Doctrinal Debates in Islam: Beyond Binaries

Megan Eaton Robb on SherAli Tareen

SherAli Tareen’s book is a thrilling panoramic view of Barelwi-Deoband debates that animated the 19th-century reformist milieu and continue to shape the lived experience of Muslims. Building on the work of Talal Asad, the book approaches these movements in terms of “encounter, not communication” to emphasize at every turn the dynamism of the doctrinal debates and the towering figures who mastered them.

Challenging damaging dichotomies between legal and mystical Islam that justify the sinister attempt to place every Muslim into a “good Muslim, bad Muslim” paradigm, Tareen revels in the ambiguities, tensions, and drama of scholarly feuds in the 19th and early 20th centuries. His range of methodological sources is impressive, cutting across Arabic, Persian, and Urdu archives as well as hagiographical accounts and oral histories, genres often under-considered in history of Islam. Attending to the “political and normative work” these unfairly neglected accounts offer access to the “moral fashioning and strategic operation of a discursive tradition.” Tareen demonstrates with aplomb how hagiographical sources can and should sit beside Heidegger to help us understand, for instance, the early 19th-century theologian Shah Muhammad Ismail’s particular brand of masculine zeal and how its emphasis on divine sovereignty provided existential succor to Muslims in the midst of dramatic political transformation.

Tareen does not merely debunk tired dichotomies of legal and mystical, orthodox and heterodox, thinking and feeling; he virtually blasts them apart with descriptions that combine the acuity of careful scholarship with the power of sensory description. In the book’s attention to masculine bodies, battles, and friendships, Tareen attends to Asad’s challenge to religious studies to stop approaching religion as if it were composed strictly of abstract signs and symbols. 

The book’s ambition is breathtaking. Tareen intervenes not only in disciplinary conversations in religious studies, area studies, history, and political science, but also takes aim at pedagogical practice, where the counterproductive dichotomies he critiques have remained embedded.  On the one hand, his critique of the legal/mystical dichotomy is not new. For some time, scholarship in history and area studies has questioned the binary between legal and mystical in South Asian Muslim reformist movements. Barbara Metcalf challenged the received wisdom of this binary in her 1982 work Islamic Revival in British India and Usha Sanyal in her book Ahmad Riza Khan Barelvi: In the Path of the Prophet took seriously Barelvi’s reputation as a scholar alongside his position as a master of the Qadiri Sufi order. Francis Robinson has long emphasized that the Deoband school rejected only particular interpretations of Sufi practices, for instance those that affirmed the ability of a Sufi saint to intercede on man’s behalf. Robinson’s work distinguished between Deoband, on the one hand, and the stricter movements of Ahl-i Hadith and Ahl-i Quran that opposed a broader range of Sufi practices, driving home this point by paraphrasing a statement of the renowned eleventh-century scholar al-Ghazali, that “there was little point to formal learning unless it was imbued with spiritual meaning.” Historians of Islam have been discussing this issue for some time.

On the other hand, despite the work of these influential scholars, Tareen demonstrates in his introduction that the binary remains seductive for scholars, political scientists, and laymen alike. More importantly, the perception of a strict dichotomy pervades the contemporary search for rubrics identifying “good” and “bad” Islam in contemporary American life (pp. 15-16). SherAli Tareen’s work successfully builds on objections to simplistic characterizations of South Asian Islam to demonstrate more clearly the contemporary, negative impact of the legal/mystical binary. Sharply critiquing approaches that equate careful questioning of principles of intercession to wholesale opposition to Sufism among some 19th-century reformist movements, Tareen attends to the dialogue between and among Deobandi and Bareilwi scholars. His careful analysis makes clear that the concepts of divine sovereignty and competing legal imaginaries better index the important contestations between the two reformist schools. At the very least, this book should deal a death blow to the legal/mystical binary across diverse disciplines, inviting more nuanced engagement with what Tareen calls “indigenous” reformist thought (p. 29). The wording of this latter objection links to the book’s decolonial ambitions, and its observation of parallels between the late British Raj and the contemporary United States.  

Tareen implies that the dichotomy of public/private in the British Indian colonial regime, which drove Muslims to rethink and revive aspects of Muslim intellectual tradition, parallels the secular/religious divide of the neo-imperial United States. This comparison becomes particularly apt in the insistence that Sufi Islam is inherently less political than legal approaches and therefore less threatening. The colonial rationales of the contemporary United States and the 19th-century British Raj certainly share texture in their concern to identify and shape acceptable expression of religion. Even so, the slippage between the book’s equating of universalized scientific, rational knowledge and “the secular” merits further reflection, particularly since this equivalence forms part of the book’s raison d’etre.

While the ideal rubric for objective analysis is now secular rather than explicitly Christian, Tomoko Masuzawa (not incidentally, also an intellectual historian who has worked on the late 19th-century advocate for the “science of religion,” Max Müller) has demonstrated how references to the secular in Western contexts work with categories of knowledge that presume the superiority of a liberal, Christian heritage. An explicit reflection on how Christianized conceptions of public/private divides dominant in the British Raj context translated into a contemporary secular rubric for acceptable Islam would have enriched the book’s framing.

Tareen correctly describes a trend in existing scholarship to emphasize “social, institutional, and political histories of South Asian Islam over its “intellectual/textual traditions.” Tareen is right that over-correcting by discarding the huge body of intellectual and textual traditions composed in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic does the field a disservice by “[generating] predictable or stereotypical impressions of South Asian Muslim reformist thought.” This volume goes a long way in redressing the neglect of multilingual conversations among Muslims, particularly. However, rather than scholars’ willful neglect of the “narratives and internal contestations” of intellectuals, the shift away from religion as a semiotic operation over the twentieth century better explains the rise of socio-cultural histories of marginal voices. This shift has coincided with an important attempt to reflect on meaningful silences of subaltern, female, queer, or otherwise marginal voices in religious histories. Tareen is successful in arguing that histories of previously under-documented contemporaries may gain color and life without treating reformists as caricatures of the strict law-man and slipshod mystic. Sensitive and precise scholarship like Defending Muhammad in Modernity is useful for deepening our understanding of the social impact of scholarly debates, demonstrating how the path of doctrinal debates was imbricated in meaningful relationships and political realities.

For instance, in Tareen’s account we learn that the influential twentieth century Deobandi cleric Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi’s defense of the prohibition of the presence of women inside mosques balanced a “conception of time that is constant and unchanging” with a “flexible and dynamic attitude toward law” that meant contemporary contingencies mattered. The fact that Tareen recounts Thanawi’s agile defense without reflecting on how this prohibition impacted women’s lives reflects the character of the source material, in which women were subjects of debate or cautionary tales but rarely authors (see also the debate on women’s deplorable behavior at funeral gatherings discussed on p. 284-6). Tareen’s powerful book demonstrates that debates on women were not only about women, but were just as significantly for their authors a demonstration of the proper understandings of time, space, and custom in a time of dramatic transformation.

This evocative account of Thanawi invites deeper reflection on the social resonances of these vibrant doctrinal debates. As my recent book Print and the Urdu Public has shown, reflection on the nature of time resonated widely in Urdu newspapers published in the late 19th– and early 20th-centuries. Rather than making the argument that cultural histories are unimportant, SherAli Tareen’s nuanced intellectual history opens new avenues of exploration to intellectual as well as social and cultural historians of Islam. 

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Megan Eaton Robb is the Julie and Martin Franklin Assistant Professor in Religious Studies. She teaches courses on South Asian Religions and Gender/Embodiment in Religion. She is primarily a historian of Islam in South Asia, and her work overall investigates Islam in South Asia, viewed from the perspective of Urdu print publics. Her first book, Print and the Urdu Public: Muslims, Newspapers, and Urban Life (2020) focuses on how the changing cultural and political climate of colonial India urged Muslims to expand the influence of existing print networks and make them distinctly Muslim. She has also co-edited, with Ali Usman Qasmi, the book, Muslims Against the Muslim League: Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan (2017).