Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Islam – Book Review

Hossein Nasr at the Massachusetts Institute of...
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I seem to have posted rather a lot on Islam of late. This wasn’t really intentional it’s just that circumstances – admittedly an existing interest – seemed to dictate. This was partly due to the programs aired by the BBC and I still have to post on aspects of these. The programs were a little while ago now but their huge significance remains.

It seemed appropriate to find out more from a source other than the TV or Christian apologetic comments and lectures on the subject. I wanted to read what a Muslim has to say. Ken Samples some time ago delivered a series of Academy lectures at Christ Reformed Church, Anaheim, California on the subject of Islam. He used two books as particular reference sources – his own book on Worldviews, A World of Difference and the book I am going to comment on.

The second book recommended by Ken Samples is ‘Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization’ by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Nasr is a Muslim, not a Christian apologist.

I’m not really sure how far it’s possible to get concerning a review. But for now, any comments will be restricted to the Introduction (p, xi – xxv) and the first chapter ‘Islam and the Islamic World’ (p, 1 – 24). Nasr, the author, originates from Iran but now resides (AFAIK) in the US and is a distinguished Islamic scholar with a definite bias towards Sufism.

The Introduction – Comments

The very first thing that struck me was the seeming amount of angst because there are just so many negatives in the text. There is not one single reference to these negatives and I can only take it he means Christian apologists – or is that being overly sensitive. Presumably he’s reading these critics so is it too much to ask where his information is from! I began to underline and mark the negative words and phrases but there were so many of them that I had to stop underlining as it was getting silly. See what you think, but here’s a list of words from the first few pages and I think you’ll get my drift:

‘so-called experts’ ‘prejudices and ideological biases’ ‘distorted and tainted’ ‘errors and deviations’ (p xii) ‘perpetuated religious opposition to Islam’ ‘disdain’ ‘inferior’ ‘distorted’ ‘hubris’ (p. xiii) and one more ‘disdain’ over the page (xiv). There was much more of the same till about page xviii but by page xiv it was enough!

It’s not till nearly the end of The Introduction that we are told where he is coming from. So on p. xxiii we read ‘The present work …. is written from within the Islamic perspective and from the traditional point of view, from the perspective of the sacred and universal teachings of Islam as they were revealed and later transmitted over the ages.’

Another aspect is the amount of claims made. I’ll confess some of them may be true, but he really does over egg his case by claiming more for Islam than is reasonable (I realised later that he’s able to make these claims based on his understanding of perennial truth – more on this in another post). But he hasn’t claimed any objectivity (yet) so I guess it’s more very biased claims for Islam. One example is a philosophy of music. But Augustine had already written on this in a work entitled On Music, ‘De Musica’ in Latin. It caused me to wonder how many people reading Nasr would know this and uncritically accept his claims. It made me suspicious of his other claims, especially because there are so few footnotes (10 notes for the whole book – I’m one of those people who actually reads the footnotes) and a biased recommended reading list at the end of the book.

He claims to be writing from a Traditional Islamic perspective, but it’s not quite clear what this is. To be fair more may be made clearer as I move further through the book (he does in Ch 1). Also, to be fair, I am reading this book with my Christian Worldview glasses on. But I will try to be fair and give him as much as I can.

Chapter 1 – Comments

The reason why Nasr and indeed Islam are able to make some extraordinary claims is made clear when you understand how it sees itself. It considers Adam (the first man Adam) as the first prophet of Islam and from this perspective reckons itself to be older even than Judaism and Christianity. I thought it was quite a clever bit of misdirection that enabled around 1.4 Billion people to have swallowed this story hook, line and sinker. And that’s tragic!

It’s revealing when Nasr claims Islam makes more of Adam & Abraham than Christianity (p.5). It’s not clear where he gets his Christian references from but it is definitely not a view I recognise in Christianity at all! Adam is vital to an understanding of the work of Christ, of the fall, of special creation and many other Christian doctrines. It’s this sort of deliberate misrepresentation of the Christian faith that is so difficult to counter. People love to believe a lie – and Islam has them in bucket-loads! It’s also a reminder that we (Christians) do not use the weapons of this world;

2Co 10:3-5
3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh.
4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.
5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,

 His traditional perspective covers – if I have understood correctly – the following several points that binds the Islamic community (Ummah). Here listed from p.8 without comment:

  • There is no god but God.
  • Muhammed is the messenger of God.
  • The Quran is the verbatim revelation of God.
  • The main rituals – prayers, fasting etc.
  • The grace (barakah) of the prophet and his deeds (Sunnah).
  • I should also add Jihad to this list – both spiritual and militaristic.

Concluding Thoughts

To conclude this brief review it must be said that despite the previous shortcomings the book is very readable and I’m enjoying reading it. It is revealing and instructive and I’m learning a lot about Islam which was the purpose of reading and one must also assume the aim of the author. One qualification however, is that I have no idea how Nasr is received in the Islamic world and is just one book probably among thousands. I think he has tried to fairly represent his own faith and from what I’ve read so far does a good job. Obviously as a Christian I have profound disagreements with Islam and I’ll try to cover some of these in other posts.