By Carool Kersten*

It is already more than thirty years ago since the late Bill Roff, emeritus professor of Islamic and Southeast Asian history at Columbia University (and proud Scotsman), wrote that– like taxidermy — taxonomy is best not performed on the living. Still, when I was studying the ways in which Muslim intellectuals engage with the Islamic tradition qua academic scholars of religion, it seemed to me that Russell McCutcheon’s distinction between theologians, phenomenologists, and critics – not caretakers, could be usefully applied to the individuals in question.

In Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (2011), I present the French-Algerian Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010) as such as critic. When training as a historian, he was introduced to the Annales School. Together with philosophical phenomenology, structural linguistics, and poststructuralist discourse analysis (all refracted through the lens of Paul Ricoeur) this French school of historiography shaped what has became known as Arkoun’s Critique of Islamic Reason. More specifically, Arkoun’s contribution consists in setting an alternative research agenda, which he calls ‘Applied Islamology’. That designation was inspired by the ‘Applied Anthropology’ of Roger Bastide, an ethnographer specializing in Afro-Brazilian religions and successor to a professorial chair at Sao Paolo University, set up by Annales School historian Fernand Braudel (which, sort of, closes the circle).

Arkoun’s contributions to the study of Islam also make him part of a group of intellectuals from Muslim backgrounds known as ‘heritage thinkers’ (turathiyyun in Arabic). Emerging in the 1970s, on the back of the widespread disenchantment affecting the Arab world after the disastrous outcome of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, and developing further in parallel with the so-called ‘Islamic Resurgence’ of the 1980s, heritage thinking provides an alternative way of thinking about Islam. Instead of reducing it to a ‘religion’, in the sense of a set of doctrinal tenets and do’s and don’ts, Islam is conceived as a civilization generating a wide range of cultural and intellectual achievements.

Also the Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri (1935-2010) advocated such critical engagement with the Islamic heritage, but in his case it was confined to the Arab world. Originally conceived as a trilogy, al-Jabri’s Critique of Arab Reason, consists of historical and structural analyses of Arab thought, combined with an ideology critique, later complemented with a study of ethics. Like Arkoun, al-Jabri is interested in the relationship between knowledge and power.

In The Formation of Arab Reason (1984), he analyses what he calls the ‘Era of Recording’; the formative period during which the various disciplines of traditional Islamic learning took shape. After that period, al-Jabri claims, little happened in terms of the development of new discourses. Instead, intellectual activity consisted primarily in reproducing existing knowledge. In the Structure of Arab Reason (1986), al-Jabri distinguished three Arab-Islamic regimes of knowledge (or what in Foucauldian idiom are called ‘epistemes’): Bayani thinking, exemplified by discursive theology; irfani thinking, which al-Jabri dismisses as mystical obscurantism originating in Persia; and burhani thinking, or reasoning that uses demonstrative proof. According to al-Jabri, the most impressive instance of this line of thinking is the philosophy of Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), the Andalusian polymath known also as Averroes, who did most of his intellectual labours in al-Jabri’s native Morocco.

Al-Jabri’s Critique of Arab Reason is not only narrower in geographical scope than Arkoun’s Critique of Islamic Reason, it also privileges the burhani episteme over the other two. With slogans like ‘the future can only be Averroist’ and his call for an ‘Andalusian resurgence’, al-Jabri shows himself a bit of an Arab or even Maghribian chauvinist. Arkoun, by contrast, is concerned with the repression of all ways of thinking that were excluded from what he terms the ‘Closed Text Corpus’ and thus relegated to the realm of the so-called ‘Unthought’. With the passing of time, this ‘Unthought’ is further reduced to the ‘Unthinkable’; no longer considered part of the Islamic tradition. The task of ‘Applied Islamology’ is to quarry the Islamic intellectual archive for the ‘Unthought’; consisting not only in philosophical and theological schools that were declared heresies, but also orally transmitted traditions often dismissed as ‘folk Islam’. Where Arkoun’s use of discourse analysis and the deconstruction of texts for rethinking Islam and religion shows a parallel with Derrida, al-Jabri’s concern with the formative, structural and political aspects of Arab-Islamic philosophy betrays an interest in excavating discursive formations along the lines of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge.

Other heritage thinkers appear to affirm Atalia Omer’s rhetorical question whether critics can be caretakers too. These include the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi (b. 1935) and his erstwhile student Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010). Hanafi’s Heritage and Renewal project, consisting in a double critique of both the Islamic and Western legacies of thinking about religion, is very much geared towards a political agenda inspired by Liberation Theology and encapsulated in a manifesto Hanafi published in 1981 under the title The Islamic Left. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd became a cause célèbre, when his propositions to study the Qur’an using methods from literary criticism and semiotics, in order to understand the sacred scripture better, met with fierce opposition from Islamist activists — forcing him into exile in The Netherlands. Like Hanafi and al-Jabri, also Abu Zayd wrote mostly in Arabic, but one of his books, Critique of Religious Discourse, has now appeared in English translation.

The approaches of these heritage thinkers are considered controversial, often meeting with resistance from fellow Muslims. Ironically, their ideas have had a more welcoming reception in Indonesia, where, since the 1970s, local progressive Muslim intellectuals have prepared an intellectual climate and seedbed that is conducive to critical reflection on things Islamic.

The ideas of Arkoun and Hanafi, and later also of al-Jabri and Abu Zayd, were picked up by a younger generation of Muslim intellectuals. Young cadres of the country’s largest traditional Islamic mass organisation, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), have used them to develop an alternative critical discourse which they call ‘Islamic Post-Traditionalism’. Intimately familiar with the traditions of Islamic learning in rural Indonesia, they are equally at home in postmodern philosophy and postcolonial theory. Their counterparts on the reformist-modernist side of the spectrum have done similar things. Supported by senior leaders and intellectuals in the Muhammadiyah, they have formed a network promoting what they call ‘Transformative Islam’.

Outside of the geographical Muslim world, in the migrant communities of Europe, America, and Australia, Muslims have initiated their own projects. In the UK, the Muslim Institute is publishing a Granta-like periodical called Critical Muslim. In 2015, a group of academics from Muslim backgrounds started the scholarly journal Re-Orient: The Journal of Critical Muslim Studies. The critical study of religion may have its origins in the Western academe, but scholars and intellectuals elsewhere are exploring their own avenues of positive critical engagement with their religious traditions.

* Carool Kersten is Reader in the Study of Islam and the Muslim World at King’s College London. He is the author or editor of ten books, and hast just completed another monograph on Contemporary Muslim thought. His research interests include the intellectual history of the modern Muslim world, Islam in Southeast Asia, and the study of Islam as a field of academic inquiry. He also maintains the Critical Muslims blog.