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Reviewed by Ali Ahmad

The “house of Islam” was a juristic term formulated by classical Islamic jurisprudence in an effort to understand the medieval world so that Muslim rulers could develop their foreign policy in an age of popes and crusades. Although some legal scholars today claim that the term is now but a remnant of our classical legal heritage, its symbolism nonetheless endures.

Reading The Idea of Islam, the second volume in the Critical Muslim series, it is clear that the “house of Islam” is indeed divided. This is a book that betrays a clear ideological bias and is proud of it. Its co-editor, Ziauddin Sardar, seems to label the whole group of religious scholarship today as “thieves of free will”. If one ever wished to read a powerful, cogent and tenacious statement of Islamic protestantism, where the authority of the jurist and the legal school is assailed, then this is an elegant statement.

It is clear from the contributors and the rhetoric in the book that The Idea of Islam is not for Muslims who see value in traditional scholarship. The tradition, according to Sardar, is but “another prison” that traps and stifles our religious imagination. Parvez Manzoor charges the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence with “devouring morality and ethics and stifling spirituality”, and another contributor, Carool Kernsten, writes in praise of the “heretical” scholarship of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd and others. Sufism is extolled as the saviour of the Islamic tradition and held up as the pious other-worldly defender of Islam against the jurists.

Written powerfully, the book is for middle class professionals who are disillusioned with the orthodoxy and mainstream currents of Muslim discourse and are now seeking alternative avenues of religiosity. Michael Muhammad Knight figures in the book with his musings in praise of the “religious rebel”, woefully misunderstanding the concept and painting the figure of a tragic loner standing at the boundaries of orthodoxy urging others to join him in the unconventional and unfamiliar.

But beyond legal, theological and academic arguments, The Idea of Islam should be read for its tremendous power of personal reflection. Some of the essays, particularly Samia Rahman’s “The Race of Women”, are written with brave honesty, and although I do not agree with all of Rahman’s points, I could not help but admire her insight into a religious community that clearly has problems with women. Stuart Sim’s essay “The Tyranny of Profit” is another delightful read, filled with a raging sense of indignation about the modern world and its corrosive power to condemn any sense of moral direction in commerce and business. Sim’s essay is written with great acumen and was one of the genuinely more informative ones. Other notable reflections include Vinay Lal’s views on Edward Said, the great Palestinian-American intellectual, and Merryl Wyn Davies’s sombre, if not brooding, reflections on a post 9-11 world.

Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab (the other editor of the volume) should be commended for producing a small volume that really packs a punch. The Idea of Islam contains poetry, letters and cultural expositions, along with essays, to really give the reader a comprehensive “idea of Islam”.  The book is an enjoyable read, but it is unrelentingly argumentative and, at times, confrontational. But in spite of my disagreements with some of the points raised in the collection, I believe that a debate about the Islamic legal tradition and the spiritual crisis that currently afflicts an Islamic discourse obsessed with power and emotion, gender dysfunction, intolerance and general intellectual immaturity must be held.

Which brings me to this point: the house of Islam is divided. This book presents only one side of the argument that calls the clergy to book. But where is the other side? Surely there are some intelligent voices amongst the class of jurists and formal scholars as well. More than ever, the house of Islam is deeply divided along ideological lines. More useful would be a collection of essays from differing contributors: for instance, it would be fascinating for some of the more traditionally inclined scholars such as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (a lecturer of Islamic studies at CambridgeUniversity) or Shaykh Hamza Yusuf to write responses to these essays. Some scholars today are articulating views that very much would be in agreement with Sardar’s and this shows that everyone cannot be painted with the same brush. In the Muslim world, particularly in the West, there is a neo-traditionalist trend with representatives like Yusuf who believe that the classical tradition still has much wisdom to yield yet we can reformulate some points of Islamic law. Manzoor, for instance, criticises the legal tradition for replacing spirituality but what about the synthesis of spirituality and jurisprudence pioneered by Imam Al Ghazali and carried on by others? Even amongst early legal scholars, there is clear praise for spiritual discipline and purification.

The dichotomy imagined between the legal tradition (fiqh) and spiritual purification (tasawwuf/Sufism) is hopelessly outdated and holds no real basis in Islam’s scholastic tradition. Books such as Revealed Grace: The Juristic Sufism of Ahmad Sirhindi, Sufism for Non-Sufis?: Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah al-Sakandari’s Taj al-’Arus and Rebel Between Spirit And Law : Ahmad Zarruq, Sainthood, And Authority in Islam meticulously document efforts undertaken by traditional scholars to reconcile fiqh and tasawwuf.

Thus the enduring theme throughout the book that somehow the “law” (fiqh) and “spirituality” (Sufism) are locked in a mortal battle to death is unfounded and it is this critical premise which forms the majority of the more academic reflections in this volume. In this respect, the book presents a naïve, if not crude, argument.

Ultimately, these stylish voices of conscience in The Idea of Islam remain marginal in mainstream Muslim discourse. Although, as Tariq Ramadan has shown, it is possible for Muslim intellectuals to engage communities but only if there is a productive conversation with Islamic scholars and tradition, because tradition is here to stay; to negate it in its entirety is to lock yourself out of the debate.

Critical Muslim Volume 2: The Idea of Islam


Edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Robin Yassin-Kassab

OxfordUniversity Press, Karachi

ISBN 9780199066292

272pp. Rs595