PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, AND SCIENCE: The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change

By Voll, John O. | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, AND SCIENCE: The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change


Voll, John O., The Middle East Journal


PHILOSOPHY, RELIGION, AND SCIENCE The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change, by Muhammad Qasim Zaman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007. xv + 191 pages. Notes to p. 257. Gloss to p. 262. Bibl. to p. 286. Index to p. 293. $37.95 cloth; $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by John O. Voll

The scholars of Islam, the 'ulama', played an important role in the history of Islam and Muslim societies, and they continue to be a significant part of contemporary Islamic life. However, they are frequently viewed as static preservers of tradition whose role is diminishing as the modern transformations of society occur. Muhammad Qasim Zaman argues that this is a major misunderstanding of the continuing importance of the 'ulama', and that their role "can, indeed, only be neglected at the cost of ignoring or misunderstanding crucial facets of contemporary Islam and Muslim politics" (p. 1). This volume is a persuasive and well-documented analysis of the continuing significance of the 'ulama' in modern Muslim societies, with a concentration on their role in South Asia.

Zaman provides an introduction showing the dynamism of tradition, in an analytical framework that utilizes conceptualizations of Alasdair Maclntyre and Talal Asad.1 The first chapter examines the changing roles of the 'ulama' in South Asia under British colonial rule. The second chapter provides a remarkable new perspective on the nature of scholarly commentaries. Instead of being a manifestation of unimaginative preservation of tradition, Zaman argues that the "discursive form of the commentary was, in fact, one of the principal means ... through which the law was not only elaborated but also expanded and modified to meet the exigencies of changing times" (p. 38).

The next chapters examine the development of madrasas in modern South Asia and the relationships between 'ulama' and the emerging modern state systems. Modernization changes the context as 'ulama' increasingly assume the modern-style roles of "experts" in the distinct field of religion in modern society. Chapter 5 examines the refashioning of identities, with special attention given to the sectarian discourses of the radicalized identities of both Sunnis and Shi'ites in South Asia.

Zaman provides, in Chapter 6, a broader analysis of religio-political activism, comparing the actions of the 'ulama' in South Asia with those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. …

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