ISLAM AND ECOLOGY
by Marjorie Hope and James Young
Seyyed Hossein Nasr sees at the center of Islam a charge to protect the natural
world -- a world that reflects the higher reality of the transcendent God.
MARJORIE HOPE and JAMES YOUNG are a husband-and-wife writing team who have traveled in
more than eighty countries. This article forms part of a book-in-progress on the potential
for an effective ecological ethic in several major religions, tentatively entitled The
New Alliance: Faith and Ecology.
The Qur'an' and the Hadith are rich in proverbs and precepts that speak of the
Almighty's design for creation and humanity's responsibility for preserving it. For many
Muslims, citing these is enough to prove that Islam has always embraced a complete
environmental ethic. Others are more critical. They readily acknowledge that the
guidelines are all there in Islamic doctrine. Tawhid (unity), khilafa
(trusteeship), and akhirah (accountability, or literally, the hereafter), three
central concepts of Islam, are also the pillars of Islam's environmental ethic. But they
add that Muslims have strayed from this nexus of values and need to
return to it.
Many of the Qur'anic verses cited by Muslims bear a striking resemblance to passages in
the Bible, and portray a similar view of creation. "Praise be to Allah who created
the heavens and the earth and made light and darkness" (Q.6:1). Later, in Q.6:102, we
glimpse the principle of unity: ". . . . There is no God but He, the
Creator of all things." The dignity of all creation is proclaimed: "The seven
heavens and the earth and all therein declare His glory: there is not a thing but
celebrates His praise. . ." (Q. 17:44).
To humankind is given the role of khalifa (trustee): "Behold, the Lord
said to the angels: 'I will create a vicegerent on earth. . . .' "
(Q.2:30). But it is a role that each person must perform wisely and responsibly, fully
aware of human accountability to the Almighty. "Do no mischief on the earth after it
hath been set in order, but call on him with fear and longing in your hearts: for the
Mercy of God is always near to those who do good" (Q.7:56). In other parts of the
Qur'an we read that God rejoices in creation; all nature declares God's bounteousness; the
variety in creation points to the unity in the divine plan; and God gave humankind
spiritual insight so that it should understand nature. Moreover, the principle of balance
is fundamental to that plan: "And the earth We have spread out like a carpet; set
thereon mountains firm and immobile; and produced therein all kinds of things in due
Although many Muslims with whom we have talked are familiar with these broad Qur'anic
principles, few see any need to move an ecological ethic to the center of their awareness.
True, some Muslims have become heads of national and international environmental
organizations, but the average citizen is only vaguely aware of the extent of the crisis;
most political and educational leaders perceive only a few of the problems, and those in
isolation. Moreover, many advance the common argument that "when we catch up with the
technological superiority of the West, then we can begin to focus on this
issue." Not a few Muslims see environmentalism as still another form of Western
control, intended to keep Islam from developing and Muslims from realizing their economic
potential. Hence it is hardly surprising that, generally speaking, there is little
discussion about actually applying Islamic principles to environmental practice. A few
scholars and grassroots leaders, however, have begun to grapple with the question.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr
While Islamic writing in general lacks the self-criticism that Westerners value, and
the study of comparative religion is seldom considered important, the view of the
distinguished philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr is wider in scope. Born in Iran, he studied
physics and math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, obtained a doctorate in
science and philosophy at Harvard, and then returned to Iran, where he eventually became
chancellor of Aryamehr University. After the Khomeini revolution in 1979, he began
teaching Islamic studies in the United States. Although most of his twenty-odd books focus
on Islamic civilization, some deal with the spiritual crisis facing humanity today, and
all evidence his knowledge of Western and Eastern scientific and religious traditions. We
met him at George Washington University in his well-ordered office, lined with books in
Dark and slender, with a neat, graying beard, Nasr spoke gravely, in impeccable
English. He greeted us cordially, but seemed eager to move to the business at hand. We
asked him to comment on the impact of the movement to join the forces of religion and
"Well, in the West, it has certainly made some compelling statements. But one has
to ask, 'What power does it have over the political domain?' The politicians may nod and
even agree -- but the developers go right ahead, cutting down woods, uprooting endangered
species. That's a result of the Western dogma of separating science from the sacred and
religion from the secular. In Islamic countries religion is a stronger force. In a true
Islamic society, political leadership could act in accordance with the shari'ah
as set out by doctors of the law. If they pronounced polluting industries and certain
kinds of development in violation of Islamic principles, political leaders would have to
take strong measures against transgressors. Remember, I am talking about what would happen
in a true Islamic society. Unfortunately, today the West dominates the world
economy, so Islam reacts to the West both economically and politically. The West sets the
"From reading your work, we've seen how destructive you feel the separation
between religion and the secular domain to be."
He nodded. "That is rooted in Western modern science and its domination of our
view of nature, a view that separates nature from the sacred. Renaissance humanism gave
rise to a world centered on man instead of God. Human reason was no longer bounded by
allegiance to anything beyond itself. Before, all civilizations looked beyond themselves
to God -- to revelation. I'm not hostile to Western science but to its claim to be the
only valid science of the natural world. There are other ways of 'knowing.' Western
science has become illegitimate because scientists and the rest of society fail
to see the need for a higher knowledge into which it could be integrated. The spiritual
value of nature is destroyed. We can't save the natural world except by rediscovering the
sacred in nature."
"That is what Thomas Berry is talking about," we observed.
"Yes. Yes, Berry speaks to the heart of the matter. He brings the urgency of the
crisis to the fore. But his 'geologian' concept of religion is limited to the earth,
without remembrance of transcendence. The traditional perspective of the Muslim -- and
Christian -- is that man comes from a sacred heaven to an earth which is also divine
creation. Even the American Indians have a sky father. What I am saying is that the whole
of nature is descended from higher spiritual realms. There can be no sacredness of the
earth without the sacredness of Heaven. Man is that special creature who transcends the
earth. A theology is not valid unless we remember where the sacred comes from."
"What are some other ways your thought differs from Berry's?"
"His view also has roots in evolutionism," Nasr said. "But I would say
you cannot hold a true ecological philosophy and a belief in Darwinism at the same time.
Darwinism has eradicated the sense of the sacred. 'Survival of the fittest' runs counter
to the harmony in nature. True, on television we can actually see violence --
like lions eating other animals. But that's what television chooses to focus on --
violence, competition -- rather than the cooperation that is so basic in nature."
"Cooperation. Isn't that the emphasis of the Russian scientist Kropotkin, who
observed mutual aid among animals in Siberia, then criticized Darwin for stressing
"That's right." He nodded briefly. "The idea that man comes out of the
mud, so to speak, is false. It simply provides a way of reducing the higher to the
"Your writings suggest that we need to reestablish a metaphysical tradition in
the West within the framework of Christianity. This would provide a criterion for judging
and regulating the sciences. And for evaluating evolutionary theory, too?"
"Yes, we would no longer rely on evolution as dogma. Evolutionary theory gives
rise to pseudo-philosophies like the survival of the fittest, picturing man as the
inevitable winner of the long struggle, with the right to dominate all things. This
destroys the spiritual significance of nature -- which depends on the fact that it
reflects a permanent reality beyond itself."
"And this sense of the sacred pervaded the world of Islam and the rest of the
East until the onslaught of Western science and technology?"
"Yes, and eventually the onslaught of Western religion, too." Nasr's smile
was ironic. "Western Christianity wed itself to the Western sciences. Missionaries
brought modern medicine and technology, and worked hand-in-glove with Western governments
for what they called 'progress.' The very idea of unilateral progress disoriented the
East. At first it had little meaning for the people. They had always lived close to the
cyclical rhythms of nature. In fact, previously nineteenth-century Westerners called Arabs
'naturalists' in a disparaging way. Islam did resist the West until pressure became too
great. So even the Arabs and Persians who had once created the glories of Islamic science
-- the very foundations of European mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, physics --
proceeded to learn Western science. And to be corrupted by its mechanistic and
"In the 1960s, Iran was the most advanced Muslim country in the Middle East. While
industrializing rapidly, we created nature parks, and in the 1970s we held environmental
conferences attended by Ivan Illich and other notables. Yet when the Shah asked for advice
about shifting to nuclear power, and I suggested he should rely instead on resources like
wind and solar energy, my advice was not followed by the government."
He sighed heavily. "It is much more dangerous in the West today. They want to
remove problems brought on by destroying the balance between man and nature through
further domination of nature. The problem is not really underdevelopment in the Third
World, but overdevelopment brought by the West."
"Yet you seem to believe that to some degree Islamic societies have resisted
Western modes of thought."
"Yes, they are the only ones where significant segments of the population, from
jurists to villagers, refuse to consider any form of knowledge as secular -- where
religion can still function as the foundation of a wholistic approach. Of course, it can
be distorted into a parody of itself. Certain countries try to copy the West, mostly
because they have to recycle petrodollars and so are forced into this game. Their pretense
of being completely Islamic societies is in fact not completely true, especially as far as
the environment is concerned. Still, as I say, throughout the world there are many Muslims
who are trying to rediscover traditional Islam. Traditional as distinguished from
"Could you tell us a little more about how you see that distinction?"
"Certainly. Today there are basically three types of Islam: traditionalism,
modernism, and a variety of forms of revivalism usually brought together as
fundamentalism. Until two hundred years ago, in spite of the many schools and
interpretations, all Muslims lived within the tradition, with its roots in the Qur'an, Hadith,
and the shari'ah. It was a living tradition, emphasizing the harmony of law, art,
and all forms of knowledge. In the eighteenth century modernism, with its roots in secular
humanism, entered this world, in all fields from science and philosophy to art, and
traditional Islam began to weaken. Today we also see it struggling against many of the
forms of violent revivalism usually called Islamic fundamentalism, which speaks of
reviving Islam in opposition to modernism. But most so-called fundamentalists are
pseudo-traditional, as can be seen in their attitude toward modern technologies and the
destruction of the environment. Many of the so-called fundamentalists, like Christian
fundamentalists, pull out a verse from the scriptures and give it a meaning quite contrary
to its traditional commentary. Also, even while denouncing modernism as the 'Great Satan,'
many fundamentalists accept its foundations, especially science and technology. For
traditionalists, there is beauty in nature which must be preserved and beauty in every
aspect of traditional life, from chanting the Qur'an to the artisan's fashioning a bowl or
everyday pot. Both fundamentalists and modernists, however, could just as easily produce
mosques that look like factories. Many fundamentalists even seek a Qur'anic basis for
modern man's domination and destruction of nature by referring to the injunction to
'dominate the earth' -- misconstruing entirely the basic idea of vicegerency: that man is
expected to be the perfect servant of God."
"To turn to a very tangible environmental problem like overpopulation -- what
would traditionalists say about that?"
"It is a problem, a major one. But it is not soluble as an entity unto itself; it
is connected with other issues. Because of the imbalances in the political situation, many
in Muslim countries have felt that power lies in numbers. But in the end, overpopulation
is simply too great a burden, and there are now new interpretations among religious
scholars who try to interpret the teachings of the Prophet to enable planning for one's
family in accordance with one's possibility of supporting them."
"Good. But isn't the real question how many can the earth support? And doesn't
a just and workable solution involve allowing more women to become Islamic scholars and
He looked at his watch and stood up quickly. "I would like to be able to discuss
these matters with you, but regrettably, I have an appointment. Women do have more power
in Islam than most Westerners realize. I regret I must end our conversation now."
* * *
Seyyed Hossein Nasr's writings spell out many of these ideas in greater detail.(*) Running through them is the theme of "man's
total disharmony with his environment." He sees the crisis as the externalization of
an inner malaise that cannot be solved without "the spiritual rebirth of Western
man." The human destiny, says Nasr, entails fulfilling the role of God's vicegerent
on earth and protecting the natural order, thus bearing witness to the truth that the
whole of nature speaks of God.
The Renaissance led to the separation of philosophy from theology, reason from faith,
and mysticism from gnosis. (The latter term Nasr uses not to designate a secret knowledge
based on mystic revelation but to refer broadly to "illuminated knowledge.") In
medieval times Christianity, like Islam, was steeped in tradition. But as the West
emphasized the rigid logic of Aristotelian thinking, the sense of the sacred diminished.
By the seventeenth century the science of the cosmos was secularized. The scientific
revolution mechanized the Western worldview, and, with the appearance of the
nineteenth-century sociologist Auguste Comte, led to examining the person and society as
elements that could be measured with the aim of manipulation and predictability.
Nasr attacks what he calls the "hypothesis" of evolution. He uses the term
not to mean modifications within a particular species (which do occur, he says, as a
species adapts itself to changed natural conditions) but the belief that through natural
processes one species is actually transformed into another. Nasr passionately criticizes
this on a wide variety of grounds -- metaphysical, cosmological, religious, logical,
mathematical, physical, biological, and paleontological -- building arguments too complex
to recapitulate here. His central concern is that what he calls "the deification of
historical process" has become so powerful that in many souls it has replaced
religion and veils the archetypal realities.
Among his arguments is the contention that there is a remarkable unanimity that
humankind descends from a celestial archetype but does not ascend from the ape or any
other creature. Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, and many other traditions do
demonstrate awareness that other creatures have preceded humankind on earth and that the
earth's geological configuration has changed. For example, over a thousand years ago
Muslim scientists knew that sea shells on top of mountains meant that mountains had turned
into seas and seas into mountains, and that land animals had preceded humans on earth. But
no sacred scriptures, whether they speak of creation in six days or of cosmic cycles
enduring over vast expanses of time, speak of higher life forms as evolving from lower
A number of scientists have found difficulties with the theory of evolution, Nasr says.
For example, the lack of fossils intermediate between the great groups requires
explanation. Contrary to Darwinian theory, each new species enters life quite suddenly,
over an extended region, and with all its essential characteristics. A truly scientific
statement would be that nature produces species that are constant and unchanging, but
occasionally disappear. Nasr comes to the rather startling conclusion that as long as
humans have lived on earth, they have not evolved at all. Moreover, Nasr says in Man
and Nature the same species still live, die, and regenerate themselves -- except for
the unfortunate species that modern humanity has made extinct (128).
Underlying these developments, Nasr says, was the absence of a higher form of knowledge
which encompasses all learning and all phenomena: metaphysics. In the East, this
"sacred science" endures to this day. Some early Christian thinkers were
metaphysicians -- Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, for example -- and so were such later
mystics and theologians as Eckhart, Erigena, and Nicolas of Cusa.
For Nasr, Muslims are a kind of "middle people," geographically and
metaphysically located between other Oriental traditions and Western Christianity. Islam's
elaborate hierarchy of knowledge is integrated by the principle of unity (tawhid),
running as an axis through every mode of knowledge and being. There are juridical, social,
theological, gnostic, and metaphysical sciences, their principles all derived from the
Qur'an. Within Islamic civilization, too, there have developed philosophical, natural, and
mathematical sciences that became integrated with the worldview of Islam. On each level of
knowledge, nature is seen in a particular way. For jurists it is the background for human
action, for scientists a domain to be analyzed, and for metaphysicians the object of
contemplation. Ultimately, all Islamic sciences affirm the Divine Unity.
Nasr finds throughout Islamic history an intimate connection between the metaphysical
dimension of the tradition and the study of nature. Muslim scientists were Sufis. In
Islamic as in Chinese civilization, observation of nature and even experimentation
generally stood on the gnostic and mystic side of the tradition. In Islam the indivisible
link between humans and nature and between religion and the sciences lies in the Qur'an
itself, the Logos or Word of God. "By refusing to separate man and nature completely,
Islam has preserved an integral view of the Universe and sees in the arteries of the
cosmic and natural world order the flow of divine grace, or barakah.. . . .
Man can learn to contemplate it, not as an independent domain of reality but as a mirror
reflecting a higher reality" (Man in Nature, 95). In Islam, then, nature has
never been considered profane. Someone like Avicenna could be both a physician and a
philosopher who sought knowledge through illumination. That modern science did not develop
in the bosom of Islam is a sign not of decadence, but of the Islamic refusal to consider
any form of knowledge as purely secular and divorced from the ultimate goal of human
Across the centuries, the same principles of the Divine Unity have guided Islamic
science, art, and law. Islamic cosmology and cosmography have served as matrix for the
Islamic sciences, from geography to alchemy. Maps were based on observation, and remain
amazingly accurate. Yet they were also works of art. Islamic medicine produced detailed,
accurate anatomical studies, even while following the ancient injunction against
dissection. Founded on the doctrines of unity and balance, Islamic medicine is to this day
practiced with success in places like the Hamdard Institutes. The plant world was studied
with minute care, but with the goal of drawing spiritual lessons from it. Muslim
scientists have always recognized that nature is, above all, a reflection of the Paradise
whose memories we still bear in the depths of our souls.
This symbolic approach to creation can be likened to the Orthodox Christian view that
icons are an image of the divine world. Indeed, at one point Nasr observes that Islamic
science is in the most profound sense an art, one that enables the human to contemplate
the visible cosmos as an icon revealing the spiritual world beyond it. Thus, we humans
have studied animals not only for their own sake, but also to know better our own inner
reality. This reality is the total reflection of the Divine Names and Qualities, just as
animals are the partial, but often more direct reflections. Humans, as central in the
terrestrial environment, are better able to exercise responsibility for it.
The correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm, and the study of the gradation of
beings, form the background for scrutinizing the various forms in nature. Humankind stands
at the pinnacle of the hierarchy. But "man cannot gain an awareness of the sacred
aspects of nature without discovering the sacred within himself or herself," Nasr
once told an interfaith conference on "Spirit and Nature," which was recorded
for a program produced by Bill Moyers.
The perfect expression of the microcosm opening to the macrocosm lies in Sufism, which
Nasr calls the inner dimension of Islam. The author of several books on Jalal al-Din Rumi
and other Sufi mystics, he frequently quotes from their works, as in these lines of the
Persian poet Hafiz:
There is no veil between the lover and the Beloved;
Thou art thine own veil, O Hafiz, remove thyself.
One should learn to contemplate the world of nature as a mirror reflecting the Divine
God, who is both transcendent and immanent. Trees are not only necessary to maintain life,
they are a recurring symbol. The Qur'an compares the cosmos to a tree whose roots are firm
in the heavens and whose branches spread to the whole of the universe, symbolizing the
participation of the whole cosmos in prayer. In Islamic tradition, it is a blessed act to
plant a tree even one day before the end of the world. Water has a fundamental reality
which symbolizes Divine Mercy. In Islamic law, to pollute the water is a sin, and
according to certain jurists, the person who does so can even be called a kafir,
a condemnatory term for someone outside the pale of religion.
Ranging through a broad spectrum of wisdom traditions, Nasr pays homage not only to the
two other Abrahamic faiths, but also to the spiritual traditions of Native Americans and
Shintoists, for whom revelation is directly related to natural forms. The American Indian,
for example, sees the bear or eagle as a divine presence. All religious traditions, too,
posit the hierarchical nature of reality -- as in the orders of angels described by
Dionysius, or intermediate worlds in the cosmologies of Mahayana Buddhism. Thus we have
many traditions, yet one, the Primordial Tradition, which always is. This lessens
neither the authenticity nor the complete originality of each, which emanates as a direct
message from Heaven and conforms to a particular archetype. From interfaith dialogue we
should not expect the conversion of participants. Rather, we can gain understanding of
another world of sacred form and meaning through preservation of our own tradition.
The geometric patterns in Islamic art reflect the archetypal world. Traditional Islamic
architecture and city planning never sought to convey a sense of defiant human power over
nature. Where there were hot deserts, the streets were narrow to prevent the sun from
dissipating the cool night air. Slatted wind-towers on housetops caught the breezes that
ventilated homes. Even religious architecture reflected harmony with nature. Light and air
entered easily into the traditional mosque, and birds often flew around during the most
solemn moments of a ceremony. The sun-heated buildings, wind-turned mills, and water
provided energy for small technologies. In the Middle East, particularly Persia, the
Muslims perfected the ancient system of qanats, elaborate underground channels
that stored water and carried it long distances without danger of evaporation. Many are
still being used today.
In the traditional Islamic pattern of life, work is not separated from life, but
reflects natural rhythms. An artisan's workday, for example, may last from dawn until long
after sunset, but the work is done in the bazaar, the bosom of the community, and is
interrupted by coffee-drinking with friends, dining at home with family, prayers at the
mosque, or quiet meditation.
Today, concern for a greater reality in the contemporary world can be observed, Nasr
maintains, in the growing interest in ecology and a concomitant urge to rediscover the
sacred. If the limitations imposed by a desacralized mode of knowing were removed, the
sacred would manifest itself of its own accord, he tells us in Knowledge and the
Sacred. "The light has not ceased to exist in itself. The cosmos seems to have
become dark, spiritually speaking, only because of the veil of opacity surrounding that
particular humanity called modern" (110).
Contrasting Perspectives: Thomas Berry and Seyyed Hossein Nasr
The two modes of thought represented by Nasr and Berry are both so significant that
they reach well beyond conventional boundaries of separate religious and cultural
traditions. Comparing their ideas, not all of them mutually exclusive, may clarify their
differing approaches and highlight basic intellectual choices that religious believers
concerned with ecology will eventually have to make.
Berry's starting point is the natural world. For him, as St. Paul indicates in the
Epistle to the Romans, the earth itself is divine Scripture, and the universe is the
ultimate sacred community. Although Nasr has called Scripture and nature the two grand
books of divine knowledge, he starts with the divine world. In another sense, his starting
point is revelation, the only means by which the Source can, even partially, be known. It
is revelation from a personal God who created the world, watches over the acts of all
human beings, and intervenes in their affairs. Although Nasr acknowledges the mode of
revelation in religions that center on a nonpersonal Supreme Reality rather than a
personal God, and sometimes uses "revelation" simply to refer to the world of
faith, he is most concerned with direct revelation, communicated to a human prophet.
For Berry, "revelation" is the awakening of the sense of ultimate mystery.
The "revelatory import of the natural world" is a recurrent motif; he asks us to
listen to the universe. God is a word that Berry rarely uses: it is employed in so many
different ways that it is too ambiguous; besides, he is primarily concerned with the
larger society, not simply with "religious" people. More often, Berry speaks of
"the divine," for it conveys better the ineffable/numinous presence in the world
For Nasr, "nature," a symbol of a transcendent reality, teaches human beings
about God. His vision seems propelled by an urge to perceive patterns of unity, hierarchy,
order. It might be called a mathematical vision; mathematics, an abstraction with respect
to the world of the senses, is regarded by Muslims as the gateway leading from the
sensible to the intelligible world. Nasr perceives reality through the lens of archetypes.
Like the great naturalist writers, Berry takes joy in the wildness of the natural world --
wilderness undisturbed by human interference. He delights in the smells, tastes, sounds,
the sight and the touch of the earthscape; they enter the very stuff of his being. On lone
walks through the woods he enjoys listening to the trees. Indeed, he has suggested that
the salvation of Christianity lies in absorbing the positive elements of paganism, as it
has assimilated Greek thought and much of Oriental wisdom.
These contrasts seem related to a fundamental difference in emphasis between the
religions that nurtured these men. Christianity tends to be a way of love, Islam a way of
knowing through illumination. Like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism, Islam has
stressed sapiential doctrines. Mainstream Christian thought has tended, in Nasr's words,
to limit the "function of intellection to that of a handmaid of faith rather than the
means of sanctification, which of course would not exclude the element of faith" (Knowledge
and the Sacred, 36). In Christianity caritas is more important. In Berry's
vision, this theme extends to the earth, and he even speaks of "falling in love with
Metaphysics is a realm that Berry rarely discusses, while for Nasr it is the scientia
sacra. For the latter it is a key to perceiving the hierarchy and humankind's
elevated position in it as vicegerent of creation. Berry's perception is closer to the
Native American view that we are one among many species, each with its own distinctive
grandeur: for flying the birds are infinitely superior; for swimming, the fish. So, too,
for producing apples, the apple tree is best. For reflexive thinking, the human. That
which is absolutely superior is the integral community of all species, for as
St. Thomas says in his Summa Theologica, "The whole universe together
participates in and manifests the divine more than any single species, whatsoever"
(I, q.1, a.10).
The concept of "evolution" holds different meanings for Nasr and Berry. Nasr
sees it as a vain attempt to prove that higher biological forms emerge out of lower ones.
The idea violates the principle of hierarchy fundamental to Islam and is wrong in the
strictly scientific sense, and in its influence on other modes of thought. Berry finds
excitement in the idea that there was a time sequence in the very formation of the earth,
that earlier life-forms were simpler than later ones, that the earth, especially its life
forms, is in a state of continuing transformation. The universe has revealed itself as an
emergent evolutionary process.
In Berry's perspective, the universe had a beginning; and time is irreversible. In
Nasr's complex discussions of different conceptions of time, a recurring theme is that the
movement we see in our environment is cyclical rather than evolutionary -- witness the
seasons. But for Berry this does not mean that the natural world moves only in eternal,
unchanging cycles. In fact, the reason we are in trouble is that while the seasons do come
round again every year, the life-systems are deteriorating, continually, bringing more
dust storms, contaminated water, spoiled harvests, and extinction of species that once
made this earth their home.
Berry focuses on cosmogenesis, understanding the universe not as "being" but
as always in the process of becoming. We human beings also evolve and our vision evolves;
our story and that of the earth are intertwined. We are truly of the earth; our
sense of the divine reflects the outer world, and can alter as that world is altered. Such
a view violates the very principle of the unchanging nature of sacred realities that is
fundamental to Nasr's thought. For him, nature is a reflection of the paradise whose
memories we still bear. The Way is the way back, through the revival of traditions as
manifested in the great civilizations. Only thus can we rediscover the sacred and
dissipate the loneliness of a world from which the spirit has been banished.
Each way -- Nasr's and Berry's -- contains wisdom. Although their perspectives differ
radically, both philosophers locate the source of our plight less in external conditions
than in the way we perceive and approach them. Both suggest that we humble ourselves
before the mystery, the awesome forces of creation -- and simplify our lives accordingly.
Both remind us of the peril of hubris, forgetfulness of human limits.
Four centuries ago the Persian Sufi poet Abd al-Rahman Jami foresaw the predicament of
power-driven humanity today:
I lost my intellect, soul, religion, and heart
In order to know an atom in perfection.
But no one can know the essence of the atom perfectly.
How often must I repeat that no one shall know it; then farewell!
Our brief summary of aspects of Nasr's thought is based on his Man and Nature: The
Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1968); Science
and Civilization in Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968); Sufi
Essays (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972); Islamic Science: An Illustrated
Study (London: World of Islam Festival Publishing Co. and Thorson Publishers, 1976); Knowledge
and the Sacred, the 1981 Gifford Lectures (Albany: State University of New York
Press, 1989); Traditional Islam and the Modern World (London: Kegan Paul, 1987).
*[Back to text] Dogen, in Philip Kapleau, The
Three Pillars of Zen, rev. ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1989), 310.
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Cross Currents, Summer94, Vol. 44 Issue 2, p180, 13p