The Heart of Islam

In the preface to his book, The Heart of Islam 1, Seyyed Hossein Nasr says:

The world is thirsty for information about Islam, especially in America, yet this thirst has generally not been quenched with healthy water. In fact, a torrent of “knowledge” has flooded the media from books to journals, radio, and television, much of which is based on ignorance, misinformation, and even disinformation. Not only has this torrent failed the cause of understanding, it has too frequently rendered the greatest disservice to the Western public in order to further particular ideological and political goals. …[p. xi]

[This book] seeks to render a service to all those Westerners genuinely interested in understanding authentic Islam and its relation to the West …[p. xiii]

As part of the parade of praise that has come to be expected to clutter the covers of books, Huston Smith says of this Nasr book that it “is exactly the right book … to counter the demonizing stereotypes of Islam that have proliferated with the war on terrorism.” In his preface, Nasr himself points out that the “distortion of matters Islamic in the West” actually “has a thousand-year-old history”.

But, are “demonizing” and “distortion”genuinely the best ways to characterize the manner in which the West generally regards Islam?

Make no mistake about it: There certainly have been some who, for assorted reasons, have intentionally misrepresented Islam, Islamic religious thought, Islamic cultures, and Islamic possibilities. Sometimes the intent seems so malicious that it even seems to make sense to say that what is intended is the “demonizing … of Islam”. However, what from the Western perspective would come closest to qualifying as demonization, actually only occurs when objectionable notions regarding Islamic belief are assigned or attributed to individuals simply by virtue of those individuals identifying themselves as Muslims without any regard whatsoever for whether those objectionable beliefs are held by each and every individual Muslim.

From the Western perspective, this sort of demonization is reprehensible precisely because, without regard for the individual as individual, it assigns to an individual characteristics used to describe or identify a group.

According to the Western ethic, this is reprehensible at the very least because it denies that the ultimate identity is individual rather than communal. For example, some say that Islam justifies the essentially indiscriminate killing of civilians via suicide bombings, and the fact is that some Muslims apparently believe Islam provides precisely such a justification. However, it does not follow from this fact that if a person regards himself or herself as a Muslim, then the person thinks that Islam justifies such actions or that such actions are at all Islamic or at all Godly.

Still, not all alleged mis-characterizations, such as that which is said to have been done with regards to Islam and Muslims, derive from malicious intent. Indeed, some are most properly understood as part of the dialectic process, the goal of which can either be clarification (such as via distinction through the positing of incompatibilities or contraries) or the blazing of a new course for understanding whereby what had previously seemed incommensurable and in conflict can come to be seen to be (at least more) compatible.

So, when not just an individual but organized collections of Muslims exhibit through some extended period of time a pattern of intentionally indiscriminate killings which they allege to be in the name of Islam, or in the name of God, or in line with what God commands, then it is not at all unreasonable or necessarily “demonizing” to put forth the possibility – to put forth the challenge – either that Islam is now, in this age, predominately a resort to violence or that the God of Islam and Islamic notions of Godliness are necessarily, intractably, and irredeemably in conflict with the notions of justice and goodness surviving at present in the West.

One need not call oneself a Muslim to be able to begin undermining the dialectic maneuver, but both those who put forth the challenge to Islam as well as Muslims themselves will, naturally enough, tend to prefer that it be Muslims who correct the characterization put forth regarding Islam.

The responses on behalf of or by Muslims have often been recriminative, but the challenge that has been put forth is best recognized and treated as an invitation to conversation, actually a call to discourse, and recriminations do not themselves serve to accept the invitation or answer the call.

Based on the above cited remarks from its preface, Nasr’s book does not actually seem to be intended as a part of discourse; the book seems intended to do little more than serve as a conduit for information both about Islam and Islamic cultures. Good information is most definitely essential in order for there to be even the potential for worthwhile discourse, and Nasr’s book is replete with relevant information. However, included as part of this information are what might be properly described as stances, stances which may well make genuine discourse next to impossible.

If discourse is virtually impossible, it is utterly reasonable to expect that problems arising between the Islamic world and the non-Muslim world will be equally irresolvable, leaving open as options only those courses of action which, at best, seek to do nothing more than stave off the anticipated effects of conflict which get conceived of as the most immediately deleterious. In other words, without discourse, the understanding which Nasr hopes to engender would just result in the world getting more of the same that has already taken place.


We often hear it claimed that the problems in the Near and Middle East as well as in the Indian subcontinent are intractable and unsolvable problems. Of course, many political and cultural problems in other parts of the world seem equally intractable. But, at the core of most of the problematic situations ranging primarily from the Mediterranean eastward is Islam, regardless of the differences that there are between the various Islamic practices and cultures in those areas. This is widely acknowledged both by Muslims themselves – including Muslims in the affected areas – and by non-Muslims.

For a multitude of the problems that afflict the Muslim world, the West veritably insists that “democracy” is a condition necessary for Muslims to be able to effect any remediation. And Nasr is correct to say that what the West means by “democracy” is the secularist democracy which is part of – which is at the core of – what Nasr designates as modernism.

Secularism, including secularist democracy, has become so very central to the contemporary West that Muslims are assigned such descriptions as “modernizer”, “fundamentalist”, and “’extrem[ist]’ according to their distance, on either side, from th[e] designated center” of that respectability which is identified with and as secular modernism. Nasr, however, decries and denies the respectability that secular modernism assigns itself, because, as he says:

… it is forgotten that modernism is itself one of the most fanatical, dogmatic, and extremist ideologies that history has ever seen. It seeks to destroy every other point of view … If one is going to speak of “fundamentalism” in religions, then one must include “secularist fundamentalism,” which is no less virulently proselytizing and aggressive toward anything standing in its way than the most fanatical form of religious “fundamentalism.” [p. 109]

With regards to Islam, Nasr also rejects how the term “’fundamentalists’ … is now used in the Western media”:

In fact, it would be the greatest error to fail to distinguish the traditionalists from the “fundamentalists” and to include anyone who wishes to preserve the Islamic way of life and thought in the “fundamentalist” category. [p. 108]

According to Nasr, the “great majority of Muslims today belong to the traditionalist category and must be distinguished from both secularist modernizers and ‘fundamentalists’”.

A significant number of self-described secularists in the West might well likely agree with Nasr’s criticism of secular modernism, and, as part of discourse, they may be every bit as willing to accept that there can well be important distinctions to be had between traditionalist and fundamentalist Muslims.

Despite this, secularists (although not just secularists) would have a very different reaction to – indeed, they would be expected to see as a source of serious problems – the notion put forth by Nasr that

the vast majority of all Muslims, even in the most Westernized and modernized countries, would like to live according to the Shari’ah and to have their own freedom and democracy on the basis of their own understanding of these concepts and ideals … [p. 151]

To the Western ear, the association of the word Shari’ah with either freedom or democracy sounds like a contradiction. In fact, to the secular mind in particular, what Shari’ah indicates is virtually the opposite of freedom and democracy.

Nasr says:

Perhaps in modern times in the West no word in the vocabulary of the Islamic religion has been as distorted, maligned, misunderstood, and vilified as the word jihad … [p. 256]

Is the reflexive revulsion that many in the West have for Shari’ah the result of some similar maligning or misunderstanding?

Nasr reviews the different meanings that can be associated with the concept of jihad, and he cites remarks made by Muhammad to suggest an understanding of jihad which can cast that word in a manner which the West – even secularists in the West – can find more acceptable:

…after the great battle of Badr … in which the still idolatrous Meccans sought to defeat and destroy the nascent Islamic community in Medina, the Prophet, after having achieved victory, said, “You have returned from the lesser jihad to the greater (akbar) jihad.” When asked what the greater jihad was, he said, “It is the jihad against your passionate souls.”

The greater, and one might also say greatest (in Arabic the word akbar means both “greater” and “greatest”), jihad is therefore the inner battle to purify the soul of its imperfections … [p. 260]

But what about Shari’ah? Is there some better informed understanding of Shari’ah that would mitigate the disfavor in which many in the West hold this feature that is so critical to Islamic history, culture, thought, belief, and even Islamic governance? Is there some understanding about Shari’ah according to which “the vast majority of all Muslims … would like to live” that would make the problems of interaction between the West and the Islamic world seem less intractable?


At its most basic,

[t]he Shari’ah is the concrete embodiment of the Divine Will … There is no distinction between the religious and secular realms … In the Islamic perspective, Divine Law is to be implemented to regulate society and the actions of its members rather than society dictating what laws should be. [p. 117]

While some secularists will, no doubt, react negatively to the very notion of Divine Law in itself, Nasr anticipates that still others will instead object to the adequacy of any such laws simply owing to the fact of these laws having been put forth so very long ago in the context of a far different circumstance:

The injunctions of Divine Law are permanent, but the principles can also be applied to new circumstances as they arise. [p. 117]

In this way, Shari’ah can be seen to incorporate situational application or interpretation of law, much as occurs in the West by means of reference to precedent. And, just as the shape of legal interpretations in the West can often depend on which principles and precedents are to be emphasized or given priority, the different schools of jurisprudence in the Islamic world have developed according to the principles each tends to emphasize.

Accordingly, it is arguably erroneous “[t]o speak of the Shari’ah as being simply the laws of the seventh century fixed in time” [p. 118].

Yet, there is still the matter of whether the principles that undergird the Shari’ah are themselves suitable for application in any attempts that might be undertaken to establish improved relations with the West or with any other non-Muslim countries or communities.

For Muslims, the Quran is … the foundation of the Law, the final guide for ethical behavior [p.25]

[T]he emulation of the Sunnah, or wonts (in the sense of actions and deeds [including the Hadith]) of the Prophet [Muhammad] … is central to the whole of Islam [including the Shari’ah] [p. 28]

[T]he first Islamic society [in Medina] … has remained the ideal model for all later Islamic societies [p. 31]

While the Quran and the Sunnah (including the Hadith) can be said to locate or to serve as the sources of Islamic Shari’ah principles, those principles along with “the ideal model for … Islamic societies” are unavoidably matters of interpretation. Nasr says that

Throughout Islamic history, the consensus of the [Islamic] community has decided in the long run what new interpretations of the Quran and Sunnah on the level of both thought and action are permissible and what is to be rejected. [p. 85]

This sort of consensus could be at least part of what Nasr has in mind with the notion of a “democracy on the basis of [Muslims’] own understanding”. However, when the Quran and the Sunnah are “the foundation of the Law”, the Shari’ah, when it is ultimately the interpretations of the Quran and the Sunnah that foster development of the Shari’ah, the law of the land in any non-secular Muslim country, then are non-Muslims as free as Muslims to participate in Islamic governance, including legislation?


Nasr notes that:

What in classical texts is called ‘urf or ‘ahad, meaning human custom or habit, is considered valid in the Shari’ah itself if such a custom or habit does not contradict or contravene the Shari’ah. Therefore, human laws not derived from the Divine Law can become integrated into the Islamic legal system as long as they do not oppose the edicts of the Shari’ah. [pp. 121-122]

In a society ruled by the Shari’ah and in which Muslims are the majority, accepted religious minorities are absolved from following the Islamic Shari’ah except in that which concerns public order. According to the Islamic Shari’ah itself, Jews, Christians, and other “People of the Book,” … have their own Shari’ah [their own Divine Laws], and therefore their personal and communal affairs should be left to them. This is how the “community system,” or millat system, of the Ottoman world functioned for many centuries … the central government, although Islamic, recognized fully the social, economic, and especially religious rights of established minorities, so that there was no danger of the majority destroying the presence or identity of minority groups. [p. 125]

While Nasr’s explication goes some ways toward establishing the idea that there is some religious freedom and some personal as well as communal independence or autonomy under governments and legal systems defined by Islamic Shari’ah, that explication also highlights very problematic conditions.

Not only is there the proviso which demands that “the edicts of the Shari’ah” not be opposed, there is also the matter of just what are to be the “accepted religious minorities” and how that acceptance or acceptability is to be established or qualified. For instance, do atheists qualify as acceptable under Islamic Shari’ah?

Nasr would appear to be addressing such matters when he says that:

In modern society, the rights of citizens do not change whether those citizens fulfill their responsibilities towards God or even believe in God or not.

Some in the West have contrasted this state of affairs with the situation in the Islamic world and claim that, from the Islamic point of view, such persons would have no rights. This assertion is, however, not at all true. If certain Muslims fall into religious and intellectual doubt even about God’s existence, their right to the protection of their life and property by society still remains as long as they do not try to impose their views on others or act against social norms and laws. [p.280] … the right to practice one’s religion or not, as long as the latter does not destroy social norms and laws, is at the heart of the Islamic understanding of human rights. [p. 282]

But what Nasr does not actually address is what it can mean to say that someone is trying “to impose [his or her] views on others”, or what it means to oppose “the edicts of the Shari’ah”, or what it can mean to assert that someone is acting “against social norms”. Nasr reports that even Muslims who “fall into religious and intellectual doubt even about God’s existence can “hold philosophical discussions on such matters”. Might such discussions ever be regarded as attempts “to impose views … on others”?

Nasr acknowledges that:

throughout Islamic history some have been imprisoned or occasionally even put to death for theological and religious reasons, but usually their situation has involved a political dimension … [p. 280]

Of course those cases have “involved a political dimension”!!! After all, as Nasr himself notes:

What the Quran and Hadith emphasize … is that the domain of politics cannot be separated from that of religion … [p. 147]

Accordingly, by Nasr’s own reckoning, virtually any religio-philosophic deviation can be justifiably judged a socio-political threat in Islamic domains whensoever it suits those in power or those who are “the guardians … of the Shari’ah” [p. 176]. This sort of restriction on personal rights, especially on personal expressive rights, is, of course, quite incompatible with Western notions about individual rights, especially the American version of those rights.


Nasr must recognize that something like this very sort of tension or incompatibility between Western and Islamic notions about individual rights can severely impede the development in the West of the “understanding” he hopes to engender about “authentic Islam”. Such a recognition, such a realization on his part seems very much on his mind when he says:

The Islamic understanding of human rights will not necessarily be identical with the most current Western interpretations … What is important is that the Islamic response be authentic and deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition. The attempt to harmonize the Islamic understanding of these matters with the current Western appraisal of these issues is … metaphysically and religiously not always feasible … What is important for Islam is to accept the challenge of the reality of the issues involved and then provide Islamic responses, which may in fact be also of interest to certain Western thinkers grappling with the pertinence of these issues on a global scale. [p. 301]

Emphasis on isolationism and insularity is often posed as a way to deal with many of the international problems that arise in the world; however, even by its own standards, Islam essentially demands a more active devotion to justice than is to be afforded by isolationism in particular:

Fighting injustice, oppression, and evildoing is itself just and the means of establishing justice. … to accept oppression without reacting to establish justice is worse than the original oppression and injustice. … Where the case of Islam differs from modern Western phenomena of this nature is the claim to the establishment of justice is still seen by Muslims in Islamic terms and not in secular, humanistic ones. [pp. 254-256]

Nasr thinks that the “challenge of the reality of the issues involved” with the matter of rights, for example, poses a “particularly difficult” problem for the traditional Islamic approach to rights and justice:

The classical Islamic works on ethics and rights, whether written from a juridical, philosophical, or theological point of view, envisaged a universe in which there was a multiplicity of religions … Today there is a new situation in the modern and post-modern world that is indeed an anomaly in world history. …

Today, the mainstream of Islamic thought, both Sunni and Shi’ite, must address itself to this question of secularism and agnosticism as it did in earlier days concerning the rights of followers of other religions within the Islamic community. Whatever understanding of human rights from the Islamic perspective comes to dominate the center of consciousness of the Islamic community in the future, it must take account … of those who do not believe in any transcendent or immanent Principle beyond the human. … it is a task to which the ‘ulama’, or religious scholars, who wield influence over the people and who are the guardians of the Shari’ah, as well as other Islamic thinkers must address themselves. [pp. 301-302]

Nasr is absolutely correct when he insists that this matter requires an “Islamic response … rooted in the Islamic tradition”, but there is a risk concomitant with such an insistence. All emphases on tradition and its conservation tend naturally more towards insularity than towards either justice or knowledge.


It could be expected, based on Nasr’s own depiction, that Islam would be particularly well situated to guard itself against any insular habit in thought. After all,

In the Islamic perspective, the oneness of God has as its consequence not the uniqueness of prophecy, but its multiplicity … not only is the multiplicity of religions necessary, but it is also a reflection of the richness of the Divine Nature and is willed by God. [pp. 15-16]

Striving after the realization of th[e] oneness [of God], or tawhid, is the heart of the Islamic life; and the measure of a successful religious life is the degree to which one is able to realize tawhid, which means not only oneness, but also the integration of multiplicity into Unity. [p. 6]

The Islamic tradition of categorizing individuals and peoples according to their religions can be seen as one way of honoring multiplicity, but, as is apparent from the above discussion, this tradition of categorization is anything except an “integration … into Unity.” What has instead arisen within what Nasr describes as traditionalist Islam is a veritable devotion to insularity.

An actual integration cannot occur without discourse, and discourse cannot occur without there being at least some initial presumption or expectation of even the possibility of relevant authenticity, respectability, or acceptability on the part of the interlocutors who hold apparently different positions. And herein lies the crux of what makes much of the difficulty between the Islamic world and the West appear so very intractable.

Can Western governments dedicated to what is commonly asserted to be an areligious (at best) secularism engage in discourse with Islamic governments or cultures? Can Islamic governments or cultures engage with the sorts of cultures or governments that are commonly described (or even self-described) as being either areligious or even anti-religious ? Or, is some sort of religious perspective based on belief in what Nasr refers to as a “transcendent or immanent Principle beyond the human” necessary for the best possible engagement with the Islamic world? Might such considerations pertain at all significantly to why Western governments seem to prefer that more secularist governments take root in the Islamic regions?


In his book, Return to Philosophy 2, Thomas Molnar says that:

Religion commits the believer to a group of absolute postulates – and to the many consequences which follow from them – which then act as principles of absolute separation from the similarly absolute postulates of other religions. … Religion means an intimate dependence on a certain set of truths – and its impact on conduct and thought … [pp. 76-77]

One thing to note about Molnar’s use of the word religion in the passage above is that the point that Molnar is making does not necessarily depend upon belief in God, gods, or even in a “transcendent or immanent Principle beyond the human”. Consequently, his point ultimately pertains to belief commitments, since it is these commitments that effect what often appears to be an “absolute separation” which comes about seemlessly owing to differences in belief (and also owing to differences in the extent of commitment to those beliefs).

On the face of it, belief in God and non-belief in God would seem to readily qualify as examples of “postulates” which “act as principles of absolute separation”. But, what are the “principles of absolute separation” at work when at the core of differing religions there is belief in God? Molnar says that:

belief in, and speculation about, God is not obliterated by the multiplicity of approaches: every civilization has its style, vocabulary, music, social structure, procedures of sacralization – the plurality of which does not contradict … the value of belief and worship. [p. 76]

This suggests that the root of differences in belief might very well be located foremost in belief expression. However, expressive difference does not necessarily result in “absolute separation”. Indeed, expressive difference, in and of itself, is in no way even close to being sufficient to effect such a separation. Rather, what would be needed for this absolute or incommensurable separation is a commitment to a particular manner of expression instead of to the belief itself or to the meaning that finds expression as belief.

For example, with regards to those who believe in God, to believe in God, or to be committed to belief in God, or to be committed to God is not identical to being committed to some particular manner(s) of expressing either belief in or commitment to God.

When different people are primarily committed to some particular differing manner(s) of expression, incommensurable separation is to be expected.

This, of course, is not to say that any actual incommensurability of beliefs is only a matter of commitment to different manners of expression. Nonetheless, the possibility of commitment to manners of expression should be of especial concern to monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam precisely because, when a commitment to a manner of expression either supersedes or is taken as commitment to God, the expression becomes an idol, and the commitment is an idolatrous one.

Nasr says that:

for Islam Divine Law [Shari’ah] is more central than theological thought to the religious life. … To be a Muslim is to accept the validity of the Shari’ah, even if one is too weak to practice all of its injunctions, and to understand the Shari’ah is to gain knowledge of the formal religious structure of Islam. [p. 118]

Even when taken in conjunction with the shahada, the testifications that there is no God but God and that Muhammad is his messenger, the asserted centrality of Shari’ah amounts to an emphasis on form or expression rather than content or meaning. Any such teaching which gives priority to – or which emphasizes – form more than content sets a course for idolatry.


Such a teaching will tend to communicate the sense that the form of law and ritual abidance are sufficient for “liv[ing] according to God’s Will” [Nasr, p. 119]. But, does such a teaching represent the “authentic Islam” which is what Nasr is intending to present in his book? Surely not. After all, as Nasr says:

The Quran also accentuates God’s nearness to us, stating that He is closer to us than ourselves [nearer than the jugular vein (50:16)] and He is present everywhere, as when it states: “Whithersoever ye turn, there is the Face of God” (2:115). [p. 5]

The nature of this closeness is such that it is possible “to go beyond the formal level … to the absolute Truth, which transcends all forms” [Nasr, p. 118]. Nasr notes that throughout history Islamic diversity has arisen as the result of the varied emphases placed upon what he distinguishes as the exoteric form and the esoteric content:

[I]n contrast to the claim of those who only look at the quantitative aspects of things and consider the esoteric element of religion to be marginal and peripheral, the esoteric dimension actually lies at the heart of religion and is the source of both its endurance and renewal. [Nasr, p. 64]

And it is only this “esoteric dimension” which can ward off any idolatry of form, whether that form is a matter of ritual, or interpretations of law, or the manner of belief expression. It is also the esoteric content which provides for the possibility of discourse with those from other belief communities, including those who are not Muslims.

Obviously, such discourse requires – indeed, it might even amount to – the development of a shared, if not a largely new, vocabulary. When such a discourse is conducted between those who profess as most central their belief in God, the use of, or the working towards, a new manner of expression should not seem in the least bit like a challenge to their faith – or traditions – since it should be readily acknowledged that God remains beyond complete expressibility.

But, can such discourse take place between those whose religions include belief in God an those whose religions (here in the Molnar-derived sense of the word) have no place for God?

Yes, it is possible, and the Islamic “ninety-nine names” tradition is actually well-suited for such a task inasmuch as this tradition can serve to set focus upon such matters as love, compassion, mercy, justice, and knowledge. Of course, we are here referring to these matters in their (what is most often described as) transcendent modes, features, or aspects, despite these being matters the manifestation of which is our responsibility.

Nonetheless, it is the very notion of transcendence which could prove to be the most difficult obstacle to overcome during – or in order for there to be – discourse with the sort of secularism now prevalent in the West. It is arguable that the approach which Western governments take in their dealings with the Muslim countries is at least compatible with, if not actually based on, the thinking of John Rawls which Molnar characterizes in this way:

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls spelled out his general object: the shared principles of justice that can unify and stabilize liberal democracy. He has learned, however, that by now, after the general evacuation of all truths from Western philosophical and political discourse, there remain no comprehensive moral conceptions, “neither political nor metaphysical.” The only valid approach for defining justice is to do away with the requirement of truth … Rawls’s concern is to neutralize the recalcitrant concept of political truth and justify an obviously baseless consensus … in the name of the new absolute: utility. [p. 71]

While utility is likely the most invariant basis for determining the direction of political action even in countries with Muslim majorities, the fact of the matter is that utility can hardly be said to lie “at the heart of” Islam even when utility is a legitimate factor for consideration. This being the case, in order for there to be rapprochement and understanding, it is necessary that both the West and Muslims – even in political matters – neither treat utility as a goal nor as an acceptable means when it conflicts with what is being imagined as the best (if not the ideal) ends.

This means that discourse properly conducted must be concerned with – it might even have to start with talk in terms of – goals in their idealized forms. Even when the discussion is expressly in terms of God, it is the ideal of Godliness and its possible manifestations that are the ultimate issue.


Some might be inclined to characterize this discussion about the conditions necessary for there to be genuine discourse as if it were but another example of what Molnar disparagingly casts as that

periodically fashionable dialogue, known today as ‘oecumenical’ and in the past ‘syncretism.’ These terms … do not refer to tolerance which is in most cases justifiable, but to a loss of faith, a metanoia (conversion) in reverse, a turning away from one’s religious truth, an implicit affirmation of one’s ultimate indifference. [p. 77]

But, the sort of discourse discussed here is just about the utter opposite of what Molnar describes. It is a discourse wholly devoid of indifference, and it is the very sort of discourse that follows from the most heart and mind centered faiths possible. As discussed to this point, it is a discourse which never requires that preferred manners of expression be discarded; rather, it only requires that manners of expression not become veritable idols: “Ibn ‘Arabi … wrote that his heart was the temple for idols and house for the Torah, the Gospels, and the Quran” [Nasr, p. 119]. It is only by avoiding idolization that it is possible to move beyond tolerance in order to achieve respect.

Molnar says that:

To say that “we all worship one God” and differ only in the “inessentials” denotes not a religious fraternization, but a new religion with its own dogmata and intolerance. [p. 77]

And Molnar is right. However, what Molnar does not address is the possibility of a situation in which the differences are not eliminated by casting them all off as “inessentials”. To go beyond a particular manner of expression is not to cast off that manner of expression as erroneous, meaningless, or even of necessarily lesser value:

… the names of God do not denote idols, they speak to our imagination which is as important as addressing the rational faculty. In the same way, respect before religious symbols and other sacred objects is not to be ridiculed as if it were bowing to empty signs. [Molnar, p. 75]

The fact that “every civilization has its style, vocabulary, music, social structure, procedures of sacralization” means that it is to be expected that “symbols and other sacred objects” will be differently affective as well as effective.

Nasr notes that:

The transcending of the Law in Islam in the direction of the Spirit has never been through the flouting of the Law, through breaking or denying its formal structure … [p. 119]

And why should it be otherwise? So long as that form is not itself idolized, such “external signs [can] contribute to the intensity of faith” [Molnar, p. 58], and such forms can prepare the imagination for “transcending [the formal structure] from within” [Nasr, p. 119] while leaving it in place for the possible benefit of others.

Nasr discusses “those [who are] crazed by the love of God and in a paranormal state of consciousness” [Nasr, p. 119] – the “mystics” whose “religion … center[s] on the fusion of God and soul” [Molnar, p. 81]. And Nasr admits to the possibility that such experiences can come about not just from within a formal structure, such as the Shari’ah, but also without any such structure.

However, even then, as Molnar notes, in the case of “genuine” as distinguished from “false mystics”, there is a

transfiguration of [the] ego from centrality to marginality, from self-affirmation to self-subordination. … The true mystic’s ways …distinguish between God’s blinding evidence and the emptiness of his own soul. The optimum is that the evidence fill the vacuum, but it always comes with a borrowed light reaching out to the “dark night of the soul.” It leaves only its traces, nothing of its substance. The traces are sufficient to redirect the mystic’s existence to God and his creation. [pp. 81-82].

With such a transfiguration, it is to be expected that even the genuine mystic would be disturbed less by formal structures than by instances of their veritable idolization. And how would such an idolization be made manifest? What should be of concern not just to mystics but to everyone is the possibility that any formal structure, whether a component of a religion or not, rather than serving as a foundation or source for imagination, instead ends up being revered in a manner that stifles the imagination which is so very often necessary for betterment to occur.


Nasr notes that, in Islam, “new interpretations”

must always remain subservient to the teachings of God’s Word and those of His Prophet. At that level any innovation (bid’ah) has always been seen as a major sin and deviation from the “straight path” [meaning Islam itself] …[p. 85]

Despite Nasr’s wish to engender improved understanding about Islam in the West, such an understanding cannot come about without discourse, and the conditions necessary for discourse are such that they can be easily accused of fostering if not encouraging the “major sin” of “bid’ah”. To make matters even more difficult for the possibility of actual discourse is the very low regard in which philosophy has come to be held by some Muslims, owing in some part to some quite old judgments 3:

Unlawful knowledge includes: (1) learning sorcery …; (2) philosophy; (3) magic … [Keller, p. 14]

It is arguable that, understood properly, this attribution of unlawfulness to philosophy pertains primarily to that philosophizing which does not take proper account of “the divinely revealed guidance of the Koran and sunna” and which “contradicts a well-known tenet of Islamic belief that there is scholarly consensus upon” [Keller, p. 868].

Be that as it may, since Islamic scholars have often “exercised either direct or indirect influence on the popular level” [Nasr, p. 84], it is clearly the case that if understanding about Islam in the West is to be engendered, it is necessary that Islamic scholars recognize the conditions necessary for there to be genuine discourse. Of course, similar participation by some in the West is also essential – meaning that the path to possible harmony does not start with attempts at a political solution.


1 Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, The Heart of Islam, New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
2 Molnar, Thomas, Return to Philosophy, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996.
3 Keller, Nuh Ha Mim, Reliance of the Traveller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications, 1994.

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