The Spiritual Crisis of Man and Nature

A Book Review of Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

It is often said that the first step to quitting a personal addiction is to acknowledge that one has an addiction. The corporations in charge of our carbon-based global economy are fixated on drilling and guzzling away the Earth’s natural resources in direct defiance to the Quranic verse “And the servants of Ar-Rahmaan are those who tread upon the earth lightly.”[1] Despite this, the United States is a hotbed of climate change denial, with 5% of survey respondents holding that the climate is not even changing. [2] Another 13% of Americans do marginally better, acknowledging the changing tides of our climate but not holding humans liable.

But even for the activists and politicians who bravely blame their own species for the gradual destruction of nature, towards which level of organized human activity do they direct their intervention? Is it a cap and trade policy we need, aimed at curbing corporate greed? Is it something closer to home, such as incentives for community neighborhoods to recycle more? Or is it something part-and-parcel of human consciousness – the soul (nafs) itself – that is in need of sanitization and de-polluting efforts?

Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man by the luminous Seyyed Hossein Nasr argues that the ecological crisis our planet is suffering is symptomatic of a larger spiritual crisis of humanity. Science and feats of engineering are parts of the solution, but will not solve the problem on their own. This book review will underscore key arguments of the book in sync with the organization of the book itself. 

I had the privilege of sitting down with Dr. Nasr at the George Washington University campus for two hours, discussing topics ranging from this book to the publication of his other popular work, The Heart of Islam. He told me that it is his hope for young Muslims of the next generation to continue critically thinking about modern-day issues we face and the solutions that Islam can offer.

Due to my personal familiarity with Islam and ignorance of other faith traditions, I am leaving out of this review some of Nasr’s lengthy discussions on principles of nature in Taoism, Hinduism, and Christianity.

The Problem

Nasr holds that the “destruction of harmony between man and God” is directly related to how aspects of nature are divorced from other orders of reality. This can be broken down into three separate problems. [3]

First, modern science has confused the substance (existing in itself) of a thing for the accident (an attribute that has no connection to the essence of what is being described) of the thing. If one takes the jasad (body) for example, there are now microscopy and fascinating imaging tools to go beyond the skin to observe even more layers of skin, fascia (connective tissue under the skin), and a set of organs. This has atomized human existence to the point where the human being is often not conceived of as an organic whole.

Second, we have championed the empirical sciences to the chagrin of metaphysics. We have lost the hierarchies of knowledge needed to help situate observed reality, and philosophy is now a sycophant of science instead of an independent critic.

Third, there is a functional non-existence of non-scientistic worldviews. Even for the person of religion, the spiritual component of nature has been lost upon us. How many of us look outside at the stars or at the mountains and trees after performing wudhu? Do we attempt to navigate the heavens to determine the Qibla, or do we simply navigate our touch-screen to get to the Qibla app, neglecting the celestial compass in the night sky?

The Intellectual and Historical Causes

Next, Nasr takes a deep dive into the interrelated causes of the aforementioned problems: 1) the European Renaissance, 2) the Scientific Revolution, and 3) the desacralization of the cosmos. ‘Freedom’ in the Islamic sense is one of a qualitative and vertical orientation, where you become free of the world around you through Islam (submission). But the unintended consequence of the advancements of Isaac Newton, himself a devoutly spiritual and reflective scientist, was for the intelligentsia to adopt a mechanistic view of the universe.

The loss of an organic relation with the heavens made freedom quantitative and horizontal, where humankind now sought to bend nature to its own will for its own impervious desires. The gain of power over nature, and theories such as Deism and evolution, directly contributed to the loss of metaphysics:

 The theory of evolution did not provide an organic view for the physical sciences but provided men with a way of reducing the higher to the lower, a magical formula to apply everywhere in order to explain things without the need to have recourse to any higher principles of causes.” [4]

Unfortunately, many Muslims have adopted the mindset of survival of the fittest. In our religious discourse, we have lost the contemplative mode of theology in which matters of tawheed are not merely a list of theological doctrines but a living, breathing experience in everyday life. Contrast this with the Book of Allah, where references to the horizon are vast: “By the sky and the night comer – And what can make you know what is the night comer? It is the piercing star.” [5] Some ulema speculated that the star may refer to Zuhl (Saturn), with multiple opinions on the matter. How could scholars have come to these conclusions without a prior thirst for exploring the world around them?

Metaphysical Principles Pertaining to Nature

…the effective realization of metaphysical truth and its application to human life can only be achieved within a revealed tradition which gives efficacy to certain symbols and rites upon which metaphysics must rely for its realization.” [6]

There are several themes in the Quran that point to the suggestion – perhaps even the obligation – to carefully construct a metaphysics that respects the natural order of the world. The Quran often speaks of two types of Revelation, one in the kitab (the “book,” namely the Quran) and the other in the world around us. The notion of the ummah being a Middle Nation and the principle of Unity also refute the idea that knowledge of the dunya (our present world) can just be considered purely secular.  Contrast this with a strand of Christianity that rejected nature in a repulsive sweep of paganism, with the “pull of faith and love over knowledge and certitude.” [7] Whereas the Quran views nature as a setting for mankind to reflect, Christian archetypology sees the wilderness as a place of evil and warfare.

From the bosom of nature man seeks to transcend nature and nature herself can be an aid in this process provided man can learn to contemplate it, not as an independent domain of reality but as a mirror reflecting a higher reality, a vast panorama of symbols which speak to man and have meaning for him.” [8]

Certain Applications to the Contemporary Situation

Given the acute level of insight that the author offers us, how do we practically transform these reflections into practicable action? Nasr has several thoughts on this:

1)    Creation of standards to clarify the boundary of different sciences. I take this to mean that the principal idea of Tawhid can serve at the center of knowledge around which all other intellectual efforts – physics, mathematics, astronomy, botany, economics, and the like – rotate.

2)    Relating the discoveries of nature as a means of recollecting the vision of Paradise. We cannot continue to conquer and dominate nature endlessly, given the Quran’s praise of those who walk lightly upon the earth.

3)    Recognizing that a specific branch of knowledge may offer us some insight into a particular phenomenon without diminishing the value of other viewpoints. The living tissue of humans can be studied from the perspective of physics, biology or chemistry, and can also be reflected on as a sign from Allah or with topical relevance to fiqh:

Physics gives us some knowledge of the physical world but not all knowledge that is needed, especially as far as the integral relation of man and nature is concerned. The very qualities, forms and harmonies which physics leaves aside from its quantitative point of view, very far from being accidental or negligible, are the aspects most closely tied to the ontological root of things.” [9]

4)    Quranic reflection on exploration of the cosmos in seeking God.

Concluding Thoughts

Last summer, I took a course on the climate change crisis, which thoroughly covered all sorts of perspectives on how and why humans are responsible for the crisis in nature. Despite this, it only takes a single ayah on the beauty of the world Allah created for us to inspire us to improve our surrounding habitat. The Messenger of God ﷺ encourages us to plant a tree, to feed animals, and to keep from wasting water as if he knew the future state of human affairs. [10] Reassuringly, there are movers and shakers in the Islamic environmentalism movement, such as Fazlun Khalid, who founded IFEES (Islamic Foundation for Ecology and Environmental Sciences), and an Islamic eco-schools initiative in Indonesia. [11]

Within each manifestation of nature is a khutbah, delivering a sermon to us when we experience it. Whether the reminder is the breeze of wind [12], clap of thunder [13], wondrous view of the mountain [14], or bounty of rain [15], let us begin to gradually connect the Quran to respect for Allah’s creation around us, in the hope that even shrubs and bushes testify in our favor on the Day of Judgment.

Works Cited

  1. Quran, 25:63.
  2. Milman, Oliver, and Fiona Harvey. “US Is Hotbed of Climate Change Denial, Major Global Survey Finds.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/07/us-hotbed-climate-change-denial-international-poll.
  3. Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern May, Seyyed Hossein Nasr: pg. 20.
  4. Ibid., pg. 74.
  5. Quran, 86:1-3
  6. Ibid., pg. 81.
  7. Ibid., pg. 56.
  8. Ibid., pg. 95.
  9. Ibid., pg. 120.
  10. “Classical and Contemporary Muslim and Islamic Books.” Kitaabun, kitaabun.com/shopping3/teachings-prophet-muhammad-environment-a-537.html.
  11. “Interview with Environmental Expert Tarik M. Quadir : ‘If We Don’t Pull Together to Save the Earth, We Will ‘Sink’ Together.’” Qantara.de, en.qantara.de/content/interview-with-environmental-expert-tarik-m-quadir-if-we-don’t-pull-together-to-save-the?nopaging=1.
  12. Quran, 69:6-7.
  13. Quran, 13:13.
  14. Quran, 78:7.
  15. Quran, 71:11.

About the author: Waqas Haque is an editor for Traversing Tradition. He is on leave from medical school to study public health and also obtained an M.Phil. from Cambridge University. He is broadly interested in tafsir, bioethics, drug development, and entrepreneurship. He enjoys frequenting the gym, masjid, and halal food establishments.

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