Often when we read about new Muslim intellectuals we are offered a presentation of their politicized Islamic teachings and radical interpretations of theology, or Western readings that nominally reflect the Islamic tradition. We are rarely introduced to critical Muslim thinkers who neither abandon their Islamic civilizational heritage nor adopt, wholesale, a Western intellectual perspective.
In Carool Kersten‘s Cosmopolitans and Heretics: New Muslim Intellectuals and the Study of Islam (Columbia University Press, 2011), we learn about a few modern Muslim thinkers who engage their Islamic intellectual heritage with the philosophical apparatus of contemporary Western thought. Kersten, a professor of Religious and Islamic Studies at King’s College London, has tracked Muslim thinkers for years (follow his blog Critical Muslims), and book reflects a deep understanding of the wider dialogues occurring in contemporary Islamic thought. His analysis also traverses geographical limitations of much of the scholarship on contemporary Islam by discussing figures from both the eastern and western regions of Islam. We are introduced to the thought of Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia), Hasan Hanafi (Egypt), and Mohammad Arkoun (Algeria). Through these thinkers Kersten explores how phenomenology, hermeneutics, secularization, and postcolonial vocabulary can assist us in approaching religion generally. He frames his work through Russell McCutcheon’s model of theological, phenomenological, and critical-anthropological strategies for engaging religion in order to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches in the study of Islam. Altogether, we have the first book length analysis of these important modern Muslim thinkers and their critique of both western scholarship and Muslim intellectualism.
[Excerpt—See accompanying URL for full original text and the audio interview]