Islam without Europe: Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought

Islam without Europe
  • Book Title:
 Islam Without Europe
  • Book Author:
Ahmad S. Dallal
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  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Reimagining the Eighteenth Century
  • Chapter 1. The Boundaries of Faith
  • Chapter 2. Ijtihād and the Regional Origins of a Universal Vision
  • Chapter 3. Sufism, Old and New
  • The Multiple Faces of the Spirit
  • Chapter 4. Genealogies of Dissent and the Politics of Knowledge
  • Chapter 5. Humanizing the Sacred
  • Conclusion
  • The Limits of the Sacred
  • Notes

Reimagining the Eighteenth Century

Sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, the intellectual world of Muslims began to crumble and the great traditions of the past were forgotten. Contrary to common modern assertions, the recession of these traditions was sudden and unexpected. Throughout the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth, the Muslim world had witnessed one of the most lively and creative periods in its intellectual history.

Echoes of this intellectual activity could still be felt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, yet nothing in this latter period approximated the erudition and depth of eighteenth-century thought. In the eighteenth century, enormous energies were devoted to a systematic and comprehensive restructuring of Islamic thought.

The erudition of eighteenth-century thinkers and their honed historical consciousness enabled them to mold the past and fully appropriate its legacies. Classical styles of thinking were preserved, despite a great awareness of the need to reorganize religious knowledge and identify those aspects of Islam that were shared by all. From within the framework of classical learning, these thinkers dramatically restructured the intellectual world of Muslims.

Diverse Islamic ideologies were forged and employed in Islamic sociopolitical as well as intellectual movements. Eighteenth-century models of Islamic activity ranged from political mobilization under the banner of classical Islamic ideology to the creation of a centralized network of Sufi settlements to purely intellectual reform embodied in new approaches to the study of traditional Islamic disciplines.

From the banks of the Ganges to the shores of the Atlantic, masses and elites alike embraced the relentless appeals of eighteenth-century Muslim thinkers. No other earlier period in Islamic history can boast of intellectual activities as self-consciously transformative and inclusive in their conception.

Eighteenth-century thinkers were fully aware of the intellectual and political significance of their undertakings, and they embarked upon them with great self-confidence and optimism.

Despite their alarmist tone, eighteenth-century thinkers had great hopes for the future: they asserted the potential superiority of later generations of Muslims over earlier ones and then proceeded to demonstrate this superiority; they articulated and espoused an Islam that transcends the boundaries of the schools of law and eradicates sectarian and legal differences; and they advocated the active participation of all Muslims in the definition of Islam and set out meticulously to chart the practical venues for this participation. From the perspective of the late nineteenth century, the intellectual ventures of the eighteenth century had failed to stand the test of time.

Yet, judging by the record of the eighteenth century and its immediate aftermath, and not from later, hazy perceptions of this century, these ventures were quite successful and influential. The cultural vitality of the eighteenth century was not limited to certain regions but was spread over most of the Muslim world. The distinguished thinkers of this period came from India and Arabia, North Africa and West Africa, as well as Syria and Yemen. The diverse and rich legacies of this period—the vibrant eighteenth-century intellectual activities in the Muslim world that developed independent of European influence—are the subject of this book.

The choice of period and subject matter is justified primarily in light of the scope of this cultural activity and its contrast to cultural activities in the age of colonialism. Chronologically, it is easier to demarcate the end of this period than its beginnings.

 What I call the eighteenth century extends to the beginnings of the modern period, a period that is marked, above all, by European political, economic, and cultural domination over the Muslim world, and by an Islamic discursive culture largely articulated in reaction to this European challenge.

Naturally, therefore, no single date can mark the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the modern period, as European penetration and domination took hold at different dates in different places. While, for example, the modern era in Egypt arguably starts in the early nineteenth century, European modernity in sub-Saharan Africa does not commence till after the middle of this century. Moreover, since the extent and significance of European hegemony was not simultaneously appreciated in all parts of the Muslim world, the cultural eighteenth century, defined here in terms of cultural production that was not articulated in response to Europe, sometimes lingered past the colonial takeover. As such, my approach is opposed to the traditional Orientalist view that marks the 1798 French invasion of Egypt as the beginning of the modern history of the Middle East and the Muslim world not just because many social, economic, political, and cultural continuities in large parts of the Muslim world were not affected by this invasion, but primarily because this periodization assumes generalized stagnation and decline in the eighteenth-century Muslim world.

This idea of economic and political decline has been largely discredited in a substantial number of studies, especially by historians of the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman provinces.1 This study will undermine the decline thesis in the cultural sphere.

For the purposes of this study, the beginnings of the period under examination are also defined primarily in cultural terms. As I will demonstrate in the chapters that follow, the eighteenth century was characterized by intensive intellectual activities of great cultural significance. These activities continued traditional patterns of thinking2 but were nonetheless very original and transformative. Eighteenth-century thought was the creative culmination of traditional Islamic traditions and epistemologies, but it was also the end of these traditions.

 And despite continuities between eighteenth-century thought and earlier traditional patterns of knowledge production, the intellectual constructs of the eighteenth century were unique and, in the case of hadith and legal theory (arguably two of the most important Islamic traditions), had radical transformative implications that far exceeded the scope and impact of earlier Islamic intellectual activities. The ubiquity in Orientalist historiography of the faulty paradigm of eighteenth-century decline further underscores the need for a different and more accurate understanding of eighteenth-century Islamic culture

. The appropriateness of treating the Islamic eighteenth century as a unit is further corroborated by political and economic developments in this century. Already in the seventeenth century and through the eighteenth century, the central governments of the three major empires of the Muslim world—the Ottomans, Safavids, and Moghuls—often referred to as the gunpowder empires, were losing some of their control over their provinces and subjects. Changes in the structures of society and economy in each of these states were also coupled with military vulnerability and loss of territory. These gradual, and in no way irreversible, changes culminated in the eighteenth century in a number of dramatic events that underscore the historical distinctiveness of this period. In 1718, the Ottomans signed a treaty that forced them to surrender parts of the…

Chapter 1. The Boundaries of Faith

The new generation of eighteenth-century scholars was purposeful about the need for change. Although their diagnoses of the ills of their times largely overlapped, their proposed solutions differed significantly. The crisis of choice for most eighteenth-century thinkers was tamadhhub: zealous partisanship to the schools of law (madhāhib, sing. madhhab).

Tamadhhub was considered the main problem of Muslims and the primary cause of weakness and strife in Muslim societies. It was tied to pressing problems, such as the imposition of illegal taxes and religious degeneration reflected in the supplication to human intermediaries and ignorance. Another main problem identified by almost all eighteenth-century scholars in connection with madhhab partisanship was takfīr, the condemnation of fellow Muslims as unbelievers.1 A unifying theme, as it were, takfīr was often considered the hallmark of Muḥammad Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb’s teachings and was usually brought up in criticism of the Wahhabi discourse.

In contrast to the dominant anti-Wahhabi trend in eighteenth-century thought, both old-fashioned and revisionist historiography converge in the view that Wahhabism was a prototype of eighteenth-century thought and movements.2 This emphasis on Wahhabism correlates with a common assumption underlying most studies of modern and contemporary Islamic activism, namely, that it is socially interesting but intellectually impoverished.

Typically, traditional Orientalist historiography maintains that interesting intellectual developments in Islamic thought belong to the classical period (however defined), that the postclassical period is decidedly a period of political and economic decline and intellectual stagnation, and that Islamic creative thinking was rekindled after, and as a result of, the encounter with Europe.3 According to this view, the decline, which set in some time after the eleventh century and no later than the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries, culminated in the eighteenth century, the darkest period in Islamic history. The subsequent political and intellectual revivals and reforms of the nineteenth century were triggered by the encounter with Europe. Presumably inspired by Europe, the activities of the Muslim reformers of the late nineteenth century partially checked the steady degeneration in Islamic thought.4

Historians of the modern Muslim world have thus defined reform in terms of the reaction or response to Europe. For example, in his Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939, Albert Hourani maintains that the thinkers he studies in his book are chosen not on account of their intellectual excellence, for, in his words, their work was not “of the highest caliber,” but rather for their ability to “express the needs of their society,” and the extent to which “their ideas served as forces in the process of change.”

 Furthermore, although “more than one kind of reaction [to the European challenge] was possible,” Hourani chose to focus on the thought of those thinkers who responded to the European challenge by arguing for societal change “through the acceptance of some of the ideas and institutions of modern Europe.”5

Based on a similar criterion, most studies of the history of the early modern Islamic world have privileged intellectual activities that responded to the European challenge.6 As a result, only a few eighteenth-century political and intellectual developments have been considered seriously and, even then, these developments have almost always been examined from the vantage point of the “reforming elites.”

 There is of course no doubt that this historical perspective is important for understanding developments that started in the nineteenth century. The emphasis on modernization and reform, however, has come at the expense of other kinds of intellectual activity deemed “traditional” and thus excluded as not worthy of study.7

In recent years, several critiques of the notions of decline have been proposed and attempts to construct alternative accounts of the Islamic eighteenth century have been undertaken. These accounts generally suggest that both nineteenth-century Islamic reform and twentieth-century fundamentalism are rooted in the legacy of the eighteenth century.8 Such estimations of eighteenth-century thought presuppose that its main value was in laying the foundations of later, socially significant reforms. Revisionist accounts also often utilize notions of neo-Sufism, socio-moral reconstruction, and the use of hadith, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, as a blueprint for organizing society. Although many of the writings of eighteenth-century thinkers have been published, revisionist historiography continues to focus on practical and social aspects of….

Ijtihād and the Regional Origins of a Universal Vision Regional Networks

Because the interests of the eighteenth century are not our own, it is easy to misjudge the principle intellectual achievements of this era, or to think that these achievements are related to what we value. Therefore, a main task in the reconstruction of eighteenth-century thought is to identify what its own thinkers perceived to be the problems of their time, how they went about explaining these problems, and the historical and intellectual sources on which alternative visions were founded.

Eighteenth-century thinkers were preoccupied with issues of transgression, merit, and identity, and many of them had a shared sense of anxiety, although they proposed different solutions to their perceived problems. These problems included takfīr and other forms of social discord, imitation, and intellectual sterility, cultic practices such as tomb worship, and illegal taxation and political oppression.

The crisis of choice, however, was what they referred to as tamadhhub, which means partisanship to the schools of law and elevating them to the position of sects. Tamadhhub and the divisions that result from it were identified as the greatest of all social ills. The critique of school partisanship often started with a historical analysis of the origins of schools and the interest invested in perpetuating them. In contrast, the referential framework for the proposed solutions to these problems included revisiting the disciplines of hadith and legal theory.1

 Indeed, the historical perspectives of eighteenth-century thinkers were largely shaped by their own experiences and conceptions of sectarianism and communal strife among Muslims. Takfīr, accusing other Muslims of unbelief, which was so adamantly rejected by most eighteenth-century thinkers, was itself an extreme expression of this sectarian school partisanship. The thought of eighteenth-century thinkers is nowhere clearer than when they reflect on this thorny subject. Such, for example, is al-Shawkānī’s warning: “Know that just as partisanship [tamadhhub] results in the effacement of the

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