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Review: Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Islam in the Modern World: Challenged by the West, Threatened by Fundamentalism, Keeping Faith with Tradition
CDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN, 10/1/2011

Review of Islam in the Modern World: Challenged by the West, Threatened by Fundamentalism, Keeping Faith with Tradition by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Published by HarperCollins, New York.  2010, 496 pages.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr has done much to introduce western readers to the complexities within Islam.  He has published dozens of books, and has been active in interfaith dialogues.  Nasr’s writings demonstrate to western audiences the shallowness and pseudo-intellectualism of violent Islamist and Islamist ideologies that attempt to impose a version of Islam upon other Muslims.  His latest book is an attempt to examine contentious issues debated among 1.5 billion Muslims, such as the position of secularism within the Islamic world, education, complexities of male and female relationships, and much more.  The appendix is worth looking at, as it details a syllabus from a Persian seminary and the several years needed to attain the rank of Imam in Shiite Muslim seminary.  Look at the syllabi that includes logic, mathematics, Arabic grammar, philosophy (western and non-western), morphology, the list goes on, and compare this to the quality of education or lack thereof of characters like Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the Mahdi Army in Iraq.  Compare Muqtada’s education to that of his father and uncle.  Contrast this education with the zealotry of John Walker Lindh (the so-called American Taliban).  You begin to understand the complexities of the Islamic world and the fallacy in the Violent Islamist and Islamist delusion of imposing one form of Islam on other Muslims.

Islam in the Modern World

My criticism of the book begins in the prologue where Nasr states that “traditional Islam defends completely the Shariah, or Divine Law, as it has been understood and interpreted over the centuries and as it has been crystallized in the classical schools of Law and considers following it obligatory for all Muslims.”  I disagree with such statements, as 1.5 billion Muslims selectively interpret Shariah based on a host of factors from personal to tribal.  In the four schools of Sunni Islam, some Muslims strictly adhere to one, others choose from one or all four for the best ruling, many Sunnis consider the Jafari(Shiite School) unacceptable, others take pieces of the Jafari school.  Nasr’s statement above negates the impact of tribalism on Islam, the attempts to fuse tribal customs with Islamic practices which have had positive and negative impacts on Islam itself.  Another criticism of the book is that it tends to be overall Shiite and Sufi centric and makes scarce mention of Sunni theosophy and the theosophical differences between Shiite and Sunni.  I do like his term neo-Wahhabi to discuss 20th and 21st century manifestations of this eighteenth century Salafi Sunni trend, a subsection of Hanbali Sunni Islam.  My critique is that the term could be confused with Arabs have called neo-Salafi, positive reformers led by the more constructive elements of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) philosophy.  Of note, al-Afghani is given a prominent place in Nasr’s book. 

A measure of a good book is not to necessary agree with everything, but for those immersed in Islamic discourse, I found myself debating the author while reading the book and for that I thank Nasr.  This is a recommended read for those who wish to take their understanding of Islam to the next level.  The book is not recommended for those who do not have a grounding in the basics of Islamic history, Islam, and Middle East affairs.  This would be a book I would assign if I were developing a follow on course to my Industrial College of the Armed Forces elective, “Islam, Islamist Political Theory, and Militant Islamist Ideology.” 

Commander Aboul-Enein is author of “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” (Naval Institute Press, 2010).  He is Adjunct Islamic Studies Chair at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.  Commander Aboul-Enein is a Senior Adviser and Subject Matter Expert at the Joint Intelligence Task Force for Combating Terrorism (JITF-CT).


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