Jonathan A.C. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy. London: Oneworld Publications, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jonathan A.C. Brown (JB): Through my teaching and public speaking, I got the sense that there was a need for a book that brought the history, inner workings, and contributions of the Islamic tradition of scriptural interpretation to a general audience. In particular, I was constantly asked “How should we understand such and such a Quranic verse or such and such a Hadith?” Then, of course, there were the ubiquitous questions around “Islam and Violence,” “Islam and Gender,” etc. I wanted to write a book that would provide specific answers to lots of these questions but would also give an intelligent, non-expert reader the framework to think about the Islamic tradition in a different way. I wanted to write a book that would help a reader answer the above sort of questions themselves.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JB: The overall topic of this book is the interpretation of scripture in Sunni Islam, told through both a history (chronological) and sort of a narrative travel log (geographical). The introductory chapter starts out in Egypt during the 2011 revolution and then follows the questions of Shariah, politics, and authority up through the 2013 coup. The first body chapter is rooted in India, using the life of the famous eighteenth-century scholar Shah Wali Allah to trace a history of the pre-modern Islamic intellectual tradition. The next chapters move from the fall of the Ottoman Empire to Egypt and mid-twentieth-century debates over Islam and modernity. One chapter is based in the Indian Ocean world of Sufism in Yemen and madrasas in Malaysia. Finally, the conclusion sums up the topics addressed in the book, using the issue of domestic violence as a lens to do so. It is set in the US, in the Muslim Student Associations of American universities.
If I were to point to one major theme in the book, it has to do with tracing how Muslim scholars have endeavored to reconcile truth in their scriptures (the Qur’an and Sunna) with truth outside it (reason, empirical observation). The book offers an overview of how the pre-modern Sunni tradition handled this with respect to law, theology, and mysticism, but the real drama starts with the beginning of colonialism and the Muslim encounter with the modern West. The book explores the variety of responses that Muslim scholars took to the new challenges and crises that this encounter has posed to their scriptural tradition. In particular, I use case studies such as the varied perspectives of modern Muslims scholars and movements on jihad, the question of Muslim women leading prayer or leading states, domestic violence, the issue of the “seventy-two virgins” awaiting martyrs, and Islamic law on homicide.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
JB: My most recent article publications aimed at producing the hard, tedious work needed to explore new fields in Islamic intellectual history. In particular, they focused on the questions of how authority has functioned in the Sunni tradition, how Muslims have weighed the competing priorities of textual authenticity with communal utility, and the tension between Muslim scholars’ avowed submission to revealed texts and the ineluctable role reason played in their critiques of scripture. With all that work done, in this book I could build on that scholarly foundation but focus more on bigger questions of how Islamic law and theology were shaped between the poles of authority, utility, scripture, and reason. This book also further develops on themes I addressed in prior books I have written, such as Muhammad: A Very Short Introduction (2011), such as the history of Western antipathy for Islam. In particular, I discuss in more depth the question of Aisha’s age when she married the Prophet. I dealt with this in the Muhammad book, but this new book includes what I think is the most comprehensive treatment so far of that very controversial topic.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JB: My hope is that this book will be read by Muslims interested in their religion, scholars of Islamic studies or parts of the Muslim world, and finally non-experts looking for a book that expands their area of knowledge.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JB: Well, I am looking for a good lake to purify myself in. Books are tough! I am the editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Law, and that always takes a huge amount of effort. Editing an encyclopedia is a task I am looking forward to never doing again. Between planning the contents, finding authors, editing entries, and writing entries when no authors can be found, it is quite exhausting. But it is also a real chance to help advance the state of knowledge on an important topic. The project is about three-fourths done now, and so far it is extremely high quality. I would like to focus on getting that done now.
J: How would you like to see this book affect current discussions of Islam among a variety of different audiences?
JB: My hope is that readers of this book interested in Islamic intellectual history will find a more in-depth, diachronic study of the subject of scripture and interpretation. The book is ideal for someone who reads the headlines these days and wants to know what is going on behind the controversy. I think that the book would also be very interesting for those interested in Christian and Jewish studies, since it places the Islamic interpretive tradition in a comparative light. Finally, the book is a contribution to Islamic studies. It contains a great deal of original research on Hadith, Islamic law, and Sufism. It also draws on manuscript research and brings some unpublished sources on Islamic thought to light.
Excerpt from Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy
Upstarts at the End of Time
Cosmopolitan Istanbul attracts visitors with the iconic hilltop mosques and romantic bazaars of a past it has tried hard to escape. Republican Turkey’s fraught relationship with its Ottoman, Islamic ancestry has long been on display in the neighborhood clustered around the weathered domes of the Fatih Mosque. Off the main tourist route, located as it is in an area that guidebooks label “conservative,” the Fatih Mosque was built by Mehmet the Conqueror when he took the city in 1453. It quickly became the beating heart of the Ottoman Empire’s religious establishment. Generations of ulama flocked to its famous “Eight Madrasas” from as far as Cairo and Samarqand to teach and study, departing only to staff madrasas in provincial metropolises like Belgrade or Shariah courts in Baghdad or Cairo.
Today the environs of the Fatih Mosque are cheery and peaceful. When I first visited, the sun had not yet vanquished the predawn chill of the Istanbul spring, and the old men who remained in the mosque after the dawn prayer sat huddled in the mosque’s sole heated room. I had come to attend the lessons of one of them, a man in his eighties who was the last surviving student of an Ottoman scholar who had refused to accept the modern world.
When Mehemmet Zahit Kevseri taught there in the years before the First World War, the Fatih madrasas still basked in imperial pride, despite the Ottomans’ extensive modernization of the state’s educational system. Before he fled the Republican militias of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Kevseri had been the most senior instructor in the Ottoman clerical elite. He may well have helped formulate the last declaration of Jihad by the caliph of an Islamic empire in November of 1914. Ironically, it was the graduates of that empire’s Europeanized military academies (too successful for the sultan’s own good, it turned out) who ultimately freed Istanbul from foreign occupation in 1922. They considered the conservative ulama to be a clerical barbarism and a prime impediment to progress. The antipathy was mutual. The secular, westernized republic that Ataturk and his cadre inaugurated wiped away all traces of the Islamic caliphate that Kevseri knew and embodied everything he despised.
In the winter of 1922 Kevseri arrived in Cairo, a penniless exile, and eventually found work cataloging the Turkish and Persian manuscripts in Cairo’s royal library. He lived dispossessed and frugally until his death in 1952, not two weeks after a military coup by young, nationalist, secularizing officers had toppled Egypt’s monarch, the last potentate of the Ottoman world. For thirty years Kevseri had lived in Cairo, writing at home and teaching students in an impenetrably high literary Arabic lightened by the labial delicacy of his Turkish accent.
And he had raged. He had raged against Ataturk’s abolishment of the caliphate, God’s shadow on earth and Muhammad’s rightful successor. He had raged against Egypt’s stupid, bewitched reformists, whose aim of matching the Western powers was matched only by their need to please them. He had raged most of all against the modernist ulama, who “tore up our religion to adorn our earthly world,” not realizing that “our world does not endure, and now neither does what we have torn up.”
For Kevseri, there was no modern world. There was only a glorious past that endured into the present until it was ripped away. There was only God’s law, the truth of Islam and the countless tomes penned by the great ulama of its halcyon days. In his modest apartment in Cairo, Kevseri answered fatwa requests from around the world and taught his students. For them he was a living relic of that past. Few of its minds had ever been his equal. He was an ocean of knowledge, his students recalled. It seemed as though the whole heritage of the Islamic past floated at his command as he scribbled countless journal articles, raging against all that was distorted around him, quoting from memory vanished pages from the imperial libraries of Istanbul.
[Excerpted from Misquoting Muhammad: The Challenges and Choices of Interpreting the Prophet’s Legacy, by Jonathan A. C. Brown. © 2014 by Jonathan A. C. Brown. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]