M.A.R. Habib

Given the vast scope of Islamic studies, in terms of subject-matter, history and geography, this brief account will limit itself to indicating certain crucial developments and suggesting the ways in which major modern theories have begun to make incursions into analyses of Islam. Traditionally, Islamic scholarship has occupied a number of areas: translating, editing and interpreting the Qur’an, revered by Muslims as the Word of God revealed to the prophet Muhammad; compiling and assessing the authenticity of the Hadith or sayings of the prophet; producing increasingly accurate biographies of the prophet; rediscovering, editing and translating works of Islamic literature and philosophy; and analysing the historically complex connections between Islamic and European culture.

Islam (meaning “submission” to the will of God) is characterised primarily by its uncompromising monotheism, its absolute insistence that God is One and that the prophet Muhammad was His final messenger to humankind. It sees itself as continuing what is true in Judaism and Christianity and reveres the Hebrew prophets, including Christ. Its main prescriptions and tenets include the profession of faith, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, charity to the poor, humility, honesty in trade, personal cleanliness, and the absolute spiritual equality of all human beings before God. Islam is officially dated back to 622 A.D., the year of the Hijra or the prophet’s flight from Mecca (the town in Arabia where he was born) to Medina to escape persecution by the Meccan traders whose lifestyle and profit were threatened by the new religion. It was in 610 A.D. that Muhammad experienced his first Divine revelation in the cave of Hira outside of Mecca. This and subsequent revelations were compiled, shortly after the prophet’s death, into the Qur’an which literally means “recitation”. This book, whose Arabic text has survived unchanged for over fourteen centuries, is the primary source of authority in Islam, complemented, sometimes problematically, by the Hadith and the historically developed canons of Islamic law or Shari’a.

The long traditions of Islamic theology and philosophy, flourishing from the eighth through the thirteenth centuries and stagnating somewhat thereafter, were highly eclectic, drawing on Greek, Persian and Christian thought. Their concerns overlapped considerably with those of Christian theology: freewill, predestination, anthropomorphism, the nature of the Divinity, the connections between human and Divine law, and the reconciliation of reason and revelation. Many of the thinkers prominent in these traditions have long been known through their influence on Western thought: the Neoplatonists al-Farabi (Alfarabius) (870-950) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037); the sharply non-conformist al-Razi (Rhazes) (d.923?); al-Ghazali (1058-1111) who attempted to reconcile orthodox Islamic doctrine with the mystical insights of Sufism; and the Aristotelian Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-98).

There has also existed a vast body of exegesis of the Qur’an, ranging from the early commentary of Ibn Jarir al-Tabari (838-922) to the unfinished work of the Egyptian modernist Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) and the interpretations of Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) and Kenneth Cragg. The problems — of historical contextualisation, etymology and law — occupying these commentators have overlapped to some extent with those confronted by translators of the Qur’an. Characteristic problems have included: the abrogation of certain earlier verses by subsequent revelations; the chronology and coherence of the whole; the historical departure of some Arabic words from their original meaning in the Qur’an; and the semantic comprehensiveness or distinctness of certain Arabic words, equally resistant to translation.

On a broader level, the history of translation of the Qur’an reveals that the study of Islam has been a phenomenon of Western politics, scholarship and thought as much as it has been a governing imperative of the Islamic political, cultural and legal world. Modern critical approaches in particular have been conducted largely by Western scholars, especially by Muslims trained in Western as well as Eastern traditions. The first Western translation of the Qur’an was completed in 1143 by the English scholar Robertus Retenensis, under direction from Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny. Motivated by hostile intentions, this version was profoundly inaccurate yet served as the basis for early European translations. Equally distinguished by its inaccuracies was Alexander Ross’s English rendering of the 1647 French translation published by Andre du Ryer. Ross offered no claim to scholarly impartiality, urging in his preface that the Qur’an was a respository of follies which would confirm the “health” of Christianity. In 1649 the Arabic text of the Qur’an was published in Hamburg; availing himself of this as well as a new Latin version (1698) by Ludovico Maracci, George Sale produced a more accurate English version in 1734. Again, Sale’s endeavours were polemical regarding both Islam and Catholicism: he viewed the exposure of the “imposture” of Islam and its overthrow as a “glory” reserved for Protestants. Sale’s was the standard text for English readers until the late nineteenth century; it was the version which stood behind Edward Gibbon’s ambivalent assessment of Muhammad.

The methods of the Higher Criticism, applied to the Christian Gospels in the nineteenth century, eventually made their impact on Qur’anic translation and exegesis: J.M. Rodwell’s translation changed the order of the Suras or Qur’anic chapters and his assessment of Muhammad as inspired by a sincere monotheism was certainly more impartial and “scientific” than that of his predecessors. Other notable translations have included those by Henry Edward Palmer (1880) and Marmaduke Pickthall (1930), an English convert to Islam. A.J. Arberry’s version (1955) attempts to recapture the rhetorical and rhythmical patterns which lie behind the splendour of the original. Since then, numerous other renderings have appeared, some by Muslim scholars such as Abdullah Yousuf Ali: these have attempted to grapple with the problems enumerated above in the light of increasingly sophisticated historical and philological research as well as of the need to translate the spirit of the Qur’an into idioms of relevance to the twentieth century.

In general, Western studies of Islam progressed from viewing it in the twelfth century as a Christian heresy or a false religion to more systematic and disciplined approaches in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The following account of these trends is indebted in part to Albert Hourani’s splendid book Islam in European Thought (1991). From 1587 Arabic was taught at the College de France in Paris; Chairs of Arabic were established at the Universities of Leiden (1613), Cambridge (1632) and Oxford (1634). Eventually, clearer pictures of the prophet of Islam emerged, acknowledging at least his inspired message and the historical role of his reaffirmation of Divine unity. Such assessments were offered in Simon Ockley’s The History of the Saracens (1718) and F.D. Maurice’s The Religions of the World and Their Relations with Christianity (1847). However, portrayals of Islam as a dangerous threat to Christianity persisted into the twentieth century: William Muir’s The Life of Muhammed (1912) remained a standard text for many years.

Until the nineteenth century, accounts of Islam were generally based on the Qur’an, the prophet’s life and the view that Islam was spread by the sword. Some of the first attempts to see Islam in the broader context of world history were made by J.G. Herder (1744-1803) and G.W.F. HEGEL (1770-1831). Hegel saw Islam’s assertion of an utterly transcendent Divinity as an essential stage of world history but one which had to be sublated by a more dialectical connection of immanence and transcendence between human and Divine (Hegel, 1956, 356-57). Also in the nineteenth century arose the “science” of comparative philology: the close study of languages and their meanings in their mutual connections. Prominent figures in this development were Franz Bopp (1791-1876) and especially Ernest Renan (1823-92) who believed that particular languages embodied given possibilities of cultural development. He saw Islam as a “closed” religion, locked in an abstract perception of Divine unity and impervious to refinement or development through science, philosophy or art. Like Hegel, he saw Europe as bearing the burden of future world-historical progress. Renan’s Life of Jesus (1863) developed the Higher Critical techniques embodied in David Strauss’s Life of Jesus (1835). Both works attempted to examine the Gospels in their historical context, with attention to questions of their coherence and veracity. These methods were brought into the study of Islam by Julius Wellhausen (1844-11918), Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921) and Louis Massignon (1883-1962). Renan had refused to view the life of Christ as a series of isolated incidents generating a completely new religion; rather, he placed that life in a broader historical development from Hebrew traditions (Renan, 1955, 388-393); likewise, these analysts placed the Qur’an, the Hadith and the life of the prophet in a more comprehensive cultural context, examining for example the connections between Islam and pre-Islamic Arabia in their actual complex continuity rather than viewing Islam as a complete break from the past. In England, the tradition of Islamic studies acquired strength only in the nineteenth century through figures such as W. Wright (1830-89), R.A. Nicholson (1868-1945), D.S. Margoliouth (1858-1940) and H.A.R. Gibb (1895-1971).

While these scholars continued to apply the methods of philological and cultural analysis, the more recent generations of scholars, social scientists and anthroplogists have begun to apply Marxist, sociological, feminist, modernist and even deconstructive and psychoanalytical methods to the study of all aspects of Islam. These newer approaches have entailed a questioning of the motives and methods of Orientalism as well as the use of “Islam” as an explanatory category. Clifford Geertz addresses the dilemma of the unity and identity of Islam in his Islam Observed (1968). Andre Raymond’s work refers historical developments in Egypt to economic conditions rather than to “Islam”. Max Weber’s theses concerning both Christianity and Islam have generated some important Marxist and sociological analyses of Islam. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber had correlated the rise of capitalism to a large extent with the rationalism and “this-worldliness” of Calvinism and Lutheranism (Weber, 1978, 174-76); this position had contradicted MARX’s and ENGELS’ materialist explanation of capitalist development which, however, had been very incompletely extended to Islamic societies. Maxime Rodinson’s Islam and Capitalism (1978) rejects the idea that capitalism failed to develop in Islamic societies as a result of Qur’anic injunctions or proscriptions in the Hadith or Shari’a. He argues, rather, that capitalist development was stunted by the state’s domination of trade relations, the self-sufficiency of local village economies and nomadic invasions. Other important studies in this vein include Bryan S. Turner’s Weber and Islam (1974) which, arguing for the convergence of Marx’s and Weber’s views on Asiatic society, sees secularization to the extent that it has occurred in Islamic societies as essentially mimetic of Western capitalist secularization. PERRY ANDERSON has an illuminating section on the political development of Islam in his Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974). Rodinson’s materialist principles of explanation are carried into his biography Muhammad (1980). Attempting to give an impartial and humanistic account of the life of the prophet, Rodinson examines Islam as an ideological movement. While he accepts that the Islamic community has possessed a distinct identity, he argues that religious ideology did not overwhelmingly transform Arab societies: many factors of economic life and the vicissitudes of political power were impervious to religious adherence or the norms of Islam (Rodinson, 1980, xiv, xxxiv-xxxix). Marshall Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam (1974) is an ambitious attempt to rethink the role of Islam in world history, attributing to it a cultural predominance and independence lasting into the nineteenth century.

What might loosely be called “modernistic” interpretations of Islam, which attempt to reconcile Islamic teachings with modern thought, date back to the late nineteenth century. Prominent in the development of such endeavours were Jamal al-Din Afghani (1839-97) and his especially renowned disciple Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905) who attempted a reinterpretation of the Qur’an in the light of reason, arguing that Islam is a tolerant and humane religion. In India, Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan (1817-98) advocated a modern approach to education and helped found Aligarh University with a view to providing access to Western thought within an Islamic context. The Egyptian statesman, scholar and writer Taha Hussein (b.1889) applied modern exegetical methods to Classical Arabic texts, arousing fierce opposition from traditional scholars. Sayyed Amir ‘Ali urged fresh readings of the Qur’an freed from the closed readings of the ‘Ulama or religious elite. He argued, for example, that polygamy was implicitly condemned by the Qur’an.

A major figure in Islamic modernism was Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938), the greatest Urdu poet of the twentieth century, who also wrote in Persian. His lectures entitled The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (1934) represent an important attempt to recast Islamic doctrine in the light of modern Western thought. Drawing on Nietzsche, Bergson and the Persian mystical poet Rumi, Iqbal reacts against what he perceives as the fatalism and asceticism which have come to dominate Islamic thought: he affirms the reality of the creative self which aspires towards the highest individuality, that of God (Iqbal, 1978, xvii-xix; 1934, 181). Recent modernistic discussions of Islam have included that in Fazlur Rahman’s Islam and Modernity (1982) which argues for a holistic critical and rational rereading of the Qur’an and Hadith in the light of their fundamental intentions, rather than elevating to an inauthentic authority particular statements abstracted from their historical and cultural contexts. Iqbal had already rejected the trite oppositions, such as that between religion and science, which had pervaded so much of nineteenth century Western as well as Islamic debate. The language of literary and cultural theory, also spurning such oppositions, has begun to permeate recent discussions of Islam. Akbar S. Ahmed’s Postmodernism and Islam (1992) explores the connections between Western modernism, postmodernism and Islam, stressing especially the role of the media — and of some Muslim fundamentalists — in offering distorted and essentialist images of Islam. Ahmed offers a fascinating overview of current ideological conflicts underpinning the study of Islam (Ahmed, 1992, 154-191).

In fact, the history of image-construction of Islam has furnished the subject-matter for recent critiques of the Orientalist tradition. The best known work in this mode is EDWARD W. SAID’s Orientalism (1978) which attempts to expose the categories and methods of Orientalist scholarship as not only lacking the impartiality they claim but as being part of a broader Western project to define and effectively construct the “Orient” for its own political, economic and ideological purposes. Said carries this venture into the contemporary political scene in his Covering Islam (1981).

Aziz Al-Azmeh’s more recent Islams and Modernities (1993) might be called deconstructive: it rejects “Islam” as a unifying category of historical or cultural explanation. Such a category is based on an essentialist discourse of identity and irreducible difference which has both led to the study of Islam through transcendental essences such as “Shi’ism” and generated notions of changeless Oriental properties. Culturally specific differences have thereby been reduced to binary structures, assigning the Islamic world qualities such as irrationality, servitude and stagnation, which are opposed to the inclusive European categories generated by the Enlightenment: reason, freedom and perfectibility (Al-Azmeh, 1993, 18-24). Moreover, such positivism and essentialism have infected the very heart of Islamic studies: philology. These strategies have been instrumental in constructing images of Islam, ranging historically from those of heresy and the Anti-Christ to more modern portrayals of Islam as anachronistic. They have also fostered a genetic and enumerative scholarship, obsessed with the explanatory power of origins and proceeding merely by the addition of further detail. Al-Azmeh argues that Islam as a category of Orientalist discourse must be dissolved and the notion of objectivity re-examined in the light of modern theoretical techniques (Al-Azmeh, 1993, 141-43). Islamists, stresses Al-Azmeh, have been equally guilty of promoting an essentialist discourse: they overlook the fact that Islamic law was never a rigid code, that it is not grounded in the actual experience of Muslims and that it has historically enjoyed a wide latitude, being shaped in consonance with the requirements of Islamic ideology (Al-Azmeh, 1993, 8-12).

The flexibility of Islamic law has lain at the heart of one of the most stubbornly controversial issues concerning Islam, the status of women. Many commentators have held that Islam vastly improved the conditions of women in Mediaeval Arabia, restricting polygamy, abolishing female infanticide, granting women free will in marriage and the ability to initiate divorce, giving them rights of property and inheritance (though not equal to those of men), and even permitting women to assume political government. This argument rests on the view that in pre-Islamic Arabia women had virtually no rights and were treated as chattel, comprising part of the estates of their husbands and fathers. Even Islam’s allowing men to take four wives has been justified by the fact that polygamy was to some extent a solution to the number of excess women who were in need of support. Modern scholars tend to view the nature of the changes between pre-Islamic and Islamic eras as somewhat more complex, claiming for example that before Islam, women performed certain crucial functions as priestesses, prophets and warriors and that Islam narrowed this range of roles.

Certainly, some of the important early women of Islam played a vital part in the growth of the religion. The prophet’s first wife Khadija, a prominent businesswoman, was the first convert to Islam and undoubtedly her social status aided Muhammad in that initial decisive period. Muhammad’s final and youngest wife ‘Aisha, who survived him by many years, was acknowledged as a source of authority regarding the authenticity of the Hadith and was regularly consulted on matters of religious law and custom. She played a decisive part in the first civil war in Islam, over the succession to the Caliphate (official governership of Islam), which generated the schism between Sunni Muslims (followers of the Sunnah or “way” of the prophet) and Shi’ahs or Shi’ites (“followers” of ‘Ali, the first cousin of Muhammad, whose succession they advocated). Other notable women in Islam have included the Sufi mystic Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (d. 801) of Basra, and the distinguished scholars Umm Hani (d. 1466) and Hajar (b. 1388). The male mystical philosopher Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240) stressed the complementary nature of the sexes as well as the feminine dimension of the Divine.

In modern times, especially from the late nineteenth century onwards, some male modernists such as Muhammad ‘Abduh included among their modernising proposals calls for the reform of women’s education and of laws concerning marriage and divorce. A feminist landmark in Arab society was Qassim Amin’s Tahrir al-Mar’a (The Liberation of Woman) (1899) which generated heated dispute. Feminists of the early twentieth century included Huda Sha’rawi, a founder of the Intellectual Association of Egyptian Women (1914), who espoused a Westernised feminism, and Malak Hifni Nassef whose feminism shunned “Western” imperatives such as unveiling. Prominent women writers in the Islamic world have included: the Indian-born novelist Qurratulain Haider; the Irani poet Forugh Farrokhzad (1935-67); and Iraqi-born Nazik Al-Mala’ika (b. 1923), a seminal figure in Modern Arab poetry. More recently, the novelist Nawal El-Saadawi has attempted to expose the psychological and physical abuse of women; the Pakistani poets Fahmida Riaz and Kishwar Naheed have explored sensual themes and the psychology of male-female relationships; the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen is currently facing fierce public and governmental anatgonism for her outspoken feminism and atheism. Writers such as Rana Kabbani have pleaded, on the basis of their experience of Western and Islamic cultures, for a dialogue between the values enshrined in each.

Prominent among recent feminist studies of Islam are Fatima Mernissi’s The Veil and the Male Elite (1991) and Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam (1992). Situating Islam’s prescriptions concerning women in historical context, Mernissi’s stimulating book argues that the spirit of Islam’s intentions was to procure equality for women. Ahmed’s treatment of the subject, to which part of the foregoing account is indebted, is also historical. She traces the varying status of women from pre-Islamic times in the Middle East through the gender configurations of successive periods of Islam to the present. At the core of her argument is that while Islam secluded women from a range of activities, Islam has embraced a tension between its “stubbornly egalitarian” ethical vision and the hierarchical structures of marriage pragmatically instituted in Islamic societies. She points out that the Qur’an is remarkable among religious texts in that it is addressed to women as well as men and traces in detail the developments outlined above such as crucial role of women in constructing the verbal texts of Islam and the growth of feminism in the Arab world. She also argues insightfully against a Western-style feminism which uncritically inscribes itself into the old imperialist narratives: Western women assume that they can pursue feminist goals by redefining their cultural heritage but Muslim women, it is implied, can seek such goals only by rejecting their own culture for Western ideals. She also observes the historical linkage of feminism and imperialism: in the late nineteenth century, some male imperialists, such as Lord Cromer, the British Consul General in Egypt, led the attack abroad against Muslim “degradation” of women while being staunchly resistant to feminism at home. Equally, however, Ahmed criticises the stagnant assumption of Islamists that the meaning of gender in the initiatory Islamic society was somehow unambiguous; this meaning, states Ahmed, was contested from the beginning. What we need, she asserts, is a feminism which is informed and vigilantly self-aware. Ahmed’s arguments call for a sensitivity to the cultural construction of values and images: for example, the veil, a symbol in the West for downright oppression in Islam, has a very different range of significance — including that of resistance to oppression — in the Arab world.

In general, the excellent work of Mernissi, Ahmed, Said, Al-Azmeh and others serves as a salutary reminder that modern critical approaches still have much to cover in the vast field of “Islam”. It remains a sad fact that, with the arguable exception of Muhammad Iqbal, the Islamic world has not produced a major modern philosopher.



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Works Cited

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