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.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

GCSCR Book Promotion Talk

Respected Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen, a very good evening to all!

First of all, I would like to thank the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research for organising this wonderful event as a celebration of scholarship and erudition. I would also like to express my gratitude to Associate Professor Halim Rane for his kind words, the effort and time he put to be with us tonight and his penetrating insights. I would also like to thank him for his continued support, especially in relation to my research interests in general, and with respect to my interest in progressive Islam in particular.

I would like to use this time to actually not just talk about my book but to make a few general points with respect to two issues:
1. Importance of scholarship and its role in making the public more informed on issues of public concern
2. Address some common misconceptions about progressive Islam.

Let me start by saying that in the time of what some have referred to as the post-truth society, at the time of proliferation of alternative facts, at the time of the dominance of short news-media cycles and social media platforms there is, in my view, nothing more important than that the events like one today, that celebrate careful and critical thought scholarship and erudition, are held and promoted. It is my hope that this will be continued in the future.

 As someone who prides himself to be a scholar-activist I particularly see value in the production of high quality scholarship as an important  intellectual weapon, and I have chosen the word weapon intentionally,  to countering  poorly informed and shallow thinking based on unjustified, factually  incorrect  and, in the final analysis, irresponsible claims  that circulate in some primarily  non-academic circles.  As someone who has been publishing on various aspects of contemporary Islam for a decade and is also engaged in a variety of non-academic discourses on it, I am only too aware of the harmful effects these kinds of discourses can and do have on societies. 

Non-conservative forms of Islam have often been marginalised both in scholarship (apart from as instruments for various political agendas) and, at times, ridiculed by both certain sections of Muslim and non-Muslim communities for being ‘not Muslim enough’ or for being ‘diluted’ if not far-fetched or ‘outlandish’ versions of ‘true’ Islam. One the one hand, that ‘true’ Islam is portrayed by some non-Muslims as inevitably misogynist, barbaric and anti-intellectual, rejecting modern values and international norms. On the other hand, conservative, not to mention puritan Muslim groups, without actually engaging properly with the theories underpinning, in this case progressive Islam, erroneously  reject it as something ‘western’ or ‘secular’. 

Needless to say that these kind of critiques are not only based on intellectual laziness, apologetics  and lack of erudition but that  they  utterly fail in doing justice to the theory of progressive Islam as presented in not only in  the book of mine we showcase today but also  my first book published six years ago  that grew out of my Ph.D. thesis which  is a careful and systematic engagement of progressive Islam’s conceptualisation of  and approach to the Islamic intellectual tradition and its hermeneutical theory in particular.

Let us go back to the claim that progressive Islam is ‘secular’. Putting aside issues pertaining to the theorising the concept of secularism as, for example,  discussed at length by scholars such as Charles Taylor,  those who subscribe to this view would be surprised to find out  that in my book on the imperatives of progressive Islam I have used the words ‘secularity’ , ‘secular’, ‘secularise’ and ‘secularism’ once only respectively .
In my first book I explicitly stated that:

it is clear that progressive Muslims do not subscribe to commonly employed dichotomies such as, tradition vs. modernity, secularism vs. religion, or simplistic generalization such as modernity =Western or Judeo- Christian intellectual /civilizational tradition”.( P.124)…

Elsewhere in the same book I also argued as follows:

“it is important to note that progressive Muslims are critical
of the metanarratives underpinning classical modernity and the Age of
Enlightenment characterized by the notions of a universal legislative, secular,
and objective reason and objective truth. Instead, they advocate what
Sheyla Benhabib would describe as a weak form postmodernism where
truth is sought in a dialectical relationship between revelation, reason, and
the sociohistorical context in which both are embedded.

According to this view, [r]ationality and belief, human rights and divine obligation, individual and social justice, collective reason and religious morality, human mind and divine revelation are living peacefully together.”,p.135.

The same arguments apply in relation to the concept or idea of progressive Islam being ‘western’ (needless to say that the conceptual foundations of a western civilisation have been seriously questioned by scholars like K. A. Appiah).

In my first book I have provided a detailed discussion on how progressive Muslim thought approaches the concept of modernity and its relationship with the “West’ where I argued as follows:

Progressive Muslims, thus, subscribe to the view that the
Socio-political and cultural processes that have brought about epistemological
and ontological changes in the Western worldview and resulted
in the advent of modernity as we know it today are considered a result of
a dynamic process of civilizational interaction and mutual construction
through transcultural, trans-political, and trans-social spaces. Additionally,
progressive Muslims believe that this late modern episteme could be also
applied within the framework of the sociocultural context of the Muslim
majority societies resulting in the genesis of another distinct type of
modernity. ( p.136).

So if progressive Islam is not ‘western’ or ‘secular ‘what is it? In a nutshell Progressive Islam is but a contemporary articulation of Islamic humanistic and cosmopolitan values, beliefs and practices. It is an approach to the Islamic tradition based on:

1. creative, critical and innovative thought based on epistemological openness and methodological fluidity,
2. Islamic liberation theology, 
3. social and gender justice , 
4. a human rights based approach to Islamic tradition, 
 5. rationalist and contextualist approaches to Islamic theology and ethics, and 
6. affirmation of religious pluralism

In actual fact these six points are the main subject matter of the book that we are highlighting tonight.

Finally, some people might ask as to why I employ the term progressive in progressive Islam/progressive Muslim thought. While I have provided a systematic and detailed discussion of what this means from a  philosophical, epistemological and methodological perspective in my academic writings on the subject matter let me as my final point, outline briefly four reasons as to why this is the case :

Reason one : Quran and Sunna were progressive in approaching ethical and legal issues of that time by having a more ethical vision beyond what was considered as status quo and customary ( ma'ruf/ 'urf) ! Progressive Islam wants to stay true to this vision.
Reason two: ethical values like justice and fairness do not remain frozen in time. They, as collective human experience testifies, in principle are subject to change as God's creative powers have a direct bearing on our own collective reason and our collective ethico-moral compass. Our aim is to ever more faithfully approximate the Divine as source of absolute Beauty, Justice and Mercy and that is only possible if our ethical systems do not remain frozen ( as in case of traditionalist/pre-modern based approaches)  and are theorized in such a manner to allow space for progress /improvement in the never ending quest for ethical perfection. Theory of progressive Islam does exactly that.

Reason three: to highlight the strong affinities in the kind of theologies, interpretational approaches and socio-political and ethical values that exist among progressive religious/spiritual movements worldwide whose pillars are affirmation of religious pluralism and strong commitment to social and gender justice. For example, the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

Reason four: For the same reason why we have Sufi Islam, Sunni Islam, Shi'i Islam. It's about affirming the fact that progressive Islam has its own methodology of interpretation, its own theological orientation  and its own approach to conceptualising the Islamic intellectual tradition (that are discussed in my works systematically and in some detail).
Progressive Islam has not had much, if any, concrete support either from the “West” or from Muslim majority countries so far. Therefore, I am particularly thankful to those associated with Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research who have organised this even tonight in helping raise awareness about progressive Islam/progressive Muslim thought.  It is my dream that Griffith University will, in due course, become the global intellectual and academic hub for continued growth and theorising of progressive Islam as I am convinced that progressive Islam has so much to offer to both Muslims and non-Muslim alike.