Engaging with Critical Theory

Image of Ibn Khaldun via Flickr and is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

June 27, 2017

This is the second of a two-part article. Read the first part here.

Critical Theory poses challenges to those of us who still adhere to some metaphysics.  In other words, it may seem hard to reconcile absolute truths, which always imply a metaphysic, with critical inquiries into the economic and social roots of ideas, norms, and belief. In this essay I will argue that of those who subscribe to such truths, Muslims in particular, must engage with Critical Theory. Not necessarily to adopt the discourse, but to reinvigorate Islamic thought, which has thus far marginalized itself in reactionary fashion over the last century or more.

Islam and the Question of Universality

Questions of culture and knowledge are universal. Over the last two-hundred and fifty years or so, thinkers in the western world have articulated these questions in a discourse that results in Critical Theory (CT). As I mentioned in part one of this essay, CT belongs to the general history of western philosophy. Our first point of departure, as a Muslim thinker’s engagement with CT, is to embrace that these questions have been a fundamental part of Islamic philosophical and ‘legal’ history as well.[1] Being familiar with the discourse of CT is to be conversant in a discourse that attends to the same questions as Islamic thought but in a different tradition, just as a Muslim theologian is familiar with other Abrahamic theologies and accepts or rejects certain aspects of those theologies.

One problem with engaging CT for Muslims is that CT is seen as rejecting metaphysics; and on the whole the traditions does. Existentialism too, largely rejects metaphysics, but Kierkegaard was an Existentialist and a man of deep faith. To insist that CT cannot be reconciled with a metaphysical worldview is to be teleological and essentialist. Approaching CT with this caution in mind saves us from reducing CT to a worldview with a predetermined outcome and transforms CT into a set of tools to probe universal questions of culture and knowledge.

Islam is uniquely suited for this type of interface because of the theoretical place culture holds in Islamic thinking. First, tawhid, when properly understood inhibits the belief that shari’a, in the world, is perfect; thus Muslims can only claim to possess fiqh and fiqh is always understood to be informed by culture (‘urf). It is not only helpful for Muslim to possess the critical skills to interrogate culture and power dynamics, it is incumbent upon them to do so and CT stands alone in addressing these question in a post-industrial world.

Now, a caveat I will add is that al-Tusi and Ibn Khalduns’ thought is so well developed, they offer paradigms that still resonate today, but this is precisely because there are certain core features of Islam that provoked questions of sociological inquiry. Finally, Sayyid Qutb, in a simple literary style provided concepts that could illuminate the relationship between knowledge, culture, and power; but his rhetorical style prevents him from being applied in any systematic way to such questions. Since CT, as a discourse and tradition is post-industrial, any Muslim who claims to be a thinker must not only recognize the questions addressed by CT but even some, certainly not all, of the answers found in that tradition.


For numerous reasons CT has been largely ignored by Muslim thinkers, Tariq Ramadan and Muhammad Baqir as-Sadr are two major exceptions with a host of minor exceptions. I think Muslims have largely rejected CT because it is seen as essentially an “atheistic religion,” in colloquial terms. Some Muslims are deeply concerned with certain cultural beliefs that have emerged in the west, for example the idea that gender is entirely a social construct, to which they attribute the rejection of gender to CT.  And it is certain that Critical Theory played a huge role in questioning gender roles. But CT would insist that whatever beliefs are prevalent at any given time are driven by power relations and cultural production, not some “truth.” There is a contradiction in being a post-modern dogmatist.

Yet it is no surprise that “alienation” as a theme is the grand provocateur of CT. After all, why would we need CT if we were happy? Thus there is some underlying, under-investigated, theme in CT that suggests there is a human nature. But defining human nature is difficult and can even be dangerous, in any direction. This has left most people to employ the “live and let live” paradigm, which is probably a good compromise. The question of alienation still remains, as it was the impetus of CT in the first place.

Islam and CT share this common theme as it is imperative upon a self-aware Muslim to not coordinate his or her behavior according to the judgment of other people or
“social pressure,” which often takes on the form of culture. A Muslim should be aware of how culture is a contingency, whether it be culture in a Muslim land or not. They must also be a vigilant advocate of improving Islamic thought (fiqh or otherwise) because of the incessant force that culture and power relations exert on all societies. This gives, perhaps, some new meaning to the idea of ijtihad. Or maybe not, maybe that idea has always been present in the work of ijtihad.

Conclusion: The Failure of Islamic Thought

CT dealt a significant blow to transcendental truths and a Muslim would consider certain Islamic principles to be transcendental. For this reason, Islamic thought has shied away from CT but it is the only tradition that offers a robust account of knowledge and culture in the post-industrial world. Industry and modernity does not mean that humans have changed, but it does mean that culture production has and this fact means a refreshed way of investigating culture must be developed amongst Muslims.

Finally, another reason why Islam and Critical Theory are seen to be at odds is because: a) CT is essentialized, as I mentioned earlier; b) Islam is misunderstood as well. Scholars of religion are often confused when discussing Islam. It is presumed that since Islam makes universal claims it is absolutist, like Christianity, for example; but the Qur’an is only ontologically absolutist, insisting on an uncompromising tawhid. The Islamic tradition, rooted in the Qur’an, however is ethically and politically pluralistic (Q 2:136-139). If Muslims do not engage with questions about industry, technology, and culture, some Islamic thought will remain reactionary and fail to provide what a Muslim seeks: peace through liberation.

[1] First, I am wary of insisting on the “Western/Islamic” binary but for the purposes of convenience it will be employed. Secondly, following Wael Hallaq, I am also uncomfortable with using the term legal to refer to fiqh; “legal” in the modern sense refers to state-centric policies regulating society. Fiqh was never state centric, but a local body of opinions and judgments that never possessed uniformity throughout any Muslim polity, let alone the dominions of the caliphs. Only during the reign of Suleiman (d. 1566) of the Ottoman Empire was a regulated, streamlined body of fiqh rulings, integrated into the state, was developed, with the appointment of Ebu Su’ud (d. 1574).

Laith Saud is a Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam in the 21st Century.