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Contesting Tradition and Innovation in Modern Islam: Perspectives from Egypt and India

A279
Panel Chair: SherAli Tareen | Friday, August 28, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

This panel explores the discourses of certain seminal nineteenth and twentieth century Muslim scholars on the boundaries of Islam as a discursive tradition. The papers in this panel highlight important continuities and ruptures in the narrative of Islam in conditions of colonial modernity by focusing on previously unexamined moments of intra-Muslim contestations on the limits of religion, identity, and difference. The central question this panel addresses is this: how do modern Muslim religious thinkers deal with the historical legacy of norms and values in encounters with new conditions? Each paper in this panel addresses this question by providing specific illustrations of the multiple and often conflicting ways in which the tensions between tradition and innovation were imagined and contested by modern Muslim scholars in South Asia and the Middle East. Through these illustrations, this panel seeks to capture the internal diversity and dynamism of knowledge traditions in modern Islam.

Caleb Elfenbein

Maṣlaḥa and the Emergence of Islamist Political Economy

This paper will explore maṣlaḥa, variously translated as public interest, common good, or collective welfare, in the work of Egyptian theorist and activist Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966). Historically, maṣlaḥa functioned as an important if secondary legal principle, but by the turn of the twentieth century it had come to frame historically novel debates in Egypt about the goals of collective life—and the most appropriate means of attaining those ends. Qutb’s treatment of maṣlaḥa is a blend of engagement with established legal tradition on the subject and theorization of the power of the modern state (1) to identify what constitutes community goals that best serve the public interest or common good and (2) to identify the distribution of resources most conducive to meeting those goals. This paper will investigate how colonial and postcolonial history served as a mechanism for the emergence of this historically novel maṣlaḥa-based Islamist political economy.

Teena Purohit

Mirza Ghulam Ahmad's

This paper discusses the polemical writings of Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) against Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), the founder of Ahmadi movement. This paper analyzes "Islam and Ahmadism"(1934), an article in which Iqbal denounced Ghulam Ahmad’s religious authority and branded his teachings “heretical.” Iqbal claimed that Ahmadis were heretics because their teachings were theologically transgressive. Using the work of sociologists, such as George Simmel and Pierre Bourdieu, this piece reflects on the idea of heresy as a discursive rather than theological phenomenon—thereby calling into question entrenched theological critiques of the Ahmadis. The intra-Muslim criticisms against the Ahmadis that continue today must be examined, I argue, in light of this modernist polemic against Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, exemplified in the writings of Iqbal.

Megan Robb

Faith Enchanting Reason in Modern South Asian Islam: The Correspondence of Ashraf 'Ali Thanawi and Abdul Majid Daryabadi

The early twentieth century saw transformations in religious authority in South Asian Islam manifested in Sufi scholars’ changing relationship to political power. The most prominent South Asian Sufi scholar was Ashraf Ali Thanawi of the Deoband School. While scholarship has recognized Thanawi’s reserved support of the Muslim League in late 1930s and early 1940s British India, his method for inculcating the authority of the ‘ulama among westernized Muslims has received less attention. This article demonstrates one such path of influence through exploring Thanawi’s correspondence with the modernist journalist Abdul Majid Daryabadi (d. 1977) between the years 1926 to 1943, published as Hakim al-Ummat in 1953. Thanawi emphasized ‘ulama’s authority, a courteous dialogic tone between competing spiritual camps, and the separation between political and spiritual pursuits. The letters demonstrate how modernists negotiated the tension between faith and reason, and how Sufi scholars balanced sometimes conflicting commitments to spiritual and legalistic roles.

SherAli Tareen

When Does Innovation Becomes Heresy? Modern Muslim Contestations on the Boundaries of Heretical Innovation (bid‘a)

The late nineteenth century was a time of intense polemical activity for South Asian Islam. Under British colonialism, the anxiety of Muslim religious scholars (‘ulama’) over preserving the normative model (sunna) of the Prophet assumed an unprecedented urgency. These ideological rivalries were animated by a fundamental ethical question that has captured the imagination of Muslim thinkers for several centuries: what are the limits of innovation (bid‘a) to the normative model of the Prophet? Bid‘a refers to novel unsanctioned practices that oppose the prophetic norm. But what are those practices and how should that be decided is a question that generates tremendous controversy. In this paper, I examine intra-Muslim polemics over this critical ethical question in 19th century North India. More specifically, I focus on the polemics between the pioneers of two major Sunni reform movements/ideological orientations in South Asia; the Deobandis and the Barelvis.

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