Irfan Ahmad, Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017 & New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Irfan Ahmad (IA): Intellectual loneliness!

Events, especially during the teenage years, influence questions one pursues later in life. Growing up in Bihar, India, the Rushdie affair as an issue of freedom of speech, the violent Hindutva “democratic” mobilization to destroy the Babri masjid, celebration of Islamophobic novelist Taslima Nasreen as an icon of reason by the “enlightened” media, and so on, were quite formative. Social-intellectual doxa I was exposed to in India taught me that Muslims clung to their religion that prohibited “reason.” The dominant Western intellectual traditions too upheld this standpoint. In Bihar, learning also meant memorizing quotes of Western philosophers, e.g. Voltaire’s, and dropping them as bombs during conversations.

In contrast, knowledge I gained at my village madrasa, from the community and my family, particularly my father, was very different. I also read on my own. At home, the image of Islam was one that of heralding freedom and criticality as well as dignity to the downtrodden.  Of course, both images initially worked at the level of generality.

In 2001, I began my doctorate at University of Amsterdam. I started my ethnographic fieldwork on Jamaat-e-Islami in India. It was after the gruesome 9/11 attack and in the shadow of War on Terror (WOT). Calling for Islam’s reformation, Western politicians and intellectuals like Salman Rushdie patronizingly advised Muslims to learn reason and criticism. I found this at a radical variance with what I encountered in the field, where people held that in perpetrating WOT and by bombing the non-West, it was actually the West that had left reason behind.

While some members of Jamaat were its blind defenders, others urged me to meet people critical of Jamaat, even saying that my research would remain incomplete if I did not study literature critiquing Jamaat. I turned this fascinating issue of critique into my postdoctoral research, which this book resulted from. A sense of intellectual loneliness occupied me throughout—a condition arguably not unique. Seldom is a thought lonely, however.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

IA: The book deals with two core issues: reason and critique. These issues are central to the modern Western knowledge beyond the disciplinary divide. Generally, the Enlightenment in Europe is taken to inaugurate both reason and critique. I offer a critique of such a position that runs from textbooks to handbooks and from restaurants to parliaments. Against the established thoughts, which equate critique and reflexivity with modernity, I take it to the axial age when Moses, Buddha and later Christ and Muhammad ascended as reformer-critics. In Islamic tradition, as enunciated in the Qur’an, critique (naqd) pertains to reform (iṣlāḥ) for the accomplishment of which Allah sent His prophets.

One key strand of literature is anthropology of philosophy/intellect – a field to which Kai Kresse and others have contributed. Of course, anthropology of religion is significant to the book; so are the literatures on Islamic studies/Islam, religious studies, south Asian studies, anthropology of power/political anthropology, modern European thoughts and anthropology of literature. Though many continue to distinguish anthropology from sociology, I do not. The book is thus interdisciplinary; it weaves together anthropology, Islamic studies, philosophy, religion, literature, political theory and south Asian studies to launch and substantiate a new, original thesis. To some, it may appear as “in-disciplinary.” However, it remains the case that I am trained in anthropology/sociology and prefer to call myself a political anthropologist.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

IA: My first book, Islamism and Democracy in Indiawas an ethnographic study of India’s Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. The question it addressed was how Jamaat-e-Islami, formed in colonial India, changed in postcolonial India that was radically different after partition and the creation of Pakistan. It anthropologically accounted for the interface between democratic politics and transformation of ideology within Jamaat.

While mostly remaining with Jamaat as my fieldwork site, Religion as Critique asks different questions. Not only is its canvass much broader, its theoretical horizon is also vastly different. It addresses larger questions about religion and its efficacy as an agent of critique. It takes, inter alia, an anthropology of philosophy approach to raise questions, the salience of which exceeds one given discipline. It is a more explicitly theoretical book. It was also more challenging to write. I planned to finish it in 2012. However, dissatisfied with my knowledge of philosophy, I spent three years in the self-study of philosophy enabling as it did to expand the book’s theoretical vista and articulate anthropologically issues that interested me.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

IA: As it is a scholarly monograph, I expect the scholarly community at large to pay attention to it; in particular, those in the fields of Islam, anthropology/sociology, religion, south Asia/India, intellectual history, modern European thoughts and literature. As initial reviews indicate, actions-oriented readers may also find parts of the book of interest, especially chapter seven that takes critique from the literary field to social movement and theorizes Ḳhudāī Ḳhidmatgār (God’s Servant), launched by Abdul Ghaffar Khan (d.1988), as a movement of critique. Khan is known popularly, albeit erroneously, as Frontier Gandhi. Some chapters might specifically interest undergraduate and graduate students too.

As for the impact I would like this book to have, beyond the “East-West” divide it should generate much needed discussion about the place and role of religion in the world we live in. Hopefully, the discussion also unleashes fresh thinking in scholarly and non-scholarly worlds. I wrote this book to show conceptual fallacies in the hegemonic Western thoughts—also in circulation in non-West (among Muslims too) and approximating like mass common sense—about religion and Islam. I aim to unsettle the prevalent thoughts and long-held convictions. As Milan Kundera has it, conviction “is a thought that has come to a stop.” My goal is “to set thought moving.” The book not merely critiques existing thoughts, it also ethnographically shows an alternative—a task any critique worthy of its name ought to undertake.

Historian Fernand Braudel saw more continuity than ruptures in his vision of history. However, he maintained that “to its author, every work seems revolutionary” and that “ideas advance . . . by ruptures.” At times, I feel Braudelian about Religion as Critique.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

IA: Currently, I am working on two book manuscripts (and some journal articles). The first book develops a framework to study contemporary “terrorism” anthropologically: what might an anthropology of terrorism look like? Recognizably, this is a Talal Asadian approach.  At the center of this manuscript, Terrorism in Question, is the question of not who is a terrorist, or when terrorism will end. Following James Baldwin, it instead asks who needs the category of terrorists.  It examines the planetary vulgates of religious or Islamic terrorism, radicalization and the like. It cautions against the tendency to over-religionize terrorism and simultaneously brings forth a dimension of religion, as viewed by “terrorists” themselves, which stands elided from the public. The book is based on discussion with classified terrorists. In India, the word encounter also means extra-judicial killing of people deemed terrorists.  Interestingly, anthropologists call ethnographic fieldwork encounter. The book sheds light on this double encounter and implications it has for anthropology and for the study of terrorism.

The second book is a slim volume that investigates how Indian sociology has theorized Islam and Muslims. It asks if there is a connection between anthropologists-sociologists’ discourse on Islam and the dominant Hindu majoritarian discourse on nation. Against sociology’s self-perception as the most reflexive discipline, it argues how Indian anthropology/sociology has been intertwined with the violence of nationalism and that the cardinal assumptions of colonialism—orientalism being its intellectual arm—continue to inform “post-colonial” anthropology.

J: Can you elaborate the title of the book?

IA: With the onset of modernity and its colonial expansion outside the West, religion acquired a pejorative connotation, particularly among the Westernizing elites. Given the influence of the 1917 Revolution in the third world, Karl Marx’s observation that “the criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism” became famous. Many liberals too readily took to it. Of course, what Marx meant is one thing and what Marxists made of it is quite another. For the latter, religion could only be an object of critique. One may see a similar logic in Walter Benjamin’s (1921) description of “capitalism as religion.” Short and incomplete, clearly there are multiple, if not infinite, readings of Benjamin’s text.

My point is that such renditions viewed religion mostly as an object of critique. Hence, I title the book Religion as Critiqueto show that religion is equally a source of critique. My contention is about religion in general. I, therefore, discuss, albeit not extensively, the Moses, Ekalavya, Buddha, Christ, and others as critics.

The subtitle exemplifies the general thesis by focusing on Islam. Mecca aims to displace the common views that critique began in Europe. Of course, Immanuel Kant is portrayed as a figure of that critique. Foucault, who critiqued Kant on many points, too held that critique was “born in Europe.” Finally, the marketplace is meant to argue that critique is not the sole preserve of the educated and salaried philosophers. Ordinary people like hawkers in Aligarh where I did my fieldwork also enact critique – an argument chapter seven illustrates.


Excerpt from the Book:

In 2012, journalist-writer Ed West published a blog post in the Telegraph titled “Can Islam Ever Accept Higher Criticism?” … West aimed to show that Islam knows no critique and is unlikely to embrace critique in the future, as the title of his post made amply clear. For West, even a professor like Seyyed Hossein Nasr is threatened by Western-dominated criticism.

Against the conventional wisdom on Islam exemplified by West’s blog post in the Telegraph —and shared widely by most academics, nonacademic intellectuals, and the general public— Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace demonstrates multifaceted thriving traditions of critique in Islam, laying bare the principles, premises, modes, and forms of critique at work. It discusses believers in Islam as dynamic agents, not mere objects, of critique, for which the standard word in Urdu is tanqīd or naqd. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in India, it foregrounds critique and tradition as subjects of anthropological inquiry in their own right. Since tradition is reducible neither to nationalized territory nor to its official temporality, the book travels across both.

Departing from standard Enlightenment understandings, according to which religions, especially non-Protestant ones, could only be objects of critique, this book theorizes religion as an important agent of critique, viewing Moses, the Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Abul Ala Maududi, and many others as critics par excellence. It offers a different genealogy of critique in Urdu/Islam, transcending as it does ancient Greece and its assumed inheritor, the modern West, as the customary prime loci of critique. Using an anthropology of philosophy approach, it interprets the West’s Enlightenment as a sign of its ethnic identity, thereby calling its universalism into question. My principal contention here is that the Enlightenment —considered the reference point for critique and use of reason—was an ethnic project as Europe/West constituted its identity in the name of reason and universalism against a series of others (internal and external), Islam being one of them. To substantiate this argument, I discuss the German Enlightenment as well as the French Enlightenment. … I leave the American Enlightenment out because, among other reasons, in it there was “hardly any anti-religious component.”

Engaging with literature on the anthropology of the Enlightenment, the book brings the Western Enlightenment tradition of critique into conversation with Islamic tradition to analyze differences as well as similarities between the two. Beyond perfunctory apologia such as, “Muslims also have a notion of critique like the West has,” it argues for the specificity of Islam and the need for a genuinely democratic dialogue with different traditions. As it examines the contours and parameters of critique, using sources in English, Hindi, Farsi, and Urdu, it expands the scope of critique, hitherto confined to canonical texts and extraordinary individuals, like salaried philosophers, academics, critics, and intellectuals, to the everyday life intertwined with death of ordinary actors such as street vendor, beggars, and illiterate peasants. In short, Religion as Critique brings critique to the academic stage as an ordinary social-cultural practice with an extraordinary salience. Rather than present critique as an isolated, merely mental exercise, it aspires to lay bare the very life critique belongs to and seeks to enunciate. Thinking past the available descriptions of critique as unmasking, disclosing, debunking, and deconstructing, it argues that critique is simultaneously a work of assemblage and disassemblage, with signposts to a world to come. By its very nature, it is neither “neutral” nor “objective” in the sense that these twin words are usually understood or used to claim “impartiality,” even “detachment.” In many ways, critique indeed presupposes some degrees of attachment as well as detachment. As will become evident to readers, the notion of critique it employs is also transformative.

In 2004, Bruno Latour argued that critique had run out of steam due, among other reasons, to theorization by figures such as Jean Baudrillard, who held that “the Twin Towers destroyed themselves under their own weight . . . undermined by the utter nihilism inherent in capitalism itself.” Taking Baudrillard as representing the ruins of critique, Latour issued a call for the renewal of the critical mind by cultivating a “stubbornly realist attitude.” In Latour’s view, Baudrillard and other French critics lacked a realist attitude. In a mode of “reflexivity,” he remarked, “I am ashamed to say that the author was French”. Latour’s take is puzzling. He didn’t show how Baudrillard’s critique was non- or antirealist. Indeed, he didn’t engage with Baudrillard’s critique beyond the bare mention in the lines quoted above. The critique readers are left with is Latour’s expression of shame, which he nationalized rather than rationalized. Parenthetically, it ought to be noted that in contexts including interventions and issues mass advertised as humanitarian, global, and so on, the national and the rational often work as substitutes, at times even as prostitutes. Returning to and in disagreement with Latour’s thesis that critique has run its course, Religion as Critique instead maintains that the kind of critique it aims to enunciate has in fact only begun. Vis-à-vis the subject matter of this book and its theoretical horizon, much of critique has been stymied insofar as it has been largely imitative rather than sufficiently reflective, reproductive rather than transformative. For Jacques Rancière, critique realizes itself when it beckons to a world in the offing.

Religion as Critique aims to contribute, inter alia, to the subfield of anthropology/sociology of philosophy and intellect. If some readers may find it less “ethnographic” (especially in part I), this is because of my realization early on that a meaningful “description” of “data” or “material” must simultaneously describe the very thought and matrix of knowledge behind the description that predescribes (i.e., prescribes) the larger world we inhabit. A description that doesn’t sufficiently describe the condition of its own description to outline another description is itself in need of critical description.

The subject of critique this book tracks is the exposition on Islam by Abul Ala Maududi (1903—79), the founder of Iamaat-e-Islami in colonial India in 1941, and the multifaceted critiques of his exposition by former members…and sympathizers of Jamaat and its student wing, the Student Islamic Organization. On some occasions, I also refer to critique by those not formally connected to Jamaat. However, the bulk of discussion on critique is immanent, by those who were or are connected to Jamaat. In the final chapter I move away from Jamaat to focus on critique as everyday social-cultural practice. There I discuss one of the most salient peace movements of the early twentieth century—namely, Ḳhudāī Ḳhidmatgār [God’s Servant], launched by Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (d.1988) as a movement of critique. This chapter also deals with everyday critique outside the domain of social movements. To this end, I use my own ethnographic materials as well as those of others to discuss the salience of proverbs in everyday life. I take these ethnographic encounters and the Ḳhudāī Ḳhidmatgār movement to understand the issue of critique in general.

Religion as Critique doesn’t claim to present the genealogy of critique in Islam. Based on a sustained engagement with the traditions, cultures, politics, and histories of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent — frequently but mistakenly deemed marginal in the study of religion in general and Islam in particular—it offers one path to such a genealogy. The book, however, makes a strong claim that its path of genealogy is novel and original for, to my knowledge, it has not been previously charted out, certainly not in anthropology/sociology or religion/Islamic studies with such a theoretical goal and methodological frame. Unlike the available dominant accounts of critique in Western and Westernizing traditions, the book describes and posits God Himself as the source of critique and the prophets He sent over time as critics par excellence. The mission of the prophets God sent was to enact reform (iṣlāḥ) through critique. With the conclusion of prophecy, the task of critique and reform fell on ‘ulema (scholars), deemed heirs to the prophets. It is within this frame, defying as it does the dualism and separation —silky to some, thorny to others — between the secular and the religious, that any meaningful enterprise of critique ought to be situated. Such a frame, I suggest, is pertinent to studying social formations of the past as well as those of the contemporary world (dis)order of nation-states led by imperial Western plutocracies. The constellation of reform, critique, ‘ulema, and the tradition they critically relate to and shape is surely informed by the pervasive, blood-drenched, war-imbued politics of and among the nation-states. However, it is neither reducible to nor to be subsumed within the gory enthusiasm for ethnifying nationalism, the history of which, despite claims by nationalists that it is ancient, sometimes even timeless, is as young as yesterday. Without fully accounting for this constellation alluded to above, we can’t adequately understand even the widely agreed common minimum notion of critique (tanqīd/naqd) in South Asian Urdu/Islamic tradition —to assess (jāñchnā/parakẖnā) or to distinguish between original and fake, good and bad or not so good.

The genealogy of critique, received wisdom unequivocally maintains, started with Kant. Religion as Critique, in contrast, contends that it began much earlier. …