Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s lectures from 1981 was the first time a Muslim scholar was asked to speak in the entire history of the Gifford series. Published in 1989 it is a staggering work of scholarship and perhaps one of the finest introductions to Islamic thought available in the West alongside his other work Ideals and Realities of Islam. Nasr’s central thesis throughout the ten lectures is focused on the close and intimate connection between knowledge (in all of its many and diverse forms) and the sacred. Rather than stick to a single field Nasr moves fluently and impressively across a colossal range of traditions, disciplines and fields of knowledge drawing on Eastern, Judeo-Christian, Hindu and Islamic thought. This breadth of material would, in lesser hands, seem superficial, but Nasr’s scholarship is second-to-none and treats all the subject matter with the utmost seriousness. The aim of the lectures is to uncover firstly the historic links between the sacred and knowledge. Here Nasr shows his familiarity with all religious traditions emphasizing the shared ground of this bond between what is known and the Divine.
Nasr’s approach is traditional — with tradition here having a specific meaning and intent. IN the second lecture (“What is Tradition”) Nasr argues for it as ‘that truth which human beings have lived during most — if not all — of their terrestrial history.’ It is the truths or revealed knowledges which has been handed down and transmitted throughout culture, taking on various forms and appearances. From the Islamic point of view, repeated divine revelations are necessary as traditions decay over time and renewal becomes essential as God is the only true source of perennial wisdom. Tradition then is a surer space of knowledge than the shifting sands of modernity with its focus individual opinion that lacks authenticity. This traditional approach is utterly opposed to modernism, as Nasr puts it, ‘those who follow the traditional point of view wish only to enable Western man to join the rest of the human race.’ From here Nasr unfolds his traditionalist view on the de-sacralisation of knowledge throughout history and the attempts to rediscover tradition. His closing lectures deal with traditional art — art is, Nasr insists, always utilitarian, but for the traditionalist (from which ever tradition it may come) art has been formalized often before systematic theologies and philosophies. We are, after all, material creatures, before anything else. The final lecture “Knowledge of the Sacred as Deliverance” crowns the series – the unknown is not “out there” but rather ‘at the Centre of Man’s Being.’ These lectures, with their incredible valuable footnotes, provide a fascinating insight into the stark contrast between fractured modernity and the continuities of revealed knowledge that have emerged throughout world cultures.