The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Inquiry

The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Inquiry

The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Inquiry

The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideology and Religious Inquiry


The eleventh and twelfth centuries comprised a period of great significance in Islamic history. The Great Saljuqs, a Turkish-speaking tribe hailing from central Asia, ruled the eastern half of the Islamic world for a great portion of that time. In a far-reaching analysis that combines social, cultural, and political history, Omid Safi demonstrates how the Saljuqs tried to create a lasting political presence by joining forces with scholars and saints, among them a number of well-known Sufi Muslims, who functioned under state patronage.

In order to legitimize their political power, Saljuq rulers presented themselves as champions of what they alleged was an orthodox and normative view of Islam. Their notion of religious orthodoxy was constructed by administrators in state-sponsored arenas such as madrasas and khanaqahs. Thus orthodoxy was linked to political loyalty, and disloyalty to the state was articulated in terms of religious heresy.

Drawing on a vast reservoir of primary sources and eschewing anachronistic terms of analysis such as nationalism, Safi revises conventional views both of the Saljuqs as benevolent Muslim rulers and of the Sufis as timeless, ethereal mystics. He makes a significant contribution to understanding premodern Islam as well as illuminating the complex relationship between power and religious knowledge.


The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam: Negotiating Ideoloū and Religious Inquiry is the fourth volume to be published in our series, Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks.

Why make Islamic civilization and Muslim networks the theme of a new series? The study of Islam and Muslim societies is often marred by an overly fractured approach that frames Islam as the polar opposite of what “Westerners” are supposed to represent and advocate. Islam has been objectified as the obverse of the Euro-American societies that self-identify as “the West.” Political and economic trends have reinforced a habit of localizing Islam in the “volatile” Middle Eastern region. Marked as dangerous foreigners, Muslims are also demonized as regressive outsiders who reject modernity. The negative accent in media headlines about Islam creates a common tendency to refer to Islam and Muslims as being somewhere “over there,” in another space and another mind-set from the so-called rational, progressive, democratic West.

Ground-level facts tell another story. The social reality of Muslim cultures extends beyond the Middle East. It includes South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and China. It also includes the millennial presence of Islam in Europe and the increasingly significant American Muslim community. In different places and eras, it is Islam that has been the pioneer of reason, Muslims who have been the standard-bearers of progress. Muslims remain integral to “our” world; they are inseparable from the issues and conflicts of transregional, panoptic world history.

By itself, the concept of Islamic civilization serves as a useful counterweight to that of Western civilization, undermining the triumphalist framing of history that was reinforced first by colonial empires and then by the Cold War. Yet when the study of Islamic civilization is combined with that of Muslim networks, their very conjunction breaks the mold of both classical Orientalism and Cold War area studies. The combined rubric allows no discipline to . . .

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