Seyyed Hossein Nasr is a well known and highly respected intellectual figure both in the West and the Islamic world. An eloquent speaker with a charismatic presence, Nasr is a much sought after speaker at academic conferences and seminars, university and public lectures and also radio and television programs in his area of expertise. Currently University Professor of Islamic Studies at the George Washington University, Washington D.C., Dr. Nasr is an author of over fifty books and five hundred articles which have been translated into several major Islamic, European and Asian languages.
Born in 1933, Professor Nasr began his illustrious teaching career in 1955 when he was still a young and promising, doctoral student at Harvard University. He has trained different generations of students over the years since 1958 when he was a professor at Tehran University and then, in America since the Iranian revolution in 1979, specifically at Temple University in Philadelphia from 1979 to 1984 and at the George Washington University since 1984 to the present day.
Having realized in his second year that a study of the physical sciences would neither lead him to an understanding of the nature of physical reality nor deal with some of the metaphysical questions he was concerned with, Nasr decided to look at other fields of study for his answers. He started to read extensively and to take many courses in the humanities, especially those taught by Professor Giorgio Di Santillana, the famous Italian philosopher and historian of science. Under Professor Di Santillana's instruction, Nasr began his serious study of not only the ancient Greek wisdom as contained in the philosophies of Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus but also European, Medieval philosophy, Dante's highly mystical and symbolic Divine Comedy, Hinduism and a critique of modern Western thought. During these years he also read noted traditionalists like Rene Guenon and Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, Marco Pallis and Martin Lings.
According to Nasr, it was the discovery of traditional metaphysics and the philosophia perennis through the works of these figures which settled the crisis he had experienced and gained an intellectual certitude which has never left him since. From then on, he was certain that there was such a thing as the Truth and that it could be attained through knowledge by means of the intellect which is guided and illuminated by divine revelation.
During his Harvard years, Nasr also traveled to Europe, especially to France, Switzerland, Britain, Italy and Spain, widening his intellectual horizon and establishing important and fruitful contacts. It was during these travels to Europe that Nasr met with the foremost traditionalist writers and exponents of the philosophia perennis, Frithjof Schuon and Titus Burckhardt, who made a tremendous impact and decisive contribution to his intellectual and spiritual life. He also traveled to Morocco in North Africa, which had great spiritual significance for Nasr who embraced Sufism in the form taught and practiced by the great Sufi saint of the Maghrib, Shaykh Ahmad al-Alawi. Thus, the years at Harvard witnessed the crystallization of the major intellectual and spiritual elements of Nasr's mature worldview, elements which have since dominated and determined the course and pattern of his scholarship and academic career.
At twenty-five, Nasr graduated with a Ph.D. degree from Harvard and on the way to completing his first book, Science and Civilization in Islam. His doctoral dissertation entitled "Conceptions of Nature in Islamic Thought" was published in 1964 by Harvard University Press as An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines. Although he was offered a position as assistant professor at M.I.T., Nasr decided to return permanently to Iran.
Back in Iran, Nasr was offered a position as an Associate Professor of philosophy and the history of science at the Faculty of Letters in Tehran University. A few months after his return, Nasr married a young woman from a respected family whose members were close friends of his family. Five years later at the age of thirty, Nasr became the youngest person to become a full professor at the University. He used his position and influence to bring major changes to strengthen and expand the philosophy program at Tehran University which like many of its other programs, was very much dominated by and limited to French intellectual influence.
Furthermore, from 1968 to 1972, Nasr was made Dean of the Faculty and for a while, Academic Vice-Chancellor of Tehran University. Through these positions, he introduced many important changes which all aimed at strengthening the university programs in the humanities generally and in philosophy, specifically. In 1972, he was appointed President of Aryamehr University, Iran.
Another very important dimension to Nasr's intellectual activities after his return to Iran in 1958, was his program in re-educating himself in Islamic philosophy by learning it at the feet of the masters through the traditional method of oral transmission. He studied hikmah for twenty years under some of the greatest teachers in Iran at the time, reading traditional texts of Islamic philosophy and gnosis, three days a week at the Sepahsalar madrasah in Tehran and also in private homes in Tehran, Qom and Qazwin. Among his venerable teachers were Sayyid Muhammad Kazim Assar, an alim who was an authority on Islamic law, as well as philosophy, and a very close friend of Professor Nasr's father; the great luminary and master of gnosis, Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabatabai and Sayyid Abul-Hasan Qazwini, a great authority on Islamic law and the intellectual sciences who knew mathematics, astronomy and philosophy extremely well. Nasr read and studied several of the major texts of Islamic philosophy under these masters such as the al-Asfar al-arbaah of Mulla Sadra and the Sharh-i manumah of Sabziwari and benefited greatly from the invaluable insights and commentaries provided by them orally. In this way, Nasr had the best educational training both from the modern West and the traditional East, a rare combination which put him in a very special position to speak and write with authority on the numerous issues involved in the encounter between East and West, and tradition and modernity, as demonstrated very clearly by his writings and lectures.
At 82, Seyyed Hossein Nasr leads an extremely active intellectual life with a very busy schedule of teaching at the university and lecturing at many institutions in America and around the world, writing scholarly works, being involved in several intellectual projects simultaneously and meeting individuals who are interested in traditional thought. At the same time, he leads a very intense spiritual life spent in prayer, meditation and contemplation and also providing spiritual counsel for those who seek his advice and guidance. Exiled from his homeland, Seyyed Hossein Nasr has found his home in the inviolable and sacred Center which is neither in the East nor the West.
Text courtesy: Nasr Foundation