Theorizing Modernities article

Smashing Modernity’s Idols and Redeeming our Past(s)

Turkish Muslims are seen performing the first Friday prayer during Ramadan through a balcony railing, April 16, 2021, in the Sabancı Merkez Mosque in Adana, Turkey. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexander Cook. Image via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Redeeming Anthropology

Academics can learn much from the trans-disciplinary work fundamental to Khaled Furani’s book on disciplinarity and the limitations of western epistemologies. Redeeming Anthropology allows us to see beyond the blinders we wear as we trot along the path carved out by an Enlightenment reason. Some of us can’t see the forest for the trees, while some of us might see the forest, but miss the horizon. Others of us are in the cave still watching shadows on walls, perhaps even unaware of the light of the sun itself. Simply put, secular reason limits and defines objects worthy of human knowledge and subsequently leads to a meager and unsatisfying relationship to the fullness of reality and human experience. Perspectives coming from different religious traditions such as the Islamic tradition are different kinds of knowledge. Yet, Islamic knowledge is only valid or acceptable for modern disciplines once it is curated by Reason with a capital R; Reason with a very particular and Eurocentric, and I would say, colonial, genealogy. Furani’s work shows us that the sovereignty given to secular reason maintains hegemonic control of knowledge. Thus, western knowledge gives itself the authority to narrate the stories of “Others” in the past, and tries to shape their present and future.

From my perspective as an Islamic historian and peace studies scholar, I found in Furani’s book an affirmation of the values of interdisciplinarity. We look at the same issue from the vantage point of different disciplines and sometimes it leads to a valuable critique of our own discipline. This fresh view can help us articulate questions that have haunted our work without us being aware of them, as ghosts on the peripheries of our vision. Furani defines anthropology as the study of alterity, or difference, in a world where the role of the divine has been significantly reduced in our politics and social lives; a condition that Nietzsche defined as modernity. In place of the divine, the categories of Reason, Culture, and State become idols for worship, placed on altars to the “infinite” when they are, in fact, finite and limited. 

Historical Reasoning vs. the Past

Fundamentally, Furani reminds us that our idols ultimately reflect ourselves and our relationship to our past. Thus, we find ourselves thinking about how to resolve global problems with deep historical roots from reasonable premises. But we find that others disagree about the facts, historical and otherwise, that we think are perfectly obvious, logical, and reasonable. Furani’s engagement with theology reminds us that “talking about God, the infinite,” as anthropology’s Other is a valuable tool for critiquing the unthinking worship of finite idols that not only do not deserve worship but also dismiss valuable and essential parts of our own humanity as beyond the scope of knowledge itself. Such aspects of humanity include value, truth, aesthetics, and practices of peace and justice. In particular, it includes those humans whose knowledge has been denigrated as irrational, and they themselves  as incapable of producing knowledge at all, never mind that their perspectives may point towards lacunae or aporia in our own assumptions about reason.

Furani’s engagement with theology reminds us that ‘talking about God, the infinite,’ as anthropology’s Other is a valuable tool for critiquing the unthinking worship of finite idols that not only do not deserve worship but also dismiss valuable and essential parts of our own humanity as beyond the scope of knowledge itself.

My own work also deals with the theological within the limits of historical reason. I study cosmologies that oriented thinkers in the pre-modern past, before the secular came into being and formed our disciplines. Shah Wali Allah Dihlawi, a Muslim scholar in 18th century Mughal India, was not “modern” because he was not forced to limit the role of the divine within the scope of his own intellectual tradition. Yet, he was a rare liminal figure whose intellectual oeuvre asked questions of Islamic history that had broad ethical, aesthetic, and social outcomes. He dealt with questions of religious and cultural alterity within the Islamic tradition by engaging the ideas of Greek philosophers, Islamic theologians, and Sufi mystics. Yet, for a modern historian in the academy, there are values and reasonings that Wali Allah holds that create epistemic difficulties. How, for example, does the modern historian read hagiographical material that ascribes true visions to such a figure when oneiromancy in our worldview reflects the interiority of individuals rather than having external causes and consequences? The limits of our reading makes only certain questions possible to answer historically. The texture of the dreams of an eighteenth century mystic lies beyond the scope of historical research, and his solutions to friction between different kinds of Muslim communities are value-laden and inadmissible. Yet, Wali Allah’s work offers rare insights into potential critiques of fundamental values, such as his insistence that the divine cannot be thought of in terms of universals and particulars because these are fundamentally human constructs. [1]

Living Scholars and Living Traditions

What makes working on Muslim thinkers even more fraught is that they are not simply figures of the past; they are constantly referenced and constitute a major anchor for South Asian scholars to this day. In other words, I am writing about a living tradition through a western epistemological lens. There are scholars of Shah Wali Allah in the subcontinent that I rely on, yet their work is categorized as “theological work” and thus can only be selectively included in the Western academy through citations. This is an example of an epistemic injustice for scholars that help buttress the modern academy in invisible ways, on the peripheries of our vision, yet are denied access to it. The historical and the theological are cousins to the anthropological and the sociological. But the family of knowledge is much, much broader than our modern disciplines, and the scope of knowledge is open and infinite.

Furani’s text reminds us that as anthropologists search for difference abroad, historians delve into the past. One is a spatial quest, the other primarily temporal. The questions that arise, however, resonate deeply, because we are all asking a simple question: “Who are we, and even more importantly, who can we be?” For historians who have often fallen prostrate before the state, producing nationalist discourse that deifies the state for the purposes of national unity, that question was answered differently than it is for historians today. [2] From framing India as historically beset by “Muslim invaders” to the trope of secular Indian nationhood being the natural arbiter of “communal” violence between Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians, the state has effectively birthed modernity in South Asia, midwifed by the British presence starting in Shah Wali Allah’s lifetime. It is certainly not the case that there were “pure indigeneous ideas” polluted by “modern British ideas.” Rather, it is that a violent relationship between British and indigenous peoples premised on Western notions of human nature and politics imposed these ideas and organized the subcontinent anew, and that violence continues to express itself in moments of crisis according to the historical logics that gave birth to the state in the first place.[3]

History and Secular Methodology

But if we write a history that decenters the state, what kind of history would we produce? This is a question that historians have taken very seriously in the last twenty years. Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe tries to encapsulate the shortcomings of history in precisely this mode when it tries to focus attention on the agency of non-Europeans in writing their own history. Rather than an obsession with objective Truth, or the “laws of history” and the “rise and fall of civilizations,” a new kind of history tries to engage Indigenous critiques of Euro-American mores, the ethics and aesthetics that these people held that reified a particular human relationship to the environment, and the irresponsibility of modern humans to others. 

Yet calls for Enlightenment reason continue to reverberate in our temples to Reason, the modern university, not only in the United States, but around the world. That view of teleological Reason, one which culminates in carbon copies of Euro-American ideals, limits historians’ perspective on the past. Rather than taking a good hard look in the mirror of history, we end up staring into a funhouse mirror instead, one shaped primarily by a limited view of human nature, the environment, and the divine. This is largely due to the fact that anachronistic modern reason reduces the motivations of a plethora of Others in the past to self-interest, economic profit, religious bigotry, and irrationality. These narratives limit the motivations of humans, suffocates the spirit, and gives meager sustenance to human creativity. These explanations speak much more to our demons today than they offer a candid and impartial view of people in the past. For a richer history that also allows us to become more than we are, historians as well as anthropologists need to smash some idols.

Rather than taking a good hard look in the mirror of history, we end up staring into a funhouse mirror instead, one shaped primarily by a limited view of human nature, the environment, and the divine.

Historians are motivated to dig up the past. Some do it because they apparently just like digging, regardless of where or when they are digging. However, I find it difficult to imagine that the choice of historical queries, the topics of our interests are somehow simultaneously “interests” and yet paradoxically disinterested. Recent generations of historians have thus started digging with an ear towards finding a useful story, a thoughtful parable or allegory, in service to our collective futures. Historians’ work has to engage with the present because their work, in fact, never reaches the past. It is written for living and breathing people today and in the future. Removing misconceptions and misapprehensions of the past and breaking the idols of the present is an admirable part of the work of historians precisely because many historians’ work is deployed in the service of power and ideology.

It is, however, something many historians have long disavowed, saying instead that they represent the Truth as it was, a positivistic conceit that is slowly unravelling in the face of the infinite complexity of the past and our limited ability to access it. [4] Anthropologists, in a similar vein, immerse themselves in the soil of foreign lands. Some of us even excavate the ground for a necromantic fuel made of the long-dead living things: petroleum. All of this digging, albeit “productive,” comes with a series of both epistemic and, importantly, ethical pitfalls. What do anthropologists owe their subjects? How strongly should the historian hammer the idol of the state and whose history do they rewrite? Fossil fuel use allows for unimaginably complex human systems but it causes climate change, endangering the most disadvantaged among us. Who has to bear the burdens of our choices in the world that we live in today? Who reaps the benefits and who has to pay up when those costs come due?

Conclusion: Going Beyond the Limits of Secular Reason

All of us can learn from these epistemic and ethical challenges that Furani places before us. The sovereignty of secular reason limits the questions that can be asked in the modern academy, and binds scholars to a meager and frail view of reality and humanity. What we sacrifice is a complex and creative engagement with our world, but hope is not lost. Even within the sovereign secular dome of modernity, the “theosphere” seeps in, bringing with it alternatives, and glimpses of a world where our disciplines are not entangled within the “epistemic intestines of the modern state.” But with this hope come many new puzzles, quandaries, and contemplations that Furani might guide us through. 

The first question I pose is: Does the concept of idolatry, defined as “a confusion of ends worthy of life’s devotion,” offers us a view of what non-idolatrous worship would look like? Put simply, how would breaking the hold of the State and Reason free us from the plights that we face as a global community? Secondly, what do other disciplines like history, for example, offer anthropology in dismantling the sovereign(s) in modern societies? Are other disciplines less idolatrous than anthropology? Finally, my last question is diagnostic. I think about the issue of idolatrous reason in terms of coloniality. Claude Levi-Strauss notes that “humanity has taken to monoculture, once and for all, and is preparing to produce civilization in bulk,” and reminds us that monoculture was not the express choice of much of humanity (39). These idols/ideals are most often imposed through education and cultural production, and many of the greatest figures of the twentieth century, especially from the Global South, were educated at elite institutions in Europe and North America. That in itself raises many ethical questions, but to revisit the diagnosis: How can institutions decolonize their methods in order to not convert people to the religion of Enlightenment Reason and still retain value in the education that it offers students?

To begin, our curricula will have to engage more honestly with Indigenous critiques of Euro-American values and assumptions. We need to broader our framework for how we understand people’s actions in both the past and the present, and think about the goals of human communities as a naturally diverse and complex set. To think beyond the state, we also need to think about the value and impact of non-state actors in the making of their own history. This means thinking about history as defined by the people that made the decisions, not based on the impact that it had on Euro-Americans’ ideas of self and Other. Not only will epistemic humility and centering of Indigenous voices enrich the disciplines, it may bring about possibilities of mutual learning and self-critique that leads to more enduring and peaceful societies.

[1] Shah Wali Allah Dihlawi, Al-Khayr al-Kathīr (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyya, 2008),19-20.

[2] For classical arguments about the unchanging nature of Hindus under the British, the Muslims as rapacious
invaders with fundamental differences, see Stanley Lane-Poole, Medieval India under Mohammedan Rule (1903).

[3] See Manan Ahmed Asif, The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (2020).

[4] For a high-quality example of early twentieth century scholarship on India, see the work of the Jadunath Sarkar,
Fall of the Mughal Empire (1971).


Khan Shairani
Khan Shairani is a doctoral candidate in Peace Studies and History at the University of Notre Dame. Interested in the intersection between religion and peace, his work ranges from historical to modern engagements with Islamic tradition. His dissertation examines the intellectual legacy of two eighteenth-century Islamic scholars from the Mughal and the Ottoman empires who transformed the epistemologies of classical Islamic thought in response to internal and colonial challenges. In particular, he explores how Muslims can navigate tumultuous times by re-engaging and reviving their tradition. His other research interests include colonialism and post-colonialism, Islamic theosophy and, representations of Muslims in film.

Khan received his undergraduate degree in Arabic Studies and Chinese Studies from Williams College and his Master’s degree in Islamic Studies from Harvard Divinity School. While at Notre Dame, he has been a translator and instructor for the Madrasa Discourses program, an initiative funded by the Templeton Foundation that teaches science and philosophy to Islamic seminary graduates in India and Pakistan. He has also co-founded the Graduate Film Club (FLIC), which attempts to introduce intersectional and diverse cinema to students.

Khan's research has been supported by the Critical Language Scholarship, the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, as well as Notre Dame's Nanovic Institute for European Studies, Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He has also received the Qasid Annual Scholarship for the study of Qur'anic Arabic in Amman, Jordan. His professional affiliations include the American Academy of Religion and the American Oriental Society.

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