Leor Halevi, Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865–1935 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

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

Leor Halevi (LH): Modern Things on Trial started out as a side project—a quick detour from the path I had been on as a historian of medieval Islam. It is a modern history, as the title suggests, that deals with material objects and legal trials. Twelve years ago, when this detour began, I was a medievalist through and through. My research at the time concerned medieval fatwas relating to foreign trade; my focus was on imported commodities that had given rise to theological conundrums, such as European paper with Christian watermarks. Out of curiosity, I began reading a few modern fatwas about “Western” objects. I turned first to fatwas about gramophones and toilet paper published by a journal that strove to capture the spirit of Islamic enlightenment and lead the movement for Islamic reform, Rashid Rida’s al-ManarThe Lighthouse. What I found there challenged many of the basic notions that I had about Islamic reform in the late imperial period.

Three findings surprised and perplexed me, which motivated me to write a new history of Islam in modernity. First, although these fatwas evaluated European inventions, they seldom referred to Europe. As consumers or as critics of consumption, fatwa seekers who turned to Rida for religious and legal advice wanted to know how to use new products while honoring Islam’s sacred law, the shariʿa. This was a discourse about the religious utility and legality of modern technologies that were already in circulation in Muslim societies, not a discourse about Western innovation and Western dominance. Pondering this fact, I came to realize that Islam’s modern history had been greatly distorted by geopolitical Eurocentric approaches that had exaggerated the significance of “the West” in Muslim thought.

Second, I grew up thinking of the Middle East as a historical region and got trained as a graduate student at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies to regard the Middle East as my area of study. But when I started to pay attention to the location of al-Manar’s fatwa seekers, I discovered that they were from all over the world yet often faced the same dilemmas and posed similar questions. Indeed, Rida corresponded with inquirers from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and many other countries. In addition, due to trans-imperial trade and economic globalization, these inquirers confronted many of the same material and technological challenges. This made me realize that the story of Islamic reform in this period needed to be reconceived and rewritten not as a regional, but as a global history.

Third, through their books and articles, intellectual and legal historians had taught me to think about Islamic law and Islamic reform in highly abstract ways. I had learned, as everyone in my field also learns, that Rashid Rida contributed to the great chain of ideas that linked Muslim reformers across generations by developing the religious utilitarian philosophy that he inherited from his predecessor Muhammad ʿAbduh. But then I discovered that Rida’s rulings did not derive from the ideas of the reformers of the past; they were responses, often urgent responses, to the critical and pressing concerns of Rida’s contemporaries. And these contemporaries were participants in local debates that included laypersons as well as religious scholars and that centered on things like shellac discs and paper money, not on religious utilitarianism. As I reflected on this, I realized that the history of reformist Islamic ideas needed to consider the influence of laypersons, including fatwa seekers, as well as the role of material pressures and technological objects.

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

LH: The fatwas that it analyzes concerned a wide range of commodities and technologies that stimulated or provoked debates about the rules of the shariah during the transitional period between imperialism and nationalism. Specifically, these fatwas dealt with toilet paper and gramophone records, which first caught my attention, as well as banknotes, telegraphs, lottery tickets, tourist hotels, French trousers, Javanese gongs, British colonial codes of law, and many other things. By analyzing these objects and fatwas historically, the book contributes in the first place to scholarship on Islamic law and scholarship on material culture.

Furthermore, the book directly challenges previous scholarship on Islamic reform, which has focused on elite reformers’ failure to modernize traditions and institutions, by directing our attention instead to a widespread process of religious change that no scholar or circle of scholars had the power to direct. This process is best described as a “material reformation.” Broadly speaking, my book therefore contributes to the history of religious change in the modern period.

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

LH: On one level, it is a radical departure from my previous work. I indicated earlier that this book started as a medievalist’s detour into modern history. The leap I had to make was a long one. In my first book, Muhammad’s Grave: Death Rites and the Making of Islamic Society (published by Columbia University Press in 2007), I focused on the first two centuries of the Islamic era and analyzed some very early sources: tombstone inscriptions and hadith collections. This was a history of early Muslim funeral practices and ideas about death and the afterlife. In geographic terms, it focused on the Arabian Peninsula and Mesopotamia, especially the cities of Mecca, Medina, Kufa, and Baṣra. My new book, Modern Things on Trial, has nothing to do with death in early Islamic times; it dwells instead on commerce and technology in modernity. And, in geographic terms, it focuses first on Syria under Ottoman rule and Egypt under British rule—in particular on Levantine Tripoli, where Rida was educated, and Cairo, where he established his publishing house and printing press. Then, after mapping the multitude of cities—from Tinogasta, Argentina, to Guangzhou, China—that were linked to al-Manar’s global network, it pays some attention to local circumstances here and there in the world. Thus, the books are remarkably different.

That said, there are a few common threads. Both of my books deal with the construction of Islamic law in relation to material culture and everyday life. Both concentrate on the social practice of religion and suggest that a wide range of social actors, not just the ulema, contributed to Islam’s formation or reformation. And, despite their focus on different historical periods, both dwell on times when pious Muslims found it imperative to search deeply for a distinct religious identity vis-à-vis non-Muslims.

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

LH: I do not want to dream or speculate about its future impact, but I am tremendously pleased that you asked to interview me because Jadaliyya’s readers are in many ways ideal readers.

Before explaining why, I should say that to write Modern Things on Trial I used diverse research methods to analyze a great variety of sources, so hopefully it will appeal to a diverse readership. The book is far more than a history of one reformer’s fatwas. As one reviewer remarked, it “deploys everything from shipping records to department store catalogues to properly situate the material transformation of the Muslim world.” It makes original contributions to the history of Islamic law, Islamic reform, and the making of Salafism, as well as to the cultural and economic history of Egypt during its transition from British oversight to national independence. I expect that readers who are passionate about any of these subjects will turn to the book. In addition, I hope that the book will attract readers who are curious about the history of modern Islam in relation to material culture, technology, commerce, imperialism, and globalization.

Jadaliyya’s readers may be especially interested in it, however, for a few reasons. My book deals with a magazine that might well be described as “the Jadaliyya of the last century.” Al-Manar was a pioneering Arabic magazine of the era of print that circulated worldwide. It shunned classified advertisements, unlike most other daily, weekly, and monthly journals printed at the time in Cairo. And its sections (its news roundup, book reviews, Qurʾan commentary, and fatwa columns) were very much the product of debate; they reflected disputes and at times engendered great controversy. In addition, if the readers of this magazine have a special interest in the value of Arabic, then they should find the analysis of Rida’s legal and religious communications intriguing. He communicated—in Arabic—with Russian, Indian, and Chinese Muslims who had learned Arabic as a second or third language as well as with petitioners from the Middle East and the Arab diaspora in South America and Southeast Asia. This is impressive, since it suggests al-Manar’s astonishing reach. But what I would like to point out is that most histories of globalization in the age of Rida are based on primary sources written in the languages of European colonialism: English, French, Dutch, etc. Modern Things on Trial is very much about global exchange and global communications, but it rather features Arab-Islamic perspectives and interconnections.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LH: I am putting finishing touches on two articles and working on my next book. One of these articles is about ultramodern technological innovations that relate to Muslim rituals of worship; the second analyzes a debate between Rashid Rida and an obscure Indian mufti concerning alcohol, ritual impurity, and political power. And my next book, now under contract with Harvard University Press, is a kind of sequel to Modern Things on Trial. It will focus on Najdi Salafism, global exchange, and the fatwas of Bin Baz.



Excerpt from the book (from the introduction)

Good Things Made Lawful:

Euro-Muslim Objects and Laissez-Faire Fatwas

Around 1940 Muḥammad Shafīʿ, an interpreter of Islamic law from a seminary in British India, wrote a fatwa to persuade his followers to resist a new foreign commodity—the synthetic toothbrush. He wanted Muslims to brush their teeth with a miswāk, a type of tooth-cleaning twig used by those who wanted to imitate the practice of the Prophet Muḥammad, rather than with a toothbrush, “nowadays usually made of pig-hair.” A Japanese company had recently introduced the synthetic alternative into the colony. It had the grand ambition to sell its pork-free product in what multinational corporations would eventually call “the global Islamic market.” Competition soon followed from an American firm that began to advertise Dr. West’s Miracle-Tufts, equipped with the now familiar nylon bristles, at home and abroad. Under different brands, the product quickly spread across the world. Its early adoption by Muslim consumers in India is what inspired a circle of wary disciples in the seminary to inquire about its legality.

Their attitude is easy to understand historically when we consider that they belonged to a revivalist movement that arose in the wake of the rebellion of 1857. This was the great uprising that began with the “mutiny” of the East India Company’s Muslim and Hindu soldiers, who were spurred to action by the rumor that the paper cartridges for their new Enfield rifle-muskets had been lubricated with the fat of forbidden animals. Since the military drill required biting the cartridges to extract the bullet, this was all the more upsetting. Within a decade of their momentous rebellion, disenchanted religious scholars established the first of many Deobandi madrasas: retreats where seminarians spurned the metropolitan English curriculum and colonial British culture to concentrate instead on the cultivation of Islamic orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Since this discipline required purging foreign corruptions from everyday life, Muḥammad Shafīʿ had every reason to reject boar-bristle if not synthetic toothbrushes and to recommend instead the genuine Islamic article.

This is a book about the trials of modern goods—from the toothbrush to the telegraph—under Islam’s sacred law. It focuses closely on many strange and wonderful new things: gramophone records, brimmed hats, tailored trousers, lottery tickets, paper money, gigantic gongs, and even toilet paper. These things provoked religious conundrums as they crossed cultural and political frontiers in a transitional period at the end of the imperial era. Scattered in diverse colonies, protectorates, mandates, and rising nations, Muslim societies under European hegemony nevertheless shared one powerful experience: they all encountered an astonishing array of novelties fabricated overseas. With early adoption and rising consumption came riveting communal debates. Pious actors at times demanded the banishment of foreign products to the other side of that invisible boundary that separated the lawful from the forbidden. But the day’s most pressing discussions were not about technological innovation in the abstract, the imperial ideology of free trade, or the meaning of modernity. They were far more concrete. Muslims specifically wanted to know if their divine scriptures sanctioned particular interactions with particular goods. They turned to arbiters of the sacred law, who responded with ad hoc fatwas: casuistic sentences that pronounced the objects and actions on trial economically advantageous or socially harmful, conducive to piety or suggestive of infidelity, and—in the final analysis—admirable or abominable.

The fatwas that this book focuses on were published by al-Manār, or The Lighthouse, a magazine that promised, by its very name, an Enlightenment. Printed in Cairo by an Arabic press, this monthly magazine grew famous during its run in the early twentieth century. Despite its modest circulation, it earned a global readership. The Ottoman Syrian cleric who founded it in 1898, shortly after he immigrated to Egypt under British suzerainty, was the entrepreneurial religious reformer Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, a critical figure in modern Islam’s history. He edited al-Manār and issued its “enlightening” fatwas until his death in 1935. An admirer of modern inventions, he would never have asked his urbane Muslim readers to surrender their artificial toothbrushes and take up Salvadora persica twigs.

His fatwas matter because they show how advocates for Islam’s reform as well as their opponents responded to a changing material and technological environment. Modern things of foreign origin had a profound impact on Muslim societies in the late imperial and early nationalist periods, stimulating religious reflections on the new world of goods. Rather than taking everything for granted, laypersons pondered things discriminately. They wondered about the role and place of new objects in an ideal Islamic society. With their everyday questions about novelties, they breathed new life into a moribund legal genre; they helped to turn the fatwa, in the age of print, into an exciting vehicle for trans-imperial Islamic communications.

Pressed to judge European commodities and technologies that had become objects of controversy, Riḍā repeatedly argued that Islam’s law presented few, if any, barriers to trade, consumption, and adoption. His liberalizing rulings were justified by a method of legal interpretation that privileged scriptural precedents (verses from the Qurʾan, narratives from the Ḥadīth) and ancestral paragons (idealized accounts of early Islamic heroes known as the Salaf). I call this method “laissez-faire Salafism.” By this technical term, I basically want to describe Riḍā’s prosperity gospel: the good tidings, which he spread far and wide, that adherence to the shariʿa’s original spirit would empower modern Muslims to overcome hardship and rise to affluence. This was the ethos of the economically liberal movement of Islamic reform that arose under the aegis of the Empire of Free Trade. It manifested itself in an incipient form in Cairo around 1900, at a booming time in the city’s history, and then developed over time as its adherents, including Riḍā, elaborated upon its inchoate propositions under changing material, social, and political conditions. Emerging before the elaboration of “Islamic economics” as a postcolonial discipline for Muslim nation-states, it had one central goal: to interpret and invoke scriptures, the Qurʾan and the Ḥadīth, as well as the principles of the Salaf, the exemplars of a golden age, in order to bless “the good things” (al-ṭayyibāt) that came from factories abroad.