Why We Desperately Need an Integral Islam

Amir Ahmad Nasr
June 7th, 2013
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The following piece is heavily adapted from Amir’s new book, My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind–and Doubt Freed My Soul.

The Child of a Fragmented World Gone Slightly Mad

It was sometime around early 2009, and to most of my friends, I was a cheerful happy guy, but what they didn’t know is that deep inside, I had never felt more mentally and emotionally tormented.

In just two short years, growing up religiously dogmatic in childhood up to the late 90’s had given way to a new reality in which my relationship with Islam was in shambles.

Blogging and the open vastness of the Internet had a lot to do with it.

From war-torn Sudan to oil-rich Qatar, I had experienced living in traditional, religious, and conservative societies that honored their tribal roots and heritage.

We enjoyed the fruits of modernity–cars, communication technology, and medical drugs–but most of us didn’t necessarily embody it as a worldview. In many ways, our tribal, traditional and modern identities were in tension and lacking in harmony and reconciliation, let alone deep coherent integration.

It got a lot worse when my family moved to Malaysia in 1997 and I got enrolled into a British international school with a liberal and Westernized environment. I was almost 11 years old.

For my parents, the move had its challenges for sure. For my siblings and I, the cultural and linguistic ordeals we confronted were on a whole other level.

All of a sudden modernity and post-modernity came crashing on us, and challenged our identities and worldview in ways that we were not prepared for.

They challenged a worldview I had inherited but never really critically conceptualized on my own. A worldview that wasn’t truly mine throughout a short unexamined life that hadn’t gotten thoroughly examined until much later.

The result should have been obviously predicable: distress, confusion, and anxiety. Then puberty hit, and boy oh boy was that fun. I am of course being sarcastic.

So I did what I could do: repress, ignore and continue as if nothing worthy of resolution was really going on.

That is until I accidentally stumbled upon the liberal Arab blogosphere in early 2006. Continuing to sweep doubt under the rug seized to be an option. Heck, the rug disappeared, and now I had to confront the persistent question marks head on.

Identity, Cyberspace and the Integral Worldview

By 2008, my worldview had turned upside down, and my obsessive online quest and thirst for the answers that mattered took its psychological and mental toll on me. Indeed, I was in shambles and had never felt more confused or internally tormented.

Online debates. Classical liberalism. Immanuel Kant. Ibn Rushd. The New Atheists...

... I drank and drank from new bottomless cups of knowledge and became hooked. The Internet became my sanctuary, the virtual desert I escaped into to find truth in.

Soon, I didn't know who I was anymore. Through rationally deconstructing and tearing down the bulk of my now crumbled Islam, I unknowingly tore apart my own identity as an Arab, as a Sudanese, as a Muslim. And now my love, my Islam was gone. Divorced, discarded, and buried away. Leaving me with a painful and unexpected inner void I needed to fill.

By early 2009, I thankfully had a conversation that planted a seed which eventually grew to meaningfully fill that void, hence positively changing my life forever. For that, I will always be grateful to my friend Sam Rosen.

“Unless science can be shown to be compatible with certain deep features common to all of the world’s major wisdom traditions, the long-sought-after reconciliation will remain as elusive as ever,” wrote the American philosopher of consciousness Ken Wilber in his thin but elegant book, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion.

Sam, whom I had gotten to know over Twitter, recommended it to me after a Skype conversation in which I had shared with him my peculiar views on religion. I had hesitated, having encountered Wilber’s writings before and found them dense and full of obscure lingo, but Sam assured me that The Marriage of Sense and Soul was one of his more accessible and introductory works.

We talked at length about it as well as about religious dogmatism, and also discussed Noam Chomsky and the impact of US foreign policy. Back then, this was just a passionate conversation. But by April 15th, 2013, with the Boston Marathon bombings, our concerns for the issues had transpired into reality. I was freaked out by the news and immediately thought about Sam and others I knew who lived in Boston. Sam had barely escaped injury. He wrote about the experience, and so did I, although my piece focused on the power of the Internet and the trouble with fragmented and severely discontented identities.

But I digress.

Wilber, I found out, was the most prominent voice in a newly emerging philosophical movement known as integral theory. Thousands of miles away from Malaysia, in places like Boulder, Colorado, and the Bay Area in the United States, a new way of looking at the world was starting to take shape and gathering a small but growing tribe of advocates.

Broadly speaking, when we look at religion through an integral lens, we realize there are two different dimensions of religious experience.

Firstly, we have religion in its exoteric or “outer” dimension, which mainly consists of the rituals, beliefs, and codified dogmas and doctrines of a particular religion. And secondly, we’ve got the esoteric or “inner” aspect of religious experience—by definition one “hidden” from sight, and hence not adequately discussed. Both the exoteric and esoteric aspects are intertwined together with varying combinations in different religious communities and wisdom traditions.

The exoteric form is the standard form of religion for the majority of the faithful. It’s a kind of religion that’s predominantly centered on certain beliefs and doctrines, and dedication to an exclusivist sectarian God. On the other hand, the esoteric form of religion, the less standard form, is mainly centered on systematic practices such as meditation, fasting, and prayer that can be deeply transformative and enriching, holding great potential to heal us and change us for the better. Best of all, we can directly experience the gifts of this second type of religion for ourselves, instead of accepting it merely based on faith or because we’ve been slyly forced to.

Every religious tradition offers within it variations of the two aforementioned exoteric and esoteric approaches to religious experience, but to various extents depending on interpretation and practice. Fact is, at their esoteric mystical core, the world’s major religious traditions aren’t that different after all. It is the exoteric components that too often create and promote the troubling exclusivist sectarian truth claims.

Evolving Towards an Integral Islam

The simple and crucial distinction between the “exoteric” and “esoteric” aspects of religions alone was a huge revelation to me.

I had always intuited the differences, but now, I saw it all with crystal clarity. What I learned next though was even more revelatory and intriguing.

It was the notion that there are different stages of evolutionary development in worldviews, through which cultures around the world have passed or are currently passing. A very simplified model of these various worldviews goes from tribal to traditional to modern to postmodern and now, slowly, to integral

Hinduism and the three Abrahamic faiths—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism—for instance, emerged in traditional and tribal societies, long before the rise of modernity, which first emerged in Europe starting in the form of the Enlightenment, thanks partially to seeds passed on from the Islamic civilization.

To a great extent, the Enlightenment project emerged as a response to the domination of the Church. And then of course, more recently, postmodernism emerged in certain parts of the developed world, largely as a response and rejection of modernity’s strong emphasis on objectivity in discerning truth. Emphasizing the important roles of interpretation and contextualization, for better or worse, postmodernism injected into various cultures the notions and consequences of relativism. In its more extreme forms, it claims that truth is merely relative and all perspectives have equal validity and value.

I shared Wilber’s apparent dislike of postmodernism’s relativism, and appreciated his passionate desire to assert the validity of objective truth. But more importantly, what really struck a chord with me was his articulation of the stages of cultural development—how no stage is inherently better than others, how each can have a healthy or problematic expression, and also how each has its pros and cons.

I appreciated how integral theory is an attempt to integrate the best of each of these worldviews, including modernity’s almighty science, and the core mystical truths of the world’s religious traditions.

It includes each worldview and transcends them, one by one, all the way up to integral, a perspective from which you can see, feel, and appreciate the best of everything that’s come before in our amazing journey of cultural evolution.

All of which brings me to the title of this piece: “Why We Desperately Need an Integral Islam” in interpretation and practice, because we do.

Rather than rejecting modernity and asserting “puritan” impulses, or cranking out literature focused on merely reconciling Islam with modernity, we need a much more robust Integral Islam that meets the increasingly complex needs of today.

During my life, in matters of religion, I realized I had spiraled upward from a tribal “warrior consciousness” and a traditional worldview, to a very modernist, rational perspective, to a somewhat postmodern view, and by then was reaching for a more integrated place that I intuited but struggled to see clearly or to articulate until a few years ago.

In other words, a more integral view. And what a wonderful place it is to be.


Praise for My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind–and Doubt Freed My Soul

My Isl@m is an important and significant book, especially at this time in our history. Amir shows both the downside and, as important, the beautiful upside of Islam as a religion, particularly when it is viewed through an Integral lens, which is how religion in general will need to be viewed if it is to survive into the future as a positive force. This is the right message, at the right time, from the right person.” – Ken Wilber

“My Isl@m is a beautiful story about love, heartbreak, and redemption. Read it, and be inspired.” – Salman Ahmad, Sufi rockstar, author of Rock & Roll Jihad

“My Isl@m is a love letter to freedom of speech. As Nasr wrestles with oppression, mental and physical, personal and political, his story consistently turns on his ability to find new information, often from surprising sources, and eventually from his own ability to speak as well as listen.” – Clay Shirky, best-selling author of Cognitive Surplus

“As a former Christian fundamentalist, I deeply resonate with Amir’s faith journey. Regardless of your religious background, if you’re struggling with belief or if you’re curious about how the digital revolution is impacting religious thought and empowering a new generation of young activists, this book is a must!” – Michael Dowd, author of Thank God for Evolution

Purchase My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind–and Doubt Freed My Soul

More details here: http://www.myislambook.com/

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Hi everybody! 

"I hope it stirs up interest and dialogue not only in the Integral community but well beyond." 

thank you!





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I really enjoyed this, thanks you


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Hi Amir,

Thank you for a straight forward and lucid post and I'm looking forward to reading the book.

The part that struck a chord with me was about the inner turmoil and I sometimes wonder if Western green overlooks this. I grew up in different countries at a young age and although Islam wasn't part of my life, I did feel inner discomfort and disortientation when faced with some radically different cultures, attitudes, and laws, as you move from one land to another. But because one is inside the system, one can't fight it and one can't even get outside of it to see it as a whole. You can feel the difference but can't name it. So for me Intergal Theory offers a vocabulary so we can start to name these large parts and get some sort of orientation. 

I kinda notice this inner turmoil in others who've also experienced multiple stations on the spiral, not just as a theoretical idea but actually had to live them day to day, with friends and work and social institutions. It seems it can be quite painful. Wilber wrote about the "pressure cooker" of going from Amber to Orange just within the context of American Universities, so how much harder it can be when jumping from one nation to another, a whole religion and culture to another? 

So that's my impression, but I wonder if you think that it is the experience of this felt fragmentation which is formative and predisposes a person to start to construct a cognition and intuition that goes beyond the simple categories? Then later, an intergal theory book can provide some terms and maps which just provide a supporting language to talk about that intuition?


Thank you for your post, Amir.

I came across a couple articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education that I think will be of interest to you and the readers of your post, if you and they aren't already familiar with the people and organizations mentioned. 

One article introduced me to Eboo Patel and the Interfaith Youth Core (http://www.ifyc.org/). IFYC seems to hold promise as a way to encourage college students to talk about religion and emphasizes tolerance.  

The other introduced me to Mouhanad Khorchide, and after some searching, I found this interview with him: http://dinmerican.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/god-is-not-a-dictator-says-prof-mouhanad-khorchide/ Khorchide seems to be moving toward an integral understanding of Islam.

I look forward to comments from those who may be more familiar with either or both of the above than I am.


Amir, I want to join my cyber yeah to the collective Yeahh. Congratulations on your navigations and actions. ambo

Thanks Ambo!

Amir, I really enjoyed this.  Thank you!  I am inspired to read about your passionate engagement with these issues and look forward to reading your book.  I hope it stirs up interest and dialogue not only in the Integral community but well beyond.

I also am quite interested in emerging forms of integral religion and have written a couple papers (for JITP) on integral interreligious relations and trans-lineage practice.  (I believe you might be friends with a friend of mine, Dustin?  If so, you will be aware of some of the projects we are engaged in around integral religion and integral religious education...)

If you're interested, I wanted to share with you a blog I posted to Integral Life years ago -- a brief comparative reflection on Sufi and Dzogchen forms of devotional practice: Transformative Devotion (in Sufism and Dzogchen).

Best wishes,



"I hope it stirs up interest and dialogue not only in the Integral community but well beyond."

That's my hope as well. Just read your piece. Amazing! I tweeted it and will be referring relevant folks to it for a long time to come. Wonderfully written comparison between the two traditions. We need more of this stuff out there. And say hi to Dustin! :)

Thank you, Amir!  I have just purchased a copy of My Isl@m on my Nook and I look forward to reading it...

All the best,



Amir, How have I not come across your blogs earlier!?!

Better late than never. Your writing style is a pleasure to read, your injection of humour even when describing something as painful and personal as having your partially formed identity and worldview being challenged, only to be tormented by something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy …. Puberty!

I hope to read, converse, and share with many more men and women who walk such paths of transformation – whether Islam, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or other traditions. Bring on the illuminating contours of an Integral Islam! 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person! I may have to break my promise of not purchasing any new books within the next 6 months….

When you described your own and your siblings experience of “modernity and post-modernity came crashing on us, and challenged our identities and worldview in ways that we were not prepared for.” I wonder how your siblings digested, processed, and responded to the ‘crashing’ of their worldviews, identity, and way of life?

From a dry theoretical perspective, I wonder what in you, and around you, both internally and externally, resulted in your response, your choices, and your journey?


Me thinks I need to buy the book ;-)

Looking forward to it!!

Many blessings to you

Thanks for your kind words Jonathan.

Hard to answer all those questions here in a short comment. Book answers them all though and more. Highly recommended, and yes, I am perhaps being biased. But only a little. I promise. :)

Of course the evolution of the culture that holds to the wisdom of the Islamic practice would be wonderful. While we thinking people here are all hopeful to evolve to become better humans, the move toward green Islam can't be skipped, as we know. Including the femine side of the population seems like an undertaking of monumental proportions. 

I wonder how a group of Integral level Islamists would be received by the current elders and also by the young and emerging Islamists? 


I would love to hear  Amir Ahmad Nasr's vision of what an Integral Islam looks like and plan to get into his words deeper this week. 


Excellent offering. 

"Integral level Islamists"

Haha, never heard that term before.

Actually, Islamist isn't the right term in that context since Islamist refers to someone with theocreatic ambitious and driven by politicized Islamic ideology.

More here: http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/04/05/if_you_can_call_a_muslim_an_islamist_can_you_call_a_christian_a_christianist

And btw, "green meme" level Islam is already emerging culturally in urban areas in the West and among globalized liberal Muslim youth.

Thanks for that nugget  of information!  I have to admit to a bit of thrill in reading your book because of the lack of familiarity I have with the perspectives of the men you grew up with. I look froward to learning more about the common threads of funamentilist ridgitity that surely runs across many of the powerhouses of post modern formal religion. 

Growing up as a Catholic, I also had my heart broken by the organization once I began to see and learn.

Please allow me to go out on a limb a bit; If you are up for some light reading I might offer you the titles of the books by Leon Uris. Trinity, Exodus and the Haj.  Of course they are novels, but they describe quite well some very important religious and/or cultural events that had a hand in creating our present world. 

Keep up the excellent work. Looking forward to more from you! 

I think Islam can also be rescued from within. It's core teaching already declares unity yet honors diversity. How much more integral can you get? The 13th C Sufi, Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi, in my humble opinion gives perhaps one of the finest articulations of an integral teaching I have come across. For him (and other Sufis too) human potential is realized in the oneness of being, where all perspectives/beliefs are witnessed and validated as the self-disclosure  of a single entity. The integral human 'contains' all beliefs and sees them as the faces of one being. Relativism becomes redefined when diversity is affirmed within oneness.

There's opportunity to bring the huge wealth of the Islamic spiritual and philosophical legacy into the postmodern and integral eras. The contribution of Islamic thinkers is woefully missing and could add significantly to the current dialog.

I'd like to share a poem by Ibn 'Arabi:

“O marvel! A garden amidst fires!
My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols and the pilgrim’s Ka’ba and the tables of the Tora and the book of the Koran.
I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love’s camels take, that is my religion and my faith.”

Love that Sufi quote, Nico. One of my favorites of all time!

It's too bad that not many folks properly understand and appreciate the beauty and depth of Sufism.

Gotta help fix that!

To evolve a more Integral Islam will be difficult. Some will say it is uniquely impossible but any manifestion of any kind has potential to improve, deepen, heal, complexify, illuminate & balance. This general movement for Islam requries 3 crucical elements:

1. Gaining more clarity on what specificially distinguishes "more healthy" from "less healthy" at each stage of development. A very clear notion of what is imbalance, dysfunction and pathology -- in body, mind, heart, spirit, gender, society -- is essential. 

2. Finding the appropriate balance in each actual situation between

(a) allowing the validity of older forms of spiritual and cultural habits, and

(b) taking a robust and self-confident, even appropriately aggressive, stand to encourage and enforce eco-humanitarian ethics and more sophisticated forms of group intelligence against problematic local habits.

3. Helping people to acquire the relaxation, positivity, clarity, intelligence and spiritual self-confidence to truly pass through and beyond modern and post-modern realities.

And all of this requires the decrease of tension between science and religion. Which, of course, means that religion has to be clearly separated in our minds from "traditionalism" or "conformist-mythic nationalism". That distinction is what has always been implied by the exoteric/esoteric distinction.

Good luck to us all

(& All-Praise to the Source of Luck!)


"To evolve a more Integral Islam will be difficult." 

Indeed. It will be challenging, but not impossible.

Love your three suggestions btw. Thanks for sharing.

I alos wanted to add another element: the different ways that we think. Simply stating how this beautiful collective integration as a global goal, bringing discord into harmony on so many different simultaneous levels, also needs clear communication.

Back in the 70's I studied with Dr. Edmund S. Glenn, a professor of Intercultural Communication, who predicted international discord when countries using different modes of cognitive thinking misinterpreted each other.. Beyond any sort of spiritual understnadings. As this man spoke most of the languages at that time, he was aware of repercussions on the global level.

What he taught me was how the Western world uses logical, linear thought, and how many other countries use inductive, lateral thought. The example I will never forget (don't forget, approx. 1978) was how international dimplomacy was failing between thte US and the Middle East as the US expected others to fully separate their professional selves with their personal selves in political dialogue, which was misinterpreted as a lack of respect.

Later in life (only 4 years ago) I learned this in a deeper way, having a left-brain tumor removal.Fully increasing my lateral, right-brain thinking even more than before...and experiencing how these differences often do often lead to misinterpretation. One metaphor I use to describe this: that both sunrise and sunset are simultaneous events that happen on our planet, onlt depending upon our perspective from location.

Sent in a spirit of loving peace.

Thanks for adding that additional element Elisabeth. Agreed. Very intriguing.