This is a preprint of a review whose final and definite form has been published in Contemporary South Asia © Taylor & Francis; see publisher's version and entry in my publication list. The book itself is here
Islamic reform in South Asia, edited by Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013, xxviii + 509 pp., ISBN 978-11-0703-175-3
This volume is the most important book on South Asian Islam published in the last decade. It provides a handy shortcut to the "state of the art" in this field, since the Osellas assembled most of those who currently shape debates on Muslims, Islam, state and society in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka under one roof and brought them in fruitful conversation with each other. Moreover, the volume adds ethnographic complexity to a term which increasingly came to shape global political imagination. For too long, “Islamic reform” was studied by historians alone, often with an interest in schools of thought and their ideological connections, while anthropologists concentrated on presumably more authentic Sufi traditions. This disciplinary division of labor led to "what I am calling 'the overview' (but which could equally be thought of, less flatteringly, as a catalogue) [which] seems yet another example of the way in which Muslims are reduced to religious rather than sociological terms" (Edward Simpson, 206). Consequently, we know of a fluidity of folk religion on the one hand and a neat line-up of Deobandis, Barelwis, Ahl-e-Hadith and other ideological groupings on the other – it was about time to irritate this overly schematic perspective.
The volume contains seventeen papers organized in four blocks. After a concise introduction and clarification of terms by the Osellas, a first block - "Reformist Journeys" – contains two overview essays by Faisal Devji and Francis Robinson. The former argues that "the idea of modernity had no secular history in India" (3) and was thus intricately linked to religious reform from the very beginning, while the latter more systematically draws out what makes reform projects "modern", and in what sense. The next two papers by Pnina Werbner and Nile Green in turn strengthen the volume's general contention that the opposition of (presumably South Asian, presumably good) Sufism and (presumably global, presumably problematic) reformism is much mistaken, for both strands of Islam are both ideologically and institutionally intertwined.
A second selection of papers entitled "Debating Reform" substantiates this claim through ethnographic examples from various geographic regions and social strata. Arshad Alam, the Osellas, Farzana Haniffa, Edward Simpson, Magnus Marsden and Rubina Jasani all demonstrate that contemporary Muslim life can and should be understood from within its local and specific context, and that intra-Muslim discourse and diversity often shapes reformist projects at least as much as "external" factors do. They also show how important it is to take individual lives seriously in spite of groupist (self-)representations. While scholars by and large discredited the myth of an irredeemably collective and overly religious Muslim, the clichee found its niche in discussions of reform: not all Muslims are that simplistic, many still argue, but "reformist Muslims" (alternatively called by more pejorative names) surely are. The papers in this second block in contrast demonstrate that even "Islamic reform" has no space for "Muslim exceptionalism".
The next four authors focus on the complexities of "Everyday Politics of Reform". Not accidentally at the shared example of gender, they trace the consequences of reform's emphasis on ijtihad, or personal reflection and independent reasoning. Pious women (Maimuna Huq), Islamic feminists (Sylvia Vatuk), secularizing Islamists (Irfan Ahmad), and pragmatic Ulema (Patricia Jeffery, Roger Jeffery and Craig Jeffrey) all show that reformist projects frequently open up debate rather than closing it down, and that they inspire flexible and dynamic politics rather than necessarily rigid and dogmatic ones.
The last three papers finally move beyond this conventional focus of studying Islamic reform in terms of politics; under the heading "Reform, State and Market", Attiya Ahmad, Elora Shehabuddin and Humeira Iqtidar explore the relation of reform projects to, for instance, economic aspirations and capitalist development. It is precisely in these final chapters, however, that many challenging questions remain unanswered: how do projects of Islamic reform relate to wider "middle class moralities" (Saavala 2010)? How does the traditional Islamic emphasis on social justice change when some Muslims begin to acquire considerable wealth and see this as a reward for their piety? How are masculinities transformed when individual agency gains importance? While Francis Robinson doubts that such "Weberian echoes" (44) of reform projects are worth exploring, the volume's final chapters speak a more cautious language – it would have been nice had they been more comprehensive. The volume busts a range of simplistic assumptions about the bad political effects of "Islamic reform", but one should not forget that problems might increasingly be found outside the immediately political realm, for example in reform's intersection with potent axes of social inequality.
But then: what could better underscore the volume's value than a reviewer who wants more of it despite having read five hundred pages already?