Seyyed Hossein Nasr: A Great Philosopher of Our Time -Jobayer Al Mahmud
Seyyed Hossein Nasr is one of the most important and foremost scholars of Islamic, Religious and Comparative Studies in the world today. He is a world-famous philosopher and a polymath, author of over fifty books and five hundred articles which have been translated into several major Islamic, European and Asian languages.
Nasr speaks and writes based on subjects such as philosophy, religion, spirituality, music, art, architecture, science, literature, civilizational dialogues, and the natural environment. He is also a speaker at academic conferences and seminars, university and public lectures and also radio and television programs in his area of expertise. Nasr is a well known and highly respected intellectual figure both in the West and the Islamic world.
Nasr was born on April 7, 1933 in Tehran into a family of distinguished scholars and physicians. His father, Seyyed Valiallah, a man of great learning and piety, was a physician to the Persian royal family, and one of the founders of modern education in Iran. As a young boy, Nasr attended one of the schools near his home. His early formal education included the usual Persian curriculum at school with an extra concentration in Islamic and Persian subjects at home, as well as tutorial in French. However for Nasr, it was the long hours of discussion with his father, mostly on philosophical and theological issues, complemented by both reading and reaction to the discourses carried on by those who came to his father’s house. This was the situation for the first twelve years of Nasr’s life.
Nasr’s arrival in America at the young age of twelve marked the beginning of a new period in his life which was totally different and therefore, discontinuous from his early life in Iran. He attended The Peddie School in Highstown, New Jersey and in 1950 graduated as the valedictorian of his class and also winner of the Wyclifte Award which was the school’s highest honor given to the most outstanding all-round student. It was during the four years at Peddie that Nasr acquired his knowledge of the English language, as well as studying the sciences, American history, Western culture and Christianity.
Nasr chose to go to M.I.T. for college. He was offered a scholarship and was the first Iranian student to be admitted as an undergraduate at M.I.T. He began his studies at M.I.T in the Physics Department. His decision to study physics was motivated by the desire to gain knowledge of the nature of things, at least at the level of physical reality. However, at the end of his freshman year, although he was the top student in his class, he began to feel oppressed by the overbearingly scientific atmosphere with its implicit positivism. Furthermore, he discovered that many of the metaphysical questions which he had been concerned with were not being asked, much less answered. Thus, he began to have serious doubts as to whether physics would lead him to an understanding of the nature of physical reality.
Having realized in his second year that a study of the physical sciences would neither lead him to an understanding of the nature of physical reality nor deal with some of the metaphysical questions he was concerned with, Nasr decided to look at other fields of study for his answers. He started to read extensively and to take many courses in the humanities. Nasr began his serious study of not only the ancient Greek wisdom as contained in the philosophies of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus but also European, Medieval philosophy, Dante’s highly mystical and symbolic Divine Comedy, Hinduism and a critique of modern Western thought. Nasr also had the great fortune of having access to the library of the late Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, the outstanding Singhalese metaphysician and historian of art. The library had an incredible collection of works on traditional philosophy and art from all over the world. It was in this library that Nasr first discovered the works of the other traditionalist writers such as Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Marco Pallis and Martin Lings and who were to have tremendous and enduring intellectual and spiritual influence on Nasr.
It was also at Harvard that Nasr resumed his study of classical Arabic which he had left since coming to America. He struggled with philosophical Arabic while getting some assistance from Wolfson and Gibb. However, the mastery of philosophical Arabic was only attained after he studied Islamic philosophy from the traditional masters of Iran after his return to his homeland in 1958.
At twenty-five, Nasr graduated with a Ph.D. degree from Harvard and on the way to completing his first book, Science and Civilization in Islam. His doctoral dissertation entitled “Conceptions of Nature in Islamic Thought” was published in 1964 by Harvard University Press as An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines. Although he was offered a position as assistant professor at M.I.T., Nasr decided to return permanently to Iran. Nasr was offered a position as an Associate Professor of philosophy and the history of science at the Faculty of Letters in Tehran University.
In 1979 at the time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Nasr moved with his family to the United States where he would rebuild his life again and secure a university position to support himself and his family. By 1980, Nasr began to write again. Nasr wrote a book specifically for young Muslims entitled, A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World which addresses some of the major problems and challenges which the modern world presents to them.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr leads an extremely active intellectual life with a very busy schedule of teaching at the university and lecturing at many institutions in America and around the world, writing scholarly works, being involved in several intellectual projects simultaneously and meeting individuals who are interested in traditional thought. At the same time, he leads a very intense spiritual life spent in prayer. However, Nasr is one of the most important and foremost scholars of Islamic, Religious and Comparative Studies in the world today.
Jobayer Al Mahmud is a student at Uludag University, Bursa, Turkey