Editor's note: This essay by Prof. Robert W. Hefner emanates from a conference organized by the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University in April 2018. Prof. Robert W. Hefner was among the presenters of the "What is Islam? Conventional Views and Contemporary Perspectives" conference.
Shahab Ahmed has written an original and elegant book that recommends a reconceptualization of the “historical and human phenomenon that is Islam.” In What is Islam: The Importance of Being Islamic, he urges us in particular to come to terms with “the capaciousness, complexity, and… outright contradiction that obtains within the historical phenomenon” (6). Among the phenomena he recommends we relocate within the Islamic are a number relegated to the margins of modern Muslim experience, including Akbarian Sufism, Avicennan philosophy, the visual arts, and, perhaps most intriguingly, “crooked-hatted” sartorialism, understood as “a statement of an alternative normative notion of Islam expressed in an alternative normative way of going about life” (206). Conversely, among those realities Ahmed would urge us to reposition away from the normative center are certain narrowly legalistic varieties of shariah-mindedness that Ahmed argues never achieved the ethical paramountcy many contemporary analysts believe. Although Ahmed states that he is “not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation” (5), we can all recognize that he is proposing an alternate pathway for believing Muslims to engage, understand, and live their ethico-religious tradition. So the issues at stake in this book are not merely academic, but religiously foundational.
“Although Ahmed states that he is ‘not seeking to prescribe how Islam should be followed as the means to existential salvation’ (5), we can all recognize that he is proposing an alternate pathway for believing Muslims to engage, understand, and live their ethico-religious tradition”
Indonesia and Shahab Ahmed’s Call for Capaciousness
In this essay, I examine the question of just how well Ahmed’s call for capaciousness in our re-thinking of the Islamic resonates with the historical and hermeneutic realities of Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia. Although on p. 82 of his book Ahmed comments that Islam in the Malay archipelago was “heavily pregnant with the norms” from the Balkans-to-Bengal crescent, many of the Islamic realities he identifies with the latter region seem missing from Indonesia. In particular, and although Indian Muslims played a role in Islam’s diffusion to the region from the thirteenth century onward, little of the visual art, poetry, wine-drinking, and Avicennan philosophy associated with the Balkans-to-Bengal legacy took root in archipelagic Islam.
“In this essay, I examine the question of just how well Ahmed’s call for capaciousness in our re-thinking of the Islamic resonates with the historical and hermeneutic realities of Islam in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia.”
However, viewed less in terms of specific practices or textual legacies than in terms of broader hermeneutics, Ahmed’s appeal for an expansive understanding of the Islamic resonates in a most remarkable way with Indonesian realities. Although the culture of crooked-hattedness and wine-drinking figured little, tariqah, Akbarian Sufism, and royal arts did. More to the point, those most directly involved in the latter pursuits typically felt that the activities in question were not merely a “cultural” legacy apart from that of Islam, but were legitimate and important aspects of being Islamic. No less important, in the late colonial and early post-colonial period, these understandings and practices of the Islamic became the target of vigorous campaigns of Islamic reform. Far later than in much of the Middle East, but no less decisively in the end, these latter day campaigns have succeeded in marginalizing a cultural and ethical paideia once at the heart of being Islamic in Indonesia.
Notwithstanding these convergences, there were and still today remain significant differences between Islamic hermeneutics and practices in the archipelago and Islam in the Balkans-to-Bengal region. The most striking perhaps is that, although colonialism, the post-colonial nation-state, and Islamic modernism shook many of the pillars of the earlier Indonesian Islamic, their overall effect in the modern period was less decisively “legal supremacist” than the situation Ahmed describes. The fact that legal supremacism has been less totalizing in the Indonesian region suggests that the forces Ahmed identifies as ushering in the ostensible demise of the Balkans-to-Bengal paideia – the nation state, legal essentialism, print culture and modern mass education – may in fact in other places, and not just Indonesia, be less uniformly dark in impact than Ahmed argues. To state this point more bluntly, I find Ahmed’s broader thesis with regards to the plurality of Islamic registers in the Balkans-to-Bengal crescent more convincing than I do his description of how all this has been lost and legal-supremacism made ascendant in modern times. Today there are more nuance and capaciousness to the Islamic, if not “Islamism,” than Ahmed acknowledges. Where this is not the case, this has less to do with the variables Ahmed highlights than certain dynamics of mass politics in late modern times. Rather than being an outlier and exception, then, Indonesia illustrates several qualifications on Ahmed’s account of being Islamic in a “Western-dominated” modernity.
“I find Ahmed’s broader thesis with regards to the plurality of Islamic registers in the Balkans-to-Bengal crescent more convincing than I do his description of how all this has been lost and legal-supremacism made ascendant in modern times. Today there are more nuance and capaciousness to the Islamic, if not ‘Islamism,’ than Ahmed acknowledges.”
The remainder of this essay explores these issues in three sections. First, I examine the social forces and cultural hermeneutics that shaped the Islamic paideia in the archipelagic region now known as Indonesia, highlighting areas of convergence and divergence in the “infrastructuring” (76) of the Islamic in this region. I then examine the social forces that, in modern times, served to challenge and ultimately dismantle significant portions of the earlier Islamic. Although some of these forces – colonialism, the nation-state, and Islamic modernism – are similar to those Ahmed highlights, their social and religious consequences have been different. In the final section, I stand back and assess whether this difference in outcomes merely offers another example of Indonesia’s ostensible exceptionalism, or whether it speaks to a plurality of modern Islamics that Ahmed may have overlooked in his account of the modern Balkans-to-Bengal civilizational stream.
Muslim Indonesia’s Premodern Paideia(s)
In place of the “legal supremacist conception” (125) of Islam that he identifies as so pervasive in the late modern Muslim world, Ahmed urges us to take a “socially non-compartmentalized” and “spatially diffuse” (191) approach to the Islamic in the Balkans-to-Bengal crescent. A similar appeal in the face of the study of Islamic identities and ethical imaginaries in the Indonesian archipelago quickly runs into one of the most striking paradoxes of Islamic studies in this region. The paradox is that, rather than being crowded out by legal-supremacist understandings of the Islamic, the study of Islam in Indonesia has until recently suffered from a dearth of legal-jurisprudential studies. Rather than scholarly understandings of Islam in Indonesia overemphasizing the legal-jurisprudential, there was a tendency to exaggerate Indonesian Islam’s syncretism and heterodoxy. In the age of Indonesian studies pioneered by Clifford Geertz in the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that only a small proportion of Muslims in the archipelago observed a fiqh-minded variety of Islam, while the great majority, especially in Java (where half of Indonesia’s population lived in the mid-twentieth century) were nominal or syncretic Muslims.
“In the age of Indonesian studies pioneered by Clifford Geertz in the 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that only a small proportion of Muslims in the archipelago observed a fiqh-minded variety of Islam, while the great majority, especially in Java (where half of Indonesia’s population lived in the mid-twentieth century) were nominal or syncretic Muslims.”
As Merle Ricklefs (2012) and others have recently confirmed, in the mid-twentieth century the great majority of Javanese Muslims did profess a broadly localized variety of Islamic. More significantly, and as recent studies by such Islamic-studies-trained scholars as Peter Riddell, Michael Feener, Carool Kersten, and Michael Laffan have demonstrated, from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, there were at least two regionally influential currents with regard to ways of being Islamic in an Indonesian manner.
The first current was broadly Malayo-Sumatran, having originated in some of the earliest centers of Muslim learning in what is today western Indonesia, a region extending from Aceh and northern Sumatra to the Malay peninsula. From the thirteenth century onward, a significantly scripturalized, if still largely non-legalist, variety of Islamic culture appears to have taken root across much of this region. By the end of the sixteenth century, the royal court of Aceh had emerged as a major center of Islamic learning, much of it under the sponsorship of the Acehnese sultan. Even in this early period it became “common for Acehnese scholars of Islam to spend a period of their lives studying at various centres of Islamic learning in the Arabian peninsula” (Riddel 2001:104); others travelled and studied in South Asia and even Siam, which at the time had a significant resident community of Muslim scholars.
Not surprisingly in terms of local religious culture, some of the most influential Acehnese scholars at this time, such as the celebrated Hamzah Fansuri (d.c. 1590), came under the influence of Akbarian ideas, and promoted a doctrine of God’s all-encompassing immanence, linked in turn to the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud, the foundational unity of being. Fansuri also popularized the doctrine of the five stages of emanation with its culminating vision of the Perfect Man, notions also related to the Akbarian legacies that Shahab Ahmed rightly identifies as at the heart of the Balkans-to-Bengal Islamic. Fansuri’s equally influential successor, Shams al-Din extended the five grades to its more familiar seven. The UK-based scholar of Islamic literature and theology in early modern Indonesia, Peter Riddell, captures well one of the other themes of Hamzah and Shams al-Din’s Islamic, one that resonates powerfully with the madhhab-i ‘isyk (madhhab of love) that Ahmed identifies as central to the Balkans-to-Bengal Islamic: “Shams al-Din presents Love as a core theme in his theosophy. He suggests that it is through Love of God that we can attain perfection and come to an understanding of the union between Creator and creature…” (Riddell 2001: 114-115). The related doctrine of the perfect man (al-insan al-kamil) also appears to have achieved influence across the region extending from Aceh in the western archipelago over to Makassar and Bone in the east; rulers in the latter regions converted to Islam only in the early years of the seventeenth century, in the aftermath of bitter dynastic wars.
There were other, less Akbarian influences on the Islamic from early on in the Malayo-Sumatran region as well. In 1637, an Indian Muslim scholar of Hadhrami ancestry named Nuruddin ibn Al ar-Raniri (d. 1658) took up residence in the Aceh court under the patronage of Sultan Iskandar Thani (r. 1636-1641). With the sultan’s apparent backing, ar-Raniri launched a campaign against the Akbarian scholars previously well regarded at the court, Hamzah Fansuri and Syamsuddin of Pasai, and succeeded at having their works banned. Although an orthodox Sufi himself, ar-Raniri soon escalated his campaign, accusing the Akbarians of heresy for allegedly equating the Creator with the created, and for claiming that mystical adepts are freed from the obligations of shari‘a (Riddell 2001: 123). He eventually convinced the Sultan to arrest several prominent followers of Shams al-Din. Some recanted their views, but those who refused were executed, an act that ar-Raniri publicly defended (ibid.). Ar-Raniri’s attacks bore a striking resemblance to those being made at the Mughal court in the sixteenth century during the reign of Jahangir (r. 1605-27), inspired in part by the reform-minded leader of the Naqshbani order, Ahmad Sirhindi. As Riddell notes, “Sirhindi’s influence brought about a great narrowing in the religious perspective of the court, and led to widespread persecution, murders, and destruction of literary works” (Riddell 2001:124).
There was second major current in the Muslim Indonesian Islamic, associated with ethnic Javanese on the densely populated island of Java, as well as a few neighboring regions, most notably the islands of Madura and Lombok. By comparison with Aceh or the cultural complex Ahmed describes for the Balkans-to-Bengal region, the legal, literary, and aesthetic heritage in these territories showed less agreement or coherence on the question of the Islamic. In 1649, one of central Java’s more powerful kings, Amangkurat I, assembled and then executed some 2000 ulama with an additional 3000 family members, on the charge that they had joined in a recent failed conspiracy against the king (Ricklefs 2006:56). Although this act was no doubt as symptomatic of regional tensions (inland agrarian kingom versus the maritime coast) as it was anything religious, it showed the degree to which the Javanese king at this time was willing and able to disregard the opinion and well being of the Muslim scholarly community.
We can, I believe, take this incident as evidence of a religious culture considerably less settled on the terms of its coherence than that Ahmed associates with the Balkans-to-Bengal region. Ahmed writes that, “the vast majority of the population of pre-modern societies of Muslims participated in the normative truth-claims and vocabulary of the hierarchical cosmologies of Sufism,” giving rise to “a common paradigm of Islamic life and thought” (Ahmed 2016:75). The cultural situation in Java-Madura-Lombok appears to have been less stable and more agonistic. Not most, but some of the mystical Javanese verse forms known as suluk continued to favor a monist and unreformed variety of Islamic mysticism. Some of the literature went further, “rejecting and ridiculing a legalistic approach to religion, tending to portray good works as of little benefit, and encouraging neglect of the obligatory duties of Islam” (Riddell 2001: 173; building on Zoetmulder 1995:230). The tides of shariah mindedness appear to have shifted in the early eighteenth century, under the influence of Queen Pakubuwana, the wife of King Pakubuwana I and a religious force in her own right. The Queen sponsored the creation of a normative-minded Islamic literature, including new versions of the story of Sultan Iskandar and the Story of Nabi Yusuf, as well as the even more influential Kitab Usulbiyah (Riddell 2001: 174). All these works emphasize scriptural and prophetic themes, but do so while “while singing the praise of Javanese rulers… in a distinctly Javanese royal environment” (ibid.). The complex interdigitation of Javanese and more normative-minded Islamic themes would remain a characteristic of Javo-Islamic literature well into the nineteenth century, with orthodoxy “defined in terms of its identification with Javanese kingship, rather than in terms of specific theological statements” (ibid., 177).
The broader point here is that, until the nineteenth century, the “cosmological re-infrastructuring” (Ahmed 2016:82) here in Indonesia was less stable and cohesive than that Ahmed describes for the Balkans-to-Bengal region. There were three basic infrastructural differences between the two regions. The first was that, although tariqah made their way to the archipelago, libraries, hospitals, and houses of wisdom did not. One reason this fact is important is the medical sciences in large portions of the Muslim Middle east were zones in which the philosophical-cum-natural science current in Avicennan philosophy held its own by demonstrating its practical as well as epistemological worth (see Ahmed 2016:60). In the Indonesian archipelago, this remarkable stream in the Sufi-Islamic amalgam was almost entirely absent. There were no hospitals; there were no Islamic medical philosophers like Ibn Sina. In their stead, there existed a complex mix of Indic and folk medical traditions marked by multiple “traditions of knowledge,” in Fredrik Barth’s (1993) sense of the term, traditions of knowledge marked by incommensurability and rupture rather than “a common paradigm of Islamic life and thought” (Ahmed 2016).
A second cosmological infrastructuring that seems different in the two regions had to do with the arts. Spiritual poetry abounded in Southeast Asia, and some of it, like the celebrated suluk literature Zoetmulder (1995) has described, voiced Akbarian understandings of haqiqa truth. However, other arts involved in the conveyance of haqiqa truths to popular audiences owed as much to Ramayana tales with their Indic personalities as they did Islamic saints. These popular art forms could be and were often interpreted as part of a complex Islamic spectrum (see Woodward 1989) in a manner that parallels the poetry of Khwajah Ghulam Farid described by Ahmed, with its open references to Indic deities. Again, however, to speak of “a common paradigm of Islamic life and thought” as Ahmed does for the Balkans-to-Bengal region would, here in Indonesia, impose a greater cultural and hermeneutic consensus than the evidence justifies. Not merely a higher “register of divine truth” (Ahmed 2016:22) but a “non-Islamic” hovered at the edges of at least some “Muslim” spiritual traditions in the archipelago.
“The broader point here is that, until the nineteenth century, the ‘cosmological re-infrastructuring’ (Ahmed 2016:82) here in Indonesia was less stable and cohesive than that Ahmed describes for the Balkans-to-Bengal region.”
A third and final difference in the cultural infrastructuring of the Islamic in the Indonesian archipelago was the relatively late-arrival – nineteenth and twentieth centuries – of an institutional equivalent of the classical Middle Eastern madrasa. In its prototypical Middle Eastern form, the madrasa was a college for intermediate and advanced instruction in the Islamic sciences in general, and of madhab-based Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) in particular. In the Middle East, the first madrasa appeared in the tenth century, and by the twelfth century it had become “perhaps the most characteristic religious institution of the medieval Near Eastern urban landscape” (Berkey 2003: 187). From the perspective of Islamic law and ethics, the rise of the madrasa in Middle Eastern Islam was important because it facilitated a relative “recentering and homogenization” of Islamic knowledge and authority (ibid., 189), and a more fiqh-minded understanding of Islamic ethics at least in scholarly circles. Ahmed has reminded us that there was more to Muslim ethical imaginaries in the Balkans-to-Bengal region than jurisprudence, but fiqh nonetheless achieved a greater cultural salience than it did in early modern Southeast Asia. During its first centuries Islamic normativity in Southeast Asia had a “raja-centric” and popular rather than a madrasa-based and legal-minded cast (Milner 1995: 146, 217). A few Muslim scholars owned small digests that summarized a few features of Shafi‘i law, the Sunni school of law long dominant across Southeast Asia. But until the rise of Islamic reform in the late nineteenth century, the careful study or robust enforcement of those legal traditions was virtually unknown.
Although late to the region, a madrasa-centered cultural re-infrastructuring did finally make an appearance in the nineteenth century, in part as a result of growing interaction with centers of pilgrimage and learning in the Middle East. From the middle decades of the nineteenth century onward, the Indonesian equivalent of the Middle Eastern madrasa, known locally as a pondok or pesantren, became a prominent feature on the social landscape and a major influence on Muslim ethical debates. Just as with classical madrasas in the Muslim Middle East, the study of Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and fiqh-jurisprudence lay at the heart of the pesantren curriculum. However, very little of an Avicennan nature seems to have figured.
In the final years of the nineteenth century, the rapid establishment of pesantren across central and western portions of the archipelago insured that a well-organized if at first minority wing of the Muslim community developed a lettered familiarity with and commitment to fiqh and the new understanding of Islamic shariah it allowed. In the first decades of the twentieth century, this development converged with social change and anti-colonial ferment to spur the rise of organized movements for the implementation of a “legal supremacist” variety of shariah.
A New Muslim Paideia?
This last development may sound like an Indonesian variation on the Ahmedian theme of the modern ascent of legalist supremacism, beginning in colonial times but then continuing under the auspices of the Indonesian nation state. A key institution in this epistemological displacement, Ahmed argues (borrowing heavily from the scholarship of Talal Asad), was the modern nation state. Asad has argued that the nation-state’s “enormous emphasis on law” (530) leads modern Muslims too to re-imagine their tradition in a way that reinforces an impoverished rather than capacious legal supremacism.
“But Indonesia suggests that this assignment of blame, and the Asadian equation of the nation state with religious law’s reification, may be too simple.”But Indonesia suggests that this assignment of blame, and the Asadian equation of the nation state with religious law’s reification, may be too simple. Not long after the network of pesantren boarding schools had been put in place and the conditions created for what one might have expected to be legal supremacism, the movement of Islamic reform known in Indonesia as Islamic “modernism” arose in urban areas across the region. Faced with the challenge of European colonialism, modernists in groups like the Muhammadiyah (established in Yogyakarta, Java, in 1912) concluded that the most effective educational instrument for the improvement of the Muslim community was, not the pesantren with its fiqh-centered curriculum, but the “Islamic day school” (Ind., sekolah Islam). With its classrooms, blackboards, and mix of general and religious instruction, the latter institution was modeled on Christian schools, which had been introduced by European missionaries in the early years of the twentieth century.
It is at this point that the story of modern education, nationalism, and the hermeneutics of the Islamic in Indonesia diverges rather significantly from Ahmed’s Balkans-to-Bengal account. The modernist education that took hold across the archipelago was not just a matter of black-boards, class levels, girls’ education, and a curriculum that included science, mathematics, and history. Modernist education involved all these things, but it was also a project for a new approach to Islamic ethics and the Islamic. This new Islamic was one premised on heightening Islam’s transformative impact in the individual and society by linking Islamic values to modern learning, social welfare organizations, and thoroughly “modern” but still decidedly Islamic understandings of citizenship and social well-being. It would be a serious error to suggest that the resulting shift in hermeneutics amounted to the rise of legal supremacism.
“This new Islamic was one premised on heightening Islam’s transformative impact in the individual and society by linking Islamic values to modern learning, social welfare organizations, and thoroughly “modern” but still decidedly Islamic understandings of citizenship and social well-being. It would be a serious error to suggest that the resulting shift in hermeneutics amounted to the rise of legal supremacism.”
The modernists of course did not repudiate shariah. But they differed from their madrasa–based counterparts by insisting that a proper understanding of shariah requires believers to put aside medieval fiqh and return to the Qur’an and Sunna – and to do so with an eye brightened not just by textual literalism, but by modern science and other forms of learning. Here, in other words, was an Islamic modernism re-discovering elements of Avicennan science without explicit reference to Ibn Sina himself. The Muhammadiyah’s founder, Ahmad Dahlan (1868-1923), had studied in Mecca and there developed an interest in reformist ideas, including those of the well-known Egyptian modernist, Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). Like Abduh, Dahlan and his followers stressed the importance of ijtihad over pious conformity (taqlid) to classical schools of jurisprudence. Muhammadiyah scholars never developed a fully systematic justification for their legal methodologies. But they did explain the ethical grounds for their activities by invoking the long-recognized legal concept of maslahah or “public interest.” They also insisted that maslahah interests were themselves derivative of the “higher aims of the shariah” (maqasid al-shari‘ah). Developed centuries earlier in the Maliki school of law, in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the concept of maslahah was cited by Islamic reformists in many parts of the globe to justify public and private initiatives not addressed in classical fiqh, but regarded as of urgent ethical importance (see Opwis 2007; Feener 2007: 137).
In the case of the Muhammadiyah, maslahah principles were used to justify an even broader array of activities than was typical for Muslim modernists in other lands. No development illustrates this emphasis – and the powerful presence of an “Islamic” far richer than legal supremacism – more clearly than that most remarkable of modern Indonesian achievements: the establishment and spread of Islamic welfare associations. Viewed from a comparative Islamic perspective, Indonesia has the most “associationalized” variety of Islam in the world. Today the reformist Muhammadiyah has some twenty-five million members. It manages 12,000 schools, 167 institutions of higher learning, 421 orphanages, 345 polyclinics and hospitals, and a nation-wide bank. The “traditionalist” Nahdlatul Ulama is less centralized but is even larger, with estimated 40 million followers and some 30,000 schools. Here in practice is demonstrable evidence of a distinctive and maslahah-ized understanding of Islamic ethics.
Although they had not yet devised an explicit, tradition-based rationale like that Tariq Ramadan or Ibrahim Moosa (2001) would develop in the 2000s, or that Ahmed describes in his book, what the Muhammadiyah and other modern Indonesian Muslims have attemped from the 1920s onward was similar to what these contemporary intellectuals have discussed in their calls for a deep reform of modern Muslim ethics. Both efforts attempt to build a reformed Muslim ethics around two epistemic pillars: a maqasid-based understanding of the shariah, emphasizing the higher aims of the law rather than unchanging ethical rules; and a determination to acquire and deepen our understanding of the natural and social world, so as to insure that believers’ efforts to realize the Islamic good move forward on the basis of empirical learning.
In the case of the Muhammadiyah, much of this new Islamic aspirational project was put in place avant la lettre, which is to say, ahead of the detailed normative work that some scholars might have regarded as necessary to justify the reform in explicit legal terms. Virtually all of it was also done without the benefit of a studied engagement with the philosophical Islam of Ibn Sina. But its method and its conclusions converged nonetheless with elements of Avicennan realism. And inasmuch as it did so, it reminds us that the impoverishing and essentializing of Islamic hermeneutics and knowledge that Ahmed sees as an inevitable consequence of the modern nation-state and education are not by any means intrinsic to these institutions. Rather than being unitary or (least of all) legal supremacist, the development of these modern institutions may support the rediscovery of a maqasid – and maslahah – based understanding of God’s guidance and laws.
“The ”traditionalist’ Nahdlatul Ulama is less centralized but is even larger, with estimated 40 million followers and some 30,000 schools. Here in practice is demonstrable evidence of a distinctive and maslahah-ized understanding of Islamic ethics.”
A New Hope and Capaciousness
I have suggested in this essay that Shahab Ahmed’s book bears brilliant witness to the capaciousness of the Islamic in the Balkans to Bengal region. I have also suggested that his arguments are important for rethinking our understanding of the Islamic, as well as ways of knowing and living Islamically, today. However, drawing on the Indonesian example, I have also suggested that there is an unintended but significant imbalance to Ahmet’s book. Its first five hundred pages take us through a dazzling world of poetry, philosophical Sufism, Avicennan naturalism, and, above all, an Islamic of love. The brilliance of these first five hundred pages makes the last forty pages’ dark indictment of the modern Islamic all the more unexpected. It is as if our eyes don’t have enough time to adjust to the darkness that Ahmet suggests modern education, the nation state, print culture, and Wahhabism have all ushered in. We end the book in a world of greatly diminished hope.
However, drawing primarily on the Indonesian example, but intending it be seen as representative of a broader world, I have suggested that the vision problems we have in the last 8 percent of the book may have less to do with our eyes than with the fact that Ahmed seems to have lowered his lamp settings when viewing the modern. The nation-state in at least some Muslim-majority countries and communities has not everywhere been an agent of epistemological and sociological impoverishment. Similarly, modern forms of education have not worked everywhere to reinforce legalist supremacism. Print culture and new forms of communication have been varied in their epistemological impact, but, contrary to what Ahmed argues (528), the result has not consistently been a narrowing of horizons.
“…if we engage in a simple, Avicennan-like mental experiment we can, I believe, quickly recognize that modern technologies of self and society have sometimes had notably salutary effects. The mental exercise I have in mind has to do with a striking absence in Ahmed’s otherwise far-ranging book: a sustained discussion of the treatment, aspirations, and dignity of Muslim women.”
Indeed, if we engage in a simple, Avicennan-like mental experiment we can, I believe, quickly recognize that modern technologies of self and society have sometimes had notably salutary effects. The mental exercise I have in mind has to do with a striking absence in Ahmed’s otherwise far-ranging book: a sustained discussion of the treatment, aspirations, and dignity of Muslim women. However slow the transition, and however flawed its contemporary implementation, there can be little question that, for those who regard the equality and dignity of women as a social good, the rise of the nation-state with its chimeric promise of civic equality has slowly if not always consistently created a platform which some have used for the advancement of women’s dignity. The same applies all the more to modern schooling. There the movement of women into higher education has had downstream effects on everything from women’s employment and civic participation to the aspiration for companionate forms of marriage.
This gendered example reminds us that not all in modern times has been lost with print, the nation-state, and education. On the contrary, these developments have at times spurred a rediscovery of a higher-aims/maqasidi hermeneutic for understanding the Islamic. This claim may seem specious in the face of the rise of ISIS or the tragic erasure of history in the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca (see Ahmed 2016:533). But, today, as across the expanse of history, Islamic civilization is characterized not by a single shared paradigm but by a plurality of ethical aspirations and imaginaires, some of which seem locked in a battle for the heart and soul of the Islamic. However protracted some of its contests, today’s culture wars are not by any means dragging all Muslims toward darkness. On the contrary, and as exemplified by Ahmed’s own remarkable scholarship, they also regularly inspire hopes, dreams, and real ethical progress toward a renewed and capacious Islamic.
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 All page numbers are from What is Islam (Princeton University Press, 2016) unless otherwise noted.