How did Muslims respond to foreign goods in an age characterized by global exchange and European imperial expansion? What sort of legal reasoning did scholars apply in order to appropriate – or reject – items like the synthetic toothbrush, toilet paper, gramophones, photographs, railway lines, banknotes, hats, and other commodities? What role did laypeople play in shaping the contours of the scholarly debates around these items and projects? How did the entanglements of imperial power plays affect the decisions made by these scholars and laypersons?
In Modern Things on Trial: Islam’s Global and Material Reformation in the Age of Rida, 1865-1935
(Columbia University Press, 2019), Leor Halevi
tackles these questions by exploring how Muslim reformers employed sophisticated legal reasoning rooted in textual sources as well as social context to account for the introduction of these new commodities, technologies, and laws in their rapidly changing societies. By focusing on the works of Rashid Rida – the Syrian-Egyptian publisher of Al-Manar
– Halevi demonstrates how modern technological advancements also transformed the very processes of Islamic law, as lay inquirers became central actors in shaping the contours of the discussion. Thus, through his analysis, Halevi creates a space for reading the development of Islamic law in this period as an “Islamic law from below.” The portrait emerges of an enchanting global journey across time and space in the Muslim-majority world as we witness an Islamic tradition that was actively – and critically – engaged in modernity’s premises through the trials of modern things.
Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University.