Theorizing Modernities article

Decolonial Islamic Studies and Defending Muḥammad in Modernity

British Colonial Estate in India during the Raj. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In his ground-breaking book, Defending Muammad in Modernity, SherAli Tareen masterfully takes the reader through one of the most complex polemics in South Asian Islam between the Deobandīs and the Barelvīs. Tareen notes that while this polemical terrain may not be overlooked within secondary scholarship, it is indeed undertheorized and underappreciated. Instead of engaging deeply with the scholarly arguments articulated by both the Deobandīs and the Barelvīs, the polemic is reduced to a competition between puritan disenchantment (Deobandīs) and mystical enchantment (Barelvīs), one which supports a series of conceptually flawed dichotomies between legal/mystical, reformist/nonreformist, and most problematically, traditional/modern. For Tareen, these flawed classifications of rich intellectual traditions are underpinned by neocolonial attempts to frame Islam in terms of good religion, which is “amenable and useful to neoliberal interests,” and bad religion, which requires “surveillance and discipline” (17). Tareen seeks to challenge these dichotomies, and the logics which undergird them, through a close textual and theological analysis of the debates that stood at the heart of the Deobandī-Barelvī polemics. His analysis reveals that the two groups present competing rationalities of tradition that have at their core opposing conceptions of the relationship between divine sovereignty, prophetic authority, and the normative practice of the believing Muslim community. But what are the grounds from which these scholars articulated these competing rationalities of tradition and how might scholars of religion benefit from a more nuanced understanding of these debates?

Tareen notes that the British colonial intrusion ushered in a crisis of sovereignty that forced Deobandī and Barelvī scholars to articulate new political visions that responded to the realities that Muslims faced. But not only did the colonial terrain serve as the catalyst for new political visions, it also fundamentally reshaped the nature of these intellectual debates. Tareen notes that from the pre-colonial to colonial period there were four important shifts: (1) an increased focus on everyday religious practice, (2) a rise in oral and written polemics, (3) a notion of a defined public that was the focus for reform, and (4) a more aggressive reform temperament. Thus, while the majority of Tareen’s substantive chapters explore theological debates on Prophetic intercession, heretical innovation, divine sovereignty, and normative religious practice, the author recognizes that the nature of these debates are informed by a colonial context. Herein lies one of the most important methodological insights that Tareen’s work presents for scholars of religion, especially those interested in the decolonization of the study of religion.

With remarkable subtlety, Tareen impresses upon the reader the distinction between the ability of colonial modernity to affect the nature of intellectual debates and the ability of colonial modernity to affect the content of those debates. To clarify, while colonial modernity served as the catalyst for scholars to answer certain questions about everyday religious practice and political sovereignty, the mode of answering these questions, and the content of the answers were articulated from within the intellectual traditions of the religious communities and these scholars did not adopt a secular or colonial rationality. This difference is crucial to note as insights of decolonial studies are beginning to be taken seriously by scholars of religion. The most foundational insight that decolonial scholars have provided to scholars of religion is that the modern study of religion was, and continues to be, informed by the European colonial/imperial enterprise. This has meant that non-Western religious traditions have been subject to the categories and classifications of Western religious experiences. This is precisely what Tareen himself indicates when he challenges the problematic dichotomies of legal/mystical, reformist/nonreformist, and traditional/modern. A decolonial approach to religious studies, which has recently been discussed on the Contending Modernities website, seeks to: (1) reject Western conceptions of religion, (2) reveal the persistent epistemological legacies present within the study of non-Western religions, and (3) incorporate more intentionally colonial/post-colonial voices. Inspired by the work of Edward Said and Talal Asad, a decolonial approach to the study of religion seeks to simultaneously provincialize the West and carefully bring to the fore the neglected intellectual contributions of the colonized.

This decolonial turn in the study of religion, and more specifically, Islamic Studies, is a welcome one that will likely usher in new frameworks and methods that will stimulate the field for years to come. However, as previously neglected voices and frameworks are incorporated into Islamic Studies, scholars of religion will have to play close attention to the ways in which colonial modernity impacted these intellectual frameworks both in terms of their nature and in terms of their content. In the case of the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic, Tareen reveals to the reader the possibility of colonial modernity fundamentally shaping the nature of debates, while the content of these debates remains squarely theological and reflective of intra-Muslim intellectual engagement. Tareen also provides scholars of religion with a blueprint on how to write works that are deeply engaged in the theology and hermeneutics of these debates without losing sight of their socio-political context. But, the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic that Tareen delves into is just one element of a complex and rich colonial intellectual environment. And as other scholars of South Asian Islam will readily note, there were intellectual frameworks articulated by Muslims living under colonial rule that were shaped both in terms of the nature of their framework, and the content of it, by colonial modernity. How do scholars of religion study the thought of these individuals without falling into another dichotomous trap between colonial collaborator versus anti-colonial resistor?

In case of the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic, Tareen reveals to the reader the possibility of colonial modernity fundamentally shaping the nature of debates, while the content of these debates remains squarely theological and reflective of intra-Muslim intellectual engagement.

A question, left unresolved for the readers, is the contemporary nature and content of the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic. As one of Tareen’s intellectual progenitor’s, David Scott, argues, scholarly attention in the postcolonial period should not merely focus on new answers that are articulated, but also the new questions that are being asked. What Scott aims to critique is how postcolonialism continues to “bear the distinctive traces of anticolonialism’s conceptual preoccupation” (6). He argues that different temporal periods reveal different “conceptual-ideological problem-spaces” that generate a new set of questions and demands (7). For him, the postcolonial conceptual-ideological problem-space must be different from the anticolonial one. Returning then to Tareen’s arguments, he acknowledges that colonial modernity and the crisis of sovereignty within the Muslim community contributed to the nature of the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic but did not fundamentally alter its content. But the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic was not one that simply existed during colonial modernity. In the past decades, it has migrated from the colonial period, through anticolonial movements, and has settled as part of everyday religious discourse in postcolonial times. Through this migration, how has the conceptual-ideological problem space of the Deobandī-Barelvī polemic changed? In what ways has its nature and content been affected by the new terrains it has been forced to inhabit? And what does this reveal about another oft-invoked dichotomy, that of rupture versus continuity?

Scholars who carefully engage with Tareen’s book will quickly realize that beyond providing accessible insight into a rich and complicated theological debate that continues to wage on, the book contributes in important methodological ways to religious studies, Islamic studies, South Asian Islam, and the newly burgeoning turn to decolonialize religious studies. In the final chapter of Tareen’s book, “Listening to the Internal ‘Other,’” he ends on the biographical note that throughout the book he has attempted to “listen eagerly and sympathetically to what one might call an internal ‘other.’” He emphasizes that the process of listening attentively is not for the express purpose of agreement, but to “learn from it sympathetically and with humility” (387). It seems that the heart of a decolonial turn in Religious Studies and Islamic Studies, as Tareen poetically notes, necessitates grounding in an intellectual humility that is not simply willing to listen attentively to the “internal other” but moves a step further to listen to the historically “external other” as well.

Sohaira Siddiqui
Sohaira Siddiqui is an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar. She is the author of Law and Politics Under the 'Abbasids: An Intellectual Portrait of al-Juwayni (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and Locating the Shari'a: Legal Fluidity in Theory, History and Practice (Brill, 2019). She has also published numerous articles in Islamic Law and Society, Journal of Islamic Studies, Journal of the American Oriental Society, and Middle East Law and Governance. Her work focuses on the relationship between law, theology and political thought in classical Islam; Islamic law during British colonization; Islamic law in contemporary Muslim societies; and secularism and modernity in relation to Muslims in the West. She has held fellowships at Cambridge University, Tubingen University, and Harvard Law School.

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