Constructing a Religiously Ideal “Believer” and “Woman” in Islam

Neo traditional Salafi and Progressive Muslims’ Methods of Interpretation

Adis Duderija

Palgrave Macmillan, 10/11/2011                                         
ISBN: 978-0-230-12057-0, ISBN10: 0-230-12057-1, 
5 1/2 x 8 1/4 inches, 288 pages,

Palgrave Series in Islamic Theology, Law, and History

Who or what is a religiously ideal Believer and Woman in Islam? This book identifies, compares, and contrasts how two contemporary Muslim groups here termed Neo-Traditional Salafis and progressive Muslims interpret the Qur’an and Sunna in order to construct what each considers to be a religiously ideal concept of a ‘Believer’ and ‘Woman’ in Islam. This is the first work which systematically focuses on identifying and explaining which interpretational mechanisms are responsible for the often very different interpretations of these two concepts.


“Adis Duderija has comprehensively captured some of the most recent debates in modern Islamic thought on how foundational religious texts are interpreted. In doing so, he has not only rendered a major service to scholarship but he has also distilled the kinds of life-worlds a variety of contemporary Muslim interpreters foster. He is to be commended for this work that will no doubt spark robust debate.”–Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Religion & Islamic Studies, Department of Religion, Duke University


“At best, conceptions of the ‘ideal’ Muslim woman can be inspirational and, at worst, ideological straight-jackets for both real women and for understanding Islam. Adis Duderija does a fine job of exploring the tensions within and between different ideal types and their implications for Muslim women and, let’s face it, for men as well.” –Asma Barlas, Professor and Director, Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, Ithaca College


“This new study by the gifted young scholar, Adis Duderija, substantially raises the bar for all future studies dealing with the issues of fundamentalism, traditionalism, reformism, and authenticity and progress in Muslim thought.” –Khaled Abou El Fadl, Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Professor of Law, Chair of Islamic Studies Program, UCLA School of Law.


Genealogy of Debates on the Relative Status and the Authenticity of the Various Sources of Legal Authority in the Sunni Islamic Tradition

* Neo-Traditional Salafism: Its Main Proponents and Its Manhaj

* The Delineating Features of Pre-Modern Embedded Manahij and Their Interpretational Implications

* NTS ‘Believer’ and ‘Muslim Woman’ Concepts

* Progressive Muslims-Conceptualising and Engaging the Islamic Tradition

* Progressive Muslims’ Model of Interpretation (Manhaj) and Their Interpretational Implications

* Progressive Muslims’ ‘Believer’ and ‘Muslim Woman’ Concepts


Adis Duderija is currently a Research Associate at the Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia, Perth. He has published numerous articles on Islam in different academic journals such as Arab Law QuarterlyHawwa-Journal of the Women of the Middle East and the Islamic WorldIslam and Christian-Muslim RelationsStudies in Contemporary Islam, and Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs.


What’s Your Theology Like? – As Seen Through the Triad of Knowledge, Good Deeds and Spirituality

Middle East Studies Online Journal- ISSN 2109-9618- Issue n°6. Volume 3 ( Summer 2011)

Etudes  du Moyen-Orient. N°6. Volume 3. ( Eté 2011)

.2011دراسات الشرق الأوسط، مجلة فكرية محكمة. العدد السادس . المجلد الثالث صيف


By: Dr.Adis Duderija*

Download the full paper (PDF): What’s Your Theology Like?

It would be  fair  to assert that every religious tradition in human history has highly valued and continues to highly value knowledge, good deeds and spirituality (i.e. in sense of performance of some kind of  religious rituals)  however differently they were/are defined or put into practice.

What is interesting to explore, and this is the aim of this short article, is the idea of the relative importance placed on these three pillars of religious tradition one vis-a-vis the other. This could be accomplished both comparatively (i.e. across different religions) and well as within the various strands of a particular religious tradition. It could also be examined chronologically tracing any possible patterns or shifts in patterns.  An examination of this ‘prioritising’ is useful as it would give us an insight into the ‘ideal’ types of theologies prevalent among the adherents of religious traditions and perhaps be used as a method for developing typologies of theologies.

What I mean by prioritising or the relative importance given to one of the pillars in relation to the other can be best illustrated with the following example. Imagine you had six hours a day to dedicate to expanding your knowledge (not necessarily religious in the narrow term of the word but inclusive of it), doing good deeds or engaging in spiritual rituals? Percentagewise how would you ideally divide this time up? The answer to this question would, in my view, be indicative of the type of theology you subscribe to.

In what follows I‘d like to briefly identify and discuss three different ‘ideal types’ of  theologies prevalent in my religious tradition of Islam today through the lens of this triad of knowledge-good deeds- spirituality. Of course, there is a rich history of ideas pertaining to this problematic in Islamic history, especially in relation to the definition of faith/belief (iman). The views on this problematic can be conceived as a kind of a continuum. One side there were advocates who insisted that good deeds (including the normatively prescribed rituals) were an essential prerequisites of iman with the implication that the failure to perform them was tantamount to apostasy- a crime many considered to be punishable by death. On the other hand there were those who subscribed to the view that a tacit or a verbal expression of proclaiming the faith was considered sufficient to be part of the faith community. My intention here is not to revisit these but to describe, in broad contours, some of the contemporary theologies among Muslims and some of their implications in relation to issues such as nature of revelation and scripture, the relationship between law and ethics and others.

One such theology I call progressive. Progressive theology gives priority to orthopraxis over orthodoxy. This means that it considers performance of good deeds more important  than  acquisition of knowledge leading to ‘correct ‘ faith/belief or that of engaging in ritual . For this type of theology the human and the human condition are central to it. The discussions pertaining to how to arrive at ‘correct belief’, those centring on nature of God and its relationship with the cosmos and the living creation are of secondary importance. Instead, the alleviation of extreme poverty, being on the side of the wretched, marginalised, stigmatised, and the downtrodden is not only considered the purpose and the primary function of religion it is also viewed as an essential prerequisite leading to orthodoxy. This theology, in my understanding of it,  holds that humans are considered to experience the Divine most readily and immediately through their interactions with other human beings rather than by contemplating abstractly on the Divine , observing the nature  or engaging in various spiritual exercises ( i.e. ritual). Furthermore, this theological orientation , in my view, by implication  favours inductive over deductive reasoning/thinking because its foundation and starting point is the world of the  human  condition with its incredible diversity (including the religious)  and complexity which makes it very difficult to think in binary terms (e.g. having salvation –not having salvation).  Furthermore, this theology, by giving primacy to good deeds and to the human and by  being less concerned about knowledge leading to  ‘correct’ belief  is also more likely to be egalitarian eschewing any form of hierarchies , most notably those based on gender , sexual orientation, race or ethnicity.  In addition, it is more likely to be open to and accommodating of the idea  of religious pluralism, i.e. the premise that none of the reified religious traditions made in the crucible of history (as well as those in the present and the future) are capable of objectively and fully capturing the Divine, thus none can claim monopoly over God.  This, in turn, translates into the notion that, according to this progressive theology, the idea of God is not fully graspable to the human either through his intellect, mind, reason or the ‘heart’. By definition it also implies that the sacred scriptures cannot offer us humans an unequivocal, clearly accessible and once and for all valid understanding of God through the simple process of reading/interpretation. Instead, it considers the human interpreter and her subjectivities and contingencies as most significantly determinative of the process of interpretation envisaged as a never ending dynamic process that continually evolves with reason. There is, in other words, an organic and dialectical relationship between revelation and reality. Furthermore, this theology gives precedence to reason- based ethics over law. It insists that law must be in constant service of ethics and that law ought to evolve with evolving ideas about ethics as developed by humanity- and in the post-revelatory period this evolution is exclusively driven by reason/intellect.  Put succinctly, this theology embraces and even thrives on pluralism, diversity and what’s fundamental to all of it, uncertainty. Based on my own observations I consider this to be a minority theological position among contemporary Muslims, especially among the clerical establishment,   but, importantly, a growing one.

The second type of theology can be described as purist.  According to this theology, religion is all about correct belief (i.e. knowledge) and everything else is secondary to it. The central concern for the purists is how to, or put more precisely, from whom to obtain the correct knowledge in order to arrive at correct faith/belief. The nature of legitimate knowledge and its sources is, thus, very specifically defined, delineated and guarded. What follows from this is the idea that this purist theology is fixed centrally on discourses pertaining to God’s essence and nature rather than being focused on the human condition. God is primarily to be found/discovered in the sacred and other canonical scriptures rather then It being experienced through human social intercourses or by contemplating about /on nature and the cosmos. I refer to this as a scripturalist dimension of  purist theology or scripturalism. As a corollary, scripturalism is closely linked to what could be termed positivist legalistic theology which views law as not only more superior to ethics but the very embodiment of it. Furthermore, ethics and reason are considered as not subject to evolution and to possess potential for positive change and growth (i.e. progress).  The law, according to this view, does not have a scripturally independent   objective, underpinning or rationale.  This theology favours, as such, deductive over inductive thinking/reasoning. In its epistemology and methods it resembles natural sciences and eschews uncertainty.  Purist theology also favours decontextualized thought and defines good deeds rather statically and literally-independent of their underlying moral trajectories.  Furthermore, the ‘rights’ of God are defined often as independent of at times in opposition to and always given precedence over to that of the’ rights’ of humans. The purists’   legalistic theology combined with scripturalism  and strong opposition to the possibility of progress defined above also facilitates hierarchical structures, especially those based on religious creed or gender. As a result purist theology shuns religious pluralism, endorses various forms of gender inegaliterianism favouring the prevalent social and cultural customs and conditions of the time of the religious traditions formation and makes forceful theologically exclusivist claims. The scripturalist and decontextualized dimension of purists’ theology also significantly contributes to its strong hermeneutical inclination for narrowing down of legitimate or ‘authentic interpretation’s of the sacred and canonical texts. This theology, in various hues and degrees, in my view has considerable presence among contemporary Muslims.

The last ideal type discussed here is what I refer to as spiritual -ritualistic theology. Here self -introspection and deep meditative-like contemplation takes central stage in contrast to the social human condition (progressive) or that of  the scriptures (purists). This contemplative quality takes often form in the engagement in elaborate rituals and recitation of sacred mantras/formulae either in isolation or in a communal setting. This sort of theology often employs the symbolism of the ‘heart’ as the locus of ‘true’ source of knowledge about God  in contrast to that of the ‘intellect’ or ‘the sacred text’. As history testifies what is interesting about this type of theology is that it can lead or be accommodative of both progressive-like and purist-like theologies. It can function within the confines of ‘the law’ in form of positivist legal theology mentioned above –therefore be purist –like- or transcend it entirely by adopting an ethically underpinned theology of the progressives.

What does the future hold for these three ideal types of theologies? Are certain types going to be more likely to capture the minds and the hearts of the people? This question, of course, remains open. However with the  rise of the moral  consciousness, the noosphere, with its simultaneous  strong focus on the human condition, deep sharing of emotion,  and the embrace of diversity  it seems that the progressive  theology is best equipped for meeting the ‘religious-spiritual’ needs of those humans who identify  themselves to be ‘people of faith’.


* Research Associate University of Melbourne.


Debate: Duderija’s Answer to Marranci

Middle East Studies Online Journal- ISSN 2109-9618- Issue n°4. Volume 2 ( 2011)

Etudes du Moyen-Orient. N°4. Volume 2. 2011.دراسات الشرق الأوسط، مجلة فكرية محكمة. العدد الرابع . المجلد الثاني

Middle East Studies publishes in this issue the debate between Dr. Marrancy and Dr. Duderija, initialized by Duderija’s review of :

G. Marranci’s ‘Jihad Beyond Islam’ and ‘Understanding Muslim Identity: Rethinking Fundamentalism”

(See Issue 3, Volume 1, 2010 of this journal )

Dowload the paper of Duderija (PDF): Joinder to Professor Marranci’s Reply


A brief reflection on the religious justification behind wearing of faceveils (burqa and niqab) and its assumptions

Adis Duderija

A number of heated debates throughout the western liberal democracies have emerged recently over the issue of wearing of burqas and niqabs by Muslim women. In this short piece I would like to offer a brief reflection on the religious justification behind the practice of wearing of burqas and niqabs and the interpretational and other assumptions that underlie the arguments of those who consider it religiously binding.
There is no doubt that those who advocate the wearning of face veil as mandatory base this on a number of ‘authentic’ ( sahih) hadith (reports repotedly going back to the Prophet Muhammad SAS) and the qur’anic verse ( 33:53- other verses such as 33;59 are also used as well but primarily to argue for the covering of the body,including the hair but not the face ) that , although addressing visitors to Prophet’s residence how to deal with the wives of the Prophet , is interpreted as to applying to all the Muslim women on the basis of examplary role of ‘mothers of all believers’.
In addition, those who argue for a religiously binding character of the face veil justify it on the basis of having a particular understading of male and female sexuality that is not Qur’anic but is present in some ‘sahih’ or ‘authentic ‘ hadith. They also adopt the religiously normative character of the burqa/niqab on the basis of a juristic maxim of ‘blocking the means’ that can be found in the Islamic legal theory and its principals literature which argues that anything can potentially lead to a ‘ morally undesirable’ outcome that is forbidded is initself also forbidded .
The question that is not often being asked in a plethora of analyses on the issue of face veil is how many women would choose to wear the face veil ( or how many men would ask/ force them to do so) if they did not think that it was religiously required/mandated or even desirable? This is especially so if an alternative and ‘authenic ‘ (and in my view convincing interpretation) that remains even within the classical methodological and epistemological framework , was to be offered along the following lines.
1. The ‘sahih’ hadith mentioned are isolated hadith ( ahad) and according even to the clasical Islamic legal theory scholarship cannot be used as sources of law.
2. The verse uses the word ‘hijab’ not niqab/burqa and is to be seen in the context of a Prophet who was very much a public figure and virtually had little or no private life-including his wives. Many people would come and go to his place of residence at will. His residence did not have anything like doors we have these days. In addition , his house and the rooms of his wives were in essence part of the larger ‘mosque’ complex. Thus, a very busy place. Perhaps an analogy would be apt here. For example, those parents who have children who have reached puberty surely would ask their kids to not open the parents’ room door when they are in the room UNLESS they were permitted to do so by the parents.
So the purport of the verse ought to be considered in this context. This is actually confirmed by the hadith that classical Islamic tradition has customary associated with the revelation of the verse in question. Namely, the context behind the revelation is the bedroom of the newly wedded pair ( i.e. Prophet Muhammad SAS and his wife Zainab)wishing to protect their intimacy and exclude a third person (a person called Anas ibn Malik –one of the Prophjet’s Companions). In short the occasion behind the revelation according to hadith accounts on the matter ( in a number of variant versions) is that on the wedding night the Prophet was not able to rid himself of several tactless guests who remained lost in conversation during and well after the wedding supper while he wanted to be alone with Zainab on their first wedding night. After several attempts to indirectly let the men know that it was time that they left by walking out of his house into his coutyard, according to the witness of the events Anas ibn malik, the Prophet recited the verse in question ( 33 :53 – O you who believe, do not enter the prophet’s homes unless you are given permission to eat, nor shall you force such an invitation in any manner. If you are invited, you may enter. When you finish eating, you shall leave; do not engage him in lengthy conversations. This used to hurt the prophet, and he was too shy to tell you. But GOD does not shy away from the truth. If you have to ask his wives for something, ask them from behind a barrier. This is purer for your hearts and their hearts. You are not to hurt the messenger of GOD. You shall not marry his wives after him, for this would be a gross offense in the sight of GOD.) Upon pronouncing the verse, the prophet drew a sitr (hadith uses this synonym of the qur’anic word hijab meaning curtin) between himself (and his wife zainab ) and Anas.
3. Classical understanding of male and female sexuality that are not found in the Qur’an were such that women’s body PER SE is seen as morally corrupting ( in contrast to being sexual) and that men are incapable of resisting women as sources of irressitable sexual temptation leading to social and moral chaos ( fitna). There is some evidence of this mindset in some hadith. However, this view of male/female sexuality is EMPIRICALLY UNTRUE and any hadith evidence that is empirically untrue , even according to clasical hadith sciences, cannot be valid even if it is deemed ‘sahih’. I think most of us would agree that is also morally ugly to suggest that women’s bodies are morally corrupting per se.

4. The juridical maxim found in Islamic legal methodology literature of ‘blocking the means’ is also problematic since it is not only the women that have to carry the burden, this method, if extended logically, is extremely draconian and one can justify just about anything on this basis ( e.g. as they do in S. Arabia in case of women drivers, talking over the phone to an unrelated member of the opposite sex or even exchanging letters ). Finally, the classical view of male/female sexuality renders human beinsg incapable of ethical and moral progress , in sense of training one’s moral /ethical compass and undergoing some moral discipline by suggesting that any ‘temptation’ wil inevitalbly lead to morally bad actions. Instead, men are portrayed to always succumb to the source of moral sexual evil that women embody. By subscribing to this view one inadvertedly objectifies women sexually- something that the proponents of this view so quickly accuse the western civilisation of doing. Isn’t this just plain morally ugly ?
In a way it remindes me of what I recently heard on BBC radio in relation to the introduction of sexual education in Malaysian schools. Namely those who opposed it (conservative traditional Muslims) use the arguent that the introduction of sexual education in schools will inevitably increase the sexual activity of the concerned. This is a twisted logic and at times serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Intra-Muslim Dialogue – is it possible?

By Adis Duderija

Having recently established an ‘e journal’ which solely aims to focus on intra Muslim dialogue ( the first comment sent to the website was , may I add predictably so, “Is such a thing possible” ?

This question prompted me to reflect more systematically on (and defend) the decision behind setting up the journal on intra Muslim dialogue.

The very question “Is intra Muslim dialogue possible?” it itself is quite telling of the current circumstances surrounding those who consider themselves to be Muslim and belong the Islamic tradition however you define these two.

The numerous events of ‘sectarian’ or religiously inspired/justified violence and ongoing repression of many Muslim communities by other Muslims in many parts of Muslim majority world, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia- which have resulted in large number of lost lives- justify scepticism and lack of optimism reflected in the comment I received as an editor of the journal.

However, in my view, this rather grim picture ought not deter us from efforts to trying to improve things for the better. Put differently, the alternative status quo is for many a Muslim today no longer acceptable on both moral and religious/theological grounds.

Dialogue between various religious traditions (inter-religious ) and recognition of irreducible religious pluralism has come a long way recently, at least in theory. I say this as someone who has been active in inter-faith dialogue (predominantly between the Abrahamic religious) at grass roots level as well as someone who has an academic interest in the topic.

But dialogue within religious traditions, especially that of a Muslim kind, has not kept pace with that of inter-religious dialogue. Why? This is a fascinating question that requires serious academic research and is of course beyond the pale of this short text. Nevertheless, in my view, many socio-political and economic challenges facing Muslim majority countries are at least in part rooted in failures of engaging in intra-religious dialogue. As such, I believe, currently there is a great need to first develop a scholarly discourse around this theme as the preliminary but absolutely necessary step towards fuller, better appreciation and recognition of vast diversity of Muslim experience based on principles of respect and dignity. Hence, the idea of the journal.

I also believe that now there is out there a critical mass of well intentioned and willing people to make greater intra Muslim dialogue based on mutual respect, dignity and celebration of differences and eschewing all forms of violence a reality!

This good will has, of course, exited before as well. To the best of my knowledge, however, most of the discussions on greater Muslim dialogue have been limited to either academic discussions found in institutionalised and commercialised journals very few non-academics have access to or have been ad hoc attempts by individuals.

Hence, this scholarly journal will be of ‘open access’ type and also have a non-peer reviewed section of ‘opinions, analysis and commentary’ open to all not just those who meet the rigorous standards of academic peer reviewing procedures which are so crucial and central to academic endeavour.
One needs no reminding that the global Muslim community is very diverse in terms of race, language, culture, theological denominations and interpretations of religious texts. A call for intra-Muslim dialogue is therefore not a call for imposition of any interpretational hegemony or a push for ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘orthopraxis’. On contrary a call for intra-Muslim dialogue is based upon the absolute need to facilitate dialogue between various contemporary Muslim schools of thought and build bridges of better understanding between them based on the universal values of mutual respect and dignity.
Of course, intra-religious differences and problems, including that of abuse and violence of various kinds, are not limited to the Islamic tradition. Progress that has been made in other religious traditions with respect to intra-religious dialogue and curbing of religiously inspired violence, abuse and rhetoric should give us hope and encouragement that we as Muslims are also capable of the same.

However what will happen in the future will to a large extent depend upon how we approach this very notion of intra-Muslim dialogue.


Jihad, Fundamentalism, Western Muslims and Islamic Hermeneutics: Review Essay of G. Marranci’s ‘Jihad Beyond Islam’ and ‘Understanding Muslim Identity: Rethinking Fundamentalism’

Middle East Studies Online Journal- ISSN 2109-9618-  ( 2010) Volume 1 No 3

Adis Duderija, Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia

Jihad beyond Islam, 2006, London and New York: Berg. Hardback ISBN 1845201574. Paperback ISBN 1845201582

Understanding Muslim identity: rethinking fundamentalism, Houndsmills, Hampshire, UK, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, iv + 174 pp., 50.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-230-00255-5

Download this paper (PDF): Jihad, Fundamentalism, Western Muslims and Islamic Hermeneutics: Review Essay of G. Marranci’s ‘Jihad Beyond Islam’ and ‘Understanding Muslim Identity: Rethinking Fundamentalism’

The works of Gabrielle Marranci’s “Jihad Beyond Islam” and “Understanding Muslim identity : Rethinking Fundamentalism” are a novel attempt to shift the analyses of discourse pertaining to ‘jihad’ (customarily understood /perceived /interpreted as Islamic terrorism) and ‘Islamic fundamentalism/radicalism’ away from those focusing on cultural and political essentialism , scripturalism and social determinism, to that of exploring the “dynamics of radicalization” by examining the central role of emotions on the processes of identity. Relying on the findings of some recent anthropological studies (Milton and Svasek, 2005), 1 the author’s major contention is that emotions and the feelings that these emotions induce are the key element in defining the behaviours and actions of Western Muslims (rather than their religious tradition, culture and/or society), including their views on jihad, and thus their identity formation. In the words of the author “It is what I feel I am that determines my identity for me” (Marranci 2006, p.10). Marranci refers to this phenomenon as “Emotional Islam” (2009, 20-24).

This reasoning applied to Muslim identity would translate into: It is that I feel that I am a Muslim (indicative of what Marranci terms emotional commitment) which makes me have a Muslim identity and not its imposition by extra-individual elements such as culture or society. Another important and useful distinction that Marranci advocates is that between the self and identity with which he attempts to find the solution to broader anthropological questions regarding issues pertaining to reflexivity, agency and the notion of multiple identities in individual selves. Since my critique will not concern itself with the broader anthropological questions of the relationship between the self, culture and identity, I shall leave them aside for those who are more familiar and better qualified than I am to deal with. Instead I would like to focus on Marranci’s views, explicit or implied, on the role of religious tradition and, in particular its normative texts, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, on understanding Muslim identity among western (born) Muslims, given his overall thesis presented in two books as well as to expose a number of self-contradictions inherent in his overall thesis. I would like firstly to present, chapter by chapter, Marranci’s main arguments in the two books or more precisely the way I understand them and then offer a (hopefully constructive) critique on several fronts.

In the introductory of “Jihad Beyond Islam” chapter Marranci stresses the importance of making a distinction between Muslims and Islam in order to emphasise , unlike what he terms Neo-Orientalists and apologists essentialist approaches, the significance of interpretation and interpretability, or to borrow a phrase often used by those who concern themselves with Qur’anic hermeneutics and Islamic legal theory the Deutungsbedurftigkeit of the primary sources of the Islamic teachings , namely, that of the Qur’an and Sunnah. As such, he highlights the need to study Muslims rather than their sacred texts (Islam) in order to explain their behaviour/actions. He argues that based on his methodology it is his main concern, as a trained anthropologist of religion, to understand and view Muslims as conscious feeling human beings not just as products of their religion. By developing this heuristic Marranci aims to critique and steer away from past but still influential scholars of Muslim societies and cultures such as C. Geertz (1968) and E. Gellner (1981). Marranci, however, goes a step further by saying that Islamic concepts such as jihad are not only subject to various interpretations by Muslims (as well as non-Muslims) but that due to the hostile political and international climate for Muslims and Islam, the “concept of jihad has developed an independent life” that has little to do with its Qur’ano-Sunnahic or for that matter its classical theological (and we should add jurisprudential2) meaning/s (e.g. p.9; p.94, p.114.)

In the second chapter Marranci presents the ‘intellectual phylogeny’ of jihad in the Islamic world in order to emphasise the semantico-contextual changes in the way jihad as a concept has been understood and employed throughout Islamic history. He starts with the Qur’an (and here draws attention to the often overlooked difference in the terminology of the Qur’anic concepts such as qatl, harb and jihad, which are falsely regarded as one and the same) and that of the relevant ‘authentic’ hadith. Then he briefly compares the concept of jihad based on some of the authorities of the classical Islamic tradition to that of the distorted modern concept of jihad as being inextricably linked to the idea of suicide bombers as being firmly embedded in the imagination of both Muslims and non-Muslims. Here, again, he wishes to emphasise the fact that jihad as a concept has been subject to a number of different interpretations dictated by the broader historical, socio-political and cultural circumstances and the intellectual milieu of the Muslim interpreter that defines his or her Muslim identity. As such, he claims that “the mother of all interpretations of jihad-whether political, theological, opportunistic, esoteric or materialistic –is personal identity” (p.30).

The book’s heuristic and methodological novelty and its main thesis are fully explicated in the third chapter. Being essentially ethnographical in nature Marranci’s book departs from the majority of traditional anthropological enterprise ( which largely denies anthropological subjects independent selves by bringing into focus the individual rather than ‘culture’ as the primary locus of anthropological investigation and conceptual analysis (Sökefeld,1999) . It has been documented elsewhere that this heuristic is methodologically sound and especially relevant to the dynamics pertaining to western –born Muslims’ identity formation. This is so because many of them undergo a process of individualization of religious faith and practice that ought not only be seen as a liberation of autonomous selves from the constrains of pre-modern religious tradition embodied in certain social and cultural practices moulding and constraining individual behaviour but also as a result of a production of (post) modern subjects associated with broader social, cultural, political and economic forces in forms of migration, modernization and globalisation which transform religious identities and practices of Western Muslims especially in relation to reproduction of Islamic authority and normativity and the transmission of Islamic knowledge ( Duderija, 2007).

Lamenting the neglect of the importance of emotions on the formation of individual self and identity in anthropological studies, Marranci, relying on recent anthropological theories, argues that the environment (in which he includes the natural, social or cultural elements) can engender emotions (that manifest themselves as observable bodily responses) which in turn provoke feelings affecting the self (which resides in the conscious mind). The impact of emotions and emotion induced feelings can lead the self to take certain actions. Every human being has a stable and individualistic self that needs to be made sense of and expressed in a meaningful manner. This self exists in a relational equilibrium with one’s identity which Marranci defines as the “process that allows human beings to make sense of their [autobiographical] self and to express it” (p.47). Furthermore, the self is expressed through symbols which act as ‘storage units’ to communicate otherwise directly incommunicable inner feelings. The mechanism linking the self and identity is circuit-like (each part affects and produces a change in the other) and self-corrective. This mechanism, however, is also subject to ‘schismogenetic’ processes (a term borrowed from G. Bateson, 2000) defined as “the tendency for individuals to move apart through a systematic and divergent interaction produced by negative feedback’ (p.11). These processes can break the circular system. Certain events or contexts can ‘trap’ people into schismogenetic processes that affect the delicate relationship between the self and identity. The schismogenetic processes, in turn, often are result of ‘circles of panic’. Citing H. Bhaba ( 1994) Marranci asserts that the ‘circle of panic’ “develops when within a community an undefined and a-testable rumour is spread”(p.10), such as the one spreading among contemporary Muslims that Islam and Muslims are under attack or that the West wishes to exterminate Islam and Muslims. The schismogenetic processes may affect the emotions of some Muslims creating disequilibrium and a ‘circuit breaker’ between the self and the identity to produce what Marranci terms ‘acts of identity’. The ‘acts of identity’, such as jihad, derive from a strong emotional reaction to a schismogenetic event and aim to self-correct the delicate mechanism. So jihad becomes an ‘act of identity’, a part of the process of identity itself, that wishes to re-establish the fragile balance between the self and identity. Thus, it loses and no longer has any obvious connection to its religious or the meaning derived from the Islamic tradition (pp.94-95).

In the fourth and subsequent chapters Marranci proclaims his task to be the one of explaining the dynamics through which schismogenetic processes take place and the manner in which ‘circles of panic’ develop and are maintained. He states that the general surroundings in which western Muslims live could influence the degree of schismogenetic process developing in the psyche of western Muslims. I shall only focus on the arguments in the subsequent chapters that have a direct bearing on the question of the factors that could be seen as being responsible for and can cause Muslims to be trapped into these circles of panic, as I wish to critique it later on.

In the fourth chapter in the context of discussing jihad with immigrant men Marranci considers that the migration experience (and the associated change in the role and the status of men as husbands and sons in the family), as well as the legacy of colonialism and post-colonialism, can be considered as one of the factors that could trap some Muslims into the circle of panic. One way of this being done is by the means of inducing guilt into the attendees of the Muslim Friday congregation by emotionally manipulative and eloquent sermons given by khatibs that address the Muslims misfortunes of contemporary Islam’s subjugation and /or humiliation at the hands of the western colonial powers. It is not only the content of the sermon itself , but also the preacher’s general demeanour and external appearance (which is supposed to convey and depict the khatib’s piety and “Islamic “ authentic dress that some Muslims consider to be Sunna) that can have the same desired effect .

In the fifth chapter it is the shocking and disturbing images of Muslim suffering around the world broadcast by Arab satellite channels and other media (such as the internet, DVDs ,audio cassettes etc.) that could engender strong emotional reactions and thus, can generate a schismogenetic effect resulting in jihad being appropriated as ‘an act of identity’.

In the sixth chapter the author deals with the questions over loyalty of western born Muslims to their birth countries, epitomised by the oft repeated question “Are you (British , French, Italian ….) or Muslim, are explored as potentially trapping western born Muslims into ‘a circle of panic’. The seventh chapter does not directly address the question of factors generating schismogenetic processes, but demonstrates that , contrary to much of the previous work on immigrant Muslim women who have been portrayed as voiceless and passive, some Muslim women develop strong ‘jihadi rhetoric’ and can be trapped into the circle of panic just like men. He also notices a very interesting phenomenon ,namely, that of the reverse of the ‘shame-honour complex’3 by confronting their husbands or brothers for not adopting a jihadi rhetoric thus inducing guilt and shame in them and making them feel that they are bad Muslims .Muslim men become the ‘victims’ of Muslim women’s jihadi rhetoric. Also some Muslim women develop this jihadi rhetoric to emphasize the importance and ‘religious virtue’ of women suicide bombers as a continuation of an historically established practice. Indeed, at one point, Marranci suggests that this type of rhetoric could have trapped the first British citizen, suicide bomber Asif Hanif, into the ‘circle of panic’, as he was incited to conduct jihad by his sister’s jihadi rhetoric (pp.133-134).

In the eight chapters Westernophobia in guise of anti-Semitic attitudes among western Muslims is identified as potentially leading to schismogenetic process and the employment of jihad as an ‘act of identity’.

In “Understanding Muslim identity: Rethinking Fundamentalism” Marranci sets out to “engage with an incredibly expanding academic literature’ [on Islamic fundamentalism] that tends to treat religious fundamentalism ‘on the basis of culturalist or social theory discourse” (p. 153). He proceeds to found his analysis on the basis of the same analytical lens adopted in “Jihad beyond Islam”. His main thesis is that fundamentalism must be understood as a process linked to identity and identification and ‘not a thing’ and that theories that take into account the crucial role of emotions, feelings and the environment can explain the phenomenon of fundamentalism, including Islamic fundamentalism, better social determinist and cultural constructivist theories (77-80).

In the very coherently written introduction we are offered an overview of the book’s major themes and the aims and purposes of the book. In the second chapter an impressively comprehensive and well informed engagement with and a critique of relevant existing literature on religious fundamentalism in general, including the problems of terminology, is developed ranging from that with the focus on scripturalism, to social determinism, cultural and political essentialism and to a lesser degree that of psychology ( or social psychology). In this context Marranci criticises these approaches for approaching fundamentalism ‘as a thing’ and not as a process. Marranci argues further that these approaches are marred by fundamental epistemological and methodological weaknesses one called ‘comparative reductionism’ ( i.e. the idea that somehow one can compare and contrast extremely diverse cultures in order to obtain a ‘macro-picture’ as an easy object to test against the Western enlightenment parameters seen as normative ) and ,as a corollary, ‘Eurocentric historical evolutionism’ ( i.e. the notion that European history and its historical trajectories resulting in European style modernity and secularism serve as the sole arbiter and the embodiment of progress and civilisation ). In the third chapter Marranci focuses his attention more specifically to writing on various studies on ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ and laments two things; the lack of anthropological studies of it (especially with the focus on the individual with the exception of a recent study by Q.Wicktorowitz4) as well as the absence of the role of emotions and feelings in the above mentioned processes leading ‘Islamic fundamentalism.’5

In the fourth chapter , relying on the theoretical framework espoused in ‘Jihad beyond Islam” with its emphasis on the role of emotions and feelings in identity Marranci argues , on the basis of some ethnographic material conducted with British Muslim youths , that concepts such as justice and dignity, much like that of jihad , become emotionally charged’ acts of identity’ as a result of ‘certain context and environment’ (p.150) and transform into ideologies of justice and dignity that form part of the fundamentalist process formation. Marranci uses the example of S. Qutb, one of the major ideologues and intellectuals behind the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Movement as a paragon of this type of dynamic at work.

In the fifth chapter Marranci argues, again on the basis of some ethnographic material, that the concept of ideology of justice to that of the ideology of ‘tawhid’ whose essence is also emotional and like that of jihad, justice and dignity is to be associated with the individual’s ‘acts of identity’. Furthermore he argues that according to this dynamic the concept of tawhid is ‘reduced to a rhetorical device that is used to express a narrative of rebellion and a discourse of charisma’ (p.107). In this context he also asserts that the ‘ideology of tawhid’ has dislodged the concept of individual charisma of the Islamic scholar (which he equates with that of the Baraka of Sufi saints) with that of the ummah which becomes the embodiment of a ‘diffused charisma’. By affirming this he argues against the idea, as advocated by Wictorowitz, of the importance of the charisma personified and exemplified in the figure of an Islamic religious leader/scholar in the process of radicalisation of Muslims. The main concern of the sixth chapter , again based partially on ethnographic accounts, is that as a result of the same dynamics that have brought about the existence of ‘emotional Islam’ a discourse focused on the dichotomy between the ‘civilised’ and ‘civilisable’ , thus embracing Huntington’s thesis of the clash of civilisations, be that is embedded in the existential matrix of ‘how to be human’ has emerged among those western Muslims who have entered ‘the circle of panic’ caused by schismogenetic environments. According to this understanding the most serious concern for these Muslims is to have the power to define and live out what it means to be a good human being themselves solely by being a committed Muslim .

I would like to criticize Marranci on one main front, namely on the issue of the way he envisages what role Islamic religious tradition, and its main sources, namely the Qur’an and the Sunnah, play in his main theory of the importance of emotions on identity formation among western (born) Muslims and in this context more specifically the importance of interpretation and interpretational theory in the same. As mentioned previously in the introductory and the second chapter, Marranci’s major thesis is that to truly understand certain key Islamic concepts such as ‘jihad’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ the focus ought not to be on how they are discussed or presented in the Islamic tradition but rather how they have been interpreted and employed thought out Islamic history by the actual agents and makers of the Islamic civilization, the Muslims themselves. This argument, of course, is linked to the broader discussions pertaining to questions such as: is there one (normative) Islam or many species of normative Islams or for that matter many Islams as well as to the issue of whether there can be any Islam without Muslims and vice-versa (Varisco, 2007). This conundrum translates itself into the question whether it makes sense to talk about and make a distinction between the ‘great’ and the ‘little’ traditions, i.e. the scripturalist Islam of the Muslim religious elites and professionals and that of the Volksislam, the rural peasants that Marranci has taken up elsewhere (2007). While Marranci is certainly correct in emphasizing the interpretability of the Islamic tradition, especially its fountainheads, the Qur’an and the Sunnah, by making a statement mentioned earlier that ‘the mother of all interpretation is personal identity’ one wonders whether or not Marranci gives too much leeway to the reader in the process of derivation of meaning/reading. The process of interpretation or derivation of meaning is a result of three factors: the nature of the text, the intention of the author (and the belief or otherwise of its principal discoverability) and that of the reader itself (who has a number of assumptions and is a product of a particular socio-historical and educational context). Because each reader has a different, to borrow Marranci’s terminology, ‘personal identity’, this will affect the process of meaning derivation which will, in turn, reflect itself upon the way the text is interpreted. As such every text or discourse exhibits semiotic polyvalence. That much is agreed. However, the interpretational process is constrained by a number of factors most importantly the nature of the text itself (such as it content, composition, mechanisms of the language it was written in) and the nature of the reader. For example, when readers share many of the factors governing the “nature of a reader” (e.g. same socio-cultural norms or historical context) a notion of “interpretive communities,” that is, a group of individuals who share similar interpretive strategies in reading, arises. These communities of interpretation impose some reading uniformity in an inherently divergent process of meaning derivation, thus curbing and narrowing down alternative readings. In the words of El-Fadl (2001) they “objectify the subjective” and marginalise “unreasonable interpretations”. Hence, commitment to textual polysemy does not mean having to embrace unrestricted interpretational relativism, because texts can withstand only “a limited field of possible constructions” (Ricour, 1981, 213). Furthermore, communities of interpretation can “resist imposed interpretations in details” (Wolterstoff, 1995, 202) and only certain interpretations of texts can be considered as “contextually legitimated” (Eco, 1996, 76-77). Now Marranci in his “Jihad Beyond Islam” asserts on several occasions (p.9, p.94, p.114) that Islamic theological (and I’d again add juristic) discussions and views on jihad are developed independent of and are of no significance on the way his respondents used and developed the rhetoric of jihad. In other words Marranci is prepared to say as noted above that the concept of jihad “has developed a life of its own” and that the religious tradition of Muslims plays little or any role in the way they conceptualise and use the terms. In other words the actor does not even consider nor is constrained in any way neither by the primary texts nor the meanings given to jihad by the subsequent communities of interpretation. In other words using his example of Mr. Hussein, Mr. Hussein is either not aware of or his actions are not constrained by the ‘textual indicators’6 set by the normative teachings and the still widely authoritative classical accumulated tradition (which are interpreted , admittedly, in a number of different ways as they always have been) in relation to jihad . This does not only go against a number of studies , including his own as we shall see below, which have emphasized the growing importance of the scripturalist, and what O.Roy (2004) terms ‘accultural’ Islam ( e.g. Waardenburg, 2000) embodied in the Qur’an and hadith texts among Western born Muslims but his own ethnographic findings.

We see ample evidence of this in Marranci’s own ethnographic material used in both of the books under review. Let’s examine the ethnographic evidence Marranci presents in ‘Jihad beyond Islam’ first. For example, his interview excerpt with Tahar on p.64 in which Tahar cites parts of the Qur’an and the well-known (but controversial in terms of authenticity) hadith of the greater spiritual and the smaller physical or military jihad in order to develop his own interpretation of jihad.

The importance of the Qur’an and hadith on shaping of behaviour of western Muslims is particularly well-illustrated on p.66 where his interviewee Husayn defends the actions of Hamas’ suicide bombers by asserting the following : “I do not have any personal opinion about jihad because the Qur’an and the prophet’s Sunnah [by which he really means hadith – and we will come back to this point later] are neither questionable nor negotiable…Jihad means fighting an enemy , as you can read [pointing to an opened page of Sure 2: 90-1]….jihad is total war and this is clear when Allah says ‘Slay them wherever ye catch them…”. In the same section of the book on the controversial question of the legitimacy of killing innocents Husayn takes recourse to a hadith to deduce that combatant women should also be killed . Elsewhere Husayn is recorded to have stated in the same context “as for children, another hadith explains that jihad should not be stopped because of the presence of women and children or in general what you [talking to Marranci] call civilians.” Another example in which a certain interpretation of the Islamic tradition plays the most important part in shaping Western Muslims views and , at times, actions is that of Haroun, who not only interprets certain Qur’anic verses to label Jews and Christians as unbelievers (kafirun) but resorts to more sophisticated arguments stemming from Islamic legal theory of abrogation (naskh wa mansukh) to ground his interpretation with an aura of authenticity and normativeness and prove his fellow Muslim Ratib wrong who disagrees with him ( Ratib disagrees by also relying on his own interpretation of the primary Islamic teachings(pp.68-70).

In ‘Understanding Muslim Identity’ there is even more evidence of the importance of the sacred and/ or canonical texts on the views and opinions of the respondents.

My point here is not, like many others have, to hastily proclaim that the Islamic tradition condones the killing of innocent civilians (the majority interpretation clearly prohibits it) or that it considers Jews and Christians as unbelievers (again in contrast with the majority view) but to demonstrate two broader points:

1.) Western Muslims increasingly resort to ‘scripturalist normative Islam’ to develop their interpretations of the Islamic tradition. Speaking in the context of Muslims in Europe Waardenburg (2003, 343-345), for example, asserts that what he refers to as the normative character of Islam for Muslims is a social fact and that normative Islam based on literature on Islamic law and its theory (usul-ul-fiqh) has “obtained a new relevance for Muslims living in Western societies,” that it is of “utmost importance” and that is has “practical relevance”. Furthermore, as demonstrated by the hearted exchange of views between Haroun and Ratib in Marranci’s book, this quest for normative Islam in the western context is constantly re-constructed by successive generations of Muslims who appeal to a ‘true ‘normative’ Islam along variant lines so that one is faced with the dilemma of the multiplicity of normative Islams.

2.) Certain interpretations of what Muslims consider to be a normative Islamic teaching plays an important (if not decisive) role in shaping the views and at times actions of Western (born) Muslims. Based on the above I find Marranci’s assertion that jihad among Muslims has developed a life of his own irrespective of the Islamic tradition difficult to accept. His own fieldwork presented in the book is a testament to the contrary. For example, his interviewee Farouq uses Qur’anic and hadith material to define jihad as foremost a spiritual struggle (p.63) or the already above mentioned views of Tahar who considers it a foremost physical, armed struggle as employed by Muslim groups such as Hamas. However, I am not disputing or questioning his overall thesis of the importance of the role of emotions and that of jihad as a preferred ‘act of identity’ but would argue that certain interpretations (manahij) of the Islamic tradition ,and its ahistorical, (semi)-decontextualised and piecemeal Qur’an and hadith –based ones in particular, are employed to either further reinforce and facilitate this process or ,in case of historical and contextualist manahij ,to shield and protect Muslims from falling into the circle of panic.

This leads me to the second larger criticism of Marranci’s ideas, this time more closely related to his main thesis. Namely, as mentioned above in the summary of the third chapter Marranci gives himself the task of explaining which factors influence the degree of schismogenetic processes which could trap a person into Bhaba’s circle of panic. He states that they are all ‘environmental’ (p.51) and, as we saw above, in the subsequent chapters cites the experience of migration , the discourses on (post)colonialism , the questioning of loyalty to the birth countries of western born Muslims and that of westernophobia in the guise of anti-Semitic attitudes. Thus, he does not mention religion or the Islamic tradition at all as playing a part. Having elaborated on the importance of normative Islam/s for western Muslims above I wonder as to why couldn’t the Qur’ano-Sunnahic textual indicants, given their nature, in particular that of the powerful, evocative, emotion stirring Qur’anic discourse be considered as Marrarni’s symbols which affect the self by rousing vigorous emotions inducing feelings that could lead to acts of identity such as that of jihad. This could be especially so if they are manipulated , as Marranci’s own evidence demonstrates and that of Q. Wictorowiz (2005)7 confirms , at the hands of charismatic and eloquent imams who weave their particular approaches to the interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah and Islamic history skilfully into the socio-politically and economically unenviable contemporary reality in which many Muslims find themselves in order to effect and , indeed, question the emotional commitment, and thus the identity of Muslims to Islam. So, in other words, certain interpretations of the Islamic tradition, especially if reinforced by other factors mentioned by Marranci ought to be considered as potentially playing a part in the development of schismogenetic processes that could trap some Muslims into the circle of panic. Again, Marranci’s own fieldwork data confirms this. Muslims who did not fall into the ‘circle of panic’ ,such as Ratib, had developed an interpretation of Qur’an and the Sunnah which ‘prevented’ them from considering suicide bombing , the killing of innocent children or branding Jews and Christians as unbelievers because they were seen as unislamic.

Another criticism I need to level at Marranci is his lack of making a distinction between Sunnah and hadith although he points to the work of I. Goldziher (who considers hadith as being indicative of the prevalent political and socio-cultural context and views of Muslims prevalent during the first two to three centuries of the Islamic calendar rather than deeming them to be the reports that can be historically traced back to the Prophet as the pre-modern Islamic tradition does) and asks for revisiting of his main arguments rather. This has very important implications for the themes discussed here given that as noted above, physical jihad and the killing of innocent civilians are often justified on the basis of hadith as in the case of Husayn. In the second chapter Marranci notices the difference in which the word jihad is employed in the Qur’anic and hadith body of knowledge and examines ‘authentic’ hadith to show that jihad cannot be interpreted as an aggressive war against non-believers. By considering only the works of Sunni scholars of M. Bukhari (d.870 hijri )and his disciple Muslim al-Hajjaj (d. 875 hijri) as being truly ‘authentic’, he is not only partaking in the practice of ‘hadith hurling’, a practice common not only among Muslims but also in scholarly discourses , but he is also excluding other hadith corpuses used by Muslims , (as identified above in the instance of Husayn who argued for the legitimacy of killing of women and children on the basis of a hadith), he falls into the trap of implicitly subscribing to , like many others, the epistemologically and hermeneutically hadith-dependent concept of Sunnah. However, it is very important to note that during the pre-classical, formative period of Islamic thought Sunnah was not epistemologically and hermeneutically independent of hadith, and existed in a hermeneutically symbiotic relationship with the Qur’an (Duderija, 2007; Duderija, 2009).

If what I have argued for holds true, this leaves us with two broad questions, namely:

1. Which factors determine different types of western Muslim identity formation?

2. Which interpretational assumptions are responsible for the development of different interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah?

A modest proposal in relation to the first question has been made where, among other factors, the importance of scriptural hermeneutics has been highlighted (Duderija, 2008). However this can be further fine-tuned with the works of scholars such as Marranci (to incorporate the role of emotions and feelings on identity formation ), Wictorowitz (to highlight the role of the charismatic Muslim scholar ) and R. Hood(jr.), P. Hill and P. Williamson (2005) (the psychological aspect of scriptural formation on development of fundamentalist thought)8 Since the focus of this review article is to draw attention to the importance of the Islamic tradition and its primary sources on identity construction in what follows I’d like to outline the arguments presented by Hood, Hill and Williamson on how scriptural hermeneutics can affect identity formation ? Let me here briefly discuss the theoretical framework of R.W. Hood ( jr.) ,P.C. Hill and W.P.Williamson who in their book ‘The Psychology of Religious Fundamentalism’ (New York, Guilford Press, 2005) have developed a theoretical framework which purports to explain the structure and the processes that lead to what the authors term fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist thought in major scripture-based world religions. The book’s heuristic is based on a sociologico-psychological approach to understanding the phenomenon of fundamentalism as a system of meaning9 that relies exclusively upon a religious text in order to interpret the world and give meaning to all life. The fundamentalist model is based upon the principle of ‘intratextuality’ in which the use of the sacred text as a point of reference for all thoughts and action is adhered to (Ibid, 21). This intratextuality in which reality is interpreted through a sacred text refers to the process of reading a sacred text and is central to fundamentalist thought. Wood, Hill and Williamson argue that the logic of this principle “refers not to content but to process: The Text itself determines how it ought to be read” (Ibid, 22). Thus, the reading or deduction of what the sacred text means or intends to mean comes only from within the text (Ibid.). This is what Wood, Hill and Williamson understand by the term intratextuality. According to this model, the principle of intratextuality is associated with two related components of fundamentalist thought, namely the existence of a sacred text and absolute truths. Based on the principle of intratextuality a certain text is considered sacred and, in turn, only this sacred text is able to specify absolute truths. As a result of this process a dialogic encounter between the reader and the text, based on the principle of intratextuality, emerges. An absolute truth, on the other hand, is that which is essential for maintaining the fundamentalist worldview. This worldview, in turn, is based solely on written, fixed (rather than oral) authoritative text/s within the tradition and is constructed as objective fact or reality. Absolute truths derived from the dialogic process are not subject to any criticism outside the principle of intratextuality. The outside world is viewed through this lens based on the dialogic process of intratextuality. Any “peripheral beliefs” ( of religious or non-religious kind) that fall outside the realm of absolute truths or any extra-intratextually derived interpretive processes are not allowed to penetrate the processes that produce and maintain absolute beliefs that characterise fundamentalist thought. Moreover, a crucial assumption of this fundamentalist thought, argue its authors, is that “one need not subject the revelatory text to “interpretation” in the sense that modern and post-modern literary explore” (Ibid.). They are rejected as “higher criticism” or forms of intertextual criticism considered to be fallible commentaries on an infallible text(Ibid.) Text’s infallibility is , in turn, based on the fact that fundamentalist thought considers the principal discoverability of, in the words of Hirsch , the “authorial intent” or “authorial consciousness”(Ibid.). By the phrase the principal discoverability of the authorial intent is meant the ability of the reader to completely and fully understand authorial intent thus, the view that a reader’s understanding of the author’s intent does not function at the level of interpretation but that author’s intent and that of the reader’s reading of it completely overlap. This view is rejected by modern and post-modern literary criticisms. Furthermore, another feature of this intratextual model is its claim to objective truth that is insisted upon that is not always based upon a literal reading of the text. Wood, Hill and Williamson assert in this context: In fact, an objective understanding of the text requires an appreciation for when it is and when it is not appropriate to treat the text “literally” (Ibid, 193). Fundamentalists only insist that discernment must come from intratextual considerations. In other words, the text itself reveals when it is and it is not appropriate to take it literally. In addition to the intratextual model Wood, Hill and Williamson have developed an intertextual model which aims to describe the structure of non-fundamentalist thought.

According to Wood, Hill and Williamson this model defines modernity and what fundamentalist thought opposes. The principle of inter-textualism maintains that no “single text speaks for itself” (Ibid, 26). Furthermore, according to this model all texts are authoritative and interrelated and are to be involved in the process of deriving truth which is understood as relative truth. The relative truths extend outwardly to peripheral beliefs but these peripheral beliefs “may filter back into the interpretative process and exert continual influence on the understanding of texts and relative truths” (Ibid.). Thus, instead of a single sacred text a number of authoritative texts are consulted that may contain various relative truths. According to Wood, Hill and Williamson this intertextual model “permits and fosters change and openness” (Ibid.). It is important at this point to reiterate that Wood, Hill and Williamson emphasise that in both of their models the principles of inter and intratextuality emerge from the use of sacred or authoritative texts and the process of reading the same (Ibid, 28). As such the work of Hill, Hood and Williamson makes a clear connection between a particular scriptural hermeneutic and the nature of the resultant perceived reality that can lead to a particular formation of self and identity through the processes described by Marranci. However, the work of Williamson, Hill and Hood did not identify specific interpretational assumptions that can lead to the formation of what they term ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘non-fundamentalist thought’. Elsewhere a number of interpretational assumptions governing the interpretational models of two contemporary Muslim ‘groups’ referred to as Neo-Traditional Salafis(NTS) and Progressive Muslims(PM) which have the explanatory power to elucidate the interpretational mechanisms and assumptions underlying certain interpretations (and applied to how they help construct certain ‘normative’ Muslimah images) have been pinpointed and discussed.(Duderija,2007 b,; Duderija 2008) NTS approach to conceptualisation of the nature and interpretation of Qur’ano-Sunnahic teachings can be seen as being primarily based upon the principle of intra-textuality as defined by Wood, Hill and Williamson. PM approach, on the other hand, is in accordance with the inter-textual model.

To the best of my knowledge there is no study yet which would be able to explain why certain interpretations of the Islamic tradition are accepted and or rejected by certain Muslims. Following Wictorowitz and given the accretive-ascriptive a nature of the Islamic tradition ( Souaiaia,2006) I would argue that the role of authoritative and charismatic religious ‘preacher’ or ‘scholar’ whose views can be accessed via a number of different media may they be print-, audio, electronic or T.V. or radio-based plays an important part in this dynamic. If we consider the findings of Marranci we would need also to take into account the importance of factors which potentially can cause schismogenetic processes to come into effect and ‘trap’ Muslims into ‘circles of panic’. In this context I would maintain that the ways in which the Islamic tradition is interpreted should be considered as one of these factors. Lastly and closely linked to the previous point, based on the works of Hood, Hill and Williamson (2005) as well Duderija (2008) in order to better understand the processes of identity construction among (Western) Muslims the researcher should also develop an understanding of the interpretational mechanisms and assumptions underlying certain interpretations of the Islamic tradition that can lead to the formation of certain worldviews and perceptions of reality.

Marranci’s “Jihad Beyond Islam” and ‘Understanding Muslim identity; Rethinking Muslim Fundamentalism” are certainly worthy contributions to our knowledge on identity formation among Western Muslims and that of the dynamics of radicalization, my criticisms notwithstanding. My call for the larger and better recognition of the role of the various interpretations religious tradition in these processes will hopefully not be seen /interpreted as essentialist, but as highlighting the need to improve our understanding of the mechanisms and processes that lead to different interpretational approaches to the Islamic normative sources and how they affect Western (born) Muslims’ identity formation and , as an essential part of that dynamic, how they contribute to the process of radicalization and extremism not just among Western Muslims, but Muslims worldwide.


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1 Such as that of K. Milton and M. Svasek (eds.) , Mixed Emotions : Anthropological Studies of Feelings,Oxford,Berg,2005

2 Jurisprudential because it is Islamic law and Islamic legal theory rather than theology that largely determine the meaning of concepts. For example, any book on fiqh would have a chapter devoted to jihad but to the best of my knowledge theologians who in most cases were jurists as well, rarely discussed jihad in any of its meanings. Of course, Sufi literature developed its own understanding and definition of jihad as an internal spiritual struggle.

3 The victims of the ‘shame-honour complex’ have traditionally been Muslim women either in form of socio-spatial regulatory mechanism being imposed on them (such as segregation, social isolation or wearing of niqab or hijabs, denial of education , work opportunities , choice of marriage partner and/or time of marriage) or at times murder.

4 Q. Wiktorowicz, Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West, Rowman & Litdefield Publishing Group, 2005.

5 Marranci in actual fact refuses to use this terminology as being valid thus I am using the phrase within quotation marks.

6 Phrase used in Islamic, legal theory to convey that primary sources of the Islamic tradition are merely indicators (dalil) and guideposts in the overall process of explication of Islamic law.

7 In his book ‘Radical Islam Rising’ he argues that the main reasons why certain western Muslims have joined the ranks of Al-Qa’ida and other extremist Muslim groups is that they were convinced that the spiritual leaders of these groups were considered as the custodians of the ‘true’ Islamic normative teachings .This again confirms my argument that the Islamic tradition does play a major role in shaping Muslims’ views, behaviour and actions may it be in form of mediation by (charismatic)Islamic preachers.

8 The authors examine how different reading processes of a sacred text (which has the authority to provide meaning, a worldview, or a behavioural code from which his or her life can be lived) can lead to both fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist thought.

9 System of meaning is defined as “a group of beliefs or theories about reality that includes both a world theory (beliefs about others and situations) and a self-theory (beliefs about the self), with connecting propositions between the two sets of beliefs that are important in terms of overall functioning”, Wood, Hill and Williamson (2005), 14.


Historical Influences in the Construction of Religious Identities Among Western Muslims

Middle East Studies Online Journal- ISSN 2109-9618- (2010) Volume 1 N° 3

Research Papers (Main)

Adis Duderija, Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia

Abstract: The aim of this article is to briefly outline the historical development and background behind the construction of distinct Muslim identity (the Self) at both individual and civilisational level ( Islamo-Arab ) vis-à-vis the religious Other (Christian -Western civilisation) and to understand its influence on the processes shaping different identity constructions among Western (born) generations of Muslims. Continue reading


Debates Among Muslims About the Nature of Prophetic Authority

Implications for the Role Of Islam in the World Today

By : Adis Duderija

The contemporary inter-muslim disputes on the nature, character and scope of Prophetic authority centre around the central notion in Islamic thought that of nature of Sunnah and by extension the nature of the Revelation revealed to Prophet Muhammad, namely the Qur’an. These questions in turn are so fundamental that an enormous body of literature has been/ and is still being written in the fields of “Islamic” law, theology, mysticism, politics, philosophy and ethics. It is outside the scope of this written discourse to offer even a brief account of any of these. As such the essay will be selective in nature and try to address issues that are more “pragmatically oriented” or in other words which are more directly relevant to the global political dynamics and the role Muslim societies play in them.

Concept of Sunnah ,or what has been commonly coined as Prophet’s example , existed in pre-Qur’anic Arabia . Over time the concept itself underwent several semantical changes during the development of Muslim creed, as Ansari pointed out lucidly. Sunnah’s initial vagueness and generality in terms of its semantics was increasingly linked to its usage in Islamic Jurisprudence. However it always contained and carried , according to Ansari, a meaning of normativeness in itself. This inherent normativeness of Sunnah as applied to the Prophet confirmed by the Qur’an was to give rise to, inter alia, a multitude of views as to what the actual function of Prophetic figure was along with debates on the sphere of influence prophet was to exert on the believer . Was Prophet a lawgiver,a politician and a statesman or a mere spiritual reformer and an ethico-moral guide ( by the way the same questions can be asked with regards to the nature and aims of Qur’anic revelation) ? In other words to what extent did the concrete socio-historical situation on ground faced by the Prophet dictate /influence his universalist message and vice-versa? The mainstream view of the Muslim creed downplayed the importance of socially contingent elements of Prophetic activity/authority in the development of subsequent “catholic” version of the dogma and elaborated an extensive , largely literalist doctrine of Prophetic authority not restricted to ethico-moral guidance only. The epistemological sources and methodological tools applied to the process of derivation of normative values based on this concept of Sunnah (and thus to the nature of Prophetic authority) saw the Prophetic authority as being all comprehensive, thus not just exerting influence over the fields of ethics and morality ( which one might add has been largely neglected in terms of its systematic elaboration and definition as Prof. F. Rahman argued) but also in the socio-political sense , especially in the area of law.
What are the implications of such a view on nature and scope of Prophetic authority for the role of Islam in the arena of contemporary international politics? Questions such as whether Islam is compatible with democracy, human rights and gender equality ,(post)- modernity and values underlying its worldview ;its views on the nature of the relationship between predominantly Muslim societies and western liberal societies; issues pertaining to non-Muslim minorities in Muslim societies and Muslim minorities in Non-Muslim societies ; institutions of secular nation/state-hood , validity and viability of global governance and other international bodies are some of the most important questions in the international political realm concerning Islam and Muslims today.
Let us briefly explore some of them.


The mainstream Muslim political governance model throughout its history, as embodied by the early Muslim community just after the Prophet’s death, was based on the notion of caliphate ( a qur’anic term pertaining to the role of human beings on earth as viceroys /representatives of God ) which from the very beginning translated itself into a hereditary and dynastical rule of the caliph belonging to a particular tribe or family related to the Prophet in one way or another . There was , in theory, no separation between the religious and the non-religious spheres of governance. The caliph was not only a ruler but also “a shadow of God”( as the tradition puts it) on earth, custodian of revealed knowledge and ensurer of its implementation . In reality, however,the caliph largely assumed a political and military position while the ‘ulama, being under the discretion and the mercy of the caliph, were entrusted the extrapolation and application of what was seen to be as The Divine Law( Shari’ah). The masses, did not take any significant part in the matters of governance and running of the Empire and were not consulted on political or societal issues. The literalist exclusivist interpretation of Prophetic authority as taking place in a spatio-temporal vacuum and it being completely divorced from the reality/historical context in which it unfolded,( during the time of the prophet and the first four “rightly guided” caliphs) , sees the re-establishment of pan-Islamic caliphate as the only form of “Islamic ” government that is in accordance with the concept of Sunnah.

The evidence of caliphate as a the only legitimate form of Muslim government , cannot not be found neither in the Qur’an nor in Sunnah as the Prophet himself , according to the majority view( excluding the Shi’a) did not leave any explicit instructions on what form of government/governance the post-Prophetic Muslim community is to adopt. If anything, the Qur’anic principles of shura ( consultation) and its partial adaptation in early Muslim community ( restricted to a particular tribe or family) in the election of caliphs along with the socio-historical context of its development (e.g. low literacy rates, socially and culturally accepted gender norms) can be seen as valid historical antecedents for the viability of parliamentary democracy , under the aegis of Shari’ah- in a sense of a Divine Law inherently subject to human interpretation-, as a legitimate model of governance in Muslim societies. This view of Islam being essentially compatible with democratic institutions and democratic form of government is of course of immense importance in today’s society if we consider the current debates in Muslim countries , especially in Iraq and Afghanistan where efforts to democratise societies , internally and externally, are currently taking place. The democratising tendencies and the idea of democratisation of a society are slowly gaining ground in other Muslim countries such as S. Arabia but due to the socio-political realities of the world today are they are often forced to take a back-seat given the immediate appeal and simplicity of Salafo-jihadi politics. Additionally, another main obstacle democracy is facing in Muslim societies is that the democracy is largely seen as foreign , western concept that is being imposed on and is at odds with traditional Islamic values. This view is further consolidated by at times direct and explicit involvement of Western countries, such as the USA and Britain, in stipulating and guiding Muslim societies towards democratic -like models of government (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) without taking the will and readiness of the native population into consideration.


During the time of the Prophet apart from the Arab pagans Muslims in Medina were in contact with its large Jewish and smaller Christian communities. Prophet’s attitude towards mom Muslims was largely context dependent . The Qur’an itself bears witness to this in many places. The signing of the peace treaty between various faith communities in Medina soon after the Prophet’s arrival indicated his willingness and readiness for peaceful co-existence. A number of incidents that happened during Prophet’s time in Medina , such as his order to execute the male members of a particular Jewish tribe in Medina after their repeated breaking of an agreement, along with Qur’anic injunctions which often , if taken literal and decontextually, could be seen as ambivalent , even contradictory towards ahl-Kitab ( recipients of previous revelations) resulted in a certain uncertainty and lack of definition as to how the subsequent generations are to approach people belonging to non-Muslim faiths.
It is only after the Prophet’s demise the expanding Muslim Empire was confronted and exposed to the realities beyond the Arab peninsula. The concept of Ahl-Kitab was largely applied to majority of people who, over time, were brought under the rule of the caliph. They did not have same rights and responsibilities as Muslim citizens ( this distinction was also applied to Muslim men and women not just as citizens but also as spouses ) and they enjoyed (limited) religious freedom and protection by the Muslim government as al-dhimmi .
The traditional doctrine developed, among others, specific terminology such as dar-ul-harb ( realm of war) and dar-ul-islam (realm of Islam) designated to particular geographical areas in its relation to the Muslim empire and Muslim populace . These , binary concepts of the world developed a millennium ago, are being coined by certain contemporary Muslim movements in Muslim societies as well as those living in western-democracies as being eternally valid and part of the Prophet’s Sunnah. Thus the west is the dar-ul- harb and inherently antagonistic to Islam as embodied by the Prophet. Muslims duty, according to this dialectic, is either to “convert” the dar-ul harb into dar-ul-islam through missionary ( da’wa) activity or to isolate and distance itself form it (with the exception of in some cases of the sphere of economics) or even engage in military conflict until it itself becomes dar-ul Islam( a rather rare opinion ).

Theories, concepts , policies and views elaborated and accumulated during medieval times pertaining to the Muslim non -Muslim dynamics are largely socio-historically contingent and cannot be applied in the current context and the state of affairs in which the humanity is in. The medieval worldview cannot longer be considered as being faithful to the Prophetic model and action. Prof. Ramadan brings in another concept, namely that of dar-ul-shahada (abode of testimony) to say that Muslims in vast majority of cases , especially but not exclusively in the context of Muslim minorities living in liberal democracies, enjoy constitutional rights as citizens allowing them to remain faithful to their faith and be witness bearers of God .This, in turn ,enables them not only to remain faithful to their religious principles but also to meaningfully engage in the betterment of their societies in accordance with Islamic values that are universalist and socially non-contingent such as social justice, freedom of belief and thought etc.
Thus depending upon the approach and interpretational models of Qur’an and Sunnah the Muslim -Non-Muslim dynamics can take two diametrically opposed pathways, a pathway of peaceful co-existence based on commonly shared values or that of animosity and oppositional dialectics that can seriously affect the future course of international affairs/politics .

The concept of Prophetic authority , its underlying epistemological parameters and methodological tools have occupied a central place among the debates between Muslims ever since the conception of Muslim Ummah. Often the conclusions have been quite diametrically opposed with enormous consequences for not only individuals but also societies at large may they be Muslim or non-Muslim. Author has just scratched the surface by choosing the examples of democracy and Muslim-non-Muslim dynamics as just two of many issues that are of great importance for understanding the role of Islam and Muslims in contemporary international politics ands the future nature of that dynamics.

First published:


‘Interpreting the Qur’an –Towards a Contemporary Approach’

Middle East Studies Online Journal. Issue 3. Volume 1. 2010.

Etudes du Moyen-Orient. N°3. Volume 1. 2010. دراسات الشرق الأوسط، مجلة فكرية محكمة. العدد الثالث . المجلد الأول


By Adis Duderija, School of Social and Cultural Studies, University of Western Australia

Abdullah Saeed, ‘Interpreting the Qur’an –Towards a Contemporary Approach’, Routledge, 2006, p.192.

Download this paper (PDF): ‘Interpreting the Qur’an –Towards a Contemporary Approach’

The book ‘Interpreting the Qur’an –Towards a Contemporary Approach’ by Abdullah Saeed is concerned with outlining of a systematic and coherent model for evaluating some of the traditional concepts in the realm of interpretation of the ethico-legal aspect of the Qur’anic Revelation and advocating for an alternative, what the author terms ‘Contextualist’, approach to Qur’anic interpretation which would provide a more suitable Qur’anic hermeneutic for meeting the contemporary ‘needs of Muslims’ living in both Islamicate and non-Islamicate societies.

Indeed, professor Saeed’s book is to be seen in the broader context of the multifold and perplexing challenges that the present and (post)- modernity pose to the what professor Moosa terms pre-modern intellectual Muslim discourses including the spheres of law, theology, ethics, culture and politics.

All religious traditions based on the notion of Divine scriptures, as professor El-Fadl astutely points out, inevitably need to come to terms with the conundrum of reconciling seemingly paradoxical claims of historicity of Revelation with its claims to universality.

Qur’anic historicity and its ‘Deutungsbeduerftigkeit’ stemming from the actual nature of its content and its genesis have never been denied by the Muslim tradition. This is well attested by vast bodies of literature written by Muslims over the last 14 or so centuries on the Qur’an may that literature be exegetical, jurisprudential, ideological/sectarian or mystical in its orientation. A number of interpretive strategies and methodological tools have been developed in order to deal with the Qur’an’s need for interpretation /meaning. Professor Saeed ‘s aim is in this regard two –fold. Firstly, he aims to outline the attempts of previous generations of Muslims in this process of interpreting and giving meaning to the Qur’anic content, their epistemological and methodological assumptions, strengths and short-comings as they apply to the Qur’anic ethico-legal content. Secondly, based on the identified limits of the medieval epistemology of Qur’anic hermeneutics characterised by what he refers to as Textualist and/or Semi-textualist approaches to Qur’anic interpretation, Saeed proposes and presents a number of new heuristical methods, broadly termed the ‘Contextualist approach’, necessary for a contemporary approach to Qur’anic interpretation.

In order to overcome the what Kamali terms the absence of time-space factor in the fabric of traditional usul-ul fiqh methodology, Saeed discusses a number of methodological tools, some of which have been applied by previous Muslim scholars from various phases of Islamic intellectual heritage, along with their hermeneutical relevance and utility in the contemporary context. In several instances the author emphasises that his approach highlights the methodological and epistemological continuity with the established tradition wherever such is possible as his method should be seen as being firmly based, inspired by and stemming forth from the tradition itself.
After the introductory chapter, the second chapter provides a context on the contemporary debates relating to the issue of Qur’anic interpretation by revisiting the issues which have shaped these discussions from the very genesis of Islamic thought up to the leading contemporary scholars dealing with the issue of Qur’anic interpretation. Additionally, it brings to the fore several issues, which are considered helpful in understanding the context behind the contemporary interpretational debates on the ethico-moral dimensions of the Qur’an.

The third chapter outlines the traditional Muslim understanding of the concept of Revelation as it pertains to the ethico-legal dimension of the Qur’anic text and outlines several new features of a new theory of Revelation based on the earlier identified ‘Contextualist’ approach. This includes a ‘broader understanding of Revelation’ based on a four level system in which “the socio-historical context of revelation is a fundamental element of revelation…[and] is not divorced from the human instrument including the Prophet, and all of the subsequent Muslim communities to this day” all of whom are entitled to expanding upon its understanding.

The fourth chapter examines the traditional textually based interpretation of the Qur’an (tafsir bi al-ma’thur/ bi al- riwayah), its development and the factors responsible for its entrenchment and subsequent elevation to the level of normativeness at the expense of other approaches (such as tafsir bi al-ra’y or reason –based interpretation).

Reason based interpretation is the theme of the fifth chapter. The revelation –reason dynamic has a long history in Islamic thought whose exact relationship is yet to be systematically formulated. In it the author advocates a view of the important role reason-based approach to Qur’anic interpretation can play in contemporary approaches. Author also points to the traditional rooted ness of the practice and discusses its legitimacy and scope.
Chapter six focuses on the issue of flexibility of reading the Qur’anic texts (based on the traditional understanding of the seven ahruf ) and the possibility that out of this practice a support for the notion of flexibility of interpretation can be deduced.

Chapter seven explores the relevance of the traditional discipline of abrogation (naskh) in the ‘Contextualist’ approach to Qur’anic interpretation and identifies it as one of the most powerful arguments and tools for relating Qur’anic ethico-legal rulings to changing needs and circumstances of the Muslims. Here Saeed echoes the view of Kamali who, in the context of the role and nature of naskh in usul ul-fiqh, asserts that:
[A] borgation which was originally meant to maintain harmony between the law and social reality began to be used contrary to its original purpose. The classical jurists advocated abrogation as a juridical doctrine in its own right rather than seeking it as an aid to the role of the time-space factor in the development of law.

In the eight and the ninth chapters, expanding upon the work of El-Fadl and Barlas , Saeed analyses and critiques the ‘Textualist’ approach to the theory of meaning as it applies to the Qur’anic ethico-legal content and argues for the recognition of the approximation, polysemicity and indeterminacy of meaning as a result of the interpretational tension between the author, text and the reader. In line with Arkoun’s theories , a crucial distinction between Qur’an as discourse (text & context – ‘Contextualist’ understanding of the nature of the Qur’an) and Qur’an as merely a text (‘Textualist’ understanding of the nature of the Qur’an) is made. Saeed argues that Qur’an should be seen both as a text and a discourse if Muslims are to understand it’s true character and develop an adequate hermeneutical model of its interpretation.

The socio-historical embeddedness of Qur’anic revelation is the theme of the tenth chapter although the call for the recognition of this dimension of the Qur’anic content is highlighted throughout the book along with the interpretational implications of such recognition, especially on the ethico-legal aspect of Qur’anic revelation. In this context Saeed astutely points out the limitations of the ‘Textualist’ approach to Qur’anic interpretation which was largely restricted to philological considerations reducing Qur’anic language to “purely legal language [which] has, in my [his] view, been one of the most unfortunate events in the history of Qur’anic exegesis . Additionally he asserts that Qur’anic language is primarily ‘ethico-theological’ in nature and that inherent weaknesses pertaining to the methodological and epistemological considerations relating to the asbab al-nuzul and maslaha sciences as espoused by traditional Muslim scholars are unable to lead to the uncovering of higher purposes and objectives (maqasid) of Shari’ah as embodied by the Qur’an and Sunnah. As such, and in line with Arkoun’s works , Saeed prudently advocates for an anthropological approach to Qur’anic interpretation as a part of the overall emphasis for a more meaningful and hermeneutically more prominent role of the socio-historical approach to Qur’anic interpretation.

The major strength behind the socio-historical approach to Qur’anic hermeneutics is based on the premise that this heuristic would allow for a development of a systematic, coherent and hierarchical model of general and universal Qur’anic values which, hermeneutically, would be its most powerful interpretational tools. This is the subject matter of the eleventh chapter. Here Saeed, as in many previous instances, refers to the works of late Fazrul Rahman and his “double movement theory.” In this regard Saeed presents a particularly useful hierarchy/typology of values and a methodology that would help determine whether Qur’anic values are socio-culturally contingent /specific or universal in nature.

In the epilogue major arguments of the book are revisited. Additionally a systematic, multifaceted and hierarchical hermeneutical model of Qur’anic interpretation is presented incorporating all of methods the author outlined were necessary for a contemporary approach to Qur’anic interpretation dispersed throughout the book.

Arguments put by Saeed are based on a very perceptive analysis of traditional usul ul fiqh and tafsir sciences and several features of Saeed’s hermeneutical model are highly original, systematic and coherent in nature. They present a major contribution to the field of Islamic hermeneutics, especially as they relate to what Na’eem terms the much-needed reform of the ‘historical shari’ah’. Saeed’s conscious attempt to remain within the traditional epistemological framework as much as possible will certainly find more sympathy among usually very suspicious and sensitive Muslim masses when it comes to the issues of their religious heritage, especially the Qur’an.

The reviewer has one major reservation with Saeed’s conceptual approach to this study. It pertains to the larger notion of the nature of the relationship and the interplay between the Qur’an, Sunnah and hadith as widely recognised primary sources of Islamic Weltanschauung.

Given the above mentioned ‘Deutungsbedurftigkeit” of the Qur’an and the symbiotic, organic relationship between Qur’an and Sunnah during the pre-classical era of Islamic thought, as the reviewer has argued elsewhere, a systematic and coherent Qur’anic hermeneutical model ought to include and address the issues of the definition, nature and scope of the concept of Sunnah vis a vis- the Qur’an as well as the that of the Sunnah (and thus indirectly the Qur’an) vis-a- vis ahadith body of texts. This is entirely absent from Saeed’s analysis although the implications of this on the development of a systematic and coherent, what a reviewer would refer to as Qur’ano-Sunnahic hermeneutical model (rather then just Qur’anic), are very significant as I’ll attempt to demonstrate below.

During the pre-classical period, contrary to the classical era in which the “canonised” hadith body of literature was considered the sole vehicle of Sunnah’s depository, its deduction and perpetuation, the concept of Sunnah underwent several semantico-contextual changes and was deduced on the basis of variant epistemologico-methodological tools to that of hadith. A significant body of evidence suggests that during the first four generations of Muslims the concept of Sunnah was independent (conceived primarily but not exclusively in form of ‘amal or practice-based Sunnah) both methodologically and epistemologically from that of hadith , thus was conceptually and qualitatively different from it. In other words the nature and the scope of Sunnah was distinct from that of the nature and scope of hadith. Upon Sunnah’s complete conceptual identification with hadith, Sunnah’s organic link and the symbiotic relationship with the Qur’an were severed. A new Hadith –based Sunnah was seen as something additional to, a necessary exegetical supplement to, and explicator of the Qur’an rather than the other side of the same coin. The traditional post-Shafi’i function of Sunnah was based exactly on this reasoning and was expressed in the well-known maxim in Islamic jurisprudence affirming that the Qur’an’s interpretational need of Sunnah (in form of its sole vehicle, the hadith) is greater then the Sunnah’s interpretational need of the Qur’an. Thus, Qur’an was, as Saeed astutely alludes to on several occasions and especially in chapter four, increasingly hermeneutically dependent upon hadith. Since a qualitative distinction between the nature, scope and character of pre-classical and classical concept of Sunnah as the most widely accepted or solely normative sources of Qur’anic interpretation existed, this affected the epistemologico-methodological parameters within which Qur’anic interpretation was possible to be developed. Since pre-classical concept of Sunnah, apart from its ‘amal component, was primarily conceived in form of abstract ethico-moral and/or theological terms, was reason inclusive and was conceptualised in terms of the broader Qur’anic objectives and purposes (maqasid), it permitted a wider interpretational playfield /framework than that based on hadith-dependent Sunnah.

Thus, the definition, nature and scope of Sunnah and its relationship vis –a- vis ahadith body of texts, will inevitably affect how the question of Qur’anic interpretation is going to be approached. Therefore, it is essential that any systematic and coherent Qur’anic interpretational model incorporate a dimension relating to the role and function of Sunnahic and Hadith elements in it. In order to do so addressing the broader question of the definition, nature and scope of Sunnah vis-à-vis the Qur’an and hadith is of paramount importance.

First published in:


Salient Features of Progressive Muslim Thought –Social Justice, Gender Justice and Irreducible Religious pluralism

Middle East Studies Online Journal. Issue 3. Volume 1. 2010.

Etudes du Moyen-Orient. N°3. Volume 1. 2010. دراسات الشرق الأوسط، مجلة فكرية محكمة. العدد الثالث . المجلد الأول

by Adis Duderija

(Paper presented at the World Parliament of Religions Conference, Melbourne,3-9 December 2009)


Download this paper (PDF): Salient Features of Progressive Muslim Thought –Social Justice, Gender Justice and Irreducible Religious pluralism

In my presentation I use the term Progressive Muslims (PM) as that developed and employed by the contributors to the book titled “Progressive Muslims” edited by O.Safi. The book “Progressive Muslims” was: a result of almost an entire year of conversation, dialogue, and debate among the fifteen contributors. It had its real genesis in the aftermath of September 11,2001 in what we [the contributors] saw as the urgent need to raise the level of conversation, and to get away from the standard apologetic presentations of Islam.

The progressive Muslims’ cosmovision’, to use the words of F. Esack one of its leading proponents, is best characterised by its commitments and fidelity to certain ideals, values, practices and objectives that are expressed and take form in a number of different themes.

One of the most prominent of these ideals and practices is the commitment and the engagement of its adherents to what Esack terms ‘principled or prophetic solidarity’ with the marginalized and the oppressed communities of the world which are confronted with the actual context of injustice . This principled solidarity ought not be confused with and must be distinguished from what Esack labels the ‘expedient or situational ethics’ that ‘dominate current Muslim public discourses’ which are strategic, utilitarian, and accommodationist in character. In the words of Esack the primary concerns of Progressive Muslims [r]elate [far more directly] to global structures of oppression whether economic, gender ,sexual etc., and ensuring that the oppressed are once again active agents of history. This fight for us[ Progressive Muslims] involves the centrality of God , the imagining of mankind as al-nas – a carrier of the spirit of God and an appreciation of Islam as a liberatory discourse.

In this context the hegemony of the modern free market–based economics and political and social structures, institutions and powers (“The Empire”)that either support, maintain or are not critical of the (unjust) status quo are strongly resisted and are seen by PM as antithetical to their overall Weltanschauung including their understanding of Islam. This is so because “The Empire” is considered to have brought about the transformation and the reduction of a human (al-insan) ,a carrier of God’s spirit, into a primarily economic consumer ( homo aeconomicus) producing great economic disparities between the majority world of the poor South and the minority world of the rich North. According to Safi this “Empire’ consists of a multitude of forces “among them the oppressive and environmentally destructive forces of multi-national corporations whose interests are now linked to those of neo-imperial, unilateral governments…..that put profit before human rights and ‘strategic interest’ before the dignity of every human being.”

Furthermore, PM wish to bring about the centrality, the uniqueness and inherent worthiness of each and every human being as the recipient and carrier of God’s spirit. This view is perhaps best illustrated with the following statements of Safi [A]t the heart of a progressive Muslim interpretation is a simple yet radical idea: every human life, female or male, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich or poor, “Northern” or “Southern” has exactly the same intrinsic worth.

A progressive Muslim agenda is concerned with the ramifications of the premise that all members of humanity have this same intrinsic worth because, as the Qur’an reminds us, each of us has the breath of God breathed into our being.

The discourse on democracy and human rights stemming from the geographical regions of the Empire’s centre is viewed with great deal of suspicion bacause it is considered often functioning as a “Trojan Horse of Recolonisation”. It is viewed with suspicion also because it is considered not to be living up to its own ethico-moral standards, especially (but not only) in relation to issues directly affecting Muslims.
In this connection one important aspect and objective of being a PM ,argues Esack, is the “speaking truth to power” by engaging : i.) “in relentless self-critique that enables the adherent of PM thought to be true to the ideals of a just society in a way that also prevents his or her co-optation by those who have their own agendas or the expansion of the Empire as their primary reason for wanting to engage Islam”; ii.) engaging the Empire in the light of i.) without jeopardizing the inherent humanity of those comprising it; and iii.) engaging the ummah by confronting those within it who in the guise of protecting Muslim societies from the Empire violate Muslims’ basic human rights.
This means that PM are engaged in a ‘multiple critique’ that “entails a multi-headed approach based on a simultaneous critique of the many communities and discourses Progressive Muslims are positioned in”. It means to challenge, resist and seek to overthrow the structures of injustice regardless of the ideational origins and phylogeny.

In conjunction with the emphasis on the inherent dignity of every human being the values of social and gender justice , and irreducible religious pluralism are the main driving forces behind the PM ethico-religious outlook. As such PM are characterized by their striv[ing] to realize a just and pluralistic society through critically engaging Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism, and a methodology of nonviolent resistance.

Gender justice and equality in particular, play a very important part in the overall PM thought because they are seen as “ a measuring stick for the broader concerns of social justice and pluralism.” Gender justice and equality are ,therefore, regarded as an essential and fundamental feature of progressive Muslim thought. In the words of Safi
…the Muslim community as a whole cannot achieve justice unless justice is guaranteed for Muslim women. In short there can be no progressive interpretation of Islam without gender justice. Gender justice is crucial, indispensable and essential. In the long run any progressive Muslim interpretation will be judged based on the amount of change in gender justice it is able to produce in small and large communities.

As such PM strive for a legitimately recognized Islamic feminism.

At the core of this CPM ‘cosmovision’ is also a very strong emphasis on spirituality and interpersonal relationships based on the teachings of some of the “romantic or idealistic” Sufi ethics of dealing with fellow human beings in a way that “always recall[s] and remember[s] the reflection of Divine Presence and qualities in one another. PM thought can indeed be seen as an intellectualized form of Sufism.
Another important facet of PM thought is its emphasis on grass-roots activism that reflect its ideals and values. In the words of Safi,
A progressive commitment implies by necessity the willingness to remain engaged with the issues of social justice as they unfold at the ground level in the realities of Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Vision and activism are both necessary. Action without vision is doomed from the start/vision without activism quickly becomes irrelevant.

The proponents of PM thought are to be found spread throughout the Muslim and non –Muslim world. Many of the leading PM intellectuals live in the West and teach at western universities. Some of them obtained their graduate and post-graduate qualifications from these institutions and, in some cases, have also received traditional training in the Islamic sciences. In the words of Safi:
unlike their liberal Muslim forefathers, progressive Muslims represent a broad coalition of female and male Muslim activists and intellectuals. One of the distinguishing features of the progressive Muslim movement as the vanguard of Islamic (post)modernism has been the high level of female participation as well as the move to highlight women’s rights as part of a broader engagement with human rights.

Another prominent aspect of PM thought is that besides awarding a vital role to the concept of the socio-cultural embeddedness of certain aspects of the Islamic tradition and its primary sources, ethico-religious considerations are the highest hermeneutical tool in the PM approach to interpretation of the fountainheads of the Islamic teachings, the Qur’an and Sunnah.. As such PM thought is characterized by a “search for moral and humane aspects of Islamic intellectual heritage and is a force against moral lethargy that has crept into it.” Indeed one of its central guiding principles argues El Fadl, another one of the most important proponents of PM thought is “ to reclaim the beautiful in the vast and rich moral tradition of Islam and to discover its moral imperatives.” As part of this approach PM call for a “careful analysis of some of the more complex and foundational presumptions in Muslim legal and ethical philosophy” and the necessary epistemological and paradigm shift in, what Moosa terms, the post-Empire Islam context. In this respect PM thought strongly opposes , accounts for and challenges the “great impoverishment of thought and spirit brought forward by all Muslim literalist-exclusivist groups such as (but not only) Wahhabism.”
Lastly, PM thought places a strong emphasis on irreducible religious and ethnic pluralism where plurality of interpretations of religious texts and religious experiences is considered a norm and the Will of the Creator of all humanity. Each religion is therefore considered to be sui generis and a self-sufficient complete whole operating within its own broader weltanschauung.

O.Safi, Progressive Muslims, op.cit.
Safi, Progressive Muslims, p.18.
See F. Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy and Human Rights Project for Muslim Societies’, in ed. Abdul Aziz Said, M. Abu Nimer and M. Sharify-Fumk, Contemporary Islam-Dynamic not Static, Routledge, London and New York, 2006, pp. 117-129.
Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy’, op.cit, pp. 125-126
Ibid, p. 127
O.Safi, Progressive Muslims, op.cit., p. 3.
Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy’, op.cit, pp. 120-121.
S.Mahmood, ‘Secularism, Hermeneutics, Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation’, Public Culture,Vol.18, No.2, pp.323-347.
F.Esack, ‘Contemporary Democracy’,op.cit., pp.125-126.
O.Safi, Progressive Muslims, op.cit., p.2.
O.Safi,’Challenges and Opportunities for the Progressive Muslim in North America’,op.cit.
O.Safi, ‘What is Progressive Islam?, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, December 2003, pp. 48-49, p.49.
Safi, Progressive Muslims,op.cit.p.7
Safi,’Challenges and Opportunities for the Progressive Muslim in North America’.
See A.Duderija, The Interpretational Implications of Progressive Muslims’ Qur’an and Sunnah Manhaj in relation to Construction of a Normative Muslimah Representation, Journal of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 19,4,2008,409-427.
El-Fadl,’The Ugly’, pp.33-78.
Moosa, ‘The Poetics’, p.3.
Safi, Progressive Muslims,p.8.