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Nostalgic look at past Islamic culture
on December 30, 2012
"Islam in the Modern World" by Seyyed Hossein Nasr (first ed. c. 1990, but extensively revised, updated & with new chapters: hardback 2010), 472 pgs. Nasr is known for writing books contending that Islam is a moderate, peaceful religion. Does this mean we need to ignore what he has to say? Perhaps there is some knowledge, if not just `factoids' to be learned from him. What strove Nasr to update this book was due to: "Only during the past few decades has a new phenomenon appeared that necessitates distinguishing rigorously between traditional Islam and not only modernism, but also that spectrum of feeling... that has come to be identified... as `fundamentalist', revivalist, or `activist' Islam." Nasr contends that the 1990s-2000s-era `revivalist' (jihadist) groups "that speak of reviving Islam in opposition to modernism and Western civilization" (p. 2) misunderstand non-violent Islam. However, Nasr doesn't go into any depth in detailing the militant activities of any particular `terrorist' jihadist group (i.e., al-Qaeda). Despite his opposition to jihadism, Nasr doesn't go into detail in stating what he has against militant jihadism besides its violence (not all Muslims have to be violence-prone). This book provides a generic background history of Muslims and the Islamic religion. The author discusses the differences in Islamic theology, science and spirituality (Sufism). Nasr is fond of the past `achievements' of Islamic architecture and science, but acknowledges that the West overtook Islamic in science and economic achievements starting in the 17th century. The are several appendices in which Nasr lists `milestone' books written by medieval Muslims regarding architecture, philosophy, science, theology, etc. Nasr contends that while the West thinks it has overtaken Muslims in industrial and intellectual development, Nasr argues that rather than compete against the modern world the Muslim world decided to `lay back' as its "Islamic science [theology] possesses a [religious] message that is of more than historical interest" (p. 147). Essentially, Nasr argues that the spiritual message of Islam is more important than the material wealth achieved by the West; a thought that is reflected in his book's subtitle: "Challenged by the West, threatened by Fundamentalism, keeping faith with Tradition". Nasr is fond of Islam's past educational "achievements", but he doesn't dwell on examining why there are so few current Islamic Nobel Prize winners. Nasr looks at Islam as it developed in the 10-11-12th centuries for guidance as to how Islam is going to enhance the lifestyles of Muslims in the 21st Century, but he doesn't really present convincing arguments. Nostalgia has its place, but really, a chapter on: "Islamic Art and its Spiritual Significance in the Contemporary World"? So why read this book given the vast ocean of similar `mild' works? Personally, I found this book of good value due to the many unfamiliar Arabic terms used to identify various Islamic concepts.