Desacralization of knowledge

In philosophy of religion, desacralization of knowledge (sometimes described as secularization of knowledge)[note 1][note 2] is the process of separation of knowledge from its divine source. The process marks a paradigmatic shift in understanding the concept of knowledge in modern period. It has rejected the notion that knowledge has spiritual-metaphysical foundations and is therefore related to the sacred. Although a recurrent theme among the writers of Traditionalist school[note 3] that began with René Guénon, a French mystic and intellectual who earlier spoke of 'the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order',[note 4] the process of desacralization of knowledge was most notably surveyed, chronicled and conceptualized by Islamic philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his 1981 Gifford Lectures which was later published as Knowledge and the Sacred.


In Nasr's assessment, desacralization of knowledge is one of the most significant aspects of secularism. He defines secularism in philosophical terms as ‘everything whose origin is merely human and therefore non-divine and whose metaphysical basis lies in this ontological hiatus between man and God'.[5] Secularism, Nasr argues, is an evil force that has caused science and knowledge to become desacralized. In this process, science and knowledge became separated and lost their homogenous character in the form of traditional knowledge.[6] The core idea of desacralization of knowledge is that modern civilization has lost the transcendent roots of knowledge in restricting knowledge to the empirical domain alone.[7]

Dictionary of Literary Biography states:

[Nasr's] central thesis is that true knowledge is profoundly and by its very essence related to the sacred. This idea, he argues, underlies the basic teachings of every traditional religion whether Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam or Christianity. Only in the Modern world, which he dates from the Renaissance, has the connection between knowledge and the sacred been lost.[8]

In Nasr's exposition, the words ‘to know’ and ‘knowledge’ forfeit their unidimensional character. In his view, "knowledge' extends in hierarchy from an empirical and rational mode of knowing to the highest form of knowledge, that is, the ‘unitive knowledge’, or al-ma’rifah." Similarly, "to know' extends from ratiocination to intellection."[9] By nature, argues Nasr, knowledge is inseparable from being and therefore related to the Sacred. To be human, Nasr argues, is to know. To know therefore means ultimately knowing the Supreme Self who is the source of all knowledge and consciousness.[10] It is the post medieval process of secularization and a humanism that has ultimately “forced the separation of knowing from being and intelligence from the Sacred”.[11]

Stefano Bigliardi of Al Akhawayn University states:

Knowledge of the Absolute means knowledge of the existence of superior spiritual levels, of the interrelatedness of the phenomena of nature, of the interrelatedness of their respective elements, and most importantly, of the derivation of everything from the Absolute itself. However, the awareness (and therefore the usage) of Intellect according to Nasr has been lost, together with the awareness of the Absolute itself. In Nasr’s reconstruction such oblivion characterizes the whole course of human thought that, in its dominant manifestations, can be described as a continuous desacralization of knowledge.[12]

Nasr explains that modern science has reduced multiple domains of reality to a mere psycho-physical one. Without a sacred vision, Nasr argues, science thus became concerned with the changes in material world alone. For the reason that modern science has abandoned the notion of hierarchy of being, scientific theories and discoveries can no longer appreciate the truths that belong to a higher order of reality. Modern Science, in Nasr's words, is therefore an ‘incomplete’ or ‘superficial science’ which only concerns with certain parts of reality while invalidating others.[13] It is based on the distinction between the knowing subject and the known object. Nasr argues that modern science has lost its symbolic spirit and the dimension of transcendence as it has repudiated the role of intellect in pursuing knowledge and truth by adopting a pure quantitative method.[14][15] The structure of reality, in Nasr's contention, is unchanging. What changes is the vision and perception of human being about that reality. Having no sense of permanence, modern western philosophy has reduced the reality to a mere temporal process. This phenomenon, Jane Smith notes, is what Nasr identifies as the desacralization of knowledge and the loss of the sense of the sacred.[16]

Historical development

In saying 'I think, therefore I am,' Nasr contends, "Descartes was not referring to the divine I who some seven centuries before Descartes had uttered through the mouth of Mansur al-Hallaj, 'I am the Truth' (ana’l-Haqq), the Divine Self which alone can say I".[17][18]
The final step toward desacralization was taken by Hegel who reduced 'the whole process of knowledge to a dialectic inseparable from change and becoming'.[19][20]

The process of desacralization of knowledge had already begun with the ancient Greeks.[21] The rationalists and skeptics of ancient Greek philosophical traditions, Nasr argues, played a major role in the process of desacralization by reducing knowledge either to ratiocination or mere cognitive exercise.[22] In substituting reason for intellect and sensuous knowledge for inner illumination, the Greeks, is thus said to have pioneered the process of desacralization of knowledge.[23] Other major stages in the process of desacralization include the formation of Renaissance philosophical systems that had developed a concept of nature which is independent and self-creative.[24] The process, however, reached its climax in the thought of René Descartes[25] who 'made thinking of the individual ego the center of reality and criterion of all knowledge.'[26] Thereafter, knowledge, even if it were to reach distant galaxies, eventually became rooted in the cogito.[27]

Dictionary of Literary Biography summarizes:

Nasr analyzes the modern desacralization of knowledge and the consequent eclipse of human intelligence[..].[..]The roots of the crisis, he says, go back as far as the rationalists and skeptics of ancient Greece, but more immediate and grave in effect was the humanism of the Renaissance which shifted the focus of knowledge from God to human beings and from the sacred cosmos to the secular order, and the full blown rationalism of the Enlightenment which reduced human knowledge to reason alone. Nasr contends that epistemology since Descartes has taken an increasingly reductionist trajectory in which the traditional doctrine of knowledge rooted in intellection and revelation was replaced by an idolatry of reason. Rationalism gave way to empiricism, with its tendency to reject metaphysics altogether; and empiricism has been followed by various forms of irrationalism, including existentialism and deconstructionism. The general course of modern history has been one of desacralization and decay, robbing humanity of intelligence and stripping the cosmos of beauty and meaning.[28]

Liu Shu-hsien, a Neo-Confucian philosopher, writes:

Nasr's critique of modem European philosophy has also presented a very interesting perspective. He pointed out that Descartes's individual was not referring to Atman or the divine I, but rather the "illusory" self, which was placing its experience and consciousness of thinking as the foundation of all epistemology and ontology and the source of certitude. After the Humean doubt, Kant taught an agnosticism which in a characteristically subjective fashion denied to the intellect the possibility of knowing the essence of things. This situation further deteriorated into the Hegelian and Marxist dialectics, as they denied that there is anything immutable behind the appearance, and this loss of the sense of permanence was characteristic of mainstream thought of modem Western philosophy. In the analytic philosophy and irrational philosophies that followed, the sacred quality of knowledge was completely destroyed.[29]

One 'powerful instrument' of desacralization in history includes the theory of evolution,[30] which, in Nasr's words, 'is a desperate attempt to substitute a set of horizontal, material causes in a unidimensional world to explain effects whose causes belong to other levels of reality, to the vertical dimensions of existence.'[31] He argues that the theory of evolution and its use by modernists and liberal theologians like Aurobindo Ghose and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has been a 'major force' in the process of desacralization of knowledge.[32] The 'roots of the betrayal', in David Burrel's words, however, may well be found 'on the other side of Descartes', in the high scholasticism which includes the thought of Aquinas and Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. Their syntheses, Nasr argues, 'tended to become over-rationalistic in imprisoning intuitions of a metaphysical order in syllogistic categories which were to hide, rather than reveal, their properly speaking intellectual rather than purely rational character.'[33]


The occasion of the 'fall' of the West is marked by its turn towards desacralized knowledge, which begins with the adoption of the rationalist wing of ancient Greek thought, particularly Aristotle.[34]

Externalisation and desacralization of knowledge has led to the belief that all that can be understood is science in terms of information, quantification, analysis and their subsequent technological implications. The questions of religion, God, eternal life and the nature of the soul are all outside the realm of scientific knowledge and thus are only matters of faith.[35] The desacralized knowledge has affected all areas of culture including art, science and religion. It has had an impact on human nature as well.[36] Moreover, the effect of desacralized, profane knowledge is felt within the value system, thought processes and structure of feelings.[37] The desacralized knowledge and science, Nasr argues, affects the employment of technology and has resulted in ecological catastrophes in present world. It results in highly compartmentalized science whose ignorance of the divine destroys the outward and inward spiritual ambience of human beings.[38][39]


For Liu Shu-hsien the process of desacralization of knowledge is not as bad as Nasr has anticipated. On the contrary, Shu-hsien argues, there is an overwhelming necessity for desacralization of knowledge within the domain of empirical science for the reason that the quest of certainty is no longer a viable objective.[40] For David Harvey, the Enlightenment thought sought demystification and desacralization of knowledge and social organization in order to free human beings from their bonds.[41] Svend Brinkmann independently argues on the need for desacralization of knowledge stating that 'if knowing is a human activity, it is always already situated somewhere – in some cultural, historical and social situation'.[42] David Burrell argues on the other hand that, in a world that is explicitly postmodern, scholars are more at ease with Nasr's criticism of ‘Enlightenment philosophical paradigm’ than ever before. Those who would argue that ‘if knowledge cannot be secured in Descartes’s fashion, it cannot be secured at all’ might find themselves dragging along their modern presumptions.[43]

See also


  1. ^ "The secularization process first began when a line was drawn between the realm of the sacred and the realm of the profane. Humans rebelled against Heaven, and declared their independence of God. Hence, the sacred qualities of the human faculty of knowledge were ignored, thereby initiating the process of secularization of knowledge."[1]
  2. ^ “In the beginning Reality was at once being, knowledge, and bliss; and in that ‘now’ which is the everpresent ‘in the beginning’, knowledge continues to possess a profound relation with that principle and primordial Reality which is the Sacred and the Source of all that is sacred.[..].. With these opening words of the Gifford Lectures for 1981, Seyyed Hassein Nasr begins his analysis of the causes of the intellectual and spiritual chaos of modern times, namely, the eclipse of the sapiential dimension and the secularization of knowledge.”[2]
  3. ^ "The traditionalists severely criticized profane philosophy and scientism as the only legitimate manner of knowing the different levels of reality. They were thoroughly critical of modern science because of its reductionism and its imperial conceit and pretensions in claiming to be the only mode of knowing. Their greatest criticism of modern science, (and here they part company with those postmodern critiques of modernity which focus only on the social and political consequences of modernity), was its lack of metaphysical principles, its severance from Transcendental order and the spiritual perspective. Their critique of scientific outlook and attitude, unlike the Romantic sensibility, was an intellectual one, not a sentimental one. Their vast corpus of work is based on the primacy of transcendence, sacred knowledge, value, truth and meaning created through intuition and revelation."[3]
  4. ^ "Henceforth there was only 'profane' philosophy and 'profane' science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely, the empirical and analytical study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion in an indefinite multitude of insignificant details, and the accumulation of unfounded and mutually destructive hypotheses and of fragmentary views leading to nothing other than those practical applications that constitute the sole real superiority of modern civilization -a scarcely enviable superiority, moreover, which, by stifling every other preoccupation, has given the present civilization the purely material character that makes of it a veritable monstrosity." [4]


  1. ^ Aslan 1998, p. 119.
  2. ^ Largo 1982, p. 219.
  3. ^ Khan 2017, p. 75.
  4. ^ Guenon 1927, p. 16.
  5. ^ Zebiri 1998, p. 53.
  6. ^ Stenberg 1996, p. 278.
  7. ^ Danner 1982, p. 247.
  8. ^ Allen 2003, p. 195.
  9. ^ Alkatiri 2016, p. 210.
  10. ^ Shook 2005, p. 1801.
  11. ^ Eaton 1983, p. 3.
  12. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 120.
  13. ^ Widiyanto 2017, pp. 251, 252.
  14. ^ Widiyanto 2017, p. 252.
  15. ^ Bigliardi 2014, p. 169.
  16. ^ Smith 1991, p. 83.
  17. ^ Nasr 1989, p. 34
  18. ^ Aslan 1998, p. 120
  19. ^ Nasr 1989, p. 38
  20. ^ Aslan 1998, p. 121
  21. ^ Alatas 1995, p. 97.
  22. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 120.
  23. ^ Eaton 1983, p. 4
  24. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 120
  25. ^ Eaton 1983, p. 4.
  26. ^ Heer 1993, p. 145.
  27. ^ Heer 1993, p. 145
  28. ^ Allen 2003, p. 195.
  29. ^ Shu-hsien 2000, p. 258.
  30. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 120.
  31. ^ Nasr 1989, p. 151.
  32. ^ Saltzman 2000, p. 595.
  33. ^ Burrel 2000, p. 642.
  34. ^ Howard 2011, p. 107
  35. ^ Saltzman 2000, p. 589.
  36. ^ Aslan 1998, p. 119.
  37. ^ Khan 2017, p. 80.
  38. ^ Bigliardi 2014a, p. 121.
  39. ^ Bigliardi 2014, p. 169.
  40. ^ Shu-hsien 2000, p. 264.
  41. ^ Harvey 1991, p. 13.
  42. ^ Brinkmann 2012, p. 32.
  43. ^ Burrel 2000, p. 642.


  • Alatas, Syed Farid (1995). "The Sacralization of the Social Sciences : a Critique of an Emerging Theme in Academic Discourse". Archives de Sciences Sociales des Religions. 91: 89–111. doi:10.3406/assr.1995.996.
  • Alkatiri, Wardah (2016). "In Search of Suitable Knowledge: The Need of Ontological Epistemological Pluralism". International Journal of the Asian Philosophical Association. 9 (2): 197–230.
  • Allen, Micheal (2003). "Seyyed Hossein Nasr". In Dematteis, Philip B.; McHenry, Leemon B. (eds.). Dictionary of Literary Biography. Gale. ISBN 978-0787660239.
  • Aslan, Adnan (1998). "The Need for a Pluralistic Approach in Religion". Religious Pluralism in Christian and Islamic Philosophy: The Thought of John Hick and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Routledge. ISBN 978-0700710256.
  • Bigliardi, Stefano (2014). "The Contemporary Debate on the Harmony between Islam and Science: Emergence and Challenges of a New Generation". Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy. 28 (2): 167–186. doi:10.1080/02691728.2013.782583. S2CID 144348104.
  • Bigliardi, Stefano (2014a). "Above Analysis and Amazement. Some Contemporary Muslim Characterizations of "Miracle" and their Interpretation". Sophia. 53 (1): 113–129. doi:10.1007/s11841-013-0370-4. S2CID 144001330.
  • Brinkmann, Svend (2012). Qualitative Inquiry in Everyday Life: Working with Everyday Life Materials. Sage. ISBN 978-0857024763.
  • Burrel, David (2000). "Islamic Philosophical Theology". In Hahn, Lewis Edwin; Auxier, Randall E.; Stone Jr., Lucian W. (eds.). The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Open Court. ISBN 978-0812694147.
  • Danner, Victor (1982). "Book Reviews: Knowledge and the Sacred". The Muslim World. 72 (3–4): 247–248.
  • Eaton, Gai (1983). "Knowledge and the Sacred: Reflections on Seyyed Hossein Nasr's Gifford Lectures". Studies in Comparative Religion. 15 (3–4).
  • Guenon, Rene (1927). "The Dark Age". The Crisis of the Modern World. Sophia Perennis; Revised Edition (June 24, 2004). ISBN 978-0900588242.
  • Harvey, David (1991). "The passage from modernity to postmodernity in contemporary culture". The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-0631162940.
  • Heer, Nicholas (1993). "Book Reviews: Knowledge and the Sacred". Philosophy East and West. 43 (1): 144–150. doi:10.2307/1399476. JSTOR 1399476.
  • Howard, Damian (2011). "Defying the Immanent Frame". Being Human in Islam: The Impact of the Evolutionary Worldview. Routledge. ISBN 978-0415603683.
  • Khan, Aalia Sohail (2017). "Reduction of Science into Scientism" (PDF). Muslim Perspective. 2 (4): 70–87.
  • Largo, Gerald A. (1982). "Review: Islamic Knowledge; Review of Knowledge and the Sacred by Seyyed Hossein Nasr". CrossCurrents. 32 (2): 219–221. JSTOR 24458501.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein (1989). "Knowledge and its Desacralization". Knowledge and the Sacred. State University of New York. ISBN 978-0791401774.
  • Saltzman, Judy D. (2000). "The Concept of Spiritual Knowledge in the Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr". In Hahn, Lewis Edwin; Auxier, Randall E.; Stone Jr., Lucian W. (eds.). The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Open Court. ISBN 978-0812694147.
  • Shook, John R., ed. (2005). The Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers. Thoemmes Continuum. ISBN 978-1843710370.
  • Shu-hsien, Liu (2000). "Reflections on Tradition and Modernity: A Response to Seyyed Hossein Nasr from Neo-Confucian Perspective". In Hahn, Lewis Edwin; Auxier, Randall E.; Stone Jr., Lucian W. (eds.). The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Open Court. ISBN 978-0812694147.
  • Smith, Jane I. (1991). "Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Defender of the Sacred and Islamic Traditionalism". In Haddad, Yvonne (ed.). The Muslims in America. Oxford University Press.
  • Stenberg, Leif (1996). "Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Ziauddin Sardar on Islam and science: Marginalization or modernization of a religious tradition". Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy. 9 (3–4): 273–287. doi:10.1080/02691729608578819.
  • Widiyanto, Asfa (2017). "Traditional science and scientia sacra: Origin and dimensions of Seyyed Hossein Nasr's concept of science". Intellectual Discourse. 25 (1): 247–272.
  • Zebiri, Kate (1998). "Muslim anti‐secularist discourse in the context of Muslim‐Christian relations". Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations. 9 (1): 47–64. doi:10.1080/09596419808721138.

Further reading

  • Kalin, Ibrahim (2000). "The Sacred versus The Secular: Nasr on Science". In Hahn, Lewis Edwin; Auxier, Randall E.; Stone Jr., Lucian W. (eds.). The Philosophy of Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Open Court. ISBN 978-0812694147.

External links

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