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Religious Reform, Encounters, and Contestations

Session IX-11, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
  • My presentation sheds light on the unique theology and intellectual biography of Khristufurus Jibara (d. 1901), an Orthodox Christian cleric who was born in Damascus and eventually had a falling out with the church because of his ideas. Influenced by ancient anti-Trinitarian Christian traditions and contemporary puritan Unitarian theology, he developed a doctrine that he called “the straight path,” which harmonized Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. He believed that this harmonization would be the only way overcome the religious conflicts in Greater Syria, the Ottoman Empire, and later in the whole world. Jibara’s political and social theology was criticized by Muslim traditionalists, Christian traditionalists, and Christian secularists, and was accepted with a certain amount of sympathy by prominent Islamic reformers such as Rashid Rida and Muhammad ʿAbduh. Through historical and contextual analysis that highlights the place of the social, as related to nineteenth-century Greater Syria, the political, as related to the Ottoman Empire, and the global, as related to the universal idea of a world religion, the lecture will present the intellectual biography of a prominent scholar whose contribution has been entirely ignored by all the historical publications that have analyzed the intellectual spectrum of Arabic thought on the nineteenth century. In the presentation, I will argue that the influence of nationalism on religious identity and the tendency to use religion as both a dominant definer of political community and its legal basis was present not only among Pan-Islamists but also among Christians, as Jibara’s rare case demonstrates.
  • The Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary imam of the Isma'ilis, presents himself as an apolitical figure. Under his aegis, nonetheless, the Institution of Imamat functions as a transnational, neoliberal organization with ties to political establishments wherever it operates. How can, then, this claim to apoliticality be understood? Furthermore, unlike many spiritual leaders who draw on theology and polemical doctrines in constructing religious authority, the Aga Khan advocates a sociological axiom: pluralism. This paper traces the discursive shifts in the Aga Khan’s notion of pluralism since the 1970s to highlight its political agency. As a non-doctrinaire doctrine, the Aga Khan’s pluralism proclaims itself to be “secular” and universalist—not sectarian. It aims at building a more diverse and tolerant global community—as Jonah Steinberg demonstrates. Yet, Nizari Isma'ilis are a religious minority whose legitimacy has constantly been undermined by hostile Sunni and Shi'a authority claims. Furthermore, as Isma'ilis are scattered across multiple countries, including the European Union, their present imam does not enjoy official political recognition—as Daryoush Mohammadpoor’s Authority Without Territory demonstrates. The emphasis on civil society in the Aga Khan’s formulation of pluralism implies that his institution acts within nation-states, without an intent to govern over them. To be effective in its humanitarian efforts, the Aga Khan’s Development Network forges political alliances with states as political actors, without the latter feeling threatened by the growing power of the former. This paper articulates how pluralism as a mode of social organization serves a dual agenda. First, it redistributes agency to different actors beyond the hegemony of the dominant Muslim groups. Second, it consolidates legitimacy while operating under the established apparatuses of nation-states. This paper analyzes the Aga Khan’s doctrine of pluralism to show how it takes distinct shapes within different modalities of “the secular.” I will juxtapose pluralism to multiculturalism and b) republican secularism, as articulated in the work of Charles Taylor and Olivier Roy, respectively. As a case study, I will discuss the implications of pluralism in the context of French laïcité, focusing on the law of 2004 that banned the conspicuous presence of religious signs in public space.
  • Muhammad Surur Zayn al-ʿAbidin, a noted Syrian ideologue and founder of an eponymous Islamist movement, went through many stages before reaching his distinctive synthesis: blending the political awareness of the Muslim Brotherhood with the religious thought of the Wahhabis and creating an influential Islamic trend in Saudi Arabia and the Muslim world. The paper examines the development of Surūr’s thought and its ideological framework. His outlook on Islam was shaped primarily by teachers who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood, and early experiences in the ranks of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood shaped his political awareness and commitment to organization and planning. The rise of national secular parties and the political polarization of the 1950s also comprised decisive factors in forming his ideological convictions. Examining the early period of Surur’s life is crucial to understanding his subsequent career, as it shaped his Islamic path, political awareness, and political and organizational experience. Furthermore, the paper details the fine-grained distinctions between the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the most popular trend in political Islam, and political Salafists. Although both groups are categorized as Islamists, pursue the same goals, and have considerable interactions, they nevertheless diverge in terms of theology and praxis. The paper, therefore, explains some of the most important theological and ideological distinctions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists. Particularly, Surūr criticized the Muslim Brotherhood’s focus on politics at the expense of religious knowledge (ʿilm), thus spurning centralization and a hierarchic organizational structure for his group. To shed light on his early life and ideological shifts, we will examine Surur’s writings in his magazine al-Sunnah, where he penned a series of articles talking about his experiences in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood ranks, his embrace of Salafi ideology, and his activism in Saudi Arabia. “Murajaʿat,” (Revisions), a series of seven recorded interviews with Surur on the Al-Hiwar channel, also offers further details of various aspects of his journey.
  • The Arabian Mission was an American Protestant organization, employed by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM) beginning in 1889 to conduct evangelical activities throughout the Gulf Arab states, including Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman. This paper examines the role of missionaries of the Arabian Mission in the socialization of gender differences and the promotion of American values through education in Basra, Iraq between the 1910s and 1940s. It seeks to understand how the mission schools for boys and girls in Basra inculcated American notions of masculinity and femininity, and how Iraqi students negotiated these American gender norms to suit their own needs. By analyzing the Arabian Mission’s reports, British archives, and memoirs of American missionaries and Iraqi statesmen through the lens of gender and class, this paper argues that American missionaries propagated gender norms to boys and girls at the High Hope Schools through lessons and extracurricular activities, mediated by the different social classes of Iraqi students as well as the changing political atmosphere of Iraq. While the High Hope Schools succeeded in attracting a number of students from elite families in Basra before the First World War, they turned from being an elite institution to charity schools that provided education as welfare for poor students due to lack of funding and the implementation of the Iraqi nationalist educational policy in the 1930s. This changing nature of the school’s operation and the characteristics of the student body shaped the ways American missionaries inculcated gender and social norms among Iraqi students. Moreover, these boys and girls negotiated these norms in ways that defied the expectations of American missionaries. While some of the High Hope Schools’ alumni became successful scholars, the political events in Iraq led others to join the Communist party and the anti-colonial movements that led to the precarious position of American missionaries in Basra. By analyzing the experiences of male and female missionaries who shaped and were shaped by their interactions with Iraqi people in the early twentieth century, this paper destabilizes the Orientalist discourse of missionary enterprise and observes how gender affects the way missionaries and Iraqi students understood the notions of manhood and womanhood in Basran and Iraqi society. More importantly, this paper also contributes to the ongoing research on social and cultural relations between the US and the Arab world by examining American-Iraqi relations in an educational space in Basra.
  • This paper compares definitions of Islamophobia (IP) and antisemitism (AS) in scholarly publications. The literatures differ in four critical ways. First, scholarship on AS tends to conceptualize it as individual prejudice alone, while that on IP often follows the race/ethnicity literature to incorporate structural and systemic exclusion. Second, scholars of IP racialize Islam while the AS literature roots AS in a pre- Enlightenment religious Christian animosity toward Jews that is active even after the Enlightenment-era shift to a racial frame. Third, even though both AS and IP are treated as global discourses with deep historical roots, scholars of IP assert globality by linking it to European colonialism while scholars of AS, even those who in other contexts speak of Israel as a colonial entity, do not. Fourth, scholars of AS debate the uniqueness of AS while scholars of IP tend to see anti-Muslim activity as intertwined with other axes of exclusion. I combine the insights of both literatures into coding instructions for classifying speech. The instructions highlight how different assumptions affect classification of speech as incendiary, and identifies the definitions individuals use when they evaluate their own and others’ speech. My particular interest is in how definitional differences shape interactions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups on US campuses. Both accuse the other of IP or AS. In addition to the confusion that can result when one group thinks religious prejudice and another structural exclusion, definitions of AS and IP indirectly locate Jews and Muslims in local class and racial/ethnic hierarchies. Regarding class, IP is represented as having a material base, through the references to colonialism and structure, while AS is represented as lacking such a base, through the focus on prejudice alone. This reflects the task, for Jews, of conceptualizing exclusion under conditions of relative class privilege. Regarding race, IP’s racialization and references to colonialism locate Muslims as non-white. The lack of a counterpart in AS, and the assertion of AS’s uniqueness, separate Jews from nonwhites. It is unclear to what degree an unexamined desire to construct the self as white underlies these choices by AS scholars. However a longstanding Israeli literature on Jews, Orientalism, and white supremacy – which does connect AS and colonialism, and undermines Jewish whiteness by centering Middle Eastern and Ethiopian Jews in the analysis – would make that assertion. These links to race and class suggest that campus debates about Israel, AS, and IP have hidden domestic meanings.
  • This paper examines legal reform in Afghanistan during the reign of the late-19th Century state building monarch Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880-1901). Building on recent scholarship connecting Afghanistan's legal history to the Ottoman world, it argues that moving beyond the neat temporal and spatial frames that are traditionally used to study Islamic reform in state building projects across the region reveals new dimensions to how ideas of “modernity” and “tradition” were being constructed and wielded. In a familiar repertoire across the region reminiscent of King Muhamad Ali (r. 1805-1848) in Egypt and Sultans Mahmoud II (r. 1808-1839) and Abdulhamid I (r. 1839-1861) in the Ottoman Empire, Abd al-Rahman engaged in rapid bureaucratization: centralizing the courts, placing the state at the head of religious endowments (awqāf), initiating educational reforms, and instituting new forms of taxation, stamps, and, for the first time in Afghanistan’s history, passports. I situate these reforms within a transregional as well as historical context by examining contemporary court chronicles, legal manuals, and royal decrees explicitly for their intertextual links to Indian, Arab, and Ottoman debates, beginning in the early modern period, on legal reform. Examining the sources in this way shows how policies of the central state towards its citizens were part of a state-building project that did not represent a dramatic break with the Islamic past or with regional models of reform even as it radically changed the national landscape of Afghanistan. This was very much a transregional project, influenced by the Ottoman Empire, drawing on regional discourses, and gaining authority from connections to a broader Hanafi sphere, from the Middle East to South Asia. In some ways, this transregionalism was not new, but represented a centuries-long tradition of broad connectivity among Islamic scholars and legal schools, drawing on a legal logic that preceded the "colonial encounter". However, as the written content printed and disseminated in Afghanistan shows, it was being put into service of new goals: the protection of borders, the bureaucratization of elites, and the centralizing of authority generating new patriarchal structures.