamic tradition.

    Hubut, they say, simply means to go from one place to another, without necessarily having any connotation of coming down, that is the Fall. They explain it etymologically and claim that the word itself does not contain the idea of the Fall, as the Qur’anic verse, “ihbitu misran …” (2:61).

    That is not correct and we cannot accept that for fourteen hundred years Muslims were wrong! And now, someone in the streets of Cairo, who has become totally Westernized, says that hubut does not mean fall! This is a form of scientism that has polluted our intellectual atmosphere wherein one can no longer breathe the air safely. Such people have contributed to a mental and intellectual pollution that prevents many people from being able to think clearly anymore in the same way that we cannot breathe easily in our big cities because of physical pollution. I think it is our duty, those who can, to state categorically what the traditional positions are. And that has been my vocation in life. I am not afraid of anybody, not afraid of demotion, or anything like that when I speak of matters that are against the fashions of the day. We have to state clearly what our position is. There is a great intellectual struggle that is going on within the Islamic world especially in the relation between religion and science and we have to do what we can to steer it in the right direction; and that is not a small matter. May God help us in this momentous task.

  14. fahad Says:

    fahad: I for one love Nasr’s perennialist stance. its refreshing.

    What’s so refreshing about it? The ‘let’s group hug all religions’ attitude?

    Believing in the ‘universal validity of all religious traditions’, and being a muslim are simply irreconciliable.

  15. sophister Says:

    Yah I am not quite sure what is refreshing about perennialism.
    What I do find confusing about perennialists is that the majority of them happen to be muslim. If you truly believe any spiritual path to be true, then why choose sufism/Islam as opposed to kabbala for example? I still respect Nasr thought, as a scholar, just like I respect Martin Lings regardless of the strangeness.

  16. molvi Says:

    It’s refreshing when contrasted with the anti-knowledge vibe you get from a lot of traditionally minded muslims today. It is atleast more interesting because it forces us to look back at history. Also, it steers us away from the Zakir Naik school of Christian criticism which, any learned academic will tell you, is a complete joke.

  17. Talib Says:

    This is simply an excellent post. Nothing more I can say, but thank you.

  18. Brother Says:

    We have to be vigilant when reading the works of Sayyed Hossein Nasr, as he is a Shi’a and his writings at times display Shi’a undertones.

  19. Ismaeel Says:

    Nasr’s perennialist school is also mocked by academics in every field they have tried to influence.

    What is the point of saying that you are against pseudo Sufis and then acclaim the king of all pseudo sufis who promotes Vedanta dressed up as Sufism.

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