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  • Robert W. Hefner

Subversive Islam

Robert W. Hefner on Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking

Few fields of social inquiry have undergone as profound and recurring a series of transformations in recent decades as has the discipline of Islamic studies. Once a quiet haven of textual interpretation primarily devoted to the study of the Qur’an, the Hadith, and Islamic law, in the 1960s Islamic studies was buffeted by the arrival of anthropologists and historians who insisted that, rather than through texts alone, the study of Islam must be situated in cultural and historical context, so as to recognize the diversity of Muslim voices and lifeways. In the 1970s and 1980s, the ascendance of post-colonial critiques of classical Islamic studies upended the field again, as critics demonstrated that the misrecognitions of earlier researchers were not just a matter of academic imperfection but political bias. In the 1990s, a new generation of feminist-oriented scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, effected an equally dramatic reorientation in the field, demonstrating that scholarship on Islam had overlooked the richness and variety of Muslim women’s experiences, substituting caricature for complex gendered realities.

Viewed from this broad disciplinary perspective, Irfan Ahmad’s new book stands well within the currents of criticism and reconceptualization that have made the academic study of Islam in recent decades such a fast-moving and fascinating field. At the heart of Ahmad’s inquiry is a concern of singular and original importance: the question of whether historical Islam is a backward-looking tradition still in need of a “Western-style” Enlightenment or, alternately, a civilization with a tradition of rational and reflexive critique all its own. Not surprisingly, Ahmad’s answer to the question aligns squarely with the latter view. But what makes his book so interesting and important is that, in the course of his exposition, he also offers rich and at times provocative observations on not just Islam, but Western traditions of philosophy, freedom, and social criticism.

Ahmad is a University-of-Amsterdam trained anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic studies in Gottingen, Germany. Published in 2009, Ahmad’s first book was a much-praised study of India’s most famous Islamist social organization and political party, the Jamaat-e-Islami. Founded in British India in 1941 by Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979), the Jamaat has long been regarded as one of the most influential Islamist parties in the world. Its reputation has had less to do with the party’s success in national elections than it has the political and religious writings of its prolific and polemical founder, who ranks among the two or three most widely-read Islamist thinkers of modern times.

Irfan Ahmad, Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017. xxvi, 270 pp. $29.95.

Although Maududi’s religious views were a side-issue in Ahmad’s first book, they are the focus of attention in this new work. In the book’s opening pages Ahmad explains that the new study originated in a postdoctoral project inaugurated in 2006 at the Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) at Leiden University, and that the project compelled him to go well beyond his earlier academic training as an anthropologist and historian of Islam. In the course of the new project Ahmad immersed himself in Islamic theology, philosophy, and ethics, and then juxtaposed these Muslim intellectual traditions with the meanings and practice of critique in the post-Enlightenment West.

It is the fruit of this latter exercise that makes this book of interest to readers well beyond Islamic studies. The key premise of this portion of Ahmad’s book has to do with the claim long heard in certain Western intellectual circles that Muslim civilization never developed an intellectual tradition of “critique,” which is to say, public-intellectual processes whereby social practices and ideological canons are subject to a reflexive and critical evaluation through open and rational debate. The portrayal of Muslim civilization as lacking in critical reflection has been a pervasive one in Western philosophy and politics, and nowhere more decisively than in the writings of Enlightenment philosophers. In a series of essays written in the final decades of the eighteenth century, none other than Immanuel Kant portrayed the Prophet Muhammad as the paragon of “unreason, nonsense, monstrosity, dream, or madness of imagination.” Muhammad’s zealousness and “enthusiasm,” Kant argued, prevented Islamic civilization from developing a tradition of scientific achievement and critical debate. The editor-in-chief of the Encylopedie, Denis Diderot (d. 1784), was even blunter in his assessment, identifying the Prophet Muhammad as “the greatest enemy that human reason has ever known.”

Ahmad’s book carefully details these and other polemical representations of Islam and Muslims from the Enlightenment to today. He sees in these representations evidence not merely of the familiar observation that modern Christianity and Western civilization were claimed to be more rational than other traditions, but that cultural pejoration of this sort was the product of Western modernity’s need for a contrasting “other” to understand and define itself. In particular, Ahmad argues, the characterization was intrinsic to a “boundary-making and category-creating mo(ve)ment: civilized versus uncivilized, rational versus irrational, traditional versus modern, reasons versus fanaticism…. Islam was an important Other in the matrix of that boundary making.” The reliance of Enlightenment and later Western thinkers on the image of irrational cultural “others” leads Ahmad to conclude that, contrary to arguments as to its universality, “the Enlightenment was an ethnic project and its conceptualization of reason was highly local as it pitted itself against a series of Others, Islam being one of them.” No less important, Ahmad argues, during both the Cold War and the more recent “War on Terror” a similar characterization of the West as rational and enlightened was deployed against first communism and then Islamism. In these and other examples, Ahmad argues, “the West/Christianity/Europe enacted an immunity to protect itself from any critique while subjecting all others – ‘the Rest,’ as it were to critique.”

The idea that Enlightenment learning has been deployed to justify Western imperial projects is not a new one, but the achievement of Ahmad’s book lies in its demonstration of the theme’s pervasiveness and vehemence with regard to Islam and Muslims. It is worth noting, however, that the demonstration of a political instrumentalization of the mantle of reason in Western scholarship still begs the question of whether, intellectually and sociologically speaking, something unusual and important took place in Western intellectual circles in the centuries during and after the Enlightenment. Some of the most significant developments of this period may have had less to do with Enlightenment thinkers’ bombastic self-aggrandizement than with the mundane reorganization of university faculties and departments in such a manner as to facilitate new methods of observation and learning with regard to the natural and social worlds. Although Ahmad succeeds brilliantly in exposing the chauvinistic world-views of certain Western luminaries then, he has less to say about the social and cultural conditions that made the reorganization of science and learning in the modern West both possible and deeply consequential. Empirical methods of inquiry and experimentation like these were not unknown in Muslim lands: indeed, the hospitals, libraries, and madrasahs for which the medieval Muslim world was famous were in their time world-leaders in the development of medicine, mathematics, optics, astronomy, and biology. Western universities only began to match their Muslim counterparts with the rise of universities in the period from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. As is well known, this achievement was possible in part as a result of the translation of Greek and Arabic scholarship in mathematics, medicine, and philosophy. No less significant, the curriculum subsequently implemented in European universities drew heavily on educational models developed by, among others, the great Andalusian Muslim jurist and philosopher, Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126-1198). Few of these cultural developments figure in what Western scholarship today identifies as “critique,” and no doubt in keeping with the term’s more familiar uses Ahmad makes only brief references to the theory and practice of education and scientific inquiry in Western and Muslim-majority worlds. But the importance of the sciences of experimentation and learning in both Muslim and Western history raises the question of whether the humanities-based concept of “critique” is the most apt one for exploring the full range of “critical thinking” developed in different cultural traditions.

Although Ahmad steers clear of any substantive exploration of the social organization and practice of post-Enlightenment learning, his research and conclusions with regard to traditions of critique across Muslim lands are original and important. Building on the work of anthropologists like John Bowen, Dale Eickelman, and, especially, Talal Asad, Ahmad shows that there is a long and lively tradition of critique in Muslim civilization. The critique was vividly illustrated in the public writings of Maududi, who applied critical standards of assessment to everything from nationalism, democracy, and capitalism to the contemporary shortcomings of Islamic education. The middle chapters of this book explore Maududi’s views on these matters in a rich and engaging manner. Although even by the standards of his day Maududi’s views on women were starkly reactionary (he described women as imbued with “sinister volcanic power”), his thoughts on nationalism, democracy, and modern education showed a surprising subtlety. Even more striking, as Ahmad shows so effectively, the Qur’an-based methodology that Maududi developed to elaborate his intellectual reforms was grounded in a sophisticated reading of Islamic theology and commentary. For readers interested in not just Maududi, but the sometimes-startling sophistication of modern Islamist thinkers, Ahmad’s book is a singular reference.

It is in the course of his exposition of Maududi’s views that Ahmad presents one of the boldest of his arguments with regard to the origins of critique itself. Although some modern commentators have argued that the Western traditions of critique originated in Greek philosophy, Ahmad builds on the scholarship of Karl Jaspers, Max Weber, and (more recently) the sociologists Robert Bellah and Shmuel Eisenstadt to suggest that the origins of critique are more properly traced back to the Axial Age of 800-200 B.C.E. It was in these centuries that the ethical and epistemological foundations for Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, and Greek philosophy were put in place. A few centuries later Christianity and Islam would build their houses on a similar ontological ground. In most accounts of Axial Age religions and philosophies, the cultural innovation seen as uniting all these traditions lay in their being “world-rejecting,” i.e., they posit the existence of some more transcendent reality against which the existing world appears incomplete or flawed, and thus in need of critical reformulation with reference to that higher, transcendent truth.

Ahmad is certainly right to insist that it’s time to “liberate critique” (as he puts it) from “an inevitable and linear pedigree” in the West. He’s right too to put aside mythic claims as to the origins of critique in Greek society alone, and to emphasize the broader importance of Axial-Age innovations. As the political philosopher Michael Walzer noted some thirty years ago, criticism as a practice is almost certainly as old as humanity and not the special property of the Enlightenment or Greek philosophy alone. But there is a chapter in the Axial Age debate that Ahmad doesn’t mention, and which qualifies the critique-enhancing impact of Axial innovations in most times and places, including those in Christian and Muslim history. In particular, the world-rejection and transcendental criticism that Axial traditions appear to usher in and authorize are always subject to political and epistemological circumscription. The boldly critical appeals of Moses, the Buddha, Taoist sages, the Prophet Muhammad, or the Son of Man invariably give way to the orthodoxy-imposing labors of state and societal authorities claiming to act in the name of the Truth.

The way in which this institutionalization and narrowing of epistemological horizons takes place varies in different periods and civilizational traditions. Western Christianity developed a Roman-inspired Church administration marked by a far greater degree of hierarchy and centralization than that which characterized Judaism or Islam. But no Axial tradition allows the prophetic promise to float about untethered; all see their prophecies or wisdom subject to restrictive regimes of knowledge and power. Moreover, precisely because these ethico-religious traditions come to be seen by many people as uniquely authoritative, their meanings and influence are invariably the target of monopolistic instrumentalization by state and societal powers intent on making some of the glory and wonder of the Axial tradition their own. In this way, the transcendent is made immanent, its critical promise subordinated to all-too-human ambition. In the worst of times, the message of truth and critique may be invoked to justify inquisition, accusations of blasphemy, or wars of apostasy. With its concepts of renewal (tajdid) and reform (islah), Islamic theology has shown an unusual awareness of the dangers of the ethically transcendent being subordinated to profane ends. However, as in all other civilizational traditions, this recognition has not made efforts to narrow and instrumentalize the message any less pervasive. One hears hints of just such an effort at re-appropriation and control in Maududi’s argument that Allah’s Prophet (rasul) is the sole yardstick of truth, that this truth is exhaustively captured in God’s shariah, and that Maududi’s own interpretation of the shariah comes closest to its core truth. In presenting this transcendence-containing formula, Maududi was always careful to say that no human is above critique. Whether in Islam or other Axial Age religions, however, other commentators show no such modesty, using the claim of interpretive infallibility to separate the pious from the apostate.

Ahmad’s careful arguments also remind us that the concept of critique as developed in Western intellectual tradition may in fact be too narrow – and, ironically, too “Western” – for the purposes of assessing the true founts of critical inquiry in society and civilization as a whole. Some of the most decisive advances in humanity’s critical thinking originate not in the barricades-scaling broadsides of reformers like Luther or Maududi, but in the quiet efforts of individuals and groups experimenting with new techniques for engaging and understanding such everyday realities as illness, agriculture, the movement of the planets, and, yes, the wonders of the mind. Although prophets, mujaddids, and revolutionaries at times play a role, some of the most important sources of “critical thinking” in all complex societies lie in these simpler, quieter spaces, where individuals are allowed small freedoms to explore simple problems without the censoring gaze of state or religious authorities. It is no small irony that one of the most serious threats to this small-scale tradition of everyday criticism has been the efforts of those claiming to speak in the name of a totalizing Truth so as to deny the possibility of everyday enlightening.

In bringing these timely and important issues to the fore, Ahmad has written an important, sophisticated, and provocative book. This book stands in the best tradition of contemporary Islamic studies – inviting us to perceive the richness of Islamic traditions, even while revealing the all-too-human limitations of this and all ethico-religious traditions.


Robert W. Hefner is Professor of Anthropology and Global Affairs at the Pardee School of Global Affairs at Boston University. He is the author or editor of twenty books on Islam, modern politics, and society.


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