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Islam by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the world’s leading Islamicists and an Iranian professor of Islamic Studies (previously of Tehran University and currently of George Washington University), and president of the Foundation for Traditional Studies has presented the world with written and published eighteen books on the topic of Islam. Throughout his books, professor Nasr offers a clear introduction to Islam, and certain basic aspects of this rich and diverse religion, tradition, culture and civilization of more than a billion believers. His book, “Islam, Religion, History, and Civilization”, takes the reader on a journey throughout the history of Islam from initiation to today where he explains Islamic beliefs, practices, institutes, and schools of thought. Professor Nasr also discusses the relationship between Islam and other religions and also the spiritual and religious significance of Islam based on traditional Islamic beliefs. He intellectually represents Islam in such a way that it would be acceptable by the majority of Moslems as well as non-Moslems.

Through the introduction of this book, professor Nasr expresses the importance of knowledge of Islam for those who are concerned with the situation of contemporary humanity and believers of the essentiality of a bond between East and West; especially considering a large number of Moslems with racial and cultural diversity. Also, individuals interested in the reality of religion and the spiritual world, as well as those attracted to the birth and nurture of different cultures, can benefit from the knowledge of Islam. Considering the crucial rule of this religion in the development of different cultures including the Western civilization, Nasr believes that all mankind can benefit from the knowledge of Islam. In the first chapter of the book, Nasr explains the penetration of the reality of Islam in the consciousness of Westerners, in various forms and from different directions, which has led the world to become aware of the significance of Islam nowadays. Westerners have realized the need for true Islamic knowledge.

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Professor Nasr strongly believes that true Islam has yet not been portrayed, in an unbiased manner, as in each period through history “Islamic studies has been distorted and tainted by a particular set of errors and deviations”. Hence the urge for an unbiased and realistic look at Islam, providing a clear and intellectual introduction to the religion as well as the history and civilization, has encouraged Nasr to create his overviews. He declares that his books are written and based upon the traditional point of view of the Islamic perspective, however without any prejudices and ideological biases.

Professor Nasr explains that Islam identifies itself as the final link of a long chain of prophecy; the final major religion and the prophet of Islam the “Seal of Prophets”. Islam is also a return to the primordial religion. In its concept of Unity, the fundamental doctrine of Islam, it returns to the elemental idea that connects Adam to God and defines religion. Although Islam expresses itself as the ultimate and final religion, it honours all previous religions and prophets including Judaism and Christianity. Nasr explains the universality of Islam is in its return to predominate religion and its particularity is in its finality. As the word “Islam” means “surrender to the Will of the One God, Allah”, the Islamic message is simple and clear. The foundations of Islam are indicated by Nasr to be the Quran and the prophet of Islam. Nasr explores Quran’s significance and structure and Quranic sciences as well as the Prophets’ life and deeds and his Hadith and codification. Professor Nasr, furthermore, explains the central doctrine of Islam is belief in God as he is in Himself, the Absolute, the Perfect Good, Pure Being and Beyond Being.

And then believe in Prophecy and Revelation, ” God has never left a people without revelation”, The Angelic World, as “The angles are of course luminous and forces for good, totally immersed in the beatitude of the divine presence and subservient to His will”, The Human State and Man and Woman, as human being both God’s servant and vicegerent on earth. The last two doctrines of Islam are considered by the author to be “The Cosmos”, the world of nature and human order, and Eschatology, the end-time. Unfortunately, this review is too brief to allow us to get involved with the details, however, it is astonishing how simple, and at the same time comprehensive, are Islamic beliefs. Islam, according to Nasr, is all based on logic, reasoning, and evidence. Upon facing an unjustifiable matter, one should know that defaults are related to human deficiencies and not to the theology and methodology of Islam.

Another important theme of his book, “Islam, Religion, History, and Civilization”, is that although Islam foundations are simple and clear, this religion is so comprehensive that includes all aspects of human life, ” Islam is not only a religion; it is also a creator and living spirit of a major world civilization….”. Religion, in the Islamic view, is not only a part of life; rather it is the total way of life. Nasr has provided enough evidence for this claim throughout the book. Logical and comprehensive Islamic laws and regulations cover a wide range of private as well as public aspects of human life. Divine Law of Islam (al-Shariah) has regulations in terms of how to treat body organs, as well as determinations of relations to other human beings and also all other living organisms. Islam identifies no boundaries, differentiation, or preference among Muslims due to differences in ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Dr. Nasr explains the unavoidable multiplicity of this unity, into religious groups such as Sunnism and Shiism, which in the end, however, is led back into the unity of all Muslims. Great emphasis on “Unity” resides at the heart of the Islamic Message. All existing diverse schools and interpretations of Islam are rooted and united in the principles of Islamic revelation. Islam welcomes this diversity in views of its believers, as the Prophet has said:” The difference of view among the scholars of my community is a blessing from God.”

In the later chapters of the book, the author has provided sufficient and accurate information to convince the reader of the rapid and massive distribution of Islam not only as a religion but also as a culture and civilization. His descriptions of how Islam spread through Africa and China are concise and clear. In the section The Global Distribution of Muslims and Zones of Islamic Civilization, Nasr states: “most Westerners automatically identify Muslims with Arabs”. He has directly responded to those who have tried to diminish Islam to exclusively an Arab custom with the fact that 4/5 of the world’s Muslims are non-Arab Persians, Turkish, Chinese, Europeans and many others with different ethnic, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds. Nasr has responded to those who have tried to diminish Islam and underrate it to just an “Arab” religion. The basis for many of his arguments is not only that Islam being a God-given religion but also having a good logical foundation to all his claims and that is definitely much more than what we can say about most of his critics. Many critics of Nasr’s books, in general, use the same arguments in their own religion as fundamental concepts however when it comes to Islam, they do not accept the fundamental basics as God’s word, with much more reason and the logic behind each concept.

This book emphasizes what all Moslems believe in common, that is “There is no god but God,” that “Muhammad is the messenger of God,” that “the Quran is the verbatim revelation of God.” However, there exist individuals’ interpretations that have led to terrorist acts, falsely believing in terrorism being a route to heaven. These acts may have been promoted by some pretentious frauds under the title of Islam. Some have criticized this book for not addressing the event of Sep. 11 of 2001. Nasr has mentioned this event a few times in this book however has gone into more details of this event in his previous books rather than this one. In this book, Nasr has created a classical and timeless primer on Islam, the religion, history, and civilization, as it has been confirmed by many unprejudiced and unbiased readers’ opinions. However, to address those critics claims, I have to say that an important fact that critics of Islam and Nasr’s books may have neglected is that not all apparent forerunners, pioneers, and governments who claim Islamic rules and regulations, have been actually and completely acting upon Islamic rules and laws. For Islam, as for all other religions, not all believers fulfill what is expected based on true Quranic rules.

Hence the concerns raised by the attacks of Sep.11, other terrorists acts, or the treatment of women under Islam’s title in many countries have absolutely nothing to do with true Islam but have everything to do with individual’s or governments’ minds and decisions. It is a shame that Islam’s name has been associated with such events. Islam, as Nasr has been declared, values individuals freedom, specifically women, who have preserved a special status and dignity in Quranic words. In the section, The Pillars of Islam, Nasr explains the Islamic practices and ethics, specifically “Jihad”, The Exertion in the Path of God, which have been abused by imposter rulers to their personal advantage. Whereas, in true Islamic laws, Jihad is aimed to preserve the Islamic community’s honour and rights without invading others. Other Islamic ethics include perform what is good and refrain from what is evil, the importance of family bonds, the ban on Usury, Endowments, and emphasis on God’s Law being the law of every Islamic society and inseparability and coherence of religion from politics.

In the chapter of Islamic History, Nasr takes the reader through a journey of Islamic history starting from the Prophets era and the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, to The Umayyad (40H-132H), then The Abbasid ending in the current situation of Africa and South Asia. Furthermore, Nasr addresses The Islamic world in Contemporary History as most of the Islamic world in the 13/19 was colonized by one form or another by various European powers with some exceptions, namely Afghanistan and Arabian Peninsula. At the end of World War I the independence movements started and at the end of World War II, those movements against colonialism were strongly effective. Nasr, however, expresses that although, today, nearly every nation in the Islamic world is independent there is fewer free and at peace.

Starting with Schools of Islamic Thoughts, The schools of Kalam, “Theology”, Schools of Metaphysics and Gnosis, Schools of Islamic Philosophy and Theosophy, Nasr compares the traditional Islamic views and theologies with more modernism ideologies. He concludes that despite all the movements, propaganda and attacks on the Traditional Point of View in modern times, Islamic religious life and thought has remained basically monotonous within the framework of Orthodoxy and Traditional, as it is expected from a timeless, final revelation. In the chapter of Millennialism, whose movements have had occurred from Africa to India, Nasr talks about various Mahdisms who, generally have had stood against Traditional beliefs.

Revivalism and Fundamentalisms chapter focuses on the upgrade of Islam in political life via the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the rise of Islamic activism in Lebanon and among Palestinians, the revival movement in Egypt, and an overall increase of power in many Islamic countries. Modernists tend to introduce Western-inspired nationalism, which in Nasr’s opinion has caused adaptation of Western technology and educational methodology into Islamic countries. In Persia and some Arabic countries, Modernist has approached Marxism, while many Muslim scholars whom studies were completed in the west began to criticize Traditional scholars. Although so-called “Fundamentalism” might exist, it should not be mistaken with “Traditionalism”. Although most propagated by western media, fundamentalism is much fainter and anemic than portrayed in today’s Islamic world.

Despite this reality, many whom interests and advantages call for weakening Islamic power, hence, enhancing their power on Islamic countries, have hung on to the term Fundamentalism. Moreover, the term fundamentalism has been affiliated with “Terrorism” in order to authorize the invasion of every Islamic country and preserve those opportunists’ power over the East and all over the world. Traditional Islam today, as Nasr has portrait truthfully, continuously has been expressed in many Islamic schools. There has been an attempt, however, through the Islamic world to review the resuscitation of the traditional teaching to live and think more fully and truly Islamic rather than emulate foreign methods.

Professor Nasr has met his objective as this book presents a clear, brief and intellectual introduction to Islam, and an overview of its history and civilization, based on traditional Islamic views and without prejudice. True Islam is a divine religion with absolute truth embedded in it. Nasr’s books are beneficial to Moslems as well as non-Moslems; as many of the concerns and questions of both groups has been addressed in intellectual, logical, and persuasive manners. “Islam, Religion, History, and Civilization” presented an analysis of Islamic foundation, theology, history and civilization, concentrating on the academic and theoretical aspects of Islam, without excessive attention on the unnecessary details.

This book upgrades and enhances Moslems’ knowledge and appreciation of their religion, especially in historical aspects of Islamic revelation which most individuals’ knowledge and awareness are limited. It positively influences the vision of Islam as a religion, culture and civilization. Perhaps the chapter which influenced me as a reader the most was What Does Islam Teach Us About Religion? Where professor Nasr defines “ … to be human is to carry God’s spirit at the dept of ones being and therefore to be concerned with religion and the author of all religion who has breathed his spirit into us”. Sufism, which Nasr seems to be most fascinated by, is defined in this book as the “inner dimension of the religion”.

This mystical branch of Islam presents a stream of theology, unique in its extreme emotional generosity, spiritual poetry and music. Thus, Nasr captures the reader’s attention to Islam’s spiritual guidance. In the Islamic view, all of us are capable of reaching extremely high spiritual levels, as God has breathed his spirit into us and we are a “form” (surah) of God. The end of “the path” is God. This realistic introduction of Islam, “Islam, Religion, History, and Civilization”, has been represented to the world just in time as there exist many misconceptions about Islam worldwide, and especially in North America.

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