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What Comes Next for Islam and Modernity?

Session VIII-18, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel brings together contributions which seek to establish a new theoretical framework in “Islam and Modernity” debates. To go beyond reductionist approaches, this panel puts in dialogue new points of departure for comparative work in the field. It is a call to explore alternative ways to think of political, legal, and ethical thought across classical Islamic and modern European contexts, European and non-European languages, as well as historical and geographical boundaries. What happens to the fields of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies when we dispense with Western lexicons and glossaries while reading Islamic texts? How might this in turn enrich comparative analysis? What we call “the specialist approach” in area and Islamic studies obstructs the possibility of asking such questions by refusing to engage with anything outside the scope of a given specialized scholarly jurisdiction and object of expertise, and often concludes on a note of conceptual incommensurability. Neo-Orientalist scholarship, meanwhile, remains steadfast in attempts to explain the presence or absence of Western concepts or historical developments in Islamic traditions and literatures, often with the effect of demonstrating ostensible success or failure on a civilizational scale. This line of thinking is framed ab initio through anachronistic and epistemically uncharitable questions: Was there a concept of the secular in Islam? What name or shape did the economy assume in Islamic epistemologies? How did Muslims articulate the relationship between state and society? This panel, by contrast, suggests new points of departure for articulating conceptual difference while avoiding the pitfalls associated with the aforementioned approaches in two ways: first, by declining to impose modern concepts and categories on pre-modern Islamic thought and texts; second, by individually identifying distinct approaches which avoid crude conclusions of conceptual incommensurability.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, or the Revival or Revitalization of the Religious Sciences is widely considered to be his magnum opus. Spanning forty volumes and thought to be the most cited text in Islamic literatures following the Qur’ān and Sunnah, there is no shortage of scholarly engagement with its eclectic content. While there has been deep engagement with the oeuvre’s eclectic content, there has yet to emerge any thorough reading of Al-Ghazālī’s writings on eating and on food. Some might wonder why such an isolated reading is desirable in the first place, particularly in the context of an intellectual tradition such as the one from which this very page emerges: a place where questions of eating, of food, and of nutriment are characterized as trivial, base, demeaning, feminine, and of little consequence. This paper suggests that not only are questions of food and eating considered by Al-Ghazālī to be fundamental to the extent that they merit their own discrete volume (Kitāb ādāb al-akl), but they also are present throughout the entire series: Kitab asrār al-zakāt, Kitab asrār al-siyyām, Kitāb al-halāl wa'l-harām, Kitāb ādāb al-ma'īsha wa-akhlāq al-nubuwwa, and Kītab kasr al-shahwatayn. This presentation’s objectives are thus two-fold: first, to clarify the meaning, importance, and extent of questions of eating (food and other things) in Al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyāʾ. Second, and following the aforementioned excavation of his ideas of food and eating, to demonstrate the opportunities for comparison it provides with modern epistemologies of food and eating. To those ends, the presentation is organized in three parts. First, it offers a close reading of Kitāb ādāb al-akl and other texts in the series in which Al-Ghazālī pays special attention to questions of food and nutriment to demonstrate why questions of eating and food are never, strictly speaking, only about eating and food. Second, it presents Brillat-Savarin’s nineteenth-century Physiologie du goût and its novel epistemology of eating. Third, and finally, it asks how these two imbrications of eating and knowledge make possible or foreclose modalities of sociality and political praxis.
  • This paper is a comparative study of the concept of “sovereignty” in the thought of the tenth-century Muslim jurist and theologian Abu Bakr al-Baqillani and the sixteenth-century French jurist and political philosopher Jean Bodin. For Bodin, sovereignty is the absolute and perpetual power of a commonwealth. If such a power is not perpetual, then the ‘sovereign’ is not sovereign, he is merely a trustee. Bodin distinguishes the perpetual ownership of power, true sovereignty, from power defined by Roman civil law as a mere loan for a limited term. Bodin inaugurates the modern conception of sovereignty by defining the exclusive and perpetual possession of power as its central ‘mark’. The problem of the possession of power is equally central to Ash’ari jurist-theologians like Baqillani, who formulated an early theory of the Imamate. However, the Muslim ‘sovereign’ is conceived as a mere custodian over that which God, in his exclusive and all-encompassing sovereignty (mulk, qudra), possesses. God’s absolute sovereignty is not ‘expressed’ in an absolutist theory of the state but rather results in a clear demarcation of political rule from divine possession and sovereignty. This paper explores the political implications of Baqillani’s “metaphysics of impermanence.” It delves into the problem of mulk (sovereignty and possession) in Islamic natural and political philosophy (in kalām and siyāsa sharʿīya) in relation to Bodin’s “marks of sovereignty.”
  • In this paper, I discuss the intellectual tradition of African epistemology using decentralization theory by rethinking it through employing West African scholars' reception and commentaries on the Islamic rational sciences in Arabic literary works (`Ulūm al-`Aqliyah fi al-Islām). The study samples these works as the essential resources of the African intellectual tradition that shaped epistemology in the precolonial period. The main question that the paper addresses is: To what extent does this Islamic rational science contribute to the reconstruction of West African Medieval history of epistemology? Bear in mind that this type of genre is not only part of the religious discussions but also part of the philosophical discourse? To answer this question, the study establishes to frame Bayt al-Hikmah the house of wisdom in the city of Baghdad the Medieval Islamic intellectual center, and the ninth century as the place and the period that blended Islamic and Greek-Roman traditions. This heritage was transmitted in parallel movements to West Africa, 1) through the colonial movement of Europeans and missionaries as modern civilization. 2) Through the traditional Islamic institutions of North Africa. And 3) through scholars’ annual meetings during Hajj/Islamic pilgrimage. The paper argues that the intellectual heritage that came through North Africa provides the oldest historical record of the West African intellectuality, a tradition that was firmly embedded long before the second interaction with the European enlightenment. More profoundly, West African Islamic scholarship activities, even though they are in Arabic, are nonetheless part of the West African tradition that Africanists have recently rediscovered as part of the African legacy. The study explores some archives of rational sciences and traces their connection to the medieval tradition of mainstream Islamic scholarship. This research asserts that even though, some scholars engaged in writing on the Arabic-Islamic tradition in West Africa a few decades back, indeed tracing the rational sciences and comparing the two movements of transmissions in the periods before the 19th century remain slightly unexplored. Therefore, the study hypothesizes that reclaiming this heritage will anticipate the decentralization and deconstruction of West African intellectual history. Keywords: Arabic literature, Intellectual history, Rational Sciences, Translation, Transmission, and West Africa