Scholarly and public discourse on Islamic intellectual thought in the modern period tend to frame it narrowly through the concept of “influence” as it emanates from the Middle Eastern “center” to the non-Middle Eastern “peripheries” without paying sufficient attention to the ways in which these variegated “peripheries” retain the autonomy to form their own conceptions of religious identity in relation to themselves and to those “centers.”
In his latest work, In a Pure Muslim Land: Shi’ism between Pakistan and the Middle East
(University of North Carolina Press, 2019), Simon Wolfgang Fuchs
interrogates this framework with a novel intervention by examining the case of Shi’i Islamic intellectual thought in Pakistan as it relates to the Middle East. Beginning his study with pre-colonial India, Simon explores the internal debates that took place within Shi’i scholarly circles in the subcontinent prior to and after the founding of Pakistan to unearth the myriad ways in which they negotiated and contested their place within their social and intellectual milieus as arbiters of their religious tradition on equal footing with Middle Eastern Shi’i scholars and with their Sunni counterparts in South Asia.
Through rigorous research conducted in libraries across the Middle East and South Asia, Simon re-centers the importance of theological ideas – as elaborated in doctrinal texts, journal publications, and speeches – as a necessary complement to material interests in the formation of religious and sectarian identity in modern Islamic thought. He further demonstrates how Pakistani Shi’i intellectuals were not passive recipients of concepts from the Shi’i centers of Iraq and Iran, but active participants in the process of evaluating the usefulness of those ideas, working to re-appropriate or repackage them for their own local circumstances. Pakistani Shi’i scholars thus “indigenized” watershed events like the Iranian Revolution but also retained their own autonomy as actors with full agency to determine to what extent Iranian notions of authority and hierarchy ought be emulated.
This work cuts across the fields of Middle East Studies, South Asia Studies, and Islamic Studies, and creates avenues for further research in the history of transnational and transregional Islamic thought by challenging the conventional “center-periphery” binary between the Middle East and South Asia and by drawing our attention to the importance of the bidirectional flow of ideas between those regions.
Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University.