Rediscovering the Islamic Classics
How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition
- ISBN: 9780691174563
- Published By: Princeton University Press
- Published: February 2020
Ahmed El Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition is a rich work by a gifted scholar with an astonishing intellectual range. The book bridges the author’s interests in classical, postclassical, and reformist Islamic thought by examining the transition from manuscript culture to print culture in the Middle East, particularly Egypt. Insightfully, El Shamsy writes: “The technology of print was not a cause of the transformation as much as it was a site and a means of it” (5, original emphases). With this point of departure, he brings to life a remarkable cast of characters of editors, reformists, and Orientalists.
The book’s eight chapters move from the early 19th century through the mid-20th century. Chapters 1 and 2 assess Islamic literature before printing presses took off in the Middle East. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 survey the early book printing industry’s collectors, manuscript correctors, and editors. Chapters 6, 7, and 8 describe the impact of print, particularly in the life and work of scholars such as Muhammad Abduh, the brothers Mahmud and Ahmad Shakir, among others. El Shamsy draws on a deep source base, reflecting a keen awareness of developments not merely in Egypt but also in Syria, present-day Turkey, and Europe. El Shamsy explores pivotal interactions between Europe and the Middle East, including what he calls “the book drain to Europe” (10) in the 19th century, as precious manuscripts were bought up by European collectors and governments. He shows how Muslim scholars and Orientalists interacted, notes when they worked in parallel, and details the pointed critiques Muslims raised of Orientalism (231). The book will remain a touchstone for years, constituting essential reading for scholars not just of the Middle East but of the entire Muslim world.
I have three interconnected critiques that I offer in a spirit of engagement with what I think is one of the most important books in Islamic Studies of this century so far.
First, I think El Shamsy is too harsh in characterizing the period from the 16th to the early 20th centuries as one of “scholasticism,” marked by commentaries that swamped students with dense technical terms, “baroque formality,” and “ossified doctrines” (239). There is much at stake here; as the author acknowledges, “my emphasis on the broadening and diversification of the Islamic intellectual tradition in the age of print overlaps unhappily with a thesis that has a deeply unsavory history: the so-called narrative of decline” (237). El Shamsy tempers the narrative of decline, but also deplores a “tendency to overcompensate . . . by denying the very real problems of postclassical scholarship” (238).
Secondary literature offers vigorous debate on these questions, and the primary sources can also be viewed more charitably. Consider the trajectory of the historically dominant Sunni legal school in northwest Africa, the Malikiyya. For Malikis, the key manual became the Mukhtasar (Abridgment) of the 14th-century Egyptian scholar Khalil bin Ishaq. As Muhammad Fadel has argued, rather than representing closed-mindedness, the mukhtasar genre promoted predictability within legal practice. Terse language facilitated memorization, and commentaries opened up legal manuals to students and scholars alike. Many commentaries’ language—in contrast to El Shamsy’s depiction of this period—is dry but straightforward, helping readers digest the school’s dominant rulings and avoid reinventing the wheel. Commentaries on Khalil’s Mukhtasar by figures such as Ahmad al-Dardir (d. 1786) and Salih al-Abi (d. 1916/1917) remain readable—in some ways more readable than books of hadith or works by the legal school’s eponyms, which plunge readers into a world of nicknames, obscure vocabulary, and idiosyncratic shorthand.
Major exponents of the Maliki school today draw on both classical and postclassical literature. For example, the Moroccan scholar Said al-Kamali has spent a decade commenting on al-Muwatta’, the central work of the school’s eponym Malik bin Anas. Yet al-Kamali regularly quotes from postclassical texts and stresses their value. If the postclassical tradition were as ossified as El Shamsy suggests, it likely would have been sidelined once printed classical sources were widely available. Key Malikis today, however, appear to regard classical and postclassical texts as cumulative, rather than seeing the postclassical as a barrier to or distraction from the classical.
Second, I think Rediscovering the Islamic Classics inadequately engages the arguments of closely related secondary works, such as Henri Lauzière’s The Making of Salafism (Columbia University Press, 2015). El Shamsy and Lauzière treat overlapping historical periods, and Lauzière discusses the impact of bookstores, print, and publishing on the Salafi movement, one of the most consequential currents of Islamic reformism in the 20th and 21st centuries. Yet El Shamsy often cites secondary works to note a detail (e.g., the citation of Lauzière’s book on 166, footnote 86, to reference the debate among certain Muslim scholars about whether the earth is flat), rather than to respond to another author’s central arguments. El Shamsy is such a master of primary sources that secondary sources, even ones germane to El Shamsy’s topic, get short shrift.
Third, I think El Shamsy’s granular attention to what editors did, and to the lives of particular books, sometimes distracts from the promise encapsulated in the subtitle, How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition. Chapter 8 is closest to what I would have expected from a book that aims to “trace the evolution of the discourses of Islamic scholarship” (7), yet even here El Shamsy could have gone further in discussing the intellectual interventions that print specifically enables, for example the penchant of some authors to “correct” classical texts by “insert[ing] extensive footnotes into classical texts” (214). I wished for a more holistic sense of the ultimate impact of print culture on the tradition. No single book could answer that question, however; this brilliant book has, one could say, demarcated a new and vital subfield within Islamic Studies, namely the study of print’s impact on contemporary Islam.
Alexander Thurston is assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.Alexander ThurstonDate Of Review:April 22, 2022