Ep. 9 | Beyond the Realm of Religion: The Idea of the Secular in Premodern Islam | Dr. Rushain Abbasi

Rushain AbbasiThe Alwaleed Program team speaks with Dr. Rushain Abbasi, winner of the 2021 Alwaleed bin Talal Prize for Best Dissertation in Islamic Studies for his dissertation entitled, "Beyond the Realm of Religion: The Idea of the Secular in Premodern Islam." In this study, Rushain challenges the prevailing view that maintains that premodern Muslims did not distinguish between the religious and the secular and that this distinction only emerged with the invention of these categories in the modern, post-Enlightenment West. His longue durée study demonstrates how numerous Muslim thinkers from the medieval to early modern period (1000-1750) regularly differentiated between the religious and the secular in subjects ranging from politics to prophethood. Furthermore, Rushain constructs a radically different conception of secularity that, far from being opposed to the religious, was based on a desire to bring religion to its best and fullest expression. 

Rushain Abbasi recently completed his Ph.D. at Harvard University in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. In 2021-22, he is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities and Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University. Twitter: @AbbasiRushain


Episode 9
Release date: August 12, 2021
Hosts: Harry Bastermajian and Meryum Kazmi
Audio editing: Meryum Kazmi
Audio elements: Break It by Ketsa
Photo: Süleymaniye Mosque by Ibrahim Uzun via Unsplash
Transcription: Otter


Rushain Abbasi 00:01
The prevailing a narrative across the board, ideologically even, ranging from postcolonial scholars in the academy to Islamists in the modern Muslim world to even Orientalists, classical Orientalists, is that Islam and modern Western secularism are at complete odds with one another. For me, there is no rupture, so to speak, between the premodern and the modern. There is a development over time.
Meryum Kazmi 00:41
Welcome to the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Meryum Kazmi,
Harry Bastermajian 00:45
and I'm Harry Bastermajian. We're joined today by Dr. Rushain Abbasi, winner of the 2021 Alwaleed bin Talal Prize for Best Dissertation in Islamic Studies for his dissertation entitled, "Beyond the Realm of Religion: The Idea of the Secular in Premodern Islam." Rushain earned his Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard and will join Stanford University as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities and Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies this fall. Congratulations and welcome, Rushain.
Rushain Abbasi 01:19
Thank you, Harry, thank you Meryum, for both having me here.
Meryum Kazmi 01:22
Yeah, thank you for joining us. So to get started, maybe you can tell us a bit about your background and how you became interested in the topic of the secular in premodern Islam.
Rushain Abbasi 01:31
Sure. So I did my undergraduate at the University of Maryland, and there I majored in history and politics. And it was towards the end of my undergraduate career that I went to Jordan under the auspices of a government scholarship. So the plan was to actually works in public policy, maybe get an MPP, and potentially work in the government. But plans, as they often do in life, changed when I met very interesting people during my time in Jordan, many of whom were graduate students, some scholars who specialize in classical Arabic texts. And after that, I couldn't get enough of Islamic intellectual history. And so I enrolled at Harvard Divinity School where I did my masters. And at that point, I was, in some ways divided between two distinct fields. The first is, broadly speaking anthropology, but really, my interest was theoretical, and that's where secularism comes in. I was very interested in the wide-ranging debates, you know, that we find and taken up in fields as diverse as political theory, sociology, and religious studies, surrounding the idea of what is what is, I guess, the main question being, what is what is novel about the modern world? How do we come to terms with some of the things that have sort of faded away in terms of identity and in terms of, you know, the maintenance of society. And on the other hand, again, going back to my experience in Jordan is the Orientalist and also the traditional study of Islamic texts in their context. And it just so happened that in my PhD, I ended up working-- during my master's ended up working closely with Khaled El-Rouayheb and that's why I ended up doing my Ph.D. with him. And I was very fortunate to be able to pursue such a project, which was able to kind of combine both of these interests. So that's really how I landed on this idea of the secular in Islam. It came from my own personal interest in bridging the gap, so to speak, between social theory and the study of premodern civilization, in the discipline of history and philology. So, what happened was during my first year in my Ph.D., I was fresh off of reading Shahab Ahmed's, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, and though I found it to be a very thought provoking, and in some ways, very inspiring text, I was a bit uneasy about its claims regarding premodern Islamic civilization. And they were claims that are not entirely new, many postcolonial authors have made them regarding the absence of so-called modern categories like religion, like secular, like sacred and profane. So I began this project during a seminar under Michael Cook, during my first year at Princeton, where I studied as an exchange scholar there. And I began to study these terms like din and dunya. And what became very clear to me rather quickly was that Muslims had a very similar sort of conceptual dichotomy to what we now call the religious and secular. And though at that time, it was a very rudimentary sort of analysis in a class paper, ever since then, I've been probing various fields within Islamic thought, ranging from theology to legal theory, political thought, in search for the sorts of seeds of secularity and my aim is not to simply do a historic-- conduct a historical study, but to sort of bring these concepts to bear on our own debates surrounding the secular and religion.
Harry Bastermajian 05:48
Great, thank you for that, Rushain. You touched on this already, but if we could maybe dig a little deeper on sharing with our audience, what is the prevailing narrative regarding Islam and the secular? And why is it important to correct this misconception around this narrative?
Rushain Abbasi 06:12
Yeah, so the prevailing a narrative across the board, ideologically even, you know, it's ranging from postcolonial scholars in the academy to Islamists in the modern Muslim world, to even Orientalists, classical Orientalists, is that Islam and modern Western secularism are complete odds with one another and that one would be a fool to go searching for some separation between religion and the non-religious realm in the premodern Islamic world, since these are, in fact, inventions of modernity. And the main problem that I have with this sort of narrative, and this is kind of a broader point about my view of history, is that it falls into a-- ironically enough, it falls into a certain kind of modern conceit, modernity being obsessed with its novelty, and its newness. And even those who are critical of the developments in modernity, for example, postcolonial scholars like Talal Asad and others who very much set up this binary between Islam and secularism-- and what's interesting is that they base-- kind of reinforce these ideas, and that, you know, the premodern world was this "sacred canopy" under which religion permeated all facets of life and it's only in the modern world, that we get this rising differentiation, this rising sort of rationalization of society. Whereas for a historian of Islam, like myself, and many others, I think we would really disagree with that sort of assessment because when you look closely at these writings, the scholars are very interested in elaborating conceptual distinctions and creating sorts of categories surrounding religion and its relationship to the world. And so the problem for me then is, instead of caricaturing the premodern world based on our own conception of the modern period, and much of this is involved, much of this is indebted to certain theoretical developments in Europe. I think it would behoove us to engage with the indigenous texts of this civilization to ask whether they may prove us wrong in our conceit, and furthermore, that they may teach us something that we can bring those ideas into conversation with the most pressing debates in our in our society, which is, one of which is, what is the relationship between religion and politics? And that, of course, is an important question for the Muslim world in particular, but my ambition in this work is to have these texts and ideas speak as well to contemporary liberal political theory, which is very much in crisis. So there are broader political stakes in my intervention, but more particularly, as an academic contribution, my humble contribution is to undermine and try to reimagine these sorts of assumptions, which we have about Islam and its relationship to modernity.
Meryum Kazmi 09:30
Great, thank you. So before we get into your dissertation, can you tell us a bit about your methodology and the scope of your dissertation? How did you decide to take a longue durée approach and to look at different areas of Islamic thought, including theology, political thought, and law?
Rushain Abbasi 09:48
Yeah, it's a good question. The simple answer would be that the methodology I adopt is simply a reflection of my personality. I can't simply remain content with the study of one particular figure with one particular genre. And so I think that's also what inspired me to take on such a wide-ranging study. But I think the sort of question I'm asking requires this wide-ranging and longue durée approach because my emphasis is not on trying to understand the secular in a particular period of time in Islamic thought, in Islamic civilization, or to bring to light a particular figure's understanding of certain debates in Islamic tradition. What I'm trying to do, rather, is to paint a very broad picture of the contestation surrounding the secular, the essential nature that the-- essential sorts of features which emerge when one looks at this idea in Islamic thought. So that, of course requires that different genres be used and it also requires that we look in a different time periods. So just to summarize, what I do is I approach the entirety of this idea of the secular in the way that David Armitage has proposed, this Harvard historian, who has proposed this methodology of history in ideas. So, previously in intellectual history, most famously pursued by Arthur Lovejoy, was this methodology in which one studies a singular idea. For him, it was the great chain of being. For others, it could be happiness, it could be genius. And the problem with previous studies was that you sort of had an essential understanding of what this idea was and you were looking for it's unraveling in different periods of time, which is obviously very ahistorical. But what David Armitage is trying to do, and has done with this idea of this of civil war in history, is to adopt this idea of serial contextualization, in which one does ones best to understand the scope and the history of an idea and its context by looking at the discursive tradition in which it emerges, but also the social and political and cultural context as well. But that one is not then limited to that context, that one can move from one context to another in this sort of serial progression and by doing so, shed a sort of distinct light on the development of ideas, but also allow those ideas to speak to our contemporary concerns, because the fear, the very understandable fear with over-emphasis on contextualism and historiography is that you sort of write these ideas and events and incidents away and don't have the opportunity to bring them into conversation with contemporary thought. So by adopting this method of looking at figures over a broader period of time, you're less concerned with the question of trying to understand a particular time period better, a specific sort of time and space, and more with doing the due diligence of getting the ideas right and trying to interpret them right, but allowing yourself to then engage in a debate with the accuracy of these views with the relevance of them to our own concerns in modern society. So that's sort of what led me to this approach. And what I think is sort of novel about it is that, again, it goes back to my own experience and academic development, you know, starting from even my undergrad, was that I was interested in in both of these sort of disciplinary worlds and the only way to bridge the gap is by creating a sort of new methodology that allows one to traverse time and space in a way that may be uncomfortable to historians, but not without sacrificing the careful philological assessment of texts that is required to really understand these people on their own terms, which is essentially my modus operandi, right, it's to read the texts on their own terms, allow these figures to speak for themselves, which is precisely what I feel many modern Islamicists and theorists have missed out on when they debate the relevance of the religious and secular to Islam. They don't really take into account how these figures themselves and these thinkers employed their own categories in ways we might resemble ourselves.
Harry Bastermajian 14:39
Thank you. So I guess framing this study a little bit, you begin your dissertation by discussing, and I quote, "the grammar of the dunyawi." How can we understand this concept of the dunyawi better and where do you locate its origins in the Islamic world and in the West?
Rushain Abbasi 15:03
Yeah. It's a good question and one that is really at the heart of my entire dissertation. The first thing I'd say is, contrary to what many believe, and this applies to both the dissenters and the defenders of secularism, this idea of the secular was not invented ex nihilo in early modern Europe. The idea of the secular is there from the very beginning of the emergence of religion itself because once you have a concept of religion, the question naturally emerges: how does that realm of life, how does this human phenomenon of understanding the divine, how does it relate to worldly concerns? How does it relate to, for example, those people who do not assent to these religious claims? So, if we're speaking about the history of Christianity, the category of the secular begins from the beginning of its history and if you read the writings of Tertullian, and Augustine and others, they're all-- yeah, at the beginning of Christianity, you have the emergence of this category called the saeculum, or saecularis, being adjectival. And what thinkers like Augustine, Tertullian, and others were all grappling with was how Christians could live in an overwhelmingly pagan society, that is, Roman society. And Augustine, for example, theorizes this space of saeculum, which is this kind of middle world in which Christians can act as good citizens in the Roman polity. And really, the question is, what is legitimate? What are the legitimate activities a Christian can engage in, in Rome? And how are they to theorize and conceptualize what they're doing in society? So all of these religious traditions were grappling with these sorts of questions, even the Zoroastrian tradition, for example, in their legal tradition, they distinguish between personal sins against oneself and those against society. One really being kind of religious, and associated with dayna, the early etymology, possible etymology, of din in the Islamic tradition, and those having to do with inner social relations. So putting that aside for now, in the Islamic context, I think the concept of dunya and dunyawi is, in many ways, a counterpart to saeculum and saecularis. And by counterpart, I mean that it does much of the same work. It has this sort of theological valence, right, that, you know, this world is better than the next, this very common idea to the monotheisms, and it's also very much embedded in this question of, how should we navigate this world given that we now have this revelation from above, from on high? So in that first chapter, I compare the two, the dunyawi and the saeculum, and this is what leads me to the distinctiveness of Islam. There are quite a few differences. And that's what I want to also make clear. I'm not trying to argue that Islam is the same as the Christian West. In fact, my entire dissertation is essentially arguing that Islam had its own conception of the secular which was developed in light of its own theological concerns and preoccupations, its own distinctive history. So for example, and I'll give a couple, the distinction between the laity and the clerical class does not emerge in Islamic thought, with such clarity, and visibility. And that's very much intrinsic to the Christian understanding of the secular. And, for example, when we look at, and this is also pursuant to that point, you look, for example, at the clergy in Christianity, there's a distinction made between the regular clergy who follow a rule who live inside the monastery, and the secular clergy who live out in the world. And the secular clergy, by virtue of their designation are irredeemably inferior to the regular clergy. And that sort of distinction does not arise among the 'ulama. For example, an 'alim who is more involved in society is thereby a distinct sort of institutional figure. And these differences, in my view, come back to another feature of the Islamic dunyawi. The dunyawi doesn't carry this very strong normative evaluation that the secular does in the Christian West. When things are described with saecularis, it often carries this sort of Pauline ideal of the flesh being a sort of temptation to the self, whereas every-- and I've studied it for years now-- I have not found a single attestation of the dunyawi, in the adjectival, that has conveyed this sort of negative value, or has attached to it this negative value. So for example, no one is described as dunyawi in a negative sense, whereas Augustine and many others will use the same term with that pejorative connotation. And so what I try to bring to light are these differences, but what I nevertheless maintain is that the same sorts of distinctions are at work in Islamic thought. So for example, the secular is often associated with the universal as opposed to the religious which is often seen as particular, having to do with a specific community, and thereby not necessarily translatable to other religious communities. And other sorts of features, that we kind of associate with a religious and secular today are very much, you know, for example, the understanding of what is religious and what is secular, although there's some important differences that I try to bring to light, you know, the idea that religion is associated with ritual, religion associated with a founding figure, and a sort of religious scholarly class, as opposed to a secular realm which has to do with basic human necessities, which arise out of, you know, the needs of a society, that it has to do with the mundane, with the profane. Much of these ideas and categorizations are very much present in premodern Islamic reflections on the secular. So, in short, there is much resemblance, but of course, a very clear distinctiveness, which is really a continuous thread throughout my dissertation.
Meryum Kazmi 21:45
I was wondering if you can talk more about how you engage with the work of theorists like Talal Asad, who you mentioned, and also Charles Taylor. In what ways do you agree or disagree with their ideas about the modern secular?
Rushain Abbasi 21:58
Yeah, in short, I think they are exceedingly insightful when it comes to understanding the modern world. And I don't propose to have any kind of specific authority in matters modern, and hence my focus on premodern Islam. So for example, Charles Taylor, I think, has a very incisive understanding of what has changed in the modern period. And though I might disagree with the particulars of what has changed, he really understands quite well the challenges for secularism today, and the challenges it has placed on religion. Likewise, Talal Asad has, in a very different vein, brought attention to how secularism is very much its own religion, and that it is entangled in the state institution, but also in certain power dynamics, which are, of course, embedded in a colonial enterprise and then exported, you know, throughout the world, whether in Egypt or in Europe, in its relationship to the Muslim minority population, secularism is often actively regulating religion, rather than being some sort of neutral principle of neutrality. So that's where I agree with them. Where I disagree with them is in their, what I believe to be a caricature of the premodern world. For me, to put it frankly, there is no rupture, so to speak, between the premodern and the modern. There is a development over time, which is precisely why I said earlier that I locate the origins of the secular back to, you know, really back to the Israelites during the Exodus, but developed further under the Christians, under the Zoroastrians, and the Muslims. And that this, the same sorts of debates, the same, similar, sorts of questions are being put forth, that they're all engaged in this question of the relationship between religion and politics in a very sophisticated way. Now, what has changed is the relationship between these domains. What has changed, and one of the major changes, is that secularism now is very much involved in a sort of anti-clericalism, and an oppositional stance towards religion. Whereas in Islamic thought, and much of premodern Christian thought, the secular was not seen to be opposed to the religious, but rather as distinct to religion, that is to say that religion does not apply to everything, religious discourse is not relevant to all matters of life. And in that sense, I have a fundamental disagreement about their view of, their understanding of history and about how we would best approach the question of the secular and its, I suppose, redemptive status in the modern world, specifically in the Muslim world, but also within the West. For me, I think, for someone like Talal Asad, there's this inclination to throw the baby out with the bathwater. And for me, that's not the best way forward. And that's why I'm trying to reconstitute an alternative conception of the secular from a radically different worldview.
Meryum Kazmi 25:12
Great, thank you. In chapter two, you discuss the quote unquote "worldliness of Islam." What do you mean by this phrase and how do you believe that the Islamic tradition's historic attitude towards the material world compared with that of the Christian tradition?
Rushain Abbasi 25:30
Yeah, so this goes back to something I was mentioning earlier with respect to chapter one, which is that I could not find a single attestation of the dunyawi and premodern Islamic texts that carried a similar negative and pejorative connotation that the saecularis does in premodern Christian tracts. And what I argue is that this has to do with the distinctive worldliness of Islam. And what's interesting is-- so the worldliness of Islam is a claim that many modern people have held on to, and sort of elaborated for their own polemical purposes. So Nietzsche, for example, talks about the worldliness of Islam and uses it to wage a critique against Christianity, and many other Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers who found Christianity to be a very weak, sort of, you know, anti-bodily, anti-social religion. Rousseau also sees the vigor in Islam. And others find it to be its weakest attribute, for example, Voltaire, and others. Modern Islamists have also kind of cashed in on the distinctive worldliness of Islam. So what I tried to do in this chapter is to assess the claim of whether or not Islam is distinctly worldly in comparison to Christianity. And what I found through a study of early Islamic attitudes towards labor, working in the market, and the accumulation of wealth, early Islamic attitudes towards sexuality even and then, more broadly to the political realm is that Islamic theology, in my view, or the kind of the rise of Islam is, in my view, a radically revolutionary development in religious thought within Late Antiquity, insofar as, where in classical Greek thought and in Hellenically-influenced Christianity, the contemplative life is always seen as above the active life, and for the Greeks that meant the philosophical life but for the Christians, that meant the spiritual life. That is precisely why the regular clergy within the monastery are superior, because they've foregone the material world and are devoted solely to God. Nothing of that sort emerges, I think, in early Islam and in medieval Islamic history. Of course, Sufism is there, mysticism is there, and I tried to deal with all the sources that, or secondary literature, that argues for the importance of Sufism. But what I what I tried to demonstrate is that despite the continuities of monastic inclinations and religious thought, there's this overwhelming tendency against retreat from the world. And even when one does retreat from the world, there is a sort of a need to defend oneself or to say that one is going to come back. And even if we put that aside, there is no particular, I mean, to put it simply, the religious and the worldly, are not necessarily at odds with one another. And the greatest example of being sexuality. You know, the Prophet Muhammad has multiple wives, and many of the Companions are kind of divorcing and remarrying, ab initio, really. I mean, they're really just having sex all over the place and it's all over the literature. It's, I mean, in all the pietistic literature it emerges. If a Christian were to read it, they would have a sort of visceral reaction to it. Ze'ev Maghen in his book, Virtues of the Flesh, has a really great chapter on this kind of orientation towards the bodily and the sexual. And so why I have this chapter in the dissertation is because, in my view, this sort of theological outlook very much informs how Muslims deal with the worldly realm, which is to say that for them, they are equally concerned about the question of, okay, where do we draw the lines of the authority of religion? So, for example, where's the Prophet's authority? Where are the boundaries of Prophet's authority or the jurist's authority? They're equally grappling, and we'll get to this, [with] the question of, what is the nature of science and how does it relate to the religious sciences? These are kind of practical questions which emerge, and they are interested in creating conceptual distinctions because they're sophisticated thinkers and categorizing is part of the natural, I mean, it's part of what one does as a scholar. But they are not opposing religion to the development of the world in and of itself. On the contrary, they actually linked the two. So there are very many phrases, to the effect of, "religion will not succeed without the world succeeding," that one has to develop the world further, or one has to, for example, take care of one's worldly needs, and then they can flourish in their religion. And just to give one quick example, you know, right when the Caliph Abu Bakr was elected to his position, he throws this cloth around his neck and walks into the market the day after, and they asked him, "Well, what are you doing, you need to be concerned with these communal affairs," and he eventually gives in and says, okay, they apportion some portion of the wealth of the community for him. But it's just this very symbolic thing that even the leader of the Muslim community, what one might call the pope, and he has, you know, the early caliphs have been called the pope, insofar as they held temporal and spiritual authority, he goes right to the market the next day, he is not seen as sort of retreating from society. So that's what I mean by the worldliness of Islam. And it is one of the, I suppose, one of the unique contributions I'm trying to make in my dissertation, because it is, I believe, paradigmatic of the alternative conception of secularity I'm trying to outline, because, as I mentioned, in Christianity-- and the modern secular is, in essence, a Christian secular, right, it is indebted to these centuries and millennia-long debates within the Christian tradition. And to move outside of that, I believe, one has to understand that the Islamic conception of secularity began on a very different footing, and thus, was elaborated in quite different ways than, and had a very distinct history, as opposed to Christianity.
Meryum Kazmi 32:18
Before we move on, do you mind just clarifying how the concept of dunyawi doesn't appear as negative in the sources that you looked at? Just because in the context of tasawwuf, for example, it does have a negative connotation, right?
Rushain Abbasi 32:31
Yeah. So the term dunya, itself, has many meanings, and Ghazali, for example, in one of his works, talks about the homogenous nature of dunya, that the dunya and this, I mean, this honestly, is endemic to all religious traditions, right? There's something a little bit wrong with the world that you have to kind of figure out your way in it, right? And so, Ghazali, and obviously, so many thinkers wrote these books about dhamm al-dunya, the censoring of this world, right? That there's something wrong with it. So my claim is not that Islam is unique in not developing this discourse around the vices and the illusory nature of the world. I mean, the Quran is full of this. You know, "What is this world except the enjoyment of a delusion?" "Wa ma al-hayat al-dunya illa mata' al-ghurur." So in my first chapter, I do my due diligence, and I give credence to that sort of view of the world. What I meant is that the adjectival dunyawi, whenever it's been used, has been detached from that negative connotation of dunya. And this is where the second understanding of dunya Ghazali talks about comes in. That's dunya, as the means by which one, I mean, first of all, it is the necessary requirement that one has to engage in by virtue of being a human being. But from religious perspective is the means by which one attains to God, which is to say that in rejecting it, one is rejecting what God has sort of ordained for humanity. And it's that neutral understanding of dunya as a means to an end, or beyond just a means to an end, as a project, a religious project in and of itself, which is to say, one has to develop the world, one has to, for example, cultivate the lands, one has to build cities, this was a conception of the dunya held by many other authors. And whenever the dunyawi been used, it's been attached to that sense. And that's what this what's distinctive from the saecularis, which was never used, I mean, it was used at times in a neutral sense, but it overwhelmingly carried that negative connotation. And I believe that has to do overwhelmingly with the sort of other-worldliness of Christian pietistic ideals, whereas Islamic pietistic ideals are not in a sort of stark opposition to the world. So that's exactly what I mean. It's this sort of subtle point.
Meryum Kazmi 35:15
Okay, thank you for that clarification. So moving along, how did premodern Muslims think about the Prophet's authority in secular matters?
Rushain Abbasi 35:24
Yeah, so this is chapter three of my dissertation and I'll start with a disclaimer. For many premodern Muslims, the distinction between the religious and secular would not have been relevant to the Prophet. So for example, mystics who had a sort of over-blown conception of the Prophet as essentially a kind of, this sort of cosmological, cosmic figure of Muhammadan Light, for example, or those who believe that saints kind of meet in a council and regulate the world's activities. Those sorts of people wouldn't have understood a religious-secular distinction with respect to the Prophet. So what I did in that chapter is I focused on one specific tradition, which was the Sunni tradition. And what the Sunni tradition, in my view, overwhelmingly concedes is that the Prophet Muhammad did not have any special authority in matters secular and that his identity, or his prophethood qua his being a prophet, was attached to his function of conveying the message, tabligh al-risala, and this is precise wording they used. And the locus classicus in the Islamic tradition, which I found used throughout eight centuries of texts dozens and dozens of times is this report in which the Prophet runs into a dozen or so Medinan farmers, and they're cross-pollinating date palm trees, and he tells them that it might be better if they don't do that. And of course, he being the Prophet, they listened to him. And obviously, the crop fails, because these agriculturalists knew what they were doing when they were cross pollinating. So they come to him in fury and ask, "Why did you give us this piece of advice?" and in response, he says, "You know better your worldly affairs. When it comes to matters of the Divine, you come to me" or "When it comes to matters of religion," in some reports, "you come to me, but as it pertains to worldly affairs, you know them best." "Antum a'lam bi amri dunyakum." Now, this is, in and of itself, a very important hadith, but what really struck me is that this essentially became the paradigmatic hadith for Sunni scholars. And I'm saying maybe more than 100 Sunni scholars for whom this hadith clearly attested, or clearly established, that the Prophet conceded authority in worldly matters. And now the question was to his community, and the question was, well, what exactly was his worldly authority? Well, other incidents help elucidate that. First of all, the Medinan farmer incident tells us that when it comes to what one might call the natural sciences, what one might designate as empirical observation and the art of agriculture, the art of learning through observation, it seems the Prophet doesn't have any special authority. In another incident, he decides to broker a treaty, when he's in Medina, with the enemies of the Muslims. And before he does so he asks two of the leaders in Medina, his Companions, what do you think about this? And they say, well, is this your decision? Is this from God or is this you just your own opinion, ra'y? He says, "It's from me," and on that occasion, they rejected what the Prophet's counsel was and they went against it. And this is an important kind of precedent because it allows for certain political or military decisions to take place, not on the basis of religion, but on the basis of experience, on the basis of considerations of statecraft and other such things. And so, what I did in that chapter is I look at discussions of prophetic medicine. Is the Prophet really an authority in matters of medicine when he is not really a specialist in medicine? Or in legal theory, does the Prophet have a specific-- what is the scope of his religious legislatory [sic] capacity? Another is, for example, in the discussions of prophetic infallibility, 'isma, so Sunnis and many other Muslim sects, for example, the Shi'a, believe in infallibility, that prophets are perfect, and that of course implies the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. But if you look at all of these incidents in which he seems to err in his decision making or in his assessment of a situation, or seems to promote or establish or commit himself to the false understanding of a thing. How do we understand that in terms of infallibility? So someone like Qadi 'Iyad, who is the best seller of prophetic biography in the premodern world, he says there are his dini actions and his dini statements, akhbar dunyawiyya, which must remain infallible, that he cannot err in, but when it comes to his dunyawi statements, his dunyawi actions, he can of course be a contravened by whatever is the truth, because that is not his function as a prophet. And what really was fascinating about these sorts of discussions is that they're all doing different things. They're not simply rehearsing what the previous figure said. There are debates around the precise details about where does the scope lie, what sort of evidence must one use and also, it's used for so many different sorts of questions. It has to do with medicine, it has to do with politics, it has to do with law. So in short, they had a very circumscribed view of prophetic authority as it pertained to the secular realm.
Harry Bastermajian 41:18
Yeah, sort of drawing on that, especially thinking about the specific types of knowledge, scientific knowledge, the Hellenic intellectual tradition, how did premodern Muslim thinkers classify these types of knowledge, be it religious or secular?
Rushain Abbasi 41:41
Yeah, no, it's a great follow up question, because it is intimately tied to the question of prophetic authority as well since it has to do with, in essence, circumscribing the Prophet's knowledge. So what I discovered is that a spectrum emerged regarding the relationship between the religious and the secular sciences. So what I would characterize as a minority view in the Islamic tradition is that there is no difference between religious and secular knowledge. And people who would have promoted that view, would also believe, like some modern Muslims, it's very popular actually, in the modern Muslim world, the idea that the Quran, for example, has knowledge of all things, even scientific. This was, I believe, a minority view, but not one that's nonexistent in the premodern world. So for some people, there is no difference to be made. But putting that aside, those thinkers who were deeply concerned with the question of how to understand the relationship between, and this is really from the ninth and 10th century forward, the relationship between the Hellenic heritage which has very distinct premises, which is the legacy of a pagan civilization, and the very sophisticated religious sciences, which are called Arabo-Islamic sciences for reason. They sort of emerged indigenously from the Islamic community. What is the relationship between these two sciences? Because they're studied alongside one another, literally in a single space. And all scholars, more often than not, scholars are masters of both sciences. So what I've found is that a distinction between them, between these sorts of sciences was there from the very beginning. They were called different things. So for example, early on the Hellenic sciences are referred to as the 'ulum al-awa'il, these sort of ancient sciences. That was a sort of geographic distinction, or in some cases, a chronological distinction, that these are ancient and then the Islamic sciences are modern, or they're called 'Ajami and 'Arabi, being foreign and those being indigenous to the Arab world. But later, it becomes epistemological and that emerges first with philosophers. And what becomes a kind of paradigmatic dichotomy in the Islamic tradition is that between the 'aqli and the shar'i sciences or naqli sciences. So the term shari'a becomes associated with religious sciences, and the term 'aqli for rational, in some cases, ghayr shar'i, actually becomes associated with the non-religious sciences. And really, it comes down to an epistemological distinction. So for Ghazali, for example, in his Ihya’, talks about, and it's from his very first book, Book of Knowledge, he's making an epistemological distinction that religious knowledge is based in revelation. And whereas the ghayr shar'i sciences have no direct connection to revelation, they are the product of empirical observation or the product of universal truths that are discovered by way of rational means. And what other authors like Ibn Hazm and Ibn 'Abd al-Barr, going into the early modern period, they all, in essence, adopt this sort of epistemological classification, where they debate the nature of this relationship. And it all has to do with their own inclination. So, to give one quick example, you know, where a religious-secular distinction did not make itself extremely present in this sort of classification of sciences is among philosophical thinkers, which seems counterintuitive, but in fact, if one understands precisely what the philosophers committed themselves to in premodern Islam, it would become very apparent why they did that. So the philosophers believed in this sort of kind of cosmological hierarchy. So in essence, every sort of pursuit of knowledge has to be connected to the other. And insofar as they all emerged from the same source, and their religious understanding of Islam is very much embedded in their cosmological philosophical understanding. So they were not very happy with this sort of distinction. And that's precisely where the religious scholars diverged with them. For them, it was even more important to make this distinction, because if you do not make a distinction between this sort of Hellenic and Arab-Islamic heritage, and you sort of mingle the two together, as the Brethren of Purity did, as Ibn Sina did, and others, you fall into the trap of inheriting and smuggling in all of these beliefs from that pagan heritage, which Ghazali and others try to very clearly reject. So in other words, math is good. Physics, some part of physics is good. But Aristotelian metaphysics is nonsensical, and it totally goes against the Quran. So that's precisely why they were vehement in their attempt to establish these boundaries between these two sorts of heritages, between the religious and the secular sciences. And you know, they all were doing this to different degrees. What is exactly a secular science or not, is much debated. But this is the kind of essential contestation. It really comes down to this dual heritage, and it comes down to, where do we draw the line so that one can engage with it without sacrificing their own metaphysical commitments?
Meryum Kazmi 47:27
It's widely believed that Islam does not separate church and state. To what extent do you find that this was actually the case in premodern Islamic political thought?
Rushain Abbasi 47:37
Yeah, in some ways, this is the million-dollar question and I don't have an easy answer to it, but I do try to tackle it from one perspective in chapter five. And what I set out to do in that chapter is to first show that Muslims, in fact, associated politics and governance with a sort of secularity, a non-religiosity. And by that, I mean, for example, long before early modern Christian and late medieval Christian figures had sort of dissociated piety from politics, Muslims had done so. So for example, Ghazali's teacher, Juwayni, in talking about what are the kind of attributes which are required for the Imam to possess, he elevates competency and sort of tosses out piety. And this, of course, is in light of historical events, which is what Ira Lapidus calls the secularization of Islamic political life, where these nominally Muslim rulers take over, as opposed to caliphs who are kind of embedded in a kind of Islamic religious world. And so many other authors came to this understanding, especially in the mirror for princes literature, that what is not required for good, effective governance is good faith, or correct faith, or pious behavior. In fact, when they did talk about the utility of religion, it was in a functionalist sense, almost a Machiavellian, Hobbesian way of understanding religion as a civic religion. So, and this is, of course, a hallmark of secularism, right, that religion becomes sort of objectified and used, politically, to gain the assent of the populace or to work, for example, as a social glue, by which the polis may be maintained. And that's precisely how they approached religion. It wasn't from this confessional normative perspective, but from this analytical, in some ways, objective perspective. And so I try to bring that to light in that chapter. But the question of church and state right, the separation of church and state is very much a novelty of secularism, insofar as it was kind of the essence of what secularism was calling for. And still, in many ways, secularists will adhere back to that essential principle that church and state must be separate. In Islamic thought, such a view does not emerge in any sort of kind of meaningful way by any mainstream thinkers. And that's for the sheer fact that all premodern religious traditions, not simply Islam, it's not distinctive to Islam, committed themselves to the sort of, especially in the Late Antique Near East, to the marriage of religion and kingship. They all knew very well that the masses are an exceedingly religious kind of people and that if one wants to maintain their rule, they have to regulate their religion, fight off heresies which are, in essence, ideological threats there, it's sort of treason to the king's polity. So this is just kind of par for the course when it comes to sacred conceptions of kingship. The Zoroastrians-- in fact that Muslims inherited this distinct understanding of the marriage of church and state from the Zoroastrians from the Sassanians. Famously, during the Translation Movement, and earlier, they're translating these Iranian texts, the 'Ahd Ardashir, the Testament of Ardashir and others, the Book of Kings, and so forth, all of which are infused by this idea that religion and politics, or religion and kingship, are brothers and must be maintained so. So in some ways, I am arguing that the marriage of church and state is not, in fact, distinctive to the Islamic tradition. In some ways, it was a remnant of a broader Late Antique Near Eastern political theology. And that isn't to say that Islam does not, in some ways, lend itself to that. I do think that one must grapple or try to understand the, inclination to, or, in fact, the obligation to establish Islam as the sort of supreme religion, there are traditions which say that. And many of these political texts will talk about the preservation of religion, hifdh al-din. So how does one do that? In my view, this is an open debate, and they in fact, had different views about this. For some people, it simply meant that you have the Friday prayers. For other people, it meant a sort of preservation of morals in society. But what exactly that meant is highly debated, for example, in a religiously pluralistic society, where other communities have different conceptions of what is, you know, moral. So for example, Zoroastrians were allowed to have incestuous marriages, right? There's no public policy that tried to create a sort of monolithic society. So I think in that sense, secularism is less tolerant than Islam was. So I try to sort of bring these questions to light, to not give a definitive answer to whether church and state did not did or did not exist, but to look at it from a different perspective, historicize it and then try to ask whether or not secularity is relevant to Islamic political thought, which I absolutely believe it is.
Meryum Kazmi 53:22
Thank you. How did premodern Muslim scholars distinguish between the religious and secular in the realm of Islamic law?
Rushain Abbasi 53:29
I'll speak about it in a few ways. So the first, and this is in keeping with the theme of the rest of the dissertation, Islamic lawyers, Islamic jurists, used this distinction between dini and dunyawi, to understand specific aspects of the law. So, for example, following from the circumscription of prophetic authority, when the Prophet says, "You know better your worldly affairs," Muslim jurists in the Sunni and the Zaydi schools overwhelmingly apply that principle to this very important Islamic doctrine, ijma', juristic consensus. Consensus being this idea that the community of jurists have agreed on a specific doctrine or specific principle or specific opinion, and thereby it becomes normative within the Islamic tradition, canonical even. Well, they asked the question, does this apply only to religious affairs or secular affairs, using the term dini and dunyawi. And in spite of a few minor opinions, Sunni and Zaydi scholars said, well, pursuant to the idea that the Prophet didn't have any authority within the secular realm, jurists who are the inheritors, the heirs of the Prophet, also do not have that authority. And then they also elaborated well, what specifically does that mean? For some, it meant rural and urban development, it meant military strategy, so many different things that they would use. And in another example, this is a more kind of mundane feature of court procedure, when it came to the role of the witness in the court, which is, you know, an essential role in the Islamic courts, they asked the question of whether or not hostility is the basis for tossing out a witness from the court, the same thing we kind of ask today, right? Are there some inherent biases the witness might have, which may make him or her an unreliable witness? So they asked, well, we have to first distinguish between religious and secular hostility because religious hostility, they argued, is okay. And they had to argue that because Muslims, in essence are hostile towards other religions because they believe them to be, you know, infidels, right? They kind of assumed that to be the case. And in premodern Muslim courts, only Muslims were allowed to be witnesses. So if you outright banned religious hostility from being present in witnesses, then you wouldn't have any witnesses anymore. So they had to make this clear distinction between religious and secular hostility. So then they define, well, what is secular hostility? It's when, you know, someone has a dispute over someone over property, it's essentially tort, it's about having to do with social relations. So in that realm, as well, you find that these categories made sense to them. And that's really what I'm trying to argue, that the in the same way that it might make sense to us, it made sense to them. Now, they might have come to different conclusions, right? In this case, it led to some form of religious discrimination, which might not sit well with us. But that's a matter of what one believes to be true, and how one answers these questions, but not the distinctions themselves. And even when it comes to the understanding of ritual and the distinction between sort of worldly and otherworldly aspects of the law, this comes to the fore. And one final, important aspect of it, which I think applies to the question of, how did the secular bear on their conceptualization of the shari'a as a whole? One of the best examples for me is this question of, does Islamic law apply to non-Muslims? You know, very quickly, the Islamic state became an imperial state, and it had to adjudicate the affairs of minority religions. And essentially, they continued the heritage, in some ways, the heritage of the Sassanians in allowing, at least theoretically, a sort of judicial autonomy, or legal autonomy, for these minority communities. And they explicitly said that Jews and Christians could follow their own rulings. So for example, you know, Christians were allowed to eat pork and drink wine. They were even allowed to possess an exchange wine, whereas that's, of course, not allowed for Muslims. So they had to ask the question, well, to what extent does Islamic law apply to them, right? And what they conjured up was this distinction, which in some ways was already there in Sassanian law, in some ways already there in Roman law, between the kind of secular aspects of law and religious aspects of law. And essentially, the conclusion they came to is that religious communities are allowed to regulate themselves when it comes to, you know, marriage, when it comes to inheritance, when it comes to ritual and religious, personal status law, essentially, the same thing you find in colonial India, when the British come. They say, the Muslims can follow themselves, you know, can regulate themselves when it comes to personal status law, but when it comes to civil affairs, the colony will rule. And the same conclusion was arrived at by the Muslims. They said when it comes to-- they use the exact term mu'amalat, or ahkam al-dunya. So if it comes to you know, murder, if it comes to property, that's where Islamic law does apply, and in essence, I believe they were conceiving of Islam as sort of a legal system that had sort of multiple dimensions, one of which is religious and other which is imperial or more related to the secular realm. And one kind of vivid example of this is that, in their books, they essentially write that non-Muslims and Muslims are equal--this egalitarian principle is very explicit-- that they are equal when it comes to possession of property, when it comes to commercial matters, they are on equal footing. And this is pretty striking because Muslims and non-Muslims are not equal when it comes to religion, of course, and I already give the example of witnessing, only Muslims were allowed to witness because they essentially believed that non-Muslims did not have the moral probity to kind of be honest witnesses. So religious discrimination or religious inequality was sort of natural when it came to religious elements of life. But when it came to the secular realm, they essentially created this public sphere in which non-Muslims and Muslims could meet each other on equal footing, because it was recognized that there are specific aspects of human interactions, specific aspects of the law that sort of exceed confessional boundaries. And that is a really important aspect of the secularity of premodern Islamic law and I tried to bring more examples of this to the fore in the final chapter, but I'll just end at that.
Harry Bastermajian 1:00:11
Thank you Rushain, for taking us through this very interesting journey through your dissertation and your research. To sort of wrap us up here, thinking about the contribution your dissertation makes to the field of Islamic studies, what is it that you hope other scholars, other students of Islamic history, Islamic civilization, take away from your research? And to sort of take that to the next level, what do you hope to sort of gain from this research, moving forward in your future work?
Rushain Abbasi 1:00:49
Yeah, I hope it makes a distinct set of contributions at different levels. So methodologically, I hope this kind of study will open up the way for future scholars, younger scholars, who are emerging in the academy now to be sort of courageous enough to not be limited by disciplinary boundaries, by kind of methodological boundaries inherent to the historian's craft, which, you know, doesn't allow one to engage in theory, or engage questions of theory, of social theory, questions of political theory, in a sort of rigorous and sophisticated way, through engagement with the past. So rather than parceling out the past and kind of leaving it in the history books, and then debating questions of contemporary concern, simply through engagement with modern thinkers, whether Foucault, Nietzsche, Judith Butler, or whoever else that well, thinkers like Sarakhsi, the Islamic legal thinker [and] Hanafi jurist, Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyya; in the Christian tradition as well; in the Jewish tradition, Maimonides, so many others, they have something to offer us in terms of our own-- casting a new light on the questions which we grapple with today and allowing us to resolve or at least find new ways out of our current crises by thinking about the past in imaginative ways. So, methodologically, I hope it'll make that contribution, that one doesn't have to sacrifice doing good history to make oneself relevant. And, falling from that last point, I do hope that there is a substantive contribution in the debate and discourse around secularism today. And I think the academically what I hope-- and I suppose also, in some ways, confessionally, in the sense that I hope people will listen to it in the Muslim world, but also in the West, in its understanding of Islam and even its understanding of secularism, so in essence, this sort of kind of public oriented way-- I want to bring a more positive and constructive approach, or I want to offer a kind of more constructive approach to the crisis of secularism today. We talked about it earlier, with the kind of postcolonial thread, even modern Islamist thread, there's an ascendancy of the Islam-secularism incommensurability paradigm, and in that sense, Islam is kind of caricatured, and you're kind of left with nothing by the end. Secularism destroys everything and Islam is not in any way-- it cannot in any way be brought into conversation with it. And that leads you kind of nowhere. And again, that applies whether in the public sphere in the West or in the Muslim world. And what I want to offer is a new way of thinking about things. It's not to do away with the important criticisms of modernity and important criticisms of secularism, but it's to say, okay, that's all nice and fine and it's an important contribution in and of itself, but let's try to do something that I think will allow people to address contemporary concerns in a way that doesn't leave them sort of pessimistic about the future. And in that sense, you know, what I think I've offered is allowing Islamic thought to be a rigorous and an important conversation partner with the modern Western kind of secular, political worldview. And to allow us then to think about, well, the future can in many ways be one that doesn't simply, as I mentioned earlier, throw out the baby with the bathwater, which is to say that the principle of neutrality that secularism offers that, you know, it's embeddedness in religious pluralism, religious equality, that that actually does have something to offer us and is something that must be redeemed, and that, in fact, Muslims themselves were in many ways, developing similar sorts of ideas, and in perhaps ways that will allow us to, or perhaps in ways that will not fall into the same traps and modern secularism has, in the way that Talal Asad and others have brought attention to, that it is far more transparent, for example, about its dealings with religion, whereas secularism is far less transparent. It often regulates religion without saying it does. So it often brings to bear a certain theological Christian conception of religion on society in its interaction with non-Muslims-- sorry, with Muslims, with non-Christian religious populations, whereas with Islam, it was far more explicit. So I think that more constructive element is really what I want people to be able to understand and imbibe in their own work, hopefully,
Harry Bastermajian 1:06:12
Thank you.
Meryum Kazmi 1:06:13
Thanks Rushain.
Rushain Abbasi 1:06:15
I really appreciate you all giving me the platform to speak about my dissertation. And thank you to the Committee as well, for awarding me this very prestigious prize. I'm very grateful.
Meryum Kazmi 1:06:32
That was our interview with Rushain Abbasi, winner of the 2021 Alwaleed bin Talal Prize for Best Dissertation in Islamic Studies. You can follow him on Twitter @AbbasiRushain. We hope you'll subscribe to the Harvard Islamica Podcast and join us for future episodes. I'm Meryum Kazmi, thanks for listening.