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Islamic History ( 20 Apr 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Ahadith and Politics in Early Muslim Community

By Adis Duderija, New Age Islam

(University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies)

In order to understand and fully appreciate the role of the ahadith literature in early Muslim community politics one needs to firstly keep in mind that the processes of collection , writing down , spreading and canonising of traditions was a gradual , multistage undertaking, materialising over a long period of time Additionally, and more importantly for our task at hand, the socio-politico-historical milieu of the time spanning from circa 80-250 years AH ,during which the process of traditions largely evolved ,is a key factor in making sense of the most of the content of traditions. We refer to this as the "context" in which traditional material not only emerged but also was to a considerable extent , in author's view, a product of . Put differently, ahadith literature in many cases reflects and gives us an insight into the prevailing or even marginalised views of various Muslim factions at the time of its gradual proliferation and establishment.

As such an investigation of the historical context in which ahadith traditions evolved will help unravel some of its major features and characteristics .Thus ,when one comes across a tradition one not only looks at mechanisms of transmission and the methodology behind the entire perspective / understanding which in turn yielded the legitimacy and acceptance of the principle of traditions as having independent legalistic worth and value within the traditionalist circles , but one also has to put the content of a tradition in a larger socio-politico historical context of the relevant time-period. So, not only are questions pertaining to the underlying principles of the ahadith "mechanisms" of collection, recording, editing , spreading , shaping into books and canonising important but also questions relating to the "ideological luggage" of the tradition collectors and their position in the overall dynamics of the time in which they lived.

Khalidi, in reference to this point maintains that "hadith was the earliest vehicle of Islamic scholarship" and that it " came into being and reached maturity very much under the impact of political events and conflicting expectations". He claims further that early conquests and civil wars that took place in early Muslim community " had a devastating effect on the loyalities and the beliefs of early Islamic society and the Hadith echoes the resultant social and economic upheaval." Cook , when discussing traditions with reference to "forbidding evil and commanding of good" comes to the conclusion that " [traditions] material is often implicitly political even if not explicitly so.

The other issue needing brief elucidation with respect to the role of hadith and politics in early Muslim community is that of hadith methodology.

It seems that the large bulk of the rules and regulations pertaining to hadith methodology was formed by the proliferating ahadith material whose content (matn) was neither systematically criticised nor disturbed as long as its isnad (chain of narrators) was sound as defined by traditional scholars of ahadith science. Kamali, a Professor of Law at the International Islamic University Malaysia, in his "Conclusion and Reform Proposals” part of the book has this to say in terms of the textual criticism of hadith scholars in the past:

“I have also noticed a certain degree of imbalance in the kind of attention that hadith scholars have paid to matters of transmission and isnad as opposed to the text or matn of hadith. Hadith experts paid clearly greater attention to the former at the expense, to some extent, of the latter. The accuracy of the hadith text and its harmony or otherwise with the Qur'an and the principles of Islam that had a wider basis of support in the hadith itself did not receive a commensurate level of attention from the hadith scholars. In my discussion on mukhtalif-al hadith, which is the subject of the earlier chapter, some examples are given of hadith which appear in al-Bukhari and Muslim , Abu Dawud and others. A careful reading of the text , in these examples, reveals weaknesses so much so that the hadith in question could hardly be accepted as authentic sayings of Prophet Muhammad. One would have expected in such instances that the compiler of such controversial materials would have rejected them and refused to document them in the category of Sahih hadith, or even of any hadith for that matter. Weak and fabricated hadith are found in the hadith collections, and although not extensive, the presence even on a limited scale, of such controversial Hadiths tends to undermine confidence in the veracity of the larger body of hadith ."

Subsequently, he adds, “As I indicated in the text of this work, the methodology of usul al-hadith originated with Shafi’i but hadith collection had started much earlier. By the time of Al-Bukhari, the broad outline of usul-al-hadith was admittedly in place but it was still at its early stages of development. Usul al-hadith saw its efflouresence in the works of al-Baghdadi, ibn Al-Salah, al-Nawawi and Asqalani in the course of the subsequent centuries after Al-Bukhari. It may therefore not come a surprise to note that both al-Bukhari and Muslim contain Hadiths which that were subsequently identified as weak (Da'if) or which did not fulfill some of the prerequisites of authenticity for Sahih hadith".

Kamali than gives this piece of statistics : "Critics have identified 210 [ such] Hadiths in Bukhari and Muslim. Out of this 32 appear in both, another 75 appear in al-Bukhari, and the rest , that is , about 100 appear in Muslim ( Cf. Abu Shahba, al-Wasit, p.257) "

Regardless whether or not the ahadith used in this article are genuinely going back to the Prophet (s) or are a product of their environment one premise can be established with certainty, namely that Prophetic traditions have often been used to justify one's own political , theological or legal views.

One last issue needs clarification, albeit very briefly, if one is to gain a better understanding of the dynamics between ahadith literature and its role in shaping the political climate in early Muslim community. The question being that how is it that often conflicting political/sectarian/theological views have been incorporated into one large of literature?


Our task now is now to further extend an already briefly mentioned phenomenon, namely how it was possible that often contradictory views/convictions (stemming from the various circles mentioned above) have been incorporated into the same ahadith material. To adequately answer this question three important points need to be taken into consideration:

a.) the role of ijma /consensus in the Sunni Muslim ummah playing a most significant role in terms of deciding what sources of knowledge are authentic / valid and which are not- i.e. its epistemology.

b.) early events in Islamic history

c.) the stages in the genesis and development of ahadith science


One of the sources of Islamic law as defined by Imam Shafi is that of ijma or consensus of people . If something is recognised by the majority of traditional scholars as being in accordance with the traditionalists view of theory of knowledge and its sources (i.e. epistemology) than it can be accepted into the corpus of its normative teachings. This methodology of derivation of Islamic Law as espoused by Shafi crystalised at the time of consolidation and wider acceptance of ahadith literature as being part of the traditionalists' "construct of sure knowledge". In other words, ijma became identified with the concept of Sunna and the source of Sunna was identified with ahadith literature. The propagation of ahadith by influential people , transmitters of tradition such as Shafi, shaped the opinion of the ijma and it , on the other hand, accepted, as previously remarked, ahadith literature under its wing. Hence, the entire content of what came to be known as ahadith literature was accepted unquestionably as stemming from Prophet himself and therefore part of God commandments/favour upon the believers.


Let us now turn to the importance of the context in which ahadith literature developed. It has already been argued that ahadith literature had absorbed various practices/beliefs which were a reflection of various political , social, historical, cultural and sectarian "battlefields" which took place during the first three centuries AH, so a brief overview of the major movements during this formation period is necessary for a proper understanding of the subject.

Young Muslim community, after the Messenger's death went through very tumultuous times. Schisms rooted in differing political, theological and legal understandings of what Islam is supposed to represent emerged. A very good example of the politically driven schism based on a particular theological view is the formation of the Khawarij movement.

The emergence of the Shia /Sunni rift was also a politically propelled division which later resulted in development of different dogmas which had/have strong political overtones . The emergence of Murji'a phenomenon ( people who advocated a modus Vivendi with a government for the sake of the upholding of rule of law even if the law /government is an unjust one) is an example of a political schism which was embedded in a particular theological view and was in direct opposition to that of most of the Khawarij.

Formation of Mu'tazila ( first Islamic "rationalists" ) was a theologically induced schism whose antithesis, in may ways, was Asha'rism which emphasised literalistic following of tradition and disputed and undermined , among others, the importance of 'aql in guiding human endeavor , especially in the field of theology and law. Ahl _Sunna movement had its opposition in the Ahl-Ra'y whose differences were based on the contrasting methodologies in derivation of islamic law , mainly that of the legalistic value of ahadith literature and its juxtaposition to the principle of sunna/ or practice of early Muslim community. Emergence of sufism and its philosophy was a direct reaction to the already crystalised and well-established "orthodox dogma" which was seen by many as rigid, oblivious to "higher truths", and spiritually empty. Thus, a very fertile ground for a variety of different views, attitudes, perspectives and understandings was established all of which as, we shall see shortly, found their place in ahadith literature due to its "absorbing" quality.


The previous subheading of this article briefly outlined a description of major schisms and conceptions of Islam were given. The emergence of these various movements, as mentioned earlier, posed a clear and present danger, to use military terms, threatening the very survival of the Muslim community. An important purpose behind the crystilised Ahl-Sunna wa Jamaat (i.e. orthodox) movement ,whose normative sources of knowledge include the six canonical ahadith books , according to Dr. Rahman, was the desire to unite the disintegrating and ever growing muslim ummah (both in terms of their numbers, theological, ideological ,ethnical/racial and political dispositions and geographical dimensions) by formulating a rigid, detailed set of rules and regulations often at the price of their actual historical authenticity and genuine Islamic value and character.

The Ahl-Sunnah wa jama'ah's policy "of synthesis and mediation”, to prof . Rahman's terminology was instrumental in this undertaking as it was the actual "essence" behind the movement itself.

Thus, many ahadith stemming from various interest groups and parties were absorbed into this gigantic compendia and were recognised as genuinely going back to the Prophet and therefore authoritative. Thus, all of them found their expression in the traditional literature we possess today.

In summary the role of ijma , the nature of the genesis and development of ahadith literature and the political circumstances, resulted in the absorbtion and integration of often opposing narrations / views being found side by side in the same ahadith collections such as Bukhari's Sahih.


Keeping the foregoing in mind we are better able to investigate the role of hadith in the politics of early Muslim community.

One of the most crucial and important features of ahadith literature is its reflection of a relationship between "religiously"-oriented circles and the official state powers of the period . As such many traditions, according to authorities such as Goldziher and Rahman, act as indicators of prevailing socio-political circumstances and the dynamics which took place within it . Rahman suggests that Hadith , indeed, can be seen as a largely situational interpretation and formulation of Prophetic Model or Spirit and that hadith reports are to be investigated or judged with reference to pure history and not vice-versa as traditional doctrine maintains .

3. a) Political quietism / Calming ahadith

The first example of this type of ahadith is so called political quietism or "calming ahadith". The controversies surrounding the process of selection of Prophet's successor, events linked to assassination of the second, third and fourth caliphs , the ascending of the Umayyads and their subsequent loss of power to the Abbasids created deep socio-political rifts ( which increasingly took dogmatic and theological overtones) within the young Muslim community threatening its very survival. Within the ummah various Muslim circles reacted to this socio-political reality in divergent ways. The group of people who sought some kind of modus Vivendi with the government despite its "deviant ways" espoused the doctrine of irja' ( political neutralism or suspending of judgement) and were thus, referred to as Murjites . They were ready to accept and endure injustice and be obedient to the ruler in face of tyranny for the sake of preserving the unity of ummah as "It is better to have a tyrannical government for a time than to have a period of revolution" . In order to give more credibility to their views ahadith of anti-rebellious nature were circulated into the community . Only by keeping this historical background in mind can one make sense of the following ahadith.

In Bukhari, Fitan, no.2 we come across a tradition which unmistakably has an irja'ist flavour. "He who disapproves of some of his rulers actions may bear this in patience, for he who leaves obedience by even a span will die like a pagan" .

Another ahadith serving the same purpose and intention is found in Abu Dawud and Bukhari goes as follows: "Every emir is to be followed into war whether he be just or not , and the Salaat must be performed behind any Muslim be he just or wicked."

Similar tradition found in Bukhari- Jizya, no.4 and Abu Dawud advocates political passivity and virtue of patience in times of revolution and political rebellion in which Prophet (s) asked his companions: "How will you behave when rulers succeeding me will take for themselves part of the booty ( in other words squander state treasury) ?-Then we shall take the sword upon our shoulder and fight ( against the ruler) until we meet again. The Prophet (s) replies -But I will show you what is better than that : be patient until you meet me again."

This exhorting to political inactivity is clearly demonstrated in another hadith found in Bukhari:"Al-Ahnaf b.Qays reports : I set forth in order to help this man( i.e. Ali before the battle of the camel) I met Abu Bakra and he said : Where are you going ?I want to go and help this man. Turn back, countered Abu Bakr , and I heard the Prophet (S)say: If two Muslims draw swords against each-other , both, the murderer and the murdered , will go to hell."

All of the above traditions served to support the existing order and prevent civil unrests (fitna) and tensions so clearly visible and felt within the community, thus the term "calming ahadith".

3. b) Dynastical Ahadith

Another category of ahadith belonging to the socio-political sphere can be termed as "dynastical ahadith " . The proper insight into these dynastical/sectarian ahadith can be gained only if one familiarises oneself with the questions regarding the validity of hereditariness of caliphate, concept so strongly opposed by the mainstream ( Ahl-sunna wa jama'a) Islam and the genealogical claims of the three major candidates to the succession of the messenger, the Umayyads ,( who were the progeny of Abd Shams, brother of Hashim, Messenger's great grandfather ) , Abbasids ( Abbas was Messenger uncle, brother of Abdullah, Messenger's father) and the marginalised 'Alids ( progeny of Messenger's daughter Fatima ) . Hence, this kind of ahadith literature was used to prove the legitimacy of their claims as we shall try to demonstrate.

According to Goldziher, the questions regarding Prophet's property /inheritance after his death and the traditional literature concerning this issue is to be seen in the context of hereditariness of the caliphate. That is, if it can be established that Prophets leave no inheritance behind them ( in a materialistic as well as spiritual sense of a successor heir based on heredity ) than the claims of the 'Alids ,which were based on the notion of "hereditary character of the prophetic and royal office ... and the idea of hereditability of prophetic dignity and rule over the empire which they[the 'Alids] strove to obtain for the family of Muhammad in the line of Fatima"" would be considered irrelevant. This would , of course, serve the interest of the "mainstream" party who wanted to ensure that the traditional literature does not support the principle of "hereditary character of spiritual dignity". Thus, the ahadith quoted below , even though they directly refer to the inheritance of property , in Goldziher's opinion , need also to be viewed from the "political-struggle - of -different- interest -groups" point of view who had their vested interests in this issue ( Shia in contrast to the Sunni doctrine maintain that Prophet's property is subject to the same laws of inheritance as that of other human beings).

In Bukhari ( Fard al-khums, no.1) we come across a tradition in which Aisha tells how Fatima asked Abu Bakr after Prophet's death what was going to happen to her share of inheritance left behind the Prophet. Abu Bakr responded that "we do not leave any inheritance , what we leave is for charity'.

Another tradition found in Bukhari (Maghazi) tells us that Prophet on the authority of Umar had remarked that " we (Prophets) do not make our property to be inherited, what we leave is charity.

Another hadith which tries to counteract the hereditary caliphate claims of the 'Alids in the line of Fatima can be found in Al-Tirmidhi in which the Messenger is reported to have said : "If there were to be prophets after me , it would surely be Umar ( who is not a member of Alids or ahl-bayt)."

3. c) Genealogical hadith:

Now let us turn to the genealogical claims of various parties competing for the caliphate which we have grouped into 'Alid , Umayyads and Abbasids. The genealogical claims of supremacy of various people /tribes are mainly found in the qasidas of the poets who served on the caliphs courts but some have also penetrated into ahadith literature. These tribal/political differences have in the course of time developed into theological and dogmatic ones. The Sunni -Shi'a rift is a concrete example of that phenomenon. Thus, these dynastical traditions can also be considered in their later developments as being political/sectarian in nature as the Islamic law was being increasingly extrapolated and established, itself being embedded in differing political/sectarian/theological frameworks.

An excellent example of pro-Abbasid hadith can be found in Al-Tirmidhi which goes as follows: Al-Abbas once complained to the Prophet(s) :What have the Qurayshites against us? They meet one another with friendly faces but refuse to do likewise to us. This made Prophet (s)angry , his face grew red and he said: By him in whose hand my soul rests, belief does not enter anybody's heart unless he loves you for the sake of Allah and his Apostle. O men, he who hurts my uncle , hurts me, since men's uncle is like his father.

Another hadith found in Bukhari which seams to boast the credentials of the Abbasids as custodians of true Islamic knowledge/tradition and thus rightful inheritors of Khilafat, on the authority of the Prophet goes as follows : Narrated by Ibn Abbas : once the Prophet embraced me (pressed me to his chest) and said, "O Allah, teach him wisdom (i.e. the understanding of the knowledge of Qur'an)." (vol 5:100)

Thus, Ibn Abbas ,the pillar of Abbasids caliphate claims, is supposed to have been blessed with knowledge and wisdom , therefore, it is only befitting that his progeny assumes the leadership role of the islaamic state.

The Alids, supporters of Ali's right to caliphate which later on were given the epithet of partisans (shi'a) of Prophet's family ( ahl-bayt), have themselves tried to justify their claims on the authority of the Prophet(s) by exhorting Ali's contributions and virtues and describing his close relationship to the Messenger. The following narrations have a very strong Alid flavour to them.

In the famous tradition of Khum the Prophet is reported to have said the following:...."So know then that whose master I am , their master is Ali also. O God protect him who recognises 'Ali and be an enemy to all who oppose Ali".

A less accepted pro-Alid hadith found in Al-Tirmidhi tells us of Prophet's exclaiming the following words to Anas (ibn Malik?): O Anas , is there anyone amongst the Ansar who is better than or preferable to 'Ali?.

This tradition and the intention behind it can only be fully appreciated in the context of existing Ansari-Muhajirun tensions and their opposing views as who can claim the right of being the Messenger's successor.

Another example of pro-Alid traditions can be found in Al-Bukhari in which Messenger is reported to have said the following about 'Ali : " Verily, I give this flag to a man through whose hands God will give us victory ; he loves Allah and His apostle and Allah and His apostle love him.

Additionally, the traditions which claim that Prophet left no will behind and that he had not appointed a successor serve as an argument against pro-'Alid claims that Messenger appointed a successor.

Another example of traditions which seek to emphasise Ali's right to leadership of Muslims can be found in Bukhari (5:56)

Narrated by Sa'd that the Prophet said to 'Ali, "Will you not be pleased from this that you are to me like Aaron was to Moses?" (5:56)

In this tradition Ali is compared to Aaron , Moses' brother, who was not only appointed the leader of Bani Israel in Moses' absence (and after his demise) but was also given a rank of a Prophet.

4. d.) Sunni/Shia rift ahadith

Now let us turn to the examples of ahadith whose clarification and whose intentions we can understand in the context of the Sunni-Shia points of divergence. It is well know that Shia do not recognise the khalifat legitimacy of the first three "righteous caliphs" , to use Sunni terminology. As such it could be deduced that the mainstream Muslim community felt the need to defend and bring the excellent qualities of these three men into foreground as a part of their wider political / dogmatic propaganda. Ahadith which go in favour of and emphasise the straight path taken by the "righteous caliphs" are best understood as products of the prevalent political climate/ tensions of the time.

Narration pertaining to Abu Bakr, the first Sunni Caliph:

Narrated by Abu Said Al-Khudri: Allah's Apostle addressed the people saying, "Allah has given option to a slave to choose this world or what is with Him The slave has chosen what is with Allah." Abu Bakr wept, and we were astonished at his weeping Caused by what the Prophet mentioned as to a slave (of Allah) who had been offered a choice, (we learned later on) that Allah's Apostle himself was the person who was given the choice, and that Abu Bakr knew best of all of us. Allah's Apostle added, "The person who has favored me most of all both with his company and wealth, is Abu Bakr. If I were to take a Khalil other than my Lord, I would have taken Abu Bakr as such, but (what relates us) is the Islamic brotherhood and friendliness. All the gates of the Mosque should be closed except the gate of Abu Bakr." (5:6)

Muhammad bin Al-Hanafiya asked my father ('Ali bin Abi Talib), "Who are the best people after Allah's Apostle?" He said, "Abu Bakr." I asked, "Who then?" He said, "Then 'Umar. " I was afraid he would say "Uthman," so I said, "Then you?" He said, "I am only an ordinary person." (5:20)

Narrations pertaining to virtues of Umar, the second Sunni Caliph :

Narrated by Abu Huraira: Allah's Apostle said, "Among the nations before you there used to be people who were inspired (though they were not prophets). And if there is any of such a persons amongst my followers, it is 'Umar." 5:38

Narrated Abu Huraira: The Prophet said, "Among the nation of Bani Israel who lived before you, there were men who used to be inspired with guidance though they were not prophets, and if there is any of such persons amongst my followers, it is 'Umar." 5:38

Narrated by Abu Said Al-Khudri : I heard Allah's Apostle saying, "While I was sleeping, the people were presented to me (in a dream). They were wearing shirts, some of which were merely covering their (chests), and some were a bit longer. 'Umar was presented before me and his shirt was so long that he was dragging it." They asked, "How have you interpreted it, O Allah's Apostle?" He said, "Religion." 5:40

Narrated by Abu Musa: While I was with the Prophet in one of the gardens of Medina, a man came and asked me to open the gate. The Prophet said to me, "Open the gate for him and give him the glad tidings that he will enter Paradise." I opened (the gate) for him, and behold! It was Abu Bakr. I informed him of the glad tidings the Prophet had said, and he praised Allah. Then another man came and asked me to open the gate. The Prophet said to me "Open (the gate) and give him the glad tidings of entering Paradise." I opened (the gate) for him, and behold! It was 'Umar. I informed him of what the Prophet had said, and he praised Allah. Then another man came and asked me to open the gate. The Prophet said to me. "Open (the gate) for him and inform him of the glad tidings, of entering Paradise with a calamity which will befall him." Behold! It was 'Uthman, I informed him of what Allah's Apostle had said. He praised Allah and said, "I seek Allah's aid." 5:42

Narrations pertaining to Uthman, the third Sunni Capliph:

Narrated by Ubaidullah b. Adi bin Al-Khiya :Al-Miswar bin Makhrama and 'Abdur-Rahman bin Al-Aswad bin 'Abu Yaghuth said (to me), "What forbids you to talk to 'Uthman about his brother Al-Walid because people have talked much about him?" So I went to 'Uthman and when he went out for prayer I said (to him), "I have something to say to you and it is a piece of advice for you." 'Uthman said, "O man, from you." ('Umar said: I see that he said, "I seek Refuge with Allah from you.") So I left him and went to them. Then the messenger of 'Uthman came and I went to him (i.e. 'Uthman). 'Uthman asked, "What is your advice?" I replied, "Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth, and revealed the Divine Book (i.e. Qur'an) to him; and you were amongst those who followed Allah and His Apostle, and you participated in the two migrations (to Ethiopia and to Medina) and enjoyed the company of Allah's Apostle and saw his way. No doubt, the people are talking much about Al-Walid." 'Uthman said, "Did you receive your knowledge directly from Allah's Apostle?" I said, "No, but his knowledge did reach me and it reached (even) to a virgin in her seclusion." 'Uthman said, "And then Allah sent Muhammad with the Truth and I was amongst those who followed Allah and His Apostle and I believed in whatever he (i.e. the Prophet) was sent with, and participated in two migrations, as you have said, and I enjoyed the company of Allah's Apostle and gave the pledge of allegiance to him. By Allah! I never disobeyed him, nor did I cheat him till Allah took him unto Him. Then I treated Abu Bakr and then 'Umar similarly and then I was made Caliph. So, don't I have rights similar to theirs?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Then what are these talks reaching me from you people? Now, concerning what you mentioned about the question of Al-Walid, Allah willing, I shall deal with him according to what is right." Then he called 'Ali and ordered him to flog him, and 'Ali flogged him (i.e. Al-Walid) eighty lashes . 5:45

Narrated by Ibn Umar: During the lifetime of the Prophet we considered Abu Bakr as peerless and then 'Umar and then 'Uthman (coming next to him in superiority) and then we used not to differentiate between the companions of the Prophet. (5:47)

Another pro Sunni ahadith can be found in Al-Tirmidhi where a prophet is supposed to have omitted the funeral prayer for the body of a true believer and when asked about this reason he replied: The dead man did not love Uthman, therefore I


The article aimed to briefly investigate the role of ahadith literature in shaping the politics of early muslim community. The notion of the merits of contextual viewing(or historical viewing ) of ahadith literature in terms of the political and sectarian claims of various early Muslim communities was advocated. It was demonstrated that , regardless or the actual authenticity of the ahadith under question , it was clearly evident that many of the them reflected the often conflicting political and sectarian views in early Muslim community and that as such could have been used to defend the political ( or for that matter theological and legal) doctrines of one of the groups at the expense of another. That they all were subsequently absorbed into the Sunni canonical traditional material was a result of the nature of the methodological and epistemological principles governing the Ahl-Sunnah wa Jamaats understanding of Islamic tradition .


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Dr. Adis Duderija is a research associate at the University of Melbourne, Islamic Studies. He recently published a book: Constructing a Religiously Ideal "Believer" and "Woman" in Islam: Neo-traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims' Methods of Interpretation (Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History.