Islam without Europe: Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought

By Ahmad Dallal

Islam without Europe is a study of Islamic traditions of reform in the long eighteenth century. The book aims to offer a revision of both traditional historiography of the Muslim World in the eighteenth century and of the more recent attempts to revisit this historiography. Studies of modern Islamic thought have loosely framed eighteenth century reform in two opposing ways. One viewpoint maintains that the eighteenth century is a period of decline and intellectual stagnation. The era of political and intellectual revival that ensues is considered a result of the growth of European influence in, and intellectual challenges to, the Islamic world. More recently, some revisionist historians convincingly criticized notions of a comprehensive social and economic decline in the eighteenth century, and put forth the thesis of alternative and simultaneous Enlightenments that were not restricted to Europe. This viewpoint often maintains that nineteenth century Islamic reform was rooted in the intellectual legacy of eighteenth century Muslim reformers.

To my mind, the search for an Islamic Enlightenment is part of a larger project that seeks to identify in the past trends that anticipate a modern (or progressive or liberal) present. In other words, the purpose of the search for this alternative Enlightenment is to locate the moment of inauguration of an indigenous Islamic modernity, and more broadly, to construct renditions of the past that make it possible to deploy it in the present.

Cover of Ahmad Dallal’s latest book “Islam without Europe – Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought”, The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Moreover, revisionist approaches to the Islamic eighteenth century often invite historians to shift the focus of research from the sphere of culture to that of political economy. This implies that although there is cultural stagnation in the eighteenth century, we are likely to reach different conclusions if we focus our attention on political economy. While this is meant as a critique of Orientalist historiography, it in effect concedes the long-standing Orientalist assumption that the eighteenth century is, nevertheless, a low point in Islamic culture. The ubiquity in Orientalist historiography of the paradigm of eighteenth-century decline, underscores the need for a different and more accurate understanding of eighteenth-century Islamic culture.

In contrast to these two prevailing approaches, the book argues that the eighteenth century was a period of great intellectual activity that witnessed systematic attempts to radically restructure traditional Islamic thought. These attempts were diverse and extremely successful both in terms of intellectual reception and political and social impact. In India, Shah Wali Allah is recognized as the most distinguished Muslim scholar that India ever produced, and mutually opposed schools claim to derive from and best represent his true thought. Similarly, in Yemen, nationalists, Zaydis and Sunnis alike claim Shawkani as their intellectual ancestor. Ibn Fudi is also considered the most central figure in the legacy of Islamic Nigeria and in the Islamist discourse of West Africa, partly as a result of his political success in establishing the Sokoto Caliphate. Generally, these and other thinkers were intellectually assertive even when they were not in positions of power.

A central argument of the book is that the eighteenth century is one of the most vibrant periods in Islamic intellectual history, and this vibrancy was not driven by any influence from Europe. Eighteenth-century thinkers asserted the potential superiority of later generations of Muslims over earlier ones (salaf), and then proceeded to demonstrate this superiority; they articulated and espoused an Islam that transcends the boundaries of the schools of law and eliminates sectarian and legal differences; and they advocated an active participation by all Muslims in the definition of Islam and set out to meticulously chart the practical venues for this participation. The cultural vitality of the eighteenth century was not limited to certain regions, but was spread over most of the Muslim world. None of the key reformers of this tradition was aware of a European intellectual challenge, and there was no intellectual engagement whatsoever by these reformers with European thought. I contend in the book that no other period in Islamic history can boast of intellectual activities that were as self-consciously transformative in their conception. Eighteenth-century thinkers were fully aware of the intellectual and political significance of their undertakings, and they embarked upon them with great self-confidence and optimism.

Both the older historiography and the revisionist accounts persist in using Wahhabism as a model for depicting Islamic activism and thought in the eighteenth century. In contrast, I argue that, both in its social manifestation and intellectual content, Wahhabism was the exception rather than the norm of eighteenth-century Islamic thought. In contrast to the Wahhabi focus on takfir, I sketch the very rich discourse against takfir that prevailed in eighteenth century thought. I also take issue with the popular network thesis that argues that an intellectual network of likeminded, reformist scholars was generated as a result of traveling through and residence and education in Mecca and Medina. I demonstrate the diversity and regional origins of most reform projects in the eighteenth century. In contrast with the focus on trans-regional networks of scholars, I trace the development of regional reform traditions that drew heavily on local learning and canons, in their most recent manifestation.

One of the main ideas advocated by revisionist historians is that of Neo-Sufism, which argues that eighteenth century Islamic thought was characterized by a new brand of reform Sufism which was devoid of spirituality and at the service of Orthodox Islam. In contrast, I argue that eighteenth century Sufism was not devoid of spirituality and I support the views of scholars like O’Fahey and Radtke that argue that the concept of neo-Sufism is not useful for understanding eighteenth century reform or Sufism. Additionally, I draw the outlines of an eighteenth-century tradition of critiques of Sufism.

In all the cases I examine, I argue that eighteenth century thinkers conceived of their intellectual undertakings as subversive and dissenting acts, both in relation to political authorities and to established corporate intellectual authorities. In one chapter, I extend the analysis from the intellectual/cultural sphere to the social/political one. The primary example that I examine is the career of Shawkani and his complex relationship to power.

In addition to their focus on Neo-Sufism, revisionist historians of the eighteenth century have laid much emphasis on the so-called socio-moral use of hadith, that is, on hadith as the source providing standards of individual and collective codes of conduct. This emphasis has shifted the focus of examination from the intellectual content of eighteenth-century writings on Sufism or hadith to the social uses of these two disciplines. Even though it sets out to revise Orientalist assertions, this view in fact conforms to the traditional Orientalist notions of eighteenth-century stagnation. Sharing the underlying assumption that eighteenth-century movements are more interesting than eighteenth-century thought, both views presuppose that the eighteenth century did not contribute anything of value at the intellectual level. As such, what is implied in the notion of indigenous revivals is: indigenous but intellectually impoverished eighteenth century revival. This, in my view, contributed to an impoverishment in our ability to utilize this vast body of literature that, needless to say, is one of the most important legacies of Islamic culture.

In contrast, the book argues that some of the most original ideas were introduced in the course of academic/theoretical discussions of hadith, in particular the theory of hadith (‘ilm mustalah al-hadith). The book traces the development of two distinct schools of hadith studies in India and in Yemen, and teases out the implications of these very radical theories for notions of authority. The chapter proposes new ways of reading and analyzing hadith, not just in terms of its social and cultural significance but also in relation to earlier traditions of hadith studies. Another primary site of eighteenth century reform was in the field of usul al-fiqh (legal theory). The legal writings of eighteenth century reformers were also historical writings that reflected on the historical contexts in which the law was articulated, and commented on the social and political crises of their times. As such, the legal writings of eighteenth-century reformers were sites in which traditional notions of authority were assessed, contested and restructured. One of the most important outcomes of this tradition was the generation of systematic arguments that limited the scope of religious law rather than extend it endlessly through qiyas (legal analogy). Furthermore, in the writings of some of the leading Muslim thinkers of the eighteenth century, the principle of bara’a (innocence) amounted to a proclamation of the limitedness of the sphere of divine law in human history.

The reform tradition of the eighteenth-century questioned classical knowledge and self-consciously set out to remake it. It sought to rehabilitate its present by renegotiating its relationship with the past, and by recreating tradition in the present and demanding recognition of its excellence and singularity. Islam Without Europe is an invitation to study the Islamic eighteenth century in its own right and free from the powerful paradigms of modernity that skew studies of the pre-modern period and inevitably distort it.


About the Author

Ahmad Dallal is Dean of Georgetown University in Qatar. Until Summer 2017, he was a professor of history in the Department of History and Archaeology at the American University of Beirut, where he served as Provost from 2009-2015. Dallal has taught at Smith College, Yale University, Stanford University, and Georgetown University. He obtained his PhD in Islamic Studies from Columbia University in 1990, and his BE in mechanical engineering from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon in 1980. Dallal’s teaching and scholarship focus on the Islamic disciplines of learning in medieval and early modern Islamic societies, the development of traditional and exact Islamic sciences, the early-modern evolution of Islamic revivalism and intellectual movements, and Islamic law. He is the author of An Islamic Response to Greek Astronomy: Kitab Ta‘dil Hay’at al-Aflak of Sadr al-Shari‘a (1995); Islam, Science and the Challenge of History (2012); The Political Theology of ISIS: Prophets, Messiahs and the “Eradication of the Greyzone (2017); and Islam without Europe – Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth Century Islamic Thought (2018). Please find a recording of Ahmad Dallal’s recent lecture at the Freie Universität Berlin on our Soundcloud profile.

Citation: Ahmad Dallal, Islam without Europe: Traditions of Reform in Eighteenth-Century Islamic Thought, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research 10.09.2018,

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research organization that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. In cooperation with universities and research institutions in Berlin and the rest of Germany, it carries out research projects that examine other regions of the world and their relationship to Germany and Europe systematically and with new questions.

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