It is a truism of contemporary social thought that modernity is not singular in its trajectories, but multiple. One especially significant element in the “multiple modernities” perspective concerns religion. Whereas two generations ago, most scholars assumed that modernization brought about the gradual privatization and decline of religion, it is now recognized that religion’s development in modern societies can be highly varied. Western Europe may be a deeply secular place, but the United States is not. The revitalization of religion seen in Muslim, Hindu, and southern Christian lands, then, represents not an “anti-modern” reaction, but one more illustration of the multiple pathways to the modern.
The contributors to this volume adopt a variant of this multiple modernities approach to the study of the refiguration of “social imaginaries” in the contemporary Muslim world. The editor, Amyn B. Sajoo, is a well regarded scholar of Islamic intellectual history and social ethics. In the book’s opening pages, Sajoo explains that in 2005 he was inspired by the work of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor to assemble a group of specialists of Islamic studies to reflect on the varied ways in which modern Muslims have created new “social imaginaries” to deal with the pluralist challenges of the modern era. Taylor’s phrase, “social imaginary,” refers to the common understandings embodied in narratives and discourse through which a people create and give legitimacy to moral notions that comprise the background to the civic and political order (p. 12). In addition to focusing on modern Muslim imaginaries, the ten chapters in the volume are united by a concern with comparing the way in which new varieties of Muslim imaginaries compare to the public ethical orders of the West. This “reflexive juxtaposition” of Western and Muslim social imaginaries makes this fine collection intellectually bracing.
The chapters range across academic disciplines, but most are located squarely in the philosophical and religious wing of the humanities, rather than comparative social science. In the first substantive chapter, Bruce Lawrence examines the diverse ways in which modern Muslim thinkers read the Qur’an. Comparing Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal’s broad-spirited interpretation with that of Osama bin Laden, Lawrence concludes that bin Laden is not so much an Islamist or even a fundamentalist as a “descendant of Rasputin and the Russian anarchists of the early twentieth century” (49). In the next chapter, John Renard takes a literary approach to popular literature in Muslim societies and finds that most blends “pre-Islamic local, regional or national” heroes with those of a transIslamic sort. In Chapter 4, Hasna Lebbady examines narratives of female-figures in Islamic Andalusia and traces their extraordinary influence in the Maghrib from the fifteenth to seventeenth century. In Chapter 5, Theodore Levin and Fairouz Nishanova provide a fascinating overview of the Agha Khan Foundatin Music Initiative in Central Asia. The effort aims “to facilitate the reimagination of traditional musical culture within a cosmopolitan and pluralistic Central Asian modernity” (95).
The book’s last five chapters deepen the juxtaposition of Muslim and Western modernities, but in a way that reveals their interpenetration rather than opposition. In Chapter 6, Nilüfer Gole uses the headscarf controversy in France and Turkey as the point of entry to a discussion of the differing ways in each country implements a secular and progress-based vision of the civil order. She observes that it is “possible to speak of an excess of secularism, when it becomes a festish of modernity” (p. 130). Contrary to the position that Kevin McDonald sketches out in Chapter 9, she also argues that the headscarf controversy is related to a broader process whereby “the Muslim body becomes, for actors of Islamism, a site of resistance to secular modernity” (p. 134). In Chapter 7, Bryan Turner offers what is arguably the most “pessimistic” (p. 137) of the book’s perspectives on contemporary Islamism (but not Islam). He notes that the “rituals of intimacy” associated with especially conservative varieties of Islamism may create an “enclave society” which is the very antithesis of the “overlapping associational supports” so important for a properly functioning civil society (p. 157).
In Chapter 8, Eva Schubert develops a compelling model of citizenship and pluralist identity. Drawing on the recent scholarship of the economist Amartya Sen, she emphasizes that all human actors have multiple and overlapping identities, and ideals of citizenship that attempt to highlight one to the exclusion of all others, not least of those religious, “will merely reinforce social fragmentation and disable civic participation” (p. 182). In an especially versatile chapter, Kevin McDonald in Chapter 9 argues that, when speaking of contemporary global landscapes, it is imperative to break free of the opposition of global vs. local and East vs. West. He demonstrates that even the more radical of modern Islamists, like Sayyid Qutb, blend Islamic notions of politics and ethics with European political theory. Taking exception to many Western policy’ commentaries on Islamic movements, McDonald emphasizes the need to recognize the “religious dimension at the centre of practices not based on a claim to autonomy” (p. 205).
In a thoughtful conclusion to the volume, Sajoo calls for a “middle ground” (p. 211) analysis of contemporary Muslim social imaginaries, one that steers clear of the simple polarity of “rule-centric” fundamentalism and relativistic cosmopolitanism. “To perceive ethics in Islamic contexts as no more than a shari'a centric code,” he writes, “is to privilege the narrowest of interpretations.” More important, such an approach fails to do justice to the contemporary variety of Muslim ethical praxis. Growing numbers of believers look to “the institutions of civil society as a central tenet of democratic culture” (p. 224). Efforts to scale up such a pluralist Muslim ethics have certainly not been helped by the “clash-ofcivilization” claims of some Western commentators. But these hybridic social imaginaries, drawing on modern democratic as well as Muslim ethics, are alive and growing. Their efflorescence is the result, not of any “Western” derivation, but of the fact that they respond to yearning of many Muslim moderns for a modern, civic, and pluralist profession of the faith.