Middle East

Interview with Sufi Scholar, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Inside Islam’s Colin Christopher recently sat down with Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at The George Washington University. Born in Iran in 1933, Dr. Nasr studied metaphysics, geology, and philosophy at MIT and received his doctoral degree from Harvard University in the history of science and learning. A polyglot and author of over 50 books, Dr. Nasr is considered by some to be a Renaissance man. Primarily interested in Perennial thought and Sufism, Dr. Nasr explains his views on Islam, Sufism, and universalism.

Q: Some say that one can be a Sufi and not Muslim. What do you say to non-Muslims that embrace Sufism as non-Muslims?

A: For non-Muslims, Sufism can be a spiritual attitude, as far as ideas are concerned. As practices are concerned, no, a non-Muslim is not able to be a Sufi. As a spiritual attitude, yes, non-Muslims are able to embrace the spiritual attitude of Sufism which emphasizes charity, humility, unity. A Muslim should not wear a cross, just as a non-Muslim should not pray or associate with Muslim ritual symbols. Praying in unity with those of other traditions can be a powerful experience, but one should be careful in clearly delineating their purpose in doing so. As an orthodox traditionalist living in a modern world, I think it is important that we recognize the perennial philosophy as something different from religious syncretism. Perennialism encourages those of a particular tradition to embrace their own formal prayer, ritual, beliefs–but as not to blend various traditions into one form. This dilution of religious forms takes a believer away from their foundation.

I also want to emphasize one point. Historically, there have been Sufi masters who have had Hindu and Christian disciples who have helped untie the knots of the soul of their followers. Rumi had Christian disciples. So while one must be a believer of Islam to follow the Islamic form, being a Muslim is not necessary for one to help find his inner spiritual self in his or her own tradition. Sufi masters have been able to, and in fact continue to, guide non-Muslims upon their own spiritual path.

Q: Why is Sufism seen as a threat to various theologians in Islam?

A: Sufism/perennialism is not for everyone. People identify themselves with particular aspects of their faith. For example, most practicing Muslims strongly identify only with the Shariah or legalistic aspects of Islam. Most people of any religion, or any ideology for that matter–capitalism, democrats, any ism really–are exclusivists and they are afraid of being inclusive. Spiritually speaking, their nafs, or ego, prevents them from embracing a universalist outlook. They are afraid that their form (their outer practice, their beliefs) will be melted away if they embrace an inclusive, universalist outlook.

Perennialism sees the universal truth of God in all its forms–it is inclusive and is the doctrinal heart of Sufism. Perennialism can remove that fear of losing one’s own religious form for it emphasizes universalism without destroying one’s own sacred forms. It emphasizes that the seeker follow his own tradition while seeking the truth in other traditions. It is through active seeking and continually knocking on God’s door and waiting that an appropriate path for men and women will emerge.

In opposition to exclusivism and least common denominator syncretism, Sufis transcend forms from above and not below. While a student in Boston in the 1950’s, I attended the lecture of a great Buddhist Zen master at Harvard, and a student asked, ‘Is it not true that the most spiritual seekers have to leave or destroy the sacred text in order to transcend it?’ You see, one must fully embrace the sacred text and the outer aspects of sacred forms before you can transcend it. It is a level or stage that you have to reach before seeking to go beyond it, and most people these days do not even reach it. It is not a question of which sacred form you embrace; that depends on your destiny. Rather, you must embrace a sacred form that speaks to you and stick to it.

Islam is the religion that is among the most universalist of all religions in its total message. It speaks of all of the previous orthodox traditions and Prophets of God and speaks of them in an inclusive way. Islam is also the only religion that speaks of the finality of its Messenger as the “Seal of Prophets.” Each religion has certain doors that open to spiritual universality. While there are certainly doors to the perennial philosophy in other traditions–for example, in Christianity, there is the saying, “there are many houses in my Father’s Mansion,”–the Qur’an speaks of this universality throughout its text.

Interview with Uli Schamiloglu

A member of the Inside Islam executive committee, Uli Schamiloglu is also a professor in Languages and Cultures of Asia (a department that he helped to create) and the Director of UW-Madison’s Middle East Studies Program, among many other things. He was a guest on the Here on Earth radio show several times to talk about Sunni-Shia conflict and lessons from WWI, to launch the Inside Islam radio series, and to comment on Obama’s outreach to Muslims and his speech in Cairo.

Before 9/11, Prof. Schamiloglu didn’t think of himself as a Muslim American but just a Tatar American. “It’s really both funny and sad how after 9/11, 2001, whether we like it or not, Muslim Americans are classified as Muslim Americans.”

Although he wanted to study international relations initially, Prof. Schamiloglu explained how he ended up teaching and researching Muslim culture (0:56 in the video clip). Asked how he would respond to people who think Islam is a violent and backward religion, Prof. Schamiloglu pointed out that much of the negative image of Islam is fed by misinformation, and that the same thing had occurred in the past (1:37).

Prof. Schamiloglu recommended two news sources to people who want to have a better understanding of the current events in the Muslim world (4:44):

  1. Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion, a blog by Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
  2. Al Jazeera, a television network launched in 1996 by the Emir of Qatar, a tiny country in the Persian Gulf. Its English service is available on satellite and their website.

Finally he described Islam in just three words (8:42). His answer was a total surprise but brilliant. Find out yourself.

A Swedish Perspective on the Middle East

Inside Islam interviewed Michael Winiarski, a Transatlantic Media Fellow and Middle East correspondent for Sweden’s largest circulating daily newspaper, in September 2009 about the Swedish perspective on the Middle East. (more…)

Islam and Media: Al Jazeera
Lisa Bu, Oct. 2, 2009

For many Americans, Al Jazeera is probably the most well-known and most misunderstood news organization from the Muslim world. Launched in Arabic in 1996 by the Emir of Qatar, a tiny country in the Persian Gulf, Al Jazeera‘s ambition is to become an independent and influential television network on the scope and caliber of BBC and CNN International. It became hugely popular yet controversial in Arab countries because of its many confrontational talk shows, but few Americans paid much attention to it until after the 9/11 attacks when Al Jazeera aired statements by Osama bin Laden. It’s hard for Americans to trust Al Jazeera and it was hard for me, too. I suspected that an Arab news organization would have an inherent bias. I doubted that a TV network sponsored by a government, a non-democratic government, could be truly independent. The suspicion was hard to get rid of when I couldn’t receive or understand Al Jazeera‘s broadcast.

But my impression started to change in late 2006 when Al Jazeera launched its English service. The first thing that caught my eyes was its news anchor, former ABC newsman Dave Marash, a well respected American journalist. He made a convincing case why Al Jazeera could be trusted during his interviews with Here on Earth. If Al Jazeera can attract Dave and many former BBC journalists, I thought, it couldn’t be a completely bad news organization. But two years later Dave quit Al Jazeera citing lack of editorial control. That ended my interest in the networks as well.

But I may need to reevaluate. I spent this past summer in Washington, DC, and was surprised that Al Jazeera is available there without cable or satellite. Then this month, two lengthy articles praising the network appeared in two well respected magazines — The Atlantic Monthly in the US and The Walrus in Canada. “In the case of Al Jazeera,” the Atlantic article says, “news isn?t so much biased as honestly representative of a middle-of-the-road developing-world viewpoint.” Besides DC, according to the Walrus article, twenty other American cities also have Al Jazeera on air through a non-profit educational broadcaster.

I also did some research on the web that further improved my trust in Al Jazeera. First, I found a 2008 study of Al Jazeera English (mentioned in the Walrus article) by two scholars from Queens University of Charlotte and the University of Southern California. After in-depth research on the network’s employees and audience in six countries, the scholars conclude that Al Jazeera “is a media that is more likely to cover contentious issues in a way that contributes to creating an environment that is more conducive to cooperation, negotiation and reconciliation.”

I also checked out the professional background of Al Jazeera journalists and management listed on its web site. Al Jazeera English now is managed by Tony Burman, the former news chief of CBC Television with 35 years of experience in Canadian public broadcasting. All three other directors have solid experience in the UK television industry. The vast majority of Al Jazeera‘s 70 journalists used to work for respected European and American media such as the BBC (19 journalists) and CNN (14).

Additionally, I read some recent Al Jazeera news stories about a topic I’m very familiar with — China, my home country. With its journalists inside China speaking local languages and doing field reporting, Al Jazeera‘s news coverage is factual and in-depth, comparable to that of NPR and PBS, two of my favorite news organizations.

I’m giving Al Jazeera another try. It’s good to hear a different but honest voice in media, even if it causes discomfort among its audience, because that’s when journalism is at its best: When it makes audiences think and helps to transform them from consumers to citizens.