Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1933–)

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Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a Persian Islamic scholar and traditionalist philosopher. After receiving his primary school education in Iran, he was sent to the United States at the age of twelve and graduated from the Peddie School in New Jersey in 1950. He studied physics and mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1958 with specialization in Islamic cosmology and science. From 1958 until 1979, Nasr was professor of the history of science and philosophy at Tehran University where he became dean of the Faculty of Letters for some years. He also served as president of Aryamehr University in Iran. It was during these years in Iran that Nasr studied with such traditional philosophers as S. M. Kazim ʿAssar and S. M. Hossein Tabatabaʾi.

After the Iranian Revolution of 1979, Nasr migrated to the United States and taught at Temple University before joining the George Washington University in 1984. In 1981, Nasr gave the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, which was published the same year as Knowledge and the Sacred. In 1999 he was chosen to be the first Muslim scholar to receive the Templeton Religion and Science Course Award. Most recently, a volume in the Library of Living Philosophers Series has been dedicated to him and his work.

As a prolific scholar and philosopher, Nasr has written extensively on topics as diverse as metaphysics and cosmology, tradition and modernity, Islamic science, comparative mysticism, Islamic art, interfaith dialogue, Sufism, and the environmental crisis. He is a prominent member of the traditionalist school of thought that includes such names as René Guénon, Ananda Coomoraswamy, and Frithjof Schuon. Nasr has played a key role in formulating and disseminating the ideas of the traditionalists on traditional metaphysics, sacred view of nature, and the critique of modern science. His Knowledge and the Sacred, his magnum opus in the field of philosophy and comparative religion, attempts to reconstruct traditional philosophy as an alternative to the modern worldview that Nasr describes as metaphysically blind and reductionist. Like the other traditionalists, Nasr places religionor what Schuon calls religio perennis at the heart of human history. A closely related term that permeates his work is perennial philosophy, which again points to the universality of tradition. In this view, tradition does not mean customs but signifies that primordial truth of divine origin that lies at the center of all cultures and religious traditions. Tradition is thus closely related to revelation and its articulation in philosophy, theology, mysticism, and sacred art.

Nasr's concept of traditional metaphysics is centered around a holistic and hierarchic view of reality. Saturated with traditional theocentrism, Nasr's view of metaphysics posits God or the One as the source, center, and end of all there is. This principle takes on many different forms and formulations in different traditions but remains essentially the same. In keeping with the spirit of premodern philosophy, the spiritual has a higher ontological status over the material because the former is taken to reveal the divine and the latter to conceal it.The imagery of the great chain of being defines a good part of Nasr's metaphysical works. Nasr also attempts to create a holistic view of reality by showing the interrelatedness of the various levels and states of being.

Because every level of reality has its own meaning and place in the total economy of divine creation, none of them can be reduced to a lower order of reality nor the whole to one single element. According to Nasr, it is this teleological and hierarchic view of the universe that has prevented the premodern sciences of nature from slipping into reductionism and materialism. In addition to Knowledge and the Sacred, Nasr has provided a detailed analysis of these issues in his other works including The Need for a Sacred Science (1993) and An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (1964). In his major works on traditional metaphysics and cosmology, Nasr's main concern has been to revive scientia sacra (sacred science) by showing the underlying unity and interrelatedness of the transmitted, intellectual, and physical sciences under the umbrella of metaphysics.

Nasr sees all cultures and civilizations emanating from an essentially religious vision of the universe. This has led him to author a number of works on what he calls the "sacred view of the universe." From an ethical point of view, nature is seen as a sacred trust from God and from a metaphysical and theological point of view as vestigia Dei (signs of God; ayāt Allah in Arabic). This suggests that the order of nature has an essential telos, which makes it teleological, sacred, and intrinsically intelligible all at once. Nasr's lifelong interest in traditional and modern science can thus be seen as an extension of his view of metaphysics. In a number of works on Islamic science, a term Nasr has introduced to the field, he discussed the meaning of science within the context of the Islamic religious worldview and analyzed the achievements of Islamic scientific tradition in such fields as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, algebra, chemistry, physics, geography, and natural history.

Nasr's works on the relationship between religion, science, and the environmental crisis have had a longstanding impact in both the Islamic and European intellectual circles. His early work The Encounter of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, first appeared in 1968 and was one of the first books to predict the environmental crisis. The book is a philosophical critique of the modern conception of nature as inert matter. This is also the first book in which Nasr takes up the challenge of modern science and its secular outlook. The second important book to appear in this line of writings is Religion and the Order of Nature (1996) in which he gives an account of the rise of modern science, criticizes the secular and reductionist philosophies of nature, and presents the traditional religious view of cosmos and the human body as a viable alternative to modern scientism and reductionism.

An overall concern of Nasr's thought has been to define the fault lines of tradition and modernity. As a traditionalist philosopher, Nasr defines modernity as a distinct worldview based on the denial of the transcendent, and rejects it. He considers the environmental crisis, the modern culture of nihilism and skepticism, and the rise of scientific positivism and materialism a direct result of the various forms of modernism. Against the proponents of modernism in both the European and the Islamic world, Nasr calls for a revival of the Islamic intellectual tradition in particular and traditional thought in general to address the challenges of the modern world. His work on Islamic philosophy and Sufism has been instrumental in showing the relevance of this tradition for questions of immediate concern to the contemporary Muslim world.

See also Cosmology; Islamic Philosophy; Metaphysics; Nature, Philosophical Ideas of; Sufism.


works by nasr in english

An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Three Muslim Sages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

The Encounter of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man. London: Allen and Unwin, 1968.

Science and Civilization in Islam. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Sufi Essays. London: Allen and Unwin, 1971.

Islamic Spirituality. 2 vols. New York: Crossroads Publications, 19871992.

Knowledge and the Sacred. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

The Need for a Sacred Science. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia. Edited by M. Aminrazavi. London: Curzon Press, 1994.

History of Islamic Philosophy, edited, with Oliver Leaman. London: Routledge, 1996.

Religion and the Order of Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, edited by L. Hahn, L. Stone, and R. Auxier. Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court, 2000.

Ibrahim Kalin (2005)