Wednesday, July 5, 2017


Review of Saffari, S. (2017). Beyond Shariati: Modernity, Cosmopolitanism, and Islam in Iranian Political Thought. London and New York: Cambridge University press. 256 pp.  $99.99, ISBN: 9781107164161" 
UNEDITED VERSION FOR JOURNAL OF Middle East Media and Book Reviews Online (MEMBR)
Questions pertaining to the conceptual relationship between Islam and modernity -and therefore between cultural relativism and (hegemonic) universalism- continue to occupy the minds of scholars of contemporary/modern Islam and/or Muslim societies.  The book under review examines the thought and legacy of Ali Shari’ati ( d.1977) , famously dubbed an  ‘ideologue of the Iranian Revolution’  and  what are broadly termed ‘neo-Shari’atis’ ( i.e. Shariati’s intellectual interlocutors)  through this broad theoretical lens. In essence in many ways the book under review wishes to problematize the preponderant view of Islam’s (supposed) incompatibility with modernity by examining the ideas of Ali Shari’ati and how they have been interpreted by neo-Shariatis (p.4-5). Saffari identifies that the main argument of the book is to present the ideas of Shari’ati and neo-Shari’atis  as a simultaneous critique of Eurocentric conceptualisations of modernity as well as essentialist understandings of Islam. This is achieved by their espousal of  “socio-politically progressive  discourse of indigenous modernity that engages freely and creatively  with a wide range of emancipatory projects in the modern world “(p.5) thereby forging a distinct third way ,discursively speaking, between hegemonic universalism and essentialist particularism. This third way, in turn, is conceptualised as a form of non-western post-colonial cosmopolitanism which informed by and imbued in local systems of knowledge.
While there are many existing studies on the ideas and legacy of Shari’ati and the debates surrounding Islam and modernity, Saffdari considers that his approach is unique insofar as it focuses on the arguments of Shariati’s intellectual followers in the context of the debates on Islam and modernity briefly alluded to above as well as its ‘dialogical’ approach which is also conceptualised as a methodological tool the book adopts (p. 14).  
The book consists of an introduction, five chapters and a conclusion. In the introduction the main concepts, methodological cum theoretical framework are presented. In this respect it is noteworthy that the author does not see the main aim of the book to be evaluative in nature but seeks to place the ideas of Shariati and neo-Shariatis  in “conversation with  some other responses to European Enlightenment and colonial modernity in Islamic thought, postcolonial thought and Western normative thought along the axis of four major themes :the genealogy of modernity, the Islam/modernity binary, colonial legacy and Eurocentrism , and identity and identitarianism”(p.18). Also a useful, albeit brief biography of Shariati and his legacy as a “radical Islamic thinker’ is included in the introduction.
The first two chapters seek to contextualise the ideas of Shariati and neo-Shariatis by examining a (too narrow) range of modern Muslim scholars’ responses to the manifold challenges the modern condition poses to the Islamic tradition. A particular focus is placed on Muslims scholars such as Abu Zayd, Arkoun and Soroush who while remaining within an ‘authentic’ approach to reform of the Islamic tradition are considered not to have not fallen into the Islam/ modernity binary conceptual trap ( in contrast to   Islamists  like S.Qutb, Maududi and Khomeini who have).
The other three chapters are much more original and are designed “ to reveal  the ways in which Shariati’s thought finds common ground with a wide range  of global discourses that treat  Europe’s Enlightenment  modernity, its metanarratives  of modernization and secularization ,and its associated socio-political and socioeconomic formatives ( i.e. nation-state structures and capitalist economics) as objects of reform and critique “(p.15).  In this respect Saffari’s comparative approach brings into conversation Shari’ati’s view of religiously mediated indigenous modernity  with   J. Casanova’s concept of public religion and  that of N. Eisenstadt’s multiple modernities construct (Chapter 3); Ch. Taylor’s idea of communitarian thought , Cornel West’s liberation theology and F. Dallmayr’s Gadamerian phenomenology ( Chapter 4). Chapter 5  theorizes the relationship between universalism and ‘nativism’ from the conceptual perspective of a  ‘civilizational framework’ as espoused in the thought of  Shariati and neo-Shariatis.  The author engages primarily with the scholarship of Edward Saeed, Hamid Dabashi and Fred Dallmayr when wresting with the question of the conceptual relationship between Islam and modernity, East and West, colonial and postcolonial, nativist and cosmopolitan, universalist and particular. In this respect the author’s main argument is that “For neo-Shariatis, Shariati’s idea of an indigenous modernity, with its overall civilizational framework , represents neither  a total rejection of modernity  nor the total embrace of the native self” and call instead for “a critical and selective approach  toward both the local sources of identity and the global condition of modernity , one based on the recognition of cultural flux and hybridity” which “seeks to transcend the prevailing oppositional binaries of tradition/modernity, Islam/West, and East/West”(p.1610. Ultimately, the aim is to establishing a new dialogical relationship between these binaries which conceptualise them as ‘co-constitutive’, ‘unfinished projects’ and complementary ‘existential orientations’( p.156-162).
In the conclusion titled “Toward a Postcolonial Cosmopolitanism” Saffari focuses primarily on outlining arguments about the discursive or intellectual advantages ‘neo-Shariatism’  has (over competing form of Islamic reformism)   in the context of post Islamism ( as defined by Asef Bayat ) with respect to solving the main conundrum that book has addressed ,namely the conceptual relationship between Islam and modernity. One such argument is that only ‘neo-Shariatism’ is in a position to simultaneously develop ‘religiously mediated and contextually grounded accounts of secularism and democracy ‘yet maintain a critical posture toward “western-style, liberal democracy’ which is by many Muslims associated with legacies of  imperialism and western hegemony. Another identified advantage of neo-Shariatism is its insistence on non-banishment of religion from the public sphere and its privatisation and the recognition of its emancipatory potential as an anti-dote to religious conservatism and fundamentalism. Other purported advantages include  the role neo-Shariati thought can play with respect to facilitation of  social welfare, socio-economic development and gender equality in Muslim majority contexts (p.173-177).  Finally, Saffari argues that neo-Shariatism offers a plausible venue for the process of indigenization of modernity in universalist terms by being a socially and grass roots oriented process that is premised on what I have elsewhere in the context of defining progressive Muslim thought (Duderija,2011, Duderija 2017) termed  epistemological openness and methodological fluidity and that is not purely intellectual in disposition but is based on ‘social hermeneutics’ (Duderija 2017).
This reviewer is not an expert on Shariati and my views of the book will primarily focus on its conceptual rigorousness and how neo-Shariantism fits into the larger framework of contemporary Islamic intellectual currents, especially progressive Muslim thought (Duderija 2007, Duderija,2011; Duderija 2013; Duderija 2017).
One of the main strengths of the book is its acute attention to the conceptual, methodological and conceptual difficulties in maintaining an essentialist and binary conceptual relationship between concepts such as tradition/Islam -modernity and  East/Islam –West. Another important theoretical intervention of the book is its balanced, multiple critique of both Orientalist and Occidentalist tendencies in scholarship when approaching the same conundrum.  The book’s  conceptual rigorousness  is somewhat diminished  by inadequate  theorising of the concepts of progress  in the context of the book’s main aim ,namely the efforts of Shari’ati and neo-Shariaties in advancing a contextually grounded discourse  of progressive social and political change  by means of indigenization of modernity. While Saffari repeatedly states that the Western-centric ,European Enlightenment concept of progress as conceptualised by Hegel and Fukuyama, for example, is not the progress that neo-Shariatism accepts  no alternative definition of progress is offered. This is despite the fact that existing scholarship on this very concept of progressive does exist on which this reviewer has been publishing since 2007 in the context of theorising progressive Muslim thought ( Duderija, 2007,Duderija 2011, Duderija 2017). 
Moreover, the concept of authenticity should have been much more problematized. Saffari uses it to basically denote a process of return to Islamic nativism and cultural relativism, which is what some readers of Shariati have ascribed  to him as being an advocate of ( which is  according to Saffari an erroneous reading of Shariati) . But the process of authenticity in the context of theorising the Islamic intellectual and cultural heritage (turath)   can also be conceptualised as a critical, creative one too (Duderija,2011). More generally speaking insufficient, if any, attention, was given to the very concept of turath itself.
Finally, the purported advantages of neo-Shariantism and its worldview outlined above very much mirror the ideals, values and objectives that underpin progressive Muslim thought and its weltanschauung ( Duderija,2007;Duderija,2011; Duderija 2017)  . From that perspective neo-Shariantism , especially its more cosmopolitan manifestations, should be considered as part of a progressive Muslim thought whose theoretical framework both in terms of  its conceptualisations of turath and late modernity episteme  has found fruitful answers to the main question the book under review addresses.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ramadan as Time for Intellectual Jihad

( also published on the ABC RELIGION AND ETHICS WEBSITE  in a slightly different version)

As it is widely known Ramadan is usually understood as time for increasing intensity in ritualistic practice. Most unfortunately, last few Ramadans in particular are also being increasingly connected with acts of senseless violence and terrorism  perpetuated worldwide by groups like ISIS ( or individuals inspired by their beliefs)  whose perverted interpretation of Islam/Islamic history  views suicide bombing as especially meritorious acts of martyrdom and piety during this Holy Month. It is my contention, however, that Ramadan should foremost be a time for increased intellectual practice or intellectual jihad.

The Islamic intellectual tradition, including its fountainheads the Qur’an and Sunna, stress this intellectual jihad in myriad of ways. For example, one of the most repeatedly occurring themes in the Qur’an is that of intellectual reflection and contemplation (tadabbur /tafakkur). Sayings ( regardless of their actual ‘authenticity as per classical Islamic sciences)   such as ‘The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr ‘ and ‘ An hour of (intellectual) reflection/contemplation  is better than a one thousand years of worship’ testify to the strong intellectual core of the Islamic tradition that is in full harmony with the Qur’anic worldview. A good number of Muslim philosophers, rationalist theologians and jurists,  past and present, have also stressed the intellectually robust nature of the Islamic teachings ( and have often attracted criticism by strong  anti-intellectual currents in Islam that have always been there).  

Furthermore, the injunctions found in the Qur’an and Sunna pertaining to the performance of rituals are clearly linked to an underlying rationale ( ‘ila). So we are told (2:183) that  the reason for fasting is to increase our level of God consciousness (taqwa),  that the daily prayer (salat) is a means to keep us away from indecency/evil (29:45),  that the animal sacrifice at time of hajj (qurban) is purely symbolic in nature (22: 37). We are also told that the legal alms and charities (zakat) are levied in order to prevent the concentration of wealth among the rich (57: 7).

It is an inconvenient and theologically disturbing truth (that I as a believing, practicing Muslim am still grappling with) that many terrorists and the ISIS affiliated scholars they follow are ‘very big’ on  the ritualistic aspects of Islam such as fasting and praying ( and even ‘bigger’ on formalistic  ones such as beards and turbans)  yet they engage in senseless violence and terrorism.  Could this disconnect between ritualistic cum formalistic piety and their purposes at least in part explain this theological conundrum? While I do not have an equivocal answer to this question, the question is, in my view, worth asking and seriously reflecting on.

It is my considered view that a good number of contemporary Muslims have lost track of the intellectual jihad aspect of the Islamic tradition and have prioritised ritualistic and formalistic ‘piety’ over  that of intellectual and ethical one.  Ramadan is the perfect time to reclaim this invaluable aspect of our tradition.