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Islamic Thought, Texts, and Modernity in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Panel IV-25, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • The Egyptian jurist and intellectual Qasim Amin (d. 1908) has long been venerated – especially by western scholars – for his two seminal works on Egyptian women’s rights, The Liberation of Women (1899) and The New Woman (1900). While the focus has been on Amin’s advocacy for women’s rights, his methodology is also revealing, especially in light of his detractors’ responses. Twice in the second work Amin pointed to the “venerable scholar” at al-Azhar who had published a scathing response to the first. This was Shaykh Muhammad al-Bulaqi’s The Cordial Companion – A Warning Regarding the Liberation of Women from Clothing (1899), a diatribe attacking Amin’s methods and conclusions and dismissing him as a puppet of European thought unschooled in Islamic jurisprudence. I step back from the common celebration of Amin and examine his and al-Bulaqi’s texts side by side in order to understand the dynamics of the controversy in classic jurisprudential terms, which reveals a telling disconnect in the scholarly discourse over adherence to the late Sunni legal tradition at the dawn of the 20th century. I examine Amin’s embrace of the same methodological approach as Islamic modernists and Salafis such as Muhammad ʿAbduh and Rashid Rida, setting aside taqlīd – adherence to the late Sunni tradition which emerged in the 13th century – and instead engaging in ijtihād (independent interpretation). By giving voice to Amin’s antagonist, I show that while al-Bulaqi excoriated his arguments and belittled his reasoning, he did not engage with Amin’s accusation that the late Sunni tradition reflected not merely sound jurisprudence, but also the cultural and social attitudes of the individual scholars who established it as orthodoxy. Rather, al-Bulaqi relied on the very sources Amin had assailed as evidence that the latter’s conclusions regarding women in Egyptian society were erroneous. It is important to note that al-Bulaqi’s perspective represented the overwhelming majority of ʿulamaʾ and likely also of Egyptian society at large at the time. These scholars’ ideological sparring represents an early ripple in the eventual turning of the doctrinal tide across the Muslim scholarly world as calls for ijtihād increasingly challenged taqlīd. Furthermore, much is revealed about the crosscurrents of early Salafism and Islamic modernism and their relationship to later and more literalist iterations of Salafism by evaluating their detractors. Shaykh al-Bulaqi’s work, in particular, highlights the dogged refusal among traditionalist ʿulamaʾ to engage with reasoned challenges to the late Sunni tradition.
  • For the Egyptian Islamist thinker turned nascent revolutionary, Sayyid Qutb (1909-1966), jāhilīyah was much more than an episodic period of the Islamic past. Rather, as he conceptualized, this modern conception of jāhilīyah was far reaching and extended well beyond an ignorance of religion, and well into the realm of western modernity, specifically: accepting the material comforts of the decadent west, asserting subjective rationality over the God’s ḥākimiyya (sovereignty of God over man), and generally existing in an era of cultural, social, political and artistic ignorance that is so far removed from religion that it is more akin to the Hobbesian state of nature, jāhilīyah. Like a hammer, Sayyid Qutb leveraged this assertion of jāhilīyah as a potent tool for othering, and with the Qur’anic precedent that the polytheists, the people of ignorance ‘are to be killed wherever you find them’, there was a canonical precedent for the validation, if not encouragement of violence. Therefore, in a contemporary context, there exists a degree of academic consensus from western scholars as to the nature of jāhilīyah as conceived by Sayyid Qutb, and how for him this conceptual tool of perceptual ignorance (be that of a time period, despairing actions of others, or a tool for assertive othering) is utilized as a way of casting the other in the veil of pre-Islamic ignorance. However, it is the intention of this paper to question this consensus by way of discursive Qur’anic commentary to analyze the uniformity of Qutbian thought on jāhilīyah against that of Sayyid’s younger brother, Muhammad Qutb (1919-2014). By reading Muhammad’s work Jāhilīya al-Qarn al-‘Ishrīn against Sayyid’s existing work on jāhilīyah, it is my intention to shed light on Muhammad’s conception of modern ignorance, a perception that is nuanced within the diction of subjective dispositions, psychological states, and as an essence or moods of jāhilīyah. These findings will be placed in a discursive conversation with Sayyid’s initial assertions. In short, the goal of this work is to refocus the conversation of the Qutbian conception of jāhilīyah as a coin with two sides, two views of asserting the power of othering through the imagined past, and in the present.
  • The presentation will focus on the construction of three concepts of tolerance in Arabic in the second half of the nineteenth century. Tolerance became a powerful concept towards the end of the nineteenth century after its association with other basic concepts such as progress and civilization (taqaddum, tamaddun). With this connection, the concept of tolerance became fundamental in the ideological structures developed in the Arab region, including national, liberal, democratic, and socialist thinking. The presentation will focus on the history of "tolerance", analyze the anatomy of the concept on a synchronic and diachronic axis, and will present its construction in three case studies.
  • The history of the modern Arabic editor, or muḥaqqiq, has recently emerged as a key lens for the study of Modern Arab Intellectual History. This new perspective foregrounds Arabic philologists, manuscript collectors, librarians, and editors -- i.e., those who did not author original monographs -- rather than the poets, journalists, and novelists which have traditionally been associated with studies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century “Arabic Nahḍa.” The Nahḍa also involved an Islamic revival and reform movement centered on “rediscovering the classics” of medieval writings on Islamic law and the Hadith sciences (El Shamsy 2020). The exhuming and mass-printing of these Islamic texts (including, most controversially, Ibn Taymiyya) had major implications for religious affairs across the Muslim world, leading to a dramatic upsurge of textualist and “originalist” interpretations of Islamic law, known as Salafism. This paper identifies and situates the role of Muḥammad Naṣīf, a Saudi intellectual who pioneered both the Nahḍa literary revival and the Salafist turn. The paper traces his correspondence with three key interlocutors across the Arab world: (1) Father Anastās Marī al-Karmalī, the Baghdad-based Christian priest who published the Arabic philology journal Lughat al-ʿArab; (2) Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, the famous Islamic modernist based in Cairo; and (3) Muḥibb al-Dīn al-Khaṭīb, the radical anti-Shīʿī cleric and Arab Nationalist publisher of Al-Fatḥ. Naṣīf was a Jeddah-based librarian and philologist who developed a Salafi-Wahhabi religious outlook borne out of his philological passion for “classical” Arabic texts. He hailed from an Ottoman notable Aʿyān family which followed the Shāfiʿī school of jurisprudence and had long supported Sherifian rule in the Hijaz. However, throughout the 1910s, he experienced a personal spiritual conversion and became inclined towards Wahhabism. In his letters to al-Karmalī, Riḍā, and al-Khaṭīb, he describes his growing emotional and spiritual turn towards Wahhabism, driven by local study circles and intensive nightly readings of al-Ṭabarī. By the early 1920s, he had become an unreconstructed Wahhabist, and he was instrumental in the gathering, editing, and publishing of Ibn Taymiyya’s writings. By December 1925, when the Saudis invaded the Hijaz and took control of Jeddah, he had fully “switched sides,” and began serving as a senior advisor to the Saudis. If we take him seriously, which values drove his conversion?
  • The Arabic periodical al-Maʿrifā (Knowledge) [which ran between 1931-34 in interwar Cairo] presented itself as a Ṣūfī print enterprise, with a scholarly religious interest in producing articles and texts concerned with culture, literature, science, and the arts. Abd al-‘Azīz al-Islāmbūlī (1905-1964), the periodical’s editor, relied on social capital amassed from his intellectual connections and contributors for his journal to open up discussions on esotericism, easternism, and Islamic heritage. This paper aims to (i) highlight a print scholar and his connections, allowing us to map unaddressed intellectual networks that brought together the contributors, editors, translators, and readers of al-Maʿrifā from various regional nodes to Cairo; (ii) I trace these intellectual connections by looking at the genre of taqārīẓ (book commendations) (singular taqrīẓ). In the thirty issues of the periodical, a section was dedicated particularly to reviewing the latest publications of texts in the Islamicate world. I show how book commendations in al-Maʿrifā form a sort of “Republic of Letters” that allows us to identify the intellectual connections between the editor in Cairo (the active center) and the network’s creative nodes (the authors and scholars whose books he commends). The paper examines the “commendatory republic” in interwar Egypt and the various nodes in the network, to sketch out book culture in the interwar period. A taqrīẓ is invaluable in providing knowledge of the organization of intellectual life, the geographic connections and relations between intellectuals and their roles in book culture and scholarly life. I show how this continued practice of commendation, from the manuscript age, maps out these textual and affective relations back to al-Maʿrifā.