A Conversation with Professor Nasr

By Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal

When I arrived on the seventh floor of the building, the familiar door leading to Professor Nasr’s office was locked. It was Saturday, October 23, 2010. I went to the far end of the long corridor and waited. His office is on the top floor of the Gelman  Library of the George Washington University, Washington DC. We were going to meet at 10 am and there were still five minutes left.

When I heard the hissing of the elevator, I knew it was him. The door opened  and walked out of the elevator into the hallway. “O, I am sorry, Dr. Iqbal, I am a bit late.” He said.

“Actually, I am early,” I said as we embraced.

We walked into his office. He had made the special trip on a Saturday for this meeting for which I thanked him and said: “I want to discuss with you the situation of the Glorious Qur’an in our times, and specifically the unprecedented situations that arise as the contemporary world encounters the Noble Qur’an. There are some 1.6 billion Muslims now living on Earth. Only about  twenty percent of them can actually open the Book sent down for their guidance and start reading.”

 Nasr: It is true that only twenty percent of the Islamic community is Arab, but that really has very little to do with it. We are faced with an unprecedented situation because of other factors. Of course, not even those fluent in Arabic can simply open a copy of the Qur’an and begin reading with full comprehension of all its layers of deep meaning! And it has always been like this: throughout Islamic history, after the early expansion and the Umayyad period, a large part of the Ummah was not Arabic speaking. The Persians, the people of the Indian subcontinent, the Turks, the Chinese, the Malays, the Africans—even in the so-called Middle Ages, the majority of Muslims did not have Arabic for their mother tongue. Perhaps the Arabic minority was not as small a minority as it is today, but, nevertheless, it was a minority.

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Despite this sociological and linguistic diversity, however, Islam and Islamic civilization could only survive insofar as the Noble Qur’an preserved its centrality and they did survive and, in fact, flourished. Someone in Sumatra hearing a verse of the Qur’an would weep as much as someone in Fez or Cairo, and their physical location and the language they first grew up in were irrelevant to their piety. There were established channels through which the external and inward meanings, the message, and even the art of litany of the Qur’an were transmitted across the vast reaches of the community of believers, the ummah. There was a historical infrastructure for the dissemination of the Qur’an and its understanding. Those who knew would teach those who did not know: people would listen to its transmitted understanding in khutbahs (sermons), transmit it through literature, through stories… And then, of course, one should never overlook the very important aspect of hearing the Qur’an. Do not forget that the Qur’an is an oral revelation; it was not originally a written revelation analogous to Moses receiving the Ten Commandments inscribed on a tablet on top of Mount Sinai. The Prophet, upon him peace, first heard the Qur’an. This experience of hearing the Qur’an is extremely significant. The fact that people might not understand every sentence is in a sense really irrelevant to the basic presence of the reality of the Qur’an in their hearts and minds.

The new situation we are facing therefore is not simply the fact that eighty percent of contemporary Muslims do not speak or read Arabic. It is that many of those traditional channels I just described have become weakened or even, in some cases, destroyed. This is heightened also by the introduction of modern education into the Islamic world, as a new so-called intelligentsia—I hate to use this word, because they are not really what we know as the khawass (the elect) but merely educated people in the modern Western sense—came to the fore. Even people without advanced modern education began to be trained in another way of thinking, of connecting subject and predicate, of looking for meaning in sentences other than the traditional Islamic way, as they approached the Divine revelation and otherwise as well. These acquired habits of mind were very different from the way traditional Muslims thought about and looked upon the text of the Glorious Qur’an. So our task in the modern world is first of all to recreate, as much as possible, those channels of the transmission of the authentic knowledge of the Qur’an; and, secondly, to redirect the Muslim minds whose ways of thinking, even unconsciously, have been transformed by the methods of modern Western education back to the Islamic norm.

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Iqbal: So even while these minds are being trained, do you not think that we also need to simultaneously revive that direct, heart-to-heart mode of transformation?

Nasr: Absolutely. And that is what is at the heart of what has happened in the Islamic world. Since you spoke about tasawwuf—even though the channels of traditional knowledge transmission were largely bypassed or dismantled, this did not always mean that the turuq died out as well. Many survived, al-hamdu li’Llah, those violent projects in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries of the Islamic calendar, that is the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries of the common era, against ?asawwuf! Those projects were of two kinds: first, the puritanical, rationalistic, reductionist, simplistic interpretations of Islam which came out of Wahhabism and later Salafism; second, the modernist movements and colonial influences. These influences, although opposed to each other in certain matters, are joined in so many other things: they all “worship” modern science and technology, they are all indifferent to Islamic art, they all join hands in their opposition to Sufism—but for different reasons, and they are all opposed to the Islamic intellectual tradition.

Muzaffar Iqbal is the founder-president of Center for Islam and Science (www.cis-ca.org), Canada, and editor of

Islam & Science, a semi-annual journal of Islamic perspectives on science and civilization. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry (University of Saskatchewan, Canada, 1983), and then left the field of experimental science to fully devote himself to study Islam, its spiritual, intellectual and scientific traditions.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, he has lived in Canada since 1979. He has held academic and research positions at University of Saskatchewan (1979-1984), University of Wisconsin-Madison (1984-85), and McGill University (1986). During 1990-1999, he pursued his research and study on various aspects of Islam in Pakistan, where he also worked as Director, Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH) between 1991-96 and as Director, Pakistan Academy of Sciences (1998-99).

During 1999-2001, Dr. Iqbal was Program Director (Muslim World) for the Science-Religion Course Program of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences (CTNS), Berkeley, USA.

Dr. Iqbal has published books and papers on  the relationship between Islam and science, Islam and the West, the contemporary situation of Muslims, and the history of Islamic science.

His publications include Islam and Science, God, Life and the Cosmos: Christian and Islamic Perspectives , Science and Islam, Dawn in Madinah: A Pilgrim’s Passage , The Making of Islamic Science (IBT, 2009) and a few more titles.

He is the General Editor of the forthcoming seven-volume Integrated Encyclopedia of the Qur’an, the first English language reference work on the Qur’an based on fourteen centuries of Muslim reflection and scholarship. He is a regular contributor to Opinion Maker.