In order to better understand the way progressive Muslims engage and conceptualise the Islamic tradition and the manner in which they approach modernity and its epistemology progressive Muslim thought needs to be placed in the broader context of the not only the past intellectual movements based on the indigenous Islamic tradition stemming from the Muslim majority world but also but also those intellectual streams originating from the non-Muslim majority realm which can be considered as its predecessors in relation to how they deal with the questions pertaining to interpretation of religion and sacred texts , and as a corollary, interpretation of history and time. This is so because progressive Muslim thought, as shall be argued below, is marked by epistemological pluralism and methodological fluidity and self-consciously incorporates modern episteme when self-defining itself.
Wright in his Ph.D. thesis Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics makes a compelling case for the hermeneutical and intellectual linking of what he refers to as European Romantic Criticism and Philosophy with some contemporary Muslim intellectual streams, especially in the case of the ‘Egyptian Literary Renaissance’ embodied by the works of Egyptian scholars such Amin Al-Khuli (1895-1966) and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010).It is my contention that this also applies to progressive Muslim thought as defined in this study.
Wright argues that in the wake of the what M. G.S. Hodgson ‘Technicalist Revolution’[ii] of the 16th century Europe , Romantic intellectuals and thinkers such as G. B. Vico ( 1688-1744), R.Lowth (1710-1787), J.C. Eichhorn ( 1752-1827),J.G. von Herder ( 1744-1803) and Victor-Marrie Hugo ( 1802-1885) developed “reading strategies designated to account for a new modern or contrapuntal sense of time” that for the first time in history consciously become aware of and “feel the distinction between natural and historical or cultural temporality” or change.[iii] This new conceptualization of time ushered in novel intellectual patterns and ways of thinking about themes such as the nature and study of history/the past, human agency, religion and the interpretation of sacred texts.[iv]
This modern sense of time, not evident in the thinking and the writings of the pre-technicalist revolution writers/thinkers, had very important implications in which human beings conceive of and talk about the past and history. For example, the pre-modern sense of time was thought to be world over uniform and monolith. Those actors living during the medieval epoch were not aware of and thus did not make a distinction between natural and cultural or historical time.[v]As such they had not experienced the ‘contrapuntal rhythms of technicalist age’. They considered the past to be finalized, fixed and ‘eternally present’ in the present. The past’s presence in and, as we argued in the third chapter in the context of NTS worldview, imposition upon and the privileging over the present had an important function of vouchsafing the “cultural memory as a potent source of present authority”.[vi] History and engaging in historical writing was seen as a simple act of retrieval.
Equipped, aware of and in tune with the modern ,contrapuntal sense of time the Romantic thinkers “psychologically underwrote the historicist conclusion [of the Romantic thinkers] that history has a history- or as we would say today- that cultural memory is as much constructed as it is found.”[vii] Wright argues that according to Koselleck two crucial historicist conclusions were derived from this modern sense of time, namely that: “history is an open-ended process rather than a closed science and a fatality”; and “that there exists a gap between the historical events and the language used to represent them-both by the agents involved in these events and by historians retrospectively trying to reconstruct them.”[viii]This new way of thinking casts a critical eye on the past treatments of the past and considers that “no past treatment of the past ought to be accorded continuing authority in the present without careful scrutiny.”[ix]This approach thus emphasizes the importance of human agency in ways in which past and history have been treated.
Romantic philosophy, embedded in this contrapuntal conceptualization of time and revisionary history, is founded on what Wright terms the practice of ‘re-description’ (term borrowed from Rorty[x]) that engenders “new vocabularies’ and “makes possible the consideration of things not previously considered-it makes possible the saying of things of previously left unsaid, or previously said, but now forgotten or ignored.”[xi]Moreover, the task of re-description, importantly, is to offer alternatives to hegemonic traditions and to “construct (hopefully) compelling counter-narratives to the selective cultural memory that characterises hegemonic tradition.”[xii]
Romantic philosophy has also developed a unique approach to interpretation of religion and sacred texts. Unlike the tradition of the European Enlightenment and its ‘higher criticism’, Romantic thought/philosophy does not consider religion as a useless, wrong-headed or dangerous remnant of pre-modern times but its relationship to it, according to Wright, is best described in the words of C. West’s notion “of critical alignment with an enabling tradition.”[xiii] Wright sees this relationship as a “project of reconciliation with temporality” that he terms “secularization”.[xiv]
Another important feature of Romantic thought, thus, is that of ‘secularization’ of inherited theological ways of thinking and the putting into operation of secular historical scholarship to sacred books. The term ‘secularization’ here is not linked to its contemporary overly political meaning of separating religion from societal institutions but is defined by Wright as referring to ‘an acute sensitivity to historical context’ brought about by the rise of technicalism in Europe in the 16th century.[xv] In other words ‘secularism’ here refers to a type of comprehensive contextualization and humanization of sacred and religious books and writings.
This Romanticism’s approach to religion and sacred texts, thus, signifies a “move from theology to cultural and anthropological hermeneutics” and a discursive shift from “the timelessness of theological truths to historicism.”[xvi] The words of Herder in the context of biblical scholarship are instructive of the Romantic philosophical approach to religion and sacred writings:
Read the bible in the human [menschilch] way: For it is a book written through human agency for human beings; human is the language; human were the external means whereby it was written and preserved; human, finally, is the sense with which it must be grasped and every aid that elucidates it; as well as the entire purpose and use to which it should be applied.[xvii]
The Romantic thinkers, argues Wright, were the precursors of modern literary historians. Modern literary historians regard any text, including sacred texts , as a historical artifact that linguistically ‘encodes’ aspects of extra-textual environment in which it is produced and as such becomes a form of a ‘palimpsest’ to be carefully scrutinized so as to reveal data of interest.[xviii]That is to say that any text, including sacred scriptures, has to operate within a spatio-temporal dimension. The pre-modern approach to history, on the other hand, argues Wright “did not seek to disembed the sacred text from theological presumptions designated to insulate it from its historical context” considering that there exists an intimate and immediate link between the history-bound reader and the ahistorical text .[xix]
The belief in the secular history of sacred scripture, i.e. the belief in the embedding of a sacred text in a specific socio-cultural reality embodied in a specific linguistic system, however, does not necessarily deny its Divine provenance. The Romantic thinkers, argues Wright, furthermore, subscribe to the view of ‘literariness’ of Scripture that, however, does not undermine the validity of the text’s connection to something which stands outside history.[xx] According to this view, the sacred text, operates at an intersection between the ahistorical, pre-modern theological vertical ‘axes’ and that of the time-bound ,contextual horizontal axes which are as conceived as being able to co-exist.
The processes and ideas propelling European technicalism were not constrained to
Europe and the West but also profoundly influenced the Muslim majority world. The 16th and the 17th centuries in particular witnessed an era of the export and the establishment of European technicalism and its technicalist revolution by means of European military and economic dominance and the colonization of much of the Muslim majority world. Dubbed “The Great Western Transmutation” by Hodgson this ‘modernisation ‘ impetus was , argues Wright , to have an enormous effect on how some Muslim intellectual and scholars were to view and deal with their culture-religious Islamic heritage (Islamic tradition). Although the response to this ‘intrusion’ , as mentioned in the third chapter, varied from an enthusiastic embrace to pessimism and sustained disdain the intangible dimension of the technicalist revolution and its the contrapuntal flow of time, in what Wright creatively describes as a ‘Trojan Horse fashion’, affected the Muslim thinkers’ perception of time which started to reflect itself in the manner in which they channeled their mental and cognitive energies to the study of the Islamic past. The adoptation and the adaptation of European Romantic thinking among some 20th century Muslim thinkers in the Muslim world such as T.Husayn ( 1889-1973) ,A. Al-Khuli( 1895-1966) and most recently N.H. Abu Zayd (1943-2010) and A. K. Soroush ( 1945 - ) manifested itself the increasing employment of sophisticated and nuanced literary-historical tools developed by literary historians based on the recognition of the need to comprehensive contextualization and historically embed the traditional Islamic sciences beyond those developed by the classical Muslim scholarship. Progressive Muslim scholarship and thought is in great affinity with the views and the intellectual fruits of European Romantic Criticism as they relate to the study of the past, religion and sacred texts.
To sum up I contend that many ideas to which progressive Muslims subscribe especially in relation to historical inquiry and the study of sacred literature are in affinity with those developed and espoused by the European Romanticist thinkers and can be seen broadly as an intellectual continuation of their ideas the different time periods and contexts notwithstanding.
taken from chapter five of this book of mine ( free PDF).
[i] This section relies heavily on the work of P.Wright, Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics, Ph.D. Thesis ,
, Chapell Hill,2008. University of North Carolina
[ii] Not to be confused with the Industrial Revolution as it is broader in its scope including not only advanced industries but also societal elements such as banking, health care, police etc.See M.Hodgson, The Venture of Islam.
[iii] Wright, Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics ,19,38. The historical or cultural temporality differs from natural temporality in three ways. Unlike natural change, historical change as determinant of social reality is subject to variability of ‘acceleration’ and ‘deceleration’ and it’s characterized ‘heterogeneity’ and ‘multilevelledness.’ H.White, Foreword to K.R. Koselleck ,The Practice of Conceptual History-Timing History, Spacing Concepts,tr. By. T.S.Presner and Others,Stanford University Press,Stanford,2002,p. xi.
[iv] C.Fasolt, The Limits of History, The University of Chicago Press,
[v] Koselleck defines historical time as being “tied to social and political units of action, to particular acting and suffering human beings , and to their institutions and organizations.” Koselleck, The Practice,110.
[vii] Wright, Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics,p.19.
[x]Rorty, R. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.
Cambridge: University Press, 1989,pp.7-8. Cambridge
[xi] Wright, Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics p.36
[xii] Ibid, p.54.
[xiii] C.West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism.
Madison: , 1989,p.233. University of Wisconsin Press
[xiv] Wright, Modern Qur’anic Hermeneutics, p.47.
[xv] Ibid. p.54.
[xvii] Cited in Ibid,p.50.