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Guardians of Faith in Modern Times: 'Ulama' in the Middle East.

Guardians of Faith in Modern Times: 'Ulama' in the Middle East. Edited by MEIR HATINA. Social, Economic and Political Studies of the Middle East and Asia, vol. 105. Leiden: BRILL, 2009. Pp. xi + 342. $160.

Scholar-specialists in the core Islamic intellectual disciplines have been central to the development of Muslim thought and theology throughout Islamic history. These scholars, the ulama, defined Muslim understandings of law, creed, and practice of the believers. The changing role of the ulama in Muslim societies is a significant part of modern and contemporary Islamic history. The volume edited by Meir Hatina on the ulama as "guardians of faith in modern times" provides important studies of the ways that the ulama continued to be a significant part of Muslim history and experience in the modern era, although often in new ways, adapting to historic change.

Primary goals of this volume are "to present an updated historical and contemporary survey of the 'Ulama"' and "to re-evaluate the position of these 'guardians of faith' in an era of modernization, reform, nationalism and fundamentalism" (p. 5). The studies present a significant revision of the widely held image of the ulama in the modern era as conservatives, opposed to any change and rigidly repeating outdated medieval formulations of the faith. A central theme in the studies is "that modern Sunni 'ulama' did not only respond to new contexts, they also acquired renewed momentum and contributed to the public discourse on ethical, cultural and social issues" (p. 16). The relationships "between tradition and change, old and new, were dynamic and interactive, rather than separate and conflicting" (p. 17).

This basic conceptual foundation gives a sense of integration to a collection of very diverse studies. The volume also has a clearly defined subject matter. It concentrates on Sunni ulama in the Middle East, primarily studying experiences in the Arab world. The four parts of the book each concentrate on a particular theme or aspect of ulama activity, ranging from premodern to contemporary developments.

After a very helpful introduction which frames the themes and conclusions of the studies included in the volume, part one contains two essays on the status of the ulama in premodern history. Michael Winter provides a broad panoramic view of the history of the ulama as a significant clement within Muslim societies. Although he shows their importance in Islamic history, he suggests a decline in intellectual vigor over the more recent centuries, leading him to conclude that "at the dawn of the modern era, the 'ulama' were in a state of social and intellectual weakness" (p. 45). Shmuel Moreh presents a more detailed picture of the ulama right at the beginning of the modern era, using the descriptions and analysis of the great Egyptian historian of the time, al-Jabarti. This chapter provides an important base line for the subsequent studies in the book.

Part two is the largest section of the book, containing five chapters on the activities of the ulama in contexts of changing national discourses and major programs of socio-political reform. Chapter three by Amit Bein on the political career of Seyhulislam Mustafa Sabri Efendi (d. 1954) establishes the tone of these studies. Sabri Efendi was a politically active scholar in all of the major developments of late Ottoman and early Republican history in Turkey, advocating an Islamic state and opposing what emerged as the secular republic of Ataturk. In Bein's view, "Mustafa Sabri stands out as the prime example of 'ulama' who were unwilling to obediently accept their marginalization" (pp. 89-90). Similarly, the ulama in Libya, as described by Anna Baldinetti in chapter four, were politically important in Libya, both as opponents of and collaborators with Italian imperialist rule in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ulama were also ideologically active in the larger Arab societies. In Egypt, an important center of ulama power was al-Azhar University. In chapter live Rainer Brunner shows how the process of appointing the Shaykh al-Azhar between 1927 and 1945 reflects the politicalization of al-Azhar, as it "could no longer hide behind glosses and supercommentaries on medieval texts; it had to take a stand on the pressing questions of Islam in the modern world" (pp. 139-40). Similarly, in Iraq, intellectual discussions among ulama reflected the major ideological issues of the time. Orit Bashkin concentrates on issues of modernism and science in the debates of the time, showing that leading Iraqi ulama "did not live in a secluded atmosphere; rather, they appropriated and integrated the views of a variety of intellectuals" (p. 164). Among the authors in this volume, Bashkin pays the most attention to the media of communication and the role of "a shared print market" (p. 168) in creating intellectual networks that were vital for the development of the new ulama discourses of modernity. An essay by Ron Shaham on the analyses of Western scholar's regarding the possibility of the ulama developing new Shari 'a-based legal theory concludes "that the probability of the Islamic theory of law being updated by the 'ulama' is low" (p. 172).

Part three has two essays examining the ways in which ulama viewed tribalisms in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Daniel Zisenwine argues that the ulama in Morocco were strong supporters of "a socially conservative nationalist movement," working closely with the "urban-based nationalist leaders" (pp. 209-10). This cooperation created tensions with more rural tribal leaders whose religious affiliations conflicted with reformist ulama priorities and whose local power bases resisted integration into the "national" movement for independence. Similar tensions exist in Saudi Arabia, according to Muhammad al-Atawneh, where the ulama are a significant pail of the political system. Because the major tribes have always been an important part of the power structure, from "the very inception of their movement in the mid-eighteenth century, the Wahbabis have been engaged in reconciling tribalism and Islam" (p. 215). Leading ulama work to define an ever-changing balance between accepting local "tribal" practices and emphasizing the importance of loyalty to the state-defined Shari'a.

The final four chapters (part four) examine intellectual and ideological aspects of the place of the ulama in modern life. David Commins utilizes a case study of debates about Wahhabism in Syria in the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1900-1901 the arguments still followed the old patterns of eighteenth-century polemics. However, by the 1920s modernist Salafis viewed Wahhabism as an ally in combating what both viewed as "the massive threat to Islam that Western culture seemed to pose" (p. 246).

Meir Hatina provides a broad conceptual base for the general position that he presents in the volume's introduction. In his view, the image of the marginalization of official ulama in Arab society is inaccurate. "The harsh verdict of Islamists on modern Arab 'ulama', together with the slighting treatment of them in Western research, borders to a large extent on historical injustice" (p. 252). Contrary to the widely held view, Hatina argues that the ulama are active in major social and political developments and utilize the new media to maintain a significant position in the continuing evolution of Islamic discourse in the Arab world.

The final two chapters present specific examples of the adaptive capacities of contemporary ulama. Muhammad Abu Samra examines the "engagement of the 'ulama' with the liberal discourse" involving "a critical reinterpretation of Islam" (pp. 265, 267). The ulama opposition to liberal thought has taken a number of different forms, ranging from direct confrontational debates, as in the book co-authored by a prominent leader of the Syrian ulama, Sa'id Ramadan al-Buti, and the Marxist critic Tayyib Tizini, to the explicit banning of controversial books. Establishment ulama have usually avoided issuing rulings that declare the apostasy of liberals but have supported legal condemnations in courts, and their responses "tend to be measured and contextualized, balancing among different religious, social and political considerations" (p. 289).

The final chapter examines a significant new element of contemporary Muslim life: "the new Islamic media preachers" who are working "to form a new Islamic internationalism" (p. 291). Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen speaks of the emergence of a "new Islamic public sphere" (p. 295) in the 1990s, with Yusuf al-Qaradawi and al-Jazeera TV being crucial pioneers in shaping this phenomenon. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, new-style personality-preachers became the stars of an emerging "Islam of the Market," illustrated by the success of 'Amr Khalid. The Danish cartoon crisis brought together the new-style preachers and old-style ulama in a clear illustration of the transnational public arena in operation. In the context of the new technologies, Skovgaard-Petersen concludes that "even if the 'ulama' have staged an impressive comeback to the scene, ... scholarship is no longer the only way of achieving Islamic religious authority" (p. 309).

The essays in this volume provide solid confirmation that the ulama remain an important part of Muslim life. The broad framework provided by the editor gives the volume a sense of cohesion, despite the diversity of topics and conclusions of the contributing scholars. However, even though the volume is persuasive in arguing that the ulama dynamically interact with changing conditions and new challenges (rather than being stagnant and marginal), the underlying portrait and operational definition of the ulama is remarkably static. They are defined as "the scholars of Islam," with training in particular educational institutions, becoming experts in specific disciplines, with the primary discipline being fiqh, "the systematic study of the shari 'a" (pp. 21-22). Little attention is given to the possibility that the content of the training and studies may have changed. The training of the Grand Mufti of Egypt in 2010, Ali Gomaa ('Ali Jum 'a), is quite different from that received by the ulama establishment described by al-Jabarti or by the Grand Mufti in 1910.

The scholarly positions of the ulama in this volume are frequently contrasted to the positions of "modernists" and "liberals," often in ways that seem to exclude the possibility that some of the ulama are "modernists" Hike Muhammad 'Abduh) or '"liberal" (like the Bosnian Grand Mufti, Mustafa Ceric). In addition, there is a tendency for the authors to assume an unchanging nature in the subject matter of the disciplines in which the ulama are expert, especially fiqh. In this volume, the reader gets little sense of the vivid and dynamic nature of Islamic legal studies in the past century. Calls for new study of usul al-fiqh coming from important ulama scholars get little attention. The debates about the importance of distinguishing the differences between fiqh as the human study of the foundations of the faith and Shari'a as the manifestation of divine revelation are an important part of the religious and intellectual arenas in the contemporary Muslim world, but fiqh and Shari'a lend to appear as uncontested terms in the analyses of this volume.

Despite these minor reservations, this book represents an important and wide-ranging analysis of the continuing significance of the ulama in modern Muslim life. It should become one of the standard sources on this subject, providing a crucial updating of old classics such as Gabriel Baer's edited volume. The 'Ulama' in Modern History (1971), and a valuable companion to recent monographs such as Muhammad Qasim Zaman's The Ulama in Contemporary Islam (2002).


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Title Annotation:Social, Economic and Political Studies of the Middle East and Asia, vol. 105
Author:Voll, John O.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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