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The Brink

The Multiplicity of the Premodern Islamic Tradition

The school of Talal Asad has identified virtue ethics as the primary model constituting the continuity of premodern Muslim thought with movements of the modern period. But is this model really the most characteristic common denominator of premodern Islamic thought?

The “Asadian school” has envisioned the continuity of modern Islamic forms of piety with the pre-modern Islamic tradition in two fundamental ways that stand in potential tension with each other.  One is the famous idea of Islam as a “discursive tradition” whose trans-temporal continuity is constituted not by the transmission of static doctrines or practices, but by an ongoing debate about the right way to enact Islam: Alasdair MacIntyre’s “argument extended through time.”  In this view, as Junaid Quadri has recently noted, even when modern Muslim scholars diverge from premodern precedents, “that disagreement or difference is what makes [their opinions] part of the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence.”[1] While this strand of argumentation emphasizes diversity and disputation as constitutive features of Islamic tradition, an equally pervasive aspect of the Asadian model emphasizes the centrality and persistence of a specific approach to piety that does not appear to be subject to fundamental variation or dispute.  This approach (informed in part by MacIntyre’s focus on virtue ethics) is characterized by an emphasis on Islamic law and piety as means of ethical cultivation, on ritual as a means to the embodied habituation of moral dispositions, and on pedagogy and moral correction (nasīḥa, “advice,” and ḥisba, “forbidding the wrong”) as social technologies of moral formation. In these brief comments, I’d like to focus on this second component of the Asadian model and suggest that it should itself be understood to be subject to the kind of diversity, disputation and transformation over time implied by Asad’s model of the “discursive tradition.”  It should not be used as a criterion or a diagnostic for continuity with premodern forms of Islamic piety.

To the extent that Asad cites Islamic primary sources to elucidate his model of Islamic piety as virtue ethics, they are uniformly modern (with a modest degree of engagement with secondary sources addressing earlier periods).  For example, his analysis of “‘Sharīʿa’ as a traditional discipline” is based on selected elements of an 1899 work by Muhammad ‘Abduh, whose emphasis on the Shariʿa as “a way for individuals to discipline their life together as Muslims” and “develop virtue as a habitus” Asad singles out as continuous with medieval views.[2] Here the centrality of virtue ethics is used as a criterion to excavate “premodern” content from a modern text. A later discussion of “the Islamic concept of tradition” is based a series of conversations with an Azhari shaykh in 2009, from which it extracts the same central themes.[3] Agrama’s account of the medieval institution of ḥisba, which presents the same model, is centrally based on two primary sources from the late twentieth century.[4] Ultimately, I believe the issue is less that these works do a poor job of historically grounding their vision of premodern Islamic piety than that this is not their central objective.  The role of the medieval Islamic tradition for Asad is something like that of the classical tradition for Foucault: although its historical accuracy is subject to debate (or at least to elaboration and refinement), its major function is not to make detailed statements about the past but to offer viable alternatives to liberal conceptual frameworks in the present. Nevertheless, to the extent that claims about the past are doing significant work in these analyses, it still behooves us to ask what insights might emerge if we addressed a wider set of evidence.

The first thing to emphasize is that the model of “classical” Islamic piety posited by the Asad school has been persuasive, in part, because it genuinely resonates with major components of the tradition as it is known through premodern texts.  However, as a medievalist, I would take issue with the extent to which the model has been generalized for the premodern period as a whole.  One example of the overgeneralization of the virtue-ethics model would be Agrama’s characterization of tazkiyya (determination of probity, as a criterion for both hadith transmitters and court witnesses) as belonging among “many well-developed techniques of moral inquiry and criticism that were characteristic of the Shari‘a and that were meant to secure and maintain various virtues …”[5] This interpretation supports Agrama’s overall view of the Shari’a as a form of “moral inquiry” (a phrase he repeats fifteen times in the chapter) but does not reflect the current scholarly view that (in the words of Jonathan A.C. Brown) “determining if someone was reliable or not had little to do with any personal experience with their character, its flaws, or fine qualities. Ultimately, it was the analysis of the body of their transmissions for corroboration that determined their accuracy (ḍabṭ) and thus their station.”[6] The point, of course, is not that classical Muslim scholars were unconcerned with matters of personal virtue, but that this theme does not exhaustively represent their pious projects or epistemologies.

The premodern scholar whose ideas are most closely evoked by Asadian model is Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111). In works such as Ihyaʾ ʿulum al-din he synthesizes Islamic law with a program of moral self-refinement informed by both Sufism and philosophy; he emphasizes the role of embodied Islamic rituals in inculcating the virtues, and presents an unprecedentedly sweeping vision of ḥisba that resonates with the Asadian emphasis on moral criticism. [7] Despite al-Ghazali’s stature, however, he does not represent an uncontested view of premodern Islamic piety, but wrote from a position of energetic dissent from the religious status quo.  His morally infused ʿilm al-ākhira (“discipline of the afterlife”) is positioned in overt contrast with the existing discipline of fiqh (Islamic law as known through its human interpreters), whose function (he asserts) is merely to preserve social order in an imperfect world.[8] In short, al-Ghazali’s synthesis does not represent classical Islamic piety per se, but a specific (if influential) strand in a conversation about the interrelation of law, morality and salvation that was as vigorous and varied as any other aspect of the Islamic discursive tradition. As Kenneth Garden has argued, al-Ghazali also represents a distinctive and historically specific attitude towards the relationship between the cultivation of personal piety and the coercive power of the ruler. Having witnessed the sudden and catastrophic collapse of the awesome power of the Saljuq sultans in the 1090’s, “he began to formulate a new relationship between the pious individual and the government….  Rather than politics guaranteeing a stable environment for the pursuit of individual piety, it was individual piety that would be responsible for guiding the ruler to rule justly.”[9]

Furthermore, even Ghazali is perhaps not best read as promoting a view of Islamic piety systematically organized around the cultivation of virtues. Khaled Fahmy has already observed that rather than constituting purely a “practice of moral criticism,”[10] the classical model of ḥisba – including that of al-Ghazali — also involved coercion and violence.[11] More fundamentally, one might question how centrally Ghazali’s model of ḥisba in fact revolves around the production of moral selves. He emphasizes that ḥisba is a duty even when its object is not mentally competent and there are no onlookers to be edified by the spectacle.[12] In Ghazali’s discussion of ḥisba it is notable that virtues are rarely invoked, while a concern with the interdiction individual bad actions is pervasive.[13] Ḥisba  is obligatory not (or not only) for the moral improvement of people, but for the vindication of the rights of God. In several intentionally provocative hypotheticals, this framework leads him to endorse such acts of ḥisba as killing someone to prevent him from severing one of his own limbs (an example discussed by Fahmy) or exhorting a woman to cover her head while one is raping her.[14] Al-Ghazali emphatically acknowledges that the latter example is morally repugnant but uses it to drive home the point that interdiction of a forbidden act is an end in itself. He also characterizes ḥisba as an act of devotion (qurba) that yields otherworldly reward (thawāb). [15]These are considerations that, while compatible with the pursuit of personal and social virtue, are meaningfully distinct from it.  Indeed, the earning of merit is a lastingly pervasive framework across different forms of Islamic piety that bears little relation to (and is sometimes in overt tension with) a concern for the cultivation of the self.

Not only was al-Ghazali’s intervention complex and controversial in its own time; as several studies of the Ottoman period have demonstrated, proposals building on his vision of an integrated system of Islamic law and ethics continued to be controversial as well as influential in much later times.  Katharina Ivanyi’s recent study of Birgivi Mehmed Efendi (d. 1575) shows how he drew on Ghazali in framing his project of “social disciplining” in very different socio-political context[16]; the roles of tradition and ritual in ethical self-fashioning, and the ways in which these dynamics were understood to relate to the state, were no more settled in the sixteenth century than in the twelfth.  Nir Shafir’s analysis of the Ottoman “turn to piety” in the 16th-17th century highlights parallels between this development and the modern “piety movement” examined by Saba Mahmood.[17] Such analyses demonstrate that, while the overall model of Islamic law and ethics envisioned by the Asadian school has important precedents in premodern Islamic thought, these parallels do not reflect a monolithic premodern status quo but one historically contingent and contested configuration among others.

As a premodern specialist, I find it difficult to take these elements of the Asadian school’s rendition of Islamic tradition as a straightforward account of the continuities between premodern and modern Islam. There are not only greater ruptures leading into the twentieth century than this model allows (as Quadri has recently and powerfully shown), but also serious premodern competitors to the model of piety that constitutes the continuity in their work. These reservations do not undermine the importance of the school’s focus on themes of embodied tradition and the socially embedded cultivation of virtue, which are genuine components of the historical tradition with undoubted potential for Asad’s constructive project of envisioning alternatives to secular liberalism. Nevertheless, I would join Shafir in asking, “Might there not have been other revolutions in morality that emerged prior to colonialism…?”[18]


[1] Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford University Press, 2003), 221 (cited in Junaid Quadri, Transformations of Tradition: Islamic Law in Colonial Modernity [Oxford University Press, 2021],  12.)

[2] Asad, Formations, 250.

[3] Talal Asad, “Thinking About Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today,” Critical Inquiry 42 (2015), 173.

[4] Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 60-64.

[5] Agrama, Questioning Secularism, 54.

[6] Jonathan AC Brown, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (Oxford: Oneworld, 2009), 81.

[7] Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004),  427-450.

[8] Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ihyaʾ ʿulum al-din (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1414/1994), 1:28-29.

[9] Kenneth Garden, The First Islamic Reviver (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 27.

[10] Agrama, Questioning Secularism, 64.

[11] Khaled Fahmy, In Quest of Justice: Islamic Law and Forensic Medicine in Modern Egypt (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018), 194-201.

[12] Al-Ghazali, Ihyaʾ, 2:352, 355. 

[13] Al-Ghazali does reference the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness and their remediation through habituation while discussing the moral characteristics that may impede proper evaluation of the hazards of a contemplated act of ḥisba. However, the point seems to be that proper exercise of ḥisba is predicated on a virtuous habitus, not that it is primarily intended to produce one. (al-Ghazali, Ihyaʾ, 3:349)

[14] Ibid., 2:341, 351.

[15] Ibid., 2:339. 

[16] Katharina Ivanyi, Virtue, Piety, and the Law: A Study of Birgivī Meḥmed Efendī’s al-Ṭarīqah al-Muḥammadīya (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 58.

[17] Nir Shafir, “Moral Revolutions: The Politics of Piety in the Ottoman Empire Reimagined,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 61 (2019), 595-623. See also Derin Terzioğlu, “Where ʿİlm-i ḥāl meets Catechism: Islamic Manuals of Religious Instruction in the Ottoman Empire in the Age of Confessionalization,” Past and Present 13 (2020), 79-114.

[18] Shafir, “Moral Revolutions,” 622.

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