ISLAM: Religion, History and Civilization by Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr is an introductory work to the religion, culture, history and intellectual thought of the Islamic world by a noted contemporary Muslim scholar who is no stranger to Muslim communities in the West. Although written for a layperson in an easy language and well-arranged in logical chapters, at the same time, it remains extremely well-written and eloquent, with some passages that particularly stand out for their clarity and beauty of expression. His discussions on the origin of man, the Muslim view of the cosmos, the central role of religion in Muslim life, and the relation between Islām, Īmān and Iḥsān are nothing short of brilliant.
On the role of the Qurʾān in Muslim life, for instance, he writes, “In a sense, the soul of the Muslim is woven of verses and expressions drawn from the Qurʾān. . . Every legitimate action begins with a bismillah and ends with an alhamdulillah, while the attitude toward the future is always conditioned by the awareness of inshaAllah, for all depends on the Divine Will.”
The wisdom of the varied experiences of the Prophet Muḥammad is also beautifully stated: “His extraordinary life included almost every possible human experience, which he was able to sanctify and integrate into the Islamic perspective. He experienced poverty, oppression, and cruelty as well as power and dominion. He tasted great love as well as the tragedy of the death of his beloved wife Khadījah and his only son. He lived in great simplicity, yet ruled over a whole cosmic sector. He lived with a single wife much older than he was until the age of fifty and then contracted many marriages in his later years . . .”
For Islamic communities, it remains mostly, but not entirely, true to orthodox perspectives on Islamic thought. Some will cringe at the constant reference to minority and non-Sunni perspectives in every section, as well as the endorsement of certain non-orthodox religious practices as well as mystical beliefs. These inclusions serve to over-inflate the significance of these minority beliefs and practices in the actual Muslim world. His discussions on Tawḥīd and the Divine Essence are also colored by his philosophical inclinations. Perhaps that is to be expected of any academic scholar let alone someone with the background of Dr Nasr.
Overall, our group found it to be a great book for those generally interested in a deeper and more intellectual look at the world of Islām beyond the basics. For those, however, who are more serious in their interest in Islām as a faith and religion, a work that presents the basic beliefs and practices of Islām in a more coherent and uniform fashion would be better served.
Our book club meets weekly on Tuesday evenings at the Islamic Learning Center in Jersey City, NJ. Follow our Facebook group or email us to join.