Behind a desk littered with papers in English and Arabic, Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr leans back in his chair and touches the tips of his fingers together. He is pondering a question often asked to men of his prominence: What is your greatest accomplishment?
Professor Nasr’s mind may be flickering through some of his life’s major achievements: his years as president of Iran’s University, his appointment by the Queen of Iran to establish the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, or his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Harvard, to name only a few.
With little hesitation he responds, “The training of students.”
Nasr’s greatest accomplishment is a work still in progress at GW, where, as a University professor, he has been sharing his extensive knowledge of religion and science, Islamic theology, Sufism, Islamic society and other philosophical and religious issues with students since 1984.
But for Nasr, the road to GW was not an easy one.
Nasr was living in Tehran, Iran, during the Iranian Revolution in 1979 when the Shah was overthrown and the Ayatollah Khomeini seized power.
At the time, Nasr was a professor of philosophy and history of science
at Tehran University, dean and chancellor of Tehran University and President of Iran’s University. He was also Iran’s cultural ambassador. Nasr’s prestigious academic positions meant that he was too close to the Shah and that he and his family would be in danger if they stayed in Iran.
“It was extremely difficult coming to the U.S. in 1979. I had lost all of my belongings and all of my property in Iran,” he recalled. “It was in the middle of an academic year and it was hard to find a job. Many were afraid to approach me.”
Eventually Nasr made the decision to settle in Cambridge, Mass.,
where he taught a course at Harvard. Nasr was no stranger to Harvard; he received his master’s degree in Geology and Geophysics, as well as his PhD. in the history of science and philosophy in 1958. He also began his teaching career there in 1955.
In 1984, Nasr found himself facing a very difficult decision. He was offered two full-time academic positions: one in the Yale University religion department; and one as a university professor at GW.
“I chose George Washington for three reasons,” Nasr said. “The first being that after having suffered in the revolution, for myself and my family, culturally and humanely, D.C. was better than New Haven … The second was that I would have more freedom at George Washington. With the university professorship I do not have to deal with faculty meetings or department heads. Third, being in the capital of Washington I would have more of an effect.”
In addition to teaching, Nasr considers his other greatest accomplishment to be his writings on Islamic thought and perennial philosophy. He has published over 20 books and over 200 articles in many different languages and on subjects including the philosophy of science, Islamic philosophy, aesthetics, and religion and science.
Today, Nasr finds his expertise in high demand, as he travels the globe giving lectures and attending conferences.
His busy lifestyle and extensive list of accomplishments are reflected in the Nasr Foundation Web site (www.nasrfoundation.org), which was created by some of his former students to “propagate traditional teachings, in general, and the various facets of traditional Islam and other religions, in particular.”
So how does it feel to be taught by one of the world’s leading experts on Islam?
“It’s as if I was a student of Einstein and I was talking with him,” said senior Russell Allen.
“It’s very humbling,” said freshman Justin Zorn, who added that the warmth and compassion that Nasr displays toward his students, in addition to the extensive knowledge that he brings to the classroom, have given students a deep respect for the man.
Many students say his insightful and informed answers to even the most obscure questions, and personal anecdotes that are the stuff of an international affairs major’s dreams (“So then I said to the Shah…”), make Nasr’s classes some of the most sought-after and talked about at the University.
Allen said he thinks every GW student should be required to take a class with Nasr, whom he says is “one of the greatest thinkers of our time. And when he is judged by history, I can say ‘Wow. That was my teacher.'”