Indira Falk Gesink: Current Research
Historiography Source Reader
During summer 2009, a student , Justin Wilson, co-edited with me a selection of texts on historiography and historical theory. The manuscript contains 45 edited selections with introductions, spanning the whole chronology of historiographical writings from Herodotus to Hayden White and Jared Diamond. We plan to test run the manuscript as a textbook in class during fall semester 2009.
Translation of the Memoirs of Princess Javidan
During spring semester 2009, I helped six students to translate these memoirs, which I located in Egypt in 1998, from Arabic. Princess Javidan was the wife of Khedive 'Abbas Hilmi II of Egypt (reigned 1892-1914). The princess was born Countess May Torok Szendro, daughter of Count Jozsef Torok Szendro and Countess Sophie, in Philadelphia, PA, in 1877. She converted to Islam in 1900, taking the name Zubaida bint 'Abdullah. She married Khedive 'Abbas in secret in 1901; his marriage to her was not publicly acknowledged until the public ceremony in 1913. At her marriage she was given the name Princess Javan Javidan.
This project is part of Baldwin Wallace University's Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship program. The students prepared a draft translation and compared it to another English version. We determined that the Arabic was an abridgement of the English version, not the reverse. The students prepared analyses of the differences, which I may use as the basis for a short article. Students will be credited for the work if the material is published.
Islamic Reform and Conservatism: al-Azhar and the Evolution of Modern Sunni Islam. London: I. B. Tauris, forthcoming October 2009. To order, click here.
Abstract (from book jacket): The famed reform debates at al-Azhar Madrasa in nineteenth-century Cairo, one of the most influential centres of religious study in Sunni Islam, were enormously influential for twentieth-century Islamic thought. Here Indira Gesink offers a revisionist history of these debates over curricular and administrative reforms, and challenges our understanding of the struggle between Islamic reform and conservatism. It has been assumed that famous Islamic modernists such as Muhammad ‘Abduh instigated the reform movement and the ideas of modern religious life that emanated from al-Azhar and permeated Islamic society, a development that religious conservatives opposed. Gesink draws on obscure, but important, archival sources, legal manuals and ephemeral journals to tell the other side of the story, and to illustrate the important contributions of conservative scholars to the evolution of twentieth-century Sunni Islam. Conservative ‘opponents of reform’ engaged many of the same issues as reformers and actively pursued alternative visions of reform. In fact, texts of enacted reforms show greater attention to concerns of conservatives than to the original programmes of Muhammad ‘Abduh, and conservatives led ‘ulama committees that generated and implemented reforms. Had religious conservatives not contributed to the reforms of the early twentieth century, these reforms would have lacked the crucial cultural assonance that permitted them to become rooted in public life, in an environment of rising nationalist anti-British sentiment which saw ‘Abduh as a willing agent of colonialists. The debates ultimately catalyzed public acceptance of secularism, Islamic modernism and radical Islamism. They also led to the practice of lay legal interpretation, the proliferation of competing interpretations within Sunni Islam and the rise of militant sects. By drawing on obscure archival sources and restoring conservative voices to the debate, Islamic Reform and Conservatism presents a more nuanced picture of the al-Azhar debates and the forces that shaped Islamic religious life in the twentieth century than has become the norm. Its original scholarship and fresh analysis make this book indispensable for all those interested in the modern Middle East, religious history, Islamic studies, radical Islam and militancy, secularism, modernism and religious reform.
Reviewer's comments: Indira Gesink’s deeply researched study on al-Azhar reform sheds new light on a major chapter in the history of modern Islam. Dispensing with conventional portrayals of entrenched conservatives resisting enlightened modernists, Gesink reveals a far more nuanced and complicated set of intellectual and political struggles over al-Azhar’s organization, curriculum and administration. The revisionist account of Muhammad Abduh’s character and career is particularly compelling. Gesink rescues the reputations of conservative sheikhs from the slanted perspective that Orientalists uncritically adopted. In addition, she vividly illustrates the overlapping influences on al-Azhar of the Muhammad Ali dynasty, British colonial authorities, eminent sheikhs and rowdy religious pupils. Al-Azhar’s present influence in Egypt and the Muslim world owes much to this chapter in its history. Gesink’s book most certainly deserves the attention of readers interested in modern Islamic institutions and thought along with specialists on Egypt. --David Dean Commins, Professor of History, Dickinson College, author of Islamic Reform: Politics and Change in Late Ottoman Syria (Oxford University Press, 1990).
This is an innovative study of the debate over educational reform, which was a central issue in the broader movement of Islamic reform, in nineteenth-century Egypt. Indira Gesink shows that the familiar narrative of Islamic modernism, in which enlightened reformers struggled to revivify a stagnant educational culture and civilization, and to overcome its blindly conservative defenders, is based to a large extent on the reformers’ polemical portrayal of themselves and their opponents. An important part of her contribution is in restoring the roles and voices of prominent conservatives, such as the Maliki muftī Shaykh Muḥammad ʿIllīsh, to the narrative. She also shows that it was conservative scholars who succeeded in implementing modern reforms in the ancient seminary of al-Azhar. A key issue the author treats is the ijtihad controversy in Islamic jurisprudence. … Egypt’s reformers polemically redefined taqlid (following established doctrine) and ijtihad (interpretation): Taqlid became the blind acceptance of tradition, while ijtihad became synonymous with intellectual curiosity and critical mindedness. … The reformers also insisted that the foundational texts of the faith - the Qur’an and Sunna - were plain enough in meaning to be accessible to anyone literate in Arabic. This view has become widespread in practice, and along with the spread of literacy it has undermined the position of the ‘ulama as mediators of the meaning of scripture. Lay interpretation – that is, lay ijtihād – is a feature of Islam in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that distinguishes it from earlier periods. --Kenneth M. Cuno, Associate Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, author of The Pasha’s Peasants: Land, Society, and Economy in Lower Egypt 1740-1858 (Cambridge University Press, 1992)
"Islamic Reformation: A History of Madrasa Reform and Legal Change in Egypt," Comparative Education Review 50, no. 3 (August 2006): 325-345.
This article describes the arguments of nineteenth-century educational reformers, such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad 'Abduh. I argue that their redefinitions of important legal concepts, such as ijtihad and taqlid, constituted one of a long series of reformations of Sunni Islam. (contrary to public opinion, which is that Islam "never experienced a Reformation" and is therefore not well adapted to modern times). Although the comparison with the Christian Protestant Reformation should not be taken too far, the reformers themselves, especially al-Afghani, explicitly held up the Protestant reformers as examples to follow, arguing that examination of scripture had led to a critical spirit of inquiry that had jump-started the scientific and industrial revoluitions. Al-Afghani, 'Abduh, and others called for renewed ijtihad, or the use of independent reasoning in interpreting scripture. As this idea passed into popular culture, Muslims began to understand ijtihad as something every individual should do. (whereas in the past it had been the province of jurisconsults and religious scholars alone). Thus this "Islamic reformation" had social effects that were similar to those of the Protestant Reformation: an textual criticism leveled at scripture, reinterpretation for contemporary social circumstances, and multiple differing interpretations of scripture. To order full-text version, click here.
"'Chaos on the Earth': Subjective truths vs. communal unity in Islamic law and the rise of militant Islam," American Historical Review 108, no. 3 (June 2003), 710-733.
This article describes in brief the nineteenth-century debates at al-Azhar Madrasa over Islamic educational and legal reform. I focused on the arguments of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in favor of ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning for reinterpretation of scripture) and Muhammad 'Ilish against ijtihad and in favor of taqlid (adherence to precedent). Al-Afghani characterized taqlid as a cause of social stagnation, and 'Ilish predicted that widespread use of ijtihad would undermine the rule of law. IPSA abstract: "The purported inflexibility of Islamic law is largely a myth generated by conservative legal scholars’ attempts to maintain a semblance of unity in the Sunni Muslim community and by nineteenth-century reformers’ constructions of a stagnant society as a foil for their agendas. Reformers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh developed new meanings for technical legal terms (taqlid and ijtihad) that conservatives had used to bolster the rule of law and unity of the community. One outcome was that legal interpretation, once restricted to highly-trained jurists, became a lay practice. This, combined with the rise of state-defined Islams and oppressive political circumstances, helped to produce the great diversity of Islamic belief today, including militant groups whose intellectual heritages can be traced directly back to nineteenth-century Egyptian reformers." Click here for full text.
For information on my other student collaboration project, please see the Adams Street Cemetery Project.
If you would like me to send you more information, please email me.
Copyright © 2009 Indira Falk Gesink