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Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age by Muhammad Qasim Zaman (review)
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Muslim advocates of religious and social reform present a broad spectrum of views. Modernists seek syntheses of Islamic traditions with modernity, while Islamists provide radical, and sometimes revolutionary, critiques of contemporary modernizing ideologies and programs. Both movements attack old-style Islamic institutions and the scholars (the ‘ulama) who are central to them as being inadequate. However, Muhammad Qasim Zaman argues that “the traditionally educated religious scholars, who may be thought to have a vested interest in the preservation and defense of their tradition, also have often been vigorous critics of particular aspects of that tradition and . . . important contributors to the debate on reform in Muslim societies”(p. 2). In this book, Zaman provides a clear, in-depth analysis of what he calls the “internal criticism” articulated by these important ‘ulama.

Zaman begins by identifying three major individuals whose ideas provide much of the foundation for the analysis in the book, Muhammad Rashid Rida, ‘Ubaidullah Sindhi, and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Zaman notes that Rida and Sindhi provide a way to view reform in the era of imperialism and the end of the Ottoman caliphate, and Qaradawi reflects major trends in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Although Zaman notes the works of many other ‘ulama, concentrating primarily on those within the South Asian Deobandi tradition, Zaman’s discussions of the ideas of these three men provide the cohesion for this wide-ranging study.

The first part of the book examines the internal criticism articulated by more traditionally trained ‘ulama as it deals with three concepts central to the debates about Muslim reform, consensus (ijma‘), ijtihad — “unmediated recourse to the Islamic foundational texts”(p.75), and the common good (maslaha). The remarkable debates presented in the three chapters covering these subjects present a picture of cosmopolitan intellectual dynamism that contradicts the widespread image of the old-style ‘ulama as rigid and unimaginative conservatives. For example, Zaman’s discussion of “the common good” provides a significant picture of “the sort of contestation that has often taken place within the ranks of the ‘ulama” (p. 108). The debates about the permissibility of financial interest (riba) provide an excellent case study, showing a broad spectrum of views. In the early 20th century, these often dealt with questions about interest-based dealings in the contexts of non-Muslim imperialist control, and more recently, with issues of economic life for Muslim minorities in India, Europe, and North America.

The second part of the book presents specific case studies in which issues involving consensus, ijtihad, and the common good are debated, with conflicting claims to religious authority being tested. In a chapter on educational reform, Zaman argues that even among traditionally educated ulama there are those who seek curricular and institutional reform that would “bring religious and secular forms of knowledge closer together” (p. 168). Other chapters in Part Two deal with “reform of legal norms that specifically concern women” (p. 176), debates about the nature of Islamic concepts and programs of socioeconomic justice, and discourses on violence, terrorism, and jihad. The discussion of violence provides an in-depth analysis of Qaradawi’s Fiqh al-Jihad (Jurisprudence of Jihad) and South Asian debates about terrorism before and after 9/11.

A concluding epilogue discusses the paradoxes and contradictions involved in “internal criticism.” Zaman concludes that internal criticism broadens the arena of debate and continues “to test the boundaries of the religious tradition that is both the subject of this debate and the ground on which it takes place” (p. 321).

One remarkable and repeated theme in this book is the continuing influence of the ideas of the 18th century Muslim reformer, Shah Waliullah who “is that rare figure in modern South Asian Islam who is claimed by the Salafis, the Deobandis, and the modernists”(p. 316). The continuing influence of Waliullah is a reminder that Muslim reformist thought in the modern and contemporary world is not just the product of contact with the modernizing West, but has roots in Islamic tradition as well. It is also a reminder that Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and the Wahhabi tradition are not the only source of inspiration for tradition-appreciating movements of modern Muslim reform...


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