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Theory and its Institutions in Modern Intellectual History

Session VII-11, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
In recent years, the question of method in modern intellectual history has been debated with renewed urgency. At issue is the resilience of the field’s Eurocentrism despite the notable influx of scholarship on intellectual production in the non-West. Indeed, the ongoing expansion of modern intellectual history’s content and scope has done little to change the dominant status accorded therein to modern Western thought traditions. This is evident, for one, in the fact that most scholarly works which purport to practice “global intellectual history” are concerned with the transregional circulation of theories, texts, and epistemologies that originated in modern Europe. The authority of the modern Western canon is similarly reinforced, as Omnia El Shakry has observed, by intellectual historians’ “citational practices, in which theoretical production is presumed to be European.” Meanwhile, theorists from the non-West are seldom cited or engaged as such but, rather, studied as “mere exemplars” of their local thought traditions. Against these norms and the provincial theoretical canon that they entrench, our panel brings together an interdisciplinary group of scholars whose readings in the history of modern Arab thought and its institutions excavate new sites of theory in and for modern intellectual history. Paper 1 examines understudied sections of Rashid Rida’s tafsir--written for al-Manar over the 1920s--that outline a social theory of early Islam, which the famed Islamic modernist generates in critical, creative conversation with post-utilitarian post-Darwinian philosophers. Paper 2, in turn, studies the formative years of an institution founded during the same decade to foster and formalize the work of syncretic theorizing that public intellectuals like Rida were engaged in, namely the Philosophy Department at what is now Cairo University. Shifting back to the pages of a popular Egyptian periodical, Paper 3 recovers critical theories of violence, colonialism, and capitalism elaborated by contributors to the Muslim Brotherhood weekly al-Da‘wa during the early 1950s. Paper 4, finally, moves into the new geographies of Arabophone theory opened by decolonization, focusing on the Lebanese scholar-diplomat Clovis Maksoud’s contributions to the Third World discourse of non-alignment and positive neutrality during the 1960s.
  • The Department of Philosophy at what is now Cairo University has long been known in and beyond Egypt as a consequential crucible of modern Arab thought. Recent scholarship offers in-depth studies of trends pioneered by famous faculty and graduates, such as ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi’s Arab existentialism, Yusuf Murad’s integrative psychology, and Hasan Hanafi’s heritage and renewal project. Yet little has been written about the department itself, whether in regards to its curricula and internal politics or the major figures, agendas, and debates that shaped how philosophy came to be understood and practiced within its walls. This lacuna reflects a broader discrepancy in existing scholarship on the modern Arabic humanities. Unlike its sister disciplines of literature and history, philosophy in modern Egypt and the Arab world more generally has been approached mainly through the work of iconoclastic individual philosophers with little attention paid to mainstream educational programs and research institutions devoted to the discipline, an historiographical oversight that inadvertently perpetuates the orientalist fallacy of philosophy as a fringe activity in Arab societies. Drawing on heretofore unexamined faculty files, textbooks, course lectures, and state archives, this presentation focuses on the Arab world’s first modern university philosophy department during its formative years. What is now the Cairo University Philosophy Department was established as a stand-alone faculty during the 1925 expansion of the initially private liberal arts college into a national university named for King Fu’ad I. While the presence of visiting European professors is generally credited with fueling the Fu’ad I Philosophy Department’s rapid growth and curricular development during this period, I identify other, local forces at play. Foremost among them was the concerted effort by Egyptian faculty to forge a philosophy curriculum rooted in the classical Arabo-Islamic tradition, which they accused al-Azhar’s ‘ulama’ of abandoning. Perhaps unexpectedly, this antischolastic position did not translate to a policy of hostile separation from the venerable al-Azhar. Rather, university archives indicate the opposite, with records of Fu’ad I philosophy faculty taking part-time teaching appointments at al-Azhar, advising theses by its most advanced students of theology, and designing philosophy courses for its new college of Religious Fundamentals. Their broad endeavor of institution building, I suggest, reveals the inseparability of the histories of Islamic reformism and modern philosophy in colonial-national Egypt while shedding light on the practical origins of the epistemological syncretism for which the Cairo University Philosophy Department became famous over the twentieth century.
  • In recent decades, scholarly and public discourses about “Islamic violence” have shown no sign of slowing down; the two terms continue to be sutured together in contemporary Anglo-American scholarship and public discourse. In these discourses, jihad comes to name and culturalize a form of violence, one that pundits who sometimes present as scholars tend to either treat as exceptional or to generalize as a stand-in for “religious” violence. Thus Islam is constituted as exemplar of the wrong kind of violence. This construction of Islam and violence elides the sedimented histories and conceptual embankments of jihad, the genealogies of “religious violence” as a term and idea, the colonial disavowals and origins built into contemporary typologies of violence, and the full structure of discourses about violence by the very same militant Muslims often identified with “jihad.” This paper proceeds in two parts. In the first half, it sketches a genealogy of the discursive knotting of Islam and jihad in relation to these elisions. It draws attention to the racializing work performed by the word’s deployment in the writings of American philosophers (e.g. Michael Walzer, John Rawls). Such discussions and scholars, I argue, should be read as symptomatic vectors for—among others things—a structural refusal to locate a critical theorization of violence in the writings of Islamists, or to identify Islamists as theorists of ongoing violence around the globe rather than as either simple apologists/architects of “modern jihad” or mere taxonomers of old “Islamic” categories. The second (and larger) half of the paper then recovers this theorization. It turns to the weekly journal al-Da‘wa, focusing on the first three years of its publication. The journal was published by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and included among its regular contributors the famous thinker Sayyid Qutb. The paper foregrounds how violence, colonialism, and capitalism were thematized and theorized across the pages of the journal, in ways authorized by and yet exceeding its Islamist key. Indeed, the journal blended a variety of ideological and historical idioms together, which is what makes possible its outlook: an experimentation with multiple scales that span regional, transnational, and global contexts. Finally, the paper draws out the implications of shifting the location of theory along these lines, in which the Muslim is not the unthinking vector of an illiberal violence that needs to be overcome but the theorist of how geographies of violence are maintained through colonialism, capitalism, and Orientalism.
  • In August of 1921, Muhammad Rashid Rida—by then a writer and reformer of considerable renown—traveled to Geneva to attend the first Syro-Palestinian Congress. Intended to be a representative body for the Arab communities of the former Ottoman Empire at the home of the League of Nations, the Congress was convened by Shakib Arslan, a close friend and collaborator of Rida’s. It is remembered for its opposition to the mandate system then being implemented in Bilad al-Sham and Iraq, contesting as it did the racial hierarchy that underwrote theories of mandatory rule circulating among the colonial administrators, legal experts and internationalists of the day. According to such theories, Arab societies were underdeveloped in the domain of modern government, requiring a period of tutelage by a designated European power before they could attain independence. Drawing on recent work in the field of Arabic intellectual history that calls for greater attention to connections between the activism, political engagement, and scholarly productions of men like Rida, this paper examines selections from Tafsir al-Manar that dealt, in characteristic fashion, with the concerns of Rida’s day, commentary upon which was enfolded into his interpretations of early Islamic society as depicted in the Qur’an. Particularly at issue are the citational practices Rida developed in his dialogue with the works of the British colonial propagandist Benjamin Kidd, heir to a long tradition of post-Darwinian and post-utilitarian thinking on a wide array of topics. Among these were: the functionality of ethical-religious systems from a materialist perspective, the requisites of civilizational progress, the key fault-lines of human difference. In studying Rida’s appropriation of Kidd’s writings on ‘social efficiency,’ an econometric-sociological category of sorts, I show how reflection on British imperial concerns provided for both men an occasion to generalize about the central mechanisms of social cohesion. In doing so, both Rida and to some extent Kidd contributed to an international conversation taking place between the wars that generated rubrics for inter-civilizational comparison such as that embedded in the regulations of the mandate system. Other scholars have argued that theories of mandatory rule, as well as the broader discourses in terms of which they were justified, functioned as a means of legitimizing postwar imperial expansion. In attending to the encounter of Rida with Kidd's thought, I argue that such theories also furnished materials for the formation of a renegade sociology in the Islamic world and Global South.
  • Third Worldism, Afro-Asianism, Non-Alignment and their associated projects were not simply diplomatic agendas on the international stage, they were cultural and epistemological projects tied to smaller, older, geographies of significance. Scholars labored in their service. Beyond the politicians’ conferences, whether Bandung (1955), or Belgrade (1961), or Cairo (1964), events which receive the bulk of scholarly interest on non-alignment’s trajectory and significance, non-alignment occurred at a different scale. Scrutinizing non-alignment’s intellectual history can reveal forms of knowledge that can be salvaged from non-alignment’s irretrievable political past. Rather than simply recount the events of non-alignment—the grand accumulation of solidarity, the limits of which was subsequently revealed—it may be prudent to bring our attention to the ideas of non-alignment. To begin accounting for the content and conditions of non-aligned thought, this paper narrates a history of Arab and Indian intellectuals thinking together in the second half of the twentieth century through their travels, polemics, and scholarship. I focus principally on the work of the Lebanese scholar-diplomat Clovis Maksoud (1926–2016), the most articulate Arab theorist of positive neutrality and non-alignment. In addition to his significant theoretical ouvre and voluminous occasional writings, I examine the rich cultural and social center which was the scene of Maksoud's thought in New Delh, where he was the Arab League's representative in the 1960s.