The Politics of Muslim Intellectual Discourse in the West: The Emergence of a Western-Islamic Public Sphere

The Politics of Muslim Intellectual Discourse in the West: The Emergence of a Western-Islamic Public Sphere

by Dilyana Mincheva

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ISBN-13: 9781782842590
Publisher: Sussex Academic Press
Publication date: 01/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 196
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Dilyana Mincheva specializes in the study of Muslim intellectual history and thought. Her most recent research is engaged with the culturological study of religious change and the ways in which it particularly informs Islam's literary, artistic and political (self)-representations across of a variety of media. Dr. Mincheva is currently an Assistant Professor in the Cultural Studies Department of Trent University, Canada. She is the bearer of two international awards for research excellence (2012 and 2015) granted by the Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Society.

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The Politics of Muslim Intellectual Discourse in the West

The Emergence of a Western-Islamic Public Sphere

By Dilyana Mincheva

Sussex Academic Press

Copyright © 2016 Dilyana Mincheva
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84519-765-0


The Politics of Critical Islam

The Praxis of Critique

The term critique has a complicated history. It derives simultaneously from the Greek krino, which means, in Reinhart Koselleck's translation, "to cut," "to select," "to decide," "to judge," "to fight," "to measure," and "to quarrel" and the Greek krisis, which, in Stathis Gourgouris's translation, means "the decision to pronounce difference or even the decision to differ, to dispute." Both etymologies suggest that the term, being productive of meanings and derivates, is nonetheless related to the political as a register of non-neutral judgments. Decisions in the Greek polis are based on judgments for which someone – those who pronounce the judgment – takes responsibility. The subject, unthinkable outside the Greek polis, is naturally involved in the political through critical interrogation. Moreover, since the subject differs and differentiates at the same time, the semantic scope of the term – as Gourgouris insists – naturally includes self-critique because suspicion cannot be limited only to the objective world. Therefore, the gesture of critique is authentic and political only if it is predicated on infinite self-reflexivity and self-critique.

The term "critical Islam" is a theoretical construct invented to reflect a critical mode of analysis generated by the intelligentsia of the Muslim Diaspora in the West and does not claim theological accuracy. More precisely, critical Islam is an analytic approach to religion that promotes critical reading of the original Islamic text (the Qur'an) and traditions (the hadiths) in order to open from within new meaningful horizons for the religious message. This gesture is not only a fundamental break from – and a highly suspicious one to – the classical theology of Islam, because it involves de-sacralization of the divine but also, it is political in this classical Greek sense because it is loaded with internal self-reflexive critique. Islam is to be secured – saved from the inaccessible dogmatic language of the religious tradition – through the relentless critique of religion itself. This is not just a deliberate attempt to think with Islam against the excess of Islam in order the access to some more authentic Islam to be opened, but a political act – constitutive of a public sphere – as long as it critically targets dogmatic theology (the heteronomous framework of Islam when thought sufficient for the generation of political order here on Earth) and the social when predicated on rationalist and secularist assumptions of autonomy. Therefore, critical Islam is an engagement with the social reality and, as my argument suggests, it is a peculiar Western-Islamic phenomenon, politically oriented towards the West, an engagement that positions the Islamic religion first in history (it subjects Islam to secularization) and then within a Western cultural-historical framework.

Yet, with respect to critical Islam, the most important questions remain connected to the lures of the timeless frameworks of heteronomy (God) and autonomy (the humanist subject). After all, the whole classical Islamic theology is centered around this famous hadith narrated by Al-Ghazali: "The man who explains the Qur'an according to his personal opinion shall take his place in Hell." Is the rise of the subject possible in the faith-based context of total submission (this is precisely the original meaning of the Arabic word Islam) to the Absolute Other? And, then, if the subject is possible and critical Islam is a particular religious affirmation of subjectivity, how does critical Islam prevent the reduction of religious mythos to a set of mythologies devoid of divine meaning? Classical Islam channels a particular obsessive worship of the absolute heteronomous, the transcendent, the One and the Only God. How is an engagement possible 'not with god but with God' who is radical alterity and who requires radical incapacitation of the subject, rather than cognition and communication?

It should be noted that despite the fact that critical Islam historicizes and de-transcendentalizes the absolute alterity of Allah, it does not adopt the Kantian notion of a pure autonomous and rationalistic mind. The pure autonomy, in that context, is no less metaphysical than the heteronomy of Allah. Self-referential and tautological, the Cartesian–Kantian idea of autonomy (I think therefore I am, or I am that I am, I is a being-in-itself) is a theological concept because it posits itself as an absolute existing outside history. It knows history because it knows itself but it cannot know anything outside itself. In that regard, the classical Enlightenment notion of autonomy that comes through reason cannot admit or enter in a relationship with alterity because it is itself heteronomous in a universe of meanings where the authority of all other absolutes is, by definition, undermined. Within the Kantian framework transcendence is internalized through the creation of a heteronomous moral subject who becomes the measure of all things. The problem is that secularist reasoning in the general Kantian scheme does not just shift the emphasis from the agency of the divine to the agency of the human subject, but, rather, it transcendentalizes the subject, putting it in God's place. Reason, however, is not necessarily inherently theological or metaphysical but it becomes such only when it is put in the transcendental architectural framework of religion.

At the same time, critical Islam is a highly contested field of intellectual engagement because it requires, at least as far as the work of Muslim intellectuals discussed in the book is concerned – Muhammad Arkoun, Nasr Abu Zayd, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Tariq Ramadan, Malek Chebel, Fethi Benslama, Nadeem Aslam, Ali Eteraz, Orhan Pamuk, among others, the double work of knowing the canon of Islam (or the tradition) and the modes of interrogating it. It has to be noted that the critical work of Muslim intellectuals rooted in interdisciplinary inquiry – hermeneutics, theology, history, literature, anthropology, psychoanalysis – is first of all self-critical and disciplinary. This means that the normative logic of the Islamic canon(s) is taken to its limit precisely in order to interrogate the construction of this limit. Critical Islam is, therefore, a transformation of this construction or a deconstruction as long as what remains after the deconstruction is never reducible to the canon. Deconstruction of Islamic theology does not mean annihilation of theology but it does not enable its repetition either. This, in essence, is the political and poetical substance of critical Islam.

Examples of Religious Heteronomies

In 2005, the gigantic and highly popular Islamic (Arabic and English) information portal,, published, after a public inquiry in the youth section, a fatwa by a famous professor of fiqh (Arab. Islamic jurisprudence) at the University of Jerusalem. The fatwa issued by Dr. Hisam al-Din Ibn Musa Afaneh explores flogging for educational purposes. The scholar elaborates the issue in several points: a teacher is prohibited from beating his student solely on the basis of disagreement or out of anger, but following what the Prophet Muhammad has said, he is allowed to use violence in cases when all other measures have failed. Moreover, a student is to be urged into prayer when he is seven and beaten into it at the age of ten. As a diligent scholar, Hisam al-Din Ibn Musa Afaneh also mentions that there exists a discussion among the ulema (Arab. religious scholars) on the number of lashes to be inflicted upon a student (between three and ten according to different authoritative hadith narrators: Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawuud, and Al-Tirmidhi). Finally, the mufti concludes that the abolishment of violence as an educational means would have a negative impact on the Islamic educational process and it would ultimately betray the continuity of the Islamic tradition.

If one looks at the comprehensive Muslim tradition and its most authoritative sources, there is seemingly enough evidence to support the application of violence in different cases. The fatwa issued in 2005 is surprisingly similar to a centuries-old reflection by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) in his comprehensive collection of Hanbalite authoritative fatwas. There, the medieval Muslim jurist and philosopher comments briefly on the corruption of children by their teachers. A proper pedagogical practice associated with severe punishments, Ibn Taymiyya maintains, is strictly related to a divine imperative requiring children to be taught and raised in obedience to God and His Prophet. Taymiyya reminds, and this is repeated in the 2005 fatwa, that a child has to be taught ritual prayer at five and beaten into it when he is ten.

Certainly the history of the category of punishment in the legal-theological Muslim imagination is too complex to be exhausted with several examples that, all the more, run the risk of reifying misrepresentations of Islam. It is well known by scholars in Islamic theology that there exists a distinction when the term beating is employed regarding general situations and when related to legal punishment. Obviously the beating of students for educational purposes falls into the general use of the term, and, also, the historical contexts of the two fatwas are quite different. Yet, violence sneaks through other authoritative doors. The famous, controversial, and often debated verse 4:34 from the Qur'an at first glance advocates violence over women: "Men have authority over women because God has made one superior over the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then, if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme."

In addition to this Quranic prescription, there are hundreds of hadiths that circulate in the English-Arabic public sphere and that have been taken for authentic and authoritative. They are usually quoted by legal and theological figures today (with or without training in Islamic theology) who advocate in fashion or language (scandalous, from our present day perspective) violent behaviour in support the divine or the prophetic authority. Among the numerous examples, I have chosen several: Anas bin Malik (d. 709) reports that the Prophet said "No human may prostrate to another, and if it were permissible I would have ordered a wife to prostrate to her husband because of the enormity of his rights over her. By God, if there is an ulcer excreting puss from his feet to the top of his head, and she licked it for him she would not fulfill his rights." This hadith was the precise reason the African-American Muslim basketball player Abdul Rauf in 1996 refused to stand while the American national anthem was playing during basketball games. The act of "prostrating," he argued, was offensive to Muslim sensibilities because it is un-Islamic to salute a national flag or stand to a national anthem.

Another hadith attributed to the Prophet proclaims, "A woman comes in the image of a devil and leaves in the image of a devil." According to Abou El-Fadl, a professor in Islamic law at UCLA, the rest of the narration says that if a man is aroused by a foreign woman, he should satisfy his desire lawfully with his own wife. Perhaps not surprisingly there is a whole cluster of hadiths that discusses the fate of women in hellfire. Again Abou El-Fadl gives a comprehensive account of those traditions and their different versions according to the narrators. Ibn Abbas, one of the Prophet's companions, has been reported to have said that a woman has two covers of modesty, marriage and the grave. Probably this is the reason why Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, relying on those traditions, suggests that a married woman has to be confined in "the inner sanctum of her house"; she should not leave her house without permission or talk to the neighbours. If she does leave her home, she should stick to the least crowded spaces, she should not speak to anyone, mostly she should occupy herself with pleasing her husband, and she should not aim to play any public role.

Effectively, the grave becomes a metaphor for the modest life that a pious married woman should live. What those traditions do – whether narrated by strong chains of transmission or fabricated (which in itself is a serious theological inquiry) – is to project a grave-like existence for women on Earth based only on the notion that probably the Prophet himself, guided by the Divine Will, would approve of it. Nadeem Aslam's semi-autobiographical novel Maps for Lost Lovers engages exactly these traditions that inform and put into divine perspective the actions of the pious in the Muslim community.

The highly popular tafsir (Arab. exegetical commentary of the Qur'an) of the medieval Muslim exegete and theologian Al-Tabari (d. 923) fits well in the interpretative framework of divinely sanctioned violence. In his commentary of the 4:34 verse, al-Tabari maintains that the application of physical violence for punishment of women should be understood within the divine framework of obedience of the wife before her husband, whose most important duty, on the other hand, is total submission to Allah. Commenting on the controversial verse, al-Tabari maintains: "if they [women] refuse to reverse to what has been their duty to you [men], then keep them tight in their houses, and then beat them in order to make them return to their duty (wajib) to obey Allah in what has been mandated to them further to your rights. And the exegetes have said that the characteristic of the beating permitted by Allah to the husband of the rebellious [one] to beat her, is that it is not severe."

All of these examples, deliberately chosen to shock and to provoke, could be countered with numerous other examples from the Qur'an and the Sunnah that speak to tendencies quite opposite to those described above. For example, there are available reports that reveal the Prophet Muhammad treated his wives with care and respect. Those reports make it evident that he was not a dictator inside his family, which, in turn, probably means that it is highly unlikely that the Prophet truly pronounced the misogynist sayings quoted above. Even from a theological perspective, it is unlikely to think that the sacred Quranic scripture would elevate to a semi-divine status the male human being in general, and the Prophet Muhammad in particular, and recommend the female to be once and forever a humble servant of the male. This is also inconsistent with the overall logic of the Qur'an, in which it is stated that "none can know the soldiers of God except God." Even though this verse talks about the nineteen angels that guard hell and seems to say that only God knows why those angels are nineteen and not a different number, it is also a magnificent representation of the radical transcendentalism of Islam and its concept of God: everyone can aspire to be a soldier of God and perform the impossible to achieve this status, but only God knows His soldiers. Everyone is allowed access to God's benevolence but no one is guaranteed a secure entrance there.

Against Heteronomy

Therefore, the question of what comprises the authoritarian voice or interpretation of Islam – to which hopefully critical Islam provides a reflective-critical response – is extremely important to the discussion of all theology and praxis of Islam. Namely, pertinent to the discussion of whether those partial, violent, and sometimes fabricated traditions – which in all cases are products of specific historical circumstances – should be literally translated, followed, and diligently obeyed by Muslims today, even if they are highly recommended by unquestionable religious authorities.


Excerpted from The Politics of Muslim Intellectual Discourse in the West by Dilyana Mincheva. Copyright © 2016 Dilyana Mincheva. Excerpted by permission of Sussex Academic Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: The Damaged Notions of East and West 1

Main Concepts 9

1 The Politics of Critical Islam 13

The Praxis of Critique 13

Examples of Religious Heteronomies 15

Against Heteronomy 19

Theory and Praxis 23

The Meaning of Critique 25

2 Critical Islam inside Academia 32

Quranic Hermeneutics: The Work of Muhammad Arkoun and Nasr Abu Zayd 33

The Scholarly Projects of Tariq Ramadan, Malek Chebel and Fethi Benslama 41

Tariq Ramadan 43

Malek Chebel 44

Fethi Benslama 48

Critical Perspective - Part I 51

3 North-American Post-Colonial Studies and European Polemics against Islam 53

The Conundrums of Orientalism: The Reception of Critical Islam in North American Academia 57

The Tyranny of Guilt - A Counterresponse 62

Critical Perspective - Part II 71

4 Literary Voices Turned Political 74

On the Politics of Literary Texts 79

Abdelwahab Meddeb's Public and Literary Project 80

Critical Reception 87

Ali Eteraz's Children of Dust 90

Children of Dust in the Perspective of the Western-Islamic Public Sphere 93

Poetics of Nadeem Aslam's Maps for Lost Lovers 98

Plot and Themes 101

Maps for Lost Lovers in the Perspective of the Western-Islamic Public Sphere 105

Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red 108

Plot and Structure 110

Politics of the Literary Masterpiece 113

A Discussion of Divine Heteronomy 119

Conclusion: Beyond the Damaged Notions of East and West 125

Notes 130

Bibliography 148

Index 160

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