A Presbyterian pastor’s appreciation of three notable Shia scholars: part iii – by Sel Harris




We come to Part III of this series. In this part, i consider Dr Seyyed Hossain Nasr, the only living scholar of the three that i have been discussng Dr Nasr is the University Proffesor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University in Washington DC.

He has two wonderful distinctions. He was the first Muslim to give the prestigious “Gifford Lectures” at the University of Edinburgh in 1989. ( see his “Knowledge and the Sacred”) He is also the only Muslim Scholar to be included in a volume of “The Library of Living Philosophers” ( vol XXVIII, 2001).

A native of Iran, Dr Nasr is a prolific writer. Born into a Shia family, Dr Nasr has done more to bridge the gap between East and West, between traditional and modern studies. He is the person that most influenced me.

He is the advocate of a school of thought known as the “Perrenial Philosophy” which basically advances the thought that all of the world religions relate back to what he calls the “Primordial Religion.” He does so as a devout Shia Muslim. For me, the Qur’an answers all of the questions that i have. Using his approach, i nelieve that both the Hebrew Sciptires and the New Testament point to the Holy Qur’an.

Dr Nasr was born in Teheran in 1933. In 1945, he left for the USA where he was a student at the prestigious Peddie School. Dr Nasr describes how he, a Shia Muslim, was required to attend Christian Chapel. It may very well be that these chapel services were the first place that he became interested in Interfaith Dialogue.
Upon graduation at Peddie, Dr Nasr went to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he graduated with Honours. His background in Physics at MIT enabled him to build the bridge between Philosophy and Science — something that Westerners could not achieve since the Enlightenment.
He then went to Harvard University where he received his PhD. He studied all of the Western classics, Philosophy, and literature. He was already well acquainted with traditional Iranian education which he would incorporate into his Perennial Philosophy of his future. He studied in the personal libraries of such eminent Shia Scholars as Allama Tabatabai’i.

In 1958, he returned home to Iran ehere he started the Department of Philosophy at the University of Teheran. He came to the USA to teach in the late 1970s.

Although, I have never had the privilege of meeting him, Iranian students introduced me to his thought in the mid 1980s when I was a graduate student at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The library at the University of St Andrews was what is known as a “Copyright Library.” This means that a copy of every book printed in the British Empire prior to 1920 is in that library!
I spent hours in that basement. I became interested in the field of “Comparative Religion.” There were thousands of books on the subject.

I soon became disillusioned as I noticed that there was an agenda. Western Christians wanted to know other Religions in order to prove the superiority of Christianity over all other religions. I found this to be ingenuous. I mentioned this in passing to my Iranian friends. It was at that point that one of my Iranian colleagues, Fatima, introduced me to the writings of this amazing man. That would have been in December 1986.

I was mesmerized. Dr Nasr talked about the Perennial Religion which goes back to the Primordial Religion. Using his Islamic background, he reminds us that none of us can know all there is to know about God. We only know what God has revealed about himself. But no one can master God. His preference is, of course, the Islamic approach. But he says that God can be seen in the other faiths. This resonated with my Presbyterian Doctrine which taught me that “….God can be seen in the Truth of all Religions!” I never looked back. He also saw the manner in which Islam and the Primordial Tradition.
Consider Neoplatonic Philosophy, the last great Philosophy of the Greek and Roman world. Muslim Philosophers would use its background to explain Islamic concepts. the Greek word for God in Neoplatonism — “to Hen” which means “the One.” The Greek word “Hen” does not mean “one” just in the “number” one. It also means, the alone, the only, the unity — “TAWHID.”

Dr Nasr also speaks of “Logos Philosophy” which i had studied as well as Gnostic Philosophy. I also learned about the Islamic Jesus which informed my Christian Theology in ways i never imagined!!

Further study enabled me to see the hadiths of Jesus that is found in the Shia Tradition.

Since becoming a follower of both Dr Nasr and Perennial Philosophy, much of what i could not understand in the past now becomes clearer to me! I am grateful to the Shia Tradition and how it informs who i am.

Three times a day, I read the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the Holy Qur’an. Dr Nasr taught me the importance of understanding other paths. Soon after 1986, i began to appreciate the lives of the Imams and the Shia faithful.

I am grateful for what the Shia Islamic tradition has taught me. I am excited about what the Shia Islamic tradition can teach the world!

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