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The Ferment of Modern Islamic Discourse

Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age. Religious Authority and Internal Criticism, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2012

This article was published in Oasis 19. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-06-17 17:34:55

Many authors have long concurred in thinking of the relationship between Islam and modernity in terms of crisis. But in what exactly this crisis may consist, what its causes may be and how it may be overcome, above all, are more controversial issues. So much so that the debate that began within Islam in the nineteenth century not only seems not to have abated but periodically flares up again in conjunction with particular historical circumstances (11 September, the Arab Revolutions etc). Thus, although there is no shortage of studies on the subject, ‘many crucial dimensions of these debates remain little understood’. This is the opinion of Muhammad Qasim Zaman, professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, whose book Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age constitutes an original and in-depth contribution to interpreting Islamic reform. The work stands out from the numerous scientific and politico-journalistic works on the subject in three important respects. The first regards the concept of ‘internal criticism’, the content and expression of which depend on the interaction between the themes developed by the Islamic tradition, the latter’s actual or potential reformers and the various contexts within which these find themselves. The second aspect regards the decision to leave the general elements of the reflection on Islam in the background in order to concentrate on some of the issues that are pressing it more urgently: the authority of consensus (ijmâ‘); the refashioning of legal norms (ijtihâd); discourses on the common good (maslaha); education; the position of women; socio-economic justice and violence. The third aspect is the choice to analyse these topics through the works of some of the great protagonists of modern Islam, both Arab (Rashîd Ridâ and Yûsif al-Qaradâwî) and Indo-Pakistani (‘Ubayd Allah Sindhi, Anwarshah Kashmiri and Taqi ‘Uthmani, amongst others). This Zaman does with an ability (rare amongst scholars) to move about with the same extraordinary competence on the two great fronts of modern Islamic thought. The result is thus a comparative study and, at the same time, an evocative outline of the intellectual exchanges between the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent from the end of the nineteenth century until today. The interweaving of these three levels of analysis unearths a debate within Islam that is very intense, very articulate and not without its ambiguities and paradoxes. The latter may also be explained by the fact that the ‘ulamâ’ are not ‘systematic thinkers articulating an internally consistent philosophy bur rather… activist intellectuals responding, over the course of long careers, to new and old controversies’ (p. 310). Within such debate, an analysis of the inconsistencies between the rhetoric of the various actors and the actual content of their writing permits one to expose the limitations of the by now consolidated classification of Islamist thinkers as either modernist reformers, fundamentalist reformers (or Islamists) or conservative ‘ulamâ: the fruit, in its turn, of a pattern of interpretation defined by the pairs “tradition/renewal”, “openness/closedness” and “moderation/extremism” (to quote those used most frequently). The scheme does not always work, both because, for some, reform is not ‘a matter of setting the tradition aside but of digging deeper into it’ (p. 88) and because Islam’s various ‘internal critics’ can exchange positions and opinions among themselves according to the context in which they are acting and the topic that they are debating. Thus, someone like al-Qaradâwî, who is very sympathetic towards the idea of an Islam that lives up to the times, may be flexible about applying the prohibition against loans at interest and, at the same time, intransigent in his defence of polygamy. In short, modern Islamic thought perhaps lacks rigour but it certainly does not lack vivacity or ferment: to the point that it does not seem an exaggeration to talk of the existence of a global Islamic public space. Further research and other studies will be needed to explore and understand all its facets and Qasim Zaman is the first to recognise this. In the meantime, his book is destined to become a classic.

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