Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Sixteen Lectures (audio DVD)
This collection of lectures by Seyyed Hossein Nasr represents some of the major themes of his life’s work, including the spirituality of Islam and Sufism; interreligious dialogue; pure metaphysics; tradition, nature, science and the sacred; and sacred art and music.
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Review: This collection of lectures by Seyyed Hossein Nasr spans twenty years and many themes, from pure metaphysics to the meaning of Islamic art. But although the range of Nasr’s ideas is broad, the collection is not simply a sampler of his thought. Not only does a theme quickly emerge from the various lectures, but the listener begins to suspect that it is not only the unifying thread in the collection, but the life-long calling of Dr. Nasr himself: it is the reintegration of that which has been divided. These divisions may be brought about by man, such as the schism between science and religion caused by the loss of the Sacred in the modern West; or they may be divisions that are not a matter of separation, but only diversity, such as the differences between religious rites or even the many ways the natural world manifests its Creator. Nasr always shows us the One that underlies the many. He takes on a great variety of topics, but always with this same vision of unity.
Nasr applies this vision in ways that will be familiar to those who know his work: one talk, for example, is entitled “Religious and Theological Consequences of Crossing Religious Frontiers,” and he speaks of the benefits and dangers of truly encountering other religions—that is, considering them from the point of view of revelation and truth, and not simply studying their history, or approaching them as sociology. There is also a lecture specifically about Sufism’s power to integrate man’s inner and outer lives. But this universality of thought, in which Nasr specializes, comes through in unexpected ways as well. One lecture, for example, is addressed to a very specific audience: “How to be a Muslim in America.” Nasr discusses the details of the rites of Islam, but what emerges is something much more universal: a set of principles by which anyone who is trying to maintain contact with the Sacred can guide his life.
A lecture on the Shari’ah furthers this theme of the integration of daily life with the Sacred by explaining that the purpose of sacred law is to forge a connection between the Will of God and everyday life, between the eternal and the temporal. There are two lectures on sacred art: one that addresses the sacred art of any religion, showing how sacred art uses a particular language to reveal what is universal; and one specifically about the symbolism one finds in Islamic art, and how it relates the lower orders of reality to the higher.
Nasr speaks, in several lectures, of modern man’s alienation from God and the resulting loss of the Sacred, and tradition’s role in its recovery. He explains, historically and philosophically, the catastrophic split of knowledge into the categories of scientific and religious, the subsequent banishment of religious knowledge, and the resulting devastation to the environment. And he treats this theme of separation and reintegration from a primordial, metaphysical point of view, as well, in a lecture called “Whence Evil?” in which he ultimately grounds worldly evil in the separation of creatures from their Creator.
Nasr, although he is known for his scholarship, is an exciting lecturer. He never reads from a text, but speaks directly to his audience. It is all the more remarkable that his lectures are immaculately coherent. Their careful order and flow make them easy for the listener to follow and absorb. And the last lecture is a special treasure: it is his own autobiography, given to an audience that has gathered to honor him, and it includes a deeply emotional reading of a poem he wrote from the point of view of a man who is looking back on his life. This lecture is a rare exception to Nasr’s habit of refraining from talking about himself. It is the capstone of the collection, because it shows, in a personal and specific way, how it is possible to unite, within the context of daily life, knowledge and action, the mundane and the sacred, being in exile and being at home. Dr. Nasr gives us not just a philosophy of integration, but a lived example.