Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity

Reviewed by Haris Ali Tariq 

Samira Haj’s main argument is to seek to understand the Islamic tradition according to its own terms, categories and rationalities. Within this argument however is another aim which is to show the dynamic nature of tradition. The former is the argument of the book generally, while the latter informs the latter particularly. Haj’s book is one which allows the Islamic reformist (this term includes revivalists) movement of the past two to three centuries to be understood in its own terms. An important operating premise of the work is that human action is to be understood within the context it is employed, Haj demonstrates that to insert the ‘modern’ into concepts and debates which have no true translation in the ‘modern’ context is to set yourself up for a theoretical falsity. Haj has also followed extensively the question of how one can create a non-secular modernity through the focus on creating an Islamic ‘modern subjectivity’. This review follows chronologically as with the book, in that the argument is operationalised and conceptualised within each successive chapter. Firstly, Haj’s discussion of tradition shall be discussed. Secondly, the focus on what can be widely termed Islamic rationalism and Haj’s unique reading of Ibn Abdul Wahhab. Lastly, there are two discussions which are extensions of each other. Muhammad Abduh’s cultivation of an Islamic modern subject and a discussion of the issue of marriage and compatibility.

Haj repeatedly warns the reader against the transference of an aspect from one culture and tradition and seek to understand it solely by relying on an alien one of which it has little connection to. However, Haj (2009, p.202) only acknowledges Michel Foucault in her development of this point in her concluding chapter. The ‘blackmail of the enlightenment’ is central to the main argument but is given at most, a tertiary character (ibid p.202; Foucault 1991, p.42). Haj further keeps Foucault hidden and pursues Talal Asad and Alisdair MacIntyre in her ability to successfully argue such a point. From MacIntyre we receive a definition of tradition which Haj adopts (2009, p.4) and connects to Asad’s configuration of such a tradition within the context of Islam (ibid, p.4). For Haj, this allows the legitimacy of the following question: if certain positions are conceptualised within a certain context (in this case the Islamic tradition) would it not be logical to understand them using the tools with which they came to be (ibid, p.4-5)? It could be said that this comes under the problematic territory of ‘cultural relativism’, but it cannot if we reject the yardstick being western liberal humanism. Indeed, no longer given the epistemological higher ground within such a debate; such criticism of this aim is fallible and binary. As such, the want-preferences (along with the individual that wills its preferences )which are so vital to liberalism are absent or at the very least not especially important within the Islamic tradition. The reconceptualisation of tradition not as dogmatic and static but as living and dynamic, as a framework of inquiry and not a cage in which reason and progress are imprisoned informs the rest of the book. Haj calls this reconceptualisation a “tradition-constituted inquiry” (ibid, p.5) which due to it having “long term temporal structures” (ibid, p.5) built around it can allow a coherence which non-tradition-constituted inquiries cannot allow.

Haj uses the “tradition-constituted inquiry” (ibid, p.5) to probe the notorious character Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab as the founder of Wahhabism. Wahhab is viewed in reactionary terms, as anti-physis; physis being natural, good and rational. Indeed, it is characterising Wahhab as irrational which Haj takes issue with (ibid, p.32). For Wahhab was acting according to a rationality, the characterisation of fundamentalism is often characterised by language which could be called both romantic and organic; it is antirational, violence and orthodoxic. Indeed, the interesting point which Haj labours upon isn’t to deny its violence but show Wahhab’s heterodoxy and rationalism. To approach him as a Muslim (ibid, p.34), not as an extension of Western thinking about religion and ‘fundamentalism’. As Haj points out, a call back to the authoritative sources does not simply mean literalism in the sense which fundamentalism is defined by (ibid, p.35). As a tradition-constituted inquiry, there has to be adherence to the two sources of Islamic tradition” the Quran and Sunnah (which is within hadith). Creativity (ibid, p.33) within this framework is characterised not by spontaneity and novelty, but reconfiguration and reform (tajdid). This is important in the sense that it redefines Wahhabism not as a fundamental call to the early Islamic past but, understood within the tradition, as a revival (ibid, p.37) on the basis of the tajdid (reform) and ijtihad (independent judgement). Ijtihad as a concept is important given Haj’s aim, specifically the apparent closing of the gate of ijtihad (Hallaq 1984). Haj’s main topic however is the Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh.

Haj notes in Wahhab’s writings that there is a stress on community in which the individual finds himself in (2009, p.36), indeed this is also a common theme which Muhammad Abduh pursues but iwhich is found consistently within the sects of Islam as well (Crone 2004). The Islamic moral community is important for hifz al-din; the preservation of religion (Crone 2004, p.303; Haj 2009, p.127). In this vein, it is important to view Abduh not as a westernised reformer along secular lines for secularity is a term that has its own depth of being. Haj’s main argument crystalises with her discussion of Abduh. For Haj, Abduh was not against modernity (ibid p.28) but against its colonialism of the moral space. It is here where the argument develops its focal point. Abduh had sought to allow the Muslim to be synonymous with the modern subject, Haj notes that to do so he cultivated an ‘interiority’ (p.115). In discussing Abduh’s discipline of the body, Haj strangely does not pursue Marcel Mauss’ point of the importance of ritual and body techniques (Asad 1993), for interiority is also only possible in relation to habitus and mimesis (Asad 1993). In discussing Abduh, what becomes clear is that modernity cannot only be spoken of within the armour of secularity and liberalism. Haj’s previous mention of classical notions of creativity resonate largely, for what Abduh does with Al Ghazali’s concept of Mizan (the mean) is an embodiment of it along with the tradition-constituted inquiry (Haj 2009, p.86). In the discussion of Mizan, what seems to be a simple middle-path between the extremes is theorised in accordance with Islamic tradition. Orthodoxy is not conceived as an authoritative doctrine and historically practiced as taqlid is defined but as a mean between traditionalism on one hand and wholesale Europeanisation on the other (ibid, p.89). This gave Abduh flexibility, to be understood as a middling approach rather than orthodoxy within the confines of dogma.

Modern readers of the last chapter of the book would find much to scoff at, indeed why would a legal court intervene and legislate on matters as personal and moral as marriage between two consenting adults? As Haj once again reiterates, this policy of imposing modern, historically imbued concepts on spaces that do not know such theoretical positions will reap positivistic rewards (ibid, p.184). The liberation of women is such an example (ibid, p.160-161). Abduh figures largely within this aspect, not as a character but for his contribution to understanding the events that unfolded. Within the moral Islamic community, the individual is not atomised; he is not a free individual in that he has duties to the community. These duties could be conceived as rights, if they are thought of as what is owed to you by another. Al-haqq (Anwar 2013) which is generally used for the translation of a right is not atomised, indeed it is only in the reciprocal sense that one has a right to something in the modern sense (Crone 2004). Safiya al-Sadat, indeed conceived of her right to marry freely within Islamic law (Haj 2009, p.184), but it reflected a neologism in its use, not in its meaning. The inclusion of this case is odd for Haj’s argument, it doesn’t seem to fit perfectly into place. Firstly, as the ruling was primarily based on customary law, urf (ibid, p.180), what position does this leave Haj in? The framing of the case is problematic and embodied something more akin to a transfusion of politics, non-religious tradition and religion itself. Indeed, Haj for the purposes of her main argument should have focused on the relationship of (ibid, p.184) compatibility and public welfare (maslaha). The former is, as Rashid Rida notes, governed not by religious law while the former is (ibid, p.184). Haj fails to mention the importance of ‘tanfidh al akham’, the execution of law (Crone 2004) which would encompass the aforementioned aspects into a single understanding. It is the reconfiguration of tanfidh al akham, and public welfare under it which would provide a better frame around her main argument within the discussion of marriage. 

The reconfiguration of Islamic tradition by Haj is successful in following through its main argument, seeking to understand the Islamic tradition within the tradition itself, using its vocabularies and rationalities. However, Haj does not fully capture the tradition’s range and dexterity. A further inclusion of South Asian Islamic reformers and the tradition within the region would provide greater applicability. Although the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (Schimmel 1954) is mentioned briefly, there is no motive to enter him into the equation despite his contribution (in Persian and Urdu) to modernism within the Islamic tradition (and the monumental contribution his thought played in the Iranian revolution) along with Fazlur Rehman Malik (1966). Indeed, the focus on Al Wahhab’s apparent Protestantism seems secondary in the scheme of the greater argument. However, the book does successfully save the notion of tradition from the derogatory connotations it has attained in modernity, and most importantly Haj’s examination of two famous Islamic reformers is squarely argued within the tradition.

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