Between the Seventh and the Twenty-first: Musings on Texts and Contexts in the Early Twenty-first Century

Monotheistic traditions of the Abrahamic variety have commonly conceived of the Divine interactingwith this world through the Divine Word. No surprise, then, that the Qur’an refers to the Jews, Christians, and Muslims as “People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitab). Yet the task of seeking and finding God is not as simple as opening a book, even the Book. Reading religious words necessitates some self-awareness about the revelation’s context, the history of interpretations that stands between us and the text, and our own situatedness. What follows is a series of musings on these principles.

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.

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