In their thoughtful reflections on The Iranian Metaphysicals, Charles Hirschkind and Kabir Tambar focus on my analysis of how different traditions of inquiry come together to create new possibilities for metaphysical thought and practice. The book shows, for example, that in the mid-twentieth century, Shiʿi scholars joined classical theology with the scientific empiricism of European psychical research to argue for the permanence of the soul beyond death. Some decades later, internet-savvy occult enthusiasts blended Islamic mystical philosophy with various strands of the New Age in their attempts to grasp the marvelous powers of God’s special friends. As experiments on the edges of Islamic orthodoxy, these and other examples enable a subtler appreciation for how a tradition like Islam sustains itself over time. Traditions persist to the extent they are able to maintain and enhance their time-honored modes of reasoning with their associated affective structures and ethical orientations. But they also endure by changing, whether through incorporating new kinds of reasoning, resignifying or excluding others, or undergoing affective and ethical shifts.

Hirschkind worries that if we consider these new epistemic configurations as possibilities, we may underestimate the compulsory quality of modern scientific and bureaucratic rationalities. He cautions that the drive toward modernization, in Iran as elsewhere, has so powerfully remade the conditions of life that certain styles of thinking are less possibilities to be freely adopted or rejected, than obstinate realities with which everyone, including especially those committed to “tradition-guided reason,” must reckon.

I am inclined to agree, but I also think Hirschkind’s challenge rewards further scrutiny. To say, as he does, that scientific empiricism is an “ontological condition” of modern life, and not only an “epistemic possibility,” is to grant this form of rationality the force of necessity. Let me reflect on the nature of this necessity, because I think it can help us develop a clearer sense of the uses and limits of epistemic possibility as an analytic.

To begin, modern scientific empiricism is not necessary in the sense that it compels people to adopt its specifically epistemic determinations in every domain of thought and practice. To take only the example of orthodox Islamic theology, the kinds of spiritual empiricism I discuss in The Iranian Metaphysicals ultimately proved to be transient. They were experiments whose scope was limited to polemics about the permanence of the soul in mass-circulating pamphlets and magazines before the 1979 revolution and produced a few reverberations beyond their initial context. This empiricism was never able to penetrate very deeply into the epistemic framework of Islamic theology. Scholarly theology, as practiced in the howzeh (institution of traditional Islamic learning) and university, remained especially immune to the challenge.

Even if empiricism did not prove necessary in this restricted sense, it did produce a lasting effect by compelling thinkers to clarify the relationship between their knowledge and modern scientific epistemologies. The conscripting power of modern science has in part worked by reshaping the entire field of discourse about truth, far beyond empiricism’s putative jurisdiction over material reality. In my book I focus mostly on the religious adoption, appropriation, and repurposing of modern science in its epistemic, ethical, and imaginative dimensions. But science’s impact can also take the shape of a challenge that incites struggles over boundary-making. Some theologians may combat empiricist skepticism by making empirical arguments, but others reason that certain things lie altogether outside of empirical science’s capacity for knowing. Critics of the scientific exegesis of the Qur’an similarly participate in boundary-making when they deploy epistemological arguments for distinguishing empirical statements from revealed truth. Since the 1980s, the philosophy of science has lent further sophistication to such arguments in Iran, while also serving a variety of agendas in debates over the Islamization of science.1 In all these examples, modern science obliges practitioners of tradition-guided reason to articulate where they stand in relation to empiricism and how their knowledge can be verified, if not by methodical observation and experiment.

To attend to the conscripting power of scientific rationalism, therefore, is to recognize that epistemic possibilities emerge in fields of inequality between different traditions. They are possibilities because they are bound up with myriad historical contingencies. We cannot predict in advance how the practitioners of an existing tradition will reason when they confront modern empiricism. Hence, necessity and possibility are not opposed, even as the former shapes the field within which the latter can emerge.

When we focus on the inequality of traditions, we also need to grapple with a difficult question about comparison. Kabir Tambar raises this problem when, reflecting on my assertion that The Iranian Metaphysicals engages in a “comparative anthropology of epistemology,” he asks just what we are comparing and what the stakes of our comparison might be. I will turn to Tambar’s provocative comments on enlightenment in a moment, but first I want to think about the kind of comparison through which we judge that one tradition (say Islamic theology) is weaker than another (modern scientific empiricism). Comparison presumes both similarity and difference, including in the ways in which power is distributed. But our understanding of difference will itself have to be linked to our conceptualization of similarity, contiguity, affinity, and connection. Depending on our perspective on affinity, what in one view looks like a historical rupture opened up by difference may appear in another view as the unfolding of internal potential. It may not be possible to tell which is at work in a given situation (and they need not be mutually exclusive), but it should be no less tenable to avoid reflecting on, and being sensitive to, the alternatives.

This kind of sensitivity opens up another way for thinking about epistemic possibility. The rationalism of Islamic theology is not radically other to that of modern scientific empiricism (this, incidentally, is why I find the ontological turn’s fixation with radical alterity unhelpful in thinking about Islam). They both inherit an Aristotelian legacy and strong historical currents of translation and exchange. Both are concerned with keeping out unreasonable ideas and superstitious practices, and there is a good deal of overlap between what each has historically considered unreasonable, even if they often diverge on the substance of rationality.

Given these affinities and connections, how do we make sense of transformations in Islamic traditions of inquiry when they become tangled up with scientific modernity? Does tradition become something other to itself? Or is modernization a catalyst for developing rational possibilities already latent within the tradition? Is difference here equal to alterity, or can we think about it as an Aristotelian actualization of existing potential?

Tambar notes my book’s concern with how certain enlightenment preoccupations with the rationality of religion have become internal to the Islamic tradition. He is less interested in the origins of such admixtures than the futures of enlightenment, but I think his insight can also illuminate something about enlightenment’s mediations. That is to say, the Islamic internalization of enlightenment concepts and modes of reasoning not only sheds light on the tradition as shaped by these categories, nor only the future trajectories upon which such categories may travel, but also the parameters that have made the conjunction of Islam and enlightenment possible.

The histories of colonialism, imperialism, and the conscripting powers of modernization are key to understanding this conjunction. But so are the affinities between enlightenment and Islamic practices of reason. Here, then, is a final way to think about epistemic possibility: if some Shiʿi scholars managed to make enlightenment Islamic and Islam enlightened, perhaps it was because both traditions already possessed the epistemic capacity for such becoming. This is not to deny the relations of inequality within which the Islamic tradition has developed in recent centuries, but to emphasize that unequal relations come in different shapes and sizes, and they produce uneven effects.

Tambar contrasts my study with Talal Asad’s well-known essay comparing liberal enlightenment critique with Islamic moral advice-giving (nasiha) in Saudi Arabia. In that essay, Asad notes that the modernizing liberal order has rendered a moral tradition like nasiha difficult to sustain. This is true enough, but what are we to make of those traditions, like theology and philosophy, that continue to thrive? Must we be limited to understanding the enduring liveliness of tradition only as a tenacious persistence in spite of and in resistance to modernization? Or is it possible that something about the juggernaut of modernity can actually facilitate Islamic rationality? If we can imagine an Islamic future for enlightenment, perhaps this is because enlightenment has always been, in a certain sense, Islamic.


  1. Alireza Doostdar, “Varieties of Islamic Social Science.” KNOW: A Journal on the Formation of Knowledge 2(2), Forthcoming.