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So-Called Islamic Universities Follow Western Tradition

Interview with Seyyed Hossein Nasr

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S H Nasr Renowned Iranian thinker and academic Seyyed Hossein Nasr told Sunday's Zaman that most of the so-called Islamic universities in the Muslim world are not Islamic in the sense that they operate within the framework of a Western worldview.

"Their successes are successes of Western science," Nasr said. According to Nasr, as long as Muslim educational institutions continue to copy Western science without engaging in any endeavour to internalize it, the Muslim tradition will continue to be destroyed. Professor Nasr is not altogether pessimistic, though. He observes that a new generation of Muslim intellectuals and scientists is being produced in certain Muslim countries. "Even when they write about Derrida, Heidegger, modern astrophysics or something like that, they try to speak from a perspective of a Muslim tradition," he said.

Professor Nasr is particularly fond of the intellectual productivity he has witnessed in Turkey and Iran, whereas Western philosophy seems to be stuck at a dead end.

Nasr was in Istanbul to speak at a conference held as part of the UN-backed Alliance of Civilizations initiative, Sunday's Zaman interviewed Nasr, who is regarded as a prime traditionalist, about the Muslim tradition, intellectual productivity in the East and the West and about the relationship between knowledge and the socio-cultural milieu it is produced in.

In the preface to "The Heart of Islam," you say you wrote all your works to preserve tradition. What does tradition mean to you and why is its preservation so important?

The English word tradition is used in different ways, including customs, habits and historical transmission, but for me tradition means a reality of sacred origin which is given to humanity through revelation. Through preservation and application of that teaching, of that sacred instruction, our civilization was created. The same is true for the Western civilization. The Christian civilization was created by the coming of Christ. That is the beginning of the Christian tradition, and then it created the Western civilization with many forms of sacred Christian architecture, theology, ethics and forms of social structure. In Islam we have the Quranic revelation. That's the beginning of the Islamic tradition and then the whole civilization is created with its art, with its social structure, with its laws and so forth. It is important to preserve this tradition because we believe that it comes from God, that it is reality.

So you don't support the historicist claims about contextuality of revealed sacred texts?

We reject that completely. God always speaks in the language of the people to whom He addresses His message, but the sociological understanding of revelation is rejected by us. That is itself a completely anti-traditional idea. All Muslims for 1400 years believed that the Quran comes from God, that it is not a product of pre-Islamic Arabian society or Mecca.

Do you make a distinction between the revelation of the Quran by God into the heart and mind of the Prophet ﷺ and its understanding by the Prophet as a historical thing?

No, the Prophet ﷺ was chosen by God and was protected from making errors. He was also protected by the Archangel. The Prophet's understanding of the Quran is a guarantee for our correct understanding of the Quran.

There is a dependence on Western literature in the Muslim world by means of educational material. How will we preserve tradition if even on the most basic of issues we are dependant on a foreign tradition?

We will not be able to do so if we continue like this. Everything we do is copying from another civilization. Obviously it is going to end up by destroying our own civilization, and much of it has already been destroyed in the last 200 years. Education is a very, very key issue. When the West first began to colonize the Islamic world, they began with military forces, naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea and then land forces in North Africa. They soon followed by trying to dominate over the Islamic world by means of education, and since they had more knowledge of the natural world, natural sciences, many Muslims accepted this, and gradually the Western educational system spread throughout the Islamic world. I believe that what we have to do is to teach Western sciences, but not from the Western perspective. We have to recreate our own educational system. Even theology is being dominated now in certain places by just copying in a very weak way. I say "in a very weak way" because Western theology is not strong enough to persist.

How universal is the university? Can we speak of an Islamic university?

There is always a relationship between every form of knowledge and a worldview within which that knowledge is accepted as knowledge. There is no doubt about that. The worldview in all civilizations before modern times came from religion. This is true for every civilization. Hindu universities, Chinese universities, Islamic universities -- but as Western influence spreads all over the world, we will begin to emulate Western forms of knowledge, which claim to now be independent of religion. But it was not independent of the Christian worldview. The secularist paradigm which was created in the 17th century is itself a pseudo-religion in that it is a view of the nature of reality. There is no abstract knowledge; knowledge is always within the framework of a worldview, of a way of looking at the nature of reality.

Are there any Islamic universities in the world?

Since the first World Muslim Congress was held in the 1970s in Mecca, they decided to create Islamic universities throughout the Islamic world, and several have been created in Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and elsewhere. They are called Islamic universities, but they are not really Islamic universities because they teach the Shariah, Arabic and Islamic history, but the other subjects are not integrated. In other places, they tried to take the old madrasa and modernize it, like al-Azhar University. The university itself is an Islamic university, but not the medical school. The medical school does not teach Islamic medicine. The school of architecture doesn't produce Muslim architects. They copy Western architecture with a Muslim name. The name is Ahmet instead of John. But it is possible to have an Islamic university.

How will the Islamic philosophical worldview be revived?

I believe that all important intellectual transformations begin with a few, not with the many. When the modern scientific worldview came about, at the beginning, at the time of Galileo, there weren't more than 20 people in Europe who understood and accepted what they were saying. The transformation always comes with the few.

Do you see new intellectual minds emerging in the Muslim world?

Definitely! Fifty years ago there were only two types of intellectuals in the Islamic world. One were those traditional ulama -- great scholars of Arabic, theology and Islamic law -- and the other type of intellectuals were totally Westernized intellectuals, but God does not figure in Western scientific thought. But 50 years later, now, we have a number of younger intellectuals in Turkey itself, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, in Iran, in Pakistan -- mostly in these five countries. Even when they write about Derrida and Heidegger, they try to speak from the perspective of a Muslim tradition. This is a very, very good sign. We didn't have that 50 years ago. I have a lot of hopes for the future, and I spent all my life trying to create that. InshaAllah [God-willing] something will come out of it.

But is there still an intellectual infertility in the Muslim world?

I don't usually see that in the same way. In Iran we have leading and incredible scientists doing all kinds of things in physics and in nuclear science. The fact that Islam has not made such a big contribution to Western science is a cultural problem. It is not a scientific problem. We lost our self-confidence, we lost the confidence in ourselves, we just try to copy the West. There are excellent Turkish heart surgeons or Arab heart surgeons in the US. But to make it a civilization of your own is something else. That was not done very much because of a lack of self-confidence.

What about the West? At least speaking about philosophy, it seems the West is passing through a kind of paralysis also.

The West is now undergoing a very, very severe intellectual crisis. The reason why people are not aware of it is because of the power of technology and the military might of the West. It is like the end of the Roman Empire. As long as the Roman legends were leading in Libya, nobody thought that something was wrong. It is a very similar situation. Western philosophy is now at a dead end. Even Heidegger said, Western philosophy ends with me. There is a philosophical crisis and a religious crisis as a result of that. After that comes the environmental crisis, which is not solved unless the West changes completely the way it lives, its worldview, and they don't want to do it. So they use cosmetics all the time. Look at the Gulf of Mexico now. It is a great tragedy of human history. Nobody wants to talk about it. So the West is also experiencing a very, very large crisis, and I'd say it is suicide for us to try to blindly copy the West at this stage.

How did the West come to this point?

In a sense, if we speak in Islamic terms, the leaders of the society in the West decided to sacrifice the akhira to the dunya completely [Nasr is referring to Quran 2:86, which reads: { These are the people who buy the life of this world (ad-dunya) at the price of the Hereafter (al-akhira). }] The great German poet Goethe in "Faust" speaks about this. Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to get power and technology. So everything is sacrificed for material ends and earthly human welfare. But we also have spiritual needs.

Can we update Western democracy into a new system where our spiritual needs are also provided for?

First of all, democracy is a method; it is not a value system. It is a method of government, and it is a question of having more people participate. Look at the Ottoman world -- very powerful sultans sat here in Istanbul, and people claim that there was no democracy in the Ottoman state. But who elected all the village elders who ran all of Anatolia? It wasn't the sultans sitting in Topkapi Palace. It was the local people. There was a lot of internal democracy within the Islamic world even at that time. Now it is possible to develop an Islamic model of democracy on a more macro level without sacrificing the spiritual values. But it is something that Muslims have to work on, and we are in a terrible situation when it comes to the field of politics.

During the last 200 years, the power of governance in the Islamic world has increased, not decreased. It increased step-by-step. As a result, all our institutions have been destroyed. We are now looking for models based on Western civilization, and they don't always work because those institutions grew out of a particular civilization. What it needs is creativity and adaptation. Democracy is also not ideal in the West. Money is much more powerful than the individual. We see this in the US. You cannot even participate in a nomination for a party unless you're a millionaire to begin with.

Please comment on the idea that original and innovative ideas need freedom to blossom. Looking from this perspective, how do you evaluate the atmosphere of freedom and democracy in Turkey?

First of all, let me talk about "new ideas needing freedom in order to blossom." What happened to the word "truth"? Where is truth in this matter? Every new idea is not a good idea. Politically, we don't believe that Karl Marx's ideas, which were very new, were very good also. They killed tens of thousands of people during the next 100 years after his death. Truth is the criteria. And in every society, there must be this ambiance in which ideas are tested and only true ideas survive. Islamic civilization in its golden age created this ambiance. Otherwise it would not have produced such great philosophers. People debated each other and opposed each other, but they did not oppose the oneness of God. That was like a sky over everything. But within that, there was freedom of discussion. We already lost that. That has become more and more restrictive in the last century with the rise of modernism, which in the name of freedom destroyed the whole atmosphere of the Islamic ambiance. So you were free only if you expressed Western ideas; otherwise, you would be put in prison.

Now the atmosphere in Turkey is fairly good. I am not saying ideal, but the two countries which have the greatest field of intellectuals are in Turkey and Iran. Pure philosophy, which is the heart of all scientific development, is produced more in Iran and Turkey than in the rest of the Islamic countries. I think Turkey and Iran have the largest number of books coming out which seriously deal with these intellectual matters.



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* Living Islam – Islamic Tradition *