This turned out to be a very different book than the one I set out to write. Between submitting the proposal and submitting the book I started to think I was missing the point on a lot of things, not least Islamic law. A lot happened in those years, but I was particularly moved by the rise of social movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo, which seemed to crop up spontaneously, challenging institutional structures and rewriting the rules for acceptable ideas, speech, and behavior. These movements were passionate, informed, and fast; so fast I had trouble keeping up.
For me, these social movements represent a powerful indictment of contemporary scholarship–my own included–especially in the ways in which knowledge production is complicit in and inextricable from the recent global doubling-down on neoliberal state policies. These are policies that indemnify the state from social responsibility and promote a market-driven morality that promises dignity and success to individuals who are willing to put in the work, using “individualism” to justify increasing privatization of social services and gutting of social institutions. This was always a tricky sell; preaching dignity and success while simultaneously undermining the processes for the underprivileged to achieve that success highlights the inherent unfairness of the system, especially to those already disadvantaged by it.
These social movements highlight the failed promise of neoliberalism, and, importantly for me, the complicity of those of us privileged by neoliberal policies in the scholarship we produce. They point out that being privileged signifies owing a debt, and that privilege is a blinder rather than a perch, a point illustrated by the fact that many of us did not see these movements coming, even as the injustices and discontents informing them were present the whole time.
The small irony is that these movements themselves are often neoliberal in their approach, and use neoliberal language to justify their activities. That is not a critique, but an observation; we are so thoroughly ensconced in neoliberal modes of thinking that neoliberalism permeates our language, even when that language is used for resistance. This is the case with most modern discourses, including that of religion, which, while deployed by states for neoliberal purposes, has itself been recast in light of neoliberalism.
Islam is no exception, and scholars have observed a growing phenomenon that Mona Attia calls “pious neoliberalism,” which is a reciprocal relationship between Islam and neoliberalism that is “as much the Islamization of neoliberalism as it is the neoliberalization of Islam.” These scholars find that as states privatize and deregulate social institutions, they compensate by promoting a neoliberal Islamic religiosity that emphasizes volunteerism and self-reliance, placing the blame for social failures on individuals’ inability to enact proper Islamic piety.
This has led to an entrepreneurial market of Muslim leaders peddling different versions of Islamic piety that believers can follow to lift themselves out of their current state. In theory the best idea would win in a free market, but in practice the market favors those already privileged by existing structures of inequality, especially educated, moneyed males; the “Great Men” of society. These Great Men are in a privileged position to proffer theories of piety they claim will lead to both worldly success and otherworldly salvation if followed correctly by sincere, hardworking believers. The neoliberal con here is that tying success to sincerity makes the inverse implicitly true: lack of success reflects lack of sincerity. In validating Great Men as successful, the marketplace casts privilege as a function of sincerity, whereas disadvantage is presumed to be a function of deficient sincerity. While giving the appearance of uplift, the marketplace of neoliberal religious theories in fact perpetuates existing power structures, giving them religious sanction.
At the beginning of this project, I was writing to and within that neoliberal marketplace, and I set out to be one of those Great Men. You can tell as much from the original title for this book, “Islamic Systematics: The Art and Science of Islamic Legal Reform.” That project was intended to describe a complex and intricate method of reforming Islamic law that Great (Wo)Men could use to uplift the community. This was to be a—no, the—grand theory of Islamic legal reform, and I would be lying if I said I did not fantasize about “Islamic Systematics” becoming a subfield of Islamic studies, complete with learned societies and chairs at prestigious universities.
The project as originally conceived was a prime example of neoliberal scholarship: it purported to deliver dignity and equality by speaking to and privileging those whose power I was claiming to dismantle. Sure enough, whenever I discussed the theory with Great Men, they loved it. But the emerging social movements made me see that approval as a problem, and alerted me to the fact that writing within elite, privileged conversations about Islamic law is to support existing power structures, and to miss the spirit animating the social movements pushing against the consolidation of power. So I tried another tack, scrapping the project in favor of applying to Islamic law what Linda Tuhiwai Smith calls a “decolonizing methodology,” and leveraging my privilege so as to, as Ayesha S. Chaudhry advises, “use it to lose it.”
For me, this meant focusing less on the content of Islamic laws and reform methodologies, and more on how Islamic law functions as a religious discourse for Muslims outside of privileged, elite circles. Doing so revealed both the immediacy of power—so often hidden in privileged conversations—in the making of Islamic law, and the stakes involved in making religious legal claims. It also upended my thoughts on the robust academic debate about what Islamic law “is”; specifically, whether Islamic law exists in the repository of scholarly pronouncements on the law or in the practice of everyday Muslims. That prominent debate centers on who gets to define Islamic law; is it the scholars who study the law or the consumers, subjects, and enactors of the law?
Observing and participating in Muslim conversations on Islamic law through a decolonial lens led me to see that debate as misplaced and reflective of a colonial obsession with ontology as the site of truth, whether in symbol or in social practice. That is, the debate assumes Islamic law “is” something that can be located either within cultural symbols or in a mode of cultural practice. But I did not find that same obsession with ontology in the conversations I was following. The driving concern in those discussions—rarely, if ever, expressed—is: how does one do Islamic law? And the answers to that question have very little to do with either textual records or observed practice.
Rather, the virtue of Islamic law for a segment of believers I call fiqh-minded is found in making rhetorical arguments within an ancestral tradition that is both internally consistent and contextually relevant, whether or not that argument is found in either ancient texts or lived practice. In this framework, Islamic law functions through a salvific language that expresses the speaker’s ideas about ideal human activity, and speaking that language is itself the value. For fiqh-minded Muslims, the value of Islamic law and legal arguments is neither in the ontological referent of a legal proposition nor in the phenomenological, but in the rhetorical formation of an argument rooted in a historical tradition that provides meaning for contemporary believers. To zoom out beyond the fiqh-minded, then, the doing of Islamic law involves an engagement with the legal tradition, whether in speech or in action, in a way that generates meaning for those who identify as Muslim. The content of that engagement is interesting, but secondary; the primary value is in the meaning generated by the doing itself.
To my mind, that expands the scope of Islamic law to any linguistic or performative engagement with its language. It is both symbol and practice, and reducible to neither; engagement with the language of Islamic law is itself the point, since that is the doing of Islamic law. If that engagement results in disagreeing with historical precedent, or in modifying certain practices, or in dismissing Islamic law altogether, then that too is doing Islamic law, no less so than engagements that affirm historical precedents or conform to popular practices.
I rewrote the book from that perspective to honor the conversations I was following and to validate a wide variety of religious engagements as authoritative expressions of Islamic law and the legal tradition, even while colonialism and neoliberalism dismiss them. Written as it is for Muslims doing Islamic law, it does not include heavy theorizing; words like “ontology” and “neoliberalism” make no appearance. Instead, I focus on the question animating Islamic legal activity in the first place; namely, “how does one do Islamic law?”
As an attempt to decolonize Islamic law and move beyond neoliberalism, this book is an imperfect offering. It suffers from the same small irony as the social movements mentioned above: it is replete with neoliberal language and tropes; it is North Atlantic-centric; it relies heavily on case studies taken from elite texts; and it is written in the style of grand narrative. That might be of necessity since most audiences would likely be steeped in neoliberalism and familiar with North Atlantic culture anyway, but it just as likely reflects the privileges and limitations of its straight, cisgender, male, middle-class North American author, whose experiences with racism and Islamophobia clue him in to the way that power works, but only to a certain extent. Getting a fuller picture of how Islamic law is done will require many greater and more experienced minds than my own. I intend this book as a starting point for a conversation that I hope, with more ideas and interlocutors, will grow well beyond it.
Since rewriting the book, I have shared it with some Great Men. They mostly hate it, or are at least extremely wary. I take that as a good sign. If the conversation about how Islamic law is done shifts so thoroughly that I struggle to keep up or even recognize it, I will take that as a good sign, too.
Can’t wait to read the book, and I feel uplifted by this essay!
As I haven’t read the book, I can’t really comment. But the essay makes me wonder: what about “before neoliberalism”? Did not pious scholars and leaders in the past argue, ascetically, that it is the person’s piety, morality and compliance with social norms that explains his/her success or failure?
Many did with respect to the life hereafter (though there is some debate about the Hanafi-Maturidi position on this), but the modern twist is that worldly success is now being tied to personal piety. If you were to compare precolonial and contemporary exegeses on verses like Q. 8:53 and 13:11, you see that there is a slippage wherein God’s punishment moves from being an historical description of how societies that rejected tawhid wholesale were collectively punished to an explanation for why Muslims individually and collectively succeed or fail in this life. Sometimes these exegeses are full-on versions of the prosperity gospel, but usually they are a little more subtle, and the neoliberal shift is palpable. Hope this helps!
I just finished the book (for the first time, and I know I’ll read it again). It does a terrific job of weaving together the author’s personal experiences, travel encounters, faith commitments, accelerating changes in online culture, and deep scholarship with social commentary and historical narrative. Anyone interested in understanding contemporary Islam has to read this book and contend with both its critique (which may seem devastating but it shouldn’t) and construction (which may seem subversive but it isn’t). It’s the kind of work that equally serves both academic and community interests. Congratulations, Dr. Rumee Ahmed! I think your next book should pick up exactly where this one ends: why are you a believer, and what is it that you believe in? That tantalizing ending deserves a sequel, and I’m sure it won’t disappoint.
Mahan, thank you very much for the generous comments! You may have solved a problem for me; my next project is, in fact, on theology, and specifically about the kind of belief structure that underpins this book. I fleshed out early thoughts in an academic article, “Ordinary Justice: A Theology of Islamic Law as a Social Contract”, but I’m having a little trouble framing it. I never thought to make it a continuation of this book, but I think that would be perfect! Thanks very much for the idea and for the kind words, looking forward to discussing with you further!