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Critique as a Way of Life

Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace by Irfan Ahmad, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018; pp xxv + 270, 1,195.

 

Irfan Ahmad’s erudite volume seeks to challenge a common Orientalist–Islamophobic stereotype: “Islam is inimical to criticism” (p 10). This “lack”—which produces a “bigoted, freedom-despising Islam” (p 8)—is pitted against the “abundance” of reason in a “freedom-loving, enlightened” West. The author’s primary response to these negative discourses is succinct and precise: “critique … has been integral to Islamic traditions” (p 13). We should consider “Islam as critique; indeed, Islam as permanent critique” (p 14, emphasis in the original, throughout). What prevents the recognition of the presence of critique in Islam is the “inability of our prevalent frameworks,” an important example of which is “the Enlightenment legacy” which understands critique as being that “of religion other than Christianity,” rather than it occurring “from within non-Christian religion” (p 12).

Ahmad systematically unpacks his thesis in four deft intellectual moves. First, he shows how the Western Enlightenment, thought to be the fountainhead of critique and reason, was the product of a particular historical juncture and had detectable “ethnic” and “religious” roots. Second, reason is “impotent” (p 16) in and by itself; it is always situated—in a cultural, political and religious tradition. Third, Islam does not abide by dichotomies of intellect versus affect. Instead, aql (reason) has coexisted and is complimentary with qalb (heart) (p 17). Finally, critique is not the preserve of an elite group of intellectuals, “non-
intellectuals too enact and participate in the works of critique” (p 18).

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Updated On : 27th Jan, 2020

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