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Reviewed by:
  • Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity
  • John P. Turner
Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity. By Samira Haj. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009. 304 pp. $65.00 (cloth).

Since the events of 9/11 American discourse about Islam has become the focus of a much wider audience seeking to understand those terrible events. Much of the punditry has been ill informed and has formed opinions based on presumption, ignorance, and assumption bereft of evidence. The bandying about of terms like "Islamo-fascism" without any critical reflection upon what that phrase might mean or even yield in terms of analysis has had a pernicious effect on our ability to confront threats and discern the real from the chimerical. A more useful point of departure for analysis is to meditate on what we mean when we say "modern" or "traditional" or even "fundamentalist" and how those categories, as commonly deployed in the "West," are not necessarily congruent to what we are trying to understand or those who are the subjects of those inquiries. Haj has written a useful book that seeks to refute the clash-of-civilizations thesis by problematizing the notion that revivalist/reformist Islam in connecting itself to the history of Islam is inherently retrograde, irrational, and violent and brings a reconsideration of what Islamic modernity entails. She shows that facile assessments of Muhammad ibn 'Abdul Wahhab (1703–1787), the founder of the Wahhabi movement that provides a major intellectual support base for the government of Saudi Arabia and is usually referred to as "fundamentalist," as a violent and medieval purveyor of irrationality and of Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), a major reformist figure, one-time chief mufti of Egypt and rector of al-Azhar University, as a liberal abandoning irrational tradition in a futile effort to make Islam modern, are both inaccurate and poorly nuanced and judge them by standards that do not take account of their circumstances and intellectual context. In her discussion she posits a new, more fully developed and inherently more useful way of thinking about the Islamic modernism movement and reformist ideals. She shows that their ideas are part of a "discursive tradition" that while valuing connectedness to the past is not bound by that trajectory. In judging Muhammad Abduh and Ibn 'Abdul Wahhab by the wrong standards, we have misunderstood both them and their impact.

The book refreshingly argues for reflecting on Islam and its reformers differently and in doing so makes the oft-overlooked point that neither tradition nor Islam are static or monolithic. Tradition is mutable as each generation of believers strives to make it (and its practice) relevant to their everyday existence. "When Islamists like Khomeini or Qutb seek [End Page 563] the past, it is because they are searching to achieve discursive coherence by referring the present to an authoritative corpus that entails an effective assessment of that past. By locating their arguments within the tradition, they are not cynically manipulating the past but relating the tradition to the present" (p. 197). The inability to recognize this has led to and continues to foster misapprehension of what it is about Islamists that is compelling and to misread them as something they are not. Merely dismissing them as irrationally violent and antimodern or modern products of social discontent divorced from religious ethics misses their point and appeal. The first part of the book examines Muhammad ibn 'Abdul Wahhab and provides interesting background that allows for a comparative look at Muhammad Abduh. That said, the focus of the book really is on Egypt and Egyptian reformist Islam as elucidated by Abduh. Most important in discussing Ibn 'Abdul Wahhab, she fleshes out the difficulty posed by the post-Enlightenment understanding of rationality as inherently secular and religion as absolutely and somewhat aberrantly irrational. Through a close reading of the sources, she resituates him into his original context as a way of explaining both him and his reform project. The discussion of his intellectual forebears in the Hanbali school of legal thought grounds his approach and line of thought more deeply in the historical context than he is often given credit for. In doing so, she highlights that "looking back...


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