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Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s life and work
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Seyyed Hossein Nasr
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Biography of Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933) is University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University and President of the Foundation for Traditional Studies. He is a leading member of the “Traditionalist” or “Perennialist” school and is also recognized as a leading spokesman for Islam not only in North America but also world-wide.[1]

Nasr was born in 1933 in Tehran, Iran, eight years into the reign of the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah, whose policies were designed largely to bring Iran into the modern world. Nasr’s father, Seyyed Valiallah,[2] had been born in 1871, but he only married at the age of sixty, and Seyyed Hossein was the first of his two sons. Both sides of the family had produced scholars and Sufis going back for generations. Seyyed Valiallah was trained as a physician and became the chief administrator of the ministry of education from the end of the Qajar period well into Pahlavi times. He was deeply involved in the transformation of the educational system along modern lines.[3]

Nasr’s parents, though part of the modernizing classes, were traditional in their outlook and took great care to instill into him Persian and Islamic culture. At an early age he began memorizing the poetry of Ḥāfiẓ, Rūmī, Saʿdī, and others, though he remarks that during his first period of occidental exile in America, he lost a good deal of what he had learned as a child. His father—a man immersed in traditional Persian culture, a professor at Tehran University, and one of the leading figures in the educational establishment—had numerous friends and acquaintances among the learned classes, many of whom are numbered among the greatest literary figures of the twentieth century.

By the age of ten Nasr had met the most important scholars of the day and listened to the debates that often took place in his home. His readings in intellectual matters, including Western philosophy, began at around this age. But, he says, “Most importantly, it was the long hours of discussion with my father, mostly on philosophical and theological issues, complemented by both reading and reaction to the discourses . . . that constituted an essential aspect of my philosophical education at an early age.”[4]

When Nasr was thirteen, his father was injured in an accident and knew that he would not recover. The decision was made to send the boy to America, this in 1945, when the war was scarcely over. After two months alone on the journey, Nasr joined relatives in New York City and was soon enrolled in the Peddie School in New Jersey. He had exhibited his academic talents already in Iran by placing first in national examinations. At Peddie he quickly learned English and graduated four years later as valedictorian, showing exceptional gifts in mathematics and science. Expected by the Peddie establishment to move on to neighboring Princeton, he elected instead to go to MIT to study physics, naively supposing that the field provided the key to the understanding of reality. “It was the possibility of gaining knowledge about the ‘nature of things’ . . . that was foremost in my mind . . . but [I had] little prescience of the shock that I was soon to receive concerning the real nature of the subject which I had chosen to study.”[5]

In 1950 he moved to Boston. His father had died four years earlier, and his mother came from Iran with his younger brother and set up a Persian household in Arlington, thus allowing him to renew his ties to his native cultural ambience. The years at MIT were eventful in many ways, not least because he soon underwent an intellectual and spiritual crisis. He finally decided to leave his chosen field after listening to a lecture by Bertrand Russell, who argued convincingly that there was no possibility of “ontological realism” in the realm of physics.

From then on Nasr supplemented his scientific studies with as many humanities courses as he could manage. The most important influence on him during this period was the Italian philosopher Giorgio di Santillana, who among other things taught a one-year course on Dante for Nasr and his friends. When he was asked to teach a course on Hinduism, he took the students straight to “the horse’s mouth,” meaning the writings of René Guénon. It did not take long for Nasr to discover the writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Frithjof Schuon. When he found out that Coomaraswamy’s library was right there in Boston, he was able to get permission from Coomaraswamy’s widow to make use of its resources. In short, by the time he graduated from MIT in 1954, Nasr was firmly set on the path of traditional wisdom.

Given his science degree, however, he went to Harvard in the field of geology and geophysics, in which he received an MA in 1956. He then transferred to the history of science and worked with some of the world’s greatest scholars in both this field and in Islamic Studies, including George Sarton, Harry Wolfson, Bernard Cohen, and H.A.R. Gibb. By the time he finished his PhD dissertation in 1958 (published in 1964 as An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines), Nasr had traveled to Europe, met among others Schuon and Titus Burckhardt, and been initiated into the ʿAlawī branch of the Shādhilī Sufi order.

In the autumn of 1958 Nasr returned to Iran with every intention of studying with the few remaining masters of traditional Islamic wisdom. He quickly married and established a family. He was appointed professor at Tehran University (becoming in 1963 the youngest full professor in the university’s history). He read texts in Islamic philosophy in the time-honored, line-by-line way with three of the greatest masters of the twentieth century, Sayyid Muḥammad Kāẓim ʿAṣṣār, ʿAllāmah Ṭabāṭabāʾī, and Sayyid Abuʾl-Ḥasan Qazwīnī. He also had many contacts with other masters of both philosophy and Sufism.

The twenty-one years that he remained in Iran made up an enormously productive period in his life. Not only did he publish a series of groundbreaking books in both English and Persian, but he also undertook heavy teaching and administrative loads that helped sow the seeds for a revival of traditional education in the context of the modern university system. At Tehran University’s Faculty of Letters, he was director of both the Faculty’s library and the foreign students program, and he was a very popular teacher in the philosophy department. Every year he also taught a well-attended course on Islam or Persian culture in English for the expatriate community, and he was constantly writing books and articles. In 1968 he was appointed dean of the Faculty of Letters, and from there he moved on to become academic vice-chancellor of the university and, in 1972, chancellor of Aryamehr University (Iran’s answer to MIT).

Nasr almost single-handedly arranged for the founding, in 1974, of the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy. This was a fruitful period in the recovery of traditional Iranian intellectuality. The Academy hosted courses taught by many important Iranian philosophers, held frequent conferences, and published a bilingual journal, Sophia Perennis. The primary foreign faculty were the prolific and highly influential experts in Islamic thought, Henry Corbin and Toshihiko Izutsu. Especially interesting to watch was the manner in which Nasr was able to twist the arms of the foremost scholars of the country to produce important books, an extraordinary number of which were published—mainly in Persian and Arabic—while he was director. At the same time he remained chancellor of Aryamehr University, professor of philosophy at Tehran University, and, from 1978, the director of the private bureau of the empress, the Shahbanou of Iran.

Nasr left Iran in January of 1979 with the intention of returning in two weeks, but things happened quickly and he found himself and his family stranded in London with no place to go. A quickly-arranged visiting professorship at the University of Utah brought him to America, followed by an appointment at Temple University, and then, from 1984, by his current position as University Professor at George Washington University.

Shortly before leaving Iran, Nasr had been invited to deliver the well-known Gifford Lectures on “Natural Theology” in Scotland. The series had begun in 1888, and the list of lecturers includes many well-known philosophers and scientists, such as Werner Heisenberg, William James, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, Arnold Toynbee, and Alfred North Whitehead. Despite the turmoil in Nasr’s life at this time, the loss of his library, and his lack of a permanent location, he sat down and produced what he calls “a gift from Heaven.” He was able to write ten long lectures with an ease that he had never before experienced. The result, published as Knowledge and the Sacred, is his most comprehensive statement of his philosophical position. He acknowledges, with modest hesitation, that the book is “in a sense my most important philosophical work and has had perhaps greater impact outside the circle of scholars of Islamic thought than any of my other writings.”[6]

Most of Nasr’s earlier writings apply the traditionalist perspective to Islamic intellectuality, specifically the teachings of Muslim philosophers and Sufis. His major studies of Islamic cosmology, science, psychology, and spirituality offer a fresh interpretative stance not found earlier in the academic mainstream. Three out of four of his first books in English (An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, Three Muslim Sages, and Science and Civilization in Islam) were published by Harvard University Press, and they immediately established him as a major and original voice in Islamic Studies. His strong endorsement of the writings of Schuon and Burckhardt in these books were in turn instrumental in bringing the traditionalist school to the notice of official academia.

Nasr brought a new perspective to mainstream Islamic Studies, but it was already familiar to those involved in careful readings of pre-modern Muslim texts, because it was simply an articulate re-expression, in a more universal and contemporary language, of the underlying presuppositions of the writings. At the same time, Nasr has always been concerned to clarify the nature of the traditionalist perspective itself, first to the university community in his native Iran (which was then dominated by the methodologies taught on the French academic scene) and second to the West. His Knowledge and the Sacred is his comprehensive statement of what tradition entails, and the fact that it was conceived in Iran but written in America highlights a turning point in Nasr’s life and career, his shift from primary emphasis on the Islamic tradition to a more intense focus on tradition per se.

This slight shift in emphasis in Nasr’s writings can be observed by studying the course of his writings. The closest thing to a complete bibliography of his publications, covering the period from 1961 to 1999, is provided in The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The fifty-odd books and monographs and 500 articles pertain generally to the two broad fields of Islamic Studies and the philosophia perennis. The majority of works before Knowledge and the Sacred offer traditionalist readings of Islamic thought and culture. Nasr did not neglect the traditionalist approach per se, however, as is shown for example by his Rockefeller lectures at the University of Chicago in 1966, published two years later as The Encounter of Man and Nature. This work demonstrates that he had already assimilated the approach at an early stage in his career, since he applies it there to the history of Western thought, the birth of the modern world, the study of religion generally, and the crisis of the environment, the last of which was just beginning to attract some attention in academic circles. 

Nasr’s years in America have been especially productive in terms of books written, lectures delivered, and students trained. He has continued his prolific output in both Islamic and traditionalist studies, with much of his effort focused on bringing to light the riches of Islamic philosophy, as in his Islamic Philosophy from Its Origin to the Present: Philosophy in the Land of Prophecy (2006). Nonetheless, there is a general trend in his writings and activities to bring the traditionalist approach to a broader audience. This is reflected not only in two major books, The Need for a Sacred Science (1993) and Religion and the Order of Nature (1996), but also in numerous public lectures all over the globe.

Adapted from William C. Chittick (ed.), “Introduction”, in The Essential Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2007), pp. ix-xiv.




NOTES

[1] Nasr has written a detailed “Intellectual Autobiography” for the volume dedicated to him in the Library of Living Philosophers, The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Chicago: Open Court, 2001), and most of what is said here about his life derives from that source. The autobiography has been summarized by Zailan Moris in Knowledge is Light: Essays in Honor of Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Chicago: ABC International, 1999), pp. 9-32.

[2] The title “Seyyed” indicates a paternal line to the Prophet of Islam.

[3] See Muhammad Faghfoory, “The Forgotten Educator: The Life and Career of Seyyed Valiallah Khan Nasr,” in Moris, Knowledge is Light, pp. 209-31.

[4] “Intellectual Autobiography,” p. 9.

[5] Ibid., p. 15.

[6] Ibid., pp. 77-78.


Books/DVDs containing the work of Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Prof. Seyyed Hossein Nasr's contributions to World Wisdom books include:


Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s Writings Online
 TitleSourceAuthor 1Author 2SubjectWW HTMLWW PDFExternal Link
For centuries, the poems of Rūmī have remained one of the most influential forces within the Sufi tradition. The son of an accomplished Sufi practitioner, Rūmī became highly skilled in the fields of philsophy, Quaranic science, and the various exoteric sciences before taking an interest in Sufism himself. He became initiated into Sufism at the age of twenty-five and composed nearly sixty-thousand verses throughout the course of his lifetime. Seyyed Hossein Nasr explores several of the themes found throughout Rūmī's work and provides historical information regarding the life and the influence of this spiritual master.
Rumi and the Sufi TraditionStudies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 8, No. 2. (Spring, 1974)Nasr, Seyyed Hossein Islam, Poetry, Sufism
Music has a unique place among the traditional arts because unlike the visual arts, it lacks material form, thus enabling man to forget his earthly body and recall the original state of being which preceded it. The ability to forget one’s self is essential in order to perform traditional Persian music. Nasr analyses the various aspect of this music, showing how they each help to bring about a spiritual ascent that is characteristic of Sufi practice. He also relates performance of traditional music to the concept of the neverending “spiritual concert” to which the perfect gnostic is always listening.
The Influence of Sufism on Traditional Persian MusicStudies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 6, No. 4. (Autumn, 1972)Nasr, Seyyed Hossein Art, Poetry, Spiritual Life, Sufism, Tradition
The Spread of the Illuminationist School of SuhrawardiStudies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 6, No. 3. (Summer, 1972)Nasr, Seyyed Hossein Esoterism, History, Islam, Sufism
Seyyed Hossein Nasr begins this essay with the observation that "it was in the destiny of Islam as the last religion of the present humanity to integrate into its intellectual and spiritual universe all the elements of the knowledge and wisdom of earlier traditions that were in accordance with it unitary perspective." Islam's tendency and, one might add, mission to integrate earlier religious figures, sciences, and traditional thought into its own system, includes the field of philosophy. However, while much attention has been given to the influence of ancient Graeco-Alexandrian elements of thought upon Islamic philosophy, the ancient Iranian elements have largely been neglected. Through a survey of these latter influences and the history of the development of Islamic philosophy, Dr. Nasr addresses this imbalance and convincingly shows that the particular genius of Persian "intellection" has cast an indelible and unique character upon centuries of Islamic thought.
Persia and the Destiny of Islamic PhilosophyStudies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 6, No. 1. (Winter, 1972)Nasr, Seyyed Hossein Comparative Religion, Esoterism, History, Islam, Metaphysics, Tradition
Seyyed Hossein Nasr examines the Zoroastrian and Islamic traditions within the context of the history of Persia. Nasr notes that "although these traditions are of different nature and structure, they are related most of all by the fact that they are authentic traditions and not something else, that is, they are messages from the world of the spirit differing in their outward form but united in their inner essence." Thus, while many forms will be different in the two traditions, underlying principles will often found to be similar. In this essay, Nasr is primarily concerned with some "basic doctrines and themes which have appeared in one form or another in the religion, mysticism and philosophy of Persia throughout its history and which characterize the intellectual and spiritual life of the Persians in their totality." He surveys those doctrines and themes to show how they have formed an essential part of the overall Persian spiritual worldview.
Mysticism and Traditional Philosophy in Persia, Pre-Islamic and IslamicStudies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 5, No. 4. (Autumn, 1971)Nasr, Seyyed Hossein Comparative Religion, Cosmology, Eastern Religion, Esoterism, History, Islam, Metaphysics, Perennial Philosophy, Tradition
In this short biography of and tribute to the late Joseph Epes Brown, Seyyed Hossein Nasr sums up the importance and character of the man in this way: "But for the world of traditional thought, his death is in any case a great loss. America has not produced another scholar of the Native American traditions who combined in himself, as did Joseph Brown, profound spiritual and intellectual insight and traditaional understanding, the deepest empathy for those traditions, nobility of character and generosity towards his students and everyone else who wanted to benefit from his unrivalled knowledg of the spiritual legacy of the first inhabitants of this continent."
Biography [of Joseph Epes Brown]seriousseekers.comNasr, Seyyed Hossein Biography
Spirituality and Science: Convergence or divergence?The Essential SophiaNasr, Seyyed Hossein Science
Religious Art, Traditional Art, Sacred Art: Some reflections and definitionsThe Essential SophiaNasr, Seyyed Hossein Art
The Incantation of the Griffin (Simurgh) and the Cry of the EagleThe Essential SophiaNasr, Seyyed Hossein American Indian
In the Beginning was ConsciousnessThe Essential SophiaNasr, Seyyed Hossein Metaphysics
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Seyyed Hossein Nasr Film Clips film clip holdings: 8

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Clip Title: Critique of Modern Philosophy
Summary: Seyyed Hossein Nasr discusses Schuon’s critique of modern Western philosophy.
Total Running Time - 2 minutes 53 seconds
Low Res File Size - 8.7M
High Res File Size - 15.2M

 Film Clips with Seyyed Hossein Nasr (6)
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Who was Frithjof Schuon?
Seyyed Hossein Nasr answers the question "Who was Frithjof Schuon?" by discussing both Schuon’s public image and his inward dimensions.
Total Running Time - 1 minutes 52 seconds
Low Res File Size - 5.7M
High Res File Size - 9.5M
Frithjof Schuon’s Audience
Seyyed Hossein Nasr speaks about the people to whom Schuon addressed his books.
Total Running Time - 2 minutes 2 seconds
Low Res File Size - 6.1M
High Res File Size - 10.8M
Critique of Modern Philosophy
Seyyed Hossein Nasr discusses Schuon’s critique of modern Western philosophy.
Total Running Time - 2 minutes 53 seconds
Low Res File Size - 8.7M
High Res File Size - 15.2M
Schuon’s Most Important Books
Seyyed Hossein Nasr lists and descibes Schuon's four most important books.
Total Running Time - 7 minutes 52 seconds
Low Res File Size - 24.5M
High Res File Size -42.1M
Reading Metaphysical Books
Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains why some readers have difficulty in reading books on metaphysics in general and Schuon’s books in particular.
Total Running Time - 9 minutes 39 seconds
Low Res File Size - 25.3M
High Res File Size - 51.3M

 Film Clips about Seyyed Hossein Nasr (2)  
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S. Hossein Nasr
Jean-Claude Petitpierre talks about Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s role in bringing the idea of the Perennial Philosophy into modern academia, including Nasr's ground breaking writings on the environment.
Total Running Time - 2 minutes 26 seconds
Low Res File Size - 6.4M
High Res File Size - 13.1M
Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Rama Coomaraswamy explains why he believes the writings of Seyyed Hossein Nasr are more readily accepted within academia than the writings of Guénon and Schuon.
Total Running Time -45 seconds
Low Res File Size - 2.1M
High Res File Size - 3.7M

Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s Bibliography

 

Many of Dr. Nasr's books appear in numerous editions and in translation in many languages. Check online sources, bookstores, or libraries for these. A book, The Complete Bibliography of the Works of Seyyed Hossein Nasr up to 1993, prepared by Z. Moris and M. Aminrazavi (The Islamic Academy of Science, Malaysia) may be useful, though now incomplete. The following is a list of titles by Dr. Nasr that have been published in English, in alphabetical order and without publication details.

  • Al-Biruni: An Annotated Bibliography

  • An Annotated Bibliography of Islamic Science, 3 volumes

  • An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines

  • The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon (ed.)

  • Expectation of the Millennium (ed.)

  • The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity

  • The History of Islamic Philosophy, 2 vols (ed. with Oliver Leaman)

  • Ideals and Realities of Islam

  • Islam and the Plight of Modern Man

  • Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization

  • Islamic Art and Spirituality

  • The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia (edited by Mehdi Amin Razavi)

  • Islamic Life and Thought

  • Islamic Philosophy of Science

  • Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study

  • Islamic Spirituality - Foundations, Volume I (ed.)

  • Islamic Spirituality - Manifestations,Volume II (ed.)

  • Isma'ili Contributions to Islamic Culture (ed.)

  • Jalal al-Din Rumi, Supreme Persian Poet and Sage

  • Knowledge and the Sacred (1981 Gifford Lectures)

  • Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man

  • Mecca - The Blessed - Medina - The Radiant

  • Muhammad - Man of God

  • The Need for a Sacred Science

  • Persia: Bridge of Turquoise (with R. Benny )

  • Philosophy, Literature and Fine Arts (Islamic Educations Series (ed.)

  • Poems of the Way

  • Religion and the Order of Nature

  • Sacred Art in Persian Culture

  • Science and Civilization in Islam

  • Shi-ism - Doctrines, Thought, Spirituality (ed.)

  • Sufi Essays

  • Three Muslim

  • Traditional Islam in the Modern World

  • The Transcendent Theosophy of Sadr al-Din Shirazi

  • A Young Muslim's Guide to the Modern World

  • Western Science and Asian Culture

  • The Essential Frithjof Schuon

Slideshows on Seyyed Hossein Nasr



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