'Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace' review: Bridging a gap

For many, critique has been the absent presence in Islam. To practising Muslims, finding ways to negotiate between absolute surrender and rational enquiry has always been a challenge. For those critical of Islam and the Islamist way, the seeming absence of inquiry is used as a stick to beat the Believer with. While the West has had its Renaissance followed by its Age of Reform and Enlightenment and several prolonged periods of intellectual pluralism, Islam and Islamic societies are popularly perceived to be wallowing in a state of perpetual darkness. So widespread is this assumption that Islam is hostile to critique that it is invariably allowed to go unchallenged.

Thoughtful, nuanced, questioning, exploratory, Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace is a brave book and a timely one. At a time when Islam is being seen as ‘uncritical, bigoted, freedom-despising’ at worst and benignly opaque at best not just in the West but in South Asia too, a region that has allowed the most healthy and vigorous traditions of both self-critique and critique of others to thrive and flourish, Irfan Ahmad’s study unpacks the notion of critique and offers multiple ways of seeing several words and expressions that have gained currency in recent times. Using writings in Urdu, Hindi, Farsi and English as also literary sources embedded in qissa-kahani, proverbs, idioms and slangs as well as the works of philosophers and theologians within the Islamic tradition, he looks at the ‘limits’ of freedom of speech, what precisely is a ‘free’ society, resistance to reform, the status of women, the compulsions of someone like Maulana Maududi, founder of the Jamaat-e Islami, to throw off the shackles of ‘spiritless religiosity’ and embark on a project of tanquid va tahquiq (critique and research).

The notion of tanquid, naqd or inteqad — all variations on the theme of criticism — offers an alternative genealogy of critique as reflected in Urdu literature. Ahmad takes on the demi-gods of Urdu criticism in questioning whether literary criticism is a ‘child of Western modernity’ and in their avowed secularism and their wish to distance themselves from the ‘mulla’, are they not whitewashing the ‘truth’ as they see it. Of particular interest, especially in the time we live in, is the light Ahmad shines on the life and work of two remarkable men: Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan known as Frontier Gandhi or Badhshah Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad who in his commentary on the Koran, the Tarjuman-ul-Quran, was at pains to clarify that ‘Allah sent Muhammad not to deny the truth of other religions but to confirm it.’

Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace; Irfan Ahmad, Oxford University Press, ₹1,195.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 9:08:56 PM |

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