Transformations of Tradition
Islamic Law in Colonial Modernity
- ISBN: 9780190077044
- Published By: Oxford University Press, Incorporated
- Published: March 2021
Can the beginning of Ramadan be determined through modern astronomical calculations or only through an eyewitness sighting of the crescent moon (hilal)? What is the evidentiary value of a telegraphed report of a hilal sighting? These are some of the many questions that Islamic legal specialists debated in the early 20th century, as Islamic law adapted to new technologies of communication and new ways of understanding the universe. These questions get at the heart of a much broader one: How does Islamic tradition—or any tradition, for that matter—navigate tension and rupture?
In Junaid Quadri’s spectacular new book, Transformations of Tradition: Islamic Law in Colonial Modernity, we see the Egyptian scholar and jurist Muhammad Bakhit al-Muti‘i (1854-1935) grapple with these and other questions. Bakhit (as his contemporaries referred to him) serves as the lynchpin for Quadri’s exploration of the ways that Muslims confronted and adapted to colonial modernity. But what makes this book such a worthy read is how Quadri uses Bakhit as a lens into major debates that animate the study of Islam right now, namely Islam and modern time, temporality, and history; Islam and modern science; and Islam and the category of “religion.”
As Quadri explains, Bakhit was born in Upper Egypt, studied at Al-Azhar, and distinguished himself as one of the preeminent jurists of the Hanafi school (one of the four major schools of Islamic jurisprudence), eventually becoming Mufti of Egypt from 1914-1920. He was also a staunch critic of reformist trends in his country, especially from the likes of his better-known contemporaries Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida. Bakhit was known as an “arch-conservative” and a “traditionalist par excellence” (8). It is for this reason that Quadri’s argument that Bakhit is a sort of paragon of colonial modernity is so striking, and at first glance, counterintuitive. Reading Bakhit against the grain allows Quadri to make a seminal contribution to the growing literature on colonial modernity and Islam. Bakhit, argues Quadri, is “modern” on at least three accounts: in expanding the capacities of the jurist beyond what medieval Islamic traditions authorized, in demonstrating a “scientific optimism” (9), and in advancing a privatized notion of religion.
After an introduction outlining the theoretical and disciplinary interventions of the book, chapter 1 situates Bakhit in the religious and intellectual contexts of early 20th-century Egypt, especially the challenges that reformists posed to the traditionalist scholars (ulama) of al-Azhar. Chapter 2 positions Bakhit in a new, modern conception of temporality among the ulama, one that emphasized the authority of the era of the Prophet Muhammad over the “medieval” interlude. This was a subtle accommodation to Rida’s vision of history and an equally subtle break from Hanafi precedent. This shift worked in tandem with a new emphasis on ijtihad in Bakhit’s thought and the thought of other Hanafi luminaries of the period.
Chapter 3 then turns to Bakhit’s own understanding of the colonial period and the place of Islam within it. Drawing on Homi Bhabha’s notion of mimicry and Shaden Tageldin’s notion of colonial seduction, it shows how Bakhit asserted the notion of “a sovereign Arab-Islamic past that simply needs reactivation to conform to the demands of the scientistic present” (132). Chapter 4 weaves together themes of the first three chapters by way of a case study: Bakhit’s discussion of the validity of using astronomical calculations to determine the month of Ramadan, as opposed to the traditional method of relying on a sighting (ru’ya) of the crescent moon. Bakhit broke sharply with his Hanafi predecessors in arguing for the validity of astronomical calculations. When the Qur’an says “whosover among you witnesses (shahida) the month, let him fast” (2:185), Bakhit argues that witnessing (shahada) must also include not just experiential knowledge, but scientific knowledge (‘ilm) as well, and in fact, he goes so far as to argue that the latter is more reliable than the former (149).
Finally, in Chapter 5 Quadri argues that Bakhit adopted an “understanding of religion . . . indebted to modern processes of secularization” (168). He did so by rethinking the very boundaries of the Hanafi category of “religious matters” (umur diniyya) in such a way that they become “abstract matters of the mind that must be guaranteed space outside the coercive parameters of the state court system” (173). Bakhit assimilated this category exclusively to the class of reports that draw on Prophetic narratives (riwayat), ostensibly “religious” in nature, as opposed to shahadat, which were the domain of the qadi, ostensibly a representative of the state, to adjudicate. In other words, Bakhit placed “religious matters” beyond the purview of the courts. More importantly, he reconceptualized “religious matters” as otherworldly in nature, located in a realm of private conscience protected from meddling by the state.
In the broadest sense, the central argument of Transformations of Tradition is that the ulama are far more modern in how they think and reason than has been previously understood. In this respect, this book is essential reading for any scholar of the ulama or Islamic law. But it will also be of great interest to scholars of Muslim societies under colonialism generally, and to scholars of secularity in any period. It is also quite teachable, if perhaps more appropriate for a graduate seminar than an undergraduate one. It could be read productively alongside any number of other monographs. On the subject of how early 20th-century Muslims navigated new technologies, this book would complement Leor Halevi’s Modern Things on Trial (Columbia University Press, 2019). It explores the historical precedents for studies of contemporary Egyptian secularity like Hussein Agrama’s Questioning Secularism (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age (Princeton University Press, 2015), as well as comparable studies beyond Egypt, such as Nada Moumtaz’s God’s Property (University of California Press, 2021). It is to Quadri’s great credit that virtually anyone interested in any aspect of Islam in the last two centuries will find something thought-provoking in this book.
Brannon D. Ingram is associate professor of religious studies at Northwestern University.Brannon IngramDate Of Review:March 30, 2022