Ijtihad and Civilizational Progress: Imperialism, Capitalism, and the Roots of 19th Century Muslim Religious Reform

By Aria Nakissa
Submitted to Session P4898 (Sovereignty Reformed: Ottoman Authority between the International and the Islamic in the Tanzimat Era, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
During the 19th century, European imperial rule introduced liberal ideals of governance to much of the Muslim world, thereby transforming indigenous understandings of Sharia law. It is widely recognized that such transformations generated a new notion of ijtihad, such that ijtihad came to be associated with prevailing 19th century ideas about “civilizational progress”. Nevertheless, existing scholarship on Islamic law does not offer a systematic analysis of such ideas, or their relationship to matters of international capitalism, race, and colonialism. The proposed presentation offers such an analysis, and draws out its implications for modern religious reform movements which seek to reshape Sharia doctrine through ijtihad. The analysis is based on two sets of primary source texts. The first set of texts consists in late 19th and early 20th century writings on colonial policy vis-à-vis the Muslim world. Special attention is given to the writings of Evelyn Baring, George Nathaniel Curzon, and Frederick Lugard - prominent British colonial officials charged with governing Muslim populations in Egypt, India, and Nigeria. The second set of texts consists in late 19th and early 20th century Arabic writings on ijtihad and civilizational progress. Special attention is given to Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida, as well as more secular contemporaries like Shibli Shumayyil and Taha Husayn. I argue that 19th century ideas of civilizational progress presume that technology and economic output advance to ever higher levels. Meanwhile, morality is tied to particular aims; namely, securing as much freedom and equality as possible, while reducing human suffering as much possible. The extent to which these aims are achievable depends (in large part) upon levels of technology and economic output. Advanced European capitalist nations have the highest levels of technology and economic output, thereby enabling them to engineer the most advanced forms of morality (which are embodied in European institutions and law codes). Such nations have a moral obligation to impose more advanced forms of morality on other nations (e.g., Muslim nations) through imperial rule (i.e., the civilizing mission). I suggest that Muslim reformist discourses which invoke ijtihad exhibit a fundamental tension. Hence, these discourses embrace the ideal of civilizational progress. Nevertheless, such discourses also disavow (or ignore) the economic, racial, and imperial dimensions of this ideal. I argue that understanding the preceding tension is key to understanding the politics of Muslim religious reform, both as championed by Muslims and as championed by European imperial powers.