Book Review (New Directions in Islamic Thought: Exploring Reform and Muslim)

New Directions in Islamic Thought: Exploring Reform and Muslim Tradition
    The essays in New Directions in Islamic Thought form part of a Norwegian scholarly initiative executed at venues in Sarajevo, Istanbul and Yogyakarta. The contributions to this volume reflect the alternative Islamic discourses emerging in what the editors call ‘the new intellectual and political climate of the post-colonial second half of the twentieth century’ (p.3). The resultant constructive critiques originating from various parts of the Muslim world interrogate the Islamic tradition of learning, modern human rights and ethics and present alternatives to secular modernism and Islamist apologetics, both of which have often greeted this third possibility with hostility.
One feature the exponents of this new Muslim intellectualism appear to share is a tendency to draw inspiration from recent advances in the humanities and social sciences made outside the Muslim world, and apply these in their radical reinterpretations of Islam’s civilizational heritage. The volume’s editors have arranged the essays around four themes: the changeable and unchangeable (dealing with Islamic law, ethics and human rights); the challenge of equality (primarily concerned with gender issues); and authority and Islamic normativity (discussions of power, law and ethics). The book closes with a ‘dialogue on new directions’ recorded during a meeting of some of the participants in Yogyakarta.
In the opening essay, the leading Iranian philosopher and public intellectual Abdolkarim Soroush juxtaposes the binaries of the changeable and unchangeable, the essential and non-essential, and the ambiguous and unambiguous in support of the argument that these are not ontological but hermeneutical categories. Consequently also the development of a key discipline like Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh must be regarded as a history of interpretation. This does not imply some sort of chaotic contingency, because the texts, principles, methods, and consensus of the scholars underlying this process together make up a hermeneutical tradition which ensures a convergence or ‘ocean of interpretations’ (p.15). The only essential aspects of this process are the constant references to the Qur’an and Traditions of the Prophet as points of departure.
Hamid Dabashi, the polemical professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University, has shown himself very critical of Soroush, accusing him of intellectual blindness vis-à-vis the, in his view, outdated binaries and dichotomies of tradition versus modernity and Islam versus the West. The new rising star of Iran’s post-revolutionary intelligentsia seems to be the dissident cleric Mohsen Kadivar, who now teaches at Duke University in North Carolina. His ‘Human Rights and Intellectual Islam’ summarizes a longer study originally published in Persian in which he seeks to resolve the conflict between internationally recognized human rights and the positions taken by the traditional Sunni and Shi‘i law schools. According to Kadivar, their current incompatibility is a result of philosophical and epistemological differences in cosmology and the definition of human beings.
In finding a way out of this impasse and affirm true human rights, Kadivar does not shy away from making some very controversial suggestions, such as the use of Shi‘i and Mu‘tazili speculative philosophies which move far beyond the grand narrative of the discipline of fiqh. For traditional Islam this is still anathema because it considers human reason as limited in scope and ability, thus disqualifying human beings from law-giving, leaving an immutable divine law as the only alternative. This is further consolidated by the unassailable position of competent jurists as the sole authoritative interpreters. Kadivar retorts that the application of collective reason to the problematics of the human condition in the public sphere can provide a set of human rights of equally general validity. The ‘intellectual Islam’ he advocates is in effect a radically innovative philosophy grounded in advances in such human sciences as hermeneutics, philosophy, ethics, psychology, and the sociology and history of religion.
In a similar vein, Asma Barlas takes recourse to a Ricoeurian understanding of text as a ‘discourse fixed by writing and interpreted by us in time and space’ (p.17), using the underlying notion of temporality to point up the inconsistency of positing an ahistorical and universal Qur’an while at the same time appealing to the interpretation of the first generations of Muslims as the only valid one because of their proximity to the revelatory moment. Instead she contends that the meaning and significance of the Qur’an lies in its dynamic trans-historicity, providing her with an argument for rejecting patriarchal interpretations of scripture.
The Malaysian scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali, by contrast, suggests looking inward and presents the Islamic juristic concept of maqasid, or goals and objectives of shari‘a, as an alternative set of legal tools less encumbered by technicalities and literalism than usul al-fiqh, or the methodologies of jurisprudence developed in the earliest centuries of the Islamic era. Not predicated on medieval social values, the maqasid constitute potentially a dynamic response to present-day human rights concerns. However, having only gained momentum in learned discussions from the mid-twentieth century onward, their conceptual development is relatively weak and remains stuck on a theoretical level due to the scholarly tendency to concentrate on philology instead of the development of a vigorously dynamic and practical jurisprudence competent to deal with the demands of the contemporary Muslim world.
Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Kecia Ali’s contributions in the section on equality are dedicated to gender justice and sexual ethics respectively. Identifying herself as a practising Muslim and trained legal anthropologist using a critical feminist perspective, Mir-Hosseini’s discussion of marriage regulation and women’s participation in society underscores the importance of distinguishing between shari‘a as an idealized legal abstract drawn from revealed law and Islamic jurisprudence as a human construct. Kecia Ali returns to the Qur’an to determine to what extent it informs Muslim positions on sexuality. According to her reading this is limited to defining how and when women can be considered legitimate sexual partners without venturing into discussions of affection, equality and mutuality. The latter are, in Ali’s view, all anchored outside the text. These theoretical essays are complemented with a case study of the new Moroccan marriage code by Aïcha El Hajjami which appears to affirm Mir-Hosseini’s distinction between shari‘a and fiqh in that marriage contracts are not part of the unchanging ibadat, but fall under human interactions or mu‘amalat and are therefore subject to interpretation. Nazife Şişman closes the second part of the book with a historical study of discussions on Muslim women in the Ottoman Empire and contemporary Turkey, examining the changing relationship between male and female members of society and the redefinition of their roles in public life.
In the last substantive part of the book a number of leading legal scholars and intellectuals with a strong voice in the West discuss questions of authority and normativity. Trained in Kuwait and Egypt in traditional Islamic jurisprudence, complemented with law degrees from Yale, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton, Khaled Abou el Fadl, now a professor at UCLA, is considered one of the most prominent and outspoken exponents of a new type of faqih or Islamic jurist. In his essay on Islamic authority, he moves away from the traditional Islamic legal jargon, employing a vocabulary more in tune with semiotics and deconstructive text criticism. Referring to God as the ‘Author’ of a ‘text’ (revealed Scripture), his analysis focuses on what he calls the ‘despotism of the reader’ (p.129), in particular on the part of the ‘special agents’ (p.130) of the interpretative process: the ulama. He singles out Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Council for Scientific Research and Legal Opinions (CRLO) for a penetrating critique, not just because he questions the merits of its methodologies, but also because of its widespread influence throughout the Muslim world. Challenging the selective use of traditions which are demeaning to women, he argues for a return of the notion of proportionality in legal discussions to correct the misogyny which dominates currently prevailing legal thought.
The positions of Abdullahi an-Na’im, one of the most important Muslim legal thinkers working on human rights, and Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Muslim intellectual of Egyptian origin with considerable influence among the Francophone Muslim communities in Europe, and more recently also in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, evince an interesting contrast. Where an-Na’im unequivocally insists on the separation of state and religion in order to allow Islam’s normative system to take root in Muslim societies and communities instead of its imperative imposition by coercive state power, Ramadan’s proposition for only a ‘moratorium on corporal punishment’ (p.163) seems much more reserved and conservative.
Sudanese-born an-Na’im, a trained lawyer and loyal follower of the Sufi-activist Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (executed by the Islamist regime for his controversial rereading of the Qur’an), has no hesitation to ground his ‘theory of Islam, state and society’ (p.145) in the political philosophies of Rawls and Habermas, privileging them not because he considers Western philosophy superior, but because he believes their views open up a ‘public political forum’ (p.150) for debating norms. Compared to an-Na’im’s progressive and uncompromising stance, Ramadan’s call for a suspension of corporal punishment, stoning and other forms of death penalty seems rather subdued, motivated more by miscarriages of justice against the poor and the repressed, rather than a categorical rejection of such sanctions as inherently inhumane.
Following a brief intervention by Zainab Anwar, a leading member of the Malaysian Muslim feminist organization Sisters of Islam, the Pakistani scholar Khalid Muhammad Khalid closes with a discussion of changing concepts of the Caliphate, addressing its historical evolution and associated Islamic political theory, before moving on to a presentation of positions held by Muslim modernists such as Rashid Rida, Ali Abd al-Raziq, Muhammad Iqbal, Abu’l-Kalam Azad, and more recent advocates of its restoration, like the Hizb al-Tahrir and Asrar Ahmad. Unfortunately, his essay suffers from a degree of fragmentation, as his meditations on ethics and the social construction of the notion of Shari‘a are added as mere afterthoughts rather than integrated into his account.
New Directions in Islamic Thought provides a useful impressionist picture of mostly progressive, creative and innovative ways of engagement with the Islamic tradition in the context of a globalizing world for students and scholars with an interest in law, ethics, political theory and the intellectual history of the contemporary Muslim world.
© 2010 Carool Kersten

Warburg, Gabriel; Book Review (New Directions in Islamic Thought: Exploring Reform and Muslim Tradition, Edited by Kari Vogt, Lena Larsen and Christian Moe; New York, I.B. Tauris, 2009, Pp.viii + 276, index, ISBN 978-1-84511-739-9); Middle Eastern Studies, Volume 46, Issue 4, July 2010, Rutledge, pp. 620-621.


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