Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb.

Author:Stearns, Justin
Position:Book review
 
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Islamic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century: Scholarly Currents in the Ottoman Empire and the Maghreb. By KHALED EL-ROUAYHEB. New York: CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2015. Pp. xvi + 399. $99.99, [pounds sterling]64.99.

This is an important book. While the political and social history of the early modern Muslim world and especially the Ottoman empire has received a great deal of attention over the last few decades, the same cannot be said for its intellectual history. There have been some excellent studies of individual thinkers--a personal favorite is Stefan Reichmuth's book on al-Zabidi--but no synthetic overviews that offer a comprehensive narrative of the intellectual developments in the Muslim world from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries (the field of jurisprudence is a notable exception, but there, too, more is needed). This book does precisely that, and the research and effort that went into it go some ways to explaining why no one had written such a book before. Khaled El-Rouayheb's accomplishment is to define criteria for measuring intellectual vitality and development in a broad number of fields--logic, dialectics, reading strategies, theology, and Sufism among them--and then to show how and why during what we might call the long seventeenth century the scholarship of the central Ottoman lands was revitalized in these areas. In doing so he acquaints his reader with an impressively broad array of scholars, some of whom are well known--Ibrahim al-Kurani (d. 1690), al-Hasan al-Yusi (d. 1691), Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi (d. 1731), for example--but many more less so (the sheer number of lesser known but significant scholars featured here, along with their scholarly genealogies and most important works, is in itself a valuable contribution). El-Rouayheb shows that the Ottoman empire and neighboring Muslim lands experienced a notable increase in the study of the rational sciences in the seventeenth century along with an emphasis on rational modes of argumentation, often related to the use of the term tahqiq or verification. It is a particular virtue of his analysis that he is able to show how this development began and ended, and how it relates to the subsequent intellectual developments associated with figures such as Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), al-Zabidi (d. 1791), and al-Shawkani (d. 1834). In the process he makes a compelling case for the continued significance of intellectual history as a field and the counterproductive nature of European frameworks such as humanism and enlightenment when describing developments in the Muslim world.

The book is divided into three parts, each focusing on how a group of scholars from outside the Ottoman empire played an important role in shaping the scholarship within it. The first, "The Path of the Kurdish and Persian Verifying Scholars," demonstrates effectively how many previous generalizations regarding this period have been insufficient. It is divided into three chapters: the first addresses the focus on the rational sciences of the Kurdish scholars who entered the Ottoman empire in the...

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