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Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought.

Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought. By MICHAEL COOK. Cambridge: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2000. Pp. xvii + 702. $85.00.

As I write this review newspapers are reporting that "vigilante groups" are bursting into Tehran dormitories and homes searching for VCRs and satellite-TV receivers to smash, attacking couples holding hands in the street, and burning down movie theatres. They are storming into restaurants in search of women wearing their scarves too loosely. According to such reports, the command to enforce Islamic social values is fiercely enacted by these groups who seem to have no doubts about the answer to the question, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

The value of Michael Cook's book is to put these kinds of actions into their historical, social, and legal perspective. The manner in which Cook has accomplished this will leave his readers in awe of not only the scope and depth of his research and understanding but also the eloquence, precision, and detail with which the results are presented. At seven hundred pages, this is a weighty tome indeed, but that hardly even gives measure to its sheer quantity since about half of that space is taken up by footnotes in small type, reflecting reading far and wide through history (classical to contemporary) and languages (Arabic, Persian, and Turkish sources abound), in print and manuscript. Such extensive footnotes have kept the text of the book eminently readable and are themselves mines of information and detail. Furthermore, a true sense of intellectual synthesis pervades the book, meaning that the integration of a broad range of scholarly work on medieval scholasticism, for example, is fully displayed (as it is on the later and modern periods as well). We are presented with a treasure trove of Islamic thought throughout the centuries of its existence, with a veritable comprehensive intellectual history focused on legal and theological positions.

Twenty chapters in five parts make up the thoroughly convincing presentation. The central question posed is to what extent do individual Muslims feel they must go in order to put into action [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] statements (found in eight individual verses with little elaboration) and prophetic dicta regarding commanding right and, especially, forbidding wrong. The elements from Muhammad establish crucial principles (far more than the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) with the prophet reported as having said, "Whoever sees a wrong and is able to put it right with his hand, let him do so; if he can't, then with his tongue; if he can't, then with [or in] his heart, which is the bare minimum of faith." Early biographical material suggests that various themes emerged among Muslims in clarifying the extent and the focus of forbidding wrongs: the responsibility to confront the state apparatus and to confront general society with its tendencies to wine, women, and song, couched in a careful protection of individual privacy as enjoined in the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII].

The results of the study indicate that the answers to the fundamental questions varied tremendously over time. Cook, always the good social historian, tries to address the "why" question which lies behind this variation. The exploration of this theme provides the core of the work, through an examination of the scholastic traditions of Islam in which extended treatments of the notion of forbidding wrong are found. The subject of section two of the book, forbidding wrong in Hanbalite literature, allows some access to the social context of the activity as well.

Abu Bakr al-Khallal (d. 311/923) gathered together the sayings of Ibn Hanbal on the topic of forbidding wrong. Typical of Cook's thorough approach in the book, the twenty-five-page section dealing with this work is based textually on the comparison of three printed editions and one manuscript, all collated and carefully documented in the notes. This work provides the fullest early documentation of how the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and prophetic dicta were implemented; the analysis shows that the doctrine was an apolitical one which kept its distance from the political powers of the time and made no demands of, and had no expectations of, the caliph. In dealing with individuals in need of moral correction, the approach was non-invasive, seizing the opportunity to speak to them when the occasion necessitated it and taking action only where it did not endanger oneself. Otherwise, recourse to performing the duty in the heart was always sufficient. This analysis of the quietist attitude differs from that of other modern scholarly portrayals of Ibn Hanbal, especially that of Madelung, and Cook details the points of varying interpretation fully in his notes.

An activist Hanbalism started to emerge in the fourth/tenth century as a result of the growing popularity of the legal school and the weakening of the power of the caliphate. The theory behind this stance is analyzed through the works of Abu [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ibn [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (d. 458/1066) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] al-Qadir al-Jili (d. 561/1166). These authors present the conditions and obligations for forbidding wrong in a somewhat systematic form, emphasizing the need for knowledge of the law, the knowledge of the fact of violation, and the persistence of the action, that forbidding wrong must not lead to a greater wrong, that it must be likely to succeed, and that it must not involve personal risk although even if it does, it would be permissible to proceed. These theories do not mesh well with the sense of increased Hanbali action in the streets in this era, but Cook argues that the shift to a positive attitude towards the state evidenced in the treatments is crucial to explaining the increased vigilance evidenced down to the sixth/eleventh century (with Ibn al-Jawzi being the best enunciator of the position). With Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), Hanbali cooperation with the state reached new heights and, as such, supported his extensive attempts to forbid wrong. In his work devoted to the topic, Ibn Taymiyya is careful to argue for respecting a balance of costs and benefits in assessing the necessity for action in any given instance. He also argues that the duty to perform the action primarily falls on those in authority (the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] ulu 'l-amr); this is the purpose of state power, and the administrators are the ones who have the power to be successful in accomplishing the duty of forbidding wrong (a position which obviously has moved far from Ibn Hanbal's non-involvement with the state). The story then moves to the continuation of Ibn Taymiyya's notions in the thought and legacy of Ibn [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] al-Wahhab (d. 1206/1792) in Najd; the account stretches all the way to the recently deceased Ibn Baz, by which time one sees the final effects of the institutionalization of the duty of forbidding wrong which appears to have started in the second Saudi state (1823-87) and today exists in a committee charged with civic responsibility.

The Hanbali treatment of the topic sets the dimensions and the points of inquiry for the rest of the book, and this review can only barely sketch the basic framework of the treatment Cook gives each element. Part three deals with the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the Zaydis, and the Imamis. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], as a stream of Muslim intellectual thought, proclaimed as part of its "five principles" the forbidding of wrong and commanding of good. While there may have been a quietist tradition early on, under systematic thinkers such as Mankdim (d. 425/1034) the doctrine was elaborated and remained fairly consistent through time and place. The [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] gave no place to performing the duty in the heart and emphasized activism that rewarded heroism and engaging in armed struggle to accomplish the goal. The classical form of Zaydism followed the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] stance; however, starting perhaps in the sixteenth century, Zaydi thought became more aligned with Sunni Islam, and performance in the heart and rejection of rebellion against unjust rulers, as illustrated by the work of Shawkani (d. 1250/1834), became a focus of their platform.

The Imami [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] have, according to Cook, the "richest and most continuous documentation of the doctrine of forbidding evil of any sect or school" (p. 252). Most of the Imami texts are scholastic, however, and provide little insight into the practical application of the doctrine in specific situations. Early Imami texts do not display any extensive, distinctive [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] views, with much of the material being shared with the Sunnis. There is some tendency to put the requirement of forbidding wrong on the Imams (following a variant reading to the text of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In classical times, there is a notable tendency against heroism and a general quietist approach, whereas in later centuries, while the analyses become more rigorous, the approach tends to an even more conservative application of the principle, described by Cook as a tendency to "subvert the classical Imami doctrine," at least until very recent decades.

Part four covers the Hanafis, the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], the Malikis, the Ibadis, and pays specific attention to Ghazzali. The reason all these get lumped together is clearly because of the relative quantity and value of the material. In some periods, for example in Hanafi Ottoman times, the material is reasonably extensive and even produces some interesting variations on the themes. For instance, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (d. 1143/1731) reacts strongly to the previous generation's "puritanical reformism" (the Qadizadeli movement) and he criticizes those who forbid wrong for their own ego-driven reasons. He argues that those whose motives are corrupt are obligated not to undertake the activity; and who, he asks rhetorically, could even think that their motives were pure? Jassas (d. 370/981) is another interesting case, considered an anomaly among Hanafis by Cook, and influenced substantially by Sunni traditionalism as well as the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (rather than the Maturidism that characterizes later Hanafism). Jassas suggests, for example, that it is the duty of Muslims to kill whenever they can and without prior warning those who collect non-canonical taxes.

The [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] present something of a problem for the structure of the analysis in that forbidding wrong was not a part of the structure of law books and it is to theologians who identified themselves as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] that Cook must turn for analysis; yet the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] tradition which became most closely associated with [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (as well as Malikism) does not place much emphasis on the doctrine. Thus, the treatment here, as in the case of the Malikis as well, is relatively brief. Still, it provides some valuable insights about the nature of the law schools and the conditions under which quietist or activist versions of forbidding evil can come about. The treatment of the Ibadis is interesting for the speculation as to how the Ibadis might relate to their forbearers, the Kharijis, on this matter, since we know very little about the latter. The outcome is inconclusive, however, although the association of forbidding wrong with rebellion under the Kharijis continues to play its role.

The concluding chapter of the book's substantive treatment of premodern Islam is devoted to Ghazzali (d. 505/1111). References to Ghazzali abound throughout the preceding 425 pages and the reader is now rewarded with a detailed outline of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] al-din's extensive and unparalleled treatment of forbidding wrong. I can only imagine that Cook must have agonized over where to place this chapter; I am not convinced that the final choice was the best one. Reading through the book, I found it mildly annoying to be told about the influence of Ghazzali on numerous people and about how the structure of many people's treatments was influenced by Ghazzali, without yet knowing the details of what this was all about. But this is a minor quibble and the current arrangement rather allows the significance of Ghazzali's work to shine through. Ghazzali's careful structuring of his treatment, his detailed attention to the practicalities of the duty, and his use of psychological insight all support his activist position. As Cook says, Ghazzali "has a vivid awareness that life is full of problematic cases and grey areas, and that individuals have to make judgments about them as best they can" (p. 450). The analysis of Ghazzali does not rest there, for Cook then provides a quick, yet highly detailed, account of the influence of Ghazzali's thought on this topic. Once again, the depth of the scholarship involved here is astounding. For example, Cook goes to the extent of examining a number (those "easily accessible" to him, he suggests) of the epitomes of Ghazzali's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], mostly in manuscript form, in order to see if the chapters on forbidding wrong have anything interesting to add; in no case do they add anything, but all the details are set out in the footnotes, including extensive, significant discussion of the identification of some of the authors. I must also mention at this point that Cook is very gracious about acknowledging the help he has received from colleagues and institutions around the world in finding references; he has an impressive set of scholarly collaborators, including a number of helpful and diligent students. A final excursus in this chapter on the Sufis highlights the only apparent specific Sufi contribution to the notion of forbidding wrong. That consists of the addition of a category among some writers for righting wrongs through a spiritual state such that the mystic can invoke the power of God to right a wrong (making a donkey carrying jars of wine trip and break the vessels is one such anecdote cited).

Before launching into the final section of the book dedicated to the transformations the modern period has wrought on the Muslim forbidding of wrong, Cook devotes an admirable chapter to summarizing the themes and concerns of the classical material. The synthesis here is outstanding and the issues--the role of the state, the issue of privacy versus the need to forbid wrong (with special attention to whether women should take action in forbidding wrong), patterns in the social context of forbidding wrong (which shows the scholarly elite to have a central role), and the relationship of the scholars to wider society--bring the details of the book together persuasively.

While it is a side issue as far as the topic of the book goes, I would add one additional conclusion from Cook's examination of classical Islam. Cook is particularly good at bringing out the amorphous nature of the scholastic tradition and the impossibility of clearly separating out individual law and theological schools. The jurists do not always treat what you might expect them to in their law books; the relationship of theological writings to legal traditions is quite uncertain in many instances. Showing the way this works and the literary evidence for it is clearly one of the issues about which we can learn a lot from this book.

One thing missing in the overall treatment of classical Islam is detailed attention to Ibn Hazm (d. 456/1064). The structure of Cook's book seems to have precluded an extended treatment of this significant Zahiri thinker. He does appear in a few footnotes and the odd paragraph. While Cook indicates that Ibn Hazm treated the topic of forbidding wrong in both his Fisal and his Muhalla, he declares him to have had no lasting influence and thus, it would seem, not be appropriate for protracted analysis and only to be cited as an influence on the Maliki tradition. For Cook, "Ibn Hazm's message, though appropriate, was scarcely heard by posterity" (p. 390). Still, it might have been interesting to learn a bit more about his man.

The turn to the modern period is contextualized by wondering whether the role of the scholar, tenuous in classical Islam as it was, could possibly maintain itself in modern times and how the doctrine of forbidding wrong would be altered due to the shift in significance of the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Certain things are clear: the Sunni/[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] split retains some relevance for the analysis, but the legal schools themselves do not. And further, Cook suggests, the main division between the Sunni and Imami attitude is towards its own respective intellectual heritage. For the Imamis, the heritage is alive and "inhabited"; for the Sunnis, it is revered and cherished but ultimately only a monument.

Modern Sunni treatments of forbidding wrong tend to use Ghazzali as their base although, in general, a number of activist writers from the past prove relevant especially for discussing political questions. Interesting is the linkage of forbidding wrong with freedom of expression (and the journalist's responsibility to expose wrongs); as Cook points out, this freedom is a limited one, however, since it can extend protection only to "good" opinions. Overall, the main emphasis of the modern Sunni use of forbidding wrong is as a means of propagating Islamic values within and outside the community in an organized fashion by groups of righteous Muslims (in contrast with the classical emphasis on the personal responsibility for righting wrongs in an immediate situation, which some modern writers tend to fear would lead to anarchy if it were to be implemented today). For the Imamis, a similar process evolved (what Cook calls a "lax syncretism," p. 531) until more recent decades. Khumayni managed to recast the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] tradition (as reflected in a section of a work he wrote on the topic) to an ideology of political revolution and away from the more quietist version that had evolved due to the rights of the absent Imam. For Khumayni, there were wrongs which were so weighty that forbidding them became demanded even in the face of danger (a constraint that classical Imamis had held to) because the wrongs were threats to the very basis of Islam. The minor issues of the past to which forbidding wrong was applied can no longer be the focus of attention, given the impact of imperialism and "westoxification." Such views became widespread and continue until today. Similarly, the substitution of the learned jurist for the Imam in the latter's absence became a central point of Khumayni's thought that has lasted and applies in any case of forbidding a wrong which requires some level of violence. Such action against wrongs should be organized, and that approach to the issue has been implemented in Iran today as a part of the state apparatus. Overall, Cook suggests that Imami scholars are less constrained by the fear of innovation in development of their scholastic tradition, being firm in their knowledge of the depth and variation which that tradition provides them; Sunni [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], on the other hand, are both marginalized in social terms and tied by the conservative attitudes of classical times, and no excitement or new thought is generated. One example Cook provides of a contemporary [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] cleric on the topic Sayyid Hasan Islami Ardakani, provides some measure of the possibility of innovative and even progressive thought among scholastic Muslim writers today.

Two final chapters put Muslim discussions in broader perspective in terms of comparison with historical precedents (Jahiliya, monotheism, non-monotheistic religion) in order to draw out the distinctiveness of the Islamic discussions ("It is an integral part of the mainstream scholastic tradition in Islamic societies; and yet it retains a marked potential for violence, subversion and egalitarianism" [p. 583]). Finally, the comparison is made with contemporary secular standards (with the wry comment, "Nor should we forget one remarkable, if adventitious convergence: middle-class America has come to regard smoking with an intolerance verging on that of unreconstructed Wahhabism" [p. 591]). The tension between "mind your own business" and righting wrongs is observed to be universal. But the hypocrisy of which wrongs need to be righted has brought about the major tension between Western values and Islamic ones, as succinctly put by Cook: "The prevalent Western values thus tell Muslims that it is our business how they treat other Muslims; and at the same time they tell them that it is not their business how other Muslims choose to live" (p. 595).

The book is complemented by a fifty-five page bibliography. I cannot imagine any scholar of Islam, classical or modern, who would not find something of considerable interest and substantial intellectual value in this book.


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Author:Rippin, Andrew
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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