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

Omid Safi, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. 293 pages.

This is an excellent book. With a beautiful, exemplary scholarly style, Omid Safi treats the reader to a deep sounding of accounts of the frequently marginalized players and problems of Islamicate intellectual, religious, political, and social history. The welcome news is that we must learn to treat nothing as marginal in the formation of culture and thought. The audiences and conversations analyzed and interpreted here provide a previously largely unnoticed door to some very serious truths about the rise, formation, and especially the characteristic institutional formations of early and later medieval Islamicate society. While I think the title is a mistake (premodern produces inappropriate expectations), one is equally sympathetic with the author’s avoidance of the “M” word for a number of reasons. One of the most pernicious of these is that medieval frequently functions as a euphemism for Islamic or Islamicate in a milieu still disinclined to appreciate the formative, creative, and enduring genius of this great civilization and the debt that our world so profoundly owes it. Forgive the khutbah, but it seems that this cannot be repeated too often, unfortunately.

The book is divided into six chapters that explore the formation of a special, sui generis, type of Islam at the hands of the Saljuqs and their deft (and sometimes thankfully duplicitous) negotiations with a number of actors in the drama: “Deconstructing the Great Saljuq Myth” (chapter 1), “The Nizam’s Realm, the Orderly Realm” (chapter 2), “Saljuq State Apparatuses” (chapter 3), “The Shifting Politics of al-Ghazali” (chapter 4), “Bargaining with Baraka” (chapter 5), and “An Oppositional Sufi: `Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani” (chapter 6). Our author’s chief interest is with those writers, thinkers, and spiritual paragons so frequently categorized (sometimes with relief) as [those] Sufis. Safi demonstrates the social and political agenda at work in the “final,” post-tenth-century CE elaboration (as in “icing on the cake”) of Islamic orthodoxy, an epithet that should never be used.

These six well-researched and extraordinarily thoughtful chapters build on the universal, not to say prophetic, vision of Marshall Hodgson’s Venture of Islam by testing his insights and producing a glorious bouquet of new ones. Although the tiresome (and frequently untrue) “this book must be read by all those who ...” is too often read in reviews, it happens not to be merely a cliché in this instance, for this exceptional work explodes so many fallacies (as distinct from “myths.”).

Words of appreciation and commendation in the form of a foreword by Carl Ernst and Bruce Lawrence contextualize the publication as part of a series entitled “Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks.” The author generously acknowledges a wide range of persons (hewing, presumably, to a salubrious and productive principle that none encountered in the process are insignificant to the enterprise). A breathtaking bibliography serves a very useful pedagogical purpose for those intent upon “understanding” Islam, and a rather brief index closes the book.

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