Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University, wrote The Heart of Islam in 2002 “with the express purpose of explaining certain basic aspects of Islam and widely discussed issues in a manner acceptable to mainstream Islamic thought and comprehensible to the general public.” In 2002, so soon after the attack on the World Trade Center, Islam was all over the news, and stereotypes and misinformation abounded. Now, Islam has become somewhat more visible, and I think more people are aware that the terrorists who brought Islam to so many people’s attention are not representative of the whole of Islam. But misinformation and prejudice still surround the topic of Islam, and even those who know better than to believe the stereotypes don’t necessarily know much about what Islam actually does teach. So there’s still a need for this book, and as someone who knows little about Islam, I found it helpful and illuminating but not without problems.
Hossein Nasr gives readers general information about Islamic beliefs about God, the prophets, the various schools of Islam, and the ways the Muslims live out their beliefs. Often, he draws parallels to Christian and Jewish belief–or notes where these beliefs diverge. He addresses the commonly raised concerns about the treatment of women, Islamic law, and jihad; in doing so, he acknowledges that many people have committed misdeeds in the name of Islam, but he insists that these are not to be taken as typical. Islam is a religion that teaches peace and respect for those of other faiths. Hossein Nasr does, however, make clear that traditional Islamic teachings are bound to clash with modernist Western views. I got the impression that his own views would be seen as traditional and conservative when compared with the opinions of most liberal Westerners. However, I also got the impression that he saw no need to limit the liberty of those outside Islam, as long as Muslims are able to observe their faith, a faith that involves not just going to a mosque and praying but living according to God’s law every day.
I was glad that Hossein Nasr acknowledged the challenge inherent in traditional and more modernist cultures coming together. Sometimes I think we like to focus on the beliefs we all share in order to keep peace and make everything seem nice. But ignoring differences can be disrespectful, requiring people to deemphasize the beliefs that are most important to them. It is a tremendous challenge to sort out the best way to allow liberty for all when worldviews are so different, but we must consider the question. The chapter on human rights and responsibilities raised what I thought were some great questions worth considering when we in the U.S. consider our interactions with those in predominantly Muslim nations. Sometimes it’s as simple as looking at our actions from another point of view:
What would happen if human rights activists in Cairo with access to all the international media kept holding press conferences, at which a few token Americans were present, on the rights of battered women and alcohol abuse or the tragedy of adolescent pregnancy in America? Would this moralistic hectoring be real concern for human rights in America, or an attempt to humiliate those who were unlike the activists and hold a value system the activists do not accept, even if the activists’ own value system is in constant flux and transition?
Anything less than mutual respect in understanding the other side makes a sham of the question of human rights.
It is difficult to get inside the head of those whose worldviews are wholly different from our own, and it’s especially difficult when it appears to those of us on the outside that others’ views cause suffering for those under their influence. Again, it’s a challenge, and Hossein Nasr offers no easy answers, other than a desire to understand one another better.
As far as the information about Islamic beliefs goes, Hossein Nasr’s writing is clear, and he seems to stick to fairly basic beliefs, without delving too far into the nuances. But even when sticking to the basics, there’s a lot to share, especially when some of the education involves clearing up misconceptions, such as the idea that Mohammed is Islam’s version of Jesus. The massive amount of information was too much for me to wrap my head around. I could see that there are many different schools of thought within Islam, for example, but I couldn’t work out how they all relate to each other, but the important idea—that these “must be seen as so many strands of the total tapestry of the Islamic intellectual tradition”—came through loud and clear. A glossary would have been tremendously helpful in guiding readers through the many Arabic words and Islamic terms that appear throughout the book. Although Hossein Nasr defines the terms as they come up, the book was so densely packed with new terms that it was difficult to retain their meanings.
As helpful as this book is, it’s important to acknowledge that it is a work of apologetics. Promoting understanding as Hossein Nasr does is laudable, but in his enthusiasm, he makes some grandiose statements that put my inner skeptic on high alert. I can’t prove that what he said in these instances is untrue, but some statements–for example, that Islamic society has never valued working in an office over bringing up children—just didn’t seem quite right. Never is a dangerous word, because any exception, no matter how minor, will weaken the overall argument.
Similarly, Hossein Nasr has a tendency to overemphasize the negative actions of some Christians, as when he writes of marital unfaithfulness in the West. In addition, when comparing Islam to Christianity, he sometimes gets the Christian beliefs wrong. Most of these missteps involve treating Roman Catholic doctrine as if it were representative of the whole of Christianity, as when he brings up purgatory. In a few other cases, the ideas he presented were totally new to me, although they might come from some particular Catholic teaching I’ve not encountered.
All of the other books I’ve read that deal with Islam have focused on specific aspects of Islam or have discussed Islam as part of a larger examination of religion or history. So I was glad that my church’s book group decided to read this. Its problems prevent me from recommending it whole-heartedly, but I came away from it with plenty to think about, and that’s a good thing.