Political theory is often understood as a field and enterprise at once produced by and coterminous with ‘‘the West,’’ yet there is a rich tradition of Islamic political thought in which Muslims have long been engaged in their own ‘‘Great conversations’’ about the foundations of political life. Thread of these conversations at times intersect and overlap with, at other times radically diverge from, those in Western political theory. Neither the existence of such ‘‘great conversations’’ across cultures nor these moments of commonality serve as evidence of universal, or ‘‘perennial,’’ questions that arise everywhere by virtue of being human. 

On the contrary, the extent to which peoples across cultures do or do not share certain dilemmas of coexistence must remain a permanently open area of the investigation if theorists are to avoid universalizing Western preoccupations without a warrant. What they do suggest, however, is that a more capacious understanding of political theory is in order, one defined less in terms of a parochial mapping of Western answers to fixed questions posed by a pantheon of philosophers than a free-ranging inquiry into the conditions of living together on which no time or culture has a monopoly.

Much like Western political theory, the tradition of Islamic political thought is complex and variegated, riven with disagreements, reversals, contradictions, and discontinuities that resist easy summary. As the ‘‘modern’’ period for the Islamic umma2 (community) is largely framed by the rise and spread of European power, however, what perhaps most distinguishes the work of eighteenth- to twenty-first-century Muslim thinkers from previous generations is the extent to which they are explicitly or implicitly engaged in two dialogues, one across history, another across culture.

First and foremost, Muslim political theorists were and are engaged in a series of debates within Islamic tradition about, for example, the nature of political authority, the relationship between reason and revealed knowledge, and the proper way to be a Muslim (among others). Both during and after the confrontation with the European empire, however, these thinkers have also had to engage with the West’s claim to embody a ‘‘modernity’’ that is, in essence, an expression of the ways in which Europe has ordered its past in relation to its present.

More specifically, the West’s self-defined maturity congealed in contrast to both the distant past of the ancient Greeks and the more immediate past of the European Middle Ages in which ‘‘a Great Chain of Being’’ issuing from God was said to hold sway. Inasmuch as this maturation was facilitated by the scientific method, the advance of which was assumed to at once presuppose and demonstrate the illegitimacy of metaphysical sources of knowledge about the natural and social worlds, the universalization of this culturally and historically specific experience as modernity as such posed a serious conceptual challenge to Muslims living and working in political communities where membership was defined primarily by religion.

With the arrival of European military forces on Muslim territory, the challenge became quite immediate and concrete. The sense of threat from the outside arguably transformed or lent a new edge to debates that had occupied Muslim thinkers in prior centuries, but posed one set of questions rather sharply: to what degree could Islam be considered modern, using what or whose definition, and with what cost, both to the revealed truths that sustain the religion and the umma built upon it, and to Islamic ‘‘authenticity,’’ the substance of which is articulated most fiercely at moments of greatest threat?

Even within these clearly specified terms, what travels under the rubric of modern and contemporary Islamic political thought is quite complex and variegated, as the section on ‘‘Pluralizing Islam’’ at the end of this chapter shows. Given the striking variety of ways Muslim theorists4 have contended with common constraints, then, modern and contemporary Islamic political thought may be said to be characterized by disunity amidst commonality.

The following discussion is meant to sketch, in necessarily broad brush strokes, both some sense of these constraints and the texture of a few of the important and influential responses. Here import and influence are measured not by the extent to which these thinkers or streams of thought speak to Euro-American concerns or pass canonical muster but rather by their continuing purchase of contemporary debates among Muslim political theorists (even or especially when it is the very legitimacy of such purchase that is at issue) and, in some instances, on Muslim political practice.


Islamic ‘‘modernism’’5 refers to a primarily nineteenth-century stream of thought that took shape in the shadow of the slow decline of the Ottoman Empire and the expansion of European political and economic power.6 Such thought posited a golden age in the earliest generations in Islamic history and sought to recuperate those idealized foundations as a bulwark against the encroachments of Western colonialism.

For many Muslim intellectuals living and working in the first half of the nineteenth century, European ascendence remained ‘‘less of a threat and more of a promise’’ (Sharabi 1970, 27). The years 1875–82 radically altered the geopolitical landscape: by 1877 Russia had attacked Turkey, Tunisia was occupied by the French four years later, and, by 1882, Egypt was occupied by the British. Onto the problem of Ottoman decline were now grafted increasingly urgent questions about the challenge posed by European power and its (apparently) justified claims to represent the zenith of cultural, scientific, and technological achievement (Hourani 1983, 104).

Despite real diVerences between them, modernists such as Egyptian Muhammad ‘Abduh (d.1905) and his sometimes mentor and collaborator Jamal al-Din al-Afghani [al-Asadabadi] (d.1897) sought to meet this challenge in part by redefining its terms, and more specifically by portraying Islam as the ‘‘rational religion,’’ and characterizing science and modernity as universal rather than Western. al-Afghani and ‘Abduh shared the conviction that modern rationalist methods and the scientific discoveries they produce are at once objectively true and essential to the strength and survival of the Islamic community in the face of European ascendance.

Yet they witnessed firsthand the ways in which rationalism, science, and philosophy too often served as the handmaiden of Western arguments supposedly demonstrating Muslim backwardness and justifying European political, cultural, and economic hegemony. The challenge was thus to sever the association of science and Western power, to draw upon Islamic history to demonstrate that, in Afghani’s words, science is a ‘‘noble thing that has no connection with any nation . . . everything that is known is known by science, and every nation that becomes renowned becomes renowned through science. Men must be related to science, not science to men’’ (al-Afghani 1968, 107).

Given these presumptions, al-Afghani and ‘Abduh view the survival of the Muslim umma and the truths upon which it is founded as dependent upon the compatibility, or more accurately, identity, of Islam and reason. They thus reject the division of the world into Islamic science and European science, a classification endorsed, for diVerent reasons, by both Muslim traditionalists and European rationalists such as Ernest Renan (1883).

For al-Afghani and ‘Abduh, this bifurcation essentially entails the claim that Islam is incompatible with self-evident knowledge. They contend that those who infer an essential enmity between Islam and the exercise of critical reason from the history of Islamic practice have in fact mistaken a debased Islam for the true faith: the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad encourage the pursuit of knowledge of the material world as the means necessary for survival and well-being, and already either contain or prefigure truths about the world that are now associated with modern scientific discoveries.

Islam properly understood is thus the ‘‘rational religion,’’ the ‘‘first religion to address the human reason, prompting it to examine the entire universe, and giving it free rein to delve into its innermost secrets as far as it is able. It did not impose any conditions upon reason other than that of maintaining the faith’’ (‘Abduh 1966, 176). But as both revelation and reason are divine creations, a contradiction between the laws of God expressed in the Qur’an and traditions and those of God embodied in the natural world is an impossibility (‘Abduh 1966, 83).

al-Afghani and ‘Abduh’s rereading of the ‘‘authentic’’ Islam as rational must be seen within a long tradition of tajdid (renewal) and islah (reform) in Islamic intellectual history, one that has been ongoing from the ninth century to the present (Voll 1983). In particular, their arguments must be situated amongst long-standing Islamic debates about reasoning (‘aql), transmission (naql ), revealed truth, philosophy, and independent judgment/interpretation (ijtihad ). They are thus engaged in a ‘‘great conversation’’ about what can be known and how in Islamic thought. At the same time, however, the course and substance of their arguments are shaped and influenced by the ways in which the West had defined itself as the embodiment of modernity. More specifically, we see in their projects not just elements drawn from a rich Islamic tradition, but an understanding of development and maturity defined in terms of the culturally and historically specific experiences associated with the European transition from its own past to its politically and economically powerful present.

A case in point: al-Afghani’s writings generally reflect an attempt to reconcile the imperatives of human reason with those of scripture, and the teachings of philosophy with those of Islam, but as scholars have noted, for al-Afghani consistency was often secondary to anti-imperialist politics, and he often adapted his arguments to suit his audiences. Thus in his response to French philosopher Ernest Renan’s 1883 article, ‘‘Science and Islam,’’ al-Afghani sounds more like a French philosophe than an Islamic reformer when he writes ‘‘Religion imposes on man its faith and its belief whereas philosophy frees him of it totally or in part. It will always be thus.

Whenever religion will have the upper hand, it will eliminate philosophy; and the contrary happens when it is a philosophy that reigns as a sovereign mistress.’’ al-Afghani goes so far as to agree with Renan’s assessment by acknowledging that Islam historically has tried to ‘‘stifle science and stop its progress’’ and has halted the ‘‘philosophical or intellectual movement and [turned] minds from the search for scientific truth’’ (al-Afghani 1968, 183). But he insists that Islam is not the sole culprit; all religions have at some time similarly impeded the pursuit of truth.

‘Abduh was more concerned than al-Afghani to protect revealed truth from the transgressions of unfettered human reason, but his arguments are just as culturally syncretic as al-Afghani’s. For example, his definition of reason as the exercise of critical judgment on the basis of logical and empirical proof is, like that of al-Afghani, indebted to Islamic philosophers (falasifa ) who were themselves influenced by ancient Greek rationalism. At the same time, it incorporates the ways in which reason came to be defined in modern Euro- pean thought in opposition to the authority of the clergy, the pull of habit and tradition, and the suspension of critical judgment they were thought to presuppose.

‘Abduh’s fragmentary political proposals, moreover, reveal the depth of his conviction that the universalization of Western modernity will ultimately realize rather than corrupt the true Islam: he argues that the institution of the Islamic Caliphate is consistent with secular European civil law, and as Hourani points out, ‘Abduh follows an earlier generation of Muslim intellectuals in linking maslaha (public interest) to utility, shura (consultation) to limited parliamentary democracy, and ijma‘ (consensus, or the agreement of the community, one of the bases of Islamic religious law) to public opinion (Hourani 1983, 144). Paradoxically, then, both al-Afghani and ‘Abduh’s attempt to identify a transcendent Islamic essence beyond the world of appearances can only be understood in terms of particular historical and political circumstances and is itself the product of multiple cultural influences.


For Islamist (also called Islamic fundamentalist)8 thinkers such as Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d.1989) and Sayyid Qutb (d.1966), such modernist attempts to render Islam compatible with a set of Western achievements and standards are not a help to the umma but both cause and consequence of its continuing decay. As Qutb contends, such arguments are no more than defensive attempts to justify the relevance of Islam given the obscurantism of Muslim scholars on the one hand and attacks from Western and Eastern secularists on the other (Qutb 1962, 17–20). Implicit in such apologetics, Qutb argues, is that Islam is on trial because it is somehow ‘‘guilty’’ and in need of justification. According to Khomeini, such ‘‘xenomaniacs’’ have been seduced by the technological and material achievements of the imperialists. By betray- ing Islam from within, they deepen and exacerbate the subservience of Islam to Western power (Khomeini 1981, 38, 35).

By contrast, for Khomeini and Qutb, modernity, as defined and universalized by Western culture and power, is a kind of global pathology, a disease that at once degrades the true essence of Islam and Muslims’ capacity to recognize their illness. Central to this pathology is modern rationalism, where reason not only determines the methods by which humans can know the world but also defines what is worth knowing in terms of what is knowable to human beings. 

Whereas ‘Abduh and al-Afghani essentially took such rationalism as a fact to which Muslims must adjust themselves, Islamist thinkers emphasize the danger it poses to revealed truths and to the survival of the Muslim umma built upon them. One reason becomes at once a method and justification for the completeness of human knowledge, Khomeini contends, that human beings cease to acknowledge the unseen world and the metaphysical truths it embodies, recognizing only knowledge of worldly phenomena as worthwhile (Khomeini 1981, 394). The result of such rationalist epistemology is not only a truncated concept of the world but an explicit justification of the right of humans to govern without divine intervention.

The challenge of the contemporary world as defined by Khomeini and Qutb is thus one of recognition and recuperation: to penetrate the haze of cultural corruption masquerading as modernity and recapture the ‘‘authentic’’ Islam articulated in the original Muslim community by realizing an Islamic social system on earth. This requires in the first instance a rejection of human sovereignty in any form: whether labeled democratic, communist, or liberal, by presuming that human beings may legitimately define the moral and legal rules under which they live, all such states transgress divine authority as expressed in Islamic law (Shari‘a ), the collection of prohibitions and regulations derived from the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet.

Qutb calls this a condition of jahiliyya, a term taken directly from the Qur’an and which originally referred to the period of pre-Islamic ignorance in Arabia. As deployed by Qutb, however, jahiliyya becomes a condition rather than a particular historical period, a state of ignorance that obtains whenever a society ‘‘deviates’’ from the true Islamic path. Whereas ancient jahiliyya was a function of simple ignorance, modern jahiliyya is a deliberate usurpation of God’s authority (Qutb 1991, 17). All contemporary ills are the product of this foundational transgression of human hubris.

Triumph over this essentially modern pathology, then, requires establishing- ing Shari‘a as the sole source of legitimate sovereignty over domains often divided into ‘‘public’’ and ‘‘private’’ (Khomeini 1981, 28–30, 55). As it is seen as infallible legislation for almost all aspects of human existence, Shari‘a ‘‘covers every possible human contingency, social and individual, from birth to death,’’ including matters relating to administration, justice, morality, ritual washing, the dispensation of property, and political treaties (Hodgson 1974, I:74; Schacht 1987). Some scholars have argued that the distinction in Islam between ‘ibadat (duties towards God, for example, observance of religious obligations) and mu‘amalat (duties towards one’s fellow men and women) provides a justification for distinguishing between the authority of religion and that of government (Gibb 1962, 198), much as liberal political theory posits a separation between Church and State. 

Khomeini and Qutb both argue that this distinction violates the essential unity of political and moral domains, yet another instance of the corruption of Islam by a set of inappropriate categories derived from the history of Christian Europe (Khomeini 1981, 38; Qutb 1962, 129). Islam, Khomeini insists, ‘‘is a religion where worship is joined to politics and political activity is a form of worship’’ (Khomeini 1981, 275). It is thus the divine source of legislation and its jurisdiction over both religious and political realms that distinguishes Islamic government— which is synonymous with just government—from the constitutional monarchies, republics, and the ‘‘unbelieving’’ governments of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. These are governments, Khomeini writes, that ‘‘execute anti-human laws and policies for the sake of their own interests’’ (Khomeini 1981, 66).

For Khomeini and Qutb, the legitimate exercise of political power depends always upon the ruler’s commitment to upholding the Shari‘a, not allegiance to the governed (Khomeini 1981, 55, 64–5; Qutb 1974, 63). The responsibility of the ruler to the ruled and ruled to the ruler is thus mediated by the Shari‘a: justice flows from adherence to Islamic law alone, not from adherence, for example, to the terms of a political contract. Khomeini maintains that the rule of Islamic law must be under the guardianship of those most knowledgeable in matters of divine law, the fuqaha (jurists), an argument that simultaneously draws upon and effects a radical rereading of Shi‘ite doctrines regarding rulership (Akhavi 1988, 414). Unlike Khomeini, Qutb, a Sunni Muslim, rejects theocracy, claiming the traditionally elite prerogative to judge rulers for himself and for all virtuous Muslims, much as the Reformation sought to make the Biblical text accessible to laymen.

Despite such diVerences, however, Qutb and Khomeini both insist that divine sovereignty not only strengthens the Islamic community against those who would destroy it from without and within but also provides the only framework through which essentially selfish and arrogant human beings are made moral. Indeed, all human behavior will be brought into conformity with God’s will through daily adherence to laws large and small.

Here equality among human beings is possible for the first time, for all members are equal to one another by virtue of their common submission to God. This is in stark contrast to the many jahili states where only some rule others and human beings are in this way enslaved to one another. This is not the Lockean idea of equality whereby all persons are free and equal in that each has a natural right to life, liberty, and property; rather, it is the case that since all are equally subject to God’s call, they are therefore equal. In sum, Khomeini contends, that a fully realized Islamic social system will cure the political, social, material, and moral pathologies of the modern condition, while simultaneously tending to the well-being of humankind in the hereafter (Khomeini 1981, 36).

Unlike ‘Abduh and al-Afghani, Qutb and Khomeini presume that the survival and integrity of Islamic truths depend on purifying Islam from the corruption of foreign influence, or (borrowing from Jalal al-i Ahmad) what Khomeini refers to as ‘‘Westoxification.’’ Indeed, Khomeini contends that ‘‘our problems and miseries are caused by losing ourselves’’ (Fischer 1983, 168). Toward that end, Khomeini locates himself entirely within a Shi‘ite Islamic lexicon, drawing upon the special role of the Imam (signifying an outstanding religious leader) within Shi‘ite thought. As Sami Zubaida points out, Khomeini writes largely without reference to contemporaries or predecessors, couching his arguments almost exclusively in the idiom of Islamic political theory and imagery (Zubaida 1989).

Similarly, Qutb insists the survival of the Islamic community depends upon overcoming the pernicious influence of jahiliyya: Muslims can only be redeemed from the bankruptcy and fragmentation that plagues the rationalist, modern West by recapturing the essential, universal, constant, and a priori unity of religious and political authority in Islam. That this is the one and only authentic, uncorrupted Islam is self-evident: ‘‘what we are saying about Islam is not a new fabrication, nor is it a reinterpretation of its truth. It is simply plain Islam [emphasis added]’’ (Qutb 1949, 13; Shepard 1996, 9).

There are precedents in Islamic history for this particular brand of radicalism, and many of Khomeini’s and Qutb’s arguments take up themes and concerns with a long and contested history in Muslim political thought. Yet while both Khomeini and Qutb intend to recapture the timeless and pure essence of Islam uncorrupted by Westoxification or jahiliyyah, their projects are defined as much by the contemporary world as by the putative origins of Islam. For example, Qutb is preoccupied with such distinctively modern phenomena as Enlightenment rationalism, Marxism, and liberalism; his very understandings of jahiliyya and divine sovereignty are defined in terms of them.

His arguments, moreover, unintentionally incorporate many of the terms and concerns of his opponents at the very moment he insists on philosophical purity. For example, his pronounced and repeated concern for material equality echoes precisely those of the communist and Arab socialist systems he reviles, and scholars point to a distinctively modern emphasis on the social dimension of justice, not in fact present in the Qur’an and hadith (the reports of the words and deeds of the Prophet) (Akhavi 1997; Carre´ and Michaud 1983, 84, 223). 

Similarly, Khomeini’s work is not the expression of some kind of pure unadulterated Islamic thought: close reading reveals a quite innovative reading of Shi‘i political theory which incorporates concept actualizations of nationalism, alienation, the state, and the idea of ‘‘the people’’ as an agent which emerge from traditions within modern Western political thought (Abrahamian 1993, 13–38; Fischer 1980, 169; Zubaida 1989, 18–20). What this means is that these tracts are the intellectual products of the interaction of Khomeini’s and Qutb’s version of Islamic thought with the contemporary world, a world where colonialism and the influence of Western culture set the terms of debate even for those who seek to critique, eradicate, or ignore such influence.


Intent on recuperating a pure Islamic essence from a world hopelessly soiled by human arrogance, Islamist thinkers such as Khomeini and Qutb tend to reject the authority of religious commentaries and textual interpretations in favor of what the text ‘‘really says,’’ thereby denying that determining what the text ‘‘really says’’ is itself an act of performance. They thus claim for themselves and for a few select Muslims the status of one who, like Plato’s Philosopher-King, has ceased to watch shadows on the wall, who has ascended beyond the mouth of the cave and into the blinding light of the sun. Such an anti-hermeneutical stance places Islamists—along with their counterparts in, for example, Jewish fundamentalism or the radical Christian right in US politics—in an epistemologically privileged position from which to determine, once and for all, the one and only authentic way to live in a collectivity as a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, an American patriot.

This is a far cry from the (qualified) embrace of ijtihad (independent judgment or inter-predation) and the political sensibilities of Islamic modernists. Yet inasmuch as the Islamism of a Qutb and the modernism of an ‘Abduh both represent attempts to disentangle the ‘‘real’’ from the ‘‘false’’ Islam, in another sense, they may both be seen as participating in the discourse of Islamic authenticity which transforms history into a warp and woof of decadence and health (al-Azmeh 1993, 42); the Islam of the contemporary world comes to look but a shadow of its glory days, a symptom and symbol of the decay of time, the plotting of enemies, or both simultaneously.

The claim that the essence of Islam will be disclosed as a set of unambiguous imperatives once purged of the corruption of foreign influence or internal decay is particularly prevalent in a postcolonial world now marked by the spread of globalization, but it has a long lineage in Islamic history. Yet there is an equally long if at times subterranean history of the very hermeneutic practice of interpretive pluralism Islamists rejects. Here the focus is less on locating the ‘‘real’’ Islam once and for all, of saving it from a world supposedly intent on its transformation, degradation, or demise.

Rather the emphasis is on sifting through the multiple possibilities and overlapping interpretations of a rich textual tradition given the radical transformation of Muslim communities over the centuries and the enormous challenges such changes inevitably pose to any living religious tradition. Given the outsized voice currently enjoyed by Islamists in particular, it seems appropriate to conclude this chapter by foregrounding just two examples of this second history of interpretive practices that, like an insistent counter-rhythm beating just beneath the surface, are less a final footnote to contemporary Islamic political thought than a constitutive feature of it.

Among those who comprise this second history is the diverse array of scholars and activists who have sought, for example, to engage critically in the Qur’an and hadith literature in the name of gender equality, negotiating a path between the Islamist insistence that feminism is part and parcel of the new jahiliyyah and essentializing arguments that reduce Islam to a series of anti- woman flashpoints such as the burqa, female genital mutilation, and honor killings. This is evident, of course, as early as Qasim Amin’s Tahrir al-Mara [The  Liberation of  Woman]  (1899)  and  Mumtaz  ’Ali’s  Huquq-al-Nissan [The Rights of Women] (1898), but is also evinced in the less recognized voices of Muslim and Arab women over the last two centuries, often writing on the margins and without the benefit of education in the ‘‘Islamic sciences’’ necessary to engage the sacred texts (Badran and Cooke 2004).

More recently, self-identified feminist activists and theologians such as RiVat Hassan have sought to undermine what she calls the ‘‘misogynistic and androcentric tendencies’’ in the Islamic tradition by pointing out the ways in which patriarchal hadith literature has crept into translations of the Qur’an, trans- forming often ambiguous and gender-neutral language into readings that echo the Genesis story of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib is not actually present in the texts, sustaining views of women as ‘‘ontologically inferior, subordinate, and crooked’’ (Hassan 1991, 67, 81).

There are also many Muslim writers seeking to contest an emerging consensus that Islam is incompatible with democracy, a conclusion advanced both by Islamists insistent that popular sovereignty transgresses divine authority as enshrined in Islamic law on the one hand and, on the other, by a range of scholars and observers who argue that, for a variety of reasons, cultural, political, historical, and psychological, Islam and Muslim rulers are uniquely inhospitable to democracy and ‘‘the idea of freedom’’ (Lewis 1996). Positioned against this odd convergence is a long line of thinkers from some of the early Islamic modernists to contemporary Muslim democrats who argue that there is much in Islam that is not only compatible with democracy—understood both as a form of governance and as political practices of inclusion—but actually provides mechanisms for its realization.

A case in point is the principle of shura (consultation), a term that appears in the Qur’an when Allah exhorts believers to ‘‘settle their affairs’’ by ‘‘mutual consultation’’ (Sura 42: 38), and is reinforced by the admonition to believers to  ‘‘seek counsel’’  from their brethren in all affairs  (Sura  3:  159).  Ijma’ (consensus), one of the most important bases of Islamic law, is another aspect of Islam particularly conducive to interpretations consistent with democratic practices, as it may mean anything from the consensus of those most qualified to make decisions on juridical matters to the unanimous agreement of all believers in the umma.

Rather than relying on a reinterpretation of such terms as shura and ijma’, however, the Iranian Abdolkarim Soroush has sought to subvert the binary that renders Islam and democracy mutually exclusive by engaging in a double move. The first is to restore the historical context and conceptual complexity to the term democracy, showing by argument and example that any inquiry into the relationship between democracy and Islam requires interrogating the often unacknowledged secular biases of ‘‘liberal democracy’’ and disentangling liberal presuppositions from democratic politics (Soroush 2000, 45–6).

The second is an attempt to restore to Muslims those historical precedents and religious practices that sustain participatory and democratic governance. Soroush’s explicit purpose is to insist, on the one hand, that a secular government in a religious society is undemocratic and, on the other, that religious knowledge must be subject to criticism by way of collective debate. Drawing upon philosophers ancient and modern, European and Muslim, his argument serves, moreover, as a reminder that democracy as both concept and practice is far richer and more contested even within the West than simple Schumpterian definitions of it in terms of ‘‘competitive elections’’ suggest (Schumpeter 1942, 269).

In times of crisis and threat, from the height of European colonialism in the nineteenth century to a post-9/11 world, it is perhaps unsurprising that investments on all sides deepen and congeal. Yet alongside the cacophony of voices intent on arrogating the authority to demarcate what is authentically Islamic and un-Islamic once and for all, just these brief examples demonstrate that there have long been and continue to be lively debates about, for example, Islam, democracy, and gender, informed by the dialectical relationship between rich texts that yield multiple interpretations and the lived experiences of actual Muslims past and present who live in a stunning variety of cultural contexts and regions.

 Attending to such historical conditionality and textual indeterminacy is not the same as moral relativism; these participants often bring deeply held political and moral convictions to such debates, although they may have no more substantively in common with one another than a commitment to the very conditions that make such engagement possible—commitment, in other words, to what might be characterized as a democratic ethos, a ‘‘politics of democratic disturbance through which any particular pattern of previous settlements might be tossed up for grabs again’’ (Connolly 1993, 264–5).

Yet their practices at once presuppose and demonstrate that ‘‘what Islam is’’ is not singular and fixed but multiple and contested; that Islamic religious practices and ideas are, like any rich theoretical and cultural tradition, shaped by historically specific conditions and circum- stances, and vice versa; and that, finally, Islam is a living tradition that both withstands and encourages constant interpretive re-engagement in changing historical contexts.

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