In Search of the Sacred: The Philosophical Thought of Syed Hossein Nasr

In Search of the Sacred: The Philosophical Thought of Syed Hossein Nasr
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Tahir Iqbal

Syed Hossein Nasr is one of the leading Muslim philosophers and intellectuals of the contemporary era. In the year 2000, the twenty-eighth volume of “The Library of Living Philosophers” was devoted to the philosophy of Syed Hossein Nasr, placing him in the company of Einstein, Sartre, Russell, Whitehead and other great luminaries of the 20th century. He was born in 1933 in Iran and is currently working as a Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University.
The great scholar is a revolutionary person who is promoting the traditional/perennial understanding of the religions and is very much influenced of perennial philosophers like Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon and Coomaraswamy. Nasr’s concern is to find the truth embedded in the universal traditions of religions and sacred art. He believes that there is a transcendent unity of religions. Ultimate reality is beyond all determination and limitation. There are primordial/universal religious truths which are at the foundations of global religions .In the words of Schuon, “Pure and Absolute Truth can only be found beyond all its possible expressions: these expressions, as such, cannot claim the attributes of this Truth; relative remoteness from it is expressed by their differentiation and multiplicity, by which they are strictly limited.”
For Hossein Nasr, religious exclusivism is parlous for the nexus of mankind and peace, for it promotes extremism and violence. To get swathed with tolerance and co-existence, one has to read/understand the various traditions of revelation and the sacred art of religions. This approach is not to syncretize the various traditions and make a smorgasbord of religious particulars like Akbar’s din-i-Ilahi but to understand, value, and flourish the pluralistic weltanschauung.
He is the first person in the West who expounded the role of religion to solve environmental crises. The environment is destroyed by the dominating philosophy of modernism. To be modern means to destroy the nature. The gradual marginalization of religion in western civilization, asserted Nasr, is a major cause of the environmental crisis. According to him, in traditional societies, nature was seen as one’s wife, but the modern West turned it into a prostitute. The secular sciences divorced from the transcendental, cosmic quiddity, and the ideologies imbrued with greed, led to exploit resources without restraint. Being a traditionalist, he debunks modernism as a philosophy of removing God from the center of reality and putting man in His place. His books ‘Religion and the Order of Nature’ and ‘Man and Nature’ are a key philosophical work on ecology.
The Glorious Quran, he argues, is the foundation of Islamic spirituality. It contains episodes of sacred history which in reality depicts the epic of the life of the soul. Unlike many modern Muslim apologetics, Hossein Nasr, considers it absurd and grotesque to try to find detailed scientific information in the Quran, for it is a book of signs and not science. The whole gamut of Islamic civilization is the emanation from the fountain of this Divine book. He affirms that there is a coherence between three grand revelations- the cosmos, the human state and religion. God has sent the religion which acts as a key to understand the other two books: the cosmos and the soul.
One of the best features of Nasr’s approach is that he has ability to present the metaphysical understanding of great sages and philosophers of Islam in contemporary language. He played an elephantine role in reviving the philosophical tradition and in bringing out its significance to the modern world. Nasr sees Islamic philosophy not as the history of ideas and thoughts but as living philosophy which seeks to understand the truth. Much of the Islamic philosophy is in fact a hermeneutic unveiling of the two grand books of revelation, the Quran and the cosmos. The Muslims should imbibe its quiddity and use it to deconstruct the modern atheistic/agnostic expositions allied with ontology and universe.
Much of Nasr’s writing deals with esoteric and metaphysical aspect of tradition. The crisis that Western culture suffers from lies in its inability to recognize the cosmic significance of esoteric ethos. The collective thinking of the West based on the aversion towards wisdom, and the materialistic philosophies divorced of spirituality. “The common ground of both Capitalism and Socialism”, says Nasr, “is a materialistic view of life and being.” And both added more to the growing wretchedness of Mankind.

—The author is an Assistant Professor (Islamic Studies), at Higher Education Department, J & K. He can be reached at:

One Response to "In Search of the Sacred: The Philosophical Thought of Syed Hossein Nasr"

  1. Hamid Naseem Rafiabadi   January 31, 2018 at 8:29 am

    Masha Allah !A good piece and much needed one .Keep it up .I found in your writing a spark and a balanced approach which is informed with the formal study of Islamic studies ,unlike the unbridled ,unidimensional bragging of an immature student of everything except Islam.We need to do justice with many things while writing on such issues where great personages like Prof.S Hossein Nasr is involved .I had the honour of being one of his supposed to Phd scholars in 1982.But due to various reasons I could not join him at Washington and he had written to me to immediately join the programme after I was being admitted for Ph.D at Temple University .But nevertheless ,though I could not study under him ,but I always benefited from his numerous writings and quoted him widely in my writings .Though I do not subscribe to his many ideas ,but I ,however,agree with him in the matters related to dialogue and environment etc