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Currents in Islamist Thought

Session IX-17, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • This paper seeks to juxtapose and contrast two systems of thought: on the one hand, a philosophical movement born in Italy in the early 1980s, which has gained famed in the academia as ‘Weak Thought’ (Pensiero Debole); on the other, a socio-religious trend within Sunni Islam, known as Salafism (Salafiyyah), whose origins are more nebulous, but that has earned prominence roughly from around the same time in various loci of the Muslim world. In establishing this pairing, I wish not to presuppose Weak Thought philosophy as a representative of ‘western’ way of thinking staked against a Salafi ideational system performing as the token ‘eastern’ counterpart. Rather, I intend to frame both of them as instances of reflection on (late) modernity, a time they both inhabit. I submit that this unlikely juxtaposition may in fact reveal parallels and similarities when it comes to common anxieties that (late) modernity aroused in both movements. First, both movements recognize and appraise the progressive erosion, in modernity, of metaphysical grounding. Second, they both veer away from the tools provided by modern epistemology to provide answers to such an issue: Weak Thought by turning to a purely rhetorical and discursive truth, and Salafism by reverting to a revealed truth. And last, they address the past as a repository of potential remedies: Weak Thought by proposing a different attitude towards the past (the idea of ‘pietas’ or ‘compassion’) capable of allaying modernity induced anxieties; Salafism by framing a past golden age to serve as template of virtue for the current times.
  • Despite a growing body of work on princely mirrors or advice for rulers (nasihat al-muluk) literature produced in Islamic contexts, attention to political thought in this genre from the modern period and by women remains quite rare. This is true even for a figure as well studied as Zaynab al-Ghazali, whose 1954 book, Malik wa Amal Sha'b (A King and A People’s Hope), provided an account of her travels to Saudi Arabia for the primary purpose of making the hajj, her meetings with the then Crown Prince Sa‘ud bin Abd al-Aziz al-Sa‘ud, and her extensive advice to the newly crowned King. This paper will address the following: Why has this work been so neglected and what does it reveal about al-Ghazali’s political thought, the possibilities and limitations of what is sometimes characterized as "Islamic feminism," and the claims made by comparative analysis of "mirror texts", particularly the conclusion of some American and European scholars that Islamic nasihat al-muluk remain more focused on practical use rather than political theorizing proper? I argue that, through this work, one gains a clearer view of the way in which the Islamic tradition forms the ground upon which al-Ghazali’s feminist reasoning takes place, of the ways in which she views woman’s “sacred mission” as educator of the future people of politics as extending even to a King in his 50s (her senior by a decade and a half), and of the sorts of political values and policy priorities she thinks should be at the center of modern governance.
  • The paper will focus on texts written by a wide range of Turkish Islamist intellectuals, and the ideologies of religious associations and political organisations in Turkey, to investigate one aspect of Islamist thought about ‘the international’, namely approaches to global history and historiography. These approaches centre on questions of periodisation (the beginning and end of history, major turning points), causation, the idea of change and progress, the connection between past and future, the ‘centre’ of history, and method. The research will be carried out through textual analysis of primary sources, the collection of secondary sources, and fieldwork in Turkey (and other countries, as required, such as Germany and the United States). The paper’s aim will be to outline the evolving and sometimes conflicting approaches to history and historiography in Rpublican Turkish Islamist thought, from 1923 until today. For the most part, in thinking about Islamic history, Turkish Islamists have ascribed a central position to the Ottoman Empire and shown a desire for Turkey, as its successor state, to occupy a leading role. For example, Necip Fazil Kısakürek sought to reclaim an Islam-centred vision of world history through the idea of Büyük Doğu (the Great East). Abdurrahman Dilipak, İsmet Özel and Sezai Karakoç also presented interesting standpoints on questions of history. More recently, Ahmet Davutoğlu and İbrahim Kalın placed the Ottoman Empire and subsequently Turkey at the core of history and at the intersection of ‘East’ and ‘West’. On the other hand, dissenting views, offered for example by Ali Bulaç and Hayrettin Karaman, have taken the early period of Islam as the ideal that should be emulated. The debate between traditionalists and ‘historicists’ will be studied in so far as it is relevant to debates about history. Mehmet Paçacı, Mustafa Öztürk, Seyfettin Erşahin, Recep Şentürk, İsmail Kara and Cihan Aktaş are some additional thinkers whose works will be explored. Drawing on insights from global intellectual history, the paper will situate Turkish Islamist thought within both ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ (Arab and South Asian) contexts and show that Islamist thinkers’ approaches evolved in conversation with philosophical and political debates, thinkers and trends in both settings. In doing so, and in exploring what is often presented as a ‘non- Western’ and even ‘anti-Western’ body of thought, the paper will argue that the very categories of ‘Western’, ‘Islamic’ and ‘non-Western’ do not stand up to scrutiny.
  • This study presents an analysis of the contestations between the Salafis in Egypt and the institution of Al-Azhar. Although much has been written about Al-Azhar and the Salafis separately, the relations and interactions between al-Azhar and the Salafi movement remain underexplored. This study examines the development of the Salafi tradition in Egypt, its transnational nature and the history of Al-Azhar’s co-optation by the state. It highlights, relying mostly on primary sources, the theological divide between al-Azhar and the Salafis in Egypt. The paper also outlines the socio-political contestations that have shaped the interactions between the two. It finds that the Salafi-Azhari contestation revolves around three overlapping issues: Salafi disdain for Sufism, the Ahl al-Hadith-Ash‘ari creedal divide, and socio-political contestation in modern Egypt. It argues that Al-Azhar, despite occasional conflict with the state and sustaining frequent attacks from the Salafis, remains the first and foremost religious authority in the country and enjoys the status of the gatekeepers of Islam. Ultimately, due to Egypt’s established religious character and Al-Azhar’s historical entrenchment as the bastion of ‘official Islam’, the Salafi tradition finds limited space in Egypt. This paper argues that although the movement’s operatives and ‘ulama find themselves conveniently at the service of the state on occasions, their perceived alien presence in Egypt, their transnational connections, and their influence (culpable or not) on violent extremism make their efforts to contest the Azhari tradition difficult. It also demonstrates that the Salafis have largely remained at the margins of the Egyptian religious sphere, having found themselves further sidelined by Al-Azhar and the state following the rise of ISIS.
  • The term Salafism has been used to refer to the movement of Islamic modernists such as Muhammad ʾAbduh and Rashid Rida which emerged in late 19th century Egypt, and to the much more traditionalist contemporary trend closely associated with Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia. In recent years scholars have addressed links between the two, and even questioned the utility of the term itself; however the tendency has continued to promote a common dichotomy: modernist ʾulamaʿ in places like Cairo and Damascus, and puritanical ʾulamaʿ clinging to traditionalist dogma in Arabia, especially the Najd. However, in the 1910s and 1920s in the Najd, the geographic core of Wahhabi Hanbalism, there was a lively debate among ʾulamaʿ, many of whom advocated a relatively moderate, Salafi approach to addressing the already emerging demands of the changing world around them. They sought first to educate and moderate the extreme traditionalists of the Ikhwan, then issued fatwas backing ʾAbdulaziz ibn Saud’s efforts to eliminate the movement. The works of the Najdi ʾalim Sulayman bin Sahman (d. 1930), in particular, reveal a tendency toward a Salafi methodology similar to that espoused by scholars such as ʾAbduh and Rida. Indeed, in 1927 Rida’s Al-Manar published bin Sahman’s, “Guidance for the Seeker of Knowledge,” originally written at least as early as 1917 and meant to educate and temper the more extreme traditionalist voices. Bin Sahman’s correspondence with fellow Najdi ʾulamaʿ reveals that he and his colleagues were quite familiar with Rida’s works and that bin Sahman sent him multiple letters for publication. This work is based on dozens of letters written to or by bin Sahman, fatwas and treatises, and his extensive works of poetry, mostly with a religious or political focus. These documents were accessed in Riyadh at the King ʾAbdulaziz Institute, the King Saud University Documents and Special Collections departments, the King Fahd Library, and the King ʾAbdulaziz Library. The views expressed by bin Sahman and other Najdi ʾulamaʿ reveal a Salafi approach to the challenges of the modern era far closer to (what Leor Halevi calls) the “laissez faire Salafism” of Rashid Rida than to the conservative and traditionalist Wahhabi Salafism with which the term is most often associated. These ʾulamaʿ were key supporters providing vital religio-legal legitimacy for ʾAbdulaziz’s suppression of more traditionalist forces, and ultimately for his establishment of a modern state system.
  • This paper explores variations in political party support in Morocco and Tunisia over the past decade, including the reasons that some demographics are more likely to support some types of parties rather than others. The paper draws on evidence from an original survey and survey experiments conducted in Morocco and Tunisia in early 2020. I argue that Islamist parties in North Africa, while often attracting religiously conservative voters, are more likely to be successful when they are perceived to be committed to democracy and to political reform. By contrast, parties that present more clientelistic (rather than identity-based) platforms appeal to voters with lower commitments to democratic practices. Parties with ideological platforms have struggled to gain significant support despite the comparatively free space for political competition, highlighting that North African democracy is still dominated by cleavages over identity and patronage ties.