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Books and Documents ( 15 Feb 2020, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Irfan Ahmad’s Erudite Volume Seeks to Challenge a Common Orientalist–Islamophobic Stereotype

By Nandagopal R Menon

Vol. 55, Issue No. 4, 25 Jan, 2020

Irfan Ahmad’s erudite volume seeks to challenge a common Orientalist–Islamophobic stereotype: “Islam is inimical to criticism” (p 10). This “lack”—which produces a “bigoted, freedom-despising Islam” (p 8)—is pitted against the “abundance” of reason in a “freedom-loving, enlightened” West. The author’s primary response to these negative discourses is succinct and precise: “critique … has been integral to Islamic traditions” (p 13). We should consider “Islam as critique; indeed, Islam as permanent critique” (p 14, emphasis in the original, throughout). What prevents the recognition of the presence of critique in Islam is the “inability of our prevalent frameworks,” an important example of which is “the Enlightenment legacy” which understands critique as being that “of religion other than Christianity,” rather than it occurring “from within non-Christian religion” (p 12).

Ahmad systematically unpacks his thesis in four deft intellectual moves. First, he shows how the Western Enlightenment, thought to be the fountainhead of critique and reason, was the product of a particular historical juncture and had detectable “ethnic” and “religious” roots. Second, reason is “impotent” (p 16) in and by itself; it is always situated—in a cultural, political and religious tradition. Third, Islam does not abide by dichotomies of intellect versus affect. Instead, aql (reason) has coexisted and is complimentary with qalb (heart) (p 17). Finally, critique is not the preserve of an elite group of intellectuals, “non-intellectuals too enact and participate in the works of critique” (p 18).

Islam and Enlightenment

The first two chapters undertake two broad ambitious tasks: to chart out an “anthropology of philosophy” (p 35) and advance an “alternative genealogy of critique” (p 63) focusing on Islam. The intellectual sweep is breathtakingly dense: Kant, Diderot and Voltaire (to name only a few) are read against the grain to show how the Enlightenment was a “gigantic project of ethnicity” (pp 48–49) in more than one sense. One, it achieved its apotheosis by creating a series of religious, racial and cultural “others,” Islam, Muslims and Arabs being the principal among them. Moreover, Enlightenment was not a “secular” enterprise, but it “re-evaluate[d], not reject[ed], Christianity” (p 45). Hence, Ahmad undermines the taken-for-granted “universal” relevance of Enlightenment and also the binaries of “secular”/“religious” that makes it valuable and desirable.

In contrast to Western Enlightenment’s idea of reason and critique, we are introduced to the “Islamicate tradition” of critique—tanqid, intiqad and naqd (p 63). After freeing the words from their narrow understanding, as literary criticism in Urdu works, “the doxa of critique” (p 76) that claims its origins in Greek philosophy is challenged. This sets the stage to widen the scope of critique to encompass the fields of religion, culture and politics and advance the important arguments that viewed thus, “the successive prophets Allah sent were critics of their social orders” (p 80). Western calls for an “Islamic reformation” ignored the fact that the prophetic project of reform (islah) was inseparable from critique.

The remaining four chapters of the book are dedicated to illustrating the thesis of “Islam as critique.” Ahmad accomplishes this in multiple ways—after providing an insightful commentary on the works of Abul A´la Maududi, the influential South Asian Islamic thinker and founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, and the responses of his critics (mainly ulema, religious scholars), he turns to the activities of the Khudai Khidmatgar, the anti-colonial movement founded by Abdul Ghaffar Khan, and finally portrays the “hawker as critic” (p 181) by studying the everyday use of proverbs to criticise theologians and the rich.

The wide-ranging nature of this endeavour is commendable and worth emulation by students of all religious traditions. Rather than focusing on either textual hermeneutics or ethnography, he bridges the gap between the two and, in the process, democratises critique. Perhaps, the most important element in this section is the close readings of Maududi and his critics, which actually can be read together with the author’s path-breaking first book on the Jamaat-e-Islami (Ahmad 2010).

Often vilified as an “Islamic fundamentalist” or “terrorist,” Maududi has not received his due as a significant “political theorist” (p 97). Ahmad does precisely this, which is comparable to what Euben (1999) has done for the Egyptian Islamic thinker Sayyid Qutb, and dissects his thoughts on education, state power, women and critical engagements with ulema pioneers from the past, such as Al-Ghazali and Shah Waliullah. From exposing his lifestyle that went against the precepts of Islamic tradition—short beard and “English style” hair cut (p 125)—to his political interpretations of central Islamic concepts such as ibadat (worship) and din (religion) (pp 132–33) and contradictory positions on the place of women in politics—could join Jamaat, but could not step into public spaces unveiled (pp 161–63)—Maududi’s detractors were unsparing and thorough in their criticism. The references to Maududi’s non-Sharia mode of living, as evident in his facial hairstyle, is a particularly interesting one.

It shows how an evaluation of the conduct and character of the person—and not only a scouring of his written or spoken words—is indispensable to arrive at a judgment about him. Maududi’s critic, Maulana Manzoor Nomani, while not disagreeing with the aims of the Jamaat, did not trust its leader was capable or willing to carry it through.

Just a thought, or rather a question: Is this specific practice not derived from or influenced by a core principle of Hadith (Prophetic traditions) criticism in which the reliability of a discourse is dependent upon the moral qualities, piety and recollection skills of its transmitter? The higher the reliability of the person, the more likely that the report of the Prophet’s conduct or words is true. The ethnography in the book comes primarily in the fifth and seventh chapters wherein Ahmad meets interlocutors from within the Jamaat and also fellow travellers of the organisation, and draws examples from everyday life.

An interlocutor like Adil brings out the poignancy of being a Muslim in a Hindu majoritarian democracy when he asks whether participating in the elections will help “overcome” the “abnormality” marked by his “full beard” and “Muslim dress” (pp 152–53). Adil’s religious life does not make him the subject of critique, his very existence is rendered precarious.

Beyond Critique

Without doubt, this is a significant contribution, rich in details and analytical acumen. Some questions, however, linger on. The provocation, so to say, for the book is the Orientalist–Islamophobic claim that reason and critique are alien to Islam. And, the author responds to this by saying that Islam is not averse to critical thinking and drives home this point with substantial evidence. True, Ahmad clearly states at the outset of the book: “Beyond perfunctory apologia such as ‘Muslims also have a notion of critique like the West has,’ it argues for the specificity of Islam and the need for a genuinely democratic dialogue with different traditions” (p xii; see also p 14). But, does “dialogue” help shift or change the terms of discourse? Or, under what conditions are that dialogue to take place? Is it necessary to subscribe to critique (religious/secular, or rational/affective—or some other non-dichotomy)? Why valorise critique? Is critique the ideal mode for thought? Let me end with the vignette from Shah Waliullah with which Ahmad begins his book. In it, one word is found couple of times: Bahas (debate, disputation) (pp 2–3). It or its English equivalents are encountered again in Ahmad’s review of the work of a few veteran anthropologists of Islam (pp 49–53). The way this literature is approached is rather curious: Ahmad reads the absence of (the word or concept of) critique (instead of debate or discussion) in the works of Bowen, Marsden, Eickelman and others as “probably” the result of their “reluctance” or “hostility” to critique given its “highly secular/Christian” nature (p 49). Or, is it because these anthropologists and Shah Waliullah thought bahas did a conceptual work distinct from that of critique? Could it be because Bahas enabled Muslim subjectivities not similar to those produced by critique? Perhaps, the Orientalist–Islamophobic provocation “Islam is inimical to criticism” could be confronted with a question: “Does Islam need critique?”


Ahmad, Irfan (2010): Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of the Jamaat-e-Islami, New Delhi: Permanent Black.

Euben, Roxanne (1999): Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of

Modern Rationalism: A Work of Comparative Political Theory, Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Original Headline: Critique as a Way of Life

Source: Economic and Political Weekly