The Most Influential Magazine in Muslim History?

December 8, 2020   •   By Nile Green

Modern Things on Trial

Leor Halevi

IN THE MIDDLE of March 1898, a young Syrian migrant in British-ruled Cairo founded what would arguably become the most influential magazine in Muslim history. His name was Rashid Rida, and the journal he launched during that forgotten Arab spring was called al-Manar (The Lighthouse). It was an image that evoked the illuminating effects of what Rida promoted as a rationalist return to the original Islam of the first followers of Muhammad.


As al-Manar’s readership expanded over the next few decades, reaching Muslims as far removed as Singapore and South America, its reform movement acquired a name: Salafism. Named after the pious “ancestors” — the salaf who made up the first few generations of Muslims — Salafism was only one of the several competing, then splintering movements that contributed to the great reformation of Islam gathering pace in Rida’s lifetime. But in its early iteration at least, Rida’s Salafism was a rationalist creed, or rather method of interpretation, that aimed to accommodate Muslims to the modern world of capitalism and science. In doing so, Rida hoped not merely to permit his co-religionists to enjoy the licit fruits of modernity, but also to empower them. By these means, he hoped Muslims might regain their former leading position in a world order that, during his lifetime, the empires of Europe had managed to control.


All around him in Cairo, Rida not only recognized the potent colonial combination of applied science and capitalist enterprise. He also admired it, to the deliberate point of emulation and appropriation. Here lay the paradoxical but ingenious stratagem that would disseminate his Salafism worldwide: in order to re-empower Muslims, Rida relied on the same technological and commercial methods with which European colonialists had welded the planet together. Founding his journal at the zenith of what many historians call the first age of globalization, Rida made use of the colonial communications grid of steamships, print, and post to spread his ideas far from his Egyptian headquarters. What made al-Manar so influential was not only its can-do message (which, in this brilliant new study, Leor Halevi calls “laissez-faire Salafism”) but also Rida’s canny adoption of European business methods. In doing so, he ensured the financing and distribution of a journal that was read by Muslims in Russia and China no less than British India and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). These places were home to far larger numbers of Muslims than the Middle East, including an influential educated class who knew Arabic. Rarely has the media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum that the “medium is the message” been so clearly exemplified as in the commercially printed pages of al-Manar.


While Rida’s role as the man who exported Egyptian Salafism to the wider world has long been recognized, Halevi paints a less familiar portrait of a shrewd entrepreneurial director of a publishing business, a man who absorbed much from his upbringing amid the European trading houses of Tripoli, in his native Lebanon, before developing a keen interest in economic theory as an adult. On occasion, these concerns vividly overlapped, as in 1908, when Rida published an Arabic translation of a French economics textbook. But for 37 years, Rida’s main occupation — and source of revenue — was as the editor, chief contributor, and publisher of his famous journal. Every issue of al-Manar bore the mercantile imprint of its formative context, being posted from a Cairo which British free-trade policies had rendered, in Halevi’s terms, “a mecca of consumption.”


Outweighing such eye-catching turns of phrase, Halevi’s achievement is to show how these commercial factors were not incidental to Rida’s religious ideas but inherent in them. For at the heart of Rida’s vision lay al-Manar’s repeated message that Islamic law presented believers with few barriers to trade, consumption, or the adoption of modern technologies. Islam encouraged Muslims to enjoy “the good things (al-tayyibat)” of God’s creation, which logically included the consumer by-products of science because the latter’s rules were also part of the great divine design. Even so, because humans were fallible and sinful, not every one of their inventions was a “good thing.” And here lay the rub: the legal opinions that Rida provided in response to the thousand-odd requests he received for moral advice were uniformly concerned with differentiating between which new goods and gadgets were ethically good (or at least, morally neutral — mubah — in sharia’s accommodating middle ground), and which led Muslim consumers down the high road to damnation. As Halevi makes clear, Rida’s rulings were


not about letting all foreign things cross the border freely, dismantling each and every Islamic barrier to commerce and consumption. The taboos of the shariʿa had to be respected and maintained. […] But laissez-faire Salafism was very much about minimizing, in the name of scripture and the Salaf [“ancestors”], religious and legal barriers toward individual prosperity and communal welfare.


Nonetheless, as an eager admirer of modern inventions, Rida made a great many liberalizing rulings, at least in the economic sense of affording participation in the capitalist marketplace. So it was, Halevi explains, “[t]hrough great exegetical exertions he tried to magnify scriptural principles that supported the impression that Islam was an easygoing religion that favored freer trade.” In other words, al-Manar’s message made up a Muslim prosperity gospel.


Although Rida and al-Manar remain the focus of each of Halevi’s eight chapters, the publisher and journal are ultimately relegated to the role of secondary, enabling players in the story of Salafi origins. Because in Halevi’s materialist approach to the history of religious change, the Salafi reformation was not initiated by abstract ideas dreamt up by urban intellectuals like Rida. Instead, Salafism emerged as a response to the material demands of Muslim consumers who sought religious legitimization, or at least guidance, as they participated in the global marketplace of European and American products. In this way, Halevi argues, Rida didn’t personally initiate the Salafi theological rapprochement with consumerism, science, and ultimately the modern world more generally. Rida merely provided a set of legal endorsements, “responsive rulings” articulated in the authentic terms of the Qur’an and the ancestral early Muslims, for the demands for material goods made by the hundreds of middle-class Muslims who wrote to him from the far corners of the planet with requests for moral advice about this or that product. As for what these items were, they ranged from English brimmed hats and tailored French trousers to American gramophone records, German cameras, and even lottery tickets.


The religious mechanism through which such “modern things” were put on trial was the sharia-based legal opinion, or fatwa. From 1903 until Rida’s death in 1935, such fatwas became the mainstay of every issue of al-Manar. These legal opinions — more than a thousand were published during the three decades in question — form the evidence that Halevi uses to support his boldly materialist paradigm. They also form the launching point for his investigations of the new goods and services — the iPhones and tattoo parlors of their time — about which Muslims wrote to Rida in Cairo from far and wide. It was these many forgotten senders of fatwa-requests who “set the agenda,” and not the great Salafi himself.


As the title of the book suggests, much of its content comprises case studies of the consumer items that Rida subjected to legal scrutiny, albeit through the novel juridical lenses of his rationalist, “laissez-faire” method. Far from dissecting the technicalities of Islamic law, most of Halevi’s chapters are devoted to the different novelties that caught the interest of early 20th-century Muslim consumers, along with the reasons why they seemed morally questionable. Many of these goods and services are now so universal — and apparently devoid of culturally variable evaluations — that the degree of controversy they evoked can seem startling. Two of the most intriguing chapters deal with the religious debates around two rather different, but now equally ubiquitous, types of paper product: banknotes and toilet paper. True to his material-driven method, Halevi devotes a great deal of investigative effort to identifying the precise products that triggered so much legal and exegetical cogitation, whether in the type of toilet paper used by the soldiers who wrote to Rida from Sudan (he concludes it was most likely British blotting paper) to the cans of Quaker oats whose halal status was worrying Muslims from Egypt to China.


Halevi summarizes Rida’s general position toward such modern things as advocating “the view that Islam at its origins was an easy religion and that modern Muslims would flourish economically if they returned to this ancestral worldview, openly adopted technological and financial innovations, and freely traded with non-Muslims.”


Yet Rida’s “liberalism” had its very clear limits, not least because his “laissez-faire” attitudes were in the realm of economics rather than ethics. That he ruled against certain goods reinforces Halevi’s point that, despite his embrace of many modern things, “the taboos of the shari‘a had to be respected and maintained.” As a result, some consumer goods and technologies failed to pass moral scrutiny, not least fashionable women’s clothing and popular music recordings that Halevi shows were among the most controversial items al-Manar dealt with. Similarly, the German gramophones being bought in large numbers by the Tatars who wrote to him from Russian-ruled Kazan were only acceptable, Rida decided, so long as they were used only to listen to recordings of Qur’an recitations. When Cairo became the hub of a burgeoning Arabic music industry in the 1920s, he voiced his stern opinion that vaudeville-influenced Egyptian singers and imported American records did nothing but fuel lust and lewdness. For all Halevi’s emphasis on a “laissez-faire vision for Islam,” when Cole Porter wrote his era-defining song, “Anything Goes,” the year before Rida’s death, its lyrics evoked exactly the dissolute lifestyles that Rida regarded with horror. By providing the guiding direction of his moral lighthouse, he tried to steer Muslims between what he saw as the dual perils of material impoverishment and moral collapse.


While the wide reach of his journal lent his opinions a range of geographical influence that was probably without precedent in Muslim history, Rida possessed no executive power to enforce his legal rulings in the form of actual laws. He never held an official position in Egypt’s elaborate legal and religious hierarchy, and throughout his entire career he remained a freelance fatwa-writer and publisher. Yet by those very informal means, Rida became the first truly global Muslim “influencer” of the modern age. He achieved this status through his dual embrace of the Muslim communications and consumer revolutions.


Halevi’s startling originality lies in tying these two factors together into a coherent explanation of the birth of Salafism. By carefully documenting the “responsive,” ad hoc character of Rida’s rulings, Halevi argues that early Salafism was less a coherent and fixed ideology than “a flexible tool of reform.” It is an observation that bears weight for more recent times in which Salafism has remained a major religious enabler — and check — on Muslim engagements with contemporary forms of consumer-based cultural globalization.


Even so, there are aspects of Halevi’s reading of Rida’s ideas, and of his strategies in bringing his vision into reality, with which other scholars of Salafism might disagree. Modern Things on Trial pays little attention to his engagements with the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia during the last decade of his life when, at the peak of his fame and influence, he defended the Wahhabis against their many Muslim critics and dispatched his senior acolytes to serve in the emerging Saudi religious bureaucracy. This has often been seen as the turning point between the rationalist and ecumenical reformism of early Salafism and the anti-modernist, sectarian tendencies of the Salafi-Wahhabism that ultimately resulted from Rida’s rapprochement, or appeasement, of the Wahhabis. In his 2015 book The Making of Salafism, Henri Lauzière called the result “Rida’s rehabilitation of the Wahhabis.”


Halevi’s emphasis on Rida’s modernism and pragmatism also downplays the deeply polemical character of so many of his articles in al-Manar, whether in condemning Christian and Baháʼí missionaries or criticizing more established Muslim authorities, including the clerics of al-Azhar and especially the leaders of the Sufi orders. Rida was certainly not someone to shy away from controversy, and his journal contributed a great deal to the spread of religious disputes. While it is not a theme that Halevi himself takes up, there are striking parallels between the polemical public sphere opened up by the 19th-century Muslim printing revolution and the more recent role of the “splinternet” in promoting inter-Muslim sectarianism. Another digital parallel with present times is the role of online muftis as brokers for what has come to be called “fatwa-shopping.” But while many such contemporary comparisons might be drawn, Modern Things on Trial remains more coherent and convincing by restricting its remit to Rida’s own lifetime.


Halevi’s analysis of Rida’s vast output of legal opinions provides an important way of rethinking the forces that shaped the transformation of Islam in the modern age. The religious reformation that emerges from his analysis is what he calls an “Islamic consumer’s reformation,” which was brought about not so much by intellectual engagements with European ideologies as by everyday appropriations of Western commodities. While previous accounts of Arab and Islamic modernism have made much of the impact of translated European books, Halevi rejects this intellectualist approach by arguing that mass consumer goods dispatched from the factories and warehouses of Birmingham and Bremen were far more influential than the translated flow of ideas. “Islam’s reformation was not an ideational movement rooted in modern concepts,” he declares, “it was a materialist movement rooted in modern objects.”


By rejecting abstractions like “Westernization” and turning instead to how tangible things were weighed on the moral scale of sharia, Leor Halevi presents a bold and lucid new analysis of the making of modern Islam.


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Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. He is the author of Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction and host of the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which features a conversation with Leor Halevi about his book.