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INTERVIEW WITH SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR
INTERVIEWER: What was Muhammad was like as a human being?
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: The prophet of Islam was a human being as the Qur'an says. Muslims emphasize this to prevent any kind of divinity being attributed to him.
He was very trusted. He was called El-Amin, which means "the trusted one."
He was married for 25 years in a monogamous relationship. He was a wonderful father. He loved his daughters. His relationship with FATIMA has been very deep extensively recorded. He loved his grandchildren and loved to play with them. He used to get on the ground and allow Hasan and Hussein to ride on his back, and he showed great love for them.
Muhammad had a great capacity for friendship. Abu Bakr, the first Caliph of Islam, was his very close friend. He was a protector too. He brought his cousin Ali into his household when Ali was a young boy, for the prophet himself had been brought up in the household of Ali's father when he was a young man. And he appreciated many different kinds of relationships, and his relationship to men and women were based on deep understanding.
A famous Arabic poem says that Muhammad was like a jewel among stones, because a jewel is both a stone and the most perfect and precious representative of the whole type. The use of the term 'perfection' doesn't mean that he was devoid of ordinary human qualities, just the other way around. It means that he realized all the possibilities of being human, that he was a perfect example for others, and that his submission to God was complete and, so, 'perfect.'
INTERVIEWER: What is unique about Muhammad's character, for Muslims?
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: According to the Islamic point of view, the prophet Muhammad underwent all the different experiences possible to the human state. He experienced great joy, great sorrow. He had to practice great patience, great generosity. He had to undergo great trials and also forgive, as for example when he entered the city of Mecca. There's practically no human emotion that the prophet did not experience.
Also, Muslims believe that the prophet possessed the highest knowledge, which is the knowledge of god and the knowledge of god's names and attributes and actions. This is reflected in the famous hadith (or saying of the prophet) that is accepted by both Sunnis and Shi'ites alike, when he said, I am the City of knowledge and Ali, [his cousin and later Caliph], is its gate. People talk about the gate but also let's remember the city itself.
The prophet called himself a City of knowledge. He doesn't mean knowledge of the number of pebbles on the beach or number of palm trees in Florida. It means, of course, principal knowledge, knowledge in, as traditionally understood, which transforms and ultimately sanctifies. And so, for Muslims who really understand the stature of the prophet, the prophet represents perfection on every level.
INTERVIEWER: Could you say something about the importance of the relationship between men and women, and the positive attitude toward sexuality?
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Yes, this is a very important question. Of course, there's no family without a relationship between man and woman, and the question of sexuality is a very important question, because there's been so much misunderstanding about it. In order to clarify this, I must go back, since I'm speaking primarily to a Western audience, to certain theological and historical conditions and truths, in the West, which have been the cause for the particular interpretation that many Westerners make of Islamic attitude towards sexuality.
At least in the Augustinian understanding of Christianity, sexuality itself is a sin. It's the result of our original sin, and that is why marriage is a sacrament in Christianity, which in a sense washes away the wound of this sin. In Islam, sexuality itself is not a sin. It is sacred. It's a part of the human estate, and in this particular issue, Islam and Judaism are closer together, than Christianity.
In Islam, sexuality is sacred, but it has to be governed by rules, and therefore marriage is a contract, that is, it is contracted between two human beings. However, this positive attitude towards sexuality should not be confused with promiscuity. In order to solve the problem of promiscuity, you have one of two solutions.
In the form that was traditionally followed in the West, the only sexual relationship accepted by the church was in a monogamous marriage, and all promiscuity was simply put aside and not looked at. There was (and remains) a disconnect between practice and formality for the gentlemen who went to church on Sunday, but who had their wife on one street, and their mistress in the next street.
A lot of extramarital sexual activity went on in the West. It came into the open in the '60s, but we see it even in the Victorian period, in novels that were forbidden at that time. Islamic culture did not follow that pattern. Islamic culture tried to minimize promiscuity, by integrating as much as possible sexual activity within marriage.
Now, polygamy is not unique to Islam. King Solomon had 4,000 wives. Polygamy also existed in Hinduism. It existed in the West, until the end of the pre-Modern period. Charlemagne had many wives, and so did Clovis, the famous emperors of Europe. So, the idea that polygamy is immoral and exists in Islam alone is, of course, absurd. It existed in Buddhism and Confucianism, and Hinduism, in early Christianity, in Judaism, including the prophets. The prophet allowed and practiced polygamy, but as a way, first of all, to increase the family structure within society. For example: the older married brother of a married man might die, leaving a sixty year old woman alone, on her own, unable to fend, and so he would marry her. It was not for sexual pleasure. It was often times social duty, and sometimes also it was done when people were away. They were away from their wives, and rather than performing something outside of the religion, they were allowed to marry another wife.
Of course, there have always been people who misused whole institution of polygamy. Any institution is going to be misused, but its bottom line, its final result, was precisely to decrease sexual promiscuity as much as possible. For example, the question of having an illegitimate child, a bastard son or daughter: how many countries in Europe have that, or in South America, or in North America, children who do not belong to any marriage? They do not inherit any wealth, and they're not officially recognized. Now, people are trying to change the laws in the West, whereas in the Islamic world, that has always been something very rare. All of this goes back to, as I said, a positive attitude towards sexuality, without this meaning promiscuity. That's the important point.
INTERVIEWER: Discuss the change in the pattern of Muhammad's marriages.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: All that I have just said can be seen reflected in the life of the prophet of Islam. Until he was 50 years old, that is, during all of the years when the sexual passions are strongest in men, he was monogamous, and he was married to a woman 15 years older than himself. He had a very happy marriage to her. He had a very long experience of monogamy for the greater part of his adult life.
After his wife's death, during the last 13 years of his life, when already, from the sexual point of view, the human being is on a downhill course, he contracted several marriages. Most of these were for sociopolitical reasons, to integrate through the marriage bond certain tribes into Islam, but not all of them. The prophet must not be compared to Christ on this. Christ did not marry. He did not have any children, and that's one of the greatest problems Westerners have in trying to understand the prophet. The prophet has to be seen in the context of the prophets of the Old Testament, David and Solomon and Abraham.
A prophet of God is not a slave of sexual passion. I mean, this is incomprehensible in the context of how the West understands a saint to be.
INTERVIEWER: Why should we be interested in this story at this time?
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Despite the predictions made by many 20th century Western scholars and missionaries about the demise of Islam, this has not happened. Islam is one of the most vibrant and living forces on the surface of the earth today, despite all the shortcomings that many Muslims have...
Islam is a religion, it is a very powerful and living reality, and anyone who wants to know what is going on in the world today, even if they have no interest in religion, if they want to know what's going on in the Philippines, in Chechnya, in Palestine, and Bosnia, in Africa, they must know something about the reality of Islam. And Muhammad is central to that reality.
There is really no excuse for a person today not to know something about the prophet of Islam. Even, you know, in European literature, after Christ and Napoleon, there is no one like the prophet of Islam about whom so many biographies were written over many centuries. Yet in a certain way, the present American society is more ignorant of the prophet than all the other generations of European civilization, although among Europeans there was tremendous distortion. Many false biographies were written in Latin and other European languages. But at least there was an awareness that there was such a person, whereas today many people are not aware of it.
Well, of course, there are now six million Muslims in America, as many as Jews, the second, along with Judaism, religious minority in this country, more than Episcopalians already, and there are people for whom of course the prophet of Islam is the center of their religious life, and as I said, the interrelations that exist in the world today, between Islam and the West, between Islam and Hindu India, between Islam and Confucian and Communist China, in literature, in art, in philosophy, in thought and theology, and politics of course… If you want to know about Islam, you need to know something about Muhammad. It's that simple.