Islam adapts to the most disparate of contexts, giving birth to various models of civilty

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the-sociology-of-islam-1503914518.jpgReview of Armando Salvatore, The Sociology of Islam. Knowledge, Power, Civility, Wiley Blackwell, Chichester (UK), 2016


Little known outside academic circles (probably partly because of the theoretical complexity of his writings), Armando Salvatore, Professor of Global Religious Studies at McGill University, Montreal, is one of the most interesting contemporary scholars of Islam. For years, he has followed a path of research that seeks to understand this great religion by freeing it of Orientalism’s distorting lens, but without getting trapped in the post-colonial studies’ dead ends. His most recent work, The Sociology of Islam. Knowledge, Power, Civility (the first volume of an intended trilogy) also moves in this direction. The book investigates the way in which, in Islam, the relationship between knowledge and power has shaped models of civility, the latter being understood as the body of rules, customs, forms of behaviour and modes of self-discipline that, almost invisibly, guarantee the social bond by preventing outbreaks of conflict.


In this sense, civility is “as essential to the fabric of society as gravitation (considered the weakest among the interaction forces in physics) is to the physical world” (p. 25). Taking this perspective as his starting point, Salvatore seeks to propose a more transversal concept of civility than that contained in the idea of “civil society”. He sees the latter as overly tied to “Western hegemonic trajectories” and, in particular, to Scottish Enlightenment philosophy, which postulates (without foundation, according to Salvatore) a social bond based on spontaneous trust between individuals who pursue their own interests. At the same time, the notion of “civility” permits the ideological connotations contained in “civilization” to be avoided, the latter being a term that, in addition to re-evoking the colonial past, ends up creating (in the social sciences) a perfect overlapping of religion with culture which crystallizes in the “myth” (as Salvatore calls it) of the “clash of civilizations”.


In order to reach beyond these distortions, Salvatore enlists the aid, on the one hand, of the Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, and, on the other, of the American historian of Islam Marshall Hodgson. A contemporary of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers, Vico provides an alternative explanation of social cohesion to the “commercial” vision founded on contracts. Hodgson conceives of Islam as “a transcivilizational ecumene more than a self-contained civilizational monolith” (p. 31). Furthermore, overturning one of Orientalism’s consolidated paradigms, Hodgson does not place Islam’s apogee in the golden era of the Abbasid caliphate but, rather, in what he calls the “middle periods” i.e. the centuries following the end of the caliphate, when Islam saw its maximum expansion by playing on the alliance between commercial networks and Sufi brotherhoods, in particular. When it lost its institutional solidity, Islam demonstrated its ability to adapt to the most disparate of contexts, giving birth to a cosmopolitan ethos and model of civility founded, on the one hand, on sharia’s normativity and, on the other, on the “secular” culture of the adab, a term indicating at the same time court literature and good manners.


Therefore, according to Salvatore, and contrary to the claims made by Orientalist discourse, it is not true that Islam is incapable of endogenous renewal. What is true, however, is that colonial domination has forced it into a grid (the Westphalian one) that has stifled all its potential: “While preocolonial civility was based on a fragile balance of social connectedness, individual autonomy, and cultural distinction among social layers, the modern civil society matrix in a nation-state framework has not been able to safeguard this balance over the long term on the global stage. The defective universality of European and Western hegemony is highlighted by such recurrent imbalances.” (p. 252-253). Salvatore’s analysis seems to minimize the problems created by Islam’s encounter with modernity but his reflections raise a decisive issue, which reaches well beyond the confines of academic research: the world we live in may well be global but it continues to be incapable of universality.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Michele Brignone, “If Global doesn’t Rhyme with Universal”, Oasis, year XIII, n. 25, July 2017, pp. 136-137.

Online version:
Michele Brignone, “If Global doesn’t Rhyme with Universal”, Oasis [online], published on 1st July 2017, URL: