Beyond Mosque and Madrasa: Everyday Theology in Islam

Kecia Ali on SherAli Tareen

As a new bride and a newish Muslim in the mid-1990s, I spent a lot of time being confused. One of the things I found most perplexing was the divide in my Guyanese in-laws’ extended family about proper comportment during a Qur’an sharif or “reading.” As both names suggest, the core element of these events is recitation from, supplemented by explication of, scripture. Readings commemorate engagements, births, significant wedding anniversaries, and other auspicious occasions such as the purchase of a new home. They also serve as memorials in the wake of a death, supplementing formal funeral prayers. Whatever the occasion, gatherings were and still are—when not prevented by the pandemic—generally reverent but not somber. They would often become downright celebratory once the religious portion concluded and socializing and eating began.

Still, between the Qur’an and the curry there was often a tense moment when the time came to sing Muhammad’s praises. Why? It wasn’t about the Urdu ghazals, which were standard and expected. Rather, it was the contentious issue of how to properly show regard for the Prophet. I never knew if the devout uncle or family friend leading the ceremony would stand up and expect the rest of us to do so—or would remain seated and defy anyone else to rise. Would we hear a mini sermon on the merits of standing in reverence for the Prophet? Or a short but fiery harangue about the dangers of doing so? As a relatively recent convert with no formal training in Islamic studies, I had no context for these disagreements, no understanding of the issue’s history, no clarity about the theological stakes.

As years passed, fewer and fewer gatherings seemed to involve standing. There were other changes too. Aunties’ attire shifted from shalwar kameez and small, gauzy ernies to Arab-style gowns and opaque pinned hijabs. More and more relatives began to refuse meat that wasn’t halal, marking a dramatic change: at my wedding, there was only one person for whom we’d had to order the chicken specially. For a long time, I simply assumed the stay-seated crowd’s victory was a triumph of religio-legal stringency or, perhaps part of the Arabization of desi diaspora Muslim norms.

But as SherAli Tareen so compellingly and convincingly shows in Defending Muhammad in Modernity, not everything is about Saudi Arabia, and not everything can or should be understood as more or less traditional, or more or less in compliance with legal doctrine. Indeed, we do a tremendous disservice to the understanding of Islam and Muslims when we map all disagreements onto an unhelpful spectrum from strict to loose observance, or assume binaries like tradition versus reform or law versus mysticism to say nothing of religion versus culture.

Rejecting such oversimplifications in the service of detailed engagement with the competing, indeed contradictory, rationales underlying a handful of doctrinal disagreements, Tareen makes a compelling case that Barelvi-Deobandi debates “indelibly informed the critical question of what counts as Islam and what counts as a normative Muslim identity in the modern world, in South Asia, and indeed globally.” He engages with the textual legacies of important thinkers and scholars from both groups, revealing the competing theologies that undergird their opposed positions on matters involving remembrance of the Prophet, such as whether and how to celebrate Muhammad’s birthday—or whether to stand in reverence in devotional ceremonies.

Clearly, Tareen is right: these debates have had repercussions in South Asia and its diaspora, beyond the mosque and the madrasa. His study leads me to further questions about how various points of contention and dispute have played out in families and in households, especially where clergy are not directly involved. What have been some of the intra-familial negotiations around ritual and practice? How does political theology intersect household economy? What have been lines of fracture, or of continued connection, among kin and in communities? How do diaspora positions shift the range of possible responses—not takfir, at least in my experience of Indo-Caribbean diaspora contexts, but uneasy coexistence in disagreement? Perhaps a glib oversimplification, but it seems useful to simply note that intra-Muslim debates about belonging and identity have a very different resonance in Western contexts where Muslim minorities (rightly) conceive of themselves as beleaguered by majoritarian white populations.

Tareen’s study also prompts me to ask about how we might discover and account for gendered impacts of doctrinal decisions held, promoted, and enforced by male authorities. (We also have to grapple, as we think about the way gender inflects Muslim discourses and discourses about Muslims, with the feminization of Sufism and masculinization of law, but that’s a separate discussion.) The book occasionally, jarringly, juxtaposes the personal with the theological and the social with the doctrinal. The study opens, in fact, with a Barelvi cleric remarrying numerous couples whose weddings he had invalidated on the basis that they had left Islam by saying funeral prayers behind a Deobandi cleric. (One wonders: did the women also participate in the funeral prayers? Or was this merely, in an interesting reversal of a previous, important Indian debate, the husbands’ apostasy affecting marriages’ validity?) In this incident, we see how communal belonging has public and private dimensions. Tareen quite correctly insists, as he does elsewhere, that these are not diametrically opposed but rather mutually constitutive. Members of both normative orientations saw individual practices as an essential element of social transformation—or, alternately, as a means of holding back undesirable change.

Similar dynamics emerge in Deobandi furor over superstitious and overly extravagant wedding customs. Ashraf ‘Ali Thanvi is, among many other things, a rationalizing reformer; by subjecting such ceremonies to the logic of the ‘ulama’, he’s contributing to a larger discussion about ignorant masses. These masses absolutely include men—he rejects, as Barbara Daly Metcalf has shown, the idea of women as innately and uniquely incapable of rational, disciplined performance of obligations—but some of his examples and analogies, including around the permissibility of the mawlid, are about constraining women’s activity. Tareen presents in close succession objections to a woman’s excessive wailing as part of a funeral procession, women’s presence in the mosques, and excessive wedding preparations, which, to be fair, are not just about women. A similar focus on desirable change structures his discussion of Muhammad’s marriage to Zaynab, in which the Prophet’s “reformist mandate” overshadows any personal desires, sexual or otherwise.

At play throughout Defending Muhammad is the tricky balance between continuity and change, and the contentious debates over who is qualified to determine which is needed, and when. The Prophet is consistently central to the rationales for thinkers’ arguments and gender is a frequent background thread. The two combine on numerous occasions, as with references to the lessons to be drawn from Muhammad’s own marriages for modern Muslim life. Even more broadly, though, there is a mutually reinforcing relationship between appropriate (gendered social) comportment and appropriate worship. Tareen notes in passing that Ahmad Raza Khan held to hierarchical notions of matrimonial suitability—though virtue mattered, “it was imperative for people of noble descent, especially women, to take lineal compatibility into consideration when deciding on the … suitability of a spouse.” This traditionally Hanafi position here is necessary to upholding social norms that provide a stable foundation for emulating and revering the Prophet. But, to return to my questions about women’s perspectives, I want to know if, when, and how women were thinking about choosing spouses outside of this criterion, what familial negotiations might have looked like, and what sources might allow us such glimpses. The way you argue over the dinner table isn’t necessarily the way you argue in a mosque courtyard, or from a pulpit, or in a fatwa.

In sum, Tareen’s accomplishments in this book are remarkable. He shows clearly the mutually antagonistic foundational notions underlying disparate Barelvi and Deobandi positions on everyday practices. He notes that seemingly “arcane and even petty intra-‘ulama’ squabbles over inconsequential matters of theology, law, and ritual were in fact animated by and connected to profound questions of sovereignty, politics, and social order.” What I’m curious about is how these doctrinal positions, informed as they were by cogent rationales and consistent worldviews, played out in everyday life, including in matters of marriage. I’m curious about when and how women acquiesced to or contested various doctrines. And I’m curious, too, about what profound issues they understood to be at stake.

Full Forum

Kecia Ali is Professor of Religion at Boston University, where she teaches a range of classes on Islam. Her research focuses on Islamic law; women and gender; ethics; and biography. In addition to three open-access edited volumes, her books include Sexual Ethics and Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence (2006, expanded ed. 2016), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), Imam Shafi‘i: Scholar and Saint (2011), and The Lives of Muhammad (2014), about modern Muslim and non-Muslim biographies of Islam’s prophet. She co-edited the revised edition of A Guide for Women in Religion, which provides guidance for careers in religious studies and theology (2014). Her research also includes gender, ethics, and popular culture. Ali held research and teaching fellowships at Brandeis University and Harvard Divinity School before joining the BU faculty in 2006. She has served in numerous roles within the American Academy of Religion, where she served on the Board as Status Committee Director from 2016-2018, and is a past president of (2014-2016) of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. You can read more about her work at