New Book: Open to Reason

What does it mean to be a Muslim philosopher, or to philosophize in Islam? In Open to Reason (Columbia University Press) , Souleymane Bachir Diagne traces Muslims’ intellectual and spiritual history of examining and questioning beliefs and arguments to show how Islamic philosophy has always engaged critically with texts and ideas both inside and outside its tradition. Through a rich reading of classical and modern Muslim philosophers, Diagne explains the long history of philosophy in the Islamic world and its relevance to crucial issues of our own time.

From classical figures such as Avicenna to the twentieth-century Sufi master and teacher of tolerance Tierno Bokar Salif Tall, Diagne explores how Islamic thinkers have asked and answered such questions as Does religion need philosophy? How can religion coexist with rationalism? What does it mean to interpret a religious narrative philosophically? What does it mean to be human, and what are human beings’ responsibilities to nature? Is there such a thing as an “Islamic” state, or should Muslims reinvent political institutions that suit their own times? Diagne shows that philosophizing in Islam in its many forms throughout the centuries has meant a commitment to forward and open thinking. A remarkable history of philosophy in the Islamic world as well as a work of philosophy in its own right, this book seeks to contribute to the revival of a spirit of pluralism rooted in Muslim intellectual and spiritual traditions.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne is a professor in the departments of French and philosophy at Columbia University. His books in English include African Art as Philosophy: Senghor, Bergson, and the Idea of Negritude (2011) and The Ink of the Scholars: Reflections on Philosophy in Africa (2016).

New Book: Divine Words, Female Voices

The relationship between Islam and feminism is complex. There are many Muslim scholars who fervently promote women's equality. At the same time, there is ambivalence regarding the general norms, terminology, and approaches of feminism and feminist theology. This ambivalence is in large part a product of various hegemonic, androcentric, and patriarchal discourses that seek to dictate legitimate and authoritative interpretations. These discourses not only fuel ambivalence, they also effectively obscure valuable possibilities related to interreligious feminist engagement. 

Divine Words, Female Voices ((Oxford University Press) is the follow-up to Jerusha Rhodes's 2014 book, Never Wholly Other, in which she introduced the idea of "Muslima" theology and applied it to the topic of religious diversity. In this new book, she extends her earlier arguments to contend that interreligious feminist engagement is both a theologically valid endeavor and a vital resource for Muslim women scholars. She introduces comparative feminist theology as a method for overcoming challenges associated with interreligious feminist engagement, reorients comparative discussions to focus on the two "Divine Words" (the Qur'an and Jesus) and feminist theology, and uses this reorientation to examine intersections, discontinuities, and insights related to diverse theological topics. This book is distinctive in its responsiveness to calls for new approaches in Islamic feminist theology, its use of the method of comparative theology, its focus on Muslim and Christian feminist theology in comparative analysis, and its constructive articulation of Muslima theological perspectives.

Jerusha Rhodes is Assistant Professor of Islam and Interreligious Engagement and the Director of the Islam, Social Justice, and Interreligious Engagement Program (ISJIE) at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She is the author of Never Wholly Other: A Muslima Theology of Religious Pluralism (Oxford University Press, 2014).

New Book: Shari'a Scripts: A Historical Anthropology

A case study in the textual architecture of the venerable legal and ethical tradition at the center of the Islamic experience, Sharīʿa Scripts (Columbia University Press), is a work of historical anthropology focused on Yemen in the early twentieth century. There—while colonial regimes, late Ottoman reformers, and early nationalists wrought decisive changes to the legal status of the sharīʿa, significantly narrowing its sphere of relevance—the Zaydī school of jurisprudence, rooted in highland Yemen for a millennium, still held sway.

Brinkley Messick uses the richly varied writings of the Yemeni past to offer a uniquely comprehensive view of the sharīʿa as a localized and lived phenomenon. Sharīʿa Scripts reads a wide spectrum of sources in search of a new historical-anthropological perspective on Islamic textual relations. Messick analyzes the sharīʿa as a local system of texts, distinguishing between theoretical or doctrinal juridical texts (or the “library”) and those produced by the sharīʿa courts and notarial writers (termed the “archive”). Attending to textual form, he closely examines representative books of madrasa instruction; formal opinion-giving by muftis and imams; the structure of court judgments; and the drafting of contracts. Messick’s intensive readings of texts are supplemented by retrospective ethnography and oral history based on extensive field research. Further, the book ventures a major methodological contribution by confronting anthropology’s longstanding reliance upon the observational and the colloquial. Presenting a new understanding of Islamic legal history, Sharīʿa Scripts is a groundbreaking examination of the interpretative range and historical insights offered by the anthropologist as reader.

Brinkley Messick is Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies as well as the director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He is the author of The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (1993) and a coeditor of Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas (1996).