Posted by: joels | April 5, 2008

Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization

Religion, History, and CivilizationI have just begun reading Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. While I have read several books on Islam before, I have yet to read one by a Muslim. How can I suggest that Muslims should read Christian writers rather than their own in order to understand Christianity if I am unwilling to read their writers about their religion? Thus my journey into Nasr’s book begins. I plan on blogging my thoughts through each chapter, beginning now with the introduction.


Rather than summarizing everything that Nasr says, I will be noting points of interest, novelty, contention, and confusion. Hopefully these will spur me (and perhaps others) on to further exploration.

  • One point that Nasr repeatedly emphasizes in the introduction is that for one to understand Islam, one has to understand it not simply as a religion, but also as a civilization. Islam, both historically and presently, does not create a chasm between the different aspects of life. That is why it is often difficult from us Westerners to understand Islamic culture, for it is not operating under the same church-state divide that we are.
  • “This civilization [Islamic civilization] produced great intellectual figures, a distinct art and architecture, dazzling achievements in science and technology, and an equitable social order based on the teachings of the Quran,” Nasr says on page xviii. Two things occur to me about this quote:
    • We in the West do often forget that some wonderful things did come from the Islamic world. Muslims did at one time advance the study of mathematics and science. Western philosophy was influenced by Islamic thought as well. We tend to think of the rediscovery of Aristotle as a purely Western tendency, and yet Averroes and Avicenna, two Muslims scholars, were highly influential in the West’s understanding of Aristotle. I am not suggesting that Islamic civilization is therefore “right.” What I am suggesting is that we need to get past our bigoted view of Islam which suggests that the only thing any Islamic civilization has done is enslave women and engender terrorism.
    • On the flip side, I wonder about Nasr’s assertion that Islamic civilization produced an “equitable social order based on the teachings of the Quran.” I imagine he will deal with this later (this being only the introduction), but the reality of the world we live in is that a large percentage of the world’s “unequitable” social orders are Muslim. Granted, that is from the perspective of my Western, Christian eyes, but when one sees human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, the statement gives pause.
  • On page xix, Nasr says, “Wherever Islam went, it did not destroy the local culture, but transformed it into an Islamic reality. What were rejected were elements of a clearly un-Islamic nature.” I find this statement interesting on two levels.
    • I wonder if this is not perhaps an unwarranted generalization. I am clearly not an expert on all of the various global expressions of Islam, but from what I understand, in some parts of the world–particularly Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa–Islam has accepted some elements of an “un-Islamic nature.” In fact, many stricter Muslims would reject these animistic expressions of Islam as true Islam. Nasr’s statement is somewhat more interesting when one realizes that he represents a Sufi-influenced perspective of Islam. Many Sunnis and Shiites would reject Sufism as a legitimate expression of Islam.
    • The media often portrays Islam as a monolithic entity, while in fact, Islam did and does take on the local culture of its region oftentimes. For instance, strict Sunni Islam in Arabic-speaking Saudi Arabia can look very different than Islam in the Chinese-speaking Hui people or the French-speaking West Africans.
  • One particularly provoking thought is one that I had not particularly thought of before. Nasr suggests on page xxiii that “the norm in the Islamic world even today, despite all the political tragedies that have befallen it, is not what many in the media and popular literature of the West claim. It is not religious extremism or “fundamentalism”; nor is it secularist modernism. the norm is traditional Islam, in comparison to which both secularist modernism and “fundamentalism” are extremes.” It would be interesting to compare this statement while the new study released by Georgetown University called, Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think. I wonder if Nasr is referring to the “street level” view of Muslims, because on the governmental and societal level, it seems as if the two extremes are both norms–e.g., Turkey and Syria on the secular end, and Iran on the “fundamentalist” end. Either way, we need to realize that there are Muslim voices crying for moderation. We ask them to denounce terrorism, but when some do, we seem to ignore it. Further, I find it interesting that Islam is having to deal with the same questions that Christianity is in a way–between fundamentalism, secularism/modernism, and “traditionalism.” And for both, the real question is this: does the middle reflect what true religion is?
  • Nasr makes very clear his position of respect toward other religions on page xxiv. It will be interesting to see how he fleshes this out in the rest of the book.

Nasr represents a “traditional Islam” with Sufi influences. Accordingly, he rejects extremism, both (as he structures it) in secularism and in “fundamentalism.” If this stream of Islamic thought is truly the stream that flows from the source–Muhammad and the Quran–then this should be an intriguing look into how Muslims view themselves, their religion, and the world.



  1. Great thoughts! I think it is important to read what Muslims have to say. I read Nasr’s book a few months ago and I appreciated your thoughts. Many of us as Christians tend to view Islam solely from a political viewpoint, instead of realizing their need for the gospel. Often, I think that the response (“all Muslims are terrorists” etc) creates a barrier to bringing them the gospel. A sound, Christian, theological response is refreshing to see! Keep up the good work…

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