The threshold of the twentieth century witnessed diverse endeavors to render Islamic tradition capable of coming to grips with the immense alterations of the fading age of empire. Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935), an Egypt-based Syrian journalist with a background in Islamic studies, took part in that venture through his magazine, al-Manar. Historians of modern Islamic thought differ markedly in their accounts of the character of his contribution and the orientation of his legacy. One narrative suggests that Rida broke with the more enlightened and broad-minded heritage of his mentor, Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905), and turned into a Wahhabi zealot who exhorted radicalism. On the contrary, other scholars have considered Rida as an Islamic utilitarian missionary who was not truly attentive to Islam’s ethos.
Leor Halevi’s Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865–1935 (Columbia University Press, 2019) offers a distinct account in which the Islamic reformer assumes a new visage. Here, Rida is no longer a sullen fundamentalist who betrayed his shaykh or a Machiavellian who compromised his religion, as we have been told. As a publisher, editor, self-appointed mufti, entrepreneur, Arabic teacher for non-native speakers, unofficial diplomat, and political dreamer, he led a life of activity and continuous contemplation. For Halevi, the Syrian cleric should not be subsumed into any one stereotype, or viewed as a one-dimensional man, but rather as a multilayered figure.
At the turn of the twentieth century, toilet papers, banknotes, gramophone records, neckties, hats, and sexy French trousers, to name but a few, were highly controversial objects in the Arab world. In this context, Muslim consumers had to seek intellectual guidance from their religious leaders. For some elite Muslim men, Rida was that leader. Employing foreign commodities as a starting point, Halevi analyzes the rulings or fatwas that Rida issued in response to questions from al-Manar’s subscribers. This analysis, from a historian of medieval and modern Islam who pays close attention to the material evidence, provides us with a sound view of Rida’s project.
Methodologically speaking, the Syrian cleric was generally eclectic when it comes to Islamic legal theory. He did not identify with one school of law or follow a singular sheikh. Rida was not a Hanafi nor a Hanbali jurist. This made him open not only to modern concepts, but also modern goods, technologies, and machines. “His liberalizing rulings were justified by a method of legal interpretation that privileged scriptural precedents (verses from the Qurʾan, narratives from the Ḥadīth) and ancestral paragons (idealized accounts of early Islamic heroes known as the Salaf).” Halevi calls this method “laissez-faire Salafism.” “To defend his laissez-faire rulings in an authoritative manner, Riḍā routinely curated memories of the Salaf and prooftexts that he culled from the canons of Islam.” In doing so, Rida also established a way of ruling that is quite different from ‘Abduh’s. While the latter largely preferred to issue his fatwas in a shortened, concentrated manner and sign it as Egypt’s grand mufti, Rida, who did not have an official religious position, took upon himself the task of clarifying his rulings and demonstrating their roots in earlier Islamic jurists’ works.
Through his “case by case” investigation, Halevi recounts the tale of Salafism from below, from the customer who goes to buy, say, a gramophone to play records of the Qurʾan and a neighbor debates with him the legitimacy of this purchase, so one of them seeks a ruling from Rida. “The commodity came first, however; the religious debate among laypersons followed it; the reformer’s expert legal ruling arrived at the end,” Halevi asserts. “This is an important sequence to mark if we want to understand the chain of causes that led, in this instance, to the trial of a modern object before the sacred law.”
Modern Things on Trial draws fragments of the daily life of early twentieth-century Muslim subjects who lived a breathtaking and unprecedented entrance of “Western” goods to their cities. In this work, we are exposed to a materialist reading of Salafism, to an unorthodox grasp of its emergence. So, “instead of representing Salafism as a movement that intellectual elites elaborated in their ivory towers,” Halevi displays “various social actors, especially fatwa seekers, as active participants in the making of this ideology.” Indeed, “sometimes they [fatwa seekers] went so far as to propose, politely or pretentiously, their preferred way to resolve the problem.”
The Salafis joined forces with the fin de siècle businessmen and Rida, “an international Islamic entrepreneur” as Halevi likes to call him, blessed this coalition. “Salafism emerged as an ideological tool for the reform of Islam in a world where capital was so deeply appreciated that the Salaf themselves had to be resurrected from their graves to work in capitalistic terms,” Halevi rightly notes. 
Rida founded al-Manar in 1898, shortly after arriving in occupied Egypt, and in 1903 inaugurated the journal's fatwa section, publishing around 1,060 fatwas over the years, many of which addressed European fabrications. As Halevi reminds us, “Rida’s first decade in Egypt coincided, too, with an impressive rise in the volume and value of imports.” The correspondents or fatwa seekers of the periodical were in almost every corner of the globe, in Lebanon, Brazil, India, Thailand, France, Switzerland, Germany, and many other countries. Through such varied readership, Rida established himself as a global mufti, the first of his kind according to Halevi.
This makes al-Manar “an especially important publication for historians interested in the globalization of Islamic communications in the late imperial and early national periods.” However, Rida did not issue his fatwas for free; they were an exclusive right to subscribers. “His fatwas,” Halevi remarks, “were capitalistic commodities, printed by a machine for profit. Rida was perfectly willing to compose them for his readers, but they had to pay him a goodly sum in advance.” 
Numerous pro-capitalist and open-market fatwas that are common in Muslim societies today have Rida’s signature. As a thinker, influenced not only by Islamic heritage but also the French enlightenment and economists such as François Quesnay (1694–1774), who coined the expressions “laissez-faire and laissez-passer,” Rida dedicated himself to find “ways to apply Islam’s sacred law to modern financial instruments.” Notwithstanding, Rida’s laissez-faire Salafism “was not about letting all foreign things cross the border freely, dismantling each and every Islamic barrier to commerce and consumption”, but rather “about minimizing, in the name of scripture and the Salaf, religious and legal barriers toward individual prosperity and communal welfare.” He was so committed that he would enter into verbal disputes with other muftis and shaykhs about certain commodities and inventions, refuse to submit to nationalist calls for the Egyptian boycott of English goods, and praise free trade, even when this meant confronting traditional religious institutions.
Muslim reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–97), ‘Abduh, and Rida have been deemed by several postcolonial intellectual theorists as duplicitous and manipulative. Modern Things on Trial is critical of this extensive approach. Instead of a one-size-fits-all policy, Halevi suggests a historical reading that reconfigures the points of continuity and discontinuity. “The problem,” he expounds, “stems in part from an exaggerated view of historical continuity in the multigenerational effort to reform Islam.” Rida’s legacy deserves to be looked at independently and singly. He is not just a passive member, subsumed within a trio alongside Afghani and ‘Abduh. Halevi argues “for discontinuity between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century projects of reform.” 
Another common pattern is sketching Rida as an odd moment in a history of a progressive strain of thinkers or, even, as a failed enlightener. He moved, the story goes, from moderation to extremism. In other words, if one were to exploit Althusserian terms, some kind of epistemological break happened in his project after World War I, according to that view. “Judgmental descriptions of his early doctrines as “modernist” and of his late doctrines as “fundamentalist” are misleading,” Halevi opines. “He did not identify first with European modernity and then with Islamic antiquity. Throughout his career, he identified with aspects of both ages simultaneously.” 
It is true that Rida propagated some of Ibn Taymiyya’s notions, but he also, Halevi notes, promoted Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) and published the first Arabic translation of his book Guide to Health (1921). In addition, Rida continued to look up to reformist theologians like Martin Luther (1483–1546) and marketed their thoughts. Nevertheless, Halevi does admit that some changes occurred in Rida’s political program, but he situates them in a wider shift in political conditions, in particular the transition from the politics of the empire to the nation-state model, more than any ideological diversion.
Rida’s contribution as a Muslim reformer has been downplayed by a number of scholars, likely because of his alleged Wahhabi diversion. Yet there may be another explanation of this underestimation, namely, his relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and its founder, Hasan al-Banna (1906–49). In effect, as we are told by Halevi, it is Banna himself who continued publishing al-Manar after Rida’s death in 1935. Though such an incident requires further elaboration, Halevi does not give his reader any indication of how these two men actually interacted with one another.
Various Brotherhood ideologues have expressed their appreciation of Rida’s work and depicted him and Banna as brothers in arms. In contrast, critics of the Brotherhood argue that the two figures were never particularly close, and that this is a mere exaggeration. Be that as it may, Islamists gave an exalted status to Rida and it is this exact status that has made him, to some extent, an ill-fated Muslim reformer. He ended up tied either to the Wahhabis or the Islamists.
Rida’s history has been written mostly by those who were either hostile to his pragmatism or who depicted him as a disobeying student. Modern Things on Trial comes as a fresh, lively, and materialist intervention against reductive readings of modern Islam.
 Leor Halevi, Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865–1935 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 9.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 44.
 Ibid., 22.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 99.
 Ibid., 76.
 Ibid., 57.
 Ibid., 62.
 Ibid., 107.
 Ibid., 126–127.
 Ibid., 21.