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Response to Review no. 215

It is a pleasure to read so clear an account of what I tried to do in my book. The one point I would like to take up is the reviewer’s regret that I did not engage nearly as fully with the issues discussed in the modern Islamist literature on my topic as I did with the medieval scholastic texts. Her observation is correct, and my object here is not to defend the imbalance but to put the point in a certain perspective.

Had my book been devoted to an aspect of medieval Christian scholasticism, it would have been unlikely to include a substantial chapter on modern developments; and by the same token the book would probably not have been reviewed at length by an expert in modern European history. One reason for this is demographic: as might be expected, the number of scholars studying the Islamic world in the West is far smaller than the number studying the West itself, with the result that the few of us who are in the field cannot afford to be nearly as specialised as our Europeanist colleagues. But there is also a more significant contrast in play here: medieval Islamic thought, or certain aspects of it, have far more direct relevance for what happens in the Islamic world today than does medieval Christian thought in the West or for that matter medieval Confucian thought in East Asia.

There were in fact two reasons why I included a chapter on the modern period in my book. One was not particularly edifying: I was afraid that if the book dealt only with medieval Islamic thought, no one would want to publish it. The other reason bears more scrutiny. Having spent a good many years familiarising myself with the intricacies of medieval Islamic thinking on my topic, I knew that I could read the modern Islamist literature with an intellectual sensitivity that a modern historian would find hard to match. To put it crudely, I could immediately tell when an author was copying from traditional texts and when he was saying something new. But I was also aware that I could not match a modern historian’s sensitivity to historical context, particularly as few of the Islamist writers whose works I consulted have been studied in any depth, or at all. Hence my more limited treatment of the modern material.

This is where a remark of the reviewer’s comes in: she observes that my footnotes give ample material for a modern historian wishing to take up the topic. I very much hope that sooner or later someone with the right qualifications will do just that – and at the same time go well beyond my footnotes.