An installment in a series of profiles on GW professors.
Since 1984, one of the world’s foremost Islamic scholars has been teaching here at GW.
University Professor of Islamic Studies Seyyed Hossein Nasr specializes in Sufism, Islamic philosophy and metaphysics. Nasr teaches “Islamic Philosophy and Theology” at the undergraduate level as well as a graduate course, “Man and Natural Environment” through GW’s Department of Religion.
In 1933, Nasr was born in Tehran, Iran. As a 12-year-old, Nasr came to the United States to study at the Peddie School, a New Jersey boarding school where he graduated in 1950 as valedictorian. Afterward, he went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as its first Iranian student and obtained a master’s degree in geology and geophysics.
Nasr pursued a doctorate degree in the history of science and philosophy at Harvard, and in 1958, Nasr returned to teach at Tehran University as an associate professor of philosophy.
Though Nasr initially studied sciences, he said he became “very dissatisfied with the modern view of science,” which led him to study Islamic science and philosophy. In 1972, Nasr was appointed president of Sharif University of Technology, formerly known as Aryamehr University or Technology. A year later, Nasr established the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, which at the time was Iran’s premier philosophical institution.
In 1979, Nasr left Iran just before the start of the Iranian Revolution.
“I knew there was going to be upheaval,” he said. “After my house and property were plundered, I decided it was not possible for me to go back.” Although he has not been to Iran since, Nasr added, “I hope to make a trip (to my home in Iran) soon.”
As for his foray into teaching, Nasr explained, “I always have been interested in scholarship and teaching and the question of knowledge.”
“I try to resuscitate the Islamic traditions (of) … philosophy, science, Sufism, and I think I’ve been quite successful in doing that,” he remarked.
Associate Professorial Lecturer in Religion Mohammad Faghfoory first met Nasr in 1965, as a student at Tehran University. At that time, Nasr taught an Islamic culture and civilization class, and since then, Nasr has continued to mentor Faghfoory.
Faghfoory described Nasr as “a first-rank teacher, supportive of students, and a trainer of mind and soul … He is an extremely gifted author and poet, both in English and in Persian, his mother tongue.”
He added that Nasr, “has introduced many Islamic intellectuals to the Western world that were totally unknown (here) a generation ago.”
Nasr said when studying Islam one cannot count out the influences of the Western world.
“The Islamic world is going through a period of very great tension and very often contradictory forces. Its destiny is ultimately tied up with the West.”
Faghfoory added that Nasr has always been his teacher and a source of his inspiration.
“(Nasr) offers the best kind of education that one can get … in my view, he is second to none. His books are a constant source of reference for scholars and students alike. His macro-perspective offers many windows before one’s eyes in regards to religion, spirituality, tolerance, understanding, patience and love,” Faghfoory said.
Faghfoory also said that in all Nasr’s writing and lectures he constantly tries to show “the universality of truth, that all men are children of one God.” By doing, Faghfoory said, Nasr “has narrowed the gap that separates East and West.”
While previously teaching at the University of Edinburgh, Temple University and now GW, Nasr has also helped shape the Islamic studies programs at Princeton University, the University of Utah and the University of Southern California to reflect what he calls “the point of view of Islam and not just the Western (view of Islam).”