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On Nature, Beauty, and Transcendence: An Interview with Seyyed Hossein Nasr
May 1, 2009

Matter and Beyond explores a wide range of ethical, philosophical, spiritual and scientific questions through interviews with leading scholars and scientists on compelling topics such as: mysteries of consciousness, the healing powers of music and sound, love, ecology, astronomy, artificial intelligence, cosmology, quantum mechanics and free will, spiritual capital, bioethics and unity of knowledge.

What follows is an interview with Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic science and spirituality. He is professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. Professor Nasr is the author of numerous books including Man and Nature: the Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (Kazi Publications, 1998), Religion and the Order of Nature (Oxford, 1996), and Knowledge and the Sacred (SUNY, 1989).

M&B: You study mathematics, physics, geology, and history of science. In what way does this benefit you?

Bismi’llah al-Rahman al-Rahim . Let me begin with the Name of God. I was gifted when I was a young person in science and mathematics. After I came to America to study I received the highest grades in many national tests in these fields. So everybody thought that I should be a scientist. And I had a great deal of love for science and a wish to understand the real significance of what nature is. Furthermore, I loved mathematics. Consequently I went to MIT, which was the leading scientific institution at that time, and still is today in this field. I was studying physics and mathematics, but concentrating on physics. Soon, however, I realized that in fact modern physics, not only quantum mechanics but going back to Newtonian physics, does not deal with the nature of things. It deals with mathematical structures related to the quantitative aspect of phenomena. You will never come to know the actual nature of things by studying physics. So I lost interest in becoming a physicist. And then I went from there, after studying mathematics and physics at MIT, to study geology and geophysics at Harvard. The reason I did that is that I wanted to know also a descriptive science. Now, during all those years that I was studying the sciences, in parallel I was studying philosophy a great deal. The scientific discipline of my mind served me in a very positive way later on.

First of all, throughout all the criticism I have made of modern science in the last fifty years, nobody has been able to say that this man does not know anything about modern science because I do know something about this science. Secondly, it has of course given me mental discipline and, I hope, some clarity, which I try to reflect in my writings and my lectures.

M&B: For most people those disciplines are separate. What are your comments about that?

I believe that one of the greatest tragedies that has happened in Western civilization after the Middle Ages, and has resulted in what we see today, is compartmentalization, that is, a separation of various modes of knowing, various forms of knowledge, from each other, so that few matters are known in a complete way. Here I am, a professor at a major American university, and the students who come and study with us-their minds are like drawers in your bedroom. You put socks in one drawer, underwear in another, shirts in another… So they go from one class to another, they learn certain things, but there is no connection between various subjects that they learn. It is not only I who say this; the great English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said this over a half a century ago. This compartmentalization is one of the greatest dangers facing modern civilization. In traditional civilization there used to be a unity of knowledge. Of course, Islamic civilization is based upon tawhid, upon unity, and in the framework of the Islamic sciences all the different disciplines, from poetry to music to philosophy to history to geology to medicine to physics and mathematics, all of these have some kind of interrelation. There has always been an overall world view that has embraced them.

Now, that has been destroyed, but there have been some attempts to try to create a metaphysical basis to reintegrate the sciences. For example, Whitehead was interested in this matter and he tried very hard to do this, but none of these people really succeeded because the whole education system in the West is now based on this kind of specialization and unrelated disciplines that have nothing to do with each other. So what to do? You end up with a scientistic positivist claiming that nothing unscientific is important, that there is no other mode of knowledge but science-that is one side. On the other side for now we see those who emphasize only the outward meaning of religion with little interest in its intellectual and spiritual aspects. And other people fall in between.

What I have tried to do in my life is to resuscitate a vision of the unity of knowledge based on a metaphysical foundation and, more particularly, within the Islamic tradition, where this has been so important.

M&B: Was knowledge compartmentalized like that in the past? Could you give us some examples from history?

No, it was not. Let me mention the field of art which in traditional civilization was related to knowledge, to the science of forms. Now that link has been largely severed as has the link between various branches of knowledge. It is a modern illness that has deprived poetry and art of their intellectual function, that is, their relation to knowledge at the highest level. In the nineteenth century, when a lot of the Romantic poets of the English language such as Wordsworth depicted poetically beautiful scenes of nature and were against the vulgarization, the destruction, the ugly landscapes that resulted from the Industrial Revolution in England, their poetry was taken simply as sensibility, as emotion; it was not allowed to challenge the science of the day, which reigned supreme as the only legitimate form of knowing and in fact continues to do so.

This situation goes back to Galileo and Descartes, who took away from nature all quality and said everything-beauty, other things-are subjective and the object of scientific knowledge is ultimately pure quantity. Modern science still suffers from that myopia, whereas external reality is not pure quantity. Let me give you some examples. Take one of the great Ottoman mosques such as Sultanahmet. Now, when you stand on one side of the square before you get to the mosque, you have trees, and you have cars going by, you have before you a space-a space that you experience. You can describe that space from the point of physics-Cartesian coordinates, measurements, and so on,-but your immediate experience of that space is still there. When you go across the square and into the mosque, you again experience a space but it is a very different space. You have the same situation in the sacred architecture of Persia, in the Arab world, of the Taj Mahal in India, and in other places. The great architects who built these edifices provided for you an experience and a vision and another aspect of the reality which we call space and they did so on the basis of a science which was not divorced from other forms of knowledge. They did not create only a subjective space but one as real as the space across the street that we can measure with Cartesian coordinates and that cars drive through without ever thinking that this is a different space, qualitatively speaking, from the space of the mosque. Both the immediate experience of the space in the street and the sacred space in the mosque prove the poverty of the reduction of space to pure quantity á la Descartes.

It is the same with music. Music takes you out of your ordinary experience of time. So does poetry, but especially music, and it makes you experience time in a different way. Now, that other time that you experience is not simply a fantasy; it is not simply subjectivism; it is another aspect of reality. In all traditional arts there is a science that reveals another dimension of reality without this science being completely divorced from other modes of knowledge. A traditional mosque or cathedral is related to cosmology and theology as well as the science of forms, materials, colors and optics. Such edifices are themselves testimony to the unity of knowledge and the necessity to reject the compartmentalization of various modes of knowing.

M&B: In what ways can we relate human and experiential aspects of knowledge to scientific knowledge?

As you sit here, you have a single center of consciousness. Otherwise, you would be mentally ill and you would be taken to see a psychiatrist. A normal human being, who does not have a mental illness, has one single consciousness although it can partake of levels. In our everyday life we try to relate the different things that we do and think and say to that center determining who we are. So the yearning for unity is within the very nature of the human state.

When we do a lot of irrelevant things, totally separate things, what happens is that gradually we become compartmentalized ourselves; we become scattered. That leads actually to a kind of psychological dislocation and a house divided against itself, as Christ (pbuh) said, shall not stand.

There are many people who, in order to live with themselves, have divided their mind into several parts. With one part they pursue science, with one part they pursue art, with one part they pursue religion, and with one part they pursue this and that other activity. They are not integrated. But the goal of human life on earth is to become integrated. The consequence of this lack of integration, this lack of unity, is to be seen in so many fields today, for example in modern medicine. That is why we are talking just now about holistic medicine as embracing all the different elements of our being-our body, psyche, soul, spirit-that must be taken as interdependent realities whose harmony is necessary in order to have real health.

More and more people are also now speaking of a holistic worldview whose loss has caused the environmental crisis. Ecology by nature is a discipline that brings things together. If we destroy the Potomac River here, we do not know what effect it will have on the fish in Mexico. But it might have an effect of which we are not as yet aware. Now many are beginning to realize more and more that on the earth everything is intertwined and our experiential knowledge cannot be divorced from scientific knowledge and vice versa.

Today even some modern scientists are beginning to realize this truth, but they still exclude the spiritual world and the psychological world from their science. At least on the material, however, level they are realizing that this cutting of things from their natural setting and analyzing them and getting knowledge about them is not the whole of knowledge. There is also crucial knowledge based on the interrelatedness of things. And I think it is here that Islamic thought can make a very important contribution to contemporary thought.

M&B: In what way is acquiring that kind of knowledge about the interrelatedness of nature different from the design argument in theology?

First of all, the design argument may also be found in Islam in another form. We have it in all religions. But putting all the theological aspects aside, if you find a watch on a table, you would think that someone designed it and that the person had the intelligence to design a watch. When you see things much more complicated than the watch, working in a remarkable fashion, it creates in you an awareness of an incredible intelligent design and a sense of awe, of wonder. That is what modern science has for the most part tried to destroy. Einstein, one of the greatest scientists, had this sense of wonder-but ordinary science as it is taught in schools is against encouraging this sense of wonder. Rather, it has tried to equate to explain with to explain anyway, providing a view in which there is no sense of wonder. The enchantment of nature, wonderment, they have been all cast away. Now, all religions emphasize the human soul’s experience of wonder. For example, the Qur’an speaks so much about God’s creation and asks us to think, to meditate upon and to wonder about God’s creation. That is impossible without accepting the remarkable design in God’s creation.

M&B: Do you think that becoming aware of ecological problems is related to realizing human responsibility? A crisis can always be positive in a way in that it can force us to re-examine our position. When the earth trembles under your feet, you are in a different frame of mind than when you were walking on solid earth and you did not think about the earth. When you are sitting here you do not even think about the floor, but if the floor begins to shake, if there is a big earthquake, you will immediately think about the floor.

Now, the environmental crisis has caused many people to realize that modern science and technology by themselves are not going to solve all the problems of the world. It is true that greed, domination, and power politics have all played a role in this crisis, but they were always around. Such things have been around since time immemorial. What has changed is what modern technology and science have made possible-the destruction of all of human life, the destruction of whole ecosystems. Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, Darius the Great or other great conquerors had vast armies consisting of hundreds of thousands of men but those armies could not destroy nature in the way one single chemical plant, one single oil spill can do. So a lot of people have become aware that there is something wrong; there is something seriously wrong. And that is the only positive aspect of this crisis because it makes us aware of the threat to human life.

I have written for fifty years on this matter. I am one of the first Muslim thinkers to have written about such subject is and one of the first to predict the environmental crisis and I stand by what I said but this matter half a century ago. Every kind of trying to save the planet by recourse to only good engineering or economic planning is just cosmetic. I just had a discussion, which is coming out in the next issue of the Islamic Science journal, in which I said that if someone has cancer as a result of which his skin turns yellow, if you just put some cosmetics on the face of woman so that her cheeks seem rosy, that is not going to cure her cancer. We need to do something much more profound than this.

M&B: Do you think developing religious and artistic views of nature, as you have described, and finding various ways to gain knowledge to reach God will affect people’s responses to the global environmental crisis?

Ordinary people are drawn by their inner nature to the beauty of God’s creation. In Washington, D.C., in the beginning of April, you have the cherry blossoms. I know you have seen cherry blossoms-one of most beautiful natural manifestations in big cities anywhere in the world. There are hundreds and hundreds of Japanese trees which were presented to the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century and which are found especially around the basin near the Thomas Jefferson Monument and certain other places in Washington. They are very beautiful when in bloom, and people are drawn from all over to their beauty. So, there is still certainly attraction to the beauties of nature. But the problem is that modern education and culture have eclipsed or lessened the awareness of human beings of the relation between this beauty and the Beauty of God. So many people will say, “Oh, what a beautiful tree!” But that does not usually remind them of God because of a secularized culture that has dominated the West for the past few centuries. But the natural inclination toward beauty is always there.

In this context it is interesting to note that many people who are atheists are also environmentalists. They want to preserve nature. They want to preserve the forests and the mountains. That, for them, is “God,” without realizing that they are seeing God’s Theophanies, God’s creation, in these beautiful, natural scenes that are for them “sacred” and “sacrosanct.” In a godless cosmos that dominates over the mindset of so many in the West, however, there is no room for the presence of the sacred in its true sense. Furthermore, there is no way of solving the environmental problem without realizing that nature is sacred in the religious sense of this word. Therefore, you have to first of all revive awareness of the sacred, which I have tried to do in several of my writings.

It is important also to realize that the sacred is not only a category pertaining to the Torah, the Gospels or the Qur’an, a church or a mosque. Of course, they are the heart of the sacred for the followers of these various religions, but the sacred also exists in God’s creation, in planets and animals, in the mountains, deserts and seas, in the firmament and the stars. It is crucial to treat nature as something sacred if the present environmental crisis is to be overcome. Unless we do not do that, nothing else is really going to work.

M&B: That seems to be a common point between all the religions. May be something around which people can come together?

I wrote a book called Religion and the Order of Nature that was translated into Turkish two years ago. It is one of my major books, one in which I speak precisely about how all the religions of the world, despite all their different languages and forms, have a remarkably similar view towards the order of nature, where the order of nature comes from, why this order, and how important it is in this domain for the religions of the world to work together. That is perhaps the best hope that we have because in most places in the world people still listen to their religious leaders, whether they be imams, priests or rabbis. If on Fridays the imams in mosques would concentrate on the importance of treating nature as God’s sacred creation, within a few months such teachings would affect what the people do.

A few people will say, “We do not care,” but the vast majority of ordinary people would listen, and so I think that all the religions of the world have a responsibility and all the religions of the world can work together very closely in this vital matter. Furthermore, members of the Abrahamic family have to realize that the love for nature is not pantheism. It is not the negation of the transcendence of God.

Let me end with this famous poem from Rumi. It says, “If only the world of existents had tongues, so with those tongues they could unveil the mystery of existence.” I have always said, echoing Rumi and our other sages, that everything is alive, everything bears within itself a divine mystery, but it does not have a tongue to speak to us in such a manner that we can hear its call. We have to learn its language expressed through what appears to us as and from the ordinary human point of view as eloquent silence. 

Interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli for Ebru TV for the television show Matter and Beyond, episode 23.