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Ahmed El-Shamsy’s Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2020) is an astonishing scholarly feat that presents a detailed, sophisticated, and thoroughly enjoyable intellectual and social history of the modern publishing industry on what we today consider canonical books of Islamic thought. “Painstakingly researched” would be a description too mild for the depth and breadth of sources and analysis that El-Shamsy mobilizes in this book. Over the course of its 8 delightfully written chapters, readers meet some known and many less known book collectors, editors, Muslim reformers, early Salafis, and European Orientalists whose thought, outlook, normative agendas, and wide-ranging efforts produced a distinct corpus of classical Islamic texts.
The canonization of what counted as “classical” was itself a markedly modern move and gesture, El-Shamsy argues. Populated with fascinating narratives of manuscript hunting, editorial discoveries and frustrations, and collaborations between Arab scholars and European Orientalists, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics combines the literary flair of a sumptuous novel with the textual density of a philological masterpiece. This carefully crafted and argued book represents both a profound tribute to a mesmerizingly layered archive of tradition and its actors, and a tremendous service to the field of Islamic Studies in particular and Religious Studies more broadly. It will also make a great text to teach in courses on intellectual history, manuscript studies, modern Islam, Muslim reform, and Islamic Law.
SherAli Tareen is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Franklin and Marshall College. His research focuses on Muslim intellectual traditions and debates in early modern and modern South Asia. His academic publications are available here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Listener feedback is most welcome.
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