Islam After Liberalism

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Faisal Devji, Zaheer Kazmi
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Muslim philosophers have engaged with Western values and debates on Islam and liberalism since the 19th century. This book, edited by Faisal Devji and Zaheer Kazmi, is a good collection of pieces that present novel ideas and provoke readers to reexamine the relationship between Islam and liberalism. It provides new insights into engagement between Islam and liberalism and the formation of diverse strains of thought within Islam such as “liberal Islam”, “illiberal Islam”, “Islamism”, and “post-Islamism”. Geographically and ideologically, the book covers diverse regions and perspectives. 

The chapters are divided into four themes: origins, debates, the state, and resistance. In the introduction of the book, Devji and Kazmi illustrate the adoption of Western liberal thought by Muslim thinkers in colonized countries. They argue that liberalism was universalized by colonized people, rather than colonizers. Muslim liberals exhibited more liberalism than their colonial masters. Apart from colonization of Islamic thought by the language of liberalism, the critique against liberalism also was taken from Western critique. This “intellectually parasitic” relationship strengthens Western intellectual hegemony.

In the section on origins, the authors analyze the first wave of Muslim liberalism in the 19th and 20th century. The first chapter, by Hussein Omar, critically examines Albert Hourani’s analysis of Muhammad Abduh and Qasim Amin. Omar correctly says that Egyptian liberals mimicked European propaganda and presented traditional Muslim culture as backward. He problematizes the Eurocentric labels such as moderate, liberal, illiberal, and fanatical which were imposed by colonial administrators and later normalized. In the second chapter, Nadia Bou Ali discusses the Nahda intellectual movement (1798-1939) in the Arab world. And in his chapter on illiberal Islam, Faisal Devji discusses Muhammad Iqbal’s stance on the liberal nation-state, citing his presidential addresses to the Muslim League in 1930 and the All India Muslim Conference in 1932. Devji also compares Iqbal’s critique of modernity with that of Gandhi.

The second part of the book, which contains four chapters, identifies the limitations of the key concept and theme, as well as methodological and interpretive issues related to Islamic studies in the West. Studies of Islam in the West were mainly conducted by poorly qualified centers of study which were established for the purpose of national security during the Cold War. In addition to the third chapter by Faisal Devji, the fifth chapter by Abdennour Bidar also explores the thought of Muhammad Iqbal. However, this chapter investigates Iqbal's idea of a new post-religious spiritual era beyond the conventional forms of established religion. According to Bidar, Iqbal dewesternizes Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas of an “exit from religion” and the “death of God” and presents metaphysical liberalism. Accordingly, an “exit from religion” does not mean that there is no longer any relationship between God and humanity. The “exit from religion” is the beginning of the dialectical process of integrating God into humanity.

In his chapter on “Islamic Democracy by Number,” Zaheer Kazmi criticizes popular Muslim moderate leaders such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Tahir ul-Qadri, Hamza Yusuf, and Timothy Winter (Abdal Hakim Murad). According to Kazmi, these moderates replicate the majoritarian toleration of Western liberals and present themselves as representatives of the Muslim majority who follow the authentic interpretation of Islam. While governments of many countries, like Malaysia, promote this moderate thought, Kazmi criticizes them for adopting the liberal idea of majoritarian representation and for their strong stance against deviant and extremist groups in the name of Islam. 

In the third part of the book on “the state,” authors explore Muslim intellectual engagement in nations including Indonesia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the US. These case studies treat local encounters of Muslims with liberalism. For example, Carool Kersten’s discussion of Islamic post-traditionalism in Indonesia provides good insights into an alternative discourse that moves beyond liberal Islam, neo-modernism, and Wahhabism. Kersten calls this Islamic post-traditionalism “liberal Islam ‘plus.’” Arshin Adib-Moghaddam examines the relationship between Islam and liberal ideas in the works of contemporary Iranian thinkers. He contends that Khomeini, who spoke with a liberal bent and acted as an authoritarian, was a typical modernist state builder. He analyzes the ideas of different Iranian Islamic thinkers who spoke against the authoritarian tendency of the regime. While the chapter by Ahmed Dailami investigates the complex relationship between Wahhabism and state authorities in Saudi Arabia, Michael Muhammad Knight analyzes the initiatives of Isma’il Faruqi and other thinkers in developing a “true Islam” in America that would be purified from the cultural influence of Arabia. He also examines the complex relations among black converts, white converts, and immigrant Muslims in the US.

The last part of Islam After Liberalism, on resistance, discusses counter activities initiated by Muslims to resist liberalism and the liberal state. Just like previous sections, this one is also characterized by diverse perspectives and methods of analysis. For example, while Sadia Abbas analyzes the role of the arts, such as na’t (Urdu devotional poetry praising the Prophet Muhammad) and paintings in this social resistance, Edward E. Curtis IV talks about the Nation of Islam (NOI) of Elijah Muhammad and its role in the resistance of blacks in America to the liberal state and the cultural hegemony of white people. The last chapter of the book points to the interesting fact that post-Islamism, which focus more on personal piety and everyday social movements than political power, has emerged as a powerful factor between the state and individuals. It keeps society and individuals Islamized even when the influence of political Islam declines. The growing influence of this post-Islamism, alongside neoliberalism, has created a new concern for both liberal states and Islamists.

The editors of the book are successful in presenting novel arguments and insights and offer a good reference for those who want to study the relationship between Islam and liberalism. Including short profiles of the authors would have improved the book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Shameer Modongal is a doctoral candidate in the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Date of Review: 
September 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Faisal Devji is Reader in Modern South Asian History and Fellow of St. Antony's College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of, inter alia, Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea and The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence.

Zaheer Kazmi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, Queen's University Belfast. He has held research and visiting positions at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and is the author of Polite Anarchy in International Relations Theoryand co-editor of Contextualising Jihadi Thought.



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