Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Nathan Spannaus's "Preserving Islamic Tradition"

Nathan Spannaus is a specialist in Islamic intellectual history and religious thought. He is a graduate of McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies and Harvard's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and he has held positions at Princeton and Oxford. His work has appeared in Islamic Law and Society, Muslim World, Arabica, and Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, and he has contributed to the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Theology, the Encyclopedia of Islam and the two-volume Modern Islamic Authority and Social Change. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher in Islamic philosophy at University of Jyvaskyla, Finland.

Spannaus applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Preserving Islamic Tradition: Abu Nasr Qursawi and the Beginnings of Modern Reformism, and reported the following:
From page 99:
precedents were utilized in novel ways and engaged in continuing Islamic scholarly discourse.

Jackson (noted in the Introduction) characterizes taqlīd as “scaffolding,” a conception of authority in which the work of earlier scholars was accepted by later scholars to facilitate their own scholarship. There was little need or incentive for the latter to revisit larger, more structural issues, he argues, and taqlīd allowed them to instead devote their energies to addressing more minute but also more advanced questions, leading to more sophisticated scholarship. Taqlīd thus served as a paradigm for scholarship, in which the positions of earlier scholars were utilized as premises for the formulation of new positions within the same discourse.

A significant benefit of the taqlīd framework was that it limited the potential for the formulation of deviant or anomalous views. Coherence was a major goal of taqlīd, and, as scholars were generally obliged to conform to the established positions of their school or faction, they were restrained in their interpretive activity and the possible scope for any new position was narrowed. Scaffolding was therefore understood to safeguard (though not necessarily ensure) the correctness of scholars’ formulations, which could depart only so much from the views of their predecessors. A direct connection with scripture was thus seen as unnecessary, as any new stance would have to align with positions that had been previously legitimated as correct. Indeed, the interpretation of scripture without the limits imparted by the taqlīd framework was considered more likely to breed erroneous, unpredictable, and/or incoherent views.

Although much of the attention devoted to taqlīd in secondary literature is focused on its role in the area of law, its place in kalām was not
This passage offers an interesting window into the book. The discussion on page 99 is part of a longer section addressing taqlid, a key element in the history of the Islamic scholarly tradition that mediates how new ideas relate to existing ones and represents the link between Islamic knowledge and religious authority. Its ‘scaffolding’ was of central importance for the development of Islamic scholarship, for which taqlid served as the predominant framework for nearly a millenium. The focus of the book is not on taqlid per se, but rather it’s about a critique of this framework, and then how it was transformed in the early modern period. Taqlid, however, is not very well understood, especially for later periods (roughly 15th-18th centuries), which are among the least studied in Islamic history, and the book devotes significant attention to how it operated, both in theory and in practice.

Abu Nasr Qursawi (1776-1812), the subject of the book, took aim at taqlid, specifically that it excluded erroneous positions. He believed this was not necessarily the case, but moreover that it actually hid errors in received wisdom by giving it a patina of validity. Accordingly, he called for greater skepticism toward established views and investigation into them to determine their correctness.

He identified two major points where he argued that invalid positions had been perpetuated by taqlid: on the timing of the night prayer and on the question of God’s attributes. For both cases, he criticized the assumption that the predominant views must be correct because they are so widespread, and he argued on logical and scriptural grounds that they in fact cannot be correct and must be rejected. (Each of these issues is fairly intricate, but they’re addressed in detail in the book.)

In the background of Qursawi’s criticism of his fellow scholars was the subordination of Islamic institutions by the Russian government. State control bureaucratized scholars, disrupting the link between knowledge and religious authority. In response, Qursawi put forward a radical rethinking of laypeople’s role in articulating Islamic morality, arguing that any educated Muslim should determine correct action for themselves, without scholarly guidance. Nevertheless, in this context the framework of taqlid was seriously undermined. Its mediation between new and existing views gradually came to be rejected, and the entire edifice of the Islamic scholarly tradition called into question. Preserving Islamic Tradition uses Qursawi’s reformism and its implications as a lens for exploring these historical and religious transformations.
Learn more about Preserving Islamic Tradition at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue