By Javad Heirannia - Somaye Rezaei 

Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Islamophobia is ludicrous 

January 3, 2018

TEHRAN _ Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the traditionalist Islamic philosopher, has been and continues to be concerned with the issues of the Islamic civilization and its revival.

Nasr believes that no religion has been able to create more than one civilization; Islam as a religion and the Islamic civilization are no exceptions. One cannot develop a new Iranian or Islamic civilization; one can only revive them. We can revive our Iranian and Islamic civilization by paying attention to the dimensions and aspects of the modern world.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr studied his BA in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under the influence of the philosopher Frithjof Schuon. Nasr continued his studies in Harvard and received his MA in Geophysics in 1958 and his PhD in the history of science with emphasis on Islamic sciences. After teaching for a few years in different universities across the United States, he was offered a tenured position in the George Washington University, where he continues to teach till this day. 
“A Young Muslim Guide to the Modern World,” “Islam and the plight of modern man,” “Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn 'Arabi” and “The Need for a Sacred Science” are among his books. This is the in depth interview that we had with him. 

Q: Recently, there has been many discussions on the revival and reconstruction of the Islamic civilization and throughout the last century some prominent thinkers in the Muslim world have dedicated themselves to revive and reconstruct Islamic civilization. You are among the scholars who are actively committed to this cause. What do you propose as the most important strategies for the revival of the Islamic civilization? 

A: The first step is to recycle the principles of the Islamic civilization; namely, returning to the original forms of Islamic traditions, principles and ideas – from metaphysics to arts- which were stemmed from Islamic revelations. After the revelations were received [by the prophet], they were developed in different branches and inculcated in various cultural backgrounds in Iran and Egypt. 

We have to carry out two tasks to become familiar with the Islamic civilization; first, we have to preserve what has remained from the Islamic civilization – the buildings, poetry, philosophy, etc. these, we cannot ignore them, because we cannot start from scratch. Second, we have to recycle the principles of this civilization and add to it. 

Some people propagate that we have to construct a new Islamic civilization. I reject this idea completely. In fact, such a thing has never happened in history. Whenever a great religion is founded, it has given birth to a civilization; a civilization that then experienced diverse eras, ebb and flows, and accomplishments and downfalls.  For instance, the Chinese civilization is a four thousands-year-old civilization. From the early Chinese religions, Confucianism and Taoism, to Mao’s communist China – which was just a superficial upper layer, under which the deeper roots were maintained- there has been one Chinese civilization that has experienced extreme ups and downs. This is true for India and Hinduism as well. These ebbs and flows can also be observed in Christianity and Islam. 

I do not believe that we can build a new civilization without new divine revelations. According to Islamic ideas, there will not going to be new revelations. Islam is the last religion and the Prophet Muhamad, the last prophet. Thus, we are confronted with two tasks. The first task is to preserve the remnants of the Islamic civilization. I absolutely reject this excuse that this a modern world and that we have to imitate the West. Second, we have to recycle the principles of this civilization based on the extant texts and what is written about it. We have to try to find new applications for these principles in order to keep this civilization alive. 

For instance, there is no need that the new cities to be designed after the model of Seljuq cities like Yazd or Kashan; however, they should not look like Paris. Civil architecture has become so similar to western cities; as if we never had a philosophy of civil engineering in our country. We have to consider our own civil engineering principle and apply them based on the current situation and needs. This is a lesser illustration that I presented. We have to move along these lines in other domains such as philosophy, literature, arts and calligraphy. 

Q: You mentioned philosophy. What role can philosophy play in the revival of the Islamic civilization? 

A: Philosophy can play an essential role. Primarily, only a philosophical worldview can provide an answer to this question: why we must preserve our civilization? There is a philosophy behind the thought that we must maintain our civilization; it is not merely based on habit or inherited from our predecessors. We see the beauty and truth of this civilization; qualities that we believe have absolute value, hence, we are trying to preserve them.

Philosophy is intertwined with such thinking. Namely, we cannot reconstruct civilizations without deep philosophical thought. Will Durant, a western writer, whose works are translated into Farsi has worked on the history of humankind. Another well-known scholar in this field is Arnold Toynbee. They have written history books on different civilizations. They could have not done so without paying attention to the philosophies that existed in these civilizations. Therefore, there is a philosophy of historiography of civilizations. Philosophy is always located in the center. First, historiography cannot be done without philosophy and second, without the Islamic philosophy – in its profoundest definition- the details about our civilization cannot be revealed. 

The calculations necessary for building the Congregational (jameh) Mosque of Isfahan were not carried out solely by architectural knowledge; there was also need for being acquainted with ‘sacred geometry’ and ‘traditional Islamic mathematics’ ensued from Islamic philosophy. Consequently, philosophy can play an important role in the revival of Islamic civilization. 

Q: For the last few centuries, the dominance of the West can be sensed everywhere around the world. How would the new Islamic civilization, with the qualities that you propose, relate to this western civilization?

A: The relation between the Islamic civilization and the western civilization has a past, a present and a future. I believe that these three phases differ immensely. In the distant past, for instance in the Middle Ages, the western civilization was like a sister to the Islamic civilization. Although, the Crusades took place in Sicily and Spain and other regions; the westerners were Christian and a part of the Abrahamic religions; a family to which Islam belongs.  

The western culture was profoundly under the influence of Islamic culture, not only in philosophy, but also in science. Although, one might not be able to observe it in the first glance. There were fundamental differences between the church and the mosque; nevertheless, when one looked deeper within, one could see that there are many similarities between these two civilizations. These deep-seated similarities were the reason that the West became belligerent toward Islam. The West did not believe that God have sent a new powerful religion so close to Christianity. Subsequently, simultaneously there was a kind of religious enmity and a serious cultural respectfulness in all fields, from arts and literature to architecture towards Islam. 

During the Renaissance, one of the most important aspects was enmity toward Islam. Nothing is more ridiculous that some modern Muslim scholars say that the greatness of Islam is that it led to Renaissance in Europe. This is the gravest insult to Islam. This incorrect notion means that Islam led to atheism and humanism in the West. It is not so. Islam and Islamic sciences played an important role in the scientific revolution that Galileo commenced in the 17th century. When Galileo was young, he had written commentaries on a famous Spanish Muslim physicist, Avempace. 

All in all, the Renaissance was the era of enmity towards Islam. If the Muslims have learned this, they would have learned a lot. They [the Muslims] have forgotten that they [the Europeans] took more than a thousand Arabic words out of Latin to eliminate alien influence in Latin. 

The Renaissance was not really close to Islam. In fact, in many branches such as philosophy, natural sciences and mathematic it was the exact opposite. Thus, from the Middle Ages to Renaissance and to the 20th century, the West continued to be hostile towards Islam. I repeat that in the Middle Ages, the West was against Islam; however, it respected Islamic culture and Islamic rational sciences. After the Renaissance, the hate remained but hostility toward Islamic sciences and culture and civilization was added to it. The issue remains unsolved even now. 

In the contemporary era, from the 18th and 19th century to the current time, in the middle of the destruction of the Islamic civilizations through colonialization, some westerners got interested in Islamic civilization and orientology.  Missionaries studied Islam and Islamic culture which gradually found a scientific format in the 19th century. First, in Germany, France and England and then in the United States and other countries orientology was established as an academic branch; a branch that Islamology is located in its center. 

Thus, the West acquired this false self-confidence that it knows Islam very well; because the western scholars applied their 18th century agnostic methodology – which was rational and based on arguments – to analyze Islam and the Islamic civilization. As if they knew Islam better than the Muslims themselves. This circus continued until the WWII. Then, a kind of upheaval occurred within the orientology field. A group of orientologist gained prominence, who were Islamologists but did not comply with the orientologist ideas. People like Norman Kemp Smith, Louis Massignon and Henry Corbin, some French scholars as well as English and American one, found that Islamic civilization has religious and intellectual authenticity. They endeavored to create and propagate a new kind of orientology and Islamology in the European and American universities. 

On the other hand, the traditional thought that was originated by René Guénon around the 1920s in France established a significant movement and scholars like Frithjof Schuon and Titus Burckhardt presented the original and authentic Islamic truths to the Western civilization. In England, Martin Lings, and in the United States, Huston Smith wrote within the Islamic tradition; however, they were located in the West, and consequently they were able to use western discourse to publish Islamic truths. 

This is our current state of affairs. On the one hand, the traditionalist, neutral westerners and a new group of Muslims who are fluent in English are writing to present the authentic Islamic ideas; Muslims like I, who work in the West and write in English. The number of Muslims writing in English or other languages such as French, German and Italian is increasing and this is very significant. Consequently, for the first time, the authentic Islam is presented for the first time in our time. 
On the other hand, orientology in its old form is still being used and missionaries are attacking Islam anew. A new kind of Islamophobia accompanies these trends. Many are trying to promote this Islamophobia. I cannot make sense of this, either it is because of the atomic bomb or something else, I don’t know what they are afraid of. It should be noted that the Islamophobia wave is very much strong in Europe. It exists in France, Denmark, England and Germany; a new anti-Islam movement is developed in these countries and in the United States.  

I think that this movement will not last long in the United States. At the moment, Islam lives on in the United States. Muslim minorities are present in the United States, similar to the Jewish minority, and they are all considered part of the American society. Additionally, 25 million Muslims live in Europe. The future of Islam is not only in the Muslim countries but also in the West; because, the West is the center for global communication and military and economic power. The Muslim minority that lives in Europe now, consist of intellectuals who have been influential in shaping the future of the Islamic world. 
I am not counting the Muslim populations of Albania or Kosovo or other Muslim European countries; although there are a lot of Muslims in these countries. I am referring to European Muslims who have immigrated to Europe or converted to Islam in Europe in the last 50 or 60 years. I believe that the presence of Islam in the West is strong, consistent and profound. 

Q: You just mentioned Islamophobia. Part of the problem stems from the fundamentalists rising to power in the Muslim world. To some extent, the terrorist acts of these fundamentalist groups is an excuse for islamophobia. How can we solve this problem? What is the cure? 

A: From our Muslim point of view, this problem can be solved easily. However, it does not seem that the West wants this. In fact, there are two solutions to this problem. First, we should not act in a way that can be criticized by the westerners. For instance, the massacres that happen in Syria and Iraq are considered deeds done by all Muslims. Not every Muslims is responsible for these atrocities; but they are all considered responsible for it. When, I walk on the street in the United States as a Muslim, unavoidably I am considered an ambassador of Islam. Therefore, whatever happens in the Muslim World, I am considered responsible for. 
Right now, the clergy in the Islamic worlds, especially the Sunni clergy must take a stance against atrocities committed in the name of Islam. They must show a much stronger position in denouncing these activities. 

One cannot remain silent about this issue. I am not saying that a certain person is not articulate enough. I am saying that some clergy, specifically the Sunni clergy do not renounce the fundamentalists as they ought to and do not take a strong stance against them. Unfortunately, the western media do not publish the ones who do speak against these fundamentalists. Therefore, the Muslim world must implement the first strategy; namely, the clergy must take a firm stand against the vicious things done in the name of Islam. The second strategy is to connect with good-natured Jewish and Christian people to facilitate conversation on the true nature of what is considered Islam. 

In the 17th century France, Richelieu rose to power and became the First Minister of the State. He was a cardinal and wore cross on his lapel. Now, imagine that the current French Prime Minister, Mr. Valls, wears a cross on his coat. Such a thing is unimaginable. When Richelieu wore a cross Christianity was powerful and was considered responsible for everything. 

The reality is that because of power of Islam in the East, if there is an atrocity done in its realm, Muslims are blamed. We should clarify for the Christians and the Jewish that Islam is not the reason that these crimes against humanity are committed. They are in fact deviations of the Islam. As one can deviate from democracy or communism, one can deviate from Islam. It is possible to deviate from an agnostic ideology as it is possible to deviate from a religious worldview. 

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