Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace

Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace

Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace

Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace


Irfan Ahmad makes the far-reaching argument that potent systems and modes for self-critique as well as critique of others are inherent in Islam--indeed, critique is integral to its fundamental tenets and practices. Challenging common views of Islam as hostile to critical thinking, Ahmad delineates thriving traditions of critique in Islamic culture, focusing in large part on South Asian traditions. Ahmad interrogates Greek and Enlightenment notions of reason and critique, and he notes how they are invoked in relation to "others," including Muslims. Drafting an alternative genealogy of critique in Islam, Ahmad reads religious teachings and texts, drawing on sources in Hindi, Urdu, Farsi, and English, and demonstrates how they serve as expressions of critique. Throughout, he depicts Islam as an agent, not an object, of critique.

On a broader level, Ahmad expands the idea of critique itself. Drawing on his fieldwork among marketplace hawkers in Delhi and Aligarh, he construes critique anthropologically as a sociocultural activity in the everyday lives of ordinary Muslims, beyond the world of intellectuals. Religion as Critique allows space for new theoretical considerations of modernity and change, taking on such salient issues as nationhood, women's equality, the state, culture, democracy, and secularism.


On 29 August 2012, a day after Tom Holland’s debatable documentary Islam: the Untold Story (based on his book In the Shadow of the Sword) was broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, journalist-writer Ed West published a blog post in the Telegraph titled “Can Islam Ever Accept Higher Criticism?” West (2012) summarized the aim of the “atmospheric and intelligent” documentary as an examination of “the early history of the religion [Islam] … to explain what evidence we have for the traditional history, as viewed by the faithful.” Quoting from Holland, West concluded that this “evidence is almost non-existent.” in the rest of his post, West gave one piece of “evidence” after another to endorse Holland’s documentary. To mobilize credibility for the film, West clarified that Holland was not “anti-Islam.” Toward the end of his post, West referred to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a well-known scholar of Islam at George Washington University who appears in the documentary, as follows: “He feels culturally under attack from Western-dominated criticism.” West concluded with patronizing advice: “If the Islamic world is to go forward … it needs to face these uncomfortable questions and embrace the pain of doubt.”

West aimed to show that Islam knows no critique and is unlikely to embrace critique in the future, as the title of his post made amply clear. For West, even a professor like Nasr is threatened by Western-dominated criticism. That Muslims have been and are critics was well beyond West’s ken. Importantly, in posing the question, “Can Islam Ever Accept Higher Criticism?” it never occurred to West that his own commentary on Holland in the Telegraph was far from critical.

In contrast to the conventional wisdom on Islam exemplified by West’s blog post in the Telegraph—and shared widely by most academics, nonacademic intellectuals, and the general public—Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace demonstrates multifaceted thriving traditions of critique in Islam, laying bare the principles, premises, modes, and forms of critique at work. It discusses believers in Islam as dynamic agents, not mere objects, of critique, for which the standard word in Urdu is tanqīd or naqd. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in India, it foregrounds critique and tradition as subjects of anthropological inquiry in their own right. Since tra-

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.