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A Tradition of Dialogue

M. Raisur Rahman

By Muhammad Qasim Zaman
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2012, pp. x 363, Rs. 795.00


Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age is an inward look into how the traditionally educated scholars or the ‘ulama have frequently invoked the idea and necessity of reform within their faith. In doing so, it shifts our attention from the sort of reform ‘that is dictated by westernizing, colonial, and post-colonial categories of analysis’ (p. 2 fn) to reforms driven by ‘internal criticism’. Muhammad Qasim Zaman thereby puts the ‘ulama at the heart of debates on reforms—emphasizing that their role has not been any less than that of the modernists. Rather, the extensive engagement that the ‘ulama have exhibited over time goes on to show how robust a tradition of dialogue Muslim societies have held when it comes to disagreements and contestations over ‘crises’ facing the Muslim world.   Zaman looks into some of the formative debates of the late nineteenth century as a way tounderstand the most pressing issues our times. The issues he takes up include scholarly consensus within Islamic tradition, evolving conceptions of the common good, the legal rights of women, socio-economic justice, discourses on religious education, and violence and terrorism. By bringing such topics on a single canvas and deepening analyses on them, he questions the superficial notion that the ‘ulama essentially behave in a singular or unilinear fashion. Instead, he indicates that throughout history there has been much disagreement among the traditionally educated Islamic scholars that has led to a contestatory nature of religious authority and evolving conceptions of Islam.   In emphasizing how the ‘ulama have attempted to rethink their tradition from within, Zaman discusses the ideas of a few significant Islamic scholars, including Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935) and Yusuf al-Qaradawi (1926-) of the Arab Middle East and a number of scholars from colonial and postcolonial South Asia, belonging to the Deobandi orientation such as Ubayd Allah Sindhi (1872-1944) and Anwarshah Kashmiri (1875-1933). Discussing their specific intellectual journeys enables the author to show the varied contexts and responses in the wake of crises that emerged in front of the Muslim world of their time, whether of the demise of the Ottoman caliphate or the functioning and fate of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt. This deliberation of personalities helps chart out ‘some of the paths along which contemporary debates have moved, on violence and terrorism in the wake of 9/11, and on other subjects’ (p. 29).   Religious authority and internal criticism constitute the twin bedrocks of the book....

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