top of page
  • Rushain Abbasi

The Ambiguities of Being Muslim and Modern

Rushain Abbasi

So much and yet so little is conveyed by the word “modernity.” On the one hand, it possesses the sovereign-like capacity to construct the world according to a universal blueprint, an ambition rendered virtually impossible ever since our alleged flight from Babel (or so we thought). On the other hand, it fails to signify anything more precise than an extended and ongoing period of human history, one defined by the alleged difference it marks from the world which came before it. In these starkly apophatic terms, “modernity simply is what the world before it wasn’t.”

And just like the creeds of old, this declaration aspires to much more than mere description: it seeks instead to recreate the world in its Janus-faced image, continuously subjecting us to its essential indeterminacy (particularly around the question of what is religious and what is not) and thus restricting us to unintelligibly speaking about the very language through which we think—one which just so happens to elevate the present over the past, the “West” above the “Rest.”

Part of this limitation lies, however, in the paradoxical fact that we humans tend not to think beyond our respective viewpoints, despite the obvious fact that the identity of a thing remains groundless outside of a relationship to an object which lies beyond itself (the psychologist William James denounced this as “a blindness” in our race). The same appears to be the case in our thinking about modernity, which means that we may be condemned to the fate of poor old Sisyphus if our only resource for thinking through this stretch of time and space is contained inside it. This is where the importance of the so-called “Other” comes into view, for if we are to truly understand what makes our world modern (for better or worse), we cannot afford but to engage in an earnest and self-reflective encounter with the world beyond the narrow confines of the modern West, something the two works under review help us achieve.

While the historian Thomas Bauer assists us in recognizing the dangerously monolithic nature of modern life by setting it against the astonishing multiplicity of medieval Islam, the anthropologist Andrew Bush shows us that this complexity, far from vanishing from sight, has merely transformed in the wake of new pressures stemming from the fragmented modern condition. What these two studies offer us, then, are glimpses into lived experiences, both past and present, which defy our narrow categorizations and in turn help us imagine a future beyond the limitations of the modern secular Western gaze.

Thomas Bauer’s award-winning study of medieval Islam, A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam, has recently made a splash in the Anglophone world with its recent translation into English. Like many of the “great books” in the Western Islamic Studies canon, the work aspires to nothing short of an exposition of the essential trait (or traits) characterizing Islam prior to the onset of European modernity. For Bauer, this is, unambiguously, the phenomenon of ambiguity.

Bauer takes his lead from the field of linguistics (his background as a scholar of literature probably has something to do with this). On his definition, the phenomenon of “cultural ambiguity” does not simply emerge when a society allows for competing norms to exist side-by-side (something found in all complex cultures) but when it considers—whether consciously or not—the maintenance of interpretive diversity and the proliferation of opposing projects and discourses of meaning-making as central rather than subversive to its social order. Premodern Islam, in Bauer’s view, was one such civilization, committed as it was to preserving—and indeed exploring—ambiguity rather than eradicating it. In line with this conceptual framework, his story begins with language itself: he devotes the first third of his book to establishing how ambiguity encompassed the premodern attitude towards the speech of the central figures of Islam: God, by way of the Quran, and the Prophet Muhammad, by way of the hadith.

Contrary to the modern fixation with establishing uniformity of script and certainty of meaning in matters of scriptural interpretation, Bauer shows us how the most influential premodern Muslim scholars had no qualms with the sensible idea that variety, disagreement, and even outright contradiction are the inevitable outcomes of the human endeavor to comprehend God’s message (hence why Islam famously sustained a centuries-long discourse of legal pluralism). This was the product of, among other things, a sustained literary habitus: a veritable Islamic paideia aimed at instructing cultured individuals to thrive on ambiguity (one famous genre of medieval writing literally trained Muslims to see both the good and bad in all things).

But is the presence of linguistic ambiguity sufficient to justify the ascription of “ambiguity” to an entire cultural formation? Given the centrality of language to Islam (there “the word,” as we know, never “became flesh”), one might suspect so, but fortunately for us Bauer attends to our preemptive concerns by demonstrating how ambiguity extended far beyond the written word.

Prior to modern times, Bauer argues, Muslims adopted a “serene” orientation towards the political realm, one which allowed for the proliferation of multiple discourses of political legitimacy, many of which proceeded without reference to religion (here one may take issue with his neglect of the increasing role of mystical political discourses in the late Middle Ages). His overall argument, nevertheless, remains sound, which is that this reality stands in stark contrast to the political imagination emerging out of the modern reification of Islam, which transformed what was previously a diffused human phenomenon into a monolithic religious ideology suitable to the purposes of establishing a totalizing social order (much in the same way that liberalism and communism function).

The historical emphasis on ambiguity and plurality even extended to the domain of sexuality, so Bauer tells us. Building on the works of Joseph Massad and Khaled El-Rouayheb, he reiterates the now well-established point that as a consequence of structural shifts in Islam, narrow conceptions of sexuality have invaded the Muslim landscape and replaced what were previously far more ambiguous attitudes towards sex, views based in large part on Islam’s notorious embrace of the body (something noticeably absent in the Western Christian context, as Enlightenment thinkers frequently quipped). Bauer’s own contribution to the discourse lies in the powerful connections he draws between the medieval Islamic and ancient Mediterranean contexts—his fascinating reconstruction of the enduring trope of the pederastic “apologetic epigram on the beard’s growth” aptly demonstrates this—which goes to show that Muslims were quite at ease with preserving an ambiguous conception of sexuality despite its seemingly non-Islamic origins (theirs was clearly not a universalism akin to that which emerged in the modern West).

The ambitious nature of these arguments would have been enough to make Bauer’s mark on the field, but he aspires to a much more fundamental revision of our understanding of the Islamic past. His particular object of critique is the common tendency (found both in and outside the academy) to read “Islam” into every single phenomenon associated with societies where the religion historically reigned supreme (a position which Shahab Ahmed famously defended in his What is Islam? and which Bauer was unfortunately unable to engage). The historical reality that Bauer presents us with is not that of a sacred canopy under which Muslims half-heartedly engaged in worldly activity, but instead a world made up of several socially and conceptually differentiated spheres of human activity (e.g., autonomous domains of medicine, bureaucracy, art, etc.) within which Islam played a distinct and frequently negligible role.

Thomas Bauer. A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam. Columbia UP, 2021. pp. 336. $35, paperback.

In short, theirs was a largely secular world tinged by the flavor of Islam. This seems, on the face of it, to be an attractive thesis. It can’t be denied, for instance, that piety has been given pride of place in our collective imagination of the past (and even the Islamic present), which probably has much to do with our nostalgic preoccupation with the “disenchantment” of the world; this despite the fact that when it comes to Muslim societies, “piety” and “religion” are hardly the most useful analytical tools through which to understand the activities of a medieval poet, physician, bureaucrat, or even a judge. It is simply not the case that “religion was everywhere,” contrary to what many of us today would like to think (on this point I would refer the reader to the anonymous 10th century collection of graffiti translated as The Book of Strangers, which illuminates this overlooked reality to great effect).

In fact, even if the Islamic world lacked neat divisions between law and morality, or religion and science (as did the much of the premodern world), Muslim thinkers—particularly the scholarly elite and the politically savvy—regularly distinguished between these domains, whether implicitly or explicitly, for a variety of theoretical and practical purposes (my forthcoming monograph focuses on this phenomenon). Ghazali, to provide just one example, famously declared in his autobiography that math, astronomy, logic, and physics have nothing to do with religion, by which he intended to establish the autonomy of these disciplines as well as their emphatically non-metaphysical quality (an unwanted remnant of the ancients, in his view). One might tentatively call this a process of epistemic secularization (the historian F. Jamil Ragep regards this trend as an effort to make science independent from philosophy), a development which was itself indebted to the Islamic recognition of a bounded realm of life signified by the term dīn (the conceptual analogue to “religion”).

Yet the term “secular” is as slippery as the one with which we began. It too carries the power of obscuring the past through the “light” of the present, so it would serve us well to proceed with caution. Although it is true, as Bauer suggests, that many medieval Muslims conceived of medicine and politics as intrinsically non-religious enterprises in an epistemic sense, this perspective still emerged within a matrix of signification premised on the continued potential to uncover the true meaning of reality and not simply its utility within an “immanent frame” (to use the phrase made famous by Charles Taylor). As Michel Foucault once argued, it is only in the modern era that knowledge begins to progress according to a never-ending process of differentiation within a self-contained language, in which case an Islamic ontology of the secular (if we can ever speak of such a thing) should in no way be conflated with the uniquely modern development of reorganizing knowledge so as to render the “sameness” which connects all things metaphysically inaccessible and thus of no serious concern.

This qualification is in no way intended to diminish the value of highlighting the explicitly extra-confessional and universal basis upon which the study of both the natural and human worlds proceeded in the Islamic past.

Bauer is quite right in challenging the assumption that all Islamicate developments—whether theoretical or material—are in one way or another connected to religion, as if some quintessential theological kernel will provide us with a historical “theory of everything” through which we may understand the Muslim mind.

Having said that, the question still remains: how far can the analytical utility of the term “secular” be stretched? In my view, the limits of the concept are exposed when Bauer strays from the emic perspective which largely infuses his work and moves towards a subjective account of what the evidence seems to be saying to him (as a modern Western person). To present just one instructive example, in the course of this line of argumentation Bauer makes a point of designating the venerable tradition of ghazal poetry “a secular heritage” of the “Islamic” world, one which should be placed on par with the more well-known religious literature commonly associated with Islam.

But in what sense can poetic musings on the power of love in the midst of separation be meaningfully described as “secular”? Indeed, for many readers of these poems the complicated feelings associated with profane love were simply allegories for our mysterious attachments to the divine. Thus, in uncritically employing modern categories in this way, Bauer unwittingly restricts the potential of the ambiguity of this artform to interrogate our own biases. The term “secular” here serves to disable us from recognizing the contingency of the modern social order and instead allows it to reassert its universality by imagining a neutral secular space which covertly travels through time only to uncover itself at various moments of liberation (a movement only fully realized in the modern West).

Ultimately, this analytical approach stems from an inability to recognize the distinctiveness of the “secular” as a marker of a particular set of concepts, sensibilities, and practices, which deliberately seek to erase cultural differences (and thus “histories”) through the invocation of various—allegedly perennial—structural binaries. Far from natural divisions inherent in the world, these differences are rooted genealogically in the Christian opposition between “spirit” and “flesh,” a dynamic which has come to racially and spatially structure much of our world, as Sylvia Wynter has so powerfully argued. Accordingly, even if we are to follow the lead of Muslim physicians by recognizing medicine as a distinctly non-religious activity, we must simultaneously attend to the “intrinsic connection” (qarina) they frequently drew between the study of “religions” (ilm al-adyan) and “bodies” (ilm al-abdan), which renders absurd any ontological opposition between “religion” and “science” (such as we find today). Such divergences clearly complicate any attempt at translating concepts across the premodern-modern divide.

But does this mean we are left in a state of mutual unintelligibility?

Not quite, and this is where Andrew Bush’s phenomenal study, Between Muslims: Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan, may help salvage us from a potential dead-end. Bauer, very clearly situated in the long tradition of the Counter-Enlightenment, premises his entire thesis on a stark rupture between the premodern and modern (and for good reason too, as I’ve alluded to above); a point which doesn’t, however, present itself so obviously to Bush, who diverges from Bauer by taking the modern Muslim experience as his primary object of study.

Bush centers his analysis around the concept of “religious difference,” pushing back against standard geopolitical approaches to the issue (think of the popular image of a perennial Sunni-Shi’a divide). In its place, he draws us into the lived experiences of Muslims to see how different orientations towards Islam manifest themselves in the context of ordinary human relationships amongst family members, friends, as well as the broader public.

Unlike Bauer, Bush rejects the utility of the religious-secular binary in describing what might be called (to borrow a term from Peter Gordon) the “muddle middle” of modern Islam: those individuals who maintain their identity as Muslims (unlike declared atheists or secularists) but who simultaneously abandon both belief in God and a general pietistic orientation towards Islam (like most “practicing” Muslims). Crucially, this sub-group of modern Muslims remain deeply engaged with the textual tradition of Islam, which demonstrates the futility of using a term like “secular” to describe non-practicing Muslims today.

The unique positionality of his subjects allows Bush to offer a valuable modus vivendi to the great “text vs. lived experience” debate in the academy: his approach necessarily requires an engagement with text, but not as objects which naturally unfold according to their own purposes (as is often the case in our deliberations about Islam) but rather as objects continuously transformed in the process of being made meaningful to an individual’s experience of the world, which itself cannot be extricated from its relationship with others. This refreshingly unmodern emphasis on relationality (instead of isolated self-determining subjects) permeates the entirety of his study, focused as it is on the life-worlds that emerge between Muslims.

One important result of this shift in analytical orientation is the increasing importance of “attraction” for our understanding of an individual’s religious attitudes (rather than some chimera of a completely active and conscious will). Pushing “belief” into the background, Bush emphasizes how poetry (the ambiguous linguistic expression par excellence), for example, plays a far more significant role in the way Kurdish Muslims think about and experience beauty, love, religious difference, and much more. Poetry in his book serves as a constant backdrop to his subjects’ attempts to construct their identities, as if it were part of the structure of their worlds (one which he consciously enters by becoming a student of Kurdish poetry). In a similar vein, he refrains from asking his subjects straightforward questions in the hopes of receiving propositional statements about their views on religion, instead attending to how these attitudes are shaped “in a sensorium that creatively borrows from conflicting fields of discourse and connects people to one another in ordinary relationships,” much of which takes place through their engagement with poetry and even scripture.

Although he ends up mirroring Bauer in highlighting crucial moments of transformation, as in the case of the transition from religious plurality as a positive element of the construction of Muslim selfhood (in the premodern context) towards religious plurality as a political problem in need of state resolution (in modern times), we are never bombarded with impassioned declarations of the malaises of modernity and a nostalgia for better times (as is often the cause with Bauer). Instead, by focusing on the intimate details of human relations, Bush reveals the continued presence of ambiguity, uncertainty, and fluidity in contemporary Muslim life, thus undermining our received understanding in two respects: (1) By showing us that the move towards uniformity and order has actually precipitated a significant counter-reaction in the form of a complex subgroup of self-consciously disenchanted Muslims and (2) by demonstrating that ambiguity persists at the very core of the ever-increasing number of ordinary relationships which have to deal with this radically diverse and deeply interiorized intra-religious space.

J. Andrew Bush. Between Muslims Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan. Stanford UP, 2020. pp 240. $17.50, paperback. | Winner of the 2022 AMEA Bi-annual Book Award, sponsored by the Association for Middle East Anthropology (AMEA).

On the point of ambivalence, for instance, we often hear about how Kurdish Iraqis prefer to leave things unsaid in their daily interactions (this in contrast to the image of the loud slogan-wielding Muslim). In one instance, a Salafi Islamist and his non-believing brother navigate their religious differences by silently proceeding “as if” the latter has faith; in another moment, a skeptical father conceals his heretical ideas after receiving a single-word rebuke from his young revivalist daughter. Far from “a culture of disambiguity,” what we witness in this contemporary Muslim context (which significantly moves beyond the Arab-centrism of Bauer’s perspective) is a dynamic and pragmatic culture of “improvised religiosity,” a project of subject-formation continuously in the making. To simply use a Salafi idealogue like the Saudi scholar Ibn ʿUthaymīn as representative of modern Islam, as Bauer repeatedly does in his book, is to commit oneself to an ideologically inspired caricature of the modern experience in service of a romanticized past. On this understanding, complexity could only have existed in the good old days, leaving modern Islam as a mere forgery of the modern secular order. Bush, taking a far more humanistic approach, asks us to think twice before painting with such broad strokes.

The same sensitivity is at work in his treatment of poetry in the Islamic context. By attending to the everyday usages of Kurdish poetry (where the genre remains far more influential than in the West), Bush demonstrates how non-pietistic Muslims use mystical poetry to make sense of ordinary worldly desires (particularly in terms of human beauty) as well as the inevitability of pain, in this way rendering the sacred profane, rather than the other way around. What poetry thus offers is a certain sensibility that allows for the paradoxes of daily life to persist and indeed thrive across the spectrum of religiosity, whether immanent or transcendent.

This discovery tells us quite a bit about the distinctiveness of Islamic culture vis-à-vis the modern West. For these non-pietistic Muslims who hold a complex set of attractions and aversions towards Islam, their bodies and relationships remain deeply embedded in a world created and sustained by Islam, which is why they continue to contend with it despite their explicit disavowal of it. These individuals are not best described as “secular,” but rather those who consciously “refuse to listen,” to reference a phrase used by Kurdish speakers themselves. This finding coincides well with Joseph Blankholm’s recent study of “the secular paradox,” part of which demonstrates that non-white atheists and non-believers in the United States maintain a complex relationship to their respective religious traditions in a way that cannot be captured by the general rejection of “belief” emblematic of the White experience. This explains why among the “non-believing” Kurds of Iraq, we frequently encounter a meaningful and positive engagement with mystical poetry, sacred figures of Islam like Imam Ali, and the recitation of the Quran (even if each of these is conducted in a way subversive to normative Islam).

Ambiguity, on Bush’s account, may therefore be said to be flourishing in the modern Muslim world, which goes a long way in establishing a certain continuity with the Islamic past as Bauer has presented it. In this way, the tendency towards a totalizing theory of modernity has, it seems, become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, blinding us to the resilience of human agency in the face of structures which aim to perpetuate the eradication of difference. What these ethnographic and historical accounts offer us, then, are thick accounts of alternative modes of human existence which may help us in imagining the possibilities of being both Muslim and modern, one which disrupts the stability of these categories while simultaneously attending to the unique power they have in capturing our increasingly diverse experiences of the world.


Rushain Abbasi is currently a Mellon Fellow of Scholars in the Humanities and an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.


Commenting has been turned off.

Current Issue

bottom of page