Issue 29 — 15 December 2019

Preliminary Remarks

The Garden of Truth (Seyyed Hossein Nasr)

The Value of Religion (Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair)

 

Preliminary Remarks

 

I have long been intrigued with Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the professor and his works. As I explain below, I heard him speak on but one occasion but on a goodly number of subjects in Edmonton, Alberta, and realized that “here is a man who knows” but also “here is a man who knows a lot that is not so.” Such anyway was my opinion at that time and it remains so to this day.

This review of his then-latest publication appeared on Sophia Wellbeloved’s Gurdjieffbooks website on April 30, 2008. It is being reprinted here with a handful of changes, mainly typos corrected, nothing of substance, because we should respect or at least respond to what Professor Nasr says because he represents a stream of 21st century thought with considerable authority. I must add, however, that canvassing around, while he has been described as “a Sufi,” he has also been described as “a former Sufi.” There are innumerable talks and interviews with Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the Internet as well as information about the Seyyed Hossein Nasr Foundation. It is frequently said that Professor Nasr maintains that the theory of evolution — or at least what is known as Darwinian Evolution — is unscientific and bunk. Who knows?

In passing, let me note that Professor Nasr is the father of Vali Nasr, Middle East scholar and Dean of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. I have yet to familiarize myself with all of his accomplishments and views (like the notion of the “Shia Revival”), but for readers who wish to do so, easily and comprehensively, I recommend “The Front Line Interview,” February 20, 2018, which is found on Wikipedia. Here is the font et origo:

Here in his popular book on Sufism is what he, the father, has to say about G.I. Gurdjieff.

19

The Garden of Truth

I was browsing the shelves devoted to New Books in a favourite Toronto public library when chance led me to The Garden of Truth. The title struck me as odd, hardly idiomatic, so I reached for the green-jacketed book and noted its subtitle: “The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition.” The byline read: “Seyyed Hossein Nasr.” Needless to say I borrowed the book from the local public library system, which had purchased three copies for its one hundred branches, and I now have three weeks to digest its contents. Twenty-one days is hardly enough time.

The dust-jacket describes its author as “one of the world’s leading experts on Islamic thought and spirituality.” He was born in Tehran, raised in the United States, educated at MIT and Harvard, and holds (or held) the position of University Professor of Islamic Studies at The George Washington University, an educational institute located (according to its website) in Washington, D.C., “four blocks from the White House.”

I heard Dr. Nasr speak at the conference on Traditionalism held in Edmonton two years ago and on that occasion I was much impressed with his presence and with the respect shown to him by the conference organizers, the Ismaili Muslims of Alberta and British Columbia. It was not so much what he said that seemed important but how he said it.

“The present book is the result of over fifty years of both scholarly study of and existential participation in Sufism,” Dr. Nasr begins. Two hundred-odd pages later, he concludes, “It is for those who understand such teachings to transform theoria into actual experience …. ”

I am not about to review the book, but I will offer the following bibliographical details: Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition. New York: HarperOne / HarperCollins Publishers, 2007, xvi + 256 pages. It includes notes, brief bibliography, and a thoughtful and helpful “Glossary of Technical Terms.”

G.I. Gurdjieff is mentioned once, in passing. The reference occurs on page 109, at the point where Dr. Nasr is describing the shaykh or spiritual master who is a link in a chain of initiation or otherwise a self-initiate: “The function may descend from Heaven upon the person. In both cases there is need of divine investiture.” He goes on to explain, “Throughout history many people have pretended to be masters and at no time as much as now, especially in the West.” He notes the increasing “number of so-called Sufi circles in both America and Europe that disassociate [dissociate] Sufism from Islam and that claim as so-called masters some whose attachment to the traditional claim of transmission of esoteric power and authority (silsilah) is either absent, suspect, or mysterious hidden.” Here I will quote him at length:

“A case in point is Gurdjieff, who claimed in the early twentieth century in France to be disseminating Sufi teachings without ever demonstrating his attachment to an authentic Sufi chain. Or one could mention Idries Shah, who sought to teach Sufism independent of Islam in America and Europe. The authenticity of a master is judged by the quality of his or her disciples for as the proverb states, a tree is judged by its fruit.

“But there are also some external criteria for determining who is a real master, such as orthodoxy in the deepest sense and not only on the formal plane, familiarity with the doctrine, mastery in being able to cure the ailments of the soul, spiritual authority, and an element of sanctity. The master may be old or young, male or female, Arab, Persian, Turk, or from any other ethnicity but in all cases must exude something of the Muhammadan grace, or barakah, and display knowledge of the path for which he or she is the guide.”

This passage summarizes the traditional objection to the claim that Gurdjieff received Islamic initiation or showed its effects. Dr. Nasr does so deftly and without the pyrotechnics of Whittal Perry in Gurdjieff: In the Light of Tradition (1978).

In passing, let me make an interesting observation about The Garden of Truth. The book’s index has no entries for Traditionalism itself, or for its chief exponent René Guénon, though there are three entries for Frithjof Schuon. Two of the latter’s books are listed in the Bibliography, none of Guénon’s.

30 April 2008

 

Debate on the Value of Religion

An Impressionistic Review of the Debate between Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens

 

My wife Ruth and I want to thank Deon Ramgoolam for making available to us two tickets to the Munk Debate at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Friday, November 27, 2010. They were selling from between $50 and $80 apiece, and scalpers were apparently offering them for $150 apiece.

Recipients of this email may be interested in what happened, although there has been extensive press coverage of the event not only in the Toronto area but also through the Internet on the Munk Debates and BBC World. We were planning to watch the debate on the Internet, Ruth admiring Blair, the undersigned admiring Hitchens. Instead we were “part of the event.” Our seats were first-balcony centre, ideal!

It was a sold-out house with an audience of well-dressed, middle-aged, professional-looking men and women ranging from youngish to oldish. (The Hall has 2,630 seats; I am in no position to estimate the viewership on the Internet but I would be surprised if it was not in excess of 500,000 viewers.)

There were protestors out front to draw attention to Tony Blair’s complicity in Iraq. Nobody was protesting the presence of Christopher Hitchens. Security people and police officers were everywhere and everyone was “wanded” as he or she entered the foyer. Purses were cursorily examined. It was like boarding an airplane. This meant that the proceedings commenced at 7:20 p.m. rather than at seven o’clock. The evening lasted to nine-twenty.

Events were well organized. Projected on two giant overhead screens were quotations from the writings of the speakers: provocative remarks in red by Hitchens, placatory ones by Blair in blue. Peter Munk, gold-mine speculator and philanthropist (and the local George Soros and the benefactor of the Munk Centre), spoke about the need for debate and discussion on a high level. He rambled. Ruth remarked to me that he is used to people listening to his every word.

He was followed by Rudyard Griffith, whose Dominion Institute has done good work drawing history to the attention of Canadians, who acted as moderator. He is a clone of Trudeau’s sons. He explained the format of the debate and introduced the two speakers, both of whom were casually dressed.

Hitchens is quite unwell. He coughed, touched his nose, drank glasses of water, and touched the crown of his bald head. It was announced that the diagnosis was esophagal cancer. Ruth said Blair has “kept in trim” but I felt he was as emaciated as a Christian saint. We both sympathized with the effect that Hitchens was making. His voice was as firm and as growly as ever.

The advance ballot in the foyer established that about 60% of audience members disagreed with the resolution “Be it resolved, religion is a force for good in the world.” In other words, they were with Hitchens and atheism (or humanism, as Hutchens called it), and against what Blair called “people of faith.” About 15% of respondees claimed that they had not made up their minds.

There is no point in covering the debate in any detail. Hitchens argued with specific instances that many of the world’s most pressing problems yesterday and today were and are caused by religion. Blair’s defence was that problems were caused by people, some of whom professed a specific faith but others who admitted to no religious beliefs whatsoever.

He added that it was necessary for “people of faith” to deal with this problem. Hitchens noted that this had not been done in the past and present-day events showed that the situation was getting worse. Blair referred to his success in Northern Ireland, building a “bridge” between the Catholics and the Protestants, but Hitchens dismissed this out of hand saying the believers had caused the problem in the first place.

For his part Hitchens concured that the world would never be free of “noxious” religions, and this gave Blair the opportunity to reiterate his mission for “believers” to set the scales right. Hitchens admitted to the existence of a sense of “the transcendental” or “ecstasy” that is “above and beyond matter” but saw it as the outgrowth of humanism, not superstition.

The two speakers had sentiments in common. Both of them favoured British trades unions and the invasion of Iraq. Blair wanted to rid the world of dictators. Hitchens felt the invasion was a good thing if only because all the organized religions were against that invasion.

I felt that Blair was delivering sermons, but Ruth suggested that his outpourings were lectures. If the latter, they were unstructured. Yet he is the master of the evangelical appeal. Hitchens drives a “demolition derby” and has not lost his patented sarcastic edge when drawing attention to the abuses of religion. The man is quite brilliant, so brilliant that he seems vindictive, whereas the former U.K. prime minister is so diplomatic that he will call a toad “a species of amphibian.”

In a nutshell, Blair appealed to the heart and soul, Hitchens to the head and hands. I have no doubt Blair is capable of being “bloody”; Hitchens is willing to “think dirty” and probably “act dirty.” In all, despite Blair’s involvement in “peace negotiations” in the Middle East, Hitchens has a better grasp of the situation in that part of the world and in the mind-set of the Muslim fundamentalists and terrorists.

There were some poorly phrased questions from the audience, but one excellent question came in the form of a request: “I would like each speaker to summarize the best point of his opponent.” It was here that Hitchens admitted that religion will not disappear tomorrow and that it is up to the Christians and others to stand up for decency. Then Blair admitted to the abuses committed “in the name of religion” but not, at first, conceding that they were really “religious abuses.”

This gave Hitchins the opening he needed to point out that the abuses arose directly from “the scriptures,” a point Blair reluctantly embraced. I felt the Blair was being politic on purpose, Hitchens impolitic by nature. I noticed that Blair would applaud Hitchens’ presentations, whereas Hitchens merely rocked in his chair as if biding his time.

The audience would break out in applause now and then, generally louder for the critic and crowd-pleaser (Hitchens) than for the believer and appeaser (Blair). Another ballot, an exit poll, established that those people who were against the resolution – i.e., they felt religion was not a force for the good – had “won” the debate. That is, about 61% now favoured Hitchens’ argument. This was an increase of 1%.

It was hardly “the debate of the century” but it did raise most of the issues that do rise between credulists and sceptics, between in this instance a moderate believer and an I’ve-had-enough critic.

27 Nov. 2010