Traditionalism, Islamic Esotericism& Environmental Ethics

November 21, 2017 | Author: qilushuyuan | Category: Sufism, Western Esotericism, Religion And Belief, Science, Philosophical Science
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Seyyed Hossein Nasr Traditionalism, Islamic Esotericism & Environmental Ethics

Anne Marieke Schwencke 8607745 BA Thesis Religious Studies/ World’s Religion Institute of Religious Studies/ Leiden University Leiden, the Netherlands 8 June 2009

Prince Charles in speech delivered Wilton Park Seminar on the Sense of the Sacred: ‘A Sense of the Sacred: Building Bridges between Islam and the West’, 1996: I start from the belief that Islamic civilization at its best, like many of the religions of the East—Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism—has an important message for the West in the way it has retained a more integrated and integral view of the sanctity of the world around us. I feel that we in the West could be helped to rediscover those roots of our own understanding by an appreciation of the Islamic tradition's deep respect for the timeless traditions of the natural order. I believe that process could help in the task of bringing our two faiths closer together. It could also help us in the West to rethink, and for the better, our practical stewardship of man and his environment in fields like healthcare, the natural environment and agriculture, as well as in architecture and urban planning.

Content 1 Introduction..................................................................................................................................4 1.1 General outline.......................................................................................................................4 1.2 Research questions................................................................................................................9 1.3 Significance.........................................................................................................................10 1.4 Academic context ...............................................................................................................12 1.5 Method.................................................................................................................................12 1.6 Structure ..............................................................................................................................14 2 Seyyed Hossein Nasr.................................................................................................................15 2.1 The Scholar of Islam, Philosopher......................................................................................15 2.2 The Environmentalist..........................................................................................................17 3 Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man.............................................................20 3.1 Introduction..........................................................................................................................20 3.2 Environmental Crisis ..........................................................................................................21 3.3 Critique of Modernity .........................................................................................................22 3.4 Traditional metaphysics ......................................................................................................26 3.5 Solving the Crisis: Religion as the Master Key..................................................................35 3.6 From Worldview to Practice...............................................................................................37 4 Traditionalism, Perennial philosophy and Esotericism............................................................41 4.1 Introduction..........................................................................................................................41 4.2 Traditionalism......................................................................................................................42 4.3 Perennial Philosophy...........................................................................................................45 4.4 Western Esotericism............................................................................................................47 4.5 Traditionalism and Islam.....................................................................................................51 5 Traditional Islam, Sufism..........................................................................................................52 5.1 Introduction..........................................................................................................................52 5.2 Traditional Islam..................................................................................................................52 5.3 Sufism, Islamic mysticism..................................................................................................57 5.4 Spiritual Practice..................................................................................................................61 5.5 Islamic esotericism .............................................................................................................63 5.6 Islamic Environmental Ethics ............................................................................................66 5.7 Discussion............................................................................................................................71 6 Circles of influence....................................................................................................................74 6.1 Introduction..........................................................................................................................74 6.2 Traditionalist network.........................................................................................................76 6.3 New Age Environmentalism...............................................................................................89 6.4 Esotericism and environmentalism ....................................................................................95 6.5 Islamic Environmentalism...................................................................................................98 7 Conclusion...............................................................................................................................105 Bibliography..............................................................................................................................113

1 Introduction


General outline

Anyone with an interest in Islamic perspectives on ecological issues is likely to come across the name of the Iranian-American scholar of Islam and comparative religion, Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933). He is presented as one, if not the ‘founding father’ of Islamic environmentalism and is said to have laid the ‘foundations for the current discussions on Islam and the environment’1. Indeed, Nasr was certainly one of the first to approach the topic from an Islamic perspective. Having lived and worked in the US most of his life, he was also one of the first to draw attention to the spiritual dimensions of the ecological crisis in the West. In fact, his 1965 essay was published in the US a few months before Lynn White Jr’s famous thesis about the ‘historical roots of our ecological crisis’2. Although, Nasr has written and lectured unabatedly and consistently about the topic, his message never received the response Lynn White’s thesis had triggered in the West. Whereas White was attributing the roots of the crisis to Christianity and was instrumental in the collective cultural trend, moving away from religion, Nasr was possibly advocating a less popular view, i.e. return to authentic religion. For whatever reason, Nasr’s ecological views appear to have largely gone unnoticed and have only been picked up fairly recently. Nasr is mostly known for his historical work about Islamic philosophy, Islam within the context of modernity, comparative religion and his more ‘perennial’ work about ‘knowledge, science and the sacred’ and is cited widely by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Nasr is said to be ‘the best known contemporary Iranian philosopher … who has written extensively on Islamic cosmology, mysticism and metaphysics and is widely respected in academic circles’3. He is also known to be one of the leading figures behind the recent A Common Word initiative aiming towards constructive dialogue with the Catholic Church4.


Entry: ‘Seyyed Hossein Nasr’ in: Taylor, B. (eds), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2 volumes, New York: Continuum, 2005, 2008. 2 This thesis links the ‘ethos of medieval Christianity to the emergence of […] an exploitative attitude towards nature in the Western World’. Also see the entry ‘White, Lynn’, in: Taylor, B. (eds), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2 volumes, New York: Continuum, 2005, 2008. Original title: White, Lynn, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ in: Science 155:3767, 10 March 1967, p1203-1207. 3 Fakhry, M, A History of Islamic Philosophy, p322. 4 A Common Word. See: AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Several books about Nasr have seen the light in recent years discussing and criticising, the reception of Nasr’s work on science in Indonesia, his views about religion, pluralism and interfaith dialogue and his involvement with Traditionalism5. His ecological message was picked up at the turn of the century by a circle of scholars interested in exploring the ‘relationships among human beings, their environments, and the religious dimensions of life’. References to Nasr have since been included in the seminal Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature’6. Although these sources provide us with some insight, a systematic analysis of his ecological views appears to be lacking as yet. This thesis is to be seen as a first attempt to analyse and contextualize Nasr’s


We will see how concepts of ‘religion’, ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ are central to his argument. In fact, Nasr is proposing that the modern world needs to rediscover traditional principles and knowledge about nature and the cosmos, and the relation of us humans within it. Garbed in contemporary terms, ‘traditional cosmologies’ will provide us with the only veritable and viable keys to a solution to the ecological crisis. These cosmologies are to be found at the heart of all authentic traditions or religions, and will need to be excavated from its now often forgotten heritages. We will see how his conception of traditional cosmologies can be contextualised as ‘traditionalism’ or ‘perennial philosophy’, stressing the ‘inherent unity of all religions’, which is strongly related to (western) currents of thought that have been labelled as ‘western esotericism’. Each of these categories are highly problematic in an academic sense and need careful definition. Islam, Nasr believes, has a particular essential role to play in the contemporary world. Within the secular West much of the traditional understanding was lost on the advent of ‘modernity’. Within the world of Islam, Nasr argues, the sense of the sacred is still kept alive, and as such Islam has something essential to offer to the West. Prince Charles’ words, quoted at the start of this thesis, reverberate strongly with Nasr’s views in this respect. A large part of this thesis will therefore focus on Nasr’s understanding of ‘Islamic tradition’, the Islamic perspective on the environmental crisis and Islamic environmental ethics. Nasr’s traditional Islam has an esoteric and exoteric, an inner and an outer dimension. The inner dimension of Sufism is a type of neo-platonic, mystical, gnostic or theosophical philosophy, 5

Aslan, Adnan, Religious Pluralism in Christian and Islamic Philosophy, The Thought of John Hick and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Richmond: Curzon Press, 1998. Widiyanto, Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Science and the Reception of his Ideas in Indonesia, MA thesis Leiden University, 2005. Sedgwick, M, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth century, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 6 Taylor, B. (eds), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2 volumes, New York: Continuum, 2005, 2008. Entries: ‘Nasr, S.H’., ‘Perennial philosophy’, ‘Islam’, ‘Islam and eco-justice’, Islam and environmental ethics’. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



which can probably best be understood as a

‘non-western’ manifestation of


esotericism’. The outer dimension is orthodox in practice, entailing adherence to classical shari’ite injunctions on the levels of ritual (ibadat) as well as social practice (mu’amalat) and is firmly rooted in the Quran and Hadith. Yet, in contrast to fundamentalists, Nasr includes the fruits of fourteen hundred years of Islamic culture, of philosophy, arts, poetry, architecture and urban planning in his concept of Islam. This forms the basis for Nasr’s Islamic environmental ethics. Although his own views are general in scope and leave many questions as to its practical translation unanswered, these point towards the newly emerging disciplines of Islamic environmental law, Islamic economics and Islamic reformist political theories. In fact, these fields may be seen as the most direct, practical applications of Nasr’s Islamic worldview, as concrete ‘translations of metaphysical cosmology into practice’. This strong direct connection between worldview and practice may in fact be one of the most interesting aspects of the Islamic discourse about the environment. Islam, in Nasr’s view, and many share it with him, provides a comprehensive world view, but also provides the ‘tools’ to translate cosmology into practice or as Nasr would put it: connect the Heavens to the Earth. These tools helping us to formulate the ethical norms which can be applied to environmental issues are essentially derived from the classical schools of sharia (madhab). Of course, with this, we enter a highly politicized landscape with widely varying and competing views about the application of sharia in the contemporary context. In this thesis, an attempt will be made to contextualise Nasr’s views within the wide spectrum of contemporary Islamic ‘ideologies’. This thesis will also explore the RECEPTION of Nasr’s ecological message. Nasr has lectured about the environmental crisis to widely diverse audiences, varying from the United Nations, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Forum7, to Traditionalists, eco-theologians, academic scholars and philosophers of religion, Muslim student associations, Islamized








environmentalists and environmental policy administrators to ‘sacred’ or ‘deep ecologists’ and the mainstream public. Each of these circles is worth exploring in more detail. Of particular interest, is Nasr’s apparent affinity with, but also criticism of contemporary forms of spirituality or religiosity, sometimes 7

UNESCO programmes such as the Dialogue of Civilizations, Alliance of Civilisations, Global Ethics and others. Also: see Nasr’s World Bank lecture in the context of ‘Development and Muslim Societies’ series: Discussion about the heart of Islam: PID=697&EID=360; World Economic Forum, West Islamic World Dialogue, June 2006. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



labelled as ‘new age’ and often closely tied up with ecological discourse. A 2004 lecture delivered at a conference on Climate Change in San Rossore, Italy8 is telling in this respect. It was said to have been attended by an impressive number of high ranking climate officials, activists and opinion leaders from the leading institutions on climate change9. The now famous climate change advocate, Al Gore, and the eco-activists Vandana Shiva and Edward Goldsmith were amongst its most prominent environmentalist speakers. Nasr was scheduled in a panel with an Inuit Elder speaking about ‘traditional Inuit teachings’, a Japanese Buddhist promoting spiritually inspired traditional farming and Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, three representatives of what could be referred to as contemporary ‘spiritual’ movements. Evidently, the conference programmers considered Nasr to be an exponent of ‘spirituality’, as well. Indeed, we will see, Nasr’s thought, especially its perennial and inner mystical interpretation of Islam, has a close affinity to some contemporary forms of ‘spirituality’. This is interesting because it connects his thought to significant cultural changes in the West that have taken place since the sixties and that have been described eminently by the sociologist Colin Campbell in his Easternization of the West (2007). Nasr’s thought has developed within this cultural context and it can be argued that Nasr is a product and perhaps also a contributor to the Easternization of Western (environmentalist) thought. We will also see how ‘new age’ thought can be related to ‘western esoteric’ currents, providing us with a framework to understand this affinity of thought. However, there are also important differences to consider. On the level of practice, Nasr is proposing an ‘orthodoxy’ or ‘ortho-praxis’ that is unlikely to appeal to Western spiritual sensibilities. Nasr’s work about the environmental crisis touches on a number of distinct, but interrelated debates and discourses, carried out within various groups and movements. Some of these are 8

According to the publicly available information: ‘San Rossore – a New Global Vision’ is an annual meeting convened by the Regional Government of Tuscany which is set up to “bring together institutional leaders at the local and regional levels, leaders of creative citizens movements, and leading personalities in the political, social, academic, philosophical, religious, literary and communications fields from Italy and other countries of the world. These leaders meet at San Rossore to exchange views and to forge alternative paths for building a more just and equitable world”. See: ‘San Rossore – a New Global Vision’ Background Note at: The list of attendants was drawn from the Draft Programme. Whether this ambitious programme was actually realized in this form, could not be verified. 9 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the World Bank, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the European Commission and various research institutes from Italy, Germany, USA, the United Kingdom and Ghana. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



confined to Muslim circles (in the West and the Muslim world), such as the discourse about Islamized science, others are secular or perhaps ‘spiritual’, such as the sacred and deep ecology movements and are mainly confined to the West. On closer analysis seemingly regionally or ideologically unrelated discourses turn out to have important points of overlap, sharing common ground or affinity of thought. The affinity of thought between Islamic mysticism and new age spirituality was already mentioned, but other interesting hybrids are emerging in contemporary debates. For instance, certain islamist reformists with a socio-political eco-activist agenda favouring the re-establishment of the caliphate, an Islamized monetary and economic system, and a radical reform of society in line with the ‘sharia’, connect Islamist concepts to radical environmentalist concepts such as ‘bioregionalism’ or ‘ecological economy’. Western environmentalists advocating small-scale indigenous technologies, eco-communities, organic farming or ‘ecological economy’ receive a warm response within certain Islamic environmentalist circles, who garb these concepts in distinctly Islamic terms. Intriguing fusions of Islamist and environmentalist thought are emerging nowadays10. Part of the aim of this thesis is therefore also to explore this common ground. Nasr’s ecological work and its reception may be one of the pivots connecting ‘parallel discourses’. This is in my view also the significance of analysing his thought and the reception of his thought. The Netherlands Although Nasr’s more popular work about Islam is available in the Dutch bookstores, he is not widely known, especially not by non-Muslim audiences. Nasr was invited to lecture about Islamic views of nature at the exhibition Religion, Nature, Arts in Amsterdam in October 200511. In the presence of the Dutch Queen, Nasr spoke about the ‘sacred’ in nature, the need to be susceptible to the beauty and truth expressed by nature and the value of religion and tradition in maintaining a healthy balance with nature. The exhibition resulted in the beautifully illustrated Spiegel van de Natuur (Mirror of Nature) edited by the Dutch scholar of Buddhism Matthijs G.C. Schouten12 and was financed by Staatsbosbeheer. Two years later, in December 2007, the editor of the environmentalist Friends of the Earth- magazine referred to Nasr in her 10

Other researchers have also noted similarities in the agenda’s and ideologies of certain Islamist and antiglobalist movements. See: Devji, F., Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality and Modernity, series Crises in World Politics, Hurst, 2005. According to the outline ‘features of militant Islam are compared with global movements such as environmentalists and anti-globalists’. 11 Exhibition ‘Wereld Natuur Kunst’ in the Nieuwe Kerk (fall 2005). A film was made by ‘Boeddhistische Omroep Stichting’ (Buddhist Broadcasting): lIntEntityId=150&lIntType=0 12 Schouten, M.G.C. Spiegel van de Natuur: het natuurbeeld in cultuurhistorisch perspectief, KNNV Uitgeverij/ Staatsbosbeheer, 2005. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



opening commentary to a special feature on ‘Religion and Spirituality’. Reflecting on the question how religion affects the human attitude towards the earth, she mentioned Nasr who ‘considers the ecological crisis, as a crisis of values’13. Although she admitted not to have read any of his work, she had come across his name a number of times searching for Muslim responses to the environmental crisis, she had become curious about his views. In my view, this is suggesting an emerging interest and openness to Islamic views in general and to perhaps also to Nasr’s message in particular. 1.2

Research questions

The aim of this BA thesis is twofold: (1) IDEAS: systematically analyse, as well as contextualise Nasr’s eco-philosophy. (2) RECEPTION: investigate the reception of Nasr’s eco-philosophy, identify some of the groups or people who are inspired by his ideas, and analyse to what aspects of Nasr’s work these are attracted. The first aim is of a more philosophical nature, the second is more sociological. This turned out to be an ambitious project, extending beyond the formal requirements of a ‘BA thesis’. The intention is to rework and extend this thesis into a master or even PhD thesis in due time. As concern the analysis of Nasr’s ideas the main guiding question is: how do religious metaphysics translate into practice? Why and how would a ‘traditional paradigm’ provide a solution to a wide range of practical problems such as energy shortage, pollution, global warming, ozone layer depletion and nature conservation? What are the practical implications of the traditional paradigm when translated into the social, political and economic realms? Does this entail a return to an idealized past as critics are ready to assert or will new forms develop from ‘traditional’ principles? What new structures may we expect to develop? Also: What kind of Islam is Nasr promoting? How does it relate to other currents of Muslim thought? How does it relate to his Perennialist thought? Charting the full landscape of the reception of Nasr’s work, soon proved to be impossible, not least because Nasr’s influence extends into India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey and other countries of the Muslim world. Research was confined to the Western English-speaking world, which includes Malaysia.


Milieudefensie Magazine, December 2007. Email correspondence with the editor, Anne Marie Opmeer, Milieudefensie Magazine, august 2008. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009





What is the significance of this study focussing on the thought of one man and his philosophy only? Some of its significance was already pointed out: Nasr’s serves as a focal piont, connecting various fields of discourse that are now often taking place in separate spheres, either regionally or ideologically. I believe this topic to be significant for other, more general reasons as well, and this is summarized pointedly by political analyst Graham Fuller in his analysis of Political Islam: Today many Westerners are themselves uncomfortable with some of the directions that Western society is taking that they view as unhealthy. Many wonder how Western society can weather the challenges of the post-modern era with its massive atomization of society, release of untrammelled individualism, lessening sense of community and social obligation, broadening diversification, if not chaos, among competing ideas, values interests and interrelationships, widening income gaps, and domination of the marketplace as the most powerful force upon society. Movements abound that search for correctives to glaring social afflictions. In this sense no-one can be sure whether or not some kind of convergence could eventually develop between the modern Western world and religious traditions, including Islam over shared issues of concern for the moral foundations of a healthy society. I am not speaking about an alliance between Muslim and Christian fundamentalists but a broader shared vision of the common moral problems and dilemma’s faced by all societies14. Environmental issues are vivid examples of ‘shared issues of concern’ which can function as focal points of ‘convergence’ between the secular and religious sectors of globalized societies. I share Fuller’s observation that many people in the West are critical about the dominant ‘Western’ culture. Western counter-cultures reaching back into the eighteenth and nineteenth century (and even further back) have voiced concerns about this culture for a long time, but have generally remained marginalized undercurrents. Often these counter-culture concerns are remarkably similar to the concerns voiced by many Muslims today. Both criticize materialism, reductionism, individualism, social and economic injustice, the financial market systems. The recent financial crisis has made the media more receptive to these critical voices speculating about the root causes of the crisis, proposing alternative perspectives and paradigms. Often the environmental crisis is presented as one of several interrelated crises: financial crisis, food crisis, energy crisis. Nasr is one of these critical voices, articulately criticizing the dominant Western culture from an Islamic perspective without resorting to the kind of ‘West bashing’ that is very much in vogue in many Muslim quarters today. He formulates his critique from an insider perspective, having 14

Fuller, G. The Future of Political Islam, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, p205-206.

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



lived and worked in the West most of his life and having studied Western thought and culture in-depth. He is a fervent critic of the ‘secular’ neglect of religious values and ethics in global debates. His voice - as we will see - is picked up by some environmentalists, but is hardly heard by Western environmental ethicists. In fact, environmental ethics has largely been a secular affair, religious or metaphysically legitimated ethics are not popular at all among mainstream ethicists15. A recent conference organized by the Green-Left party in the Netherlands discussed the role of ‘ethics’ in the climate change debate, but refused to discuss role of religious ethics, which was simply discarded on grounds of being ‘metaphysics’. Strong pleas for a reappraisal of religion in this domain can be heard occasionally, but hardly seem to find a significant follow-up. A 2006 UNESCO publication on Environmental Ethics and International Policy, for example, stresses the significance of religious environmental ethics in the introduction, but does not work any of it out in its volume16. Whatever the philosophical underpinnings of a particular ethical perspective, I am convinced that religious environmental ethics deserve a wider platform. The main argument is pragmatic: the largest part of the world’s population live, work and think from a distinctly religious framework. Religions, as ‘worldviews’ and ‘value systems’ guide human behaviour and form powerful driving forces, both in individual lives as in societies and cultures. These views cannot be disregarded. Considering the global scope and urgency of environmental issues, it can be expected that increasing numbers of Muslims will reflect on these issues from an Islamic perspective in the years to come. Religious values do not necessarily conflict with secular value systems, although many in the West fear they will. Many Islamic movements today ‘seek to identify common values with other faiths… religious belief stated in universal terms for people that don’t use specifically Muslim cultural vehicles’. Fuller points out that this ‘value-centred approach’ is less threatening to outsiders than an approach based on dogma or ritual. Many Muslim communities and mosques in America today are [..] reaching out to non-Muslim members of the community to find common answers to common problems’17.


Marcel Düwell (research director of the Ethics institute of Utrecht University. Conference: Ethics and Politics of Climate Change, Challenges for Individual Rights? 23 and 24 January 2009, Utrecht. 16 This report signals the following trend: ‘Numerous efforts have been made to recognize and understand the resources that different cultural traditions (such as Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism) have to offer environmental ethics’. But the authors leave it with the observation that ‘the construction of an environmental ethics with a global and multicultural perspective is under way’, and do not substantially refer to religion in the pages that follow’. In: Environmental Ethics and International Policy (2006), p.27. 17

Fuller, G. The Future of Political Islam, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003, p.205.

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Nasr eco-philosophy embodies such a ‘value-centred approach’ searching for solutions to ‘common’ problems that are shared by the world’s communities, in this instance the environmental crisis. Whether he manages to bridge the contemporary Muslim and secular environmental discourses will be evaluated in the conclusion. 1.4

Academic context

This thesis is written from the perspective of a relatively young academic field, the subfield religion and ecology, which was already mentioned before. This has partly grown out of the older discipline of theology of nature or eco-theology. A major impetus behind the development of this subfield was the conference series on ‘Religion and Ecology’ that was organized by the Harvard Divinity School’s Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) from May 1996 to July 1998. This project aimed to explore ‘the diverse manner in which religious traditions view nature and construct symbol systems and ritual practices relating humans to nature 18’. It resulted in the World Religions and Ecology-series on Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Taoism, Indigenous and Shinto. Nasr contributed to the 1998 conference about Islamic or Muslim perspectives of the ecological issues. Present research is published in the journal Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology and an active forum: The Forum on Religion and Ecology. The conference coordinators, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale University, are still very active advocates of this academic field. Another offshoot of the Harvard project is the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture (ISSRNC), which was established in 2005. It has a more scholarly and less ‘activist’ approach than the Forum on Religion and Ecology19. It grew out of the seven year project orchestrated by Bron Taylor20 on The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature that ‘critically explores the relationships among human beings, their environments, and the religious dimensions of life’21. 1.5


The research underlying this thesis was carried out in two phases, mirroring the twofold aim of concentrating on (1) the content and context of Nasr’s eco-philosophy, and (2) its reception. The analysis of Nasr’s eco-philosophy is mainly based on Nasr’s own work (literary desk research). A bibliography of his environmental work was drawn up using publications about 18

Forum on Religion and Ecology: Personal communication with the President elect of ISSRNC, the Dutch historian Kocku von Stuckrad, University of Amsterdam, 1 September 2008. 20 Director of ISSRNC . 21 Taylor, B. (eds), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2 volumes, New York: Continuum, 2005, 2008. 19

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Nasr22, the catalogues of library at Leiden University, cross-references in the literature and the internet. The subject was approached from the outside inward, first reading Nasr’s articles or lectures intended for an audience with no previous knowledge of his work and then - like a photographer slowly zooming in on his subject - reading deeper into the subject guided by the questions arising on the way. The San Rossore lecture proved to be a helpful starting point. It was intended for a non-Muslim, secular environmentalist audience, reflecting my own professional background as an environmental policy researcher. I first limited myself to Nasr’s environmental work, but soon moved on to read some of his other work to get a better view of his understanding of religion and Islam. I was also fortunate to be able to question Nasr himself during a half hour interview23. The theoretical framework, categories and concepts of ‘Western Esotericism’ were used to analyse Nasr’s philosophy. The second part of my research concentrated on the reception of Nasr’s philosophy. This proved to be a laborious task. The analysis of the ‘networks’, the groups and people, associated with or inspired by Nasr is probably best described as network analysis. This analysis was based on a search for literature about Nasr and an intensive internet search. The internet is a particularly helpful tool for this type of analysis, exposing previously unexpected connections between groups and people. Another source of information was an email correspondence with some of the leading scholars of the various fields: Richard Foltz (Muslim environmentalism), Marcia Hermansen (Western Sufism), William Stoddard (‘insider’ to the Traditionalist school), Mark Sedgwick (about the traditionalist school) and David Catherine (eco-Traditionalist), all of whom were very helpful. Sedgwick invited me to add a request for information on his Traditionalist blog24. This did not trigger much response, although eventually I was contacted by David Catherine, a Muslim Sufi ‘eco-traditionalist who draws his inspiration from Nasr’s work and fuses Islamic mystical concepts with eco-spirituality. Again the theoretical framework of ‘western esotercism’ was used to understand a particular overlap, commonalities between the various audiences.


Bibliography of Hahn, L.E., Auxier, R.E., Stone., L.W jr (eds), The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Library of Living Philosophers, Volume XXVII, Chicago and La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 2001. 23 Interview with Seyyed Hossein Nasr on 31 October 2008. 24 Sedgwick’s weblog See: ‘Seyyed Hossein Nasr and the Environment: “Ecoside is suicide”’, entry Friday, September 12, 2008, AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009





The structure of this thesis is as follows: The first Chapters are dedicated to Nasr’s eco-philosophy, his ecological message. It starts with a short biography in Chapter 2 introducing the protagonist of this thesis and then moves on to the content of his message in Chapter 3. What does he have in mind when discussing the environmental crisis? What causes it and what alternative is he proposing? Chapter 4 and 5 are then dedicated to the context of Nasr’s environmental thought, leading us first into the colourful world of Traditionalism, Perennial Philosophy and (Western) Esotericism (Chapter 4) and then to Traditional Islam and Sufism (Chapter 5). This Chapter concludes with evaluation of Nasr’s thought within the wider spectrum of ‘types of Islam’: what kind of ‘Islam’ is actually Nasr representing? Chapter 6 is dedicated to the reception of Nasr’s environmentalist thought. Various ‘circles of influence’ or audiences are identified and discussed. The section about the Traditionalists is worked out most extensively, because Nasr can be shown to hold a prominent position within the American Traditionalist groups. Other circles are Western environmentalist movements, Islamic environmentalists, Islamic science groups and Western Sufi-groups. On reaching a conclusion in the last Chapter 7, we will have encountered Persian Islamic mysticism, Schuonian Traditionalism, a peculiar brand of Westernized Sufism, Perennial Philosophy and Western Esotericism, ‘Islamized’ science, Prince Charles, E. F Schumacher of the influential Small is beautiful and one of the icons of the Western environmental movement, Muslim eco-activists with distinctly Islamist agendas, an Islamic Deep Ecology, spiritual ecoactivists and politicized Sufism.

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



2 Seyyed Hossein Nasr


The Scholar of Islam, Philosopher

Who is Seyyed Hossein Nasr? On the back covers of most of his books, in articles or at conference lectures, Nasr is introduced to us as a ‘scholar’, a professor of Islamic Studies and/ or comparative religion, an expert on Islamic science and spirituality. It takes more detailed biographical information to be found in other sources to build up a completer profile25. We will then find him to have several roles, some public, some more private: as a scholar, philosopher, theologian, a practicing Sufi mystic and teacher, ‘Traditionalist’, an advocate of ‘Islamized science’, a participant of interfaith dialogue and the global ethics debates or as an advocate of an ‘alternative’ Islam. More of this will be addressed later on. Nasr was born in Iran in 1933. He received his academic training in the United States, graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an undergraduate degree in Physics and Mathematics. He went on to Harvard University where he studied Geology and Geophysics, and then completed a PhD in the History of Science and Philosophy26. After graduating, Nasr moved back to Iran. He was appointed professor of philosophy at Tehran University, specializing on Iranian esoteric philosophers and continued his education within the ‘traditional educational system’ with a number of masters (Assar, Tabatab’i and Qazwini). In 1973, Nasr founded the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy under the patronage of the Queen of Iran. This was intended as a school for the study and dissemination of the traditional sciences, especially Islamic philosophy and attracted distinguished scholars in the field, both from the East and the West, such as Henry Corbin and Toshihiko Izutsu. Having to leave Iran after the revolution in 1979, Nasr moved back to the United States. Since 1984, he has held a position as a professor of Comparative Religion and Islamic studies at the George Washington University. Nasr has written more than fifty books, hundreds of articles and lectured on topics varying from ‘traditional’ Islamic cosmology, metaphysics, science, philosophy, theology, Sufism, Persian 25

Biographical information may be drawn from: the website of the Nasr Foundation:; Chittick, W.C. (eds) The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Perennial Philosophy series, Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2007; Sedgwick, M. Against the Modern World, 2004 and the ‘Autobiography’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001. 26 Website George Washington University, Department of Religion, AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



mysticism, Islamic art and architecture to religious pluralism and modernity. He contributed to and edited several anthologies or encyclopaedias, such as Islamic Spirituality (1991)27, which is part of a series on World Spirituality, History of Islamic Philosophy (1996)28, An Anthology Philosophy in Persia (1999, 2000)29, and The Heritage of Sufism (1999)30. Apart from his academic work, quite a few of his publications are intended for a general public, introducing Islam or discussing its relation to modernity, such as Traditional Islam in the Modern World (1985), Islam and the Plight of Modern Man (1975) and A Young Muslim Guide to the Modern World (1998). Many of these were translated into languages as varied as Indonesian, Japanese, Bosnian-Serbo-Croatian, Turkish, Arabic, Urdu, Persian, Polish, Tamil, French, Dutch and others (a total of twenty-two languages). His latest books, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity (2004) and The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (2007) are particularly dedicated to presenting a more positive image of Islam and Sufism to non-Muslim audiences. Although Islam is central to Nasr’s work, his perspective is also distinctly comparative or as we shall see ‘perennial’, addressing and comparing the other major ‘traditions’ or philosophical or metaphysical systems. ‘Tradition’, we are soon to find out, is one of the key concepts characterizing his work. Nasr is said to be an exponent of the ‘Traditionalist school’. His perennial or Traditionalist philosophy permeates all his work, but is most clearly laid out in what Nasr considers his most important philosophical work: Knowledge and the Sacred (1989)31. It is based on a series of lectures, the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh32 delivered in 1981. This marked a crucial moment in his career. Having just left Iran and uncertain about his future, he remembers how ‘the actual writing of the text of the lectures …came as a gift from Heaven. The text would be able to “descend” upon me and crystallize clearly in my mind I was able to write each Chapter in a continuous flow like a running


Nasr, S.H., (ed.) The Encyclopaedia of Islamic Spirituality, Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2000. Nasr., S.H. Leaman, O. (eds.), History of Islamic Philosophy, London and New York: Routledge, 1996, 2007 of the Routledge History of World philosophies. 29 Nasr, S.H., Amanirazavi, M. (eds) An Anthology of Philosophy of Persia, Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2005. 30 Lewisohn, L. (ed.), The Heritage of Sufism, Oxford: Oneworld, 1999. 31 Nasr, S.H., Knowledge and the Sacred, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. 32 The purpose of prestigious Gifford is ‘to promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term - in other words, the knowledge of God.’ …’Since the first lecture in 1888, Gifford Lecturers have been recognized as pre-eminent thinkers in their respective fields. Among the many gifted lecturers are Hannah Arendt, Niels Bohr, Etienne Gilson, Werner Heisenberg, William James, Max Mueller, Iris Murdoch, Reinhold Niebuhr, Albert Schweitzer and Alfred North Whitehead’. 28

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river….33 Soon after, Nasr was able to continue his academic career at George Washington University, dedicating himself: to the various dimensions of traditional metaphysics, the other sciences of nature and cosmologies than modern science; to discover ways of studying the history of science other than the prevalent method based upon positivism (drawing here from the many works of Pierre Duhem) and to create especially what I hold to be authentic methodology to study both Islamic science and Islamic philosophy from within; to resuscitate the whole of the Islamic intellectual tradition including Sufism, philosophy, arts and the sciences within the contemporary setting; to pursue the study of Western philosophy from the point of view of the Islamic intellectual tradition; to deal intellectually and philosophically in the deepest sense of the term with the tensions between east and West and tradition and modernity34. Apart from recognition as a specialist about Islamic philosophy, Nasr also finds recognition as a philosopher. Majid Fahkry, a widely respected scholar on Islamic philosophy refers to Nasr as ‘the best known contemporary Iranian philosopher … who has written extensively on Islamic cosmology, mysticism and metaphysics and is widely respected in academic circles35’. In 2000, The Library of Living Philosophers series – also listing names such as Dewey, Sartre, Buber and Popper - featured a volume on The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. It was already noted in the introduction that Nasr is very active in the sphere of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.36 This public role is essential if we wish to understand the significance of Nasr and his work in our times and will be touched upon later in this thesis. 2.2

The Environmentalist

A lifelong interest in the environmental crisis is added to the many scholarly interests outlined above. In his own words: this is one of his ‘other major philosophical preoccupations’. Nasr’s doctoral thesis (1958) was dedicated to traditional philosophies of nature and cosmologies. This was published years later as An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (1993). Religion and the Order of Nature (1996)37 is Nasr’s most recent book about the environmental crisis. It crowns, in his own words, the ‘series of works written on the subject of the relation between religion or ‘the sacred’ and science and nature38’. He had been writing consistently


‘Autobiography’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p77-78. ‘Autobiography’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p27-28. 35 Fakhry, M, A History of Islamic Philosophy, p322. 36 During the nineties various UNESCO programmes were involved with dialogue: Dialogue of Civilizations, Alliance of Civilisations, Global Ethics and others. 37 Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, New York Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 38 ‘Reply to A.K. Saran’, in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p441. 34

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about this topic since end of the sixties39. In 1966, his Rockefeller Series Lectures were published as The Encounter of Man and Nature (1968)40 and reprinted later as: Man and Nature: the Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (1987)41. These works are general and comparative in scope, focussing on various religions. The Islamic perspective is also worked out in it, but also in several other publications: in Sufi Essays (1972) focussing on the Sufi perspective on the ecological crisis, Knowledge and the Sacred (1989)42 and its sequel The Need for a Sacred Science (1993)43. The latter contains a Chapter on the Islamic perspective and was later reworked as a contribution to Harvard Divinity School series on Religion and Ecology mentioned in the introduction: Islam and Ecology: a Bestowed Trust (2003)44. To this day, Nasr is frequently invited to lecture about the subject. In 2004, for example he was asked to address an audience of ‘deep ecologists’ and ‘eco-spirituals’ at the ‘Nature and the Sacred: A Fierce Green Fire’ conference at Oregon University45. In that same year, he addressed the ‘environmental sector’ at the San Rossore conference already mentioned in the introduction. Of more recent date, we can mention a conversation about the environmental crisis between Nasr and Muzaffar Iqbal intended for specifically Muslim audiences. Iqbal is an active proponent of Islamized science, as we will see later on.46 Nasr can be found addressing many other audiences, as well47. It is important to note that Nasr was amongst the first league of people in the West to draw attention to the environmental crisis. Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring (1962), which is generally recognized as the first book to really bring environmental issues to the forefront of public attention had only recently been published, when Nasr published his first book on the 39

A bibliography of (part of) these article and lectures is included as an appendix. This was collected from various sources: Bibliography The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr (till 1999), the internet, references in other publications, etc.. 40 Nasr, S.H. The Encounter of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, London: Allan and Unwin, 1968. Reprinted as Man and Nature (1987). 41 Nasr, S.H., Man and Nature: the Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1987, new edition: London: Unwin and Hyman and Harper-Collins, 1990, Chicago: ABC International Group, 1997. 42 Chapter 6: ‘Cosmos as Theophany’ in: Nasr, S.H., Knowledge and the Sacred, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. 43 Chapter 9 ‘Sacred Science and the Environmental Crisis: An Islamic Perspective’. In: Nasr, S.H., The Need for a Sacred Science, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. 44 Nasr, S.H., ‘Islam, the Contemporary Islamic World, and the Environmental Crisis’ in: Foltz, R.C. Denny, F. Baharuddin, A. (eds), Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003. 45 Conference on Nature and the Sacred ‘A Fierce Green Fire’, October 2004 nature_sacred/index.html. 46 ‘The Islamic perspective on the environmental crisis: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal’. Accessed at (october 2008). 47 Public lecture ‘Faith and the Environment’ 17 May 2008, Revival Series: . This related to Hamza Yusuf, an American convert to Islam, who is also active in the Common Word initiative. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



subject. Silent Spring confirmed his ‘intuition of an impending disaster’ and inspired him to ‘seek the causes of this situation’ realizing, while in his early twenties, that ‘the environmental crisis was in fact the result of a spiritual crisis within the soul of modern man and not simply a result of bad engineering’48. He first came to realize that something was wrong in the fifties, when he witnessed the destruction of large pristine forest areas. My own concern with issues of the environmental crisis goes back to the early 1950s and my student days at M.I.T. and Harvard University. Always sensitive to the beauty of nature, I used to walk alone, like Thoreau, around Walden Pond when the natural scenery of the area was still well preserved. It was the construction of Route 128 around Boston and the consequent separation, ecologically speaking, of the area inside the beltway from the relatively unhindered countryside beyond that brought home to me the fact that something was basically wrong in our relationship to nature. …I was led to foresee a major environmental crisis, whose real causes were spiritual, looming on the horizon. I saw the blind development of modern industry as a cancer in the body of nature…which would finally lead to the destruction of the harmony and balance of the natural world and of its ‘death’ in the form that we knew it49. From my childhood years …. I had a special love for nature in her many forms, from mountain peaks, which have always exercised a magical power on me, to the vast starry nights of the Iranian plateau where heaven seems to descend to the earthly realm, to flowers, trees and animals, to running streams, placid lakes, sandy beaches and even rocks and earth. The immediate experience of virgin nature, not spoiled by human intrusion, has always been for me a foretaste of paradisal beatitude50. This experience of the close connection existing between ‘nature’ and ‘paradise’ is at the core of his environmental thought. It made him conclude that: The environmental crisis is primarily a result of an inner spiritual crisis of modern man and the darkening of the soul within man who then projects this darkness upon the environment and destroys its balance and harmony51. What Nasr means with this, I will attempt to clarify in the next chapters.


‘Reply to Giovanni Monastra’, in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p.516 Foltz, R.C (eds), Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, 2003. p.85-86. 50 ‘An Intellectual Autobiography’ in: Hahn, L.E. (eds), The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p28. 51 ‘Reply to Giovanni Monastra’, in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p.516 49

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3 Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man


Introduction The Earth is bleeding from wounds inflicted upon it by a humanity no longer in harmony with Heaven and therefore in constant strife with the terrestrial environment. The world of nature is being desecrated and destroyed in an unprecedented manner globally by both those who secularized the world about them and developed a science and technology capable of destroying nature on an unimaginable scale and by those who still live within a religious universe, even if the mode of destruction of the order of nature by the two groups is both quantitatively and qualitatively different. … The environmental crisis now encompasses the entire Earth. Strangely enough, although the destruction of the sacred quality of nature by modern man dominated by a secularist perspective is entirely responsible for this catastrophe, the vast majority of the human species … still lives within a worldview dominated by religion. The role of religion in the solution of the existing crisis between man and nature is therefore crucial … A need exists to develop a path across religious frontiers without destroying the significance of religion itself and to carry out a comparative study of the “Earths” of various religions…. 52.

The opening paragraph of Religion and the Order of Nature (1996) is cited here at some length, because it characterizes Nasr’s eco-philosophy or ‘ecological message’ so well. It contains all the elements that mark his argument: an almost compassionate sense of urgency about the severity of the environmental crisis (the earth is ‘bleeding’); the lack of ‘harmony with Heaven’ as the true nature of the crisis; science and technology developed by a secularized humanity as the main causes and also, the crucial role of religion as a solution to the crisis i.e. traditional knowledge about nature, comparative study of the earths’. ‘Secular modernity’ is contrasted to ‘traditional religious cosmology and metaphysics’ as the cause and solution to the crisis respectively. In this Chapter we will analyse Nasr’s ‘ecological message’. What exactly is his message? What is the line of his argumentation? What are in his view, the ‘real’ root causes behind the environmental crisis? What alternatives does he have in mind? What kind of solutions does he propose? What role does ‘religion’ have to play? What is his agenda?


Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, Oxford University Press, New York Oxford, 1996. p.3.

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This part is based on Nasr’s general (or Perennialist) ‘environmental’ message intended for Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. The San Rossore lecture is taken as the starting point and blueprint for the analysis; it outlines the main arguments53. This is complemented with references to his other work. His argumentation contains five distinct parts: (1) an assessment of the reality and urgency of the environmental crisis, (2) a critique of modernity, (3) a suggested route towards a solution: a transformation of our world view, (4) the alternative ‘traditional’ worldview and (5) the means to achieve such a transformation or paradigm change. 3.2

Environmental Crisis

For Nasr the ‘environmental crisis’ includes the whole range of problems that are generally categorized under the ‘environment’: the extinction of species, pollution of the oceans, soil, water resources, global warming or climate change, destruction of forests and coral reefs etc. The reality and urgency of these problems is evident to Nasr. The consequence of the environmental crisis can now be observed everywhere for those who have eyes to see, and it becomes ever more difficult, even for the ideologues of linear human progress and indefinite economic development and the few scientists that they can muster to support them, to neglect the great threat facing humanity as a result of what modern man has done and continues to do to the natural environment54. We have created a civilization that is in such a state of disequilibrium with the natural environment that if one takes the longer view one can assert that this civilization is itself the greatest weapon of mass destruction. Ecocide is also suicide.55 In his view, these are all symptoms of one and the same phenomenon: the destruction of the balance and harmony of the natural world. The ‘environmental crisis’ is essentially a crisis in the relation between human beings and nature. ‘Crisis’, he explained in one of his interviews, refers to a ‘state that is not normal, that is dangerous and in disequilibrium56’. With ‘environment’ Nasr means ‘nature’ or ‘virgin nature’ which he defines as ‘all that is not made by human beings nor affected by human activities’57. This includes the ‘inner environment’ of our bodies, which is also threatened by the pollution entering our food chain. There need be no mistake, as far as Nasr is concerned: humanity as whole has taken a suicidal turn. If we destroy 53

The San Rossore Lecture was printed as ‘Man and Nature: Quest for a Renewed Understanding’ in: Sophia, The Journal of Traditional Studies, vol. 10, number 2, winter 2004, p5-14. 54 San Rossore lecture, in: Sophia, 2004, p5-6. 55 Sophia, 2004, p12. 56 ‘The Islamic perspective on the environmental crisis: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal’. Accessed at (october 2008). 57 Interview with Nasr by Spanish journal Agenda Viva, October 2006, printed as ‘Traditional Man, Modern Man and the Environmental Crisis’ in: Sophia, volume 12, number 2, 2006. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



nature, the very foundation of our existence, we will ultimately destroy ourselves: ‘Ecoside is suicide58’. This is a view that in due time, Nasr has come to share with many of our contemporaries, Al Gore with his Inconvenient Truth being the most recent to receive a global audience. Radical action, directed at the root causes of the crisis is necessary, if we want to avert catastrophe. The initiatives and environmental action that have been taken by individuals, governments and various institutions in the past few decades, such as ‘better environmental engineering, creation of environmental ethics, conservation practices and the like are all laudable and important’. However, these initiatives will only slow down the destructive trends, Nasr warns us. ‘There is no external task in this world before any government, social group or individual more important and urgent than the protection of the earth which is our home and the home of all terrestrial creatures. But all the efforts can only at best give humanity more time – before a major catastrophe strikes’59. To wake up from that dream of forgetfulness that we associate with ordinary life and to break away from that paradigm that has precipitated the greatest natural crisis in human history. We are like sleepwalkers walking on the edge of a precipice. … We have raped nature with unprecedented ferocity during the past few centuries, thinking that nature is simply a passive entity with which we can do what we will. But that is no more than a Promethean dream that is now turning in a nightmare60. To find a veritable solution to the problem at hand, one must look beyond today’s prevalent worldview and seek within the perennial wisdom of humanity for an understanding of what it means to be human61. … Our worldview has to change, Nasr is suggesting. What is wrong with our worldview and how should it change? 3.3

Critique of Modernity

The root cause of the environmental crisis, in Nasr’s view, is the worldview that has come to dominate and form Western modern civilization: the ‘modern paradigm’. This has resulted in a ‘spiritual crisis of modern man’. Meticulously tracing the historical development of modern Western philosophical thought in several of his books, Nasr indicates how, gradually, the modern paradigm had come to replace the ‘traditional’ medieval Christian paradigm62. 58

Sophia, Volume 10, Number 2, 2004, p.14 Sophia 2004, p.14 60 Sophia 2004, p.14 61 Sophia 2004, p.8. The accent is mine. 62 The analysis of the historical developments building up to the contemporary dominant worldviews of ‘modernity’ takes up a significant part of Religion and the Order of Nature and Knowledge and the Sacred. Because I wish to focus on his argumentation as a whole I choose not to expand on this important aspect of his 59

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Watershed moments marking this gradual transformation were the Renaissance Humanism, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Western man gradually came to think of himself, of nature and the divine realities in a manner that radically differed from the worldviews of premodern times and societies. Although Nasr acknowledges the enormous variety and diversity of thoughts, currents, cultures and movements that together make up ‘Western culture’, he points out that one particular paradigm – the modern ‘scientistic’ paradigm - became the main driving force behind the developments in the Western world in the past three to four centuries. The modern worldview is secular, materialist, reductionist, positivist, rational and anthropocentric (or human centred). The ‘modern’ view of nature – nature as a great machine – fuelled the development of modern science. This enabled mankind to unravel some of the earth’s greatest mysteries, from DNA to quantum physics, resulting in the development of powerful technologies such as space-, military-, ICT technology and bio-engineering. Powerful societies emerged with strong political and financial institutions, high living standards (at least in the Western world) and laudable ethical guidelines protecting individual human rights. Nasr does not reject these fruits of Western civilisation; neither does he reject modern science and technology as such. What he does reject is the ‘scientistic’ claim to absolute knowledge. The worldview presented to us by modern science provides us with no more than a limited, particularistic view of reality. ‘Scientism’ is based on two fundamental errors: (1) a disregard of the deeper nature of man and (2) a disregard of the sacred reality of nature. This view is fundamentally flawed, and Nasr spent a large part of his life attempting to counter it. It is also at the heart of the ‘spiritual crisis’. With ‘spiritual crisis’ he means: the limited view of reality, a general disregard of the spiritual dimensions of reality. Two aspects of the modern paradigm are essentially problematic according to Nasr: (1) the absolutization of the human state (anthropocentrism); (2) the reductionist or limited materialistic view of reality and nature. First, man came to see himself as the centre of the universe, as autonomous, as ‘Promethean Man’. The modern view only accepts constraints to human behaviour that are imposed by human kind on itself; it does not accept revealed or Divine Law. All laws and regulations are manmade, are seen as having developed out of concrete historical and social contexts and can

work. See: Chapter 3 ‘Philosophy and the Misdeed of Philosophy’ in Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, Oxford University Press, New York Oxford, 1996. Also: Chapter 1 ‘Knowledge and its Desacralization’ in: Nasr, S.H., Knowledge and the Sacred, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



therefore be altered over time. In Nasr’s view, man came to neglect his responsibilities towards and ultimately his dependency on the rest of creation. Since the Renaissance and the seventeenth century, modern man came to envisage himself, as a purely terrestrial being without responsibility towards either God or creation. The sacred reality of nature was cast aside and nature came to be seen in purely quantitative and mechanical terms63. Man increasingly neglected not only the rights of God, but also the rights of the rest of creation, while failing to emphasize human responsibilities. Man has come to see himself as master of his own destiny and of the world, but he had little concern for the innate rights of God’s creatures64. In the modern secular worldview, there is no inherent or God-given reason why humans would take on responsibility for the earth’s creatures. Why should we care at all? This fundamental question is at the heart of all environmental ethics and it has been subject of intense debate amongst environmental ethicists for years. Various approaches - biocentric, ecocentric- were developed to answer this question. Nasr, we will see, will propose a God-centred or theocentric approach. Second, by reducing nature to mere ‘quantity and mechanical relationships’, nature lost its inherent meaning or significance; nature has become to be a kind of ‘machine or quantity in motion, bereft of any qualities, not to speak of spiritual reality65’. The science developing out of this materialistic worldview was based on ‘control and domination of nature’, ‘impervious to the spiritual dimension of nature, and which has in fact brought about the destruction of the balance and harmony of the natural environment’66. Modern science also reduced the human being – his human consciousness, psychic and even spiritual abilities to ‘material’ reality. In this view, a human is no more (and no less) than flesh and bones, a bundle of electric currents and neural synapses, hormones and DNA structure, a complex machine having evolved from matter into singular cells into apes and eventually humans. The economic system as institutionalized greed Now, why is this ‘scientistic’ worldview problematic and why should this cause the environmental crisis? The direct cause of the crisis is the present economic system, which in Nasr’s view is a ‘system of institutionalized greed’ manifesting itself in the ‘rampant consumerism’ we are witnessing everywhere today. The modern paradigm views human beings 63

Interview Agenda Viva, in Sophia, Vol 12, No2, 2006, p.29. Sophia, Volume 10, Number 2, 2004, p.7 65 Sophia, Volume 10, Number 2, 2004, p.11 66 Sophia, Volume 10, Number 2, 2004, p.7 64

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as ‘flesh and bones’ and as ‘economic animals’67, defined solely by material criteria, ‘material needs’ and their drive for ‘acquisition of things’. From this view, an economic system evolved which in essence is fuelled by the ‘appeal to the passion of greed’. This crisis is driven by the modern economic system appealing to the human passions, especially the passion of greed intensified by the creation of false needs, which are not really needs but wants. This is in opposition to the view which religions have espoused over the millennia, that is, the practice of the virtue of contentment, of being content with what one has. The modern outlook is based on fanning the fire of greed and covetousness, on trying to do everything possible to attach the soul more and more to the world and on making a vice out of what for religion has always been a virtue, that is to keep a certain distance and detachment from the world, in other words a certain amount of ascetism68. Happiness became identified with the acquisition of things and ascetism came to be seen as “sin”. It is but one step away from the rampant consumerism which is creating never ending desires soon turned into needs for material goods, these desires having to be satisfied by the resources in a finite world69. So, consumerism is the direct cause, but underlying this most visible cause is the root cause: a worldview that fundamentally disregards the spiritual realities. The modern economic system and the resulting environmental destruction are the outward manifestations of the modernist worldview or ‘scientism’. Since the Industrial revolution ‘the inner spiritual crisis became ever more projected outwardly’ as a crisis in nature70. Nasr’s critique of modernity is very central to his thought, also colouring most of his other, nonenvironmental work. Nasr is said ‘to challenge the assumptions and values of the modern world and of the modern scientistic philosophy’. Yet, ‘not as a pure reaction against modernity, but as an informed engagement with modernity71’ Nasr shares this critical assessment of modern life with many others. This type of criticism has been voiced in the West from the onset of the Industrial Revolution, first by the Romantic movements of the nineteenth century, to surface again a century later in the counterculture era of the seventies. We will see how Nasr draws his inspiration from Western environmentalism later. More recently, large parts of the environmental or anti-globalist movements of the nineties share similar views. Nasr also shares his modernist critique with many of the reformist, modernist and fundamentalist thinkers of the 67

Sophia, Volume 10, Number 2, 2004, p.7 Nasr, S.H. ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis.’, in: Chittick, W.C. (eds) The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The perennial Philosophy series, Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2007. p.31-32. 69 Sophia, Volume 10, Number 2, 2004, p7 70 Interview Agenda Viva, in Sophia, Vol 12, No2, 2006, p29 71 Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Preface’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, pxvii 68

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Muslim world. This criticism is also an essential characteristic of the traditionalist outlook. This will be discussed in the next Chapters. 3.4

Traditional metaphysics

Considering the fundamental flaws of the prevalent modernistic worldview, it makes sense to call for a radical transformation of this paradigm. The modernist paradigm has left humanity with partial knowledge, a reductionist and ‘truncated’ vision of reality. What is needed now a new ‘greater vision’, new metaphysical and cosmological doctrines. Nasr passionately pleads for a critical re-examination of our collective worldview, of our understanding of what it means to be human, of what nature is, of man’s position within the ‘greater scheme of things’. ‘Paradoxically, this radical transformation requires, not a new discovery, but the rediscovery of our relation to nature, which’, according to Nasr, ‘has always been evident to a large extent in the life of traditional societies over the ages’72. Essential truths about the nature of reality were once expressed in traditional systems of thought; the time has come to rediscover this ‘traditional wisdom’. We need a sacred science, as well as religion, art, philosophy and mysticism, all in their traditional forms. We also need a new philosophy of nature which cannot be but the perennial philosophy of nature reformulated in contemporary terms. In this task the non-Western religions, from the primal ones to Islam and historically speaking those within, can and must play a most important role. It is also essential that the Western spiritual tradition concerning nature be revived, whilst those of other traditions need to be reformulated before they too become forgotten as the Western tradition was forgotten73. … Traditional paradigms are religious in essence and therefore, Nasr asserts, ‘religion’ has a very central role to play in solving the environmental crisis. Knowledge about the ‘truth’, of reality’ and also about nature had always been part of the great religions of the world, but this was forgotten by modern man. The real tragedy, according to Nasr, is that religion and therefore also knowledge of the truth was pushed out of modern society. What is left of ‘religion’ now has lost its vital connection with the inner perennial or millennial wisdom. So, what humanity needs is a renewed understanding of the perennial knowledge about nature, about the ‘Earth’. This knowledge is lying dormant within our ‘traditions’, our cultural heritages. We need to redevelop and discover this ‘sacred science of the order of nature’. With the concept of ‘sacred science’ we have landed at the heart of Nasr’s philosophy. The term ‘sacred science’ refers to timeless and universal knowledge – or perennial wisdom - that is 72 73

Sophia., 2004, p..6. Sophia, 2004, p.12.

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rooted in the ‘sacred’ or the divine order of reality. What Nasr means with this, we will discuss in the next Chapter, when discussing Perennial philosophy and Traditionalism. Religion and the Order of Nature is an attempt to uncover this perennial and sacred knowledge about nature that can be found at the ‘core’ of all authentic religions (‘comparative study of the Earths’). Despite the enormous diversity, all share a common core and a few distinct principles. Central principles Traditional knowledge systems are characterized by five principles: (1) the existence of one divine absolute truth; (2) the hierarchical order of the universe, (3) a universe governed by ‘cosmic laws’, (4) the inherent unity of existence and (5) the central position of man. The first and central principle concerns the existence of ‘one objective and absolute reality’, which is Divine. Absolute, divine Truth or – if you will God – exists; it is an objective reality. This is not self-evident to the post-modern mind that is trained to be suspicious of all absolute truth claims. The (post)modern paradigm is said ‘to cast all absolutes aside’, yet, ‘at the same time, as through the back door, it reasserts the absolutization of man without further question74, Nasr points out with irony. This Divine or Ultimate Reality is the centre of the universe; all other aspects of reality are ‘reflections’ of this divine order. Authentic religions also reflect this one reality. Nasr is proposing a God-centred worldview, challenging the anthropocentric view of the modern paradigm. The second principle concerns the ‘hierarchical order of reality’. Reality consists of hierarchically ordered ‘levels of existence’ - the material, animal, human, angelic and ultimately divine realms - each subsequent level reflecting the divine more perfectly. The universe is a cosmic hierarchy, a ‘great chain of being75’. The physical world – which we as humans can perceive and know through our senses or by empirical observation is only one of many levels of reality. ‘The physical world is related to God by levels of reality which transcend the physical world itself and which constitute the various stages of the cosmic hierarchy’76. This reality is ‘ordered’ – a third principle - in the sense that each level is governed by laws and principles: physical, psychological and spiritual laws. On a material level this is evident: the law of gravity forces an apple to fall down and the science of physics is founded on the existence of these physical laws. In the other domains these laws may be less obvious, but also the 74

Sophia, 2004, p.11. The term ‘Great Chain of Being’ is occasionally used by Nasr. It is used in a work by A. O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1913. Lovejoy traced the concept of this type of idea – of a hierarchical interconnected worldview - through western history. 76 Sophia, 2004, p.12. 75

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psychological, spiritual realities are governed by cosmic laws. An example is the karmic law of cause and effect. The fourth principle concerns the ‘inherent unity of existence’. As reflections of the one divine reality, all other levels of reality are interconnected and interrelated. There is an ‘inherent unity in all existence’. Man and nature are more intimately connected than modern man can ever conceive: … we are woven into the intricate web of life in a manner that cannot be reduced to simple quantitative and material relationships77. We can and must rediscover this vision of nature as an enchanted reality to which we are related, not only physically, chemically and biologically, but also psychologically, intellectually and spiritually78. The limbs of nature are our limbs, her life our life and her destruction our destruction. All religions, in their deepest teachings, and despite important formal differences, relate the order of nature to the order within human beings, and envisage both orders as bearing the imprint of Divine reality, which is the Origin of both man and nature79. Within this hierarchical ‘vertically ordered’, interconnected and enchanted universe, man holds a central position. This is a fifth principle of traditional metaphysics. Man is viewed ‘as the axis of this world’80’, as the connection between the divine realms above and the terrestrial realms below, a bridge between ‘Heaven and Earth’. More importantly, the constitution of man - his body, psyche/ soul and spirit – is perceived as reflecting the various levels of the cosmic hierarchy: his body is part of the physical realm, his psyche or soul is part of the ‘imaginal realms’ and his spirit is part of the higher spiritual realms that ultimately reach out to the divine. Humans are created to develop from the lower towards the higher levels. The micro-cosmos of man and macro-cosmos of the universe are interrelated. In religious terms: man was created in God’s image as His vicegerent, as the reflection of the Divine qualities. However, despite this pivotal role, man is not absolute. Man is a being with ‘power to dominate and even destroy the world of nature81’, but man’s powers are limited by the laws governing the universe. His body is subject to physical laws - he will never be able to walk through a brick wall, his psyche is subject to psychological laws and his spirit to spiritual laws. Ultimately, man is a being with ‘relative rights’ and with ‘responsibilities’ towards creation. If we regain our understanding of what man truly is, we come to realize that only the Ultimate or Heaven [red: God] is absolute, and that man, although a reflection of the Absolute and created to reach the Absolute, lives in this world as a being with relative 77

Sophia, 2004, p.12. Sophia, 2004, p.12. 79 Nasr, S.H., Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.24-25. 80 Sophia, 2004, p.11. 81 Sophia, 2004, p.11. 78

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rights which are combined with responsibilities. As such he cannot dominate and destroy his surrounding in the name of the absoluteness of the human state and man’s so-called ‘needs’82. Our rights are limited by accepting the rights of other beings, and our responsibilities become extended to boundaries beyond our family, tribe, nation or religion to embrace not only all of humanity but also all of nature83. Man is born with free will, but – and this is essential - this freedom is limited by the laws governing the universe. Transgression of these laws creates disequilibrium, it destroys the cosmic harmony. Man is free to pollute the oceans, but he will need to accept the rebound i.e. that poisoned food will affect his health and might even destroy him. In the physical domain these are clear examples of the laws of cause and effect ruling our actions. But this ‘karmic’ law applies in other realms as well. As human beings we need to respect these laws. What we are witnessing today with the environmental crisis is in essence a situation of a disturbed balance and disequilibrium caused by the modern contempt or ignorance of these laws, of the true ‘order of nature’. Implications This traditional worldview as outlined here has some important implications, also affecting our relation to nature. Morality, Ethics and Divine law First, within the traditional worldview morality, ethics– as a blueprint for correct human behaviour, and the divine laws or ‘order of reality’ are interconnected. This aspect may be difficult to grasp for the modern mind, trained to separate morality from factual reality, yet is very central to Nasr’s traditionalist thought. The moral dimension is introduced to the argument by acknowledging or ‘asserting’ that man’s freedom is inherently limited by its cosmic laws. Freedom must be combined with ‘restraint and responsibility, self-control and discipline’. If not, this leads to chaos, disequilibrium. It is this sense of moral restraint and responsibility that is currently lacking, according to Nasr, and this is what needs to be re-realized, re-affirmed and relearned through study of traditional knowledge and through spiritual training. An effective environmental ethics can only be founded in this metaphysical moral order. One of the great tragedies is that the dominant paradigm has divorced ethics from metaphysics and cosmology so that within this framework, to speak of the sanctity of 82 83

Sophia 2004, p.11. Sophia 2004, p.10.

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life and the ethically immoral character of the destruction of the sacred is viewed as mere sentimentality, subjectivism or poetry – not a position grounded in objective knowledge. We need to rediscover the worldview within which the cosmic dimension of ethics will once again become a reality and in which human beings will be able to extend, with their hearts and souls, the ethical concerns to non-human beings, as well as to all human beings beyond our tribe, nation, civilization or religion84. To Nasr, ethics and divine law are closely related. ‘In traditional societies human laws were considered cosmic laws’ and, Nasr emphasizes, ‘this profound nexus between human and cosmic law must be reasserted’85. I would like to point out the potentially profound implications of this type of assertion. How can we – as humans - know what ‘divine law’ is? How and in what form will these be expressed in human societies? Even traditional societies have developed various types of systems based on ‘divine’ law. And even within one religious system diverging views have co-existed about the interpretation of Divine law. This will work out differently for different civilizations, for Hindu culture this would entail re-establishing the laws of Manu including its caste structure, for Islamic cultures this would entail re-establishing a sharia based law. What precise ‘form’ this would take, Nasr does not discuss in detail in his publications, although his publications intended for Islamic audiences touch on this issue, as we will see in the next Chapter. Spiritual development: the Perfect Man Secondly, traditional systems stress the importance and necessity of human development. Man is born imperfect and is destined to perfect his character and soul, ultimately to reach out towards the divine. Many, if not all traditional religious systems have presented a blueprint for this self-development, a ‘spiritual and ethical archetype or prototype of the Perfect Man’, as well as the spiritual training to achieve this goal of perfection. Its methods enabled man to control the ‘passionate ego’ and acquire the vital ‘virtues of contentment, discipline and self control’. These virtues are as essential for mankind to reach the divine, as these are to live in harmony with nature. The value of ‘contentment’ for example is pivotal as a means to curb greed, the inner drive to gain more and more things. This drive, Nasr points out, is inherent to the consumerism that is fuelling the economic system. ‘These traditional virtues which have allowed countless generations to live in equilibrium with the world around them, were at the

84 85

Sophia, 2004, p.10. Sophia, 2004, p10-11.

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same time conceived as ways of perfecting the soul, as steps to perfection of human existence’86. Therefore, perfecting the inner state of man will also affect man’s relation to his outer world: inner harmony is reflecting in outer harmony. This also works the other way around: a disturbed balance in the inner state of man is creating havoc in the outer world, our environment. This is related by what Nasr refers to as the ‘misdirecting of the yearning of the soul’, which is ‘really at the heart of the environmental crisis’87. Man is created to seek the ‘Absolute and the Infinite’, to search for God. When the divine is denied, as it is within the modern secular worldview, the ‘yearning and search within the human soul nevertheless continue’. Its powerful creative energies are then directed towards the material world, fuelling the tremendous progress that was made the past few centuries in the ‘material sphere’, of science, technology and economic development, yet also resulting in large scale destruction of the material world. The ‘direction of arrow of progress’ was changed from that of progress in the sense of the ‘soul journeying to God’ to purely material progress. Now we are left with a ‘centerless soul seeking the Infinite in the multiplicity of nature’. Our true destiny and freedom is of a spiritual nature, our efforts should be directed towards the soul’s ultimate goal, which is fulfilment of our real inner needs: spiritual realization. …. man turns to the material world for his infinite thirst, never satisfied with what he has on the material plane, directing an unending source of energy to the natural world, with the result that it transforms the order of nature into the chaos and ugliness we observe so painfully today in so many parts of the globe and which bear the mark of modern man’s activities. Spiritual creativity is replaced by inventive genius, which leaves upon the environment the traces of its unending tinkering with nature and production of gadgets and products resulting …. ever-growing wastelands…. 88. Sacred nature Another important implication of the traditional paradigm concerns the ‘sacred quality’ of nature. Nature is not the grand machine, the quantity in motion, nor the mere commodity and source of raw materials as the modernist believes. Rather, all traditional religions affirm the sacred quality of nature, its vertical dimension, seeing nature as sacred or having spiritual qualities, and the mystics of all climes, have seen nature as a theophany, without, falling into the error of pantheism. Some have spoken of the earth as an angel, others as Mother. Since time immemorial, human beings have realized that nature is not a dead aggregate of elements some of which possess life,


Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 33. 87 Nasr, S.H., Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.272. 88 Nasr, S.H., Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.272. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



but rather they have perceived that it is alive in itself with its own harmony and rhythm of life. It is an ancient idea now being reconsidered under the name of Gaia theory89. Nature is the ‘theatre of divine creativity and presence’, its phenomena are the signs of God, pointing towards the divine realm. The ‘face of nature’ is a theophany, a manifestation or reflection of the divine order. A sage will see the ‘trees of paradise in beholding a forest and in contemplating the vision of a sublime mountain peak he will see the sacred mountain at the centre of the cosmos itself90’. Modern or ‘profane’ man has lost his ‘sense of the sacred’ and has become blind to the deeper spiritual realities that are manifested in the beauties of virgin nature. Nature has become ‘desacralized, emptied of the sacred’. This is a great loss, according to Nasr, not least because human beings can learn from nature: ‘the earth is man’s teacher and man can learn from the order of nature not only quantitatively but also morally, intellectually and spiritually. The order of nature speaks to human beings deepest needs and their final end, even if this end transcends the outward forms of nature, and the message of different religions concerning the order only enriches the message that is to be heard and results in the recollection of forgotten truths by a particular human collectivity. Even if destined for the invisible world of the Spirit, human beings need to learn from the order of nature, or as certain Sufis have said, the cosmos itself can assist man to transcend the cosmos91. The cosmos is like a book ‘in the sense that each of its phenomena possesses a meaning beyond and within the outward form’. This language of this book of nature is inherently symbolic and to unravel its mysteries, we need to rediscover the science of nature’s symbolism. We have now forgotten the language and cannot understand the message it contains anymore. Nature needs to be ‘resacralized’, not by declaring it sacred, but by realizing that nature is inherently sacred. What is needed is a rediscovery or ‘remembrance’ of the sacred quality of nature. We can and must rediscover this vision of nature as an enchanted reality to which we are related, not only physically, chemically, and biologically, but also psychologically, intellectually and spiritually. We must regain a knowledge of nature beyond the confines of a quantitative science without denying what has been discovered in the quantitative and material realm92. Interestingly, this rediscovery of enchanted, sacred nature can only be achieved through an inner transformation within man. Aided by the religious knowledge of the order of nature, man will be able to reawaken the inner ‘sense for the sacred’. Spiritual training, inner development 89

Sophia 2004, p.11 Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.285. 91 Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.65. 92 Sophia, 2004, p.12. 90

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and spiritual realization are therefore also necessary conditions to regain our ‘sense of the sacred’. People who see the light of God within themselves also see it reflected in the realm of nature. The resacralization of nature is not possible without an awaking by us human beings as to who we are and what we are doing in the world93. What Nasr means with this ‘sacred quality’ of nature is possibly best conveyed by anecdote. We [I; Nasr] recall many years ago walking one early morning with ‘Allamah Tabatabai – one of the great traditional philosophers, spiritual figures, and saintly men of Persia – in a beautiful valley in the Alborz Mountain outside Tehran. We had all just prayed the morning prayers and there was a strong sense of spiritual presence in the whole idyllic natural ambience. The master said that if one or two ‘profane’ people from the city, individuals who do not pray and have no inner communion with nature, were to appear, the entire ambience would change and nature would suddenly hide her spiritual aspect. In a few minutes this is exactly what happened. Two city people with a non-traditional outlook and presence appeared around the bend of the river beside which we were walking. Suddenly the ambience changed and something became eclipsed. It was as if in a traditional Muslim household a strange man would suddenly enter the home and the women would quickly put on their veils to hide their beauty from the gaze of the stranger. The master smiled and said this is what happened when those who are strangers (… that is literally not part of the intimate family) enter into the precinct of nature. Nature hides her most intimate beauty from them94. Nasr is pointing towards the existence of a ‘spiritual presence’ that can be experienced by those who are spiritually trained and that have become perceptive to this presence. Profane man, the spiritually untrained person, is generally blind to this dimension of reality. However, he is also pointing to another aspect of this enchanted nature that expresses an even deeper ‘esoteric truth’. In the anecdote above, Nasr is suggesting that nature ‘responds’ – as if it were alive - by ‘hiding, becoming eclipsed’ in the presence of the profane man. Apparently, the connection between man and nature is a two-way process: if man’s soul darkens, so does nature’s. As the humanity becomes more ‘profane’ and more blind to the sacred dimensions of nature, nature further deteriorates. Nasr is suggesting that the environmental crisis – the eclipse of nature is caused by the eclipse of the soul of modern man. Nature cannot even exist without man, referring back to man’s central position within the great ‘chain of being’. Ultimately man is a ‘source of grace for nature, his very presence on earth


Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.286. Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.292, n30. In his work Nasr very seldom conveys his personal experiences. In his autobiography he explains his reservations which are related to his dedication to transmitting timeless and objective truths which transcend personal subjective experience. To the reader, however, these personal observations are a breath of fresh air compared to the generally abstract texts. 94

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enabled and still enables nature to breath the air of the spiritual world95’. The world can well do without ‘modern man’, but not without ‘man in his perennial reality’. Man is a channel of grace (or baraka) and light for the natural order. That is why his responsibility is so grave, he concludes. He is given the power to rule over nature, but also the capability to destroy it… His actions have cosmic consequences’96. This intricate connection between the inner state of man and outer nature is not self-evident, of course. Curbing consumerism by emphasizing the virtues of contentment, discipline and self control is relatively easy to understand. It is a form of virtue ethics. However, Nasr takes this line of thought much further: nature cannot exist without man. From a modern point of view, this seems absurd. Yet, there are ‘esoteric, cosmological and metaphysical reasons’ behind this intricate interrelationship, Nasr claims in a Spanish interview97. Unfortunately, he does not go into any further detail here. Ritual in establishing cosmic harmony Nasr takes the implications of the close interconnection between man and nature a few steps further. Once we consider ‘nature as purely material, we cut nature off from the immediate principles of nature, which are the psychic, spiritual or angelic levels of reality and balance is lost98’. To re-establish the cosmic balance and harmony, the ritual dimension of religions are called into play. Rituals ‘re-connect the earth with higher levels of reality, with the vertical axis of existence’, and as such re-establish balance with the cosmic order. Not all rituals holds this power, but the divinely ordained traditional rites do, such as the central rite of Christianity, the Eucharist, the five daily prayers of Muslims, Hindu, Buddhist or Native American rites. Nasr goes so far as to say that ‘it is impossible for a human collectivity to live in harmony with nature, the higher levels of the cosmic hierarchies and ultimately God without this ritualized relationship with the natural world’ 99. Nasr is readily admits that this is ‘much more difficult to understand for the modern mind-set100’ and he does not discuss this aspect when addressing the San Rossore Conference on Climate Change, conscious of the fact that he will probably lose


Spanish interview Agenda Viva, in: Sophia, 2006. Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996,, p278. 97 Interview Agenda Viva, in Sophia, Vol 12, No2, 2006, p29. 98 Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2007, p36. 99 Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2007, p.36-38 100 Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2007, p.34-36. 96

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much of his audience. Yet, in Religion and the Order of Nature101 and an article written for a traditionalist audience, this ritual aspect is particularly emphasized. 3.5

Solving the Crisis: Religion as the Master Key

Convinced that the environmental crisis finds its root causes in a fundamentally thwarted view of reality, the modernist paradigm, Nasr proposes an alternative worldview that is based on ‘traditional’ religious metaphysics reformulated in contemporary terms. A renewed consciousness of its underlying principles will help humanity re-establish comic and therefore also environmental harmony. Nasr is offering mankind several keys to a solution: (1) The Key of Traditional Knowledge (2) The Key of Religious Environmental ethics (3) The Key of Spiritual training and Ritual All of these keys are provided by religion, which may therefore be seen as the master key. Religion - in its doctrinal, practice and ritual dimensions - has a cardinal and central role to play. The Key of Traditional Knowledge Regaining knowledge of the principles underlying the true order of reality is a first step toward a solution. If we remain unconscious of this order, our actions will continue to be misdirected, misguided and will continue to create chaos. This knowledge can be found at the heart of the major religious traditions. We need ‘turn to more than one tradition to bring out an understanding of the relation between religion and the order of nature on a global scale at a time when the threat to the natural order is also global 102’. Nasr’s Religion an the Order of Nature is dedicated to identifying these basic principles. His aim, is not only academic, but also practical ‘in the sense of trying to provide one key among others to understand better the deeper dimensions of the current environmental crisis and hence to seek a solution on a level, where alone solutions can be found103’. The Key of Religious Environmental ethics


Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p278-282. Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2007, p.34-36. 102 Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.25, n2 103 Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.25, n2 AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



A viable environmental ethics needs to be grounded in a ‘moral order’, which is necessarily of a religious nature. Without an absolute ‘Archimedean point’ around which our moral universes revolve, ‘ethics lose all foundation’, Nasr believes. Re-establishment of a religious ethical dimension within environmental ethics is therefore an absolute necessity. In Nasr’s view, the strong practical prejudice against religious ethics is one of the greatest impediments to the solution of the environmental crisis. ‘Most Western intellectuals seem to think about environmental issues, as if everyone were an agnostic following a secular philosophy, and so they seek to develop a rational environmental ethics, as if this would have any effect whatsoever upon the environmental crisis104’. In addition, he adds pragmatically, considering that most of the world’s population is religious, it will be ‘difficult to create an environmental ethics that will appeal to men and women in the same way that religious ethics have appealed to people of faith over the ages?’105 Nasr is promoting an environmental ethic that is God-centred (theocentric) and based on the spiritual virtues of contentment, discipline and self control (virtue-ethics). On a practical level, this will curb consumerism, redirect the economic systems and re-establish harmony with the environment. On a deeper level, this will help mankind to redirect the powerful energies of the soul away from the world of ‘things’ back upwards towards the divine. The Key of Spiritual Training and Ritual In addition to knowledge and ethics, religions also provide us with the techniques and means to attain the spiritual values and inner ‘state of perfection’ The religions have had thousands of years to deal with the slaying of the passionate ego, the inner dragon to use the symbol used in so many traditions. St. Michael’s slaying of the dragon with his lance has many meanings, one of which is, of course, that the lance of the Spirit alone is able to kill that dragon; or what in Sufism is called nafs, that is the passionate soul, the lower soul within us. We rarely think of that issue today. But where is St. Michael with his lance? How are we going to stop people from wanting more and more if not through the power of the Spirit made accessible through religion? [..] How are you going to be able, with no more than rational arguments, to tell people to use less, to be less covetous, not so greedy and so forth? No force in the world today, except religion, has the power to do that unless it be sheer physical coercion106. Religious systems provide us with time-honoured techniques and accumulated experience of thousands of years that enable humans to train, condition and control the lower passions of their 104

Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2007, p30. 105 Sophia, 2004, p10. 106 Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2007, p33. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



soul, of which ‘greed is the most persistent vice’. Only religion can ‘slay the inner dragon’ or what in Sufism is called nafs, the passionate ego, the lower soul within us. Moreover, spiritual training is pivotal for developing the necessary faculties that will help us regain our ‘sense of the sacred’. 3.6

From Worldview to Practice

Having identified the keys provided by the ‘traditional’ paradigm, going to be translated into practice? What do we - as modernised humanity – have to actually do in practical term to solve the present crisis? What agenda does Nasr have in mind? Who has to take action, where and when? What policies need to be developed, by which institutions and at what levels? What environmental ethics does he have in mind? What are its implications for environmental policy or legislation? What are its consequences for countering climate change, pollution control, energy conservation, preservation of species or on a larger scale of human organisation? What are the implications for the structure of our society, the economic and financial systems? Nasr is convinced that the rediscovery of the traditional core principles and importantly living accordingly will help humanity as a whole to regain a healthy balance with nature. Some essential premises underpin this conviction: (1) traditional societies lived in harmony with its surroundings and (2) the structure of these societies is a direct manifestation of a traditional worldview and set of core principles. In fact, religions are seen as the primary driving forces behind these civilizations. A single divine reality is the origin of all the millennial religions that have governed human life over the ages and have created the traditional civilizations with their sacred laws, social institutions, arts and sciences107. By re-establishing these principles and reorganising our contemporary societies accordingly, Nasr appears to believe that this will result in a renewed collective life style that is in harmony and balance with nature. Considering its importance in the argument, it is unfortunate that Nasr does not elaborate on this point in his publications. It is more or less presented a self-evident truth. It can be criticized on several points. For example: were traditional societies more in balance with its surrounding nature? A recent publication by Jared Diamond tracing the causes of collapse of early civilizations, Collapse (2006)108 seriously questions this assertion. Others have challenged this claim before. Secondly, does a direct correspondence between societal structure and the dominant worldview and ethics exist? The gap between worldview and 107 108

Sophia., 2004, p.12 Diamond, J., Collapse, New York, 2006.

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practice, ethics and action has been debated among environmental philosophers and many others109. Thirdly, can societies be characterized by its core principles? Underlying this view is a concept of societies as distinctive ‘entities’ with certain ‘essential’ qualities. This opens up to ardent academic debates among sociologists, historians, scholars of comparative religion and touches upon heated polemics about Orientalism. We will discuss some of this later, but will also have to largely leave these aside. Again I would like to point out that Nasr’s agenda can have strong political and social implications. Nasr is pleading for a radical restructuring of society centred on the proposed traditional principles. This inevitably leads to the question of practical form: What ‘forms’ can these principles be expected to take on in a post-modern context? This issue was already touched on when discussing ethics and divine law. Some critics accuse Nasr of envisaging a return to a medieval feudal society110. Some of this will be addressed when discussing Nasr’s understanding of Islam. Most of Nasr’s work is focussed on the intellectual understanding of the crisis, the ‘metaphysical and cosmological dimensions of the environmental crisis. The implications of reestablishing the traditional metaphysical model on a practical level, Nasr leaves to be worked out by others. He does point in a certain directions in various interviews: he clearly favours ‘traditional’ small-scale technologies, farming methods and eco-village type communities, all models also proposed by certain Western environmentalists. In his interview with Muzaffar Iqbal, Nasr refers to these groups: There is a movement going on today on the basis of creating awareness from above and thereby influencing ordinary farmers, builders, etc. The journal Resurgence published in England, and the Schumacher School in Devon, England can be given as examples. As I said, the attempts to build environmentally sound villages that preserve traditional agriculture and traditional architecture use much less energy than modern villages and towns. On this level we in the Muslim world need to learn what is going on in the West and to some extent in India and even China111. In our interview, Nasr confirms that he is primarily concerned with the ‘greater vision: ‘You cannot have effective environmental laws without having a greater vision of nature’112. Nasr is 109

For the distinction between ethics and action see ‘Calicott, J. Baird’, in: Taylor, B. (eds), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2 volumes, New York: Continuum, 2005, 2008. p.252-253. 110 Upton, Charles, ‘What is a Traditionalist”? Some Clarifications’, accessed Sacred Web: This is a response to criticism of the Traditionalist perspective by Dr. Hajj Muhammad Legenhausen ‘Why I am not a Traditionalist’, accessed at: 111 ‘The Islamic perspective on the environmental crisis: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal’. Accessed at (April 2009). 112 Transcript of the interview with Seyyed Hossein Nasr on 31 October 2008. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



convinced that worldviews are the primary driving forces behind any substantial societal change. ‘Worldviews have the power to change social and economic conditions, and not the other way around as others believe’. Often these changes are brought about by only a few people ‘who have the power to influence the many’. He points out that in the seventeenth century ‘just a few, a dozen people’, such as Galileo, Newton, Kepler and others, proposed a new physics. This ‘caught on and from top down and transformed the worldview of Western civilisation’. At that time nobody was aware that one of the foundations of the Western worldview was a mechanistic view of nature, which would end up in destroying nature. Nobody thought of that. I was one of the first to predict that, forty years ago. Nobody thought of that in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. .. I believe that the process whereby a few influence the many is the normal state of things. [The view’s of] Plato and Platonism continue right to our own day. Not to talk of Christ and the Prophet of Islam, and the great religions113. This ‘process of the few influencing the many’ is therefore the main mechanism behind the translation of worldview into practice. A spiritually awakened elite will trigger and effectuate the radical transformation that is needed to save our planet. These will inspire people to follow the spiritual path of inner development. ‘People have to reform themselves, before they can reform the world’. Many people flee from reforming themselves, at cost of trying to reform the world. This is the mistake of Marxism and many other –isms of the late history. But as far as the environment is concerned, one has to work on oneself first. One has to cultivate in oneself a sense of respect for other creatures. Respect, for the fact that they have their right, they have their due114. As the Qur’an says: The animals that creep of the earth, earth that fly with their wings, are nations like you: Umma. They are an Umma, a key term in Islamic thought that applies also to birds and crawling creatures. And to have this sense that the whole of nature is impregnated with meaning, with presence, with wisdom and we are […] not masters of it ... We are masters over nature only on the condition that we are respecting the rights of all creatures. This is a central aspect of my thought115. Nasr makes a clear distinction between the ‘elite’ and the ‘masses’. Only an elite, can be expected to fully enter the spiritual Path, but the ‘fruits of it are widespread’ affecting the culture and civilizations at large. In Japan, the… few who have already experienced satori that is illumination in Buddhism, is very small. But the effect of Zen on Japanese culture and upon, the fact its view on nature, on gardening, on flowering and so on and so on, is not confined to an 113

Ibid. Ibid. 115 Ibid. 114

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elite. It is within the whole culture of Japan. In Islam, we have let’s say the great Sufis like Jallauddin Rumi and so, where there were only a few, like great Christian saints, but the spiritual message went through literature to everybody. I am a Persian myself. The whole of Persian literature is imbued with Sufism. So although many are called, a few are chosen, as Christ said, if the chosen really fulfil their function, something emanates from them to the whole of society116. Religion is also the primary key for realizing a transformation of the worldviews and life styles amongst the ‘masses’. Considering that the vast majority of people of the world still are religious, Nasr emphasizes that the only ethics acceptable to the vast majority of people in the world is a ‘religious ethics’. If not religion, then what else can motivate the vast majority to curb the consumerist trend? ‘No force in the world can do that except religion’, partly by drawing on the ‘fear of God’ and ‘punishment in the afterlife’ as a motivating force for the masses. For the Islamic world, he envisages an important role for the traditional religious scholars, the ulama. We will have to look at Nasr’s understanding of Islam and Islamic environmentalism first, however, to get a better view of the practical implications of some of his ideas. What about the non-religious masses of the West? The Western world is vibrant with all sorts of groups and movements combining spirituality with an ecological agenda. Some of these also refer to ‘traditional or indigenous’ cultures as examples of sustainable living. We will see that Nasr is critical of this type of movements. What these claim to be ‘science’ is really ‘New Age pseudo-science of the cosmos117’. This will be discussed in Chapter 6. We will first delve into Nasr’s understanding of Tradition and Islam.


Ibid. Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 38-39. 117

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4 Traditionalism, Perennial philosophy and Esotericism



The previous Chapter introduced us to Nasr’s ‘ecological philosophy’. The perspective was ‘generalist’, in the sense that his environmental work was aiming at a ‘general’ mainly Western audience, like the audience of the San Rossore conference. This consisted of government officials, researchers and environmentalists with an interest in environmental issues but with no specific religious background. Many of Nasr’s publications and lectures share this generalist or as we shall see ‘Perennialist’ perspective. Yet, Nasr is also known as an ‘Islamic’ environmentalist. Some have even come to see him as the ‘founding father of Islamic environmentalism’ considering him … …to be one of the most significant contemporary Iranian philosophers.[…] Widely cited by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Nasr’s thought has provided the foundation for much of the current discussion on Islam and the environment. As such he is considered by many as the “founding father” of contemporary Islamic environmentalism118. We have also seen that ‘Islamic tradition’ and the Islamic perspective on the environmental crisis has had Nasr’s specific attention from the start. Nasr is convinced that Islam has an important role to play in solving today’s crisis. Not only has Islamic civilization brought forth an extremely rich body of traditional knowledge - philosophy, theology, scientific, legalistic reflective thought about nature, Islam is also still a vibrant and living force in large parts of the world. Reconnecting with the Islamic traditions may prove to be a powerful force to motivate Muslims towards more sustainable life styles and practices. In the next Chapter, we will discuss the Islamic environmental teachings as envisaged by Nasr. To be able to do this properly, we will have to address the context of his propositions first, and specifically Nasr’s understanding of ‘religion’ and ‘Islam’. We will therefore make an interesting journey, passing by an intriguing twentieth century undercurrent of Western thought referred to as ‘Traditionalism’, or ‘Perennial Philosophy’, before we can move on to ‘traditional(ist) Islam’ and what Nasr considers to be the heart of Islam: Islamic mysticism or Sufism. In this Chapter, I will introduce the concept of ‘esotericism’ as defined by a specialist on this field Antoine Faivre. This will help us characterize Nasr’s type of thought, and will also help us to understand the affinity of thought with certain Western environmentalist groups and 118

Entry: ‘Seyyed Hossein Nasr’ in: Taylor, B. (eds), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2 volumes, New York: Continuum, 2005, 2008. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



philosophies. During this journey, we will keep our main question in mind: how does this all relate to Nasr’s ecological message? 4.2


Nasr regularly refers to himself as a ‘traditionalist’119 and anyone who is introduced to his work will soon find him classified as a ‘traditionalist’, sometimes spelled as ‘Traditionalist’. The word ‘traditionalist’, however, is highly problematic and it needs a careful and mindful definition to avoid misunderstanding and misrepresentation. For example, within the context of Islamic studies a ‘traditionalist’ may mean various things. Within historical Islam research, it may serve to identify a group of people highly valuing the Traditions, here meaning the Hadith, collections of sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet. It may also designate groups who adhere to local Islamic culture or ‘traditions’. Some argue that ‘traditionalism’ is an important facet of Islam as a whole, referring to a ‘strong preference for recourse to tradition as the primary source of authority’120. In this sense, Nasr can certainly be classified as a traditionalist. However, his view of ‘tradition’ is different from others, who are more generally called ‘traditionalist’ in the world of Islam. Nasr’s traditionalism is associated with a particular school of thought, that of ‘Traditionalism’. This brings us to completely different grounds. Nasr’s work cannot be understood properly if its Traditionalist foundation is not acknowledged. Traditionalism (also ‘perennial philosophy’) refers to a Western ‘school of thought’ that is based on the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947), Réné Guénon (1886-1951) and Frithjof Schuon (1907-98) and (of somewhat later date) of Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings and Marco Pallis. According to one of Nasr’s biographies, ‘it was the discovery of traditional metaphysics, the philosophia perennis and the traditional writings of Frithjof Schuon with their singular emphasis on the need for the practice of a spiritual discipline, as well as theoretical knowledge, that were especially instrumental in determining the course of his intellectual and spiritual life’121. In the fifties and sixties of the last century a number of scholars, which included Nasr, were inspired by Coomeraswamy’s, Guénon’s and Schuon’s work and started to contribute regularly to a number of European journals. This group eventually became known by the academic community as the ‘Traditionalist school’. Characteristic of their work is a critical stance 119

Nasr Foundation, William Graham argues this case in his article on Traditionalism in Islam. A traditionalist is “a person’s or group’s strong preference for recourse to tradition as the primary source of authority” (498). In this sense traditionalism is “a facet of Islamic religion”, because it is based on a paradigm that emphasizes the life and practice (Sunna) of the “pious” generations. It has also institutionalized the “connection” with these generations with the isnad system of transmission of hadith, the ijazah system, etc. 121 Biography of the website of the Nasr foundation. 120

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towards modernity and a strong appreciation of traditional metaphysics, cosmology and philosophy as expounded in the various religious traditions. We will discuss this group in more detail in Chapter 6 of this thesis. According to a particularly lucid source about this school, Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy (2000) 122, the ‘traditionalist agenda’ was to demonstrate the ‘common metaphysical basis of all religions’ or the philosophia perennis. The Traditionalists are, by definition, committed to the explication of the philosophia perennis which lies at the heart of the diverse religions and behind the manifold forms of the world’s different traditions. At the same time they are dedicated to the preservation and illumination of the traditional forms which give each religious heritage its raison d’etre and guarantee its formal integrity and, by the same token ensure its spiritual efficacy123. Transcendent Unity of Religions The central doctrine is that of ‘the transcendent unity of religions’, meaning that ultimately all traditional authentic religions are expressions of one absolute Reality. Beyond all its diversity and ‘multiplicity’, there is a ‘transcendent unity’, one eternal and unchanging or ‘perennial’ Truth which may be found at heart of all religions. The great world’s religions are all manifestations of this transcendent unity. Although these take on different forms, in the core these share common perennial grounds. According to Traditionalist understanding ‘authentic’ or ‘integral’ religions are founded on a ‘revelation’ that was intended for a specific human community at a specific moment in time. Christianity was founded on the revelation of Christ, Islam on the Qur’an and so on. The term ‘tradition’ indicates both the ‘revelation’, and the ‘unfolding and development’ of that message in space and time, in the form of its metaphysics, cosmology, philosophy, theology, social systems, arts and architecture of the various cultures and civilizations. All these ‘traditions’ are expressions or reflections of one ‘Primordial Tradition’, which ‘constituted original or archetypal man’s primal spiritual and intellectual heritage received through direct revelation when Heaven and earth were still “united”’124. Having a shared divine origin, all traditions reflect a ‘remarkable unanimity of views concerning the meaning of human life and the fundamental dimensions of human thought in world as far apart as those of the Eskimos and the Australian Aborigines, The Taoists ad the


Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, Shrilanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000. 123 Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, Shrilanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000. p.viii. 124 Nasr, S.H., ‘The Traditionalist Approach to Religion’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p.21. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Muslims’125. Therefore, Traditionalists assert, it is possible to develop a theology or ‘metaphysics’ (a ‘vision of reality’) of comparative religion. The Truth of the perennial wisdom can be experienced by the ‘intellect’, or the ‘eye of the heart’ which is a specific human faculty, an ‘organ of the soul’. This is different from discursive thought which is generally associated with the intellect. It involves a higher level mode of understanding or contemplation. Esoteric, Exoteric and Orthodoxy in practice An essential feature of Traditionalist thought concerns religious ‘orthodoxy’ of doctrines and rituals. Although many roads lead up the ‘cosmic mountain towards the one truth’, Traditionalists warn us that this should not lead us to believe that we can pick and choose at will from the various religions. Humans need to follow one of the paths ‘that God has chosen for us’, meaning one of the paths that were laid out by the ‘integral and authentic’ religions. ‘There is no way of reaching the spirit without choosing a path’, and that means adherence to the doctrines and practice as expounded by the religious orthodoxy of only one religion126. The ‘orthodoxy’ is concerned with the exoteric dimensions of religion, i.e. the concrete religious practice and doctrines. By contrast, the esoteric dimensions refer to their inner significance and meaning. The Traditionalists stress that ‘there can be no esotericism without orthodox exotericism’; otherwise esotericism will become occultism. Most Traditionalists are highly critical of ‘occultist’ or modern hybrid and eclectic forms of spirituality. We have already seen how Nasr is very critical about New Age movements and their pseudo science. This distinction between esoteric and exoteric is central to Traditionalist thought. It may help us understand why religions, although they share a common core, are not all the same, as some critics might assert. In fact, the religions as expressed in the reality of everyday life are different in form, structure, doctrine and practice. Perennialist literature is replete with highly abstract terminology. It often lacks precise definition and proves difficult to access for uninitiated readers (like myself). An example of this is provided by Nasr himself, who attempt to explain the Traditionalist approach to religion: According to the philosophia perennis reality is not exhausted by the psychophysical world in which human beings usually function, not is consciousness limited to the everyday level of awareness of the men and women of present day humanity. Ultimate reality is beyond all determination and limitation. It is the Absolute and Infinite from which issues goodness, like the rays of the sun that of necessity emanate from it. 125

Nasr, S.H., ‘The Traditionalist Approach to Religion’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 23. 126 Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis’ in: Chittick, The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p. 29 AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



… The Principle can be envisaged as the Pure Object but also as the Pure Subject or the Supreme ‘I’ in which case ordinary consciousness is then seen as an outward envelope of the Supreme Self rather than the descent of the Supreme reality into lower realm of the universal hierarchy. ..Religion is not only the faith and practices of a particular human collectivity which happens to be the recipient of a particular religious message. …It is a reality of Divine origin. It has its archetype in the Divine Intellect and possesses levels of meaning and reality like the cosmos itself. … Religion itself as an Idea in the Platonic sense [subsists] in the Divine Intellect in its trans-historical reality.127. We would need to enter a specialized theological discourse to get a better grasp of the Traditionalist tenets and doctrines. However, we have already seen a general outline of some of the main concepts and principles in Chapter 3 when discussing Nasr’s ecological philosophy. It encompasses the belief in a divine centre, the unity of existence, a hierarchically ordered universe, a central position of man, a close interrelationship between man and nature on all levels of reality, the existence of a sacred science and primordial Truth. This philosophy can be classified as a distinctly ‘Traditionalist’ or ‘Perennialist’ approach, in this case applied to the environmental crisis. In Chapter 6, we will see how this eco-traditionalist view is also taken up by some of the Traditionalists. The Traditionalist metaphysics are more complicated than can be rehearsed here. For those interested in the subject Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy (2000) is recommended. Essential for our understanding is the idea of ‘transcendent unity of all religions’ which is behind Nasr’s conviction that the study of various traditions may help us to uncover a ‘sacred science’ of the order of nature. Also relevant is the strict adherence to orthodoxy, meaning adherence to religious doctrines, practice and law. All religions are not the same and adherence to one of the established orthodox religions is essential. 4.3

Perennial Philosophy

The idea of a perennial philosophy – a timeless truth - underlying all religions as a common ground is not unique to the Traditionalists. In fact, the term perennial philosophy can be traced back to sixteenth century Vatican librarian Agostino Steucho, who published De Perenni Philosophia in 1540. Yet, the concept has more ancient roots, going back to the Latin and Greek Church fathers and the philosophical theology of Philo of Alexandria. According to a specialist on this subject, Wilhelm Smidt-Biggemann, ‘the concept of one ancient philosophy and theology going back to paradise …has its roots in late antiquity, especially with the 127

Nasr, S.H., ‘The Traditionalist Approach to Religion’, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p.21. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Christian church fathers, and was newly adopted by the Florentine philosopher Giovanni Pico dela Mirandola who called it philosophia prisca’128. In the Renaissance the idea was adopted by Nicholas of Cusa, Marsilo Ficino and Giovanni Pico dela Mirandola and ‘in their footsteps’, Agostino Steuco. It entailed a re-appreciation of Neo-Platonism and Hermeticism. In the seventeenth century perennial philosophy was embraced by Leibniz and later – although in a different guise - by Enlightenment icons as Lessing, Voltaire and others129. It often entailed a belief that the perennial wisdom was expounded by a series of great sages, starting with Zoroaster, Hermes, Orpheus, Plato, Jezus and so on. Nasr clearly appreciates the worldview of Neo-Platonism and Western Hermeticism, which are part of the heritage of authentic Western traditions, but is critical about the humanist interpretation by the Renaissance philosophers such as Ficino and Pico, who in his view were instrumental in developing a new notion of freedom, the ‘innate freedom of man from all constraints’, which in effect forms at the root of the contemporary crisis130. Nasr is even more critical about the ‘occult’ movements that developed in the nineteenth and twentieth century, such as Blavatsky’s Theosophy, Gurdjieff, the Order of the Golden Dawn etc., and more recently the spectrum of contemporary spiritual or ‘esoteric’ movements flirting with the idea of the unity of all religions. Most people today will know the term ‘Perennial Philosophy’ from the bestselling Perennial Philosophy by Aldous Huxley, which is generally considered as flawed by the Traditionalists131. A good deal of misunderstanding has been sponsored by the notion that all those thinkers and groups which espouse some kind of ‘perennial philosophy’ can be gathered under this insignia: theosophists, anthroposophists, Gurdjieffians, neo-Hindu universalists, neo-Deists, pseudo-mystical romantics, syncretists, and occultists are all herder together with traditionalists like Coomeraswany and Schuon to rub shoulders under this philosophical canopy132. This type of movements and philosophies are considered as ‘pseudo- or counter traditions’. The crucial difference with the Traditionalists is marked by the role and function of religion. For Traditionalists, ‘authentic’ religions are based on revelation. These are ‘self-sufficient and 128

Schmidt-Biggeman, W., Philosophia Perennis: Historical Outlines of Western Spirituality in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought, International Archives of the History of Ideas, Dordrecht: Springer, 2004. 129 In this era the idea of a Primordial Tradition was extremely popular. It was considered to first have been expounded by the great Hermes Trismegistos, to be renewed by the great sages such as Zoroaster, Plato, Jezus and others. 130 Nasr, S.H., Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p131, p173: ‘This new understanding of freedom meant essentially independence from the sacred world of medieval Christianity and its cosmic order and not freedom from the limitations of the ego and the bonds of material existence….’. 131 Huxley, A., The Perennial Philosophy, Harper&Row, New York: 1970. 132 Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, Shrilanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000. p158-159 AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



entirely adequate in providing all things needful to the civilisations in which they have appeared133’. More importantly, there can be no compromise as concerns the outer ‘exoteric’ forms of revealed religious practice. ‘Orthodoxy’ i.e. adherence to the injunctions of the religion is an absolute necessity. A Christian Traditionalist is necessarily orthodox, and so is the Muslim Traditionalist, meaning he (or she) will adhere to the sharia’ite injunctions i.e. the pillars of faith, five daily prayers, a yearly fast at Ramadan, pilgrimage to Mecca, donations (zakat), etc. including the social injunctions. According to Nasr, The relation between man and God …. is central in every religion. Only each religion emphasises a certain aspect of this relationship, while inwardly it contains the truth as such in its teachings whatever the limitations of its forms may be. That is why to have lived any religion fully is to have lived all religions and there is nothing more meaningless or even pernicious than to create a syncretism from various religions with a claim to universality while in reality one is doing nothing less than destroying the revealed forms which alone make the attachment of man to God, possible134. . So, although Traditionalists may be considered as expositors of a ‘Perennial philosophy’ - it is one of their central concepts - their philosophy should not be confused with other ‘perennial philosophies’ that go under the same name. Oldmeadow summarizes it concisely, concluding that: ‘Indeed, the question of religious forms provides the acid test for separating the traditionalists from other so-called perennial philosophers whose hackles are likely to rise at the mere mention of words like “dogmas” or “orthodoxy”’ 135. 4.4

Western Esotericism

For a fuller understanding of Traditionalist and Perennialist philosophies, we have to embark on a tour which leads us into a world demarcated by the concept of ‘Western esotericism’ by one of the greatest pioneers of the study of esotericism, Antoine Faivre136. This French scholar developed a definition of ‘Western esotericism’ that not only proves helpful to us here in categorizing Nasr’s thought, but will also help us bridge the gap between Nasr’s philosophy and New Age or ‘modern religiosity and spirituality’ of several contemporary environmental movements . It is therefore worthwhile to bring it to our attention. Esotericism, according to Faivre, should be defined ‘systematically as a certain worldview or as a means to conceptualize cosmos, nature and humankind137’. He described this ‘distinct form of 133

Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, 2000. p.144. Nasr, S.H., Islam and the Realities of Islam, Allan&Unwin, 1975, p16. 135 Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, 2000. p.145 136 Antoine Faivre held the first chair for ‘History of esotericism and Mystical Current in Modern and Contemporary Europe’ (Sorbonne, Paris). 137 Stuckrad, K. ‘Western esotericism’ in: Taylor, B. Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2 volumes, New York: Continuum, 2005, 2008. p.1728-1729. 134

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thought’ in terms of six characteristics, four of which are crucial for esotericism and two depending on the context. Considering its importance of this definition to this study, I will quote the summary of the definition given by Kocku von Stuckrad in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature138: 1) Doctrine of correspondences. In this view, each part of the visible and invisible universe is connected and every single part mirrors one of the others in a symbolic way. The correspondences take the form of two different approaches to reality; following the well known principle of “Microcosm, Macrocosm”, there exist obvious or veiled correspondences between the different layers of the material and immaterial world (e.g between planets on the one hand and metals, the human body or planets on the other). But correspondences may also exist between nature (or the cosmos), history and revealed texts. Nature and scripture are believed to be in harmony, which is the key to understanding medieval; and early modern talk of the “book of Nature”, being revealed like the Bible itself. 2) The doctrine of living nature conceptualizes the universe as a dynamic system in which all interconnected parts are animated. This is also an assumption of a particular branch of the Western philosophy of nature, as it is of magic since ancient and renaissance times. 3) Imagination and Mediation … it implies the possibility of mediation between the higher and the lower worlds, by the way of ritual and symbolic performance or through revelatory agents like angels or intermediate spirits. Imagination is not only a form of clear concentration necessary for magical rituals but was also depicted in early modern times as a particular “organ of the soul” which can establish a cognitive and visionary relationship with the intermediate world. 4) Experience of Transmutation: This denotes the process of personal initiation on a spiritual path, either through a social event or as a private change of status. In addition, two other characteristics are applicable: 5) Praxis of concordance alludes to the frequent attempt to display the commonalities between two or more – ideally even all – different traditions. Prominent examples are the belief in a prisca theologia (old theology) or a philosophia perennis (eternal philosophy) that captured the imagination of medieval and Renaissance scholars. 6) Transmission of esoteric teachings from master to disciple. This is either a sociological characteristic indicating the necessity of being introduced to a spiritual tradition or the legitimatization of authority or “authenticity” by means of an age old chain of masters. Historically, the beginning of ‘Western esotericism’ is marked by the Neo-platonic and Hermetic revival of fifteenth century Europe, which according to Faivre entailed a 138

Ibid., p.1728-1729.

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‘reconstitution of a traditional cosmology’, a counter-current against the ‘secularisation of the cosmos’, a ‘reaction to the ‘mechanisation of the image of the world’139. The discovery of nature as an organic and lawful domain worthy of attention in its own right, produced a twofold result: a secularization of the cosmos at the expense of the sense of the sacred and on the other hand a revival of magia in the sense of a participatory philosophy of nature. According to the Dutch scholar Wouter Hanegraaff, this current later developed into two distinct streams: Occultism (such as Blavatsky’s theosophy) and Romanticism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Both can be defined as ‘products of a clash of worldviews’, as attempts to ‘reformulate traditional beliefs in modern terms’. Occultism which has a stronger affinity to modern science than Romanticism, eventually re-emerged as ‘New Age’ religion of the eighties and nineties of the twentieth century. This development of New Age Religions is traced and analysed in Hanegraaff’s seminal work New Age Religions and Western Culture – Esotericism in the Mirror of secular Thought (1996). New Age is characterized by Hanegraaff as a ‘secularized’ form of ‘esotericism’. Under influence of secularisation both Christian theology and esotericism attempted to ‘update traditional tenets and present them as relevant to the secular world’. In doing so, both developed religious theories, speculations and practices of a new, inbetween type: bound to be still too religious for fully secular mentalities, yet too secular for those who wish to defend tradition against latter day contaminations. This both Christian theology and esotericism have their traditionalist conservatives and their liberal minded modernists. In the case of esotericism specifically the former group rejects occultism as a perversion (such as for instance Guénon)140. Considering the resemblances with the Traditionalist doctrines, I suggest we can classify Nasr’s Traditionalist philosophy as a manifestation of a non-secularized version of ‘Western Esotericism’ i.e. of Esotericism as defined by Faivre. In fact, the subtitle of Hanegraaff’s work, Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, could actually be taken to characterize Nasr’s work, considering Nasr’s efforts to contrast ‘secular modernity’ to ‘Traditional paradigms’. In my opinion, Traditionalism and its particular understanding of perennial philosophy need to be evaluated within this larger context of movements and streams of thought developing in the Western world under the banner of Faivre’s ‘Western Esotericism’. Nasr’s thought, of course also needs to be analysed within an Islamic framework, considering his dedication to the Islamic tradition. It is a question of debate whether Nasr’s Traditionalist 139

References to: Faivre, A. ‘Ancient and medieval Sources’, Esotericism’ and ‘Renaissance Hermeticism’ Hanegraaff, W. New Age Religions and Western Culture – Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 1996. p.408 140

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understanding of Islam – which will be discussed shortly - can be classified as a form of ‘Western Esotericism’. If this is the case, why refer to a distinctly ‘Western’ category of Esotericism? Why not introduce a more universal category of ‘Esotericism’? Perennialists will argue that ‘esotericism’ is in fact the ‘inner heart’ of all authentic religions and as such universal. Other scholars have also noted the apparent ‘universality’ of mystical, esoterical or ‘gnostic’ currents and have proposed various theories to explain this phenomenon141. One of the major points of criticism that Perennialists tend to attract concerns this question universality and perennial wisdom: does it exist at all? Some suggest that the alleged ‘universal wisdom’ it is a construction of the Western mind, reading or projecting ‘Western concepts’ onto Oriental traditions. Hanegraaff points out that the nineteenth century understanding of Oriental religions were ‘consistently idealized and adapted to Western conditions’. In spite of widespread interest in the Orient, it remained difficult for Westerners living in the late 19th century to achieve an adequate and balanced perspective on Hinduism or Buddhism as they actually functioned in their own cultural context’142. Can the same be said of the twentieth century early Traditionalists, some of whom were instrumental in opening up the Islamic terrain of ‘esotericism’ to the West143 and who had also influenced Nasr: Schuon, Guénon and Burckhardt. These were all Europeans and have been criticized for their attempts to ‘construct’ a Westernized interpretation of Islam. Nasr is aware of these debates and responds to these allegations. He is convinced that Frithjof Schuon has ‘placed for the Western public the most inward aspect of the Islamic message’144 and has not ‘constructed’ an Islam to fit his European sensibilities. Nasr himself, although trained in the West, had also studied with some of the greatest masters of Persian mystical and philosophical traditions. Can it be said that he is ‘constructing’ a westernized version of Islam’? Some critics assert that he does, as we shall see. We will first have to discuss the type of Islam Nasr has in 141

Shaul Shaked, an Israeli scholar of religion discussed this phenomenon from a slightly different perspective, ‘Gnosticism, magic and mysticism [here: esotericism]...all three belong to the type of religious movement that crosses over ethnic, religious and cultural boundaries. Religious ideas are notoriously capable of travelling from one culture to another, but as a rule they adjust to the religious system by which they are absorbed. …We can talk of a whole complex of ideas that is not peculiar to a given religion, but is shared by more than one community. The outcome of this situation is that it forms a cluster of religious communities that have one feature in common: a similar minor religion that is contained within them, alongside the major religious structure. One may speak here of a large area of religious affinity, rather like the linguistic term 'Sprachbund', in contrast to a structural or genetic kinship between religions’. In: ‘The Science of religion in Israel’ in: G.A. Wiegers, J.G. Platvoet (eds.), Modern Societies & the Science of Religions (NUMEN Bookseries 95), Leiden 2002, p.258-271, p.268-270. 142 Hanegraaff, W. New Age Religions and Western Culture – Esotericism in the Mirror of secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 1996. p.462 143 There is little reference to the Traditionalists contributions to exposing Islamic spirituality in Hanegraaff’s work. Only Corbin is mentioned. 144 Nasr, S.H., Knowledge and the Sacred, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. p.67 AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



mind. We will see that his Islamic ‘esoteric’ doctrines show remarkable resemblances with the ‘Esotericism’ as defined by Faivre. 4.5

Traditionalism and Islam

Interestingly, most of the first exponents of Traditionalism were scholars of Islam and often also converts to Islam: Réné Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burkhardt and Martin Lings. This distinctly Islamic dimension of Traditionalism is not always recognized. Several branches grew out of this foundation. Some were to emphasize Islam more, others less, as we will discuss later when analysing contemporary Traditionalist networks (Chapter 7). Guénon became a respected Egyptian sheikh for example; Schuon was the first to establish a Western branch of a Sufi order, the Alawiyya, which was later to become the Maryamiyya. Nasr, a Muslim by birth, was influenced in particular by Frithjof Schuon and his ‘Perennialist’ understanding of Islam. We will see how Nasr is related to Schuon in many other ways as well. In his autobiography Nasr articulates the significance of these men to his intellectual formation: Important were my meetings from 1957 onward in Europe with the outstanding representatives of the perennial philosophy and tradition in Europe at that time, including first and foremost the incomparable metaphysician Frithjof Schuon, with whom I remained closely associated until his death in 1998, Titus Burckhardt, who influenced my thought in numerous ways especially in the fields of traditional cosmology and the traditional philosophy of art, Marco Pallis who introduced me to the metaphysics of Tibetan Buddhism, and Martin Lings, one of the main expositors of traditional Islam and Sufism in the West with whom I have been in close relationship during the past forty years. I can hardly overemphasize the influence of these figures along with René Guénon and A.K. Coomaraswamy on my intellectual formation145.


An Intellectual Autobiography’ in: Hahn, L.E. (eds), The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p.40-41.

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5 Traditional Islam, Sufism



Nasr dedicated the largest part of his life to the study of the ‘Islamic tradition’ and Sufism. It has also been a living practice to him, ever since, in his own words, he ‘embraced Sufism, not only intellectually but also existentially146’. Nasr’s understanding of Islam is firmly rooted in Traditionalism, particularly in the Schuon lineage, but as Nasr will emphasize, it is first and foremost rooted in classical ‘traditional’ Islamic scholarship. The world of Islam is wide and varied, not only geographically, but also ideologically, theologically and philosophically. Ideas of what Islam is are fervently discussed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike and a wide spectrum of positions – from to conservative, fundamentalist to modernist, from secular Marxist to liberal – can be distinguished. Numerous typologies have been developed in an attempt to label the multi-varied, intensely diverse positions, taken in by Muslims in the various parts of the world. We will not enter this hornet’s nest extensively here. There are nearly as many labels as there are Muslims. Yet, on the other hand, to quote the scholar William Shepard, ’we cannot avoid labels if we are to talk about things, and we certainly cannot begin to make sense of an area as vast and complex as the modern Muslim world unless we can analyse its manifold phenomena into a manageable number of categories with suitable designations. It is not a question of whether we use labels, but how we use them147’. Although somewhat dated, his typology still proves to be helpful and I will use it at the end of this Chapter when attempting to position Nasr’s understanding of Islam within the wider spectrum of contemporary Islamic thought. 5.2

Traditional Islam

Nasr’s Traditional Islam in the Modern World (1985) opens with a definition of ‘traditional Islam’148: ‘Traditional Islam’ is the Islam lived for centuries by theologians and jurists, by philosophers and scientists, by artists and poets, by Sufis and simple people of faith throughout the Islamic world, during the fourteen centuries of Islamic history – the 146

‘An Intellectual Autobiography’ in: Hahn, L.E. (eds), The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p.40-41. Shepard, W. E., ‘Islam and Ideology: Towards a Typology’ in: International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.19, no3, august 1987, p.307-335. 148 Nasr, S.H., Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 1985. This book can be considered a continuation of two earlier studies on traditional Islamic views that are in confrontation with the modern world: Islam and the Plight of Modern Man and Islamic Life and Thought. 147

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Islam which is in fact still followed by the vast majority of Muslims, from the Atlantic to the Pacific149. ‘Traditional Islam’ to Nasr, is a living practice, here taken to include all the fruits of fourteen hundred years of Islamic civilization. This is significant, because Nasr immediately positions his understanding of Islam within the contemporary discourses about what Islam is. In his view, Islam is not the idealized interpretation of Islam striven after by ‘fundamentalists’, who call for a return to the origins of Islam, to the pure message of the Qur’an and to the teachings of the Prophet, and who strive after a pristine form Islam reflecting the practice (Sunna) of the Prophet or the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Nor is it a ‘modernist’ re-interpretation of Islam in the light of the humanistic and rationalistic or (worse in his eyes) Marxist trends of Western thought. Both fundamentalists and modernists bypass the ‘numerous schools of thought, juridical and theological interpretations, sects, orthodoxy and heterodoxy’ that, according to Nasr, all belong to a single Islamic tradition. ‘Traditional Islam’ accepts150: (1) the Qur’an as the Word of God and its traditional commentaries (tafsir); (2) the orthodox collections of Hadith, of both the Sunni and the Shi’i world and the traditional Hadith scholarship151 and (3) the Sharia as the Divine Law. With ‘Sharia’ he refers to that body of legal rulings as these were understood and interpreted over the centuries and as these had crystallized in the classical schools of law (madhab). Interpretation or application of the Law to new situations is possible (ijtihad), but only according to the classical legal principles of qiyas, ijma and ihtihsan. Closely following the tenets of classical Islamic scholarship Nasr emphasizes that ‘all morality is derived from these three sources: Qur’an, Hadith and Sharia’. Interestingly, Nasr considers both Shi’ite and Sunni sources and interpretations as part of ‘traditional Islam’. In fact, what characterizes ‘traditional Islam’ is its enormous diversity and richness, the variety of schools of thought, its theology, philosophy, arts, architecture, legal schools, spanning the complete Islamic intellectual tradition in all its manifestations. Despite this immense diversity, there is only one ‘Islam’, or rather one ‘Islamic universe’ which is centred on the concept of unity (tawhid). Islam is:


Nasr, S.H., Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 1985. p. viii. Ibid., p.14-15 151 Hadith are the ‘sayings and deeds’ that are attributed to the prophet Muhammad. Nasr contrasts traditional Hadith scholarship with western historical Hadith-criticism. He is pointing towards a longstanding and heated debate between Muslim scholars and western academic scholars, who adhere to the historical-critical method, denying the ‘possibility of revelation, oral transmission or direct knowledge’. Ibid.p12 150

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a ‘single tree of Divine origin whose roots are the Qur’an and the Hadith, and whose trunk and branches constitute that body of tradition that has grown from those roots over some fourteen centuries in nearly every inhabited quarter of the globe152. Sufism is an inextricable part of this Islamic universe. This is the inner or esoteric dimension or ‘heart’ of the Islamic revelation. In conformity with Traditionalist thought and with the synthesis of orthodoxy and mysticism proposed by the medieval scholar Al-Ghazzali (d.1111), Nasr emphasizes that the esoteric dimension of Islam is not opposed to, but rather complementary to the outer exoteric dimensions of Islam, meaning the ritual and legal obligations. Orthodoxy of doctrine and practice is an inextricable part of Islam as Nasr understands it. A Muslim will therefore have to adhere to the ritual obligations, such as prayer, a yearly fast, alms giving and a pilgrimage to Mecca, dietary rules and others, as well as the injunctions relating to social, political and economic life. Islamic art is as ‘significant to the survival of religion as the sharia’, because it is the ‘crystallisation of the inner dimension or spirituality in visible and audible form’. Religion does not only possess and express Truth, but ‘presence’ or Barakah as well. Art forms, when created according to the principles as revealed by the Qur’an, can be made to emanate this ‘presence’. Social and political dimensions What about the social, political and economic dimensions of traditional Islam? This topic is interesting for several reasons, but the most important one concerns the inherent and inevitable political, economical and social dimensions of the environmental crisis153. We have seen how Nasr is promoting the ‘traditional paradigm’; it is meant to be an alternative to the in his view dysfunctional modern worldview. A transformation of the collective paradigm – he believes will eventually result in a transformation of the judicial, social, political and economic structures of the societies. In his ‘Perennialist’ expositions Nasr did not work out any of the specific forms of these ‘traditional’ societal structures. The question is: is he more specific about the social and political implications of traditional Islam? 152

Nasr, S.H., Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 1985, p.11-12 His political views are also interesting for other reasons. Nasr was closely involved with many of the keyplayers of the Iranian revolution, both of the Imperial Court and of religious scholars. According to himself, he had kept his distance from politics in the years building up to the revolution, and certainly in the years afterwards, but he was acutely aware of the developments. He may therefore be expected to have an opinion about the Wilayat-i faqih doctrine of Khomeini that is explicitly theological-political. He discusses this in his reply to Lucian Stone. ‘… this is a very sensitive subject as far as the present situation in Iran and contemporary interpretations of Shi’ism are concerned. ..More time is needed before the consequences of the concept of the Wilayat-I faqih and its application in the political domain can be evaluated….’. Nasr, S.H., ‘Reply to Lucian Stone’ in: Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Preface’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p827. 153

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In Traditional Islam in the Modern World (1985), Nasr points in certain directions. In a traditional Muslim society, social life will need to reflect ‘sharia’ite institutions such as the family, village and local urban quarters’ and generally a ‘social fabric based on bonds created by religion’. Economics needs to be ‘wedded to morality preserving personal human contacts and trust between individuals’, as opposed to ‘impersonal and grandiose organizations’. As for the political domain, the general aim for Muslim societies is to create a ‘more Islamic order’ based on traditional Islamic institutions. An ideal civilisation is directed at ‘preserving what is sacred’. However, this ‘ideal’ may take on different forms. The Sunni, for instance may accept traditional institutions such as ‘the caliphate or in its absence, other political institutions, such as the sultanate, which developed over the centuries in the light of the teachings of the sharia and the needs of the community’. For Shi’ites, believing that the final authority belongs to the Twelfth Imam, his whose absence no form of government can be perfect, a variety of political structures is possible154. Most important is that: Under no condition does it [reform] seek to destroy what remains of traditional Islamic institutions, which are controlled by political restraints, in the hope of installing another Abu Bakr or Umar, but meanwhile settling for some sort of dictatorship. Moreover, such dictatorships are usually outwardly based on external forms of political institutions derived from the French revolution and other upheavals of European history, even though they are presented as authentic Islamic forms of government155. Clearly, Nasr does not favour Islamized European revolutionary, nor fundamentalist political theories. Rather he emphasizes the value of the in-built constraints of the traditional institutions. Traditional Islam in his view ‘rejects in its political aspects all the ideological and revolutionary concepts that grew out of nineteenth century European thought’156. He stresses the need for societies to be ‘revived from within’, calling on the traditional image of socio-political revival, which is instigated by ‘renewers' (mujaddid)157’. We have also seen this emphasis on the influence and efficacy of a small spiritually enlightened elite on society as a whole in Chapter 3. Unfortunately, Nasr does not work out any of these crude outlines of a ‘traditional’ Islamic socio-political theory. Possibly, he is more explicit in some of his other work. This is unfortunate considering the potential radical implications of his ‘vision’. The concept of the caliphate in itself is politically volatile. It is propagated as a social ideal by quite a few 154

Nasr, S.H., Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 1985, p.17. Nasr, S.H., Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 1985, p.17. 156 Nasr, S.H., ‘Reply to Lucian Stone’ in: Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Preface’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p.828. 157 Nasr refers to the ‘great saints and sages Abd Al-Qadir Al-Jilani, Al-Ghazzali, Abu’l Hasan Al-Shadhili and Ahmad Sirhindi. In: Nasr, S.H., Traditional Islam in the Modern World, 1985, p.17 155

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contemporary political Islamists158. In Chapter 6 on ‘Muslim Environmentalism’, we will see how the Islamic eco-activist Fazlun Khalid fuses the caliphate-ideal with environmentalist ideals of small-scale communities. Shi’ite debates about the role of government, of course, have gained a sharp edge ever since Khomeini developed his Wiliyat-i Faqih doctrine, endowing political power on the class of religious scholars159. Apart from this, Nasr seems to take for granted that Muslim societies will necessarily need to be grounded on the precepts of ‘traditional Islam’. The question of course is: is this self-evident? In our globalizing, intercultural world very few countries are determined by one specific religious ‘universe’, if there ever were any. Muslim societies have never been exclusively Muslim, many of its inhabitants were Christians or otherwise. What criteria is he proposing to identify a country to be ‘Muslim’? What about the non-Muslims in these societies? What about Muslims living in non-Muslim countries? What aspects of a ‘traditional Islamic paradigm’ should be taken to guide overall societal reform? Generally, as we have also noted in Chapter 3, Nasr is concerned with the overall paradigm: the ‘metaphysics’ behind the structures, institutions, policies and politics. The practical implications in the sphere of politics, economics or shari’ite law are left to be worked out by others. As concerns sharia, Nasr points out that he is not a religious scholar and as such is not qualified to work out shari’ite injunctions: ‘Vis-à-vis the Sharia, my duty has been first of all to live according to it and secondly to point out its significance and meaning without giving juridical edicts for which by training I am not qualified’160. This does not mean that traditional Islam is apolitical. Criticized for his apolitical approach, Nasr replies: If I were to say that Islam has nothing to do with the political realm and is in principle apolitical, then I would certainly open the door for secularism. But if I were to say that Islam possesses a Sharia, which encompasses all of life and applies to the socio-political as well as the personal realm, along with spiritual and intellectual teachings, and that I accept all these dimensions but will concern myself primarily with the intellectual and spiritual dimensions, then I certainly would not be opening the door to any form of secularism. My position is the second and not the first161.


Fuller, Graham E., The Future of Political Islam, 2003. A categorization of various political ideologies is presented in p.47-51 en p.125-131. 159 This is a deviation from traditional Shi’ism according to Nasr. Nasr, S.H., ‘Reply to Lucian Stone’ in: Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Preface’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p829. 160 Nasr, S.H., ‘Reply to Lucian Stone’ in: Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Preface’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001., p830 161 Nasr, S.H., ‘Reply to Lucian Stone’ in: Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Preface’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p829. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Generally Nasr keeps his distance from politics, firstly because of his ‘personal attraction to prime philosophy and natural philosophy, rather than philosophy dealing with law, society, and politics’, but secondly also because of the ‘personal need to stand above the din of political contention’, implicitly alluding to the 1979 Revolution and the repercussions of this to his personal life162. Yet, even so, his political activities have increased since September 11, 2001. He has been actively promoting an ‘alternative Islam’, an ‘antidote’ to both modernist and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. He is dedicated to ‘explaining the authentic teachings of Islam ’in a manner acceptable to mainstream Islamic thought and comprehensible to the general Western public’. His recent The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values of Humanity (2004) is written to this end163. He is also actively involved in various interfaith and dialogue projects, such as A Common Word. This aspect of his life and work we will have to leave aside in this thesis. 5.3

Sufism, Islamic mysticism

Sufism or Islamic mysticism is the ‘esoteric or inward dimension of Islam164’. The German scholar of Islam, Anne Marie Schimmel defines Sufism in her monumental Mystical Dimensions of Islam as ‘an interiorizaton of Islam, a personal experience of the central mystery of Islam which is the Oneness of God (tawhid). It entails a life of loving devotion, with immediate (unmediated) knowledge derived directly from God’165. Yet, Sufism is more than an inner path. Institutionalized forms of mysticism, such as the Sufi brotherhoods (tariqa’s) that are organized around a Sufi master, have played a vital role within traditional Islamic societies. Although contested by fundamentalist groups, Sufi inspired movements are still important social and political forces within Islamic societies166. It cannot be the aim to enter this vast and intriguing world of Sufism here. We will limit ourselves to Nasr’s understanding of Sufism. We have seen how he is promoting the path of inner development as a means of curbing consumerism (the lower passions of man) and as a means to regain our ‘sense of the sacred’. Considering the great diversity of outlooks, views, practices within the world of Sufism, what kind of Sufism is Nasr promoting? What kind of spiritual practice does he adhere to? And more significantly, does this affect his ecological views or visa versa? With these questions we are 162

It would take more research to discuss Nasr’s position during and after the Revolution. The main problem was probably related his close associating with the Imperial court at the time. 163 Nasr, S.H. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, New York: HaperCollins, 2004. p. xiii. 164 Definition provided by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in: Chittick, The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p.74. 165 Schimmel, A.M., Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 1975, p.3-5. 166 In Senegal it is estimated that more than 60% of the population is in someway linked to one of the brotherhoods. Egypt, the only country with a registration, counts as many as 6 million Sufi’s, % of the population. As related by Pierre Lory at the Honours Class, Leiden University, 11 april 2008. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



entering another domain, which is closely related to the Traditionalist school’ and traditional Islam, but that also opens up a vast new landscape of Sufism. The best entrance to Nasr’s understanding of Sufism is probably his recent The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (2007) which he considers as ‘the fruit of over fifty years of both scholarly study of and existential participation in Sufism’167. Nasr intended it to be an introduction to Sufism for the general public, presenting the inner teachings of Sufism from within, ‘as did the authorities of old but in a manner accessible to the present day serious Western seeker or Western-educated Muslim seeker….168’. The Garden of Truth outlines the metaphysical foundations of Sufism: the meaning and significance of human existence, the meaning of knowledge and truth (Gnosis), love, devotion and beauty. It specifies the spiritual ethics as a guide to human action and introduces some of the spiritual practices and techniques that help to achieve the aspired ‘unity with the Divine’. Sufism is the ‘Islamic spiritual path that, makes it possible for us to reach the ‘Here and Now… the ever present gateway to the Divine’. It possess a key that can open the door to our inner levels of existence and allows us to know who we are, what we are doing here, and where we should be going. It also makes possible knowledge and love of God at the highest level….It is one of the most complete, well preserved and accessible of spiritual paths in our world169’. Nasr’s Sufism is distinctly Islamic, it is an Islamic spiritual path which is deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition and is founded firmly on the Divine Law or Sharia. Nasr is therefore critical about pseudo-Sufi masters and movements that have disassociated themselves from Islam, such as Gurdjieff, Inyat Khan and Idris Shah, and uncompromising as concerns Muslim ‘orthodox’ practice. ‘While beginning with the Sharia as the basis of the religious life, [Sufism] seeks to take a further step toward that Truth (haqīqah) which is also the source of Sharia’170. The exposition of Sufi metaphysics strongly resembles the Perennialist metaphysics of the Traditionalist school171. ‘The message of Sufism is ‘perennial’, Nasr emphasizes, because ‘… as long as we are human, the question that each individual faces is: “Who am I?” The response of 167

Nasr. S.H., The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, HarperCollins, 2007. p.xiv. 168 Ibid., p. xiii. 169 Ibid., p.141. 170 Ibid., , p.5. 171 Interestingly, Nasr does not refer to any of the Traditionalist doctrines explicitly, although the book contains many implicit references to Schuon and other traditionalists and Schuon, Burckhardt and Guenon are mentioned in the appendix as the ‘foremost authorities on traditional metaphysics and perennial philosophy’. Their publications are central to the bibliography. I suspect this somewhat ‘hidden’ Traditionalist influence is related to some of the controversies that have come to be attached to Traditionalism and Perennialism in the Muslim world. I will discuss some of this towards the end of this Chapter and in Chapter 6. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Sufism to this perennial question resonates today as it has always done for those whose ears are sensitive to its call and who yearn for illuminative knowledge’172. Doctrinal Sufism and the Irfan tradition A central aspect of the Sufi path is the ‘way of knowledge’, to Nasr meaning: ‘illuminative or gnostic knowledge which can only be fully realized by spiritual practice173’. Nasr introduces the term ‘doctrinal or theoretical Sufism’ (al-tasawwuf al-‘ilmi in Arabic; ‘irfān-I nazari in Persian) or Gnosis (al-ma’rifah in Arabic and ‘Irfān in Persian), which he considers to be the metaphysical framework underlying Sufism. This is presenting ‘those in search of Truth’ with a ‘map of the structure of reality and the road that is to be followed to transcend the cosmic labyrinth’174. He identifies this with the philosophia perennis, the Supreme or Sacred Science (scientia sacra), the timeless wisdom and contrasts this with ‘practical Sufism (al-tasawwuf al‘amalī)’ or the spiritual practice. This is both Primordial Tradition and a living historical tradition. The father and founder of the historical tradition of theoretical gnosis or doctrinal Sufism is the thirteenth century Andalusian master Ibn Arabi (Muhyi al-Din Ibn Arabi: d1224)175. The Shaykh al-Akbar (‘the greatest master’) was the first to draw a ‘full map’ of Sufi metaphysics or gnosis, the crystallization of the doctrinal aspects of earlier Sufism. His work greatly influenced later Sufism in various parts of the Muslim world176. One could say with the possible exception of al-Ghazzali, there is no single intellectual figure more influential than Ibn Arabi during the last eight centuries of Islamic history177. Agreeing with Nasr, Schimmel emphasizes that Ibn Arabi’s influence can hardly be overrated: ‘His writings constitute the apex of mystical theories’. She also classifies his type of Sufism as ‘gnostic’, also using the word ‘theosophical’. ‘The Gnostic type strives for a deeper knowledge of God, attempting to know the structure of His universe, often resulting in complex mystical172

Nasr. S.H., The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, HarperCollins, 2007. p.6. 173 Ibid., p.32. 174 Ibid, p.33 175 In the appendix to The Garden of Truth, Nasr charts the historical ‘tradition of theoretical Sufism and Gnosis’ tracing its spiritual and intellectual lineage back to Ibn Arabi. Appendix 2: The Tradition of theoretical Sufism and Gnosis’ in: Nasr. S.H., The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, HarperCollins, 2007. p. 210-234. It is shortened version of an article of: Nasr, S.H. ‘Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal Sufism and Their Significance Today’ in: Transcendent Philosophy 1, 2000, p.1-36. 176 See: Nasr, S.H. ‘Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal Sufism and Their Significance Today’ in: Transcendent Philosophy 1, 2000, p.1-36 177 Nasr, S.H., Garden of Truth, 2007. p. 210. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



philosophical, theosophical interpretations of religion with influences of Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Neo-Platonic thought’178. Nasr traced the influence of the ‘Akbarian current’ in later Sufism in various parts of the world. In Persia, for example, the ‘Irfan tradition developed in the fourteenth century as a Persian synthesis of Ibn Arabian and Shi’ite Gnosis179. Two of Nasr’s personal teachers stand in this tradition: Kazim Assar (d1975) and Allamah Tabataba’i (d1983). The oral tradition based on Ibn ‘Arabian teachings was also kept alive by the twentieth-century Sufi master of the Maghrib, Shaykh al-Alawi, who is said to have initiated Schuon into the Alawiya order and is therefore also linked with Nasr as we will see later on. The Traditionalist Titus Burkhardt ‘opened the door for the understanding of Ibn Arabi in the West’ with his French translation of the Bezels of Wisdom and William Chittick, a student and a close associate of Nasr, is a renowned specialist on Ibn Arabi. With this, I believe, we have landed at the heart of Nasr’s spirituality and his understanding of traditional Sufism. Although he does not explicitly confess to any specific doctrine or practice (in the Garden of Truth or elsewhere), his work is permeated by an Akbarian or Ibn ‘Arabian spirit, which Nasr clearly identifies with the Traditionalist doctrines. This confronts us with the problematic issue of the interpretation of Ibn Arabi’s ‘theosophical’ doctrines, which have been subject of heated disputes in Muslim quarters for centuries180. According to Schimmel, interpretations of his work vary greatly attributing this to the fact that various historical influences ‘make Ibn Arabi’s work look very complicated181’. Considering the centrality of Ibn Arabi to Nasr’s own philosophy and views, I would like to quote Nasr at some length about what he considers central to Ibn Arabi’s doctrinal teachings: The central teaching … concerns the doctrine of unity, which is also the heart of the message of the Qur’an. But for [Ibn Arabi] the assertion of this unity means not only that God is one but that ultimately reality is one. This is what is called the doctrine of the “transcendent unity or oneness of being”, …which is he hallmark of his school and of much of Sufism in general. This single reality manifests all the levels of existence through reflections of its Selfdetermination upon what he and others call the mirror of nothingness. Everything in the cosmos is the result of this reflection or theophany (tajallī). Ibn ‘Arabi also discusses the 178

Schimmel, A.M, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 1975, p.263-264. Interestingly, Schimmel qualifies Seyyed Hossein Nasr as a modern mystic. 179 Nasr, S.H, Garden of Truth, 2007. p.185. The Persian tradition of ‘Irfan is related, yet also distinct to the seventeenth century Transcendent Theosophy or Philosophy (al-hikmat al-muta’liyya) of Mulla Sadra or Sadr alDin Shirazi (d1640). 180 Jong, Radtke, B. Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics, ed. Leiden, Brill, 1999. 181 Schimmel, A.M, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, p. 265-266. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



doctrine of human nature in this context. The human being, both male and female, contains potentially all levels of existence within and is the mirror in which God contemplates Himself. The reality of this archetypal human being, who is called by Ibn Arabi the Universal or Perfect Man (al-insān as-kāmil), is contained potentially in every human being, but is actualized only within the being of the prophets and the great saints of not only Islam, but all authentic religions. On the basis of these two doctrines, Ibn Arabi develops an elaborate cosmology, sacred psychology, eschatology, epistemology, and prophetology – all bound together by the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud. He even deals with the inner meaning of alchemy, astrology, and the other so-alled occult sciences on the basis of the metaphysical principles that he elucidates. Furthermore, he explicates the meaning of the imaginal world and its realty within us related to the power of creative imagination which is so important in spiritual life182. Concepts such as that of tawhid, wahdat al-wujūd (‘Unity of Being’), walaya (‘sanctity’), the ‘Perfect Man’ (al-insān al-kāmil), doctrines about the power of language and symbolism, the cosmos as a multileveled reflection or theophany (tajillī) can also be found in Religion and the Order of Nature in Nasr’s discussions of the Islamic perspective of the order of nature. To Nasr these doctrines underlie ‘authentic’ Islamic spirituality. 5.4

Spiritual Practice

Doctrinal or theoretical dimension of Sufism is only one dimension of the spiritual life. This will always need to be combined with spiritual practice: ‘It seems to begin with the mind, but for its full understanding it must be combined with practice…. Only then can it become a luminous presence that transforms the whole being’183. What ‘practice’ does Nars adhere to himself? Although dedicated to exposing the metaphysical foundations of the Islamic mystical traditions, Nasr rarely writes about his personal spirituality, or spiritual practice. His ‘intellectual autobiography’ provides us with only a few clues184. Here he mentions that he had studied for several years with the traditional masters Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Assar (d1975), Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i (d1983), Sayyid Abu’l-Hasan Qazwini. Two of them, Assar and Tabataba’i Nasr positions within the Perzian Akbarian tradition of ‘Irfan. Years of study of Islamic and European medieval philosophy in the West, my direct encounter with the great expositors of traditional doctrines, such as Schuon and Burckhardt, and my childhood experiences had all added up to convince me that there was an oral tradition of wisdom (hikmah) that could only be learned at the feet of traditional masters185. 182

Nasr, S.H., Garden of Truth, 2007. p. 216. Nasr, S.H., Garden of Truth, 2007, p.33. 184 Nasr, S.H., ‘Intellectual autobiography’, in: Library of Living Philosophers, 2000. 185 Ibid., p40-41. 183

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Nasr relates how he found his ‘intellectual and spiritual homeland in the summers of 1957 and 1958 in Morocco, with a form of Sufism that was linked to the spiritual lineage of Algerian master Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi (1869-1934) and Shaykh Isa Nur al-Din Ahmad’. Those years were crucial to my whole intellectual and spiritual life. It was at this time that my intellectual and philosophical orientation received its final and enduring formation and I embraced Sufism not only intellectually but also existentially in a form linked to the Mahgrib and more particularly to the spiritual lineage of the great Algerian master Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi and Shaykh Isa Nur al-Din Ahmad. These intellectual and existential experiences not only rooted my mind and soul for the rest of my life in the world of tradition, intellectual certitude, and faith, but also led to the discovery of inner illumination, the harmonious wedding of ‘logic and transcendence’, and intellectual lucidity and rigor combined with love for truth and beauty186. Nasr links Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi to the Ibn Arabian tradition that developed in the Mahreb187. Al-Alawi is evidently still close to his heart, which is suggested by the fact that Nasr dedicated his The Heart of Islam to ‘the Sacred and Enduring Presence of Shaykh Ahmad ibn Mustafa alShadhili al-Alawi. In 1961, another Traditionalist, Martin Lings, had introduced this master to a western audience188. Interestingly, Nasr does not mention in his autobiography that Shaykh Isa Nur al-Din Ahmad is Frithjof Schuon’s Islamic name. It requires other sources to make this connection with the Traditionalists189. This is essential, because it was most probably Schuon himself, who initiated Nasr into the Alawiyya order in 1957190. This originally Sunni order was transformed under the influence of Schuon into a more ‘perennial’ order transcending sectarian divides and accommodating both European converts, such as Burkhardt, as well as the shi’ite Nasr. The order was later to become the Maryamiyya.


Ibid., p40-41 See: Nasr, S.H. ‘Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal Sufism and Their Significance Today’ in: Transcendent Philosophy 1, 2000, p1-36 188 Lings, M., A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Sheikh Ahmad al-Alawi, Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961, 1974. 189 Nasr, S.H., ‘Frithjof Schuon and the Islamic Tradition’ in: Nasr, S.H., O’Brien, K, The Essential Sophia, World Wisdom, 2006. Originally published in Sophia, 1999. Vol. 5. No1.Also: Segdwick, M., Against the Modern World, 2004 and Nasr, S.H., ‘Frithjof Schuon and the Islamic Tradition’ in: Nasr, S.H., O’Brien, K, The Essential Sophia, World Wisdom, 2006. Originally published in Sophia, 1999. Vol. 5. No1. 190 This cannot be confirmed by any of my sources, but this appears plausible (see part II). It probably explains Nasr’s efforts in this article to secure the initiatic chain, ‘which alone guarantees traditional continuity in Sufism’. Nasr, S.H., ‘Frithjof Schuon and the Islamic Tradition’ in: Nasr, S.H., O’Brien, K, The Essential Sophia, World Wisdom, 2006. Originally published in Sophia, 1999. Vol. 5. No1. p.260, note 2. 187

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Very little information is given about the Alawiyya order in Nasr’s own discussions of Sufism. It is hardly mentioned in The Garden of Truth. A complete Chapter could be dedicated to this intriguing tale and some of it will be discussed in Chapter 6. 5.5

Islamic esotericism

Recalling the concept of ‘Western Esotericism’ that was introduced in Chapter 3, the references made by Schimmel to Gnosticism, Hermeticism and Neo-Platonic thought are highly significant. I would like to suggest that the concepts, doctrines as introduced by Nasr, as well as his practice can be classified as ‘Western Esotericism’ in the sense as defined by Antoine Faivre. In fact, Nasr himself conflates the Traditionalist doctrines, which I have already classified as Esotericism, with Doctrinal or Gnostic Sufism. The doctrines of correspondences, living nature, imagination and mediation and the experience of personal initiation- the five central features of ‘Western Esotericism’ - are part of the type of Sufism that is expounded by Nasr. It takes more to substantiate this claim, but would like to classify Nasr’s understanding of Sufism accordingly. One of the most striking parallels, of course, is the orthodox Islamic prophetology, shared by Sunnis and Shi’is. Nasr refers to it occasionally, although hardly in his environmental work. It is an essential part of Ibn Arabian thought. It claims that all the prophets - from Adam, Noah to Moses, Jesus and ultimately Muhammad - have all expounded One Divine timeless and universal (perennial) Truth to humanity. The crucial difference with contemporary Western Perennialists is the Islamic claim that Islam has abrogated all previous revelations; it is the most perfect exposition of ‘Perennial wisdom’. Muhammad is the last and the Seal of the Prophets191. Nasr position about ‘Islam’ as the seal and abrogation of all previous authentic religions is not made explicit in the work I have read. This would need further research. Generally, his appreciation of other authentic religions does not suggest a claim of superiority of Islam. Persian Nationalism or Confessional Esotericism? I would like to point out a few other aspects at this point. These are not well researched, but are related to some questions that came up when being confronted with Nasr’s expositions of theoretical or Gnostic Sufism. What is the most interesting about these expositions is perhaps what is left out. For example, Nasr does not relate the Ibn Arabian tradition, the Shi’ite Gnostic 191

See for example: Keller, Nuh Ha Mim, ‘On the validity of all religions in the thought of Ibn Al-Arabi and Emir ‘Abd al_Qasir: a letter to ‘Abd al-Martin’, 1996. Also: Neusser, Omar K, ‘On the Common Eternal principles, And That Islam resigns, Living Islam (accessed: . and Mere Islam, Islam and Perennial Philosophy ( AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



currents and its synthesis in what he calls the Irfan tradition, to another major Persian philosophical school, the School of Illumination or Ishraq tradition of Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d1191), the shayk al Ishraq192. This is surprising, considering that in his younger years Nasr worked on the critical editions of the complete Persian works of Suhrawardi and wrote a book about Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi and Ibn Arabi, The Three Muslim Sages (1963), the most widely translated of all his work193 To Suhrawardi, Ishraqi philosophy is the only authentic actualization of the ‘perennial philosophy’ of mankind, which is thought to have its origin in the divine revelations received by the Prophet Idris (Hermes) and was transmitted via two separate channels: Egyptian-Greek and ancient Iranian194. Considering its close affinity to Traditionalist perennial philosophy, it is odd that Nasr does not discuss its relation to the Persian ‘Akbarian’ traditions. I can only guess at his reasons195. One of these could be related to Surhrawardi’s controversial interpretation of history, which has become politicized within the framework of Persian ‘sacred nationalism’, and an equally politicized view of the Orient as the abode of light and the Occident as the abode of darkness. Such views are increasingly heard within the Iranian Ni’matu’llahi order of Javad Nurbaksh196. Possibly Nasr wishes to distance himself from this ‘nationalist’ debate. Although he has dedicated his life to the exposition of ‘Persian mysticism’ and has close contacts with Ni’matu’llahi197, I have not found any direct allusions to Persian nationalism in Nasr’s work. Even so, Nasr has been severely criticized for what some consider ‘confessional esotericism’ or ‘Islamic apologetics’, a ‘means to promote a personal or ethnic or religious chauvinistic agenda’198. Accusations of biased historicism or even a ‘Nasr School on Persian Philosophy’ 192

Nasr discusses it, considering it the most important encounter between Sufism and philosophy in Islam, but does not relate it to the Irfan explicitly in the appendix of the Garden of Truth or in his article. Nasr, S.H, Garden of Truth, 2007. p185; Nasr, S.H. ‘Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal Sufism and Their Significance Today’ in: Transcendent Philosophy 1, 2000, p.1-36. 193 In fact, Nasr is taken as the main source of information for an entry on the Ishraqiyya in the Encyclopedia of Religion. Izutzu, Toshihiko, ‘Ishraqiyya’ in: Encyclopedia of Religion, second edition, p.4552-4556. Izutzu translated Three Muslim Sages into Japanese and was instrumental in introducing Nasr to a Japanese public. . 194 The Iranian branch was represented in ancient Iran by the mythical priest kings Kayumarth, Faridun, and Kay Khusraw. See ‘Ishraiyya’ in: Encylopdia of Religion. 195 It could be related to the same divergence of views that affected his relationship with Henry Corbin, a close associate at the Imperial Academy and a specialist of Suhrawardi’s philosophy. Nasr and Corbin disagreed about the essence of the ‘imaginal consciousness’, the world of archetypal or symbolic images. Corbin connected these views with Jungian psychology, which Nasr opposed. 196 See the discussion about the ‘Perzianization of Sufism’ by Leonard Lewisohn in his article ‘Persion Sufism in the contemporary west: reflections on the Ni’imatu’llahi diaspora’ in: Malik, J, Hinnells, J, Sufism in the West, Londin, New York: Routledge, 2006. 197 This is indicated for example by the fact that Nasr has written a foreword to a book about Nurbaksh. They have also collaborated in the Heritage of Sufism series edited by Lewissohn. Lewisohn, L. (ed.), The Heritage of Sufism, Oxford: Oneworld, 1999. 198 Dimitri Gutas of Yale University writes: ‘An outgrowth of this approach [of confessional esotericism], which has become increasingly popular in the last 20 years (as it follows the rise of religious fundamentalism in both AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



can be heard elsewhere199. Nasr responds to this criticism on several occasions, explaining how he perceives the relationship between Western scholarship and its ‘historical criticism’ and traditional Islamic scholarship.200 Whether this criticism is legitimate, we will have to leave aside here. Another interesting aspect I would like to point out is the strong resonance between Ismaili doctrines and Nasr’s interpretations of Islam and mysticism. Some have suggested that Nasr has an Ismaili background, which is said to be the source of some controversy in Turkey201. Nasr’s sympathy for Ismaili doctrines is clearly visible in his expositions about this subject. In An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia (2005) Nasr outlines Ismaili and ‘Hermetico-Pythagorean philosophies’ referring to these as ‘philosophy understood in its traditional and time honoured sense’, associated with the ‘esoteric (batini) truths of religion’. In his mind these are authentic manifestations of the Timeless perennial wisdom. The Rasa’il Ikhwan as-Safa (Treatises of the Brethren of Purity) is of particular interest. It is one of the central scriptures to the Ismailis and is highlighted by Nasr in several of his publications202. What is of particular interest in the Treatises is not only their assertion of the esoteric nature of true philosophy, grades of initiation, and degrees of knowledge and the wedding between philosophy and spiritual realization combined with moral rectitude so characteristic of Ismailite philosophy in general, but their clear exposition of Islamic Pythagoreanism and Hermeticism203. Nasr also points out how one of the treatises of the Ikhwan as-Safa ‘The Debate between Man and the Animals’ is particularly relevant in the light of the environmental crisis. This treatise has also been highlighted by several other Muslim environmentalists as an illustration of Islamic ecological thought204. At a time when man is usurping the rights of other creatures and destroying the natural environment on the assumption of his absolute rights over creation, the philosophical arguments provided by the Ikhwan concerning the rights of animals are of incredible the Islamic world and the West), is the view that Islamic philosophy, theology, and mysticism are closely related and that their common inspiration and origins are to be found in the Qur’an and hadith. This approach which can be called Islamic apologetics is taken by a number of Muslim scholars, foremost among whom is Seyyed Hossein Nasr’. In: Gutas, D.,‘The Study of Arabic Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, an essay on the historiography of Arabic Philosophy’, in: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, (2002, p.29(1), 5-25. 199 John Walbridge, The Wisdom of the Mystic East: Suhrawardi and Platonic Orientalism, 2001. 200 Nasr, S.H. ‘Introduction’ in: Encyclopeadia of Islamic Spirituality, volume One Foundations, 2000. 201 Edis, T., An Illusion of Harmony, Science and Religion in Islam, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. p.34. Edis: ‘Nasr’s Ismaili Shii background is usually a more weighty reason for controversy than any of the scientific deficiencies of his views’. Edis states this as a matter of fact. I have not found any references within the English literature to confirm this. 202 S.H. Nasr., An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, Albany: State University of New York Press, revised edition 1993. First edition 1964. 203 Nasr, S.H., Amanirazavi, M. (eds) An Anthology of Philosophy of Persia, 2005. p.11 204 For example, the Malaysian scholar Adi Setia who will be discussed in Chapter 6. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



timeliness and display an ‘ecological philosophy’ that is of the greatest significance for the formulation of an Islamic philosophy of the environment and a response to the current environmental crisis205. A more in-depth analysis of Nasr’s views regarding the Ismailis will need to be left for other occasions. 5.6

Islamic Environmental Ethics

Having discussed the outlines of traditional Islam and of Sufism, how does this relate to Nasr’s environmental philosophy? What environmental ethics does he have in mind? In line with the Traditionalist approach, two perspectives can be distinguished. The first concerns the outer dimensions of Islamic practice, the second the inner dimension. Islamic Environmental Practice Nasr’s environmental ethics are first of all rooted in his understanding of ‘traditional Islam’. He believes the traditional world of Islam has access to ‘powerful and persuasive spiritual teachings about the natural world and the relation of human beings to it’ and to ‘concrete directives for human action’. Islamic sources and teachings on the environment can be derived form the Qur’an, the Hadith and Sharia, but also from other texts such as on Islamic ethics. The main schools on theology (kalam) have not paid much attention to a ‘theology of nature’, but Nasr points out the rich traditions about nature in Islamic philosophy, Sufism and Islamic science. Also the Islamic arts, literature, architecture, landscaping and urban design contain many profound teachings. These teachings need to be rediscovered, revived and disseminated among the public. Most of this work still needs to be done, Nasr points out, but in the Harvard series Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust (2003) he presents some of the outlines of an Islamic environmental ethics as can be extracted from the three sources of Islam: the Qur’an, the Hadith and the Sharia206. Qur’an: The Qur’an specifies the status of the cosmos as well as human beings. The cosmos is God’s first primordial revelation and therefore the signs of God can be found in virgin nature everywhere. Classical Islamic thought refers to the cosmic Qur’an, as complementary to the scriptural Qur’an, meaning that the natural phenomena and the verses of the Qur’an are all signs


Nasr, S.H., Amanirazavi, M. (eds) An Anthology of Philosophy of Persia, 2005, p.11. Nasr, S.H., ‘Islam, the Contemporary Islamic World, and the Environmental Crisis’ in: Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, Harvard University Press, 2003. p.85-105 206

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



of God (ayat): We shall show them our signs upon the horizons and within themselves until it becomes manifest unto them that it is Truth (Qur’an 41:53)207. In the Qur’an, creation is perceived as sacred; it is the effect of a Divine creative act. Therefore nature reflects both the wisdom (hikma) and the will of God (irada). Nature is not intended by God for our use only. It is there to reflect the creative Power of God. Grace or baraka flows through the arteries and veins of the universe. Like the Qur’an, nature has inner levels of meaning and significance. Natural phenomena are ‘more than mere facts’, they are ‘primarily symbols related to the states of being of a ‘noumenal’ higher reality…. It is a ‘source of spiritual presence and a source for understanding and contemplating divine wisdom’. Human beings are created as channels of grace for the cosmic ambience around them208. Our need for nature is not only to feed and shelter our physical bodies, but above all to nurture our souls. Another important Qur’anic concept highlighted by Nasr, is haqq, which means ‘truth, reality, right, law and due’. Each being is owned its ‘due according to its nature’. It is closely related to the concept of ‘order’ that we have encountered in the first Chapter, where everything and every being has its own God-given position within the ‘great chain of being’. ‘Human beings have to respect and pay what is due to each creature’. Humans are both servants of God (‘abd) and vicegerents of God (khalifat Allah), entailing both responsibility and respecting of the rights (or due) of all creatures. Hadith: The books of Hadith are replete with sayings and deeds of the Prophet, Nasr points out. The Prophet is said to have encouraged the planting of trees, banned destroying vegetation and pollution of water resources, loved animals, established protected areas for natural life, opposed wastefulness and needless destruction of nature based on greed or avarice and emphasized cleanliness. Sharia: The Divine Law or the Sharia contains many injunctions that deal with the natural environment. Nasr mentions the management of communal resources (water, forests, and grazing lands) as public rather than private property, just treatment of animals and various economic injunctions, such as opposition to usury, wasteful consumerism and excessive amassing of wealth. The Sharia contains both ‘concrete laws and principles for the regulations needed to confront the environmental crisis’. This is extremely important, Nasr stresses,

207 208

Ibid,. p96. Pickthall translation Ibid., p96

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because Muslims will more readily accept these shari’ite injunctions, rather than secular environmental laws. Nasr does not work out the details of any of these injunctions, neither does he specify the implications for the social, political or economic order, for reasons probably similar to those discussed earlier. The potential transformative power of his Islamic environmental teachings should not be underestimated. Considering that the contemporary global economic and financial systems are predominantly driven by accumulation of wealth and interest on capital, a ban on ‘usury’ for example, has enormous ‘structural’ and systemic effects. Some of his students and other scholars are presently working on these environmental injunctions of Sharia.209. Othman Abd-ar-Rahman Llewelyn’s contribution to Islam and Ecology (2003) gives a good insight into the emergent discipline of Islamic Shari’ite Environmental Law210. He utilizes general concepts of Islamic law, such as maqasid or ‘ultimate objectives’ to develop specific environmental injunctions. This field is definitely worth examining much further. As we have concluded before, for Nasr the overall view is central, considering himself the ‘reviver of traditional Islam’ and of traditional Islamic environmental teachings. [The environmental law] is only part of it. You cannot have environmental laws without having a great vision of nature. Its interesting how both these modernist movements in the Islamic world and the so called Reformist movements like Wahhabism and things like that, have no respect for nature whatsoever. Although they say there prayers five times a day and they are very pious Muslims. And it is traditional Islam that provides this vision of nature. And I have been the reviver of traditional Islam. That is what I have always tried to speak about211. 209

For example by Waleed Al-Ansaary, an Egyptian American specialized in the Human Sciences and Economics, and a Ph.D student of Nasr. He is said to serve as an advisor to the grand mufti of Egypt. His dissertation The Spiritual Significance of Jīhād in the Islamic Approach to Markets and the Environment was completed in 2006. This has not been published as far as I know. Biographical information of Waleed AlAnsary at . Another is the Nigerian Ali Ahmad, presently professor in Islamic Law in Nigeria and involved in research into the human rights situation of Nigerian sharia law I did not ask Dr. Nasr for a complete list of his students working on this subject . 210 Llewelyn is convert to Islam now living and working in Saudi Arabia on nature conservation. In Islam and Ecology (2003) he outlines the basis for a discipline of Islamic Law in Llewelyn, O. Abd-ar Rahman, ‘The Basis for a Discipline of Islamic Environmental Law’ in: Foltz. (eds), Islam and Ecology, 2003. He discusses its fundamental principles, such as the fundamental unity of ethics and law in Islam, the unity of creation (tawhid), the attitude of reverence (taqwa) and its completion in compassion and beneficial works (rahmat and ihsan) and the stewardship imposed upon man (khalifa) as a trust, a responsibility. Discussing Islamic jurisprudence he highlights the ‘ultimate objectives’ of Islamic law (maqasid), which as a distinctive branch of knowledge is ‘receiving ever greater attention by contemporary Muslim jurists’, according to Llewelyn. Legal instrument that can be extracted from these sources and that may serve for environmental protection are for example inviolable zones (harim) to protect common land or protected areas (hima) to protect unowned land reserved for the common good. Charitable foundations (waqf) could also used to finance environmental protection. 211 Edited transcript of the taped telephone interview with Seyyed Hossein Nasr on 31 October 2008. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



In the interview of October 2008212, Nasr explained his views about the function and role of Divine law, also presenting some concrete examples: First of all: there is Divine Law. []. That is the Ideal Law. It translates into human life and life on earth through the Divine Law in Islam, the Sharia, which is Divine Law. But as human beings being imperfect, it is never perfectly applied. But it is always there and some of it, much of it, like those of marriage, divorce, economic functions, and so forth on the individual level, still to the Islamic world are accorded to it, because there is to be divine law. And that sharia, Divine Law, has very important prescriptions concerning our treatment of the world of nature. I have not worked too much on that. Some of my students have done a PhD with me on that issue. I have always been interested in the theoretical and metaphysical, cosmological aspect of it. [But as an example, consider water:] Some of this cannot be privatized, this is public domain, like the water of mountains and so forth. Secondly, there very strict injunction given about treatment of animals, of the cutting of trees, of polluting the water, there are many, many injunctions within sharia. And of course, most important of all: not living with excessive material things. This is a kind of opposition to we have called consumerism today. Consumerism has just crashed in the United States.[..] Many people are trying to adjust again with cosmetics to cure it, by something much deeper is going on. Anyway that is my view. Referring to the injunctions derived from classical (ie traditional) sharia law: There are certain laws that are now in Islamic society, which are based on international law, European law [..]. Sharia is not applied perfectly in any Islamic country. But nevertheless, it is applied to a great deal and theoretically, all devout Muslims believe that this is the Law by which they should live. Theoretically… and they do, but they theoretically believe that. Therefore, those that are believers can be made to do a lot of things. Nasr regularly stipulates the important role of the traditional scholars, the Ulama in countering the environmental crisis. If the preacher speaks about that every Friday, according to Divine Law , according to Sharia – you should not pull the tail of dogs in the street or something like that, or molest animals, that will have an effect, that will have an impact. In Islam and Ecology stipulates some urgent ‘concrete actions on the earthly plane’. His recommendations are intended for the Muslim world and are summarized here. -


The Muslim world needs to criticize the ‘stifling’ scientistic view of reality and demonstrate why it is opposed to the authentic Islamic and more generally religious point of view. An Islamic understanding of the natural environment and humanity’s relation to it, must be formulated and expressed in terms that are comprehensible to contemporary Muslims, from peasant to philosopher.


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Courses on the environment need to be introduced at all levels of education to train the future leaders of Islamic society. This should include the traditional schools or madrasa’s and the training of the religious scholars, the ulama. Governments should encourage religious scholars and the media to increase environmental awareness. Non-governmental organisations need to expand in the Islamic world, some Western, if in conformity with Islamic norms, others may be specifically Islamic such as the waqf funds (religious endowments). Indigenous or ‘alternative’ technologies need to be promoted.

These recommendations are intended for the Muslim world. Unfortunately, Nasr does not stipulate any concrete actions for the Western world or for Muslims living in the West. The solution at the present moment lies for most part with individuals and small groups which can expand in the future. What is certain that first of all, the environmental crisis must be recognized in its spiritual and religious depth as well as its outward effects. Second the authentic Islamic view must be resuscitated with rigor and clarity and without compromise. Those who can awaken must be made to open their eyes and to realize that the modern world is walking on the edge of a precipice and needs only to take another forward step to face its own perdition. Awareness leads to further awareness. The Islamic teachings about God, human beings and nature …all constitute a clarion call for this awakening from this dangerous dream of scientism and humanity’s selfish conquest of nature. They can help set Muslims again on the correct path to a harmonious modus vivendi with nature, and they can also help the Western world to regain and recollect its own forgotten tradition concerning the role of human beings in Gods’ creation213. ‘Let us hope’, Nasr concludes, ‘that this awakening takes place through proactive human effort and not as a consequence of the rude awakening resulting from ecological disasters’214. The inner dimension: path of Sufism The other solutions that Nasr had presented to us, were the Keys of Traditional Knowledge and Spiritual training and Ritual. The Garden of Truth outlined the Islamic spiritual Path that Nasr envisages, which we identified to be inspired by a traditionalist interpretation of Ibn Arabi. The Garden of Truth hardly refers to the environmental crisis, nor does it explicate any specific ecological Sufi-doctrines, ethics or practice. Perhaps, we can take this as an indication that he does not expect his readers to take an interest in the topic. Yet, the Sufi metaphysics as expounded here, we have found to largely overlap with Nasr’s expositions of the Islamic doctrines in Religion and the Order of Nature. These strongly echo the more general 213

Nasr, S.H., ‘Islam, the Contemporary Islamic World, and the Environmental Crisis’ in: Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, Harvard University Press, 2003. p.104 214 Ibid., p.104 AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



‘Perennialist’ message we have discussed in Chapter 2, but now dressed in a Sufi garb. As an example, about the efficacy and function of the spiritual elite: In Islamic esoteric doctrines there are also elaborations of concerning the spiritual hierarchy that sustains the visible universe and the power of walaya, usually translated as ‘sanctity’ in Sufism, which governs the world invisibly, a power without which the order of nature would turn into chaos and the world would flounder. In practice this also entails the belief that God places saintly men on the Earth, who through their presence and practice (rituals and prayers) uphold the social order and also preserve the order of nature215. What about concrete spiritual ritual and practices? Is there a specific ecological dimension to the rituals and prayers? Nasr largely leaves us in the dark about this part. Perhaps the ritual dimensions of orthodox Islamic practice (the exoteric forms) are sufficient in themselves? We remember how Nasr has pointed out the importance of orthodox ritual in re-establishing balance and upholding the order. Yet, orthodoxy also allows for other practices, in addition to the divinely ordained practices. Numerous schools and masters have developed very distinct practices and spiritual techniques, involving nature retreats for example, recitation of the Divine Names, dancing, etc. For instance, does spiritual presence (walaya) in ‘virgin nature’ have a particular role to play in the spiritual training, in the prayers (dhikr) or in these retreats? Are disciples trained to ‘sense the sacred’ in virgin nature? What methods are used? Are certain symbols or images invoked to re-establish a harmonious relationship with nature? Love of virgin nature is obviously very central to Nasr’s life, but nowhere – as far as I know - does he work out this nature dimension of spiritual ‘practice’216. 5.7


How can we evaluate Nasr’s understanding of Islam? What ‘labels’ can we use to orient his position in the complicated world of Islam? The typology introduced by William Shepard proved to be helpful in this respect. Shepard distinguishes between five general orientations: secular, modernist, radical, traditional and neotraditional ideological orientations. He ranks them according to their response to ‘modernity’ and according to its tendency to view Islam as ‘a total way of life’ (a guide to social action and public legislation). For secularists, Islam has no role to play in public life. For modernists, Islam is the basis of private as well as public life. Islamic principles are generally justified by re-interpretations of presumably ‘authentic’ sources aligning these to modern, western social and political concepts. 215 216

Nasr, S.H., Religion and the Order of Nature, p.281 ‘Autobiography’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p.85.

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Radical Islamists or fundamentalists reject this modernism, endorse the all-encompassing nature of Islam and stress the need to put sharia into practice. They wish to adhere to ‘authentic’ Islamic practice, which is perceived as being distinct from Western practice. It is characterized by a strong political and social activism. Neo-traditionalists ‘selectively accept the benefits of modernity, and at the same time value the depth and complexity of the past Islamic traditions as represented by the learning of the ulama and the wisdom of the Sufi sheikhs’217. He contrast these to ‘traditionalists’ who are not affected by modernism as deeply and generally live their lives in according to a mix of Islamic and local cultural norms, custom and habits. According to Shepard and I tend to agree with him, ‘writers as Nasr and Martin Lings are best seen as neotraditionalists’, although it can be argued that Nasr is proposing a radical Islamist agenda as well. Nasr’s understanding of Islam is closely related to the ‘Traditionalist’ perception of religion as expounded by Frithjof Schuon. Adherence to a traditional ‘orthodox’ practice is a central feature of their doctrines. Traditional Islam is therefore conservative and orthodox in its practice, advocating adherence to the exoteric injunctions drawn from the Qur’an, Hadith and Sharia. At the same time, it also propagates the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam, the Sufi path which is universal in its core. This particular understanding of Islam is certain to attract criticism from various directions. Although it is impossible to deal with this subject extensively, I will point out at some of the issues that have triggered (or will trigger) debate. Firstly, Nasr promotes an all-inclusive view of Islam, including Sunni, Shi’ite and other sources under the umbrella of traditional Islam. Considering the widespread antagonism between Sunni and Shi’ites, this view is controversial218. Significantly, Nasr is politically active attempting to promote the Sunni-Shi’ite dialogue in the US. Secondly, Sufism has been a disputed aspect of Islam since its inception. We will not be able to deal with this rich history of antagonism between the religious scholars and mystics, although it is generally said that some kind of synthesis between theology and mysticism was established in the twelfth century with Al-Gazalli’s theology. However, since the twentieth century Sufism has come under attack by fundamentalists, as well as reformists and modernists. 217

Shepard, W. E., ‘Islam and Ideology: Towards a Typology’ in: International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol.19, no3, august 1987, p.307-335. 218 In several sources it is suggested that Nasr has an Ismai’li background, a Shi’ite affiliation that is to be distinguished form the more mainstream Twelver Shi’ism. His networks – as we will see in part II – me be interpreted to suggest that. This is relevant as concerns the reception of his ideas. It may make him unacceptable to some Muslim quarters. I will leave this issue aside here. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Fundamentalists disapprove of some of the excessive forms of Sufi practice, such as saint veneration, dancing, singing, magical practices. For example, in 1978 the Egyptian parliament decided to burn Ibn Arabi’s books, arguing that these represented an un-Islamic form of philosophy219. Modernists consider Sufism as a primitive, irrational and one of the major sources behind the stagnation of Muslim civilization. Even so, Sufism is a powerful and present force in the Islamic world exhibiting a dazzling variety of order, sheikhs, doctrines and practices. However, even within the world of Sufism, Nasr’s ‘Perennialist’ and ‘universalist’ interpretations of religion may be cause of controversy. Islamic philosophy and science are also criticized by hardliner literalist fundamentalists as being non-Islamic ‘accretions’, as are many the other traditions that Nasr values so highly. Fourthly, Traditionalist Perennial philosophy is generally rejected by Sunni religious scholars220 and controversies that came to surround Schuon in the nineties have made matters worse. Generally, Islamic scholars uphold the superiority of Islam. The older religions, Judaism and Christianity are all expositions of one primordial Truth but these have been abrogated by the message of Islam, which is the last of the cycle. In recent years, Nasr has been actively promoting ‘traditional Islam’ as an alternative to both fundamentalist and modernist Islam. In this sense, his message is becoming more politicized221. In the Islamic world, Sufism is the most powerful antidote to the religious radicalism called fundamentalism as well as the most important source for responding to the challenges posed for Islam by modernism. In the West, it is the most accessible means for understanding Islam in its essential reality222. Nasr is emphasizing the role of Sufism as a central link between the spiritual traditions of Islam and the West, pointing out the many points of historical contact and cross cultural influences223.


Zayd, Nasr, Abu, ‘Trial of Thought: Modern Inquisition in Egypt, A Case Study’, in: Drees, W.B., Koningsveld, P.S. Van (ed.), The Study of Religion and the Training of Muslim Clergy in Europe: Academic and Religious Freedom in the 21th century, Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2008. 220 See for example: Keller, Nuh Ha Mim, ‘On the validity of all religions in the thought of Ibn Al-Arabi and Emir ‘Abd al_Qasir: a letter to ‘Abd al-Martin’, 1996. Also: Neusser, Omar K, ‘On the Common Eternal principles, And That Islam resigns, Living Islam (accessed: . and Mere Islam, Islam and Perennial Philosophy ( 221 Nasr expounded his views about this at a World Bank lecture and in various talk shows, such as This is America, and Speaking of Faith, hearing Muslim voices. These can be accessed at.:; 222 Nasr, S.H. The Garden of Truth, Sufism, The Vision and Promise of Islam’s Mystical Tradition, New York: HarperCollins, 2007, p.xvi. 223 Ibid., pxvi. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



6 Circles of influence



In this last Chapter, we will change our perspective and follow a more sociological approach. Having discussed and contextualized Nasr’s eco-philosophy, we will now attempt to evaluate the reception of his ideas. Who is inspired by his writings and lectures? Who responds to his message? Who are his audiences? The sheer number, the scope, and the variety of his audiences do not allow for any quick conclusions. References to his work turned up at quite unexpected places, leading to Islamic scientists, historians, scholars of Islam, sacred or deep ecologists, eco-psychologists, Muslim Islamist eco-activist, Sufi sheikhs and Sufi movements, inspired Muslim converts, an intriguing blog of a Green Sufi224, a Pakistani psychedelic Sufi225, and other private blogs of fans in Turkey, India, Pakistan, Malaysia and the Netherlands226. Several websites of American Muslim organisations contain references to Nasr’s environmental work227. Nasr has lectured as a University professor in the US for years, influencing several generations of students of comparative religion and Islamic studies. The environmental issue was one of his regular seminars228. He has also provided countless lectures across the globe, addressing largely varying audiences, from British and Jordanian princes, Malaysian Muslim scientists, Muslim youth struggling with modernity, Buddhist spiritual farmers and an American general public, struggling with a muddled view of Islam. Apart from writing about Islamic mystics, Nasr has become a mystical or spiritual teacher himself, influencing an unknown number of students. Trying to assess the reception of his ideas, at some points felt like looking at the surface of a pond, tracing the effect of a handful of stones thrown into it. Numerous circles spread out at different points, all starting in different places. It is only one man throwing the stones, but the circles are many and spread out widely.


Weblog Green Sufi: Weblog Pakistani Sufi: 226 Weblog Kamal Essabane on the website Wij Blijven Hier (We are staying here): 227 The American Muslim (TAM): ; 228 These seminars and lectures are currently being compiled by one of his students. This was pointed out by Adam Vogtman, [email protected] 225

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Yet, having contemplated this surface for a while, a few major ‘circles of influence’ or networks emerged. These are: (1) Nasr’s ‘academic’ network of scholars of religion and Islam, (2) philosophers of religion, (3) theologians, (4) Traditionalists, (5) environmentalists, both non-Muslim and Muslim, (6) interfaith groups (Muslim-Christian and Shi’ite-Sunni), (7) Islamization of science-groups and (8) Sufis. When examining these circles, each opened up to a different world, with different key representatives, histories, ideologies and debates. In the first stages of my (re)search, I had deliberately cast my nets wide, attempting to assess the span of Nasr’s influence. I was soon to find out that Nasr’s influence extends into India, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and beyond, as is suggested by various publications229 and the numerous translations of his work230. Charting all these circles would entail moving into unknown and to me un-accessible territory. Not all of these networks respond to Nasr’s environmental work. The academic community and philosophers, for example do not appear to show much interest in this aspect of Nasr’s work 231. Eco-theologians appear to have taken note of this work, as is suggested by the 1981 Gifford lectures on ‘natural theology’232. These and the other circles are each worth examining in-depth. Some preliminary work has already been done, when preparing this thesis and this is pointing out some extremely interesting areas for further research. In this Chapter, I will concentrate on only several of these circles: the contemporary Traditionalist network(s), the environmentalists, Islamization of science-groups and the Sufis. What interests me in particular is the significance of the ecological issue to these networks and their interrelationships. Is the interest in this issue unique to Nasr or does he share his perspective on ‘sacred nature’ with others? What aspects of Nasr’s work are picked up and can we understand why? My aim of course is to substantiate my intuition that certain Muslim circles share a common ground with Western environmentalist circles.


A study by the American Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars assesses the influence of American Muslim intellectuals, including Nasr in the Islamic world. The reception of Nasr’s ideas about science in Indonesia was analysed Widiyanto, Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Science and the Reception of his Ideas in Indonesia, MA thesis Leiden University, 2005. 230 The volume of Living Philosophers Library includes a complete abridged bibliography of Nasr’s corpus, from 1958 until the year 2000. This bibliography was complemented by a list of the more recent publications that was provided by Nasr (October 2008). It also includes the translations of his work. In: Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Bibliography in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p. p835-964 231 This conclusion is based on a search for reviews of Nasr’s environmental work in the online periodicals archive at Leiden University, an analysis of the full bibliography, the journals and publishing houses. 232 These lectures are not intended for theologians exclusively, but also for philosophers, legal specialists, historian and scientists. Also see Chapter 2. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009




Traditionalist network

The first and most significant network to analyse is the Traditionalist circle. This is the most central of Nasr’s networks, which is not surprising considering the centrality of ‘Traditionalist’ philosophy in his own thought. The Traditionalist networks are described in several sources. This Chapter is based on two: Kenneth Oldmeadow’s Traditionalism: Religion in the light of Perennial Philosophy (2000)233, which presents an objective insider view to us; Oldmeadow is also a regular contributor to the Traditionalist media. The other source is Marc Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World (2004)234 charting the in his words ‘secret intellectual history of the twentieth century’. It presents an overview of the Traditionalist historical landscape from an academic, socio- historical or outsider perspective235. Sedgwick’s research is controversial, in the sense that it was severely criticized by a number of Traditionalists and some of its claims are contested236. I have complemented these sources with my own findings and sources. A short history The groups presently associated with Nasr, grew out of the group of authors writing for the journal Studies of Comparative Religion, the ‘first English journal on traditional studies’237. It 233

Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, Shrilanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000. 234 Sedgwick, M, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the secret intellectual history of the twentieth century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Sedgwick traced the footsteps of a number of people who were inspired by the ‘founding fathers’ of Traditionalism. According to him, the seven ‘most important traditionalists’ are: Ananda Coomaraswamy, Réné Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and three others: Baron Julius Evola (1896/8-1974), Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), and Alexander Dugin (1962-). Evola and Dugin are controversial figures in European history, linked to either anti-democratic forces in Post-Soviet Russia or political terror in Italy. Mircea Eliade is a well-known scholar of comparative religion. Sedgwick’s weblog is also highly informative: 235 Sedgwick’s claim to be the first to chart this history is contested by several traditionalists. According to Michael Fitzgerald, a contemporary traditionalist, this is not the first history of Traditionalism. Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy by Harry Oldmeadow (Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000); Jean Borella’s essay entitled, “Rene Guénon and the Traditionalist School” in Modern Esoteric Spirituality (Crossroad, l992), edited by Antoine Faivre and Jacob Needleman; The Only Tradition by William W. Quinn Jr. (SUNY, 1997); Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition by Huston Smith (Harper, 1976); Journeys East: 20th Century Western Encounters with Eastern Religious Traditions by Harry Oldmeadow (World Wisdom, 2004). This list mainly refers to work of other ‘traditionalists’. It is doubtful whether this could be classified as an outsider perspective on traditionalist history. 236 Sedgwick was criticized for casting his nets too wide, and for ‘its tendency to, apparently inspired by the ambiguities of research done partly on the internet, to identify as ‘Traditionalist’, groups with little or no relationship with the Traditionalism of Guénon, Coomaraswamy and Schuon. See Review of Against the Modern World by Michael Fitzgerald on: Sacred Web . This review is extremely critical of Sedgwick’s work, and has an almost aggressive undertone. Sedgwick is accused of a personal vendetta against the traditionalists, being a disappointed Muslim convert. Also the online article by Charles Upton, ‘What is a traditionalist? Some Clarifications’, p3 237 Website Studies in Comparative religion: AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



was established in 1963 and was devoted to ´the exposition of the teachings, spiritual methods, symbolism, and other facets of the religious traditions of the world, together with the traditional arts and sciences which have sprung from those religions238´. Nearly forty scholars contributed articles on a regular basis, including Nasr and a relatively large group of other well-known scholars of Islamic traditions, such as Réné Guénon, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Henry Corbin, Charles Le Gai Eaton, Jean-Louis Michon, Michel Valsan, Anne Marie Schimmel and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. 239. In the eighties, several groups grew from this base. Nasr is most closely associated with those in the UK, the United States, Canada and Australia. Other groups are based in France, Spain, Italy, Sri Lanka and Peru. Contemporary groups in the UK and US In the UK in 1980 four scholars launched Temenos, a journal devoted to the ‘Arts of the Imagination’. The scholar and poet Kathleen Raine and the Christian scholar Philip Sherrard had both contributed to the Studies of Comparative Religion, the other two, Keith Critchlow and Brian Keeble, who are specialists in architecture and arts, were new to the scene. In 1990 the Temenos Academy was launched, intended as a ‘teaching organisation dedicated to the perennial philosophy - the learning of imagination’240, offering ‘education in philosophy and the arts of the sacred traditions of East and West’. Lectures were - and are still being - organized on topics as varied as mysticism, Hermeticism and Platonism, Hindu or Buddhist doctrines, and on authors such as Dante, Ficino, Shakespeare, Blake, Shelley, Yeats and Wordsworth241. In the United States, also in 1980, the publishing house World Wisdom Book was established, as an outlet for Perennialist writings242. This still exists and has a stronger Schuonian bias than Temenos243. Interestingly, some names from the initial group, such as Gershom Scholem, and 238

Website Studies in Comparative religion under ‘History First 25 years (1963-1987): 239 Other well known scholars in the field of religious studies are: Gershom Scholem on Jewish mystical tradition, Bede Griffith on Christian traditions and Joscelyn Godwin on the western esoteric traditions. See for a full list: 240 Temenos Academy website: 241 Temenos is still active and provides a platform for more than thirty fellows; three quarters of whom are academic scholars specialized in religious studies, comparative religion, arts, architecture or literature. Half of the fellows are UK citizens. The others are from the USA (4), India (2), Australia (2), Ireland (1), Iran (1) and Russia (1). Fellows with a specific Islamic focus are: Martin Lings (d.1998), Tom Cheetham, William Chittick, the Iranian scholars Ghomsei and Muhammad Reza Juzi, Harhang Jahanpour and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. 242 The website of World Wisdom Books is a particularly valuable source of information. The website includes the biographies of nearly seventy authors and 150 contributors. Wisdom Books website: 243 ‘The Library of Perennial Philosophy is dedicated to the exposition of the timeless Truth underlying the diverse religions. This Truth, often referred to as the Sophia Perennis—or perennial Wisdom—finds its AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Henry Corbin are conspicuously missing on the authors’ list244, possibly because some of them had found other platforms. Scholars inspired by Corbin, for example favoured a more Jungian psycho-analytical approach emphasizing mythology, symbolism, esoteric and magical traditions, perennial philosophy and its relation to the spiritual development of the Self and gathered at the Annual Eranos Conferences in Switzerland245. These groups are generally not classified as traditionalist, but are relevant because some writers within this scene, such as Temenos fellow Tom Cheetham have picked up on the ecological issue. Within the AngloSaxon world several other outlets are dedicated to traditional studies246. Within the American groups that are inspired by Schuon, two distinct strands appear to have developed. One is more ‘Perennialist’ with a stronger emphasis on Native American traditions, in line with Schuon’s interests later in life. This is mainly centred on the Iverness Farm Community which was founded by Schuon in 1980247. The other group is more closely related to the ‘early’ Islamic Schuon emphasizing ‘tradition’ and ‘orthodoxy’, rather than eclectic ‘Perennialism’. Nasr is most closely affiliated to this group. Major outlets of this strand are: the Foundation of Traditional Studies and its journal Sophia: the Journal of Traditional Studies248, expression in the revealed Scriptures as well as the writings of the great sages and the artistic creations of the traditional worlds. The Perennial Philosophy provides the intellectual principles capable of explaining both the formal contradictions and the underlying unity of the great religions. ‘ World Wisdom Books website: 244 Corbin and Nasr have been close associates for years. They hold different opinions about the importance and relevance of the work of the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung. In his autobiography to the Living Philosophers Library Nasr states: ‘like other traditionalists, I believe that Jung did not at all understand the transcendent and spiritual nature of myths and symbols which he psychologized, substituting the collective unconscious for the Divine Treasury which is the source of all veritable symbols’. ‘Autobiography’ in: Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Preface’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p50. 245 See Eranos Foundation: . 246 One of these is Fons Vitae which was established in 1997 and is ‘devoted to making available works from the world’s great spiritual traditions’. It is a continuation of publishing begun by Quinta Essentia (since 1979) and the Islamic Texts Society. In addition Fons Vitae distributes titles from other publishers such as The Foundation of Traditional Studies, World Wisdom, Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, Dar Nun (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), Turab (Amman, Jordan) and others. See: Editorial Advisory Board: Chittick, Murata, Cutsinger, Huston Smith, Nasr, Needleman, Reza Shah Kazemi, Prince Ghazi bin Muhhamad. And other ‘non-traditionalist’ specialists on Islam scholars such as William Graham, James Morris, Gisela Webb, Alan Godlas, Bruce Lawrence and several other specialists in other traditions. Another outlet KAZI distributions is particularly dedicated to the Islamic tradition. @@ 247 This community was founded by Schuon when he moved to the United States in 1980. It emphasized Primordial Traditions and was inspired by Native American rituals, rather than Islamic traditions, and moved away from the original Islamic groups. In the nineties Iverness Farm became involved in a controversy centred on alleged improper secret ‘primordial gatherings’ and ‘sacred nudity’. Schuon was charged of child molesting and ritual abuse. Although the charges were dropped later, these rumours still surround Schuon and his Iverness community, also affecting the more Islamic Maryamiyya members. Rumours of the events elicited ridicule by a re-known opponent to Nasr’s views, Ziauddin Sardar, affecting his reputation in the Muslim world. These developments of Schuon’s tariqa Maryamiyya are related by Marc Sedgwick in Against the Modern World, 2004. See ‘Schuon and the Alwais’p 83-93,, Chapter 7: Maryamiyya’p 147-159.Chapter 8: America, p162-177. Also: Sardar, Z., ‘A Man for all Seasons’ in: Impact International, December 1993, p33-36. 248 Foundation for Traditional Studies: ‘The Foundation for Traditional Studies seeks to contribute toward the achievement of such understanding not through dilution of religious or cultural AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



and the Canadian based Journal Sacred Web: the Journal of Tradition and Modernity249. Recently, a new traditionalist journal Eye of the Heart was launched by La Trobe University in Australia which has a more distinct academic focus250. By systematically listing, combining and relating the contributors of these various media, a certain pattern emerged; many of the same names reappeared in each of these journals. They form a group of about forty to fifty people, most of whom are academic scholars specializing in the fields of religious studies and comparative religion, with specialisations in ‘traditions’ such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and American Indian traditions. A few are specialized in Western esoteric tradition, philosophy, metaphysics, arts or literature. Most are based at American, Canadian or Australian universities. Temenos also has a few Iranian fellows. What binds these scholars and writers is their philosophy. There is no ‘coherent organization of Traditionalists’251. In the words of Oldmeadows: ‘they share philosophical assumptions and adhere to a specific understanding of perennial philosophy. Their works are shot through with the same ideas, principles and themes. The solidarity of the group is evident not only in the substance of their writings but in several superficial and more immediately obvious ways. They contribute to the same journals; they translate, review and preface each others’ works; they all acknowledge a debt to the work of Guénon, Coomaraswamy and Schuon; they frequently refer to or commend writings by others in the traditionalist school252. Nasr clearly stands in the lineage of the Islamic Traditionalists: Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burkhardt, Martin Lings, Charles le Gai Eaton (b. 1921), Jean Louis Michon253 and the younger scholars William Chittick, Sachiko Murata, Rusmir Mahmutçehajíc254, Patrick Laude, Timothy Scott, Mateus Soares de Azevedo, John Herlihy and Jane Fatima Casewit. Presumably quite a traditions until one arrives at a pale common denominator, but rather through preserving and strengthening the traditions which have been transmitted through the ages and which have so much to teach contemporary society. This programmatic ‘mission statement’ may be considered to reflect traditionalist ambitions, which are often centred on interfaith and intercultural dialogue. 249 Sacred Web: 250 Eye of the Heart: . Member on the Editorial board also contributing to other Traditionalist media: Timothy Scott, Rodney Blackhusrts, Harry Oldmeadows, John Penwill, Roger Sworder, Algis Uzdavinys, Waleed El-Ansary, David Burell, James Cutsinger, Renaud Fabbri, Jean-Pierre Lafouge, Patric Laude, Joseph Lumbard, Patricia Reynaud, Reza Shah Kazemi, Arvind Sharma, Arthur Versluis. Other scholars who are not ‘traditionalist’, but rather are specialists in a tradition: Alan Godlas, Klaus Klostermaier, Peter Kingsley, Patrick Laude and James Morris, Eliezer Segal, Pierre Lory, all re-known scholars within their fields. Nasr is not on this list, but many of these names are closely connected to the other outlets. 251 As is noted by the conference reporter of the 2006 Traditionalist conference. 252 Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, Shrilanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000. p. 51 253 Michon is a traditionalist French scholar who specializes in Islam in North Africa, Islamic art, and Sufism and worked with Nasr on the Encyclopaedia of Islamic Spirituality. 254 Chittick, Murata, Bakar and Mahmutçehajíc were students or close associates of Nasr in his Iranian period. Autobiography’ in: Hahn, L.E. Auxier, R.E., Stone, L.W. Jr, ‘Preface’ in: The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2001, p37. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



few of these scholars are converts to Islam, although very few promote this openly. Other close associates to Nasr are James Cutsinger, William Stoddard and bestselling author on world religions Huston Smith255 who are all more ‘perennialists’. Huston Smith appears to be particularly dedicated to Nasr. Ibrahim Kalin and Osman Bakar, also regular contributors, are also related to another one of Nasr’s networks: the Islamic Science circles. Other names that are closely connected to Nasr who are of a ‘younger generation’: Harry Oldmeadows, Joseph Lumbard, Caner Dagli256, Waleed El-Ansary and a rising star within the Traditionalist circles Reza Shah Kazemi257. Within this ‘sacred web’ circle we also find bestselling author Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatzo), and two royal connections: the Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed who is very active within the sphere of interfaith dialogue (A Common Word)258 and Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales. Prince Charles is also the patron of the Temenos Academy and of The Prince’s School of Traditional Arts259 of which Temenos founder Keith Critchlow is director and that is dedicated to traditional Islamic art in particular. There are strong connections between the Prince’s School and various courts in the Muslim world: Queen Rania of Jordan, Prince Turki Al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Prince Ghazi bin Mohammed of Jordan and Raja Zarith Sofiah of Johore, Malaysia. Nasr has lectured at this school several times about Islamic Arts and is closely associated with Critchlow260.


Smith, H. The Religions of Man, New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1958. He has also written a distinctly traditionalist book: Forgotten Truth: The Primordial Tradition, Harper, 1976. He has written the preface of the Anthology of Nasr’s work: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, 2007. 256 Caner Dagli is one of Nasr’s students, and advisor to Royal Hashemite Court of Jordan for Interfaith Affairs. A biography of Caner Dagli. who has his roots in the Russian-Turkish Caucasus region can be found at: Beacon of Knowledge Conference: 257 Reza Shah-Kazemi is one of the ‘world's leading traditionalists/perennialists’, according to World Wisdom. He is a Research Associate at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Recently he published an annotated translation of Nahj al-Balagha, the discourses of Imam ‘Ali. In his view, the spirituality of Imam ‘Ali is an expression of the universal wisdom Hikma which is at the root of all Sufi tariqa’s and as such transcends Sunni and Shi’ite boundaries. This work is appreciated by the Ismaili community (see: Blog Ismaili Mail Dr. Shah-Kazemi is also the founding editor of the Islamic World Report. His degrees include International Relations and Politics at Sussex and Exeter Universities, and a PhD in Comparative Religion from the University of Kent in 1994. He acted as a consultant to the Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, which is related to Osman Bakar. He was a close protégé of Martin Lings (who passed away in 2005) and contributed regularly to most of the traditionalist journals. In a recent publication, Source: World Wisdom biography and the Institute of Ismaili Studies: 258 Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed, a personal envoy and special adviser to H.M. King Abdullah II and (part-time) Associate Professor of Islamic Philosophy at Aal al-Bayt University in Jordan. According to the website of Sacred Web: 259 The Princes School of Traditional Arts: website: 260 Critchlow attended the Beacon of Knowledge conference in 2001. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Not all of the contributors to the Traditionalist media can be classified as ‘traditionalist’. Some are specialists in a specific field, without sharing the traditionalist philosophy, ideas, principles and specific approach to religion as is inspired by the traditionalist founding fathers (mostly Schuon). What distinguishes the ‘traditionalist’ scholars from other scholars in these academic fields - apart from a shared philosophy - is their agenda or programmatic approach. The traditionalists are particularly committed to promoting the traditional paradigm as a viable alternative to the modern paradigm. Their message is inextricably linked with a criticism of modernity, as is exemplified by a recent World Wisdom title: The Betrayal of Tradition: The Spiritual Crisis of Modernity (2005). This anthology contains essays of many of the authors that are most active within the networks. Nasr is highly respected within these circles. In the report of a 2006 Traditionalist conference, he is described in almost exalted terms as ‘having inherited the role as the leading living exponent of Tradition in the modern world’. [Nasr’s] mandate for preserving the light of Tradition was carried out with dedication, strength and compassion at this conference. His effort were not limited to his appearances on the stage of this conference, but also included meetings with many aspiring students of Tradition, members of the local Ismaili community and leading some of the Muslim attendees in private devotions261. Interesting is the apparently strong presence of the Ismaili community at this conference262. In Chapter 5, the strong resonance between Ismailite doctrines and Nasr’s interpretations of Islam and mysticism was already noted; some have also suggested that Nasr has an Ismailite background263. Influence 261

On September 2006, Sacred Web editor M. Ali Lakhani convened a conference on ‘Tradition in the Modern World’ at the University of Alberta in Edmunton, Canada. The first of this kind was organised in August 2005 in Lima, Peru. Blakeway, Darrell, ‘Conference on Tradition in the Modern World’, in: Sophia, volume 12, number 2, fall/ winter 2006. 262 According to the conference report, approximately five hundred had registered for this conference, including ‘many of the Ismaili community and local Muslim community and some traditional Christians’. Report by Blakeway, Darrell, ‘Conference on Tradition in the Modern World’, in: Sophia, volume 12, number 2, fall/ winter 2006. Another account of the conference, "Traditionalism in Edmonton" by John Robert Colombo, was published in Fohat, the quarterly journal of the Edmonton Theosophical Society, 10 (2006), pp. 84-88. Source: Sedgwick’s Traditionalist Blog, January 2007. World Wisdom also distributes a DVD about the Sacred Web Conference (, but I have not seen this. 263 Edis, T., An Illusion of Harmony, Science and Religion in Islam, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. p34. Edis: ‘Nasr’s Ismaili Shii background is usually a more weighty reason for controversy than any of the scientific deficiencies of his views’. Edis states this as a matter of fact. I have not found any references within the English literature to confirm this. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



How influential is this group of Traditionalist scholars? According Traditionalists themselves this influence is ‘below the surface of public events’. Trying to assess the influence ‘is very much the task of trying to measure the influence of prayer, the most significant activity of the Traditionalist’. It is said ‘not to manifest itself in the quantitative realm, but in the qualitative realms’264. I would suggest that this influence is greater than that. Many of the scholars of Islam in Nasr’s academic network are actively involved in interfaith and intercultural dialogue or are consulted as public policy advisors265. A well known specialist of Islam John Esposito is not a traditionalist, but is closely associated with Nasr’s academic network266. He is regularly consulted by policymakers and media. Quite a few of Nasr’s academic colleagues are closely related to the Traditionalist networks, such as Osman Bakar, Ibrahim Kalin and Joseph Lumbard, Mohammed Faghfoory267 or Sulayman Nyang268. Interesting also is the active involvement of many of these people - Nasr, the Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammed, Kalin, Bakar, Nyang, Lumbard and Enes Karic - in the recently relaunched magazine Islamica (Magazine). This was established to ‘broaden perspectives on (traditional) Islam’ ‘while strengthening cross-cultural relations between Muslims and their neighbours through discussion and thoughtful debate on the most pressing issues of our time’269. Other well-known and influential public figures in this project are: Mustafa Ceric, Datuk Jamaluddin Mansor, Ingrid Mattson, Abdallah Schleiffer, H.E. Dr. Abdalzaiz Altwajiri, H.E. Sheikh Habib Ali Al-Jifri, John Esposito, Anwar Ibrahim (Malaysia). Many of these are also closely involved with the A Common Word initiative. Nasr has a particularly prominent role in this process as is indicated by the fact that he and Mustafa Ceric were asked to speak on behalf 264

Blakeway, Darrell, ‘Conference on Tradition in the Modern World’, in: Sophia, volume 12, number 2, fall/ winter 2006. p200. 265 A valuable source about his academic network is the conference that was organized in his honour in 2001. A list of scholars can be found on the website. Many, but not all are also active contributors to the Traditionalist media. Conference Seyyed Hossein Nasr: A Beacon of Knowledge: 266 As exemplified by their attendance at the Beacon of Knowledge conference in 2001. 267 Muhammad H. Faghfoory, formerly professor of history at the University of Tehran, has been a visiting scholar at the University of California-Los Angeles, Islamic Manuscripts Specialist at Princeton University, and at the Library of Congress. He is a lecturer at the George Washington University and research fellow at the Institute of Ismai‘li Studies in London where he is conducting research on Shi‘i and Sufi commentaries on the Qur’an. He has published numerous essays and book reviews, translated several books, and has contributed Chapters to such publications as the Encyclopedia of Modern Middle East, the Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, and An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia. His translation of the Kernel of the Kernel (on Sufism) by ‘Allamah Sayyid Mohammad Husayn Tabatabai’ is in press at the State University of New York Press. He has translated Man and Nature into Persian. 268 For an example of their role in public policy: Bakar, Nasr, Sulayman, Jane Smith in: Strum, P., Muslims in the United States: Identity, Influence, Innovation, proceedings of conferences by the Division of U.S. Studies, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2003, 2005. And Faghfoory, Godlas in: Baran, Z. Understanding Sufism and its Potential Role in US Policy, The Nixon Center, March 2004. 269 Islamica AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



of the Muslim representatives. This network would need to be analysed in more detail, but it all suggests that Nasr is part of a group with considerable political influence. Traditionalist nature philosophy Returning to the main topic of this thesis, does Nasr share his particular outlook on the ecological crisis with Traditionalist writers? Have traditionalists picked up on his message? Somewhat hidden within the larger Perennialist Library, we may find a relatively small group of Traditionalists who share Nasr’s concern for the metaphysics of nature, and subsequently also with the contemporary ecological crisis. In fact, these writers can be seen to represent a distinctly Traditionalist philosophy of Nature, or as what could perhaps be called ‘EcoTraditionalism’ or ‘Traditionalist ecology’. Nasr was definitely one of the first to write about these issues. Two of the other first generation traditionalists to actively write about ‘nature’ from a traditionalist perspective were: Philip Sherrard (1922-1995), one of the founders of Temenos and Lord Charles Northbourne (1896-1982)270. Philip Sherrard, a regular contributor to the Studies in Comparative Religion and one of the Temenos founders, is a specialist of the Eastern Orthodox Church and a ‘leading voice in situating modern attitudes and behaviours regarding the environment within a Christian framework271’. His work The Rape of Man and Nature (1987) is discussed extensively by Nasr in Religion and the Order of Nature272. Lord Northbourne had been writing about ecological issues twenty-five years before Rachel Carson published her Silent Spring (1962) and Nasr his Encounter of Nature (1968). His writings on a ‘holistic approach to ecology’ were recently collected and published by World Wisdom as Of the Land & the Spirit273. He was amongst the first in the United Kingdom to actively propagate (and use the term) ‘organic farming’ and was involved with the foundation of the ‘Soil Association’ in 1946, which is still very active today, aiming at the promotion and certification of organic food and farming. Apart from these two, 270

According to William Stoddard, both Sherrard and Lord Northbourne were sources of inspiration to Nasr Personal communication, email date 28 October.’ I can certainly confirm that the background to Nasr's views is almost solely the Traditionalist or Perennialist school, of which René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon were the founders. As far as the ecological/environmentalist aspect is concerned, Lord Northbourne and Philip Sherrard were obviously his most specific mentors. I knew both Philip Sherrard and Lord Northbourne, and I particularly recommend a posthumous collection of the latter's most important writings edited by his son, the fifth Lord Northbourne. This is entitled Of the Land and the Spirit, and it was published by World Wisdom Books, with which you are familiar’ 271 Biography of Philip Sherrard at World Wisdom and Journal of Comparative Religion. 272 Sherrard, P., Man and the Rape of Nature, Golgonooza Press, 1987. In America it was published as The Eclips of Man and Nature.Lindisfarne Press, 1987. in: Nasr, S.H., Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p201-205 and n54, p228. 273 Fitzgerald, J.A., James, C., eds. Of the Land & the Spirit, the Essential Lord Northbourne on Religion & Ecology, WorldWisdom, 2008. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



other first generation traditionalists also wrote about ‘nature’ occasionally from various traditional perspectives: Arthur Versluis, a specialist in Christian Esotericism and American Indian culture is well-known in eco-theological circles274, Kathleen Raine (Temenos; poetry), Leo Schaya (Judaism), Joseph Epes Brown (American Indian culture) and J.C Cooper (Taoism). Some of these writings were collected by World Wisdom in the 2003 publication Seeing God Everywhere: Essays about Nature and the Sacred (2003). This anthology can be considered as representing the ‘traditionalist’ philosophy of nature275. The editors seem particularly dedicated to bring out the ‘ecological’ writings of the Frithjof Schuon and Titus Burckhardt. Other writers about nature or ‘ecology’ are: Harry Oldmeadow276, Rodney Blackhirst277, Alvin Moore Jr., Paul Davies, Kevin Richtscheid and James Larking278 (all in Sacred Web), David Catherine (in Eye of the Heart), Wendall Berry279 and John Chryssavgis280 (at World Wisdom). Interestingly, two major perspectives on ‘nature’ and ‘ecology’ can be deduced from these writings. One is Schuonian and is very similar to Nasr’s message. Another is more Corbinian, centring on a Jungian psychological symbolist approach. Catherine, Davies and Richtscheid and especially Temenos fellow Tom Cheetham in Green Man, Earth Angel: The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World (2005)281 can be categorized in this lineage. 274

Nasr discusses his views in Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p205 It includes essays of Toshihiko Izutzu (Islamic Sufism, Hindu Advaita Vedanta, Mahayan Buddhism), James Barr (Buddhism), Reza Shah Kazemi (Islam) , H.P Shastri (Vedanta), Arthur Versluis (Christian esotericism, American Indian), Wendall Berry (Christianity) and Kenneth Oldmeadow (Traditionalism), Oren Lyons (American Indian). A contribution by Tenzin Gyatso, the present Dalai Lama is also included. Nasr and Reza Shah Kazemi both voice the Islamic perspective. 276 Oldmeadow also dedicated two articles in Sacred Web to Schuon’s understanding of nature, and the religious understanding of nature frequently citing from Nasr’s ‘ecological’ work. Oldmeadow, Kenneth, ‘Sign Posts to the Supra-sensible: notes on Schuon’s understanding of Nature’ in: Sacred Web 6 winter 2000. Accessed: 277 Rodney Blackhirst lives in Bendigo, Australia, where he has lectured in Philosophy and Religious Studies at La Trobe University for the past decade. Dr. Blackhirst is a regular contributor to journals such as Sacred Web. Dr. Blackhirst’s article "Rudolf Steiner, Anthroposophy and Tradition" can be found in The Betrayal of Tradition: Essays on the Spiritual crisis of Modernity, edited by Harry Oldmeadow. The Abode of Peace, the web site of Dr Abdu Razzaq Black: 278 Oldmeadow, K. The Translucence of the Eternal: Religious Understandings of the Natural Order; Sacred Web 2 1998; Moore, Jr. Alvin , Nature, Man and God, Sacred Web 2 1998; Oldmeadow K. “Signposts to the suprasensible”: Notes on Frithjof Schuon’s understanding of “Nature”, Sacred Web 6 2000; Richtscheid Kevin, Imaginal Ecology; Sacred Web 17 2006; Davies Paul, Esoteric Dimensions of Deep Ecology; Sacred Web 6 2000; Larking, James, Sacrifice and the Preservation of the Environment in Native American Belief, Sacred Web 17 2006. 279 Wendall Berry is a traditionalist with a Christian background, conservationist, farmer, poet and American professor of English. 280 John Chryssavgis is specialist on Church fathers and orthodox spirituality, who currently serves as theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues 281 Cheetham, T, Green Man, Earth Angel: The Prophetic Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World,SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions, 2005. 275

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The first, the Schuonian traditionalist perspective on nature and the environmental crisis is characterized by a pessimistic view about modernity; the environmental crisis is seen as a symptom of a fundamentally flawed modernity and a lost sense for the sacred. It seeks a solution through reasserting the Divine as the centre of existence, by means of the doctrines, ethics and spiritual techniques of the great traditions (whereas the Corbinians focus more on self development). Traditions are seen as offering a comprehensive worldview, the metaphysical foundation specifying man’s relation to nature. The traditionalist perspective is centred on the understanding of nature as a Divine theophany, a reflection of Divine qualities. All the natural phenomena are the signs of God: ‘God can be seen everywhere’ and can also be known through contemplation of nature. The strong concurrence with Nasr’s ecological position is evident. Clearly, his eco-philosophy is shared by a larger group of Traditionalists. Some of these will have found their inspiration in Nasr’s work, who was one of the first to write about the issue. Alternatively, Nasr also found his inspiration in the writings of the early Traditionalist (particularly Schuon). However, the ecological perspective can hardly be considered to be a central doctrine of Traditionalist thought. In fact, it is easily missed282. One of first hour Traditionalist, William Stoddard summarises the general position as follows: inevitably, it is not exactly central, but it is still very important for them. …Their fundamental viewpoint and adherence to universal metaphysical principles provide an unshakable and unchangeable philosophical basis for all ecology. In this sense, the traditionalists' vision of things is, in my opinion, an indispensable support or guarantee for sound ecology283. Obviously, to Nasr the issue is more central to his thought. In this sense, he could be considered the leading exponent of Eco-Traditionalism. The ecological issue also found a receptive audience within the UK Temenos circles. A series of lectures was dedicated to the subject and was later collected and printed as A Sacred Trust – Ecology and Spiritual Vision (2002). Three of the contributors have strong roots in the environmental movement: Satish Kumar, Vandana Shiva and Edward Goldsmith. Although not ‘Traditionalist’ in the Schuonian sense, all three find their inspiration in traditional worldviews, ethics and methods. Kumar, Shiva and Goldsmith may be considered as the links that connects 282

Personal communication Mark Sedgwick, email 19 June 2008: ‘You should perhaps conclude that it [the environmental issue] is of only marginal interest to me, and of only marginal interest to the main lines of development in the Traditionalist movement that I focused on in my book. Whether it is of marginal interest or more major interest to him is something that you will have to tell me. I might well have missed something there’. 283 Personal communication William Stoddard, email 28 October 2008. William Stoddard has recently written a concise and interesting summary of the central doctrines of Traditionalist thought. Remembring in a World of Forgetting: Thoughts on Tradition and Postmodernism, Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2008. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



the Traditionalists and Nasr to the wider network of people that are inspired by a ‘spiritual’ albeit not necessarily a ‘traditional’ approach to the environment. Vandana Shiva is a renowned eco-activist operating from the UK and India.284 Edward Goldsmith (1928-) is founder of the environmentalist magazine The Ecologist. In a 1999 special issue on ‘Cosmic Religion’, Goldsmith expresses his appreciation for Nasr: The object of this special Millennium issue of The Ecologist is to show that these cosmic ideas figured prominently in the theology of our early mainstream religions though we have largely lost sight of them. It must be resuscitated. Only in this way can religion take the lead, mobilizing people to take that action required to solve the rapidly worsening environmental crisis which very seriously threatens our survival on this planet. This whole argument is summed up by Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, author of a seminal book on this subject entitled Religion and the Order of Nature285. Although very different in style and practice, Nasr and Goldsmith clearly share a particular vision286. The Indian Jain Satish Kumar (1936-) is one of the active promoters of ‘sacred ecology’ within the environmentalist movement. He is the editor of the environmentalist journal Resurgence Magazine and the programme director of Schumacher College, an international teaching institution based in the UK, dedicated to environmental and social sustainability287. Traditionalist publications are reviewed in Resurgence regularly and Kumar was asked to write the introduction to Seeing God Everywhere (World Wisdom) and A Sacred Trust (Temenos). E.F. Schumacher 284

Vandana Shiva is most well known for her indictment of the modern, big-business driven, state sponsored ‘Green revolution’ in: The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics (Penang: Third World Network, 1997) and Monocultures of the Mind: Biodiversity, Biotechnology and the Third World (Penang: Third World Network, 1995). 285 Goldsmith, E., ‘Religion in the Millenium’ in: The Ecologist, special issue on Cosmic Religion, November 1999. 286 Of this ‘Godfather of Green’ it is said, that he ‘has been instrumental in everything from the setting up of the world’s first political green party to being the first to expose many of the problems associated with global development, such as giant dams and nuclear power' ‘Teddy Goldsmith certainly isn't easy to pin down He is full of loathing for industrial society, yet is determined to save it from itself. He believes it's too late to prevent climate change, yet has dedicated years to trying to do just that. Listen to him holding forth on the wonders of 'traditional societies', the importance of taboo, or the value of religion and you'd take him for a died-in-the-wool Tory. But ask him his views on third world debt (cancel it all immediately), direct action (we need more of it), or global capitalism (foremost critic for four decades) and it's another story.’ Kingsnorth, Paul, ‘The Godfather of Green’, in: The Ecologist, Volume 37, Issue 2, March 2007. See: 287 Schumacher college. ‘‘Schumacher College is a unique international educational institution. It provides individuals and groups from across the world with the opportunity to learn on numerous levels about subjects relating to environmental and social sustainability. Set on the vibrant Dartington Hall Estate in the south west of England, the College seeks to offer a positive educational space which integrates the concerns of governments, NGOs, businesses and individuals’. Its teaching methods are inspired by the work of the Indian poet, educationalist and social reformer Rabindranath Tagore. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



The Schumacher College is named after the economist philosopher E.F. Schumacher, an icon to environmentalists particularly for his expositions on Buddhist economics. Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) is a respected text on economics and sustainability288. Several organisations are inspired by his thought, some of which are active in the developing countries, propagating small scale technologies289. Nasr refers to Schumacher and the Schumacher College on several occasions, clearly appreciating the approach on the practical level, although he criticises the strong focus on ethics and practice, at the expense of developing a comprehensive cosmology or metaphysics that can underpin these ethics290. Schumacher is not a Traditionalist in the strict sense. However, like Kumar and Shiva, he draws his inspiration from traditions; in his case Buddhist and Christian. His small remarkable publication A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) written shortly before his death has largely remained unnoticed291, but this expounds views that can without a doubt be marked as Perennialist or Traditionalist. Schumacher was also closely associated with the traditionalist ‘organic farmer’ Lord Northbourne and to the Soil Association. Clearly, there is convergence of thought between the traditionalist and the environmentalist networks centring on the Schumacher college. Prince Charles One very interesting link to consider at some length is Prince Charles. His presence in the Traditionalist circles is significant. He has been an active builder of bridges between Islam and the West for at least a decade, he is an active ‘environmentalist’ and significantly, a warm 288

E. F. Schumacher worked as an economic advisor to the British Control Commission charged with rebuilding the German economy after World War II. Later, he held other prestigious positions as an economic planner and consultant. It was E. F. Schumacher who developed many of the principles that have since come to be known as "appropriate technology": earth- and user-friendly technology matched to the scale of community life. Schumacher's famous book Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (1973) reflects these insights and has guided many people to re-examine societal, and personal, choices regarding modern life. Source: World Wisdom Biography. 289 This is called ‘appropriate or intermediate technology’. More information can be found at: Schumacher Society: Reference to Nasr is made in the journal Manas (1948-1987) of the Schumacher Society (1978, 1980, 1987). 290 Nasr. S.H., Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996. p.211-212. 291 Schumacher, E.F. A Guide for the Perplexed, London: Vintage, 1977. Drawing on Christian Thomist sources Schumacher discusses the hierarchical structure of the world, the rapport between the inner life of man and the outer world of nature, a classification system of knowledge, traditional or perennial wisdom. Although somewhat veiled it is imbued with a clear appreciation of religion and the necessity of inner progress which is ultimately God-directed. It is appreciated by the Traditionalists: this work is mentioned several times in Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, Shrilanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000. Recently, the epilogue of Small is Beautiful was added to the World Wisdom collection Science and the Myth of Progress (2003). The title incidentally, is a clear reference to Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed but Schumacher does not mention this in his book. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



supporter of the Traditionalist cause. Prince Charles has stated his support for traditionalist views publicly on several occasions. In a particularly revealing speech in 2006, he discussed the ‘significance of the sense of the sacred for building bridges between Islam and the West 292’. I will quote him at some length, because it so strongly accords with Nasr’s message: I start from the belief that Islamic civilization at its best, like many of the religions of the East—Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism—has an important message for the West in the way it has retained a more integrated and integral view of the sanctity of the world around us. I feel that we in the West could be helped to rediscover those roots of our own understanding by an appreciation of the Islamic tradition's deep respect for the timeless traditions of the natural order. I believe that process could help in the task of bringing our two faiths closer together. It could also help us in the West to rethink, and for the better, our practical stewardship of man and his environment in fields like healthcare, the natural environment and agriculture, as well as in architecture and urban planning. Charles explains how in his opinion ‘modern materialism… is unbalanced and increasingly damaging in its long-term consequences’. ‘We are only now beginning to gauge the disastrous results of this outlook. We in the Western world seem to have lost a sense of the wholeness of our environment, and of our immense and inalienable responsibility to the whole of creation’. Scientific materialism lies not only at the heart of environmental destruction, but also ‘at the heart of that great divide between Islamic and Western worlds’. ‘The unbalanced nature of Globalization itself will likely cause ever greater fault lines in the relationship’, … unless there is a realization in the West that some room has to be left for those spiritual and sacred elements that define what is truly cultural, and indeed religious (and religion means, literally, being bound to God), in man's inner and outer relationship with a world which is both visible and yet invisible. A ‘rediscovery of an integrated view of the sacred could also help us in areas of important practical activity’, such as medicine, the environment, architecture and urban planning. Prince Charles is particularly committed to the environment. He is an active propagator of organic farming and runs an organic farm at his Estate Duchy Home Farms293. Several of the Prince’s Charities are dedicated to the ‘responsible’ or sustainable business management294.


Online article at Sacred Web by Prince Charles: ‘A Sense of the Sacred: Building Bridges Between Islam and the West’ with note: “In December 1996, H.R.H. The Prince of Wales made a speech at the Wilton Park Seminar on the Sense of the Sacred. The text of his speech was subsequently published in the journal, Sophia (Volume 3, Number 1; Summer 1997). This revised version of the text (with a specially-written additional paragraph) is printed in Sacred Web with the express permission of the author. See: 293 Duchy Home Farm: This is associated with the Soil Association. 294 Prince’s Charities: AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Our environment has suffered beyond our worst nightmares, in part because of a onesided approach to economic development which, until very recently, failed to take account of the inter-relatedness of creation. Little thought was given to the importance of finding that "sustainable" balance which worked within the grain of Nature and understood the vital necessity of setting and respecting limits. Surely, Nasr is likely to have welcomed these statements with great enthusiasm. In fact, it is highly probable that Prince Charles found his inspiration in Nasr’s work295, pointing out that Nasr has influential friends at unexpected places. This is particularly relevant for his environmental views, considering the active stance on this issue taken by Prince Charles. Although he may not often expose his ‘traditionalist’ sympathies publicly, his dedication to the environmental issues has not remained unnoticed by businesses, government and the general public, making him a powerful and influential channel of traditionalist thought in general and of Nasr’s environmental views in particular. 6.3

New Age Environmentalism

The association between the Traditionalists with Kumar, Goldsmith, Shiva, Schumacher and Prince Charles can be taken to demonstrate common ground between Nasr and parts of the environmental movement. They share Nasr’s criticism of modernity, appreciation of tradition and his spiritualized vision of nature. Nasr appreciates their solutions on a practical level which draw on ‘traditional’ resources, methods, ethics, etc. American or New England Transcendentalism’ The circle of influence is wider though, involving other movements of the diverse world of Western environmentalism. A book about Nasr as an environmentalist still has to be written, but if it were it would surely reveal the influence of nineteenth century Romantic philosophies of nature, such as ‘American or New England Transcendentalism’ on Nasr’s thought 296. Nasr alludes to its two great expositors Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1892) on several occasions, for example when remembering how he ‘used to 295

In his introduction to the Traditionalist conference in 2006, Prince Charles mentions having read Nasr’s and Lings’ work. See 296 The scholar Arthur Versluis wrote a profound study about American Transcendentalism. He is an expert on western esotericism and incidentally also amongst the first of the regular contributors to Traditionalist journals. See: Versluis, A., American Transcendentalism and Asian religions, New York&Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 1993. Hanegraaff also discusses the historical development of Transcendentalism New Age Religions and Western Culture, 1996. p.467-470. Interestingly, Nasr himself does not discuss these currents of thought in Religion and the Order of Nature. His historical exposition of Western nature philosophies include various representatives of Romanticism or German Idealism (Schelling, Hegel, Goethe). This Chapter ends with Schuon’s vision of nature, not relating this to a wider historical context. See: Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996, p.106-110. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



walk alone, like Thoreau, around Walden Pond when the natural scenery of the area was still well preserved297’. Thoreau’s mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is clearly appreciated, not least because of Emerson’s interest in Oriental religions and Sufism298. Having lived and worked in the United States most of his life, Nasr’s environmental thought has developed within the context of American environmentalism, which can be shown to have a strong bias for ‘spiritualized visions of virgin nature’ very similar to Nasr’s299. Deep ecology There is also affinity of thought with some contemporary environmental movements which have grown from this same root, such as the ‘deep ecology’ or ‘eco-psychology’ movements. Exploring this field leads us deeply into the illusive and wildly diverse world of ‘New Age religions’ and eco-spirituality. I can only point in a few directions here. ‘Deep ecology’ for example, expresses the idea that nature has ‘intrinsic value i.e. value apart from its usefulness to human beings’300. This perspective is also called ‘eco-centrism’ or ‘biocentrism’ and has become a catchphrase for most non-anthropocentric environmental ethics. ‘It signifies its ‘advocates’ deeply felt spiritual connections to the Earth’s living systems and the ethical obligations to protect them’. This is often based on ‘personal experiences of a profound connection with nature and related perceptions of nature’s inherent worth and sacredness, which give rise to deep personal commitments301’. The inherent anthropocentrism (humancenteredness) of Western philosophy and Christian religion is generally seen to be the real cause of the environmental crisis. A deep ‘ecological transformation of consciousness’ is necessary; only by ‘resacralizing’ our perceptions of the natural world can we put ecosystems above narrow human interests and learn to live harmoniously with the natural world, thereby averting ecological catastrophe’. 297

Foltz, R.C (eds), Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, 2006. p.85. Nasr mentions this ‘remarkable phenomenon in America cultural history’ The Garden of Truth. ‘The evidence of Sufism is quite evident in the work of Emerson, such as his long poem Sa’idi as well as in the thoughts of Thoreau (and Hawthorn)’. In: Nasr. S.H., The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, HarperCollins, 2007. p.156 299 ‘Nature Religion in the United States’, in: Taylor, B. , Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2008, p. 1175-1184. 300 The information about ‘deep ecology’ is drawn from the Entry on ‘Deep Ecology’ in: Taylor, B., Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, p.456-460. The term was coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess (b1912). The American ecologist Aldo Leopold is credited for first expressing a deep ecological worldview in his Land Ethic essay of 1948. A watershed moment in the development of the movement was the 1974 “Rights of Non-Human Nature” conference that attracted many who were to become influential in the later Deep ecology movement, such as Christopher Stone, Gary Snyder, Paul Shepard and George Sessions, Bill Duval and Edward Abbey. 301 Taylor, B., Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, p.458 298

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Deep ecology can accommodate multiple perspectives or ‘ecosophies’ (ecological philosophies) and is therefore compatible with a wide range of religious and philosophical orientations’302. This may also include an appreciation of ‘traditional’ wisdom. It is a common perception [..] that the religions of indigenous cultures, the world remnant and newly invented revitalized or invented pagan traditions and religions originating in Asia (particularly Daoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism) provide superior grounds for ecological ethics, and greater ecological wisdom than do Occidental religions303. Nasr will surely agree with this deep ecology view of the ‘sacred inherent value of nature’ and the claims that some traditions provide ‘superior grounds for ecological ethics, and greater ecological wisdom.’ In this sense, he can be classified as a ‘deep ecologist’. Eco-psychology Another example, where affinity of thought may be found is ‘eco-psychology’, an offshoot of the deep ecology movement which has taken a distinctly ‘inward turn’. ‘The main idea behind ecopsychology is that the human mind does not stand wholly apart from the natural world but is deeply rooted in and tangled up with it; the human psyche is a phenomenon of nature, an aspect of the larger psyche of nature. … Many eco-psychologists trace the degradation of the planets to the consumeristic, ego-driven Earth-alienated mode of consciousness that governs modern society’s exploitative interactions with the natural environment. Ecopsychology thus maintains that the pursuit of human sanity and spiritual fulfilment and environmental recovery are closely related tasks304. The affinity to Nasr’s thought is not surprising considering Nasr’s concern for inner development and transformation of consciousness. The emerging field of eco-psychology appears to be only marginally aware of Nasr’s or Traditionalist’s work.305 Traditionalists, however, have picked up on the work of one of the 302

Naess and Sessions were inspired by Spinozian pantheism, many others by indigenous traditions, Zen or other traditions. In: ‘Deep Ecology’ in: Taylor, B., Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, p.457. 303 Taylor, B., Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature,, p.456. 304 Entry ‘Eco-psychology’ in: Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, p.557-560 305 Only a few references were found. The Corbinian approach of Tom Cheetham is discussed in Psyche&Nature: ‘Spring Journal heeds the growing call to explore the dimension of depth in our interactions with the environment: the locales we occupy, their features and weather, our fellow creatures (some now imperiled by failing habitats), and Anima Mundi's reaction to our doings upon the surface of the world. Because of the importance of this topic, we are issuing two Psyche and Nature issues together with a wide range of outstanding contributions from leading scholars in Jungian thought, ecopsychology, phenomenology, and other relevant disciplines’. Examples of references to Nasr’s environmental work in the article ‘A Conservation Psychology with a Heart’ by Almut Beringer in: Human Ecology Review, Vol 10. no2, 2003. This is a refereed journal published by the Society for Human Ecology. In 2000 an article is published by Tom Cheetham of the Corbinian eco-traditionalist lineage. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



driving forces behind the development of this field: cultural historian Theodore Roszak306. Roszak is mostly known for his work on the ‘counter culture’, The Making of the Counter Culture (1969)307. His book The Voice of the Earth: an Exploration of Ecopsychology (1992) its sequel Ecopsychology (1995) were the first major works to explore ecopsychology. Nasr regularly refers to Roszak’s earlier work Where the Wasteland End: Politics and Transcendence in Post-industrial Society (1973), appreciating Roszak’s ‘scathing criticism of the scientistic worldview, rare among those in academic circles concerned with the environment’, and his appeal to the ‘revival of ancient wisdom concerning nature contained in the sapiental and Gnostic dimensions of various religions308’. When Theodore Roszak wrote his famous book, written in such beautiful English, Where the Wasteland Ends, which in fact echoes in many ways my book Man and Nature, he said that the pollution of the environment is an … externalization of the pollution within us. There is no doubt about the truth of that assertion. If we were all reinvigorated spiritually, our attitude toward everything would change, including ourselves in relation to nature. That is why simple cosmetics and good engineering will not in themselves solve the environmental crisis309. Nasr’s Criticism of New Age environmentalism Nasr is aware of what is happening in these environmentalist quarters. He refers to these movements frequently, although he does not enter these colourful worlds extensively: ‘These phenomena constitute the subject of a separate study and need to be analysed carefully310’ and I fully agree with him. Nasr points out how New Age spirituality and environmentalism are closely related, and how this trend is accompanied by a renewed interest in the West for Oriental traditions, ‘among which Zen played the most important role’311. During the 1970s environmentalism itself became a kind of religion and in fact nearly all of the so-called “New Age religions” have emphasized the significance of the Earth and its rediscovery as a sacred reality. …These “new religions” often turned to the worship of earth as a mother-goddess. Numerous other movements from those claimed to revive the ancient mystery cults of Isis and Osiris to Druidism to natural magic and sorcery and to the opting of the Shamanic religions in truncated form, have since come to the fore and fill much of the contemporary religious landscape, especially in America. … .The turning of environmentalism into a religion itself and the return of the cult of the 306

Roszak's article ‘Descartes' Angel’ was included in World Wisdom book The Betrayal of Tradition (edited Harry Oldmeadow). 307 Roszak was the director of the Ecopsychology Institute at California State University. 308 Nasr, S.H., Religion and the Order of Nature, p.225 n15. 309 The Islamic perspective on the environmental crisis: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal’. Accessed at (accessed October 2008). p10 (printed version) 310 Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996. p.194 311 Nasr mentions the American poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder, who appealed to both Zen and American Indian traditions and the well-know writer on Oriental religions Alan Watts, who soon became a cult figure.’ Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996. p.195 AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Earth in the present day context are themselves significant in that they point to the need in the souls of human beings for the religious understanding of nature eclipsed in the West by modern science and neglected until quite recently by the mainstream religions themselves312. Generally, however, we have seen how Nasr is very critical about New Age ‘spirituality’, which he and other Traditionalists consider to be ‘truncated’ or perverted forms of traditional religions: Almost all “New Age” religions emphasize the significance of the body [i.e. and nature], the cosmic correspondences between the microcosmos and the macrocosmos, the holistic attitude toward the mind-body bi-unity with strong interest in holistic medicine, and many other features that are often fragments of traditional teachings. But these are taken out of context and outside the traditional framework. They are often deprived of an integral metaphysics and cosmology that alone can provide the light necessary to understand fully such teachings and offer the essential protection from the danger of forces of dispersion and even dissolution accompanying any attempt to deal with doctrines and practices of sacred origin out of context in a fragmented fashion313. So, we have had both excavations of the earlier Western esoteric teachings about nature – usually presented in a distorted fashion – or borrowings from Oriental religions and their teachings about nature, often distorted. Even the famous and influential book of Fritjov Capra, The Tao of Physics, does not really speak of Hindu cosmology or Chinese physics, but only mentions certain comparisons between modern physics and Hindu and Taoist metaphysical ideas…. It is a kind of popularized version of a religious knowledge of nature314. In essence, Nasr’s criticism is centred on the lack of an ‘integral metaphysics and cosmology’. Deep ecologists have sacralized the Earth, but neglect the higher, ultimately divine realms of which nature is only a part. The Earth has been declared divine in itself, rather than that the Earth is seen as a reflection of the Divine. Like their secular counterparts, New Age religions reduce reality to the material level. Eco-psychologists also reduce the human spirit is to the ‘psychological’ levels only, neglecting of the higher orders of the ‘spirit’ and ultimately the Divine realms. In this respect, Nasr is in agreement with another critic of deep ecology ‘New Age’ views, the transpersonal philosopher Ken Wilber, who argues that by portraying humankind as merely ‘one strand in the web of life’, deep ecology adheres to a one-dimensional, or ‘flatland metaphysics’. According to Wilber, a ‘deeper’ ecology would discern that the cosmos is 312

Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, 1996. p.194-195 Ibid.. p.257. 314 Nasr, S.H., ‘Religion and the Environmental Crisis, in: Chittick (eds), The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, p38-39. 313

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



hierarchically ordered in terms of complexity, and that respect and compassion are due all phenomena because they are manifestations of the divine315. As concerns ethics, the starting point and base premise for deep ecology is the ‘inherent value of humans and non-humans alike’. For Nasr and Wilber, the ultimate foundation for this core value needs to be found at an ever deeper level, namely rooted within the Divine Absolute Reality and its manifestation in revelation. Ken Wilber, classified by some as a neo-Perennialist, is probably one of the most interesting cases to consider in our search for affinity of thought316. Responses to Nasr’s work Some representatives or sympathisers of these eco-spiritual movements have picked up Nasr’s message. Some of them, for example gathered at the 2004 conference on Nature and the Sacred ‘A Fierce Green Fire’317. Interestingly many of these are also scholars of religion, such as Joanna Macy, a ‘leading voice in movements for peace, justice, and the environment and a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology’. Joanna Macy designed a ritual called the ‘Council of All Beings’ which endeavours to get activists to see the world from a non-human perspective and to deepen the participant’s spiritual connections to nature and the political commitment to defend it318. Nasr would probably disagree with these ‘non-traditional ritual inventions or pseudo-religious’ manifestations, but it does echo his concern for ritual in maintaining the balance in the universe and also remotely reminds us of the Ikhwan as-Safa’s ‘The Debate between Man and the Animals’. Two other scholars have worked with Nasr on several occasions: Mary E. Tucker, a specialist on Confucianism and John Grim 319. Both are the major driving force behind the Forum on Religion and Ecology that grew out of the Harvard Divinity School series (see Introduction), and are active promoters of eco-spirituality and ‘sacred activism’ (or ‘deep ecology’). They were invited to give a summer course at the Schumacher College in 2007320. 315

Entry ‘Deep Ecology’ in: Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, p458 with reference to Wilber, K. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Boston: Shambhakala, 1995. 316 Significantly, Wilber and the Traditionalists are discussed together under the entry: ‘Perennial Philosophy’ in: Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, p1269- 1272. Also: Wilber, K. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Boston: Shambhakala, 1995. 317 Conference on Nature and the Sacred ‘A Fierce Green Fire’ at Oregon University in October 2004: This also contains biographical information about Joanna Macy: ‘Joanna Macy is a leading voice in movements for peace, justice, and a safe environment. A scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology, she is the author of Despair and Personal Power in the Nuclear Age; Thinking Like a Mountain; World as Lover, World as Self; Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World and other books’. 318 Entry ‘Deep Ecology’ in: Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, p457. 319 Conference Seyyed Hossein Nasr: A Beacon of Knowledge: AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



There are probably more connections to consider, but at this stage, these links provide us with sufficient indication that Nasr’s work finds some response in Western environmentalist circles, particularly within the ‘New Age’ type environmentalist groups. 6.4

Esotericism and environmentalism

Hanegraaff’s framework of ‘Western esotericism’ proved to be helpful when attempting to position Nasr’s thought within the wildly diverse landscape of New Age environmentalism. We have identified some points of converging thought and some connections, but what conclusions can we draw on the basis of these findings? Having studied the worldviews and beliefs of many New Age groups extensively, Hanegraaff concluded that despite the apparent heterogeneity, ‘a measure of coherence can be demonstrated’. (1) Firstly, the New Age movement as a whole can be defined indirectly as based on a common pattern of criticism directed against dominant cultural trends. (2) Secondly. New Age religion formulates such criticism not at random, but falls back on a specific tradition: Western esotericism’321. Now, both conclusions are relevant for this study of Nasr’s environmental thought. It demonstrates that Traditionalist criticism of the dominant cultural trends, in particular of materialism and modern science is shared with contemporary New Age movements; and more importantly that both share a common foundation, that of ‘(Western) esotericism’. In earlier Chapters, it was demonstrated that Nasr’s thought can be classified as a manifestation of (Western) esotericism, suggesting there is a common ground with the environmentalist New Age movements on this point. The traditions based on gnosis [i.e. Western esotericism] can be seen as a sort of traditional Western counter-culture and this goes a long way explaining why New Age religions expressing its own criticism of dominant Western culture by formulating alternatives derived from esotericism. Like the New Age movements, Western esotericism has from the beginning been characterized by an ambiguous position “in between” official religion and science. Like the New Age movements it is critical of dualism and reductionism (even if not all the alternatives are equally successful in avoiding it) and strives for a higher synthesis most congenial to the epistemological attitude of gnosis. The fundamental complaints of New Age religion about Western culture are similar to those of Western esotericism generally; in fact, all the elements of 320

Course at Schumacher college: 321 Hanegraaff, W. New Age Religions and Western Culture – Esotericism in the Mirror of secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 1996, p.515 AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



New Age culture criticism would be quite acceptable to Western esotericists in earlier period322. There is however one fundamental distinction, according to Hanegraaff: ‘traditional esoteric alternatives to dominant cultural and religious trends were formulated in the context of an ‘enchanted worldview’, while the New Age movements has adopted that worldview in a thoroughly secularized fashion’323. New Age religions are ‘secularized esotericism’: ‘Western esotericism reflected in ‘mirrors of secular thought’324. New Age religion cannot be characterized as a return to pre-Enlightenment worldviews, but is to be seen as a qualitatively new syncretism of esoteric and secular elements. Paradoxically, New Age criticism of modern Western culture is expressed to a considerable extent on the premises of that same culture325. This leads him to summarize his conclusion about the nature of New Age movements in the following brief formula: The New Age movement is characterized by a popular Western culture criticism expressed in terms of a secularized esotericism326. By contrast, Nasr is proposing an alternative to this ‘secularized esotercism’. Although there is common ground, the views diverge on a very crucial point. As a traditionalist, he is pleading for a re-establishment of the ‘enchanted worldview’ that characterized Western esotericism proper as defined by Faivre, i.e. a return to the pre- Enlightenment worldviews (although reformulated in contemporary terms). As an Islamic traditionalist, he is proposing that this is exactly what the living tradition of Islam has to offer to the West today. The heart of Islam is Islamic esotericism existing in practice. He is presenting it as an alternative to secularism, as well as to fundamentalist or modernist interpretations of Islam. I suggest, also by means of conclusion that despite the differences, these worlds – traditional Islam as understood by Nasr and New Age movements as manifestations of ‘secularized esotericism’ can meet somewhere in between. We have seen some examples of this in this paragraph.


Hanegraaff, W. New Age Religions and Western Culture – Esotericism in the Mirror of secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 1996, p.519. 323 Ibid., p.519. 324 These are: the new worldview of causality (i.e. ‘flatland metaphysics’), the new study of religions, the new evolutionism and the new psychologies. Chapter 15 ‘The Mirror of Secular Thought’ in: Hanegraaff, W. New Age Religions and Western Culture – Esotericism in the Mirror of secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 1996, p411-513, p519. 325 Hanegraaff, W. New Age Religions and Western Culture – Esotericism in the Mirror of secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 1996, p.520-521. 326 Ibid,, p.520-521. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Influence Having considered these convergences, we need to broaden the scope again to be able to assess Nasr’s position within the larger Western environmental scene. Firstly, the general impression is that Nasr has not received a large response from the deep ecology movements (yet).327 Secondly, on a surface level these movements appear to be small themselves. As counter cultures, they represent the undercurrents having only a seemingly marginal influence on the larger dominant culture. But are they marginal movements? It is interesting what the scholars Bron Taylor and Michael Zimmerman, both specialized in these movements have to say about this: Although controversial and contested, both internally and among its proponents and its critics, deep ecology is an increasingly influential green spirituality and ethics that is universally recognized in environmental enclaves, and increasingly outside such subcultures. Its greatest influence, however, may be through the diverse forms of environmental activism that it inspires, action that increasingly shapes world environmental politics. Not only is deep ecology the prevailing spirituality of bioregionalism and radical environmentalism; it also undergirds the International Forum on Globalization and the Ruckus Society, two organizations playing key roles in the anti-globalization protests that erupted in 1999328. I tend to agree with Zimmerman and Taylor. Spiritualized eco-philosophies are increasingly becoming mainstream, inspiring many to work towards a more sustainable life styles and practices. Increasingly, people in positions of power ‘admit’ to a spiritually inspired commitment to ecological and social issues and the ‘sacred’. On a global level this can be illustrated with the activities of the Earth Charter involving many people of influence and which has strong spiritual overtones329. Prince Charles and someone like the Dutch former World Bank executive Herman Wijffels330 also illustrate the case. Both are actively involved in international business networks aiming for the implementation of ‘sustainable business management’. 327

For example, there are no direct references to Nasr in the Encyclopedia’s discussions of western movements, such as deep ecology, environmental ethics, nature religion. Nasr is primarily seen as a Perennialist and as an Islamic environmentalist. A small internet search amongst a few environmentalist sites does lead to many direct references to Nasr. A more systematic search could possibly change this first impression, but will be left for another time. 328 Entry ‘Deep Ecology’ in: Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, p.458 with reference to Wilber, K. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Boston: Shambhakala, 1995. p.458-459 329 Earth Charter in Action: 330 TV broadcasting at IKON TV ‘Paul Rosemüller en Herman Wijffels’ 21 december 2006. : ‘I want to make people conscious of the fact that we cannot manipulate nature, aiming to dominate it. In Africa, if an elephant crosses your path, you move around him. You are careful not to disturb anything, nor to bump into it. In fact you adapt to the order that is ruling [nature]. That to me is the core of sustainability, that we are conscious of our life styles and of the limitations of the natural order. If we break these, we end up with al sorts of disturbances [translation mine]. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Nasr appreciates the efforts of these New Age type movements on a practical level, but also criticizes them for their lack of a ‘comprehensive vision’. I believe Nasr underestimates the transformative power of these contemporary forms of ‘religion’. 6.5

Islamic Environmentalism

Another circle of influence to consider is the Islamic environmentalism. There are clear indications that ‘Muslim’ environmental awareness and activism is growing throughout the Muslim world, although it is far from mainstream331 and not necessarily inspired by specifically ‘Islamic’ environmental ethics. Most involve Western style secular policies. We cannot even attempt to chart this terrain here, considering its vastness, not only geographically – from Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia to the Muslim communities of the West – but also culturally and ideologically. A growing number of publications are dedicated to this subject332. Here only some of the areas will be highlighted that are relevant for assessing the reception of Nasr’s ideas. These point out toward some interesting developments and cultural blends, fusing Islamic concepts with Western environmentalist ideas. Islamic Environmental Ethicists The articulation of ‘Islamic environmental ethic’ in contemporary terms is quite new. Nasr was one of the first and it took some years for others to follow his example. The conference on Islam and Ecology that was organized in May 1998 was the first of its kind, assembling ‘voices from across the Islamic world speaking […] on the emerging alliance of Islam and Ecology’333. Richard C. Foltz was one of the driving forces behind the conference (together with Fazlun Khalid)334. Nasr and other leading scholars or activists in the field were asked to reflect on the issues of Islamic environmental theology, ethics, sharia law, and issues of population control, economic development and social justice, resulting in the seminal volume Islam and Ecology, a


‘Although over the past ten years environmental awareness has grown among some educated Muslims, it is still a very long way from being considered an important issue within the Islamic mainstream’ Email correspondence, September 2008. 332 A survey of environmental publications, as well as initiatives in Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Malaysia is presented in Foltz, R., Environmentalism in the Muslim World, Nova Science Publishers Inc, 2005. pvii. 333 Preface to Islam and Ecology, a Bestowed Trust (2003), p. xxxiii-xxxv. 334 Foltz edited a popular course text titled Worldviews, Religion and the Environment: A Global Anthology (Wadsworth Thomson, 2002) and two seminal volumes exploring environmental values among Muslims, Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust (Harvard, 2003) and Environmentalism in the Muslim World (Nova Science, 2005). His book Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures (Oneworld, 2006) is the first scholarly survey of how Muslims have viewed the importance of non-human animals. See: AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Bestowed Trust that was published in 2003335. The volume was translated into Turkish in 2005 and Arabic in 2008336. Foltz summarizes the views of the Islamic ecological advocates as follows: Islam, according to most of them, [..] teaches Muslims to value the natural environment as Allah’s creation and to care for it as conscientious stewards; if Muslims today are failing to live up to this responsibility, it is because their traditional value systems and ways of life have been compromised through several centuries of Western hegemony337. In the perspective of the Muslim thinkers environmental degradation is merely a symptom of a broader calamity that human societies are not living in accordance with Gods Will. In a just society, one in which humans relate to each other and to God as they should, will be one in which environmental problems will not exist.338 Most Muslim ethicists show a far greater interest in ‘human centred issues of justice and the human relationship with the divine, than in the biosphere as an integral whole’. This is not surprising considering that on a ‘a global scale, a disproportionate percentage of the world’s poor happen to be Muslim, suffering more directly from environmental degradation’. Foltz also notes that most existing literature on environmental values in Islam is highly apologetic in tone. His criticism is clearly also directed to Nasr: One suspects, [..] that whatever the purported ecological sustainability of pre-modern Muslim societies, the establishment of a sustainable global society today cannot rely solely on the hope of a simple return to traditional Islamic norms, even if it could be proven that a genuinely Islamic society is eco-friendly and there were agreement among the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims on what those traditional norms actually were339. Islamization of Science Within other Muslim quarters, we also find definite responses to Nasr’s environmental calls. These can be found in groups that are actively involved in the ongoing debates about the ‘Islamization of Science’. These are concerned with the value and nature of Western science and its relation to the ethical tenets of Islam and actively aim to develop an ‘Islamic science’ 340. To the outside world, aggressive ‘Islamic creationism’ or apologetic ‘scientific’ Qur’an 335

Co-editors are: Frederick Denny, University of Colorado and Azizan Baharuddin, Director of the Center for Civilizational Dialogue of the University of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur and professor in the Department of Science and Technology. 336 Turkish edition, İslam ve Ekoloji: Başedilmiş Bir Emanet, tr. Nurettin Elhüseyni, Istanbul: Oğlak Yayınları, 2007. Arabic edition, Al-islām wa’l-bī‘at, tr. Hussein Ghali, Cairo: ‘Adel al-Mu‘alam, 2008 (in press). 337 Foltz, R.C., Environmentalism in the Muslim World, 2005, p.xi-xii. 338 Foltz, ‘Introduction’ in: Islam and Ecology, 2003, p.xxxiv 339 Foltz, R.C., Environmentalism in the Muslim World, 2005, p.xi-xii. 340 ‘Islamic science’ refers to a formal academic discipline dedicated to the study of the history of science in Islamic civilisation, as well as to a sub-discipline of Islamic philosophy studying the underlying principles of Islamic science. See for example: and: AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



interpretations appear to dominate the Islamic science agenda341, but there are more moderate voices to be heard in the Muslim world342. Nasr is actively involved in this area343. Some of his students or closest associates, especially in Malaysia, are promoting and working out the concept of Islamic science, including with - what is of interest here: a distinctly environmental dimension. Adi Setia of the Islamic University of Malaysia344, Muzaffar Iqbal345 and Ziauddin Sardar346 are of particular interest in this respect. Their work may be some of the stepping stones connecting the ‘Western’ environmental debates to debates that were up till recently mainly confined to Muslim quarters. Setia’s article ‘The Inner Dimension of going Green: articulating an Islamic deep-ecology’347 is an extremely interesting attempt to bridge these worlds, clearly echoing Nasr’s thought and also responding to Western deep-ecology philosophies. Eco-Islamism: Fazlun Khalid Another interesting avenue worthy of further research, concerns the impact of Nasr’s work on groups and people with a more political i.e. Islamist agenda. Some Islamist groups in Turkey 341

The scientific interpretation of the Qur’an or tafsir ilmi position which is presently extremely popular in the Islamic world was pioneered by the Frenchman Maurice Bucaille who claimed that modern scientific knowledge is already anticipated by the Qur’an, thereby seen to ‘prove’ its divine origin. Bucailles book La Bible, Le Coran et la Science (1976) was translated as The Bible, the Qur’an and Science in 1978 made Bucaille famous in the Muslim world. It was the basis of the film The Book of Signs and Bucaille was invited by Kings and heads of states. In 2006 the controversial Turkish Islamic creationist Harun Yahya (Adnan Oktar) published a multicolour 800 pages glossy The Atlas of Creation, which was sent to scholars of the major European and American universities. 342 Other representatives are: (1) Ziauddin Sardar who considers modern science to be in direct opposition with the Islamic worldview; science, is used by the western powers to dominate the Islamic world. (2) Ismail Raji alFaruqi and the International Institute for Islamic Thought (IIIT, 1981) attributes the observed social, political and economic crises of the Muslim world to an intellectual crisis, resulting from the influence of a world of western ideas that are foreign to Islam. A remedy is therefore sought on the intellectual plane, aiming to develop a knowledge that is compatible with the Islamic worldview. (3) Nasr’s position aiming to develop a comprehensive framework (cosmology, a ‘sacred science’) that can integrate various scientific positions is shared with Seyed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas and Osman Bakar. References: Review by Muzaffar Iqbal of Stenberg, Leif, The Islamization of Science: Four Muslim Positions, Developing an Islamic Modernity, New York, Coronet Books, 1996. Edis, T., An Illusion of Harmony, Science and Religion in Islam, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 343 Nasr is involved with the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS), the Association of Muslim Scientists and Engineers (AMSE), the Islamic Medical Association (IMA) and the umbrella organisation: the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Faruqi was a colleague of Nasr at Temple University in the 1980s. Also see the websites of: Science and Religion in Islam:, The Centre for Islam and Science: 344 Adi Setia is professor of history and philosophy of science at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. Setia, A., ‘Three meanings of Islamic Science: toward Operationalizing Islamization of Science’ in: Islam&Science, June 22, 2007 Accessed at: (January 2009). 345 Muzaffar Iqbal is the director of The Centre for Islam and Science: . A biography can be found on: 346 Ziauddin Sardar: 347 Setia, A., ‘The Inner Dimension of going Green: articulating an Islamic deep-ecology’ in: Islam&Science, vol 5, no 2, winter 2007. This is and amended and extended version of a paper originally presented at the International Conference on the role of Islamic States in a Globalized World, July 2007 by the Institute for Islamic Understanding (IKIM), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



are said to be inspired by Nasr’s criticism of modernity and his appeal to traditional Islam. ‘Environmental degradation is seen as a result of a modernist-secular culture which has destroyed the sacred dimension of the world. If the traditional worldview could be implemented by Muslims, the extent of environmental degradation would be less, at least, than at present’348. An Islamist agenda is also voiced by one of the most active ‘Islamic’ environmentalists of the Western world: the British Muslim Fazlun Khalid349, founder director of the Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences (IFEES). Khalid is interesting for many reasons, but one of these is his relationship to Nasr to whom ‘he has turned for advice and support on many occasions over the past decade’350. Khalid shares Nasr’s criticism of modernity and appreciation of ‘traditional Islam’. On the level of solutions, however, Khalid is more of a man of practice, focussing on ethics – here grounded in Islamic law - and their social and political application. His views are an extremely interesting mix of anti-globalist thought, as represented by prominent Western activists such as Noreena Hertz, radical environmentalism and contemporary Islamist thought, such as a return to the caliphate and an Islamic monetary system351. With these suggestions Khalid moves deeply into the arena of ‘political Islam’ or ‘Islamism’, i.e. religiously motivated political activism352. While this terminology may alienate Western secular minds, as well as many Muslim minds, Khalid draws parallels with ideas from the radical environmental movement, such as ‘bioregionalism’ and the ‘eco-village movement’ that are promoted within various social and environmental movements and that favour a small-


Özdemir, I., ‘Chapter 2: Turkey’ in: Foltz, R.C., Environmentalism in the Muslim World, 2005. p30. Citing Nasr in: Rockefeller, S.C., Elder, J.C, Spirit and Nature, Boston: Beacon Press, 1992, p86. Özdemir refers to work by Oğus Erdur who explored this field and identifies a distinct current of ‘Islamist environmentalism’ Oğuz Erdur, ‘Re-appropriating the ‘Green’: Islamist Environmentalism,’ in New Perpectives on Turkey 17 (fall 1997): 151-166. 349 According to Foltz who feels ‘embolded to make that assessment after six years of studying Muslim environmentalism’. In: Environmentalism in the Muslim World, p.xiii. 350 Foltz, R.C., Environmentalism in the Muslim World, p.89 351 Publications by Fazlun Khalid. Khalid, F. ‘Sustainable Development and Environmental Collapse: An Islamic Perspective’, Paper presented at the Muslim Convention on Sustainable Development, a parallel of the World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg, South Africa in 2002 (Accessed at; Khalid, F., O’Brien, J. (eds), Islam and Ecology, London: Cassell Publishers Ltd., 1992. Part of the WWF World Religions and Ecology series; Khalid. F. ‘Islam, Ecology, and Modernity: An Islamic critique of the Root Causes of Environmental Degradation’, in: Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, 2003; ‘Applying Environmental Ethics’ in: Foltz, R., Environmentalism in the Muslim World, Nova Science Publishers Inc, 2005. Also see: 352 The Caliphate and the gold dirham model, for example, are also actively promoted by radical Islamist groups such as the Hizb ut Tahrir Hisz ut-Tahrir. Alternative monetary systems have been promoted within the environmental or anarchist movements for some decades. ‘Bioregionalists support local economies of scale, place-based activism, native species protection, social and environmental justice and rejoice in the interconnectedness and interdependencies between human beings and the circle of animals, plants and insects that define a more than human community’. Entry ‘Bioregionalism’, in: Encyclopaedia of Religion, p188-189. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



scale, decentralized and region-based approach to life opposing industrialism and globalism with its large scale institutions and bureaucracies. Engaged Sufism A circle that may be expected to show an interest in Nasr’s work are Sufi groups. Considering the centrality of Sufism in Nasr’s thought and the importance of inner development for achieving a collective transformation of worldviews, have any of the contemporary Sufis taken on ‘ecology’ as part of their agenda? This does not appear to be the case. Nasr can be shown to be involved with several Islamic Sufi orders, and his work is promoted by some Sufi organisations353. The groups centred on the American convert, Hamza Yusuf (Mark Hanson) are interesting in this respect. Nasr recently delivered a public lecture about ‘Faith and the Environment’ as part of an Islamic revival series. Yusuf is also active in the A Common Word initiative and Islamica Magazine. Yet, generally Nasr’s environmental work appears to have remained unnoticed. In fact, Western Sufi movements do not appear to take an active interest in ecological issues354, apart from a few groups that adhere to a non-Islamic Sufism355. A recent issue of Journal for Islamic Studies was dedicated to ‘Engaged Sufism’ exploring the level of activism of Sufi groups356. Although an interest in environmental issues is suggested, no concrete references to a Sufi ecological agenda could be found. There are some leads to consider though. The Malaysian advocate of Islamic science Adi Setia, for example, refers to Sufism explicitly: For environmental concerns to engage the active involvement of more Muslims (especially Malaysian Muslims), a contemporary Islamic deep-ecology will have to be systematically formulated by drawing upon the rich and still very much alive spiritual 353

For example: ISRA Islamic Studies & Research organisation does research on Sufi communities in America., The International Association of Sufism, Also interesting is a group centred on Hamza Yusuf promoting a Revival of Islam. Nasr recently delivered a public lecture ‘Faith and the Environment’ 17 May 2008 as part of the Revival Series: . Hamza Yusuf is an American convert to Islam (Mark Hanson), who is also active in the Common Word initiative and Islamica Magazine. 354 Several scholars do research in the field of contemporary manifestations of Sufism in the West. These publications refer to Nasr as a scholar of Sufism. Although these publications provide insight in the many Sufi movements, I could not find information about a Sufi ecological agenda. The recently published Sufism in the West is informative Malik, J, Hinnels, J, Sufism in the West, 2006. I also consulted one of the leading scholars of the field, Marcia Hermansen of Loyola University of Chicago, Illinois. She was not aware of any activity in this area. She is presently working on a comprehensive overview of American Sufi movements which is intended to be published in 2011 by Oxford University Press. Also see: 355 The Boulder Institute for Nature and the Human Spirit. 356 Shaikh, S. Kugle, S., ‘To love Every Life as Your Own: An introduction to Engaged Sufism’ in Journal for Islmaic Studies, Vol 26, 2006. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



psychology of the Sufis, which is premised on the concept and practice of ihsan, which is what tasawwuf is all about, namely, the beauty, excellence, and perfection of one's actions, inwardly and outwardly, with respect to one's own self, to others, to nature, and to God357. Another indication of Sufi engagement is provided by the work of David Catherine a regular contributor to Traditionalist media who takes an active interest in environmental issues. He is a student of the Academy of Self Knowledge founded by the Iraqi scholar Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri, whom Nasr appears to know well358. Catherine’s Nature, Theophany and the rehabilitation of Consciousness359, which he published online is an intriguing a ‘brewing pot’ of ideas, theories, concepts and references drawn from traditionalists in the lineage of Schuon, 360 Jungian eco-psychological symbolism inspired by Henry Corbin361, mixed with Hermetic, Alchemist, Kabbalist symbolism362 and significantly, also with Islamic Sufi concepts. Catherine: The best contemporary model I can think of is probably that of Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri (SFH), though his ecological concern is implicit in his overall model and not particularly explicit (lesson 14 of the third module will be dedicated to "Ecology and the Environment"). His community is, generally speaking, not very educated in the ecological sense. Those who are ecologically aware appear to be so through secular means. The ASK programme (Academy of Self Knowledge), founded by SFH, is still being developed and time will tell363. Catherine’s work is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, it is openly inspired by Nasr, sharing his analysis of ‘modern culture’ and responding to his plea for inner self- development. Secondly, his work points toward the existence of a Western network of Islamic Sufis, linking the Sufi sheikh Fadhlalla Haeri and his Academy of Self Knowledge to Nasr and others. It illustrates the potential of a fusion between Western deep ecology, eco-(trans) psychology and


Setia, A., ‘The Inner Dimension of going Green: articulating an Islamic deep-ecology’ in: Islam&Science, vol 5, no 2, winter 2007. Accessed at: Living Islam 358 Weblog Nuradeen: Website Academy of Self-Knowledge: ‘ASK is based on the teachings of its founder, Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri, a writer-philosopher who combines knowledge and experience of the spiritual teachings of the East with a keen understanding of the West. He was raised in a family of several generations of Islamic spiritual leaders in the Holy City of Karbala.’ Fadhlalla Haeri. He is no stranger to Nasr, who wrote a foreword to Haeri’s autobiography Son of Karbala (2005). 359 Catherine, D., Nature, Theophany and the rehabilitation of Consciousness, 2007, electronic version only, accessed on 360 Schuon, Lings, Nasr, Oldmeadow, Timothy Scott, Cutsinger, Rodney Blackhirst. 361 See Eco-Traditionalists and Tom Cheetham of this Chapter. 362 Of the highly controversial ‘occultist’ tradition of Dione Fortune. 363 David Catherine, email correspondence 26 March 2009. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Islamic mysticism as understood by Nasr. It also indicates that the influence of Nasr’s work must be sought in the field of (transpersonal) eco-psychology and self development.364 Discussion Reflecting the Islamic landscape as crudely outlined in this paragraph, several aspects stand out. Firstly, Nasr shares common ground as is also cited by other Islamic theologians, ethicists and academic scholars articulating an Islamic environmental ethic. These (mostly Western) scholars can be seen to work out Nasr’s vision of ‘traditional’ (exoteric) Islamic environmental sharia based teachings. Secondly, his criticism of modernity and his plea to re-connect with tradition also strikes a chord with politically motivated Islamist groups or eco-activists like Khalid. Traditional Islam to these groups is predominantly based on injunctions from the Qur’an, Hadith and Sharia. Islamic literature, poetry, arts and especially the esoteric dimensions of Sufism appear to be less prominent, probably reflecting the widespread and deeply engrained antagonism between Islamism and Sufism. This leads to the (tentative) conclusion that the reception of Nasr’s ‘esotericist’ dimension is less pronounced in Islamic circles than amongst the Western environmentalists. Whereas this aspect of Nasr’s work was central to understand the common ground with New Age environmentalism, this appears not to be the case for Islamic environmentalist circles. Here the criticism of modernity and the call to return to traditional Islam are more pronounced.


This is also suggested by the work of one of Nasr’s students, Laleh Bakhtiar, who has worked on traditional psychology (and the Sufi Enneagram). Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar appears to be a close associate of Nasr. She is explicitly listed alongside some of Nasr’s closest associates at KAZI distributions, responsible for distributing Islamic publications. She is one of the few who explicitly refers to herself as being a student of Nasr. According to her biography, she has been “practising Islam for over 30 years under her teacher, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr”. She has a BA in History from Chatham College in Pennsylvania, an MA in Philosophy, an MA in Counseling Psychology and a Ph.D. in Educational Foundations. She is also a Nationally Certified Counselor. ( AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



7 Conclusion This thesis explored the ideas of the American-Iranian Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a respected scholar of Islam and a leading spokesperson of the emerging Islamic environmentalism. The aim of this BA thesis was: (1) to clarify Nasr’s ideas about the environmental crisis, (2) to contextualize these ideas within larger framework; (3) to investigate the reception of these ideas, identify some of the groups or people that are inspired by his ideas and (4) to analyse the common ground between Nasr and these groups. In this concluding Chapter, I will attempt to collect some of the disparate strings found when exploring the vast landscape of Nasr’s ideas, life, work and audiences. Traditionalist Islamic Esotericism Nasr is promoting a Traditionalist Islamic environmental ethic grounded in ‘Esotericism’. All these terms – ‘Traditionalist’, ‘Islamic’ and Esotericism’ - need careful definition and characterization if we want to understand what he is envisaging as a solution to one of the most pressing of our contemporary problems: the environmental crisis. He is pleading for the reestablishment of ‘religion’ in its ‘traditional’ or orthodox forms and as such his message is at odds, in opposition with, the ‘secular’ temper of the Western world. In this thesis, I have attempted to clarify Nasr’s eco-philosophy, what he believes to be a remedy to the desperate state of in-balance that humanity has created for itself in the modern industrial age. In essence, Nasr believes, the environmental crisis is reflecting a much deeper ‘spiritual crisis’. Modern man has lost his ‘sense of the sacred’, his awareness of the spiritual dimensions of humanity and nature. Denying the divine centre of existence and its intricately interrelated hierarchy of realms flowing forth from it, ‘modern man’ is left floating aimlessly in a centerless universe. Our cultural, economical and technological development is fuelled by a worldview which is ‘modern’, rationalistic, reductionist, materialistic and anthropocentric, claiming on ‘absolute’ knowledge, but in reality only providing us with a partial, truncated and deeply dysfunctional understanding of reality. In its structural disregard for the higher order levels of reality – the Great Chain of Being, this paradigm can only misdirect our efforts and energies and is therefore ultimately self-destructive. The root cause of the crisis is therefore a flawed worldview: the modern paradigm. The direct cause of the crisis is the economy, ‘institutionalized greed’ and its resultant consumerism, reducing man to no more than an AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



‘economic animal’ driven by material needs. If we want to avoid catastrophe, we will have to radically change our ways and Nasr is convinced this will only happen if we change the way we view the world, ourselves and our relation to nature. We need to rediscover the ‘traditional’ world view to re-establish balance and harmony with nature. Real knowledge about the ‘true’ nature of existence had always been provided by the religious traditions, but this was gradually pushed out of Western culture and is now nearly forgotten in the industrial age. All authentic, ‘revealed’ religions - i.e. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and the Indian American Traditions -

reflect one,

absolute, timeless or perennial and ultimate Truth and share a common core of universal metaphysical principles. Nasr believes that these core principles enable man to live in harmony with the hierarchy of existence of all levels, and subsequently also with nature. Through a comparative analysis of the nature theologies of the world’s religions, Nasr identified five central principles to be at the heart of all authentic traditions: (1) the existence of one divine absolute truth; (2) the hierarchical order of the universe, (3) the existence of divine or cosmic laws governing all levels of reality, (4) the inherent unity of existence and (5) the central position of man within this intricate Great Chain of Being. Re-assertion of these principles will re-align our human societies with the balance of nature. This type of thought, I have argued, can be characterized as ‘Perennialism’, ‘Traditionalism’ and/ or ‘Esotericism’, as interpreted by the key expositors of the ‘Traditionalist school’, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon and Réné Guénon. The ‘traditional’ world view has profound implications for the way we perceive the world and ourselves and subsequently for how we live our lives. First of all, to live in harmony with the outer world, ethics, as moral guidelines for human behaviour, need to be in accordance with the divine or cosmic ‘order’ or laws. Our actions and our freedom as human beings is inherently limited and restrained by the existing order at all levels of existence, material, psychological, spiritual and ultimately Divine. A viable ethics needs first of all to be based on awareness of this ‘order’ and secondly on values of self-control, discipline, moderation and contentment. Thirdly, this world view reasserts human responsibility towards all living beings of creation. Transgression of the laws affects not only our selves but all of creation, all beings have there rightful place within the great cosmic harmony. Religions provide us with knowledge, the blueprints of ideal human behaviour, as well as with the means, the techniques to guide us along the path of self-development. On a more profane level, the ‘training of the soul’ will curb the consumerist ‘greed’ allowing a lifestyles that are more in harmony with the natural limits of our planet. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Religions therefore provide the master key that will lead us out of the crisis. Nasr is promoting a virtue-ethics, centred on the divine (theocentric) and grounded in ‘revealed’ sacred knowledge about the divine order of reality (metaphysics). Islamic Environmental ethics The existence of a common universal core underlying all religions, should not lead us to believe that all religions are the same or that we can pick and chose at will from the rich heritage of our world’s traditions. Nasr and other Traditionalists emphasize the necessity of following only one path and of ‘orthodoxy’ in religious practice. Nasr interpretation of ‘traditional Islam’ is firmly rooted in the classical Sharia’ite injunctions derived from the ‘revealed’ sources, the Qur’an and Hadith. It is not ‘modernist’ in the sense of a radical re-interpretation of these sources in line with modern theories, neither is it ‘fundamentalist’ in the sense of returning to an idealized pristine version of Islam. Traditional Islam encompasses the fruits of the fourteen hundred years of Islamic culture that grew from these roots: the theology, philosophy, poetry, literature, science, arts and architecture. Sufism is the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam, the heart of Islam. Its metaphysical doctrines are authentic expressions in Nasr’s view, of the perennial wisdom or ‘gnosis’, the metaphysical core common to all religions. According to Nasr, these have most clearly crystallized in the doctrines of Ibn Arabi, which profoundly influenced later schools of Sufi thought. Nasr himself is influenced by a Persian synthesis of Shi’ite gnostic and Ibn Arabi’s metaphysics. The Islamic environmental teachings and ethics proposed by Nasr are also rooted in his understanding of traditional Islam. These include Qu’ranic, Hadith teachings about the relation between man and nature, sharia derived environmental law, traditional social, political and economical institutions, as well as ritual and spiritual practice aiming to realigning the soul to the higher divine orders and as such re-establish balance with nature. Metaphysics in practice? Nasr is primarily concerned with the worldview, the ‘greater vision’ behind the social structures. He is convinced that a transformation of the collective paradigm will eventually also transform the social structures. A spiritually enlightened elite will be the vanguard of change, inspiring the masses to follow. Religious leaders – although not necessarily enlightened – also have an active role to play in guiding the masses towards more sustainable life styles. Nasr sees himself as a reviver of religion.

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Unfortunately, Nasr does not work out his vision in much detail. He leaves many questions unanswered, some of which have been discussed in this thesis. What particular structures will result when this traditional paradigm is effectuated in practice? What social and political models is Nasr really proposing? He does point in a certain directions: he clearly favours ‘traditional’ indigenous small-scale technologies, traditional farming methods or small-scale eco-village communities very similar to those proposed by, for example E.F. Schumacher and the Schumacher College of Satish Kumar. We have shown that that he shares common ground with ‘environmentalists’ in these circles. Reception, ‘circles of influence’ This thesis also explored the reception of Nasr’s ideas within several ‘circles’: the Traditionalists, Western environmentalists, Islamic environmentalist, the Islamization of science-groups and Sufis. Nasr’s (eco-) philosophy finds its most fertile grounds amongst the Traditionalists of the US. Amongst the loosely organized groups, who are inspired by the Traditionalist philosophy, Nasr is venerated as the ‘leading living exponent of Traditionalism’. Most of the ‘Traditionalists’ are scholars of religion and part of a wider academic network of scholars closely affiliated to Nasr. Quite a few of these scholars share Nasr’s political agenda and appear to have considerable political influence, especially in the sphere of inter-religious, intercultural dialogue. Traditional Islam is presented as an ‘antidote’ to a fundamentalist, extremist and a secularized modernist Islam. The environmental crisis is not a central aspect of their work. Yet, Nasr’s work can be characterized as a distinctly ‘Traditionalist eco- or nature philosophy’ which he sahers with several other Traditionalist writers. These eco-Traditionalists share common ground with environmentalists, such as E.F. Schumacher, Edward Goldsmith, Satish Kumar and Vandana Shiva. They share his appreciation of ‘tradition’ and apply traditional principles, techniques, and ethics to the ecological issue, but do not refer to Guénon, Schuon or any of the other Traditionalist founding fathers. Although it was not explored extensively, Nasr can be seen as a typical exponent of American environmentalism which grew out of the early twentieth century American Transcendentalism of Henry David Thoreau and Waldo Emerson and the spiritual ‘deep ecology’ movements of the seventies and eighties. Nasr definitely shares common ground with these ‘deep ecology’ and ‘eco-psychology movements, and with contemporary representatives such as the transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber. The British Prince Charles is a particularly interesting connection to consider. He is a sympathiser of the Traditionalist perspective, is concerned about AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



environmental issues and cultural dialogue between Islam and the West and is appreciates Nasr’s work. He may, in fact, be one of the most influential contemporary spokespersons for Nasr’s environmentalist thought in the West. For this reason I have added a quote of one of his speeches as a motto to this thesis. Nasr is said to be a ‘founding father’ of another major ‘circle of influence’: the Islamic environmentalism. He was one of the first to (re)formulate specifically Islamic doctrines and teachings about nature and the environment into an Islamic environmental ethic. His work has found a response within Muslim circles, mainly in the West, but also in various Muslim countries such as India, Pakistan, and particularly Turkey and Malaysia. A recent translation of Man and Nature into Persian may trigger a response in Iran. Many Muslim writers about the environment refer to Nasr’s Islamic teachings. Interestingly, Nasr is also cited by groups with a distinctly political or Islamist agenda, in Turkey and in the UK. These are mainly drawn to Nasr’s criticism of ‘modernity’ and his re-assertion of traditional Qur’an, Hadith or sharia based Islamic environmental ethics. The environmental crisis is generally understood as a sign of moral degradation of Western civilization.

The British eco-activist, Fazlun Khalid is

particularly interesting, because he fuses radical environmentalist and Islamist concepts. Significantly, Nasr’s Sufi esotericism does not find a pronounced response within these circles. A definite interest in Nasr’s environmental work is expressed by the ‘Islamization of science’ groups. In fact this might turn out to be the most interesting venue for further explorations. The Malaysian scholar Adi Setia, for example outlined an Islamic environmental science guided by Islamic ethics. Setia derives models for sustainable living that are very similar to those proposed by Nasr and other environmentalist groups, such as the Schumacher appropriate technology, eco-communities, indigenous agricultural techniques etc. Setia refers to Sufism as a major source of inspiration. Sufi groups in general do not appear to be particularly interested in environmental issues. Although Nasr is a well known in various Sufi circles, his environmental work has remained unnoticed. Common ground: Counterculture Critique, traditional Islam and Esotericism We have identified several types of groups who in one way or another respond to Nasr’s environmental work: Environmentalist appreciating ‘tradition’, deep ecologists and ecopsychologists, Islamic environmental ethicists, eco-Islamists and Islamic environmental scientists. What is the common ground? To which aspect of Nasr’s work do they respond? Is there a common ground between them? AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



The model used by the Dutch scholar Wouter Hanegraaff proved to be helpful, not only for categorizing Nasr’s thought, but also for helping us analyse the ‘affinity of thought’ between Nasr’s traditionalist philosophy and New Age or ‘modern religiosity and spirituality’ of several contemporary environmental movements. Using Antoine Faivre’s definition of ‘Western esotericism’, Hanegraaff classifies the belief systems of New Age type modern spirituality as ‘secularized esotericism’. Having its origins in the Neo-platonic and Hermetic revival of fifteenth century Renaissance, ‘Western esotericism’ transformed into the Romantic and Occultist currents of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and eventually into a ‘secularized form of esotericism’ of the countercultures of the seventies and the New Age of the eighties and nineties. In my view, Traditionalist thought and Nasr’s Traditionalist interpretation of Islam and Sufism can also be categorized as a manifestation of a non-secularized version of ‘(Western) esotericism’. This explains the ‘affinity of thought’ between Nasr and the New Age environmentalism. Both have developed from the same root, share a particular ‘type of thought’. However, as a Traditionalist, Nasr is pleading for a re-establishment of the ‘enchanted worldview’ that characterized Western esotericism proper as defined by Faivre, i.e. before it was secularized. He is therefore advocating a return to the pre-Enlightenment worldviews reformulated in contemporary terms. Nasr is rejecting the ‘secularisation’ and reductionism of the type of esotericism of the New Age religions. Nasr is in fact proposing an alternative to contemporary ‘secularized’ spirituality. Traditional Islam, and particularly Sufism as presented by Nasr can also be seen as manifestation of this type of pre-secularized ‘esotericism’ proper. Nasr’s Islam is esotericism applied in contemporary practice. He is presenting it as an alternative to secularism, as well as to fundamentalist or modernist interpretations of Islam. Islam in his view has something vital to offer to the world. Interestingly though, his Islamic Esotericism is attracting less response in Muslim circles, than his criticism of modernity and his Traditional Islamic ethics. Is there a common ground between these groups? The first is definitely the counter-culture critique which is voiced by most environmentalists, Muslim and non-Muslim. The eco-Islamist and radical environmentalist, moreover, share a political agenda aimed at a radical restructuring of the social, political and economic systems. Quite a few of the concepts and proposals converge, when analysed in some detail. The Islamic ‘ban on interest’ (riba), for example has its counterparts in environmentalist literature. Islamic environmentalists are generally more aware of the Western theories, than their Western counterparts are of Muslim theories. I suggest this field of ‘overlapping discourse’ is extremely worthy of further research. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



The second point of convergence is found in the appreciation of ‘tradition’ – ethics, religion, technology, arts, etc. - which is very characteristic of the Muslim groups, but which is also shared by quite a few contemporary spiritually inclined environmentalists. I have pointed out the Schumacher network of such figure as Satish Kumar, Vandana Shiva, Edward Goldsmith and E.F. Schumacher. A third common ground is the ‘Esotericism’. I have pointed out how Nasr’s Sufism and ‘New Age’ type modern religiosity share a common historical root, as well as a ‘distinct type of thought’. Although Nasr’s uncompromising orthodoxy is not likely to appeal to the typically eclectic anti-dogmatic New Age type movements, I believe Nasr’s Perennialism and universalism may find a more favourable response. The Western secular public has an increasing open mind towards religion, and Sufism may generally count on a positive response; the Sufi mystic Rumi has been a bestseller in the United States for years. Increasingly, people in positions of power are ‘admitting’ to a spiritual commitment to ecological and social issues. Not all will adhere to a specific ‘tradition’, but quite a few find their inspiration in some kind of ‘tradition’. The UN Earth Charter for example, has strong spiritual overtones. In my view, the counter culture critique, the appreciation of tradition and esotericism point at the kind of ‘convergences’ between the modern Western world and religious traditions, including Islam over shared issues of concern’ as envisaged by Fuller in the introduction365. The main significance of Nasr’s environmental work is that he is pointing these out. Alluding to Hangeraaff’s subtitle: Nasr’s ‘esotericism’ serves as powerful mirror to secular thought. Significance I expect that the ‘critique of modernity’ will voiced more strongly in the years to come in international arenas, especially in the international environmental debates about global issues like Climate Change. A host of critical western movements are regrouping, some under the banner of antiglobalism. Simultaneously Islamic environmental movements are emerging. Whereas on a global level the ‘West’ had dominated the environmental discourse until fairly recently, non-Western countries or organisations are increasingly claiming a voice, sometimes resulting in a different assessment of the urgency, priority and reality of the problems and acclaimed solutions. This will affect both the ‘topics’ and ‘tone’ of these debates, as can be witnessed from international human rights debates for some years. This could also result in a reassertion of distinctly religious environmental ethics, and also Islamic ethics as more Muslims join the environmental debates. Within Muslim circles ethical arguments generally strike a 365

Fuller, G. The Future of Political Islam, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, p205-206.

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



strong cord. Nasr is an eloquent expositor of both Muslim critique of the modern West, and of an Islamic environmental ethics. He is able to translate it into terms that are understandable to the Western secular minds. At the same time we need to be careful not to identify Nasr’s interpretations with Muslim environmentalism at large. Many Muslim environmentalists are pragmatic and secular in approach, and are not interested in specifically Islamic interpretations. For those who are, we need to realize that within the debates about the environment, we will find the same spectrum of ideologies that presently colour the contemporary Muslim debates, from fundamentalist Islamist to secular. Nasr’s interpretation of Islam, his Perennialism, Traditionalism and Sufism are all controversial in the Muslim world. Moreover, his Shi’i background may prove problematic for environmentalists with a specific Sunni background. Hints of polemics in this sphere were found here and there. Nasr himself does not hesitate to enter these debates though. His interpretation of traditional Islam is formulated in direct opposition to ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘modernism’. Adding his lifelong opposition to modern ‘secularism’ and his concern for the environment, we see in him a man who has taken it on him self to address some of the most urgent issues of our times: the rise of fundamentalism, the relation of religions to secular modernity and the environmental crisis.

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



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See: Cheetham, Tom, Green Man, Earth Angel, The Prophetics Tradition and the Battle for the Soul of the World, New York: State University of New York Press, 2005. Chittick, W.C. (eds) The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The perennial Philosophy series, Bloomington: World Wisdom, 2007. Diamond, J., Collapse, New York, 2006. Edis, T., An Illusion of Harmony, Science and Religion in Islam, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. Foltz, R.C. Denny, F. Baharuddin, A. (eds), Islam and Ecology: A Bestowed Trust, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003. Foltz, R.C., Environmentalism in the Muslim World, New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2005. Foltz, R.C., personal communication (email), 17 September, 2 October, 4 December 2008. Fuller, Graham E., The Future of Political Islam, New York: Palgrave MacMillian, 2003. Goldsmith, E., ‘Religion in the Millenium’ in: The Ecologist, special issue on Cosmic Religion, November 1999. Graham, W., ‘Traditionalism in Islam, an essay in interpretation’ in: Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol.23, no.3, p495-522, 1993. Gutas, D.,‘The Study of Arabic Philosophy in the Twentieth Century, an essay on the historiography of Arabic Philosophy’, in: British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2002, p. 29(1), 5-25. Have, A.M.J. ten (eds), Environmental Ethics and International Policy (2006), Ethics series, UNESCO publishing, Paris, 2006. Hahn, L.E., Auxier, R.E., Stone., L.W jr (eds), The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Library of Living Philosophers, Volume XXVII, Chicago and La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 2001. Hanegraaff, W.J., eds. Dictionary of Gnosis &Western Esotericism, Leiden: Brill, 2006. Hanegraaff, W. New Age Religions and Western Culture – Esotericism in the Mirror of secular Thought, Leiden: Brill, 1996. p58-59. Hermansen, M., ‘The Academic Study of Sufism at American Universities’, American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Vol.24, 3, 2007.

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Hermansen, M, personal communication (email), 17, 18, 21 December 2008. Huxley, Aldous, The Perennial Philosophy, London: Waldo & Windus, 1980. Iqbal, M., ‘The Islamic Perspective on the Environmental Crisis: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal’ in: Islam & Science, Vol.5 Issue 1 p 75(22), June 22, 2007, Thomson Gale (accessed: Jong, Radtke, B. Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics, ed. Leiden, Brill, 1999. Lings, M., A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: sheikh Ahmad al-Alawi, Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1961, 1974. Lory, P., Lecture held at Leiden University, Honours Class, 11 April 2008 and email correspondence, 30 May 2008. Malik, J, Hinnells, J, Sufism in the West, London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Nasr, S.H., An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, Revised version: Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. Nasr, S.H., Knowledge and the Sacred, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Nasr, S.H., Traditional Islam in the Modern World, London: Kegan Paul International, 1987, reprinted 1994 Nasr, S.H., The Need for a Sacred Science, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993. Nasr, S.H. Religion and the Order of Nature, New York Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Nasr, S.H. The Encounter of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, London: Allan and Unwin, 1968. Reprinted as Man and Nature (1987). Nasr, S.H., Man and Nature: the Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man, new edition Chicago: ABC International Group, 1997. First printed in 1987. Nasr, S.H., ‘Frithjof Schuon and the Islamic Tradition’ in: Nasr, S.H., O’Brien, K, The Essential Sophia, Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2006. Originally published in Sophia, 1999. Vol. 5. No1. p260, note 2. Nasr, S.H. ‘The Spiritual and Religious Dimensions of the Environmental Crisis’, in: Temenos Academy Papers, no 12, London, 1999. Abridged version in: Chittick, William C., The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Bloomington Indiana, World Wisdom, 2007. Nasr, S.H, ‘Man and Nature: Quest for Renewed Understanding’, keynote lecture held at ‘Conference on Global Warming and the Environment at San Rossore, Italy July 2004.’ In: Sophia, The Journal of Traditional Studies Volume 10, number 2, winter 2004. Nasr, S.H., ‘Theoretical Gnosis and Doctrinal Sufism and Their Significance Today’, in: Transcendent Philosophy 1, 1-36, London Academy of Iranian Studies, 2000. Nasr, S.H. The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, New York: HaperCollins, 2002. Nasr, S.H., The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, New York: HaperCollins, 2004. Nasr, S.H., Amanirazavi, M. (eds), An Anthology of Philosophy of Persia, Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2005. Nasr, S.H. ‘Introduction’ in: Encyclopeadia of Islamic Spirituality, Volume One: Foundations, 2000. Nasr, S.H., Transcripts of the interview with S.H. Nasr (telephone) on 31 October 2008. AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



Oldmeadow, K., Traditionalism: Religion in the Light of the Perennial Philosophy, Shrilanka Institute of Traditional Studies, 2000. Schimmel, A.M., Mystical dimensions of Islam, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975. Schmidt-Biggeman, W., Philosophia Perennis: Historical Outlines of Western Spirituality in Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Thought, International Archives of the History of Ideas, Dordrecht: Springer, 2004 Schouten, M.G.C. Spiegel van de Natuur: het natuurbeeld in cultuurhistorisch perspectief, Utrecht: KNNV Uitgeverij/ Staatsbosbeheer, 2005. Schumacher, E.F. A Guide for the Perplexed, London: Vintage, 1995. Schumacher, E.F., Small is Beautiful, A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, London: Vintage, 1993. Sedgwick, M, Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the Twentieth century, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Sedgwick, M. personal communication (email), 19 June, 12, 16, 18 September, 10 October 2008. Setia, A., ‘Three meanings of Islamic Science: toward Operationalizing Islamization of Science’ in: Islam&Science, June 22, 2007 Setia, A., ‘The Inner Dimension of going Green: articulating an Islamic deep-ecology’ in: Islam&Science, vol 5, no 2, winter 2007. This is and amended and extended version of a paper originally presented at the International Conference on the role of Islamic States in a Globalized World, July 2007 by the Institute for Islamic Understanding (IKIM), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Shaikh, S., Kugle, S., ‘To Love Every Life as Your Own: An Introduction to Engaged Sufism’ in: Journal for Islamic Studies, Thematic Issue: Engaged Sufism, Vol.26, 2006. Shepard, W., ‘Islam and Ideology: Towards a Typology’, in: International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, p307-336, Cambridge University Press, 1987 Spencer Trimingham, J. The Sufi Orders in Islam, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Stenberg, Leif, The Islamization of Science: Four Muslim Positions, Developing an Islamic Modernity, New York, Coronet Books, 1996. Stoddard, W., Remembering in a World of Forgetting: Thoughts on Tradition and Postmodernism, Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, 2008. Stoddard, W., personal communication (email), 28 October, 6 November, 8 December 2008. Taylor, B. (eds), Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, 2 volumes, New York: Continuum, 2005, 2008. Temenos, A Sacred Trust – Ecology and Spiritual Vision, Temenos Academy, 2002. White, Lynn, ‘The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis’ in: Science 155:3767, 10 March 1967, p1203-1207. Zayd, Nasr, Abu, ‘Trial of Thought: Modern Inquisition in Egypt, A Case Study’, in: Drees, W.B., Koningsveld, P.S. Van (ed.), The Study of Religion and the Training of Muslim Clergy in Europe: Academic and Religious Freedom in the 21th century, Leiden: leiden University Press, 2008.

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Most relevant websites: Beacon of Knowledge Conference: Eye of the Heart: Foundation for Traditional Studies: George Washington University, department of Religion: Islamica: Muslim heritage: Muslim Philosophy: Nasr Foundation: Sacred Web: Science and Religion in Islam: Studies in Comparative religion: Temenos Academy website: The Centre for Islam and Science: Wisdom Books website:

Biography Anne Marieke Schwencke: Anne Marieke Schwencke has worked as an environmental policy researcher in the environmental sector since the mid nineties. After completion of her MA in Experimental Physics in 1992, and a few years of work and travel, she decided to specialize in Environmental Business Management in 1995, which opened up to a professional career as an environmental consultant and policy researcher. Since 2004, she has combined her profession with a BA in Religious Studies at Leiden University, complementing, in her view, the ‘technological and bureaucratic bias’ of the professional environmental sector with a social, political and religious ‘cultural’ perspective. Her specialisation in Islam soon drew her attention to contemporary Muslim discourses about ‘modernity’ with or about the ‘West’. Inspired by the resemblances with contemporary environmentalist or antiglobalist discourses, she decided to focus her attention on Islamic environmental ethics in general and on Seyyed Hossein Nasr in particular. Nasr’s eco-philosophy, as well as his exposition of Islamic spirituality resonates strongly with spiritual inclined environmental movements. These were the starting points of the search for ‘common’ agendas, resulting in this BA thesis ‘Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Islamic Esotericism, Traditionalism and Environmental Ethics’.

AM Schwencke, Leiden University, 2009



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