Book Review: Rediscovering the Islamic Classics

Ayah Aboelela

Ibn Taymiyyah. Ibn Khaldun. Al-Tabari. These are some of the most famous names that come to mind when we think of classical Muslim scholars and writers. But did you know that less than two hundred years ago, their names and works were rarely mentioned in contemporary mainstream Muslim scholarship?

In Rediscovering the Islamic Classics,[1]  Ahmed El Shamsy studies how the widespread use of the printing press in nineteenth-century Egypt enabled several reforms that caused a revived interest in classical Islamic scholarship. By studying the intellectual trends made possible by the printing press, this book can help shift our perceptions of this defining period in Muslim history. While many historians today have described nineteenth- to early-twentieth-century Muslim reformers as secularists, this book shows that they were often turning to Islamic tradition in order to address problems of secularism, modernity, and colonialism. Moreover, by examining the use of technology by colonised Muslims, the book offers an alternative lens to the narrative of decline that has heavily influenced the way we, as Muslims, see our past.

Classical vs post-classical Islamic scholarship

Shamsy defines classical scholarship as the work of Islamic scholars before the fifteenth century and argues that it largely consisted of original works. By contrast, post-classical scholarship between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries was interested in commentaries and summaries of the original classics, “revelations” to Sufi saints, and knowledge that was orally transmitted without the use of text.

Instead of accessing the original scholarly material, scholars of Al-Azhar and other religious institutions in the post-classical age relied on the same commentaries and summaries of them for hundreds of years. This meant that they were often the only manuscripts commissioned to be copied (handwritten by a scribe), causing the original classical manuscripts to be less accessible and eventually shoved into rarity. In addition, Islamic scholarship became more esoteric as paths of knowledge became limited to a few scholars and inaccessible to the masses. For example, some Sufi sects elevated so-called divine inspiration (such as dreams) above the study of texts to the extent that it undermined the epistemological authority of book-based learning as a whole.  By the time the nineteenth century came around, several scholars had started to point out the constricted esotericism of postclassic scholarship and its disdain for book learning.[2]

So when Muhammad Ali Pasha opened the first Egyptian printing press in Bulaq, and the government made the momentous decision in the 1830s to allow private individuals to commission anything for printing, a new intellectual movement was born.

The new generation of book lovers

The “new generation of book lovers,” as Shamsy calls them, established a culture built around a revival of classic Islamic literature that was threatened by obscurity. New literary salons, manuscript collectors, and publishing houses combined their efforts to find classic Islamic manuscripts, edit them, and publish them using the printing press so that they would be preserved in book form and recirculated into the reading public.

These “book lovers” were motivated by multiple things, and Shamsy argues that it was not as simple as going against the mainstream Islamic scholarship of their time. Many nineteenth-century students of Islamic sciences felt that the esoteric educational climate of the post-classical period pushed classical Islamic sources (which were truly original, unlike post-classical sources, which were commentaries and summaries of the original) further into obscurity while providing little originality for addressing the real, contemporary, and practical issues of modernity.

Moreover, these classical manuscripts were becoming increasingly rare for multiple reasons. In addition to the manuscripts being neglected due to a lack of interest in them from contemporary scholars; Egypt for example was experiencing a crisis in educational awqaaf. Due to various political and economic reasons detailed by Shamsy, libraries and schools started to lack the funding needed to keep and maintain the manuscripts they stored. The timing was perfect for orientalist scholars in the age of colonialism, who exploited these internal issues to steal or (often illegally) purchase rare manuscripts and display them in European libraries or museums.

The classics as a means of renewal

Faced with the reality of colonialism and Western attempts to instil a sense of inferiority among the colonised, Muslim scholars and investors acquired a new zeal for the preservation, printing, and redistribution of classical manuscripts. They saw it as a means to both preserve their religious heritage and renew the relevance of the Islamic faith.

This is an important point, as many scholars today attribute Egypt’s modernisation in the late 1800s to Westernisation, secularisation, and moving away from tradition and Islam. But Shamsy shows that many of these nineteenth-century modern intellectuals were actually seeking reform as a response to Western colonialism and a call for the revival of the Islamic tradition:

“[The modern Egyptian reformers] were not, as is often assumed, rejecting the AraboIslamic intellectual tradition wholesale in favour of an imported modernity. Instead, they drew on the classical tradition in order to undermine the postclassical one, which they decried as restrictive and ossified, and in order to reconstruct a classical literature that could serve as the foundation of an indigenous modernity.”[3]

Ironically, the classics, recovered after centuries of being accessed only through layers of post-classical commentary, became a new source of Islamic scholarship, which many believed would be more useful in addressing the practical problems of their new, modern, colonial realities.

And this occurred in multiple ways. Many of these reformers found that the scholars of the past had already addressed some of the problems faced in the present, in both “methodological and substantial” ways.[4] Methodologically, for example, the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah became “models of critical engagement and analysis” as they became widely disseminated and referenced as a means of promoting ijtihad[5] and the combination of reason and revelation in any type of scholarship.[6] Substantially, the fatwas of Ibn Taymiyyah that differed from contemporary social and legal norms provided a means for their reform. Similarly, al-Ashʿari’s theological writings on the roles of the caliphate served to question the legitimacy of the Ottoman caliphate.[7]

The classics, being original works, used original methods of reasoning, criticism, and determining authenticity, while the post-classics, as copies, did not apply as much critical or original thinking. In a society facing the new realities and changes of colonialism, the critical inquiry offered in the original sources provided young scholars with the tools needed to develop their understandings of Islam as suited to their needs, in a way that the repetitious conclusions of the commentaries and summaries could not. Therefore, these reformers’ role — similar to ours and really every generation of the ummah — was to uncover and study past scholarship, ensuring its consistency with revelation and reason, and applying it to contemporary problems.

The printing press and the narrative of Muslim decline

Although the printing press enabled important reforms in nineteenth-century Egypt (and the Muslim world at large), the pre-printing press period was not necessarily one of decline, as Shamsy is careful to point out. The narrative of decline suggests that Muslim culture and scholarship had declined and stagnated for centuries, and could only be revived by Western culture, technology, and the European Enlightenment.[8] While this narrative was first used by Europeans to justify their colonisation of the Muslim world, many Muslims ended up adopting it themselves—and many still do today.[9]

Shamsy’s criticism of the decline narrative can help us reevaluate our assumptions about Muslim history today. Some contemporary Muslim scholars have even uncritically accepted the view that the Muslims’ delay in adopting the printing press compared to Europeans is what sped up the so-called decline of Muslim civilizations. Yet such a view is based on multiple questionable premises: one, that it was the ignorance and close-mindedness of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Muslims and Muslim rulers that prevented them from adopting the printing press and even banning it altogether; two, that printing press technology was inherently positive—that it would have only brought advantages, and not disadvantages—to Muslims; and three, that Muslim “stagnation” and “decline” were proven based on comparisons with Europe. Whether Muslims actually stagnated or declined is beyond the question, but it is questionable to cite a delay in adopting European technology as evidence for that.

Kathryn Schwartz, a historian of Middle Eastern history and specifically print and book culture, has shown that the uncritically accepted claims that Ottoman sultans Bayezid II and Selim I banned printing are dubious if not altogether false reports invented by sixteenth-century Europeans.[10] For one, the sultans’ firmans cited as having banned printing have suspiciously never been found. Still, one could ask why printing had not been adopted by Muslims much earlier than the nineteenth century. The most common response to this throughout the centuries, both by Europeans and several Muslims, has been to blame the alleged ignorance or backward-mindedness of Muslims. But Schwartz questions whether such an assessment is even fair—it may have been for the practical reason that print technology was simply not needed at the time. In addition, there is evidence that sixteenth-century copyists and calligraphers protested the adoption of the printing press, as it would’ve shrunk their market value.[11]

Why should the printing press have been considered inherently good or universally beneficial? Is it fair to blame Muslim societies for not adopting the printing press as early as Europe did? By the time it was invented in Europe, Muslims had already had a long-established culture of copyists and calligraphers who copied books as needed. At the time, this was much easier than using printing press technology for Arabic instead of Latin script. It is possible that their delay in adopting it was simply because it was not particularly beneficial for them at the time, and that it would not be until the nineteenth century, when Muslims were faced with the crisis of modernity, colonialism, and the loss of rare manuscripts.

Although the printing press enabled a revival of classical scholarship and intellectual reform, it does not follow that the absence of the printing press in earlier periods caused “decline.” Shamsy makes clear that his criticism of post classical Islamic scholarship does not join the “modernist slander” and its decline narrative, whose “sweeping stigmatisation of a period of several centuries as intellectually barren ignores actual historical variability and many instances of intellectual innovation.”[12] He acknowledges the valuable contributions of post-classical scholars while also pointing out the issues that nineteenth-century Egyptian Muslims saw in it, which enabled them to use the printing press to study the forgotten classics and bring about change.

Renew and revive

As an ummah, we can apply several of Shamsy’s arguments to practical action points and the ways we see our history, which impacts our worldview.

One is that the problems in our present world have often been addressed by our predecessors.  When the nineteenth- and twentieth-century reformers turned to the classics, they found that many of their contemporary issues were already debated—such as textual analysis methods for verifying authenticity, or the legal theory written on the khilafah after the thirteenth-century sack of Baghdad, which became especially relevant when the Ottoman caliphate collapsed.[13] Just as these reformers benefited from the Islamic classics for answers—and not, as much contemporary scholarship would have us believe, to seek a secular ideological reform—we can also benefit from critically examining the wisdom recorded from past generations in our ummah. And, just as the reformists learned from the relative stagnation of the post-classical tradition, we need a periodical critical reassessment of our sources, so that we can continue to practically apply them in our lives and to contemporary issues.

Another implication of this study is that we need to critically examine the dominant narratives we may have about our past that inform the ways we see our present. Much of Western scholarship, steeped in its colonialist roots, would have us believe that the Muslim ummah was in a state of desperate stagnation and decline for centuries before Western technology arrived and brought them out from the darkness into the light. It has long been suggested that the new ideas promoted by modern Egyptian reformers were a rebellion against tradition in Islam—when in fact, as shown by the modern reformers examined in this book, it was often the exact opposite. For example, by printing Ibn Taymiyyah’s manuscripts, the reformers were able to emulate his methodological approaches, which we now celebrate as a critical research method in traditional Islamic jurisprudence.

By questioning the dominant trends in the narratives about our past, we can better discern which ones were told from colonialist or orientalist standpoints. This would enable us to re-assess the truth behind claims of stagnation and decline, as well as the standard practice of comparing Muslim history with European history, as though the West were some bar of progress to measure ourselves against. Both of these have serious consequences on our worldviews—how we see the world, our history, and our positionality as Muslims among them.  

Ayah Aboelela is a graduate student in World History and Digital Humanities at Northeastern University. She hopes to combine her background in software and love for history and storytelling to make historical stories more accessible to diverse audiences. You can follow her on Instagram @caveofkutub

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[1] Ahmed El Shamsy, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020).

[2] Shamsy, 54.

[3] Shamsy, 5.

[4] Shamsy, 189.

[5] Ijtihad: independent legal reasoning within the framework of Islamic law

[6] Shamsy, 189.

[7] Shamsy, 176.

[8] Shamsy, 237.

[9] See, for example, Yasir Qadhi, “The Printing Press & Fall of the Muslim Ummah,” Memphis Islamic Center, January 4, 2012.

[10] Kathryn A. Schwartz. “Did Ottoman Sultans Ban Print?” Book History, 20 (2017): 1-39.

[11] Kathryn A. Schwartz, Nir Shafir (host), and Chris Gratien (editing and production). “A New History of Print in Ottoman Cairo.” Ottoman History Podcast, no. 249 (2016).

[12] Shamsy, 61.

[13] Mona Hassan, Longing for the Lost Caliphate: A Transregional History. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016)

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