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Un-reading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an: Beyond the Binaries of Tradition and Modernity

I would like to thank AMSS, and specially Jamin Zine, for inviting me to address your conference on “Islam: Tradition and Modernity” today. Since I am in the midst of enjoying your splendid hospitality, I feel I should begin with an apology for what I am about to say. A polite guest would have praised the food and your conference and gone home without being critical of anything. But unfortunately for you, I was born with an impolitic gene and so I am going to take this opportunity to critique the way in which your conference is framed. 

The basic point I will make is a simple one: It is not very productive to study Islam through the lenses of tradition and modernity. This is not because one cannot say anything meaningful about Islam in those two contexts; rather, it is because binary modes of thinking are themselves problematic. I will make this point in two ways: first by critiquing the tradition vs. modernity binary and binaries in general and, second, by sharing my own work on Qur’anic hermeneutics as an example of how we might get beyond binaries. Whether my comments will serve to muddy the waters or to clarify them remains to be seen.

Tradition, Modernity, and Binaries

Personally, I find these seemingly inexhaustible debates about whether or not Islam is compatible with modernity – in other words, whether it can coexist with science, democracy, human rights, pluralism, rationalism, and what have you – somewhat exhausting and increasingly unfruitful. And this may have to do with the fact that I first encountered these debates, albeit in a very different form, in grad school – and that was already some fifteen years ago. At that time, Latin American Dependency Theory was becoming all the rage this side of the border and, as many of you probably know, dependency theory (DT) was a response to modernization theory (MT), which was a response to the political and economic chaos following WWII. Faced with the prospect of massive decolonization and what was seen as an encroaching socialism, United States policymakers and academics fretted about the future of what would one day come to be called the Third World. Their solution, then, as now, was brilliantly simple if also catastrophically simple-minded: Let’s bring development and “democracy” to these poor benighted countries!

The argument was that in order for Third World countries to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, the United States needed to pump capital into them so as to modernize their traditional sectors that were keeping them “underdeveloped” and “backward.” Heaven knows how many academics, policymakers, and government wallahs built their careers trying to quantify tradition and modernity. To many, it meant capitalizing agriculture; to some, it meant undoing commitments to religion, communal ties, and tradition; and, to others, it meant nothing less than “making men modern.” Then, as now, people in other parts of the world paid the price for this social engineering. And one of the first to do so was Pakistan, my country of birth, that became a playground for the Harvard school, the Chicago boys, and all those gung-ho types in the 1950s. Well, we know how modern Pakistan is today!

By the time I left grad school, the Dependenistas, as they were called, were still giving MT a good drubbing. Their argument, basically, was that the reason the Third World lagged behind the First [World] was not because it was pre-modern or pre-capitalist, but because of the way in which global capitalism had developed. To put it simply, capitalism had underdeveloped one part of the world even as it had overdeveloped the other. In effect, it was not a schizophrenic split between tradition and modernity within Third World countries that explained their “backwardness,” but the nature of the global political economy. DT was, of course, ultimately sidelined and, in the end, did little to undermine the tradition/modernity binary. It simply amped it up to the global level.

Since then, the debates on tradition and modernity have been reframed and, in the intervening years, seem to have been dis-placed and re-mapped onto Islam. The project is no longer to make the Third World modern; it is to make Islam modern. (Of course, not everyone is committed to such a liberatory enterprise; on the flip side, many want to keep Islam in the clutches of so-called tradition.)

One of the good things about grad school is that one gets to leave it, even if only eventually and in a state of utter disillusionment. And, as the years have slipped by, I have discovered another universe outside the confines of graduate work. This process of discovery has involved recognizing the absurdity of trying to shoe-horn Islam into tradition and modernity or, for that matter, trying to shoe-horn tradition and modernity into quantifiable variables. It has also meant figuring out what is wrong with thinking about social reality in terms of binaries.

For one, as Talal Asad demonstrates, tradition and modernity are of a piece and not discrete entities. Moreover, as he argues, when we view the world in binary terms we ignore the political possibilities and “practical options ... opened up or closed by the notion that the world has no significant binary features, that it is, on the contrary, divided into overlapping, fragmented cultures, hybrid selves, [and] continuously dissolving and emerging social states.”1

For another thing, as Islamic theology shows, it is not just possible for us to think beyond binaries, but [doing so is] an almost inevitable consequence of embracing the concept of tawhid, or the notion of divine indivisibility. As we know, Muslims derive their view of reality from their conception of God and, inasmuch as they believe that God’s reality and unity “can be described by opposite and conflicting attributes,” they also view the cosmos “as a vast collection of opposites,” to quote Sachiko Murata.2 Crucially, however, Muslims also hold that this collection of opposites actually displays “the activity of the single Principle,” and that “opposing forces [are not] absolutely opposed,” but, rather, “complementary or polar.”

Roger Ames has pointed out that polar explanations yield a “holographic” view of the world that emphasizes “interconnectedness, interdependence, openness, mutuality, indeterminateness, complementarity, correlativity, co-extensiveness, a world in which continuous foci are intrinsically related to each other.” In contrast, dualistic theories emphasize separateness and “a world of ‘things’ characterized by discreteness, finality, closedness, determinateness, independence, a world in which one thing is related to the ‘other’ extrinsically.”3

I realize, of course, that I am counter-posing these theories very much in terms of binaries! And, my only defense is what Murata offers: Because we can only get to the distinctiveness of polarity by critiquing duality, binary modes of thinking are useful for defining certain positions, especially in theology. My own position, then, is that we forego a “holographic” view of Islam when we use the tradition/modernity binary to analyze and investigate it.

Moreover, if we situate Islam in the realm of tradition, we implicitly acquiesce in the oppression of women, given that the dominant tradition as it is constructed is both patriarchal and monosemic. Conversely, if we situate it in the realm of modernity, we buy into a teleology in which Islam can only become modern if it makes itself over in the image of Big Western Secular Brother by producing its own Reformation, its own Luthers, its own secularism, its own androcentric humanism.

Of course, these are not the only ways to think about the relationship between Islam, tradition, and modernity. But these are some of the theoretical and political problems with imposing the tradition/modernity binary onto Islam. I want to switch gears now and speak about how a Qur’anic hermeneutics can get us to move beyond dualistic and binary modes of thinking.

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