Islam as Critique: Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Challenge of Modernity, written by Khurram Hussain

In: Journal of Islamic Ethics
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  • 1 McGill University, Montreal, Québec, Canada

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Review of Khurram Hussain, Islam as Critique: Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Challenge of Modernity. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019, 224 pp.

Khurram Hussain’s Islam as Critique: Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Challenge of Modernity is an important and highly original book. At one level, the book is a fresh reading of some of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān’s (d. 1898) most profound intellectual contributions. At another, more important (at least for this reader) level, the book is an elaborate set of reflections on the place of Islam in the West and the place of (the study of) Islamic thought in modernity. The book’s offerings are daring and original, and the style is engaging. There are, inevitably, given the ambition of the project’s claims and the size of the book, areas in which one wishes the book offered a fuller discussion. Similarly, given the bold and very timely nature of the arguments, there are many venues that call for engagement to which we can and should respond. Thus, the book is obvious interest to scholars of South Asian Islam, Islamic thought, and broadly anyone concerned with the crises of modernity and alternative ways of being in the world, which, ideally, should be everyone.

The book advances two primary sets of claims. The first pertains the properly contextualized reading of Khān’s thought as a response to the loss of Muslim sovereignty and identity in the subcontinent following the disastrous events of the mid-nineteenth century. Focusing on one major philosophical question after another, Hussain consistently shows that Khān’s project was an effort to piece together a coherent and viable identity and way of being in the world that systematically eschewed radical or idealized reactions. Because of this careful and constructive nature of the project, Khān was often criticized by those occupying more extreme positions (one can gather that Hussain saw those criticisms as unfounded). The second claim is that Khān’s work highlights a tendency in Islamic thought to critically engage with the project of modernity, in the same vein as Western critics, such as Alasdair MacIntyre (b. 1929), Reinhold Niebuhr (d. 1971), and Hannah Arendt (d. 1975). It follows that Islamic thought should be (intersectionally) included in mainstream conversations on modernity, not merely regarded a provincial or foreign discipline.

The book’s arguments are developed in an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction importantly positions the work within a stream in the contemporary study of Islam that self-identifies as “critical Muslim studies.” This positioning has a twofold implication. First, a close and historically grounded reading of Khān reveals him as one of the earliest and most incisive intellectuals in that tradition. Hussain presents this tradition as an intellectual project that neither completely rejects the modern West, nor uncritically accepts it. We are not provided with a full conceptual account of what is the West and what is modern, although the meaning of the latter becomes clearer in the following chapters. Secondly, this framing of the project allows Hussain to make an “intersectional” contribution to critical Muslim studies using a contrapuntal reading of Khān along with similar Western critics of modernity. The central contribution of this approach is that Islam should be afforded a place in internal Western conversation on modernity and the West, rather than as an alien and foreign object.

The first chapter places Khān’s thought in the context of the gradual fall into the grasp of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent. This chapter squarely positions Khān, like Muḥammad Iqbāl (d. 1938) after him, as an intellectual of Muslim crisis. The crisis Muslims in early-to-mid nineteenth century India experienced, and Khān among them, is an existential one. Once the familiar world order and its epistemological conditions are demolished, they struggle to comprehend their place in the world. Khān’s effort to piece together a form of unity that distinguishes and holds together the thought and practice of Islam in a turbulent time leads him to envision it, according to Hussain, as a form of “grand humanism.” Khān’s mission thus becomes to reconstruct the fragments of Muslim practices into a unique whole, most importantly, perhaps, by removing Muslimhood proper from the actual practices of any given community and elevating it to an ideal. Among the signs of decline Khān wished to eliminate is the assumption of a sharp division between the revealed and the natural. God’s wisdom, in this integrated vision, is to be found in all things, and humans should exert their effort to excel in the immanent world.

The second chapter presents the book’s most significant theoretical account, which would have made it a strong candidate for an extended introductory chapter. Khān’s “humanism,” for Hussain, is not a superficial adoption of some uncritical liberal ideal, but a profound existential engagement and grappling with a moment of crisis: it is an attempt to ascribe meaning to a world in shambles. Hussain’s crucial point in this chapter is that the study of Islam suffers from rhetorical asymmetry, a condition which renders the study of Islamic (and other non-mainstream) traditions provincial, and limits the universal and general engagement with key philosophical conundrums to the canonical traditions in Western thought. This is a major point that identifies perhaps the most crucial challenge facing scholars of Islam today. Hussain’s suggestion is that finding ways of being in the modern world in writings such as Khān’s is bound to address some of Western modernity’s ailments by infusing “genetic diversity” within it.

In the third chapter we find an elaborate “contrapuntal” reading of several key elements of Khān’s thought. Hussain skillfully juxtaposes the thought of Khān in response to forward-looking and backward-looking Muslim reactions to the modern condition with the thought of Niebuhr, with particular emphasis on his ethical, theological and political views. The chapter begins with an account of the tendency towards finality as a deciding feature of the modern project. This tendency either manifests in a belief in the immanent or inevitable end of time, or the drive to return to an ideal and glorious past. Both Niebuhr and Khān wrote against this idealizing tendency, which inevitably comes from a place of rejection of the present as imperfect, in contrast with the perfect future and past, and adopted a form of “realism.” It is worth noting that the use of “moral realism” here is confusing, since the predominant sense of realism in modern meta-ethics is the belief that moral values and judgments are real (existing) things.

The fourth chapter reveals Khān’s political morality, which centers on the re-building of the Muslim polity. Here, Hussain explains Khān’s understanding of jihād as a process of social deliberation aimed at perfecting their moral reasoning and judgment. This is directed both against tendencies to retire religion entirely into the private domain and, on the other extreme, to undertake armed struggle against the British (or “agitation,” as Hussain puts it). Again, this is read “contrapuntally,” or rather, in this case, in sequence, with Hannah Arendt’s idea of reason as socially and politically embedded, rather than internally determined as imagined in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. For Hussain, Khān and Arendt are two examples of intellectuals who operated within the domains of intellectual freedom created in modernity, but were reluctant to accept the state (and, therefore, armed struggle), as a valid purpose.

The fifth chapter provides the final piece of the puzzle: Khān’s idea of tradition. Read in parallel with McIntyre, Khān’s theory of tradition offers a critique of modern knowledge, particularly in its divorce from wisdom. Both MacIntyre and Khān, in Hussain’s account, are figures who responded to the modern-Western tendency to demolish tradition, and to view it as somehow antithetical to reason. Tradition, both in Khān and MacIntyre’s accounts, is rational in the sense that it provides a mechanism through which community carries forward its knowledge in a manner that is imbued with meaning. Thus, Khān, like MacIntyre offers his critique of the modern attitude towards tradition in terms of inseparability of fact and value. Human existence is necessarily imbued with value, and the modern attitude towards knowledge ignores this reality. Tradition, however, in both accounts, tends to be disrupted through sterile modes of relating to authority, such as taqlīd in the Islamic case.

One aspect of the book’s central thesis that we could critically contend with is that it appears to accept “modernity” as an overwhelming reality. We could critique and negotiate our place within it, but nothing suggests that we could or should reverse or overcome it, as daring as many of Khān’s substantive positions may appear. In both Khān and Hussain’s accounts, which are not always easy to distinguish, it seems that “modernity” is characterized through as a series of features. Khān sometimes accepts and often proposes to alter such features. For example, Khān (and, by implication, Hussain) admires scientific advancement and the freedom of thought and expression that modernity brought with it, but does not accept its wholesale rejection of tradition, the assumption of moral and historical finality, and modernity’s conception of knowledge. There is, in a sense, a deep or true modernity in which Khān’s unified vision of Islam participates, and from which Muslim societies had deviated prior to the advent of colonialism. The West embodies this modernity, but only imperfectly. What follows is that the goal of scholars of Islam should be to seek at place inside the West’s reflections on how to reform modernity. This conclusion warrants some questions: if modernity is a global and inescapable condition, what is the value of seeing Muslim critical studies as “internal” to the West, rather than a global, universal movement? And, more importantly, at what point does critique of modernity stop being a polite “intersectional” suggestion aimed to generate “genetic diversity,” and start becoming a radical re-imagination of remote possibilities?

The second question, I believe, emerges from an unresolved tension concerning the exact depth of this critique, and the ways in which “Islam” and “modernity” could be broken down into smaller components, rearranged, and eventually joined. In an important passage, Hussain writes: “Modernity was [for Khān] another name for Islam, not a condition for judgment on Islam. This is a grand reversal!” In this section (44–45) we get the image that, rather than asking whether “Islam” measures up to “modernity,” Khān re-imagines modernity in Islamic terms. One wonders in this context if Islam, understood as fundamental unity, is so broad and malleable that it fits the mold of the epistemic and value system that is dominant at the time, or if there are other essential features of Islam’s message besides unity that might put it at odds with Western modernity’s most basic material and epistemological conditions. For example, Khān appears to go to great lengths to abandon the idea, prevalent in classical theology, that divine revelation was a uniquely miraculous occurrence, in sharp contrast with anything immanent or this-worldly. This appears as a significant concession to secular rationality. All of God’s creation, Khān argues, is a miracle, and the Qurʾān is miraculous because of its message of guidance, not the circumstances of its revelation, or its style and rhetoric. But this concession overlooks another kind of conceptual unity in the Islamic tradition, one in which miracle played an important role in justifying and holding together the pre-colonial social order. The discussion of whether revelation was authoritative because of its nature or its content was foundational to pre-colonial Islamic thought and socio-political organization, and reversing it is not a merely peaceful act of reform, but rather a radical act of transformation.

The “great reversal” required breaking apart different pre-colonial components of the Islamic tradition, but also modernity had to receive a similar treatment. For example, Khān does not appear to accept the presence of structural links between the kind of freedom granted in Western civil society and the material conditions that make up the state. We should feel free to admire the first and abhor the second, which, by implication, means that Muslims ought to blame themselves for not attaining a similar level of civil freedom, thus resulting in an intellectual stagnation that ultimately ended in collapse. What this image fails to entertain is the possibility that the freedom observed in the West is shaped and highly conditioned by the material structures of power that surround and continue to rely upon it for their perpetuation. Similarly, this does not entertain the possibility, despite a defense of “tradition,” that what appeared as stagnation was in fact a mechanism of production and maintenance of authority and civil society in a pre-nation state world.

Certainly, these are open questions, and it is undoubtedly legitimate to attempt partial critiques of major traditions of worldviews. We can still wonder about the exact extent of this critique. If the breakdown of tradition, the separation of knowledge from value, and the rigid belief in unidirectional progress, are deep epistemological conditions that plague modern communities globally, then perhaps what should follow is not a mere permission to allow contributions drawing on the Islamic tradition and identity a place in the conversation. We should rather be urgently re-imagining alternative universalities and envisioning possible breaks with the present crises in a world in which we already are major agents, regardless of the way any conversation is framed, in the West or elsewhere. Of course, these are some of the most difficult and pressing questions of our times, and we should be infinitely grateful to Hussain for this bold, original, and intelligent contribution.

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