Religion As Critique

Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace

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Irfan Ahmad
Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , December
     300 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Irfan Ahmad’s text, Religion as Critique, is an ambitious work that seeks to open a new approach to the understanding of Muslims: an anthropology of philosophy. As a result, his book covers a vast amount of material. The text reads like two separate endeavors—a historical, methodological study, and the author’s original work. Since the author recognizes this structure and guides the reader to be aware of it, the book does hold together fairly well. At the same time, as a reviewer, it makes more sense to treat the two parts as divisible, since they each serve different functions.

Ahmad’s preface is wonderfullya concise, and a valuable guide to what he is attempting to accomplish with the book. He states that the book “discusses believers in Islam as dynamic agents, not mere objects, of critique” (ix). He also articulates what he means by “critique,” an important guiding concept for his argument. The first part of the book lays out his premises. The first chapter focuses on the scope of his study, which is about Muslims in India. While he does not explicitly state it, he means Sunni Muslims. This distinction is important because part of his project is an intellectual history, and it is not clear if he is intentionally ignoring Shi’i and Sufi contributions to some of the discourse with which he is engaging, which would be a legitimate editorial choice, or if he is unaware of them. With that caveat, his positioning of how Muslims are written out of Indian history, both by Indian and non-Indian academics, is a useful intervention. As he writes against the perceived universalism of the Enlightenment, the particularities of the Indian situation add weight to his arguments, rather than limit it.

The second chapter is a more directed critique of the Enlightenment. It is one of the best summationsa strong summation of the current issues surrounding the role of the Enlightenment in the colonial project. He also brings in the idea that the Enlightenment is an ethnic project, which helps to add nuance to his arguments. This section of the book would pair nicely with sections from Humeria Iqtidar's Secularizing Islamists (University of Chicago Press, 2014) or chapters from Amyn Sajoo’s edited volume Muslim Modernities (I. B. Tauris, 2008). He also lays out what he means by “critique,” following Kant, in this particular chapter. The chapter ends with a discussion of the role of critique in Islam.

This Urdu idea of critique is the basis of Ahmad’s third chapter, where he engages philosophy, literary traditions, and religio-philosophical critique. This chapter serves as a good transition for the first part of the book. It takes the background Ahmad provides up to this point and broadens it to an understanding of what was happening in Urdu literary culture in the 19th through 20th centuries. He uses the poet Ghalib as a case study, and he is fairly effective in his discussion. However, the discussion of Ghalib highlights the lack of discussion of Sufism, as many of the tropes that Ahmad discusses have a long history, whether Ghalib subscribed to them or not. As a result, the discussion of Ghalib’s poetry does not seem complete, particularly for Ahmad’s purposes.

The first part of the book, while background material, is still an important synthesis and repositioning of debates around the Enlightenment, critique, India, and Muslims. It is a strong intervention, and a welcome work connecting different disciplines. I have some technical complaints, most of which are fairly minor. Not all Arabic/Urdu terms are glossed in the early part of the text. Conversely, a lot of technical terms are introduced, particularly in the prologue, which are never referenced again, and this makes the text turgid and confusing within the context of the book. The author keeps using qalb, the Arabic word for “heart,” instead of the more common Persian-Urdu dil. While I can imagine good technical reasons for the use of qalb, Ahmad does not make his rationale clear. He also muddies the issue further by introducing “fuvad” as a synonym for “heart” later in the text. Finally, the transliteration system is modified from the Annual of Urdu Studies in ways that make sense for a non-specialist audience. However, the conjunction “va” or “o” is simply represented by the letter “v,” which interrupts reading flow for those who know the languages.

The second part of the book allows Ahmad to show how his theory functions in practice. The fourth chapter starts with a useful discussion of thinking about history beyond ruptures and continuity, in terms of connections. This idea, that we can have ruptures while maintaining connections to the past, is a powerful way of conceiving modernizing movements and thinkers in Islamicate contexts. He then continues to introduce Maududi, the critique that Maududi offers, and the critiques of Maududi from within his own movement. The conversation around critiques of Maududi continues for the next two chapters and is a valuable contribution to understanding the internal dynamics and disagreements of Maududi’s movements and his allies. The chapter on gender, chapter 6, is particularly rich and shows how politics affects religious thinking. While these three chapters are good, they also become somewhat repetitive. We move from examples of critique to a reflection of Maududi’s thought and its reception. These chapters could be condensed, so that the last chapter on social-cultural practice could have more space. The discussions of lived critique are important and new, and do not receive the attention from which they would benefit.

This book is a wonderful contribution to the field of Islamic studies and brings together several disciplinary perspectives. Ahmad is a bit defensive about using literature as an ethnographic source, but people like Steve Caton (Peaks of Yemen I Summon, University of California Press, 1993) have made the case for literature as ethnography for some time. As a researcher, I feel the book works as a whole. As a teacher, I would most likely use only one of the two parts of the book, depending on the course. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hussein Rashid is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Irfan Ahmad, an anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Studies in Gottingen, Germany, is the author of Islamism and Democracy in India: The Transformation of Jamaat-e-Islami.

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