Defending Muhammad in Modernity: Forum Introduction

Ali Altaf Mian

This forum on SherAli Tareen’s landmark study, Defending Muhammad in Modernity, illuminates several key terms in the study of religion in the modern world: sovereignty, political theology, and the secular (as both a mode of governance and a form of life). The forum also addresses the following analytical issues: how to read the dialogue of discourse and practice; how to contextualize ideas and rituals without reinforcing historicism; and how to pursue cross-cultural translation of concepts.

In their responses to this book, five scholars of Islam, with disciplinary backgrounds in history, anthropology, and religious studies, highlight Tareen’s innovative insights but also raise a number of questions about his arguments and methodologies. In so doing Kecia Ali, Ali Altaf Mian, Megan Eaton Robb, Mashal Saif, and Noah Salomon prompt Tareen to clarify, and sometimes expand on, his contestations and methodological choices, which he does in a succinct discussion of his thought-provoking work.

Let me make four points by way of introducing readers to the nineteenth century theological polemics Tareen closely reads in Defending Muhammad in Modernity.

First, the theological texts he examines contain discourses that continue to define significant features of contemporary Islam in South Asia and the South Asian diaspora. Tareen builds on postcolonial critiques of religion-making by deftly showing how divine sovereignty and “Indian Muslim identity” have been “mutually co-figured in the discursive space” of theological polemics. 

Second, Tareen’s theological polemics center on God and the Prophet, more precisely the political translatability of “divine omnipotence” and “prophetic authority” in times of shifting sovereignties. In Tareen’s words, the book is a “genealogical exploration of the contingent interactions between shifting conditions (political, institutional, and material) and new modes and forms of discourse on moral questions of authoritative debate and contestation.” 

Third, while Tareen deploys Carl Schmitt’s idea of sovereignty as a juridical logic of exception (the sovereign is the one who decides on the exception to the law), he insinuates that sovereignty in his 19th-century Persian and Urdu sources is also about everyday life and the public management of bodies on the part of non-state actors.

Finally, Tareen contributes to wide-ranging conversations in religious studies and demonstrates how analytical frameworks that privilege secular liberalism and often-invoked binaries, such as “legal/mystical” and “reformist/traditional,” cannot account for the diverse ways in which “religion” was constructed, contested, and practiced by Muslim theological actors in colonial South Asia and beyond.

Full Forum