Islam without Europe

Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought

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Ahmad S. Dallal
Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , June
     440 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Islam without Europe is a significant new contribution to the relatively neglected scholarship of 18th-century Islamic thought. Ahmed Dallal provides a close reading and analysis of various Muslim intellectuals as they contributed to a varied, yet in many ways harmonious, call for reform. 

The central leitmotif in 18th-century intellectual thought, Dallal argues, was a call to ijtihad. Such a call, and the attendant “back to the Quran and Hadith” arguments typical of later, 19th-century Islamic modernist and fundamentalist discussions, implied certain positions on the hermeneutics of the Quran and Hadith, as well as legal methodology. Dallal illustrates ways in which 18th-century scholars challenged “traditionalism” as a methodology—in other words, how they rejected the authority of precedent, instead insisting that the intent behind the law continue to guide interpretation of the law. These intellectuals asserted that the replication of past legal decisions on grounds of adherence to precedent was to abjure the obligation of continual reinterpretation. Madhabs originally, these scholars argued, were “sites of original and critical reflection” (280) but such reflection and interpretation had given way to the preservation of existing precedent. In an argument typically attributed to later 19th-century thought, 18th-century scholars insisted that tradition was comprised of historically contingent interpretations, ossified and claimed as truth itself—that is, that law had become conflated with the accumulated history of its interpretation. 

Dallal also makes important points about ways in which ijtihad was meant to challenge the authority of madhabs by opening up interpretive authority to the public. He suggests, provocatively, that such a move was a deliberate strategy designed to increase government accountability and transparency. The primary force driving intellectual discussions of ijtihad, Dallal argues, was a shared concern about “injustice and disorder, illegal taxes, political corruption, the inability [of rulers] to provide security and defend Muslim territory” (148). Eighteenth-century intellectuals insisted that comprehension of the intent of prophetic Hadith and the Quran did not require profound specialized knowledge and that the advent of printing had made Hadith accessible and easy to reference. Scholars instrumentalized the public as a means of counteracting madhab authority, noting that interpretation of law should no longer be the exclusive prerogative of legal scholars.

Two primary historiographical interventions dominate the book. First, Dallal invites us to reconsider the tendency to locate “modern” intellectual movements along a scale of adoption/rejection of “European” ideas with intendent assumptions of ownership and agency. Eighteenth-century intellectual developments, he argues, were exclusively “local” and owed nothing to interactions with Europe. Europe only appears in its absence (and in the title), yet one wonders to what extent the political and economic instability that animated these scholars’ calls for change, in part at least, stemmed from the disruptions experienced as a result of European imperial expansion.

Second, Dallal insists that what he terms the “Orientalist” historiographical lens has fundamentally distorted the 18th century, casting it as a time of intellectual stagnation, only remedied with the injection of European intellectual ideas in the 19thcentury. Dallal challenges the prevalent understanding of the 19th century as constituting the fundamental intellectual departure in Islamic thought, positing that this honor belongs instead to the 18th century. He writes that “no other period in Islamic history can boast of intellectual activities as self-consciously transformative and inclusive in their conceptions” (1). His argument forces us to consider larger questions of epistemology and agency. For example, why did 18th-century scholars concur across relatively wide geographical space, “from the banks of the Ganges to the shores of the Atlantic” (1), that adherence to precedent was no longer sufficient? What caused them to argue that madhabs had become mired in scholasticism and were no longer responsive to the political demands of the day? Was this 18th-century moment a departure from earlier debates concerning the possibility/necessity of ijtihad, one that depended on the perception of qualitative change and the adoption of a new intellectual landscape? The implications of Dallal’s claim of an 18th-century transformation of our understanding of 19th-century Islamic thought are no less significant. If 19th-century Islamic Modernism did not constitute a major rupture in Islamic thought, are we then to understand Islamic Modernism as comprising an extension of 18th-century ideas, or does Dallal’s assertion imply that Islamic Modernism is imitative of European ideas and therefore not a fundamental departure? Locating the 18th century in Islamic tradition and elucidating the relationship between 18th-century intellectual reform and later 19th-century Islamic Modernist arguments, is of utmost importance and Dallal does the field a great service by opening up these conversations for further consideration. 

Dallal’s historiographical points are a welcome intervention in a field ripe for reconsideration. Islam without Europe problematizes longstanding assumptions of European intellectual hegemony, agency and epistemology, and bids us to better understand ways in which the 18th-century (and subsequent 19th-century) debates were part of longer, ongoing conversations, as well as ways in which they departed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Monica Ringer is Professor of History of Amherst College.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ahmad S. Dallal is Dean of Georgetown University Qatar and author of Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History.


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