Scripture, Society and Traditional Wisdom

An Interview with Seyyed Hossein Nasr
By Michael Barnes Norton

Journal of Philosophy and Scripture

JPS: The traditional, or perennial, philosophy of which you are a well-known proponent reserves a privileged place for the sacred scriptures of the religious traditions of the world. The majority of Western philosophy over the past few centuries has been in the process of segregating itself from these scriptures. How would you characterize the different approaches of Western philosophy and traditional philosophy to sacred scripture?

SHN: There’s a very profound distinction, if by Western philosophy you mean modern Western philosophy. In the West, Christian and Jewish philosophy both in the middle ages and, to some extent, afterwards still paid a great deal of attention to the scriptures, and Islamic philosophy has always paid attention to the scriptures. Not that it has just based itself on the scriptures, or it would be just theology and not philosophy, but it has paid a great deal of attention especially to the inner meaning of scripture. Some of the great Islamic philosophers like Mulla Sadra, and before him Ibn Sina (Avicenna), had written commentaries upon the Qur'an. And we have parallels in the west: St. Thomas Aquinas, and many Jewish thinkers and philosophers as well. Now modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, is characterized by practically a total disregard for scripture as a source of philosophical knowledge. Although there are people here and there who pay some attention to this, by and large European philosophy in the modern period from Descartes on is not concerned with scripture. If it is, it would be only on the level of ethics but not metaphysics. Perennial philosophy, on the other hand, looks upon the scriptures as revelations from God and believes that in the inner dimension, the esoteric dimension, of scriptures is contained the perennial wisdom with which the perennial philosophy is concerned. So the heart, the inner aspect of the religions as revealed in scriptures contain that religio perennis, that eternal religion, or the sophia perennis, the eternal wisdom, with which perennial philosophy is concerned. And therefore, perennial philosophy pays a great deal of attention to scripture, not only as a source of ethics but also as a source of metaphysics.

JPS: You made a distinction between having scripture as a foundation, which would be more like theology, and paying attention to scripture within a philosophical context. How can philosophy pay attention to and incorporate scripture when most scriptures are not written in philosophical language, often using narrative or metaphor to convey their meaning?

SHN: I think that can be clarified by having recourse to two very important truths which have been emphasized a great deal in perennial philosophy. First of all, the perennial philosophers believe that the instrument of revelation is none other than the intellect, understood metaphysically, which is also the element which illuminates our mind and provides us with knowledge. For example, in Arabic the word ‛aql, which means the intellect—not only reason but also intellect in the medieval sense of the term—is also associated with the very instrument of revelation, the archangel Gabriel who brought the Qur’an to the Prophet. And also in Augustinian illuminationistic philosophy, knowledge is considered to be a kind of illumination by the angel, and revelation is also concerned with the coming into this world of a message through what one could call angelic agency. Therefore, the first point is that the means whereby scripture is revealed and the means whereby one knows in a noetic and intellectual sense are the same. Secondly, philosophers—that is, traditional philosophers, those who follow the perennial philosophy—they have looked upon scripture not simply on its literal level but on its symbolic level. So even something which is descriptive, let us say the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament, have been the source of very profound metaphysical commentaries and mystical commentaries, because the traditional philosophers have looked upon the text not only in its literal aspect but in its symbolic aspect. In Islam we have many, many commentaries upon the Qur’an, by both Sufis and Islamic philosophers, in which even what appears to be narrative of some sacred history is interpreted in a symbolic way to convey meanings which are transhistorical and metaphysical.

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