Books Review


Edited by: Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman Publisher: Lexington Books,Oxford ,Year: 2004 , Pp: 209 , ISBN: 0-7391-0554-X Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

The challenges that modernity poses before us demand a reappraisal of traditional ways of understanding the world and our place in it. Adjusting to the rapidly changing world is ridden with tension and potential conflict. The rise of radical Islamist as well as Islamic reformist movements represents different ways of responding to modernity, and illustrates, in different ways, the ongoing struggles on the part of Muslims to understand the relevance of their faith in contemporary times.

The articles contained in this book cover various dimensions of the process of ‘reform’, argued from a broadly defined Islamic perspective. The diversity of positions articulated by the different Islamic thinkers examined here points to the historical and ongoing process of the construction of the notion of precisely what constitutes ‘Islamic authenticity’. Both the various Muslim reformers studied here as well as their Muslim critics claim to represent ‘genuine’ Islam, thus clearly suggesting that the ‘reformist’ project needs to be understood in the context of a struggle for discursive hegemony between contending visions and versions of Islam.

In their introduction to this volume, Michaelle Browers and Charles Kurzman provide a broad overview of the trajectory and significance of the Islamic reformist project. They see it as, in some sense, similar to the Protestant Reformation, stressing the role of the individual, critiquing the clergy and leading to a fragmentation of religious authority. Its stress on reason in order to understand revelation reflects the influence of modern rationalism. It is also a response to mass education, which has fractured religious discourse, resulting in a growing challenge to the authority of the traditional ‘ulama to speak for Islam and to define Islamic normativity. Although Islamism, defined as a political project that claims to structure the whole of society on what it defines as Islamic grounds, is, on the whole, hostile to the reformist project, Browers and Kurzman argue that its critique of the traditional ‘ulama and its embrace of modern technology (features that it shares with the ‘reformists’) might ironically lead to an inadvertent, albeit limited, modernization in the long term. This point is further developed by Nader Hashemi in his piece, where he explains the phenomenon of ‘fundamentalism’ as a response to and result of a certain form of modernization that generates trauma and social disruption on a large scale.

In his article on Islamic religious authority, Dale Eickelman asks the provocative question ‘Who Speaks for Islam?’. The traditionalist ‘ulama, he writes, can no longer be presumed to have a monopoly over Islamic discourse, although they themselves would probably insist that they do or should. Rather, as Eickelman notes, in the last two centuries there has been a profound transformation in the nature and structure of Islamic religious authority. ‘Ordinary’ Muslims, many of them trained in Western-style institutions or in the West itself, now directly challenge the ‘ulama’s claim to speak for Islam. Eickelman sees this as a positive development, pointing out that many of these scholars are now calling for a contextualised understanding of Islam that takes into account such pressing issues as human rights, religious pluralism, secularism and democracy, matters that many traditionalist ‘ulama are completely incapable of handling, given their education and training.

The efforts of key Muslim reformists is reflected in the significant legal changes that several Muslim-majority countries have introduced, as Felicitas Opwis explains. These reforms provide for legal equality of all citizens, Muslims and others, men as well as women, and thus constitute a significant departure from traditional notions of Islamic law. The advocates of legal reform faced stiff opposition from the traditionalists, who claimed that they were acting in violation of what they believed to be divinely revealed laws. Many of the reformists sought to justify their efforts by seeking ‘Islamic’ legitimacy for their arguments. They claimed that these constituted legitimate ijithad, based on maslaha, or public interest, recognized as a major source of Islamic jurisprudence. This went along with their trenchant critique of taqlid or ‘blind imitation’ of jurisprudential precedent. Opwis argues that opposition to taqlid is now a standard means adopted by reformists to develop creative responses to a host of issues that the traditional corpus of fiqh or jurisprudence is seen as being incapable of handling suitably.

In a provocative essay, Salwa Ismail examines new readings of the early Islamic period as a means to critique the traditionalist ‘ulama as well as Islamist ideologues and to present a new agenda for reform of Muslim societies. She studies two controversial Egyptian scholars, Mahmud Sayyid al-Qimmi and Khalil Abdul Karim, both of whom provide a historical understanding of the Prophet and his times. They see the rise of Islam as a result of, or a response to, local social, economic and political factors, and, thus, as historically conditioned, a proposition that believing Muslims are unlikely to accept. They also critique the notion of the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam, which both the traditionalist ‘ulama and the Islamists seek to present as a model for Muslims to emulate.

In Iran, the regime seeks its legitimacy from its avowed objective of resurrecting precisely that contentious ‘Golden Age’ of Islam. However, as Charles Kurzman points out in his article, numerous Islamic scholars have bravely defied the regime on ‘Islamic’ grounds, thereby forcefully contesting its claims to ‘Islamicity’. These dissident clerics present an alternate understanding of the relation between Islam and politics and claim that Khomeini’s concept of the ‘rule of the jurist’ (vilayat-i faqih) actually has no legitimacy in Islam itself. Some of them go so far as to insist that the state has no moral authority to decide on issues of ‘Islamicity’. They make a crucial distinction between the shari‘ah, or what they believe to be divinely-revealed laws, on the one hand, and human interpretations of it, on the other. Since the shari‘ah can only be understood in human terms, there is, they point out, ample scope for dissent, and the state or the official ‘ulama do not have the right to impose their understandings of it on others. This approach to matters of the shari‘ah, Kurzman shows, has allowed some of these thinkers to adopt novel, and in many cases, radical, positions on contentious issues such as democracy and women’s rights, that have earned for them the wrath of the Iranian state. Not surprisingly, some of these dissident Islamic scholars have even been sentenced to death for their arguments.

Islamic ‘reformists’ have, typically, enjoyed an ambiguous relationship with Sufism. They have tended to see popular Sufism as ‘irrational’, ‘backward’, ‘superstitious’ and ‘exploitative’. Islamists, too, appear to share the same views, and claim that popular Sufism is ‘un-Islamic’. Yet, as Sedgwick shows in his incisive study of the Budshishiya Sufi order in Morocco, a growing number of well-educated, middle-class men and women are being attracted to Sufism. This owes to both for a search for meaning in an increasingly settled world and to disillusionment with the traditionalist ‘ulama and radical Islamists. The growing association of middle-class Muslims with Sufi orders, at least in some countries, might, in turn, have important consequences for how Sufism is understood and how it relates to issues of contemporary social concern, including, and particularly, the challenge of radicalism in the name of Islam.

This book is a passionate appeal for reforming traditional notions of religion, particularly insofar as they impact on such sensitive issues as women’s rights, secularism, pluralism and democracy. It takes note of the fierce resistance that demands for such reform encounter from various quarters, including, but not only, from sections of the traditionalist ‘ulama and Islamist groups. Yet, where it fails is its silence on the role of western powers in propping up dictatorial regimes and ruling elites in large parts of the world, who have been consistently hostile to key demands of the reformists, and in supporting radical, fiercely anti-democratic Islamist groups to serve their own agenda. Surely, this would suggest, the burden of reform cannot be left on Muslim shoulders alone.


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