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Author-Meets-Critics: SherAli Tareen's Defending Muhammad in Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020)

This Author-Meets-Critics panel seeks to discuss and debate the theoretical and methodological contributions of SherAli Tareen's book, Defending Muhammad in Modernity (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020). In what follows, I will describe this book’s key themes and significance, particularly highlighting how this monograph advances Islamicist scholarship on Muslim conceptions of sovereignty, “religion-making” in colonial modernity, and political theology. I will also describe the format, composition, points of discussion, and possible audience of the proposed panel.

Key Themes and the Book's Significance:

Defending Muhammad in Modernity is a rigorous intellectual history of key nineteenth-century theological polemics that continue to define significant contours of contemporary Islam in South Asia and the diaspora. While these theological polemics centered on the nature of “divine sovereignty” and “prophetic authority,” the scholars involved in these polemics also elaborated competing political imaginaries in response to colonial modernity. Tareen examines two iterations of these theological polemics: first, the early nineteenth-century debates over “a thousand Muhammads” and “God’s capacity to lie,” which unfolded between Shah Muhammad Isma‘il (d. 1831) and Fazl-i Haqq Khayrabadi (d. 1861); second, the fin-de-siècle debates over “heretical innovation” (bid‘a), popular celebrations of Muhammad’s birthday, and the Prophet’s capacity to know the Unseen. Two scholars, namely, Ashraf ‘Ali Thanvi (d. 1943) and Ahmad Raza Khan Barelvi (d. 1921), pursued these latter debates most intensely in various fatwas and theological treatises. By the beginning of the twentieth century, these particular polemical exchanges had given rise to two “competing logics” of Sunni Muslim traditionalism in South Asia that were enshrined in the Barelvi and Deobandi normative orientations (masalik). Tareen offers the first book-length study of the Barelvi-Deobandi polemic and uses this object of study to enrich our understanding of modern Islam, religion in colonial modernity, political theology, and the limits of secular liberalism.

Methodologically, Tareen demonstrates the analytical purchase of “close reading” and engagement with cross-disciplinary conversations in “political theology, secularism studies, ritual studies, legal theory, and narrative theory” (11). Tareen shows how Barelvi-Deobandi debates “indelibly informed the critical question of what counts as Islam and what counts as a normative Muslim identity in the modern world, in South Asia, and indeed globally” (3). He thus connects his close readings of intricate theological texts to broader questions about religion-making and political theology. The book models a rather novel approach to considering both text and context as well as discourse and ritual, thus advancing a fresh approach to attend to what Talal Asad calls “Islam as a discursive tradition.” In Tareen’s own words, it is imperative to practice “thinking (theory) that closely navigates the conflicting logics through which the parameters of a discursive tradition are fought out” (4). Tareen also participates in ongoing conversations about historicizing prophethood and the legacy of Muhammad, engaging with the important work of scholars such as Kecia Ali (on the politics of translating and invoking Muhammad in modern Islam). He also builds on postcolonial and decolonial critiques of religion (such as the work of Arvind Mandair and Ananda Abeysekara) by deftly demonstrating how divine sovereignty and “Indian Muslim identity were not independent but mutually co-figured in the discursive space” of theological polemics (130). Defending Muhammad in Modernity thus contributes to wide-ranging conversations in religious studies and demonstrates how certain often-invoked binaries, such as “legal/mystical” and “reformist/traditional,” and conceptual frameworks that privilege secular liberalism cannot account for the diverse ways in which “religion” was constructed, contested, and corporealized by Muslim theological actors in colonial South Asia and beyond.

Format, Points of Discussion, and Audience:

This roundtable panel consists of both senior and junior scholars who are invested in the critical study of Islam within the academic study of religion, feminist studies, postcolonial theory, South Asian studies, and the anthropology of religion. Let me briefly describe this panel’s format: following the presider’s brief presentation on the book’s argument and theoretical contributions as well as the broader aims and objectives of the panel itself, each panelist will take about ten to twelve minutes to offer constructive and critical reflections on the book. The panelists’ contributions will be followed by SherAli Tareen’s response of about fifteen minutes, leaving ample time for Q&A as well as audience participation. As the panelists represent multiple positionalities, disciplinary and otherwise, the themes to be discussed in this panel will likewise be rich in terms of their thematic range, including, but not limited to: Muhammad’s legacy in modernity, religion-making and secular power, coloniality and alternative political imaginaries, political theology beyond the modern West, intra-Muslim polemics and theological debates, and questions about historiography as well as methodology. The panel will thus appeal to scholars in Islamic studies but also those working in secularism studies, political theology, postcolonial theory, and South Asian studies. As this book seeks to integrate the study of Islam, South Asia, and Postcolonial thought, this panel is particularly well-suited to be co-sponsored by the Study of Islam Unit as well as the Religion, Colonialism, and Post-Colonialism Unit.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 1200 characters including spaces)

This interdisciplinary panel discusses and debates SherAli Tareen’s _Defending Muhammad in Modernity_ (University of Notre Dame Press, 2020). This monograph offers detailed “close readings” of South Asian Muslim theological polemics about “divine sovereignty” and “prophetic authority.” Tareen’s researched analysis of these theological polemics throws light on the emergence of competing logics of tradition and alternative political imaginaries in South Asian Islam. Drawing on Arabic, Persian, and Urdu manuscript sources as well as printed texts, Tareen identifies the particular hermeneutic structures and discursive strategies Muslim scholars deployed in order to elaborate competing visions of social reform, while also navigating the challenges of colonial governmentality and secular reason.

Audiovisual Requirements


LCD projector


If possible, please schedule this panel either on Saturday or Sunday.
Program Unit Options

Session Length

2 Hour Session
Schedule Info


Wednesday, December 9, 11:00 AM-1:00 PM (EST UTC-5)


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