Excavating the Colonial Modern in Islamic Law

By Junaid Quadri

How shall we understand the encounter between the sharīʿa and the colonial modern? What have been the responses of Muslim jurists to the twin pressures of colonialism and modernity? A surge of works in recent years have given us a range of responses to these questions. While some stress the deep penetration of new, foreign ideals into the institutions and norms of Islamic law, others instead emphasize the relative agency of colonized actors and the continuity of modern sharīʿa forms with pre-modern ones; yet others sit somewhere on a spectrum between these two poles. Authors writing in this problem space have tended to focus their attention on a cluster of representative topics. Among others, this has included the impact of the state and secular power, the endeavor to codify Islamic law, and the various institutional and intellectual reconfigurations in the fields of education, the judiciary and economics.[1]

Another area that has received a good amount of interest is the sharīʿa’s interaction with modern science and technological innovation. This has been a longstanding concern, but in recent years, scholars have often keyed in on the famed Syro-Egyptian thinker Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1354/1935) to examine the manner in which he addressed new technologies from within the idiom of Islamic law and in line with his specific reformist commitments. To take but one example from Riḍā’s many fatwās on such questions, consider his engagement with the telegraph. Vanessa Ogle, Daniel Stolz, and Leor Halevi have all shown in recent works that Riḍā’s embrace of telegraphy derived from his commitment to a legal approach that prioritized an anti-clerical egalitarianism and was directed toward pan-Islamic unity.[2] As Stolz has pointed out, the question of the validity of telegraphy most often arose in the context of a specific legal case: the debate over whether Muslims may rely on calculations to declare the beginning of Ramadan, or whether they should instead insist on spotting the new moon with the naked eye.[3] On this question, Riḍā upheld traditional fiqh’s emphasis on observation over calculation, a position that might strike as counterintuitive given Riḍā’s reputation as an agitator for the reform of Islamic law. In fact, though, he was being quite consistent. The same methodological commitments that informed his openness to the telegraph motivated his defense of the practice of moon sighting. Against those who advocated using sophisticated astronomical computations to standardize the calendar, Riḍā was coming down on the side of a method to determine Ramadan that was accessible to all, not only the scholarly elite, and which he thought could better serve the cause of a unified umma in an age in which new communications technologies like the telegraph facilitated the sharing of reports of new-moon sightings over large distances.

In this short post, I turn my attention to one of Riḍā’s most bitter opponents, Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī (d. 1354/1935). Bakhīt has often been portrayed by contemporaries and later scholars alike as an avatar of unrepentant traditionalism, a foil for reform-minded figures like Riḍā and his mentor Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1323/1905). In my recent monograph, however, I’ve ventured to cast his juristic output in a different light. In contrast to Riḍā, Bakhīt was a proponent of making substantial room for the use of calculations to declare Ramadan. I argue that this position, when read against the backdrop of his contributions to the new genre of writing known as tafsīr ʿilmī (scientific exegesis), place him rather squarely within a modern colonial discourse. On one level, this complicates the conventional understanding that, in the world of Islamic law, Riḍā represented an openness to novelty against the stodgy Azharī establishment to which Bakhīt belonged. But, I conclude the essay by cautioning against simply reversing the labels on these figures, arguing instead that a careful reading of these opinions permits us to see how deeply the demands of colonial modernity permeated Muslim jurists of all stripes.


Modern science and technology were not only loci of colonial encounter; they were also a crucial site of contestation between iṣlāḥī Reformists like Riḍā and Azharī “traditionalists” like Bakhīt. These were domains in which the reform-minded could use their broad exposure to European knowledge as a marker of worldliness that distinguished themselves from their opponents, whom they often characterized in terms of jumūd, an intellectual inflexibility that stunted the development of Muslim learning and society. One striking episode in 1906 captures the sharpness of the rivalry conducted on this terrain. In one of his fatwās, Bakhīt had rather clumsily conflated a number of distinct Ottoman territories, placing the petitioner of the fatwā at once in Anatolia, Eastern Rumelia and Salonica. Riḍā, never one to resist pouncing on an opponent’s mistake, took the opportunity to mock Bakhīt for his inability to comprehend even basic geography. “Would that the gentleman had notified one of his school children of his ‘discovery’ before its publication,” wrote Riḍā. “Perhaps, they would have warned him … that the residence of a person in different provinces in different continents is impossible.”[4]

Though this response was a particularly acerbic one, it was no isolated incident. Pointing out Azharites’ ignorance of the world was a mainstay of Reformist commentary in this period, Riḍā’s salvo fit into a larger dispute over the place of geography in particular. Already in 1900, ʿAbduh’s spearheading of a successful effort to include history and geography in the official Azhar curriculum had sparked a contentious debate that spilled over into the press. In response to an article in al-Muʾayyad by the Azharite shaykh Muḥammad Rāḍī al-Baḥrāwī, Riḍā’s al-Manār journal published the rebuttal of an unnamed student who supported the curricular change.  “It is widely known among all nations,” the student wrote, “that no field of study strengthens the mind like these two, for they acquaint the human with the ways and matters of the world (aḥwāl al-ʿālam wa-shuʾūnuhu).”[5] It was precisely his knowledge of history and geography, the writer continued, that made possible Bismarck’s “powerful mind” and “successful politics.”

This line of argument echoed two recurring themes of Riḍā’s intellectual project: the connecting of worldly knowledge with worldly power, and the insistence that a recognition of this connection is what enabled the particular civilizational prowess of Europe in contradistinction to the Muslim world. That these ideas were now making headway among a newer generation of Azharīs, against the protests of an old guard, bespoke a changing landscape. Riḍā’s derision, then, fit into a larger logic of partisanship that loomed over matters of science and technology. It was intended to cast Bakhīt as out-of-step, and therefore impotent, in this new world, and to lay bare the waning influence of an archaic mode of scholarship. By all indications, the insult stung. In public, Bakhīt downplayed his mistake, blaming it on a printing error.[6] Behind the scenes, however, he seems to have taken Riḍā’s rebuke to heart. The catalogue of the Azhar library reveals that, after this incident, he stocked his personal collection with a number of geography textbooks designed for primary school students, presumably to educate himself on matters with which he was until then unfamiliar. It was clear that figures like Bakhīt were now operating on an intellectual terrain that was quickly outstripping their Azharī training and necessitated a reorientation.

It was not only geography that occasioned this game of catch-up. Much the same sort of pattern can be detected by perusing his library’s holdings in astronomy. This discipline, which has so often been invoked as a symbol of the Scientific Revolution, came to increased prominence in Egypt at the turn of the century. The Helwan Observatory was established in 1903 and the Italian Orientalist Carlo Nallino delivered his famous lectures on the history of Arabic astronomy at the Egyptian University (today’s Cairo University) soon after its founding in 1908. No doubt attuned to this ascendancy, Bakhīt invested in modern textbooks once again, the most prominent example being the Uṣūl ʿIlm al-Hayʾa (Principles of Astronomy) of Cornelius Van Dyck, Professor of Astronomy at the Syrian Protestant College and an influential translator of the Bible.[7] The Uṣūl reads like an introductory college-level text, introducing novices to basic definitions and concepts through clear prose, detailed tables and helpful diagrams. What was most interesting to Bakhīt, however, was the triumphalist history of the Scientific Revolution that Van Dyck felt necessary to include at the very beginning of a primer otherwise devoted to matters of content. The inclusion of this familiar narrative was no accident; history was not a mere adjunct to the work of modern science. Rather, as Marwa Elshakry has noted, a historical account of a break from the past became integral to Western science’s self-conception.[8]

What is more intriguing is that Bakhīt would himself take on this account given by a Dutch-American missionary in Ottoman Beirut. In a work devoted to demonstrating the conformity of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth with modern astronomy, Bakhīt cribbed from Van Dyck’s work at length, replicating the main contours of the linear history that culminates in the victory of Copernican heliocentrism at the hands of the likes of Galileo and his telescope.[9] He does, however, intersperse amidst Van Dyck’s original language some strategic additions intended to secure a role for Arabs and Muslims within this universalist history.[10] Most notably, he comments that heliocentricity was not at all unknown to medieval Muslims. Rather, it was a minor tradition that existed alongside the Ptolemaic in works of kalām (theology) like ʿAḍud al-Dīn al-Ījī’s fourteenth-century work, al-Mawāqif. This move is one that fits nicely into the account of cultural imperialism put forward by Shaden Tageldin in her book on European-Egyptian encounter. Cultural imperialism is best understood, Tageldin argues, as “a politics that lures the colonized to seek power through empire rather than against it.”[11] It leaves intact the basic terms on which history is told, but seduces the colonized to imagine themselves as participating in it as sovereign actors.

This discussion may seem far removed from fiqh, but in fact it resurfaces precisely when Bakhīt argues in favor of using astronomical calculations to determine Ramadan. His position here depends on downplaying the necessity of observation by placing a greater stress on the objective structure of the world over the phenomenal experience of it. To make his point, Bakhīt points to the case of extreme latitudes where the stipulated markers of ritual worship do not present themselves in the typical way. Consider, for example, a place where the sun does not set for months at a time. Does it make sense, he asks, to require people in such locales to condition Ramadan on a sighting of the moon after sunset? Making observation a requirement in such instances is an absurd demand.[12] Instead of conditioning ritual worship on specific worldly appearances (sunset, the dissipation of twilight, the crescent moon), it should more properly be connected to the passing of time, which is in turn a function of the rotations and revolutions of the heliocentric solar system.[13] Whether someone spots it or not, the moon conjuncts with, and then separates from, the sun, regularly, inaugurating a new month. The heliocentric model thus serves as the basis for an objective structure of time independent of human perception and knowable through calculation. In opposition to overly perspectival definitions of time offered by theologians and some philosophers, Bakhīt stresses the superiority of one premised on heliocentricity, “the position of the ancient philosophers and the position of astronomers today.”[14]

Reading Bakhīt’s legal determination alongside his intervention in tafsīr ʿilmī – and in the context of his non-Muslim influences, the rapidly changing social, political and technological landscape of his time, and a broad view of his personal library – reveals how his juristic thought too is implicated in a modern colonial discourse. The realization that the colonial modern operates even on this seeming “traditionalist” is made all the starker when he is compared to his implacable opponent, Riḍā, who upheld the classical fiqh’s emphasis on observation despite being universally remembered as a modernizing reformist. Simply casting doubt on how these descriptors are applied, however, remains an insufficient treatment of these complex figures. It will not do to merely reverse the labels and claim that Riḍā is actually the traditionalist and Bakhīt the true modernist. As Daniel Stolz has argued, “advocates of ruʾyat al-hilal [moon sighting] were not simply defenders of the status quo against innovation; they were making an intervention amid a complex field of practices.”[15] The task for the scholar of modern Islamic law, it seems to me, is not so much to question whether modernity constitutes our subjects of study, but rather to unravel how exactly it does so.


[1] Wael B. Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Political Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013); Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012); Samy Ayoub, Law, Empire, and the Sultan: Ottoman Imperial Authority and Late Hanafi Jurisprudence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020); Leonard Wood, Islamic Legal Revival: Reception of European Law and Transformations in Islamic Legal Thought in Egypt, 1875-1952 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Indira Falk Gesink, Islamic Reform and Conservatism: Al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam (I. B. Tauris, 2010); Samera Esmeir, Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); Nada Moumtaz, God’s Property: Islam, Charity, and the Modern State (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021).

[2] Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 162-69; Daniel A. Stolz, The Lighthouse and the Observatory: Islam, Science, and Empire in Late Ottoman Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 243-70; Leor Halevi, Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865-1935 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 159-62.

[3] Stolz, Lighthouse and Observatory, 249.

[4] “Risālatān fī Qirāʾat al- Fūnughrāf wa-l-Sukūrtāh,” al-Manār 9, no. 2 (1906): 153.

[5] “Al-Taʿlīm fī al-Azhar al-Sharīf,” al-Manār 3, no. 4 (1900): 81.

[6] Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī, “Izāḥat al-Wahm wa-l-Ishtibāh ʿan Risālatay al-Fūnūghrāf wa-l-Sūkūrtāh,” in Thalātha Rasāʾil (Cairo: Jamʿiyyat al- Azhar al- ʿIlmiyya, 1932), 27.

[7] Cornelius Van Dyck, Uṣūl ʿIlm al-Hayʾa (Beirut, 1874).

[8] Marwa Elshakry, “When Science Became Western: Historiographical Reflections,” Isis 101, no. 1 (2010): 104-105.

[9] Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī, Tawfīq al-Raḥmān li-l-Tawfīq bayna mā Qālahu ʿUlamāʾ al- Hayʾa wa- bayna mā Jāʾa fī al-Aḥādīth al-Ṣaḥīḥa wa-Āyāt al-Qurʾān. (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al- Saʿāda, 1341H), 3-5.

[10] In fact, these departures too are traceable to another treatise, ‘Abd Allāh Fikrī’s Risāla fī Muqāranat Baʿḍ Mabāḥith al-Hayʾa bi-l-Wārid fī al-Nuṣūṣ al-Sharʿiyya (Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Madāris, 1876).

[11] Shaden M. Tageldin, Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 10, emphasis in original.

[12] Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī, Irshād Ahl al-Milla ilā Ithbāt al-Ahilla, ed. Ḥasan Aḥmad Isbir (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ḥazm, 2000), 184-85.

[13] Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī, Irshād, 189.

[14] Bakhīt al-Muṭīʿī, Irshād, 186. By “ancient philosophers” here, he means Pythagoras, to whom he ultimately traces the mutakallimūn’s support of heliocentricity.

[15] Stolz, Lighthouse and Observatory, 254.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Junaid Quadri, Excavating the Colonial Modern in Islamic Law, Islamic Law Blog (Dec. 23, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/12/23/excavating-the-colonial-modern-in-islamic-law/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Junaid Quadri, “Excavating the Colonial Modern in Islamic Law,” Islamic Law Blog, December 23, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/12/23/excavating-the-colonial-modern-in-islamic-law/)

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