Ahmad Dallal, Islam without Europe: Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

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

Ahmad Dallal (AD): Islam Without Europe is a study of Islamic traditions of reform in the long eighteenth century. The book aims to offer a revision of both traditional historiography of the Muslim World in the eighteenth century and of the more recent attempts to revisit this historiography. It challenges the standard academic depictions of the Islamic eighteenth century as a period of stagnation and decline. In this comparative study that covers leading thinkers from all of the Muslim World, I examine developments at both the social and the cultural fronts. In contrast to the prevailing paradigms in current historical narratives on this period, I argue that this was neither a period of intellectual decline, nor was it a mere prelude to the reform movements of the colonial period that were triggered by the encounter with Europe. I also attempt a reconstruction of key Islamic reform traditions of the eighteenth century.

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

AD: Studies of modern Islamic thought have loosely framed eighteenth-century reform in two opposing ways. One viewpoint maintains that the eighteenth-century is one of political decline and intellectual stagnation. The era of political and intellectual revival that ensues is considered a result of the growth of European influence in, and intellectual challenges to, the Islamic world. A second viewpoint maintains that nineteenth-century Islamic reform was rooted in the intellectual legacy of eighteenth century Muslim reformers.

In contrast to these two approaches, I argue that the eighteenth century was a period of great intellectual activity that witnessed systematic attempts to radically restructure traditional Islamic thought. These attempts were diverse and extremely successful both in terms of intellectual reception (as in the cases of Wali Allah, San‘ani and Shawkani) and political and social impact (as in the cases of Ibn Fudi and Sanusi). Also in contrast to traditional historiography that asserts that the intellectual stagnation of the eighteenth century was partly overcome after the encounter with Europe, I argue that the rich intellectual legacy of the Muslim eighteenth-century was thwarted by this encounter. I also argue that there is no continuity between eighteenth and nineteenth-century Islamic reformist traditions, and that the encounter with Europe creates a rupture in Islamic thought and radically transforms Islamic discursive culture.

Both the older historiography and the revisionist accounts persist in using Wahhabism as a model for depicting Islamic activism and thought in the eighteenth-century. In contrast, I sketch the very rich discourse against takfir that prevailed in eighteenth century thought. I also take issue with the popular network thesis that argues that an intellectual network of likeminded, reformist scholars was generated as a result of traveling through and residence and education in Mecca and Medina. In contrast, I demonstrate the diversity and regional origins of most reform projects in the eighteenth century. I illustrate, for example, the regional differences between ways in which the idea of ijtihad is deployed, and relate these differences to regional traditions of scholarship.

One of the main ideas advocated by revisionist historians is that of Neo-Sufism, which argues that eighteenth-century Islamic thought was characterized by new brand of reform Sufism which was devoid of spirituality and at the service of Orthodox Islam. In contrast, I argue that eighteenth-century Sufism was not devoid of spirituality, and I support the arguments of O’Fahey and Radtke that the concept of Neo-Sufism is not useful for understanding eighteenth century reform or Sufism. Additionally, I draw the outlines of an eighteenth-century tradition of critiques of Sufism.

In all the cases I examine, I argue that eighteenth-century thinkers conceived of their intellectual undertakings as subversive and dissenting acts, both in relation to political authorities and to established corporate intellectual authorities. In one chapter, I extend the analysis from the intellectual/cultural sphere to the social/political one. The primary example that I examine is the career of Shawkani and his complex relationship to power.

Another main idea in revisionist historiography is the notion that hadith studies were revived in the eighteenth century and that hadith was used for “socio-moral reconstruction.” This last notion implies that the significance of hadith was in the practical ordering social life and in providing a blueprint for social behavior, and not on intellectual grounds. In contrast, I argue that some of the most original ideas were introduced in the course of academic/theoretical discussions of hadith, in particular the theory of hadith (‘ilm mustalah al-hadith). I trace the development of two distinct schools of hadith studies in India and in Yemen, and I tease out the implications of these very radical theories for notions of authority. I propose new ways of reading and analyzing hadith, not just in terms of its social and cultural significance but also in relation to earlier works of hadith.

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

AD: The book builds on some earlier work I have done on eighteenth-century reform, but its scope is much larger in terms of the regional traditions and the themes I examine, and also in terms of the overall conclusions I draw from the study. There is also a connection with my work on the history of the Islamic exact sciences, in that both are concerned with questions of periodization and the characterization of pre-modern traditions on their own terms, and not through the prism of modernity and the related assumptions of decline.

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

AD: I hope the book will appeal a broad readership in Islamic, regional, and comparative history. It should also appeal to all students of Islamic thought and traditions, and specifically, I hope it would serve as a point of reference for scholars of late medieval and early modern Islam, and for understanding Islamic thought before the encounter with European colonialism.

I hope that my arguments will provide a basis for a new periodization, which does not only rehabilitate the Islamic eighteenth century, but also provide a new way of thinking about the modern history of the Muslim world.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AD: My next project is a book-length study of the foremost West African Muslim scholar and leader, Uthman Ibn Fudi, and the Sokoto Caliphate he established c. 1800.

J: How would you characterize your methodology?

AD: In terms of methodology, what distinguishes my approach is the examination of traditional scholarly disciplines and their transformation over time. The main purpose of my work is to outline these transformations in cultural traditions and to try to explain the historical contexts in which they take place. I focus primarily on the content and social significance of the transformations in the intellectual traditions that were introduced in this period. I offer close readings of the writings of some of the major Muslim scholars of the eighteenth century in several areas, including hadith, legal theory, and Sufism. In particular, I examine eighteenth-century re-articulations of classical theories of hadith and principles of jurisprudence, and the ways in which notions of political and intellectual authority are reconstructed in the writings of eighteenth-century thinkers. I argue that the most radical reforms are in fact in such seemingly traditional sources. The book thus has two components; the first deals with the historiography of the eighteenth century and the content of the intellectual traditions of this period, while the second focuses on devising methods for studying various genres of literary production from the classical period and tracing the transformation of these traditions over time.


Excerpt from the Book:

Sometime around the middle of the nineteenth century, the intellectual world of Muslims began to crumble and the great traditions of the past were forgotten. Contrary to common modern assertions, the recession of these traditions was sudden and unexpected. Throughout the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth, the Muslim world had witnessed one of the most lively and creative periods of its intellectual history. Echoes of this intellectual activity could still be felt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, yet nothing in this latter period even approximated the erudition and depth of eighteenth-century thought. In the eighteenth century, enormous energies were devoted to a systematic and comprehensive restructuring of Islamic thought. The erudition of eighteenth century thinkers and their honed historical consciousness enabled them to mold the past and fully appropriate its legacies. Classical styles of thinking were preserved, despite a great awareness of a need to reorganize religious knowledge and to identify those aspects of Islam that were shared by all. From within the framework of classical learning, these thinkers dramatically restructured the intellectual world of Muslims. Diverse Islamic ideologies were forged and employed in Islamic socio-political as well as intellectual movements. Eighteenth-century models of Islamic activity ranged from political mobilization under the banner of classical Islamic ideology to the creation of a centralized network of Sufi settlements to purely intellectual reform embodied in new approaches to the study of traditional Islamic disciplines.

From the banks of the Ganges to the shores of the Atlantic, masses and elites alike embraced the relentless appeals of eighteenth-century Muslim thinkers. No other earlier period in Islamic history can boast of intellectual activities that were as self-consciously transformative and inclusive in their conception. Eighteenth-century thinkers were fully aware of the intellectual and political significance of their undertakings, and they embarked upon them with great self-confidence and optimism. Despite their alarmist tone, eighteenth-century thinkers had great hopes for the future: they asserted the potential superiority of later generations of Muslims over earlier ones, and then proceeded to demonstrate this superiority; they articulated and espoused an Islam that transcends the boundaries of the schools of law and eradicates sectarian and legal differences; and they advocated an active participation by all Muslims in the definition of Islam and set out meticulously to chart the practical venues for this participation. From the perspective of the late nineteenth century, the intellectual ventures of the eighteenth century had failed to stand the test of time. Yet, judging by the record of the eighteenth century and its immediate aftermath, and not from later, hazy perceptions of this century, these ventures were quite successful and influential. The cultural vitality of the eighteenth century was not limited to certain regions, but was spread over most of the Muslim world. The distinguished thinkers of this period came from India and Arabia, North Africa and West Africa, as well as Syria and Yemen. The diverse and rich legacies of this period–the vibrant, eighteenth-century intellectual activities in the Muslim world that developed independent of European influence–are the subject of this book.

The choice of period and subject matter is justified primarily in light of the scope of this cultural activity and its contrast to cultural activities in the age of colonialism. Chronologically, it is easier to demarcate the end of this period than its beginnings. What I call the eighteenth century extends to the beginnings of the modern period, a period that is marked, above all, by European political, economic and cultural domination over the Muslim world, and by an Islamic discursive culture that was largely articulated in reaction to this European challenge. Naturally, therefore, there can be no single date that marks the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the modern period, as European penetration and domination took hold at different dates in different places. While, for example, the modern era in Egypt arguably starts in the early nineteenth century, European modernity in Sub-Saharan Africa does not commence till after the middle of this century. Moreover, since the appreciation of the extent and significance of European hegemony was not simultaneously appreciated in all parts of the Muslim world, the cultural eighteenth century, defined here in terms of cultural production that was not articulated in response to Europe, sometimes lingered past the colonial take over. As such, my approach is opposed to the traditional Orientalist view that marks the 1798 French invasion of Egypt as the beginning of the modern history of the Middle East and the Muslim world not just because many social, economic, political and cultural continuities in large parts of the Muslim world were not affected by this invasion, but primarily because this periodization assumes generalized stagnation and decline in the eighteenth-century Muslim world. This idea of economic and political decline has been largely discredited in a substantial number of studies, especially by historians of the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman provinces. This study will undermine the decline thesis in the cultural sphere.

The various universal visions of eighteenth-century thinkers had their roots in earlier regional traditions. While many peripatetic scholars traveled in that century in pursuit of knowledge, the era’s major thinkers either traveled after their ideas matured and their views were articulated or they did not travel at all. They also recognized the peculiarities of their own traditions and set out to transform them by deliberately importing ideas and theories from other regional traditions and schools of thought. It is thus possible to speak of an Indian school of thought and a Yemeni one. It is perhaps even possible to claim that ground-breaking intellectual contributions were made within the context of mature and erudite regional traditions, whereas the intellectual contributions of traveling apprentice scholars, important as they were from a social perspective, were derivative. The regional rootedness of the main reform traditions, however, does not imply that their intellectual horizons were limited or parochial. Quite the contrary, regional traditions were revitalized by opening them up to the legacies of other Muslim regions and schools of thought. The regional character of their thought was simply a reflection of the concern of eighteenth-century thinkers with the problems of their societies and their attempts to provide real solutions for these problems. This regional character, however, did not amount to the formation of national identities. Contrary to many contemporary assertions in both scholarly works and nationalist discourse, the reformers of the eighteenth-century were not national heroes, nor were they the precursors of the later ideologues of the nationalist movements.

Perhaps paradoxically, the strong emphasis found in eighteenth-century writings on the legitimacy of the present was firmly rooted in tradition and the cultural legacies of the past. The deep import of eighteenth-century rejection of imitation (taqlīd) was that imitation undermines the authority of the present. This focus on the present, however, did not come at the expense of tradition. Although from the perspective of the late nineteenth century the adoption of hybrid, non-Islamic cultural legacies seemed inevitable, in the eighteenth century it was not an option. Thus, radical as they were, the reformative projects of the eighteenth century did not involve a complete break with the past. This is why I use the term traditional to describe these reform projects. The ability of eighteenth-century thinkers to re-form knowledge was facilitated by a critical awareness of the historicity of the received traditions. Through a systematic delineation of multiple past legacies, these thinkers were able to provide fresh readings of these legacies. Established canons were thus opened up to new interpretations, and, through a process of inter-Islamic hybridization, the contours of canonical Islamic knowledge were expanded. Although eighteenth-century thought introduced significant departures from traditional epistemologies, these departures were generated from within the tradition and were not derived from alternative cultural systems.