Reclaiming Islamic Tradition

Modern Interpretations of the Classical Heritage

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Elisabeth Kendall, Ahmad Khan
  • Edinburgh, UK: 
    Edinburgh University Press
    , August
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Reclaiming Islamic Tradition comes as a response to the recent events and conversations in the Islamic world regarding quranic exegesis, Islamic law, gender and women, and violence and extremism, all of which have provoked new interpretations of the Islamic tradition. In the book’s introduction Elisabeth Kendall and Ahmad Khan acknowledge the diversity of Islamic tradition and the challenge in defining it. It is clarified that the volume speaks of Islamic tradition as articulated in books and journals. 

The first four chapters focus on Islamic law and legal heritage, and hadith. The opening chapter, “Modern Shi’ite Legal Theory and the Classical Tradition” by Robert Gleave, sheds light on the nature of discussions among modern Shi’a scholars in the hawzas (seminaries) of Iran and Iraq. Instead of abandoning the classical traditions which are apparently incompatible with the modern world, these scholars identify the continuities between these traditions, as carried out by the ulemas of the past generations, and current scholarly activity. Gleave states that the works produced in the hawzasdon’t mark “a paradigm shift between the classical and the modern” (13). In fact, “they are written with a conscious effort to establish continuity between past accomplishments and the current scholarly activity” (13). 

The second chapter by Christopher Melchert elaborates upon “Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani and Traditional Hadith Criticism.” Albani (a Salafi) is recognized for his criticism of the traditional hadith,which is defined as “the body of quotations of the Prophet and descriptions of his action that constitutes the principal basis of Islamic law” (38). A student of hadith criticism himself, Melchert’s chapter attempts to show how Albani didn’t contribute much to the progress in hadith studies. While assessing the authenticity of hadith,he relied much on the opinions of past experts without questioning them. In chapter 3, entitled “Islamic Tradition in an Age of Print: Editing, Printing and Publishing,” Ahmad Khan explores the relationship between “technicalisation” (53) and the role of scholars-cum-editors in translating the medieval textual tradition, especially the works of Abu Hanifa. Ahmad is of the firm conviction that such translations were not free from the ideological biases of editors and publishing houses. In turn, such publications gave birth to an altogether new set of contestations between Salafi traditionalists and late Sunni traditionalists over Abu Hanifa. Jonathan A.C. Brown’s chapter elucidates the modern scholars’ debates on the age of marriage and Islamic finance in modern legal discourse by referring to an “obscure” (100) eighth-century jurist, Ibn Shubruma. This brings out the difficulty of rethinking the application of Islamic law in the modern world. 

Chapter 5, “Reading Surat al-Anam with Muhammad Rashid Rida and Sayyid Qutb,” marks a shift from the previous chapters because it emphasizes quranic exegesis. “Exegetical holism” (137) involves understanding a quranic verse by taking into consideration the “occasions of revelation” (137). This was a prominent characteristic of premodern commentaries on the Qur’an. Nicolai Sinai devotes this chapter to a discussion of how and why contemporary tools of hermeneutics are in a continuum with the premodern technique. Chapter 6 by Karen Bauer continues with the theme of quranic exegesis. It deals with what is perceived as the most crucial challenge faced by Islam in the contemporary world: the position of women in the Qur’an. She focuses on the verse that considers female testimony unequal to male testimony in economic matters. This poses a challenge to gender egalitarianism and suggests an intellectual deficiency in women. Bauer, however, highlights how both the reformists as well as the traditionalists in Iran follow the same hermeneutic to comment on this issue. 

The next two chapters take on the themes of violence and moderation in Islam. Chapter 7 is a stimulating discussion of the appropriation of Ibn Taymiyya, one of the most controversial scholars in the middle period of the Islamic tradition, by both extremists and progressive reformists. Jon Hoover largely engages with the writings of Yahya Michot who has attempted to rescue the thought of Ibn Taymiyya from those who have claimed it to support radical jihadist purposes. Chapter 8, by Carole Hillenbrand (entitled “The Impact of a Sixteenth-Century Jihad Treatise on Colonial and Modern India”) reflects on the manner in which the work of a Muslim scholar from Kerala inspired Malabar Muslims to wage jihad against the foreign Portuguese rulers during their colonial rule. It explores a British scholar’s translation of the work Tohfut-Ul-Mujahideen, originally written by Zainuddin Makhdum.

The penultimate chapter by Elisabeth Kendall illuminates al-Qa’ida’s selective reconstruction of Arab classical poetic tradition to bolster modern militant jihad. In the concluding chapter, Christian Lange analyzes Umar Sulayman al Ashqar’s work, “Endtime,” and facilitates a grasp of classical eschatology in Islam through an engagement with the concepts of hell and paradise.The volume provides a platform for scholarly discussion about reinterpretations of classical Islamic tradition in the modern world. It is an excellent treatise for anyone who intends to understand debates in the Islamic world today and explore how Islamic tradition is continuously being reinterpreted, recast, reconfigured, and manipulated to address complex situations.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sania Ismailee is a doctoral fellow in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.  Her research interest is in Political Philosophy.

Date of Review: 
April 11, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Elisabeth Kendall is Senior Research Fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. Her research focuses on how Arabic cultural production fuels political and militant movements. Her books include Twenty-First Century Jihad (with Ewan Stein, 2015), Literature, Journalism and the Avant-Garde (2006) and Media Arabic (2nd ed. 2012). She has studied and worked at the Universities of Oxford, Harvard and Edinburgh.

Ahmad Khan is postdoctoral researcher at Universität Hamburg, Asien-Afrika-Institut. In 2014-15, he was Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, Faculty of Oriental Studies. His D.Phil (Oxon) examined discourses of heresy and the formation of medieval Sunni orthodoxy. His current research focuses on the history of medieval Iran. His second research specialism concerns modern Islamic history/thought, particularly the emergence of publishing houses and editors in the Islamic world.


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