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New Texts Out Now: Mohammad Salama and Rachel Friedman, Locating the Secular in Sayyid Qutb

[Cover of Arab Studies Journal Vol. XX No. 1 (Spring 2012)] [Cover of Arab Studies Journal Vol. XX No. 1 (Spring 2012)]

Mohammad Salama and Rachel Friedman, “Locating the Secular in Sayyid Qutb.” Arab Studies Journal Vol. XX No. 1 (Spring 2012).

Jadaliyya (J): What led you to write this article?

Mohammad Salama and Rachel Friedman (MS and RF): The post-revolutionary political scene in Egypt, with at least fourteen Islamist parties vying for power, is a timely historical moment to take a close look at the dynamics of religious authority versus the so-called secular. As the Egyptian people succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak’s dictatorship, the importance of popular discourses asserts itself strongly.

Our article came about partly through a desire to show how popular, non-institutional currents of thought tell a different history of the secular in Egypt than a governmental history would. We wanted to reopen a dialogue about the epistemological and ideological groundings of “the secular” in the Egyptian public sphere, a concept we believe calcified in Sayyid Qutb’s writings. As we have witnessed educated Egyptians using the word “secular/secularist” in a reductionist way, almost exclusively and unproblematically synonymous with kafir, or disbeliever, we felt an urgency to examine the changing culture in Egypt in light of the Arab Spring but also the widening divide between the possible hopes of the Egyptian society and the escalating “jargons of authenticity” that characterize the Islamist political movements today. Misunderstandings of the “secular” are not an excuse for repeating historical mistakes, especially when there is a historical amnesia, not just of the Ottoman dawlat al-Islam, and how it ran the affairs of pre-colonial Egypt before the Ali dynasty, but also the misconceptions we are witnessing before our eyes of the very culture and language of Islam.

This failure to understand the ramifications and imbrications of what we call the “secular,” especially after Talal Asad’s discerning analysis of the concept, is dangerous enough that it might foster the fall of Egypt into yet another discourse of political violence and tyranny—divisive, essentialist, and derivative of the old Islamic ‘asabiyya-based dynastic rule that ibn Khaldun warned us against seven centuries ago. We are also intrigued by how Qutb, with his growing posthumous fame, inspired by Qur'anic verses (especially on jahiliyya), in effect takes an interpretation of the Qur’an as his guide in explaining hakimiyya and jahiliyya in history.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

MS and RF: The article is in dialogue with contemporary understandings of the secular and the doctrine of secularism, both Western and Egyptian. It takes up Talal Asad’s discussions in Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity with the goal of expanding his study of the secular, particularly in Egypt. Talal Asad opens with the intriguing question, “What might an anthropology of the secular look like?” He critiques prevalent assumptions about the secular and the areas it covers, arguing that while anthropologists have called attention to the study of the “strangeness of the non-European world” and what is seen as non-rational dimensions of social life (myth, taboo, and religion), the modern and the secular have not been adequately studied. His project is an examination of this sort, and in his case study of Egypt, he looks at how the country’s colonial court system secularized.

We use the example of Sayyid Qutb’s writings to show how a wider understanding of the secular is enriched by non-institutional discourses. Especially in the case of post-colonial nations whose governments’ interests and values were different than those of the populace, we find it important to take popular currents of thought into account. Our study of Qutb’s work is framed with this investigation of the secular and how it was received by one popular thinker in post-colonial Egypt. We investigate Qutb’s attitude toward the secular through his quasi-historical theorization of jahiliyya, showing how his work is not just a product of but also produces and perpetuates a particular conception of the secular. Qutb’s use of Qur'anic concepts and vocabulary in his discourse lends his writing a special rhetorical power while tying it to a solid religious source. Our reading of his texts is a case in point of how popular discourse enriches and expands an understanding of the secular and its history in modern Egypt.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from each of your previous research and writing?

MS: As a scholar of modern Arabic culture and literature with a special focus on modern Egyptian thought, I aim to draw attention not only to narratives that relate colonial and postcolonial historiographies between Islam and the West in general, but also to fabricated beginnings, selective use of the past, and ignored histories. My recent coauthored volume German Colonialism (Columbia University Press, 2011) and my book Islam, Orientalism and Intellectual History (I. B. Tauris, 2011) are examples of this kind of work. Exemplifying such complexity entails radical contextualization and incorporation of texts that may not appear immediately relevant to the conventional historian. The most important motivation here is to draw attention to gaps and lacunae, as well as tensions, in terminological jargons used simplistically in the public world of politics.

This article fits well within my current research in that it examines the recent prehistory of political Islam in Egypt in order to emphasize the subtle and complicated ways through which political meanings enter the practice of politicians and polemicists, especially on such a heated topic as the religious and the secular, which is the issue du jour in current Egyptian political discourses. But I also wish to underscore that the last thing this article wants to suggest is any straightforward or categorical differentiation between those two notions. We could philosophize and even offer our own “anthropologies from above” on what the secular entails in certain social spaces. But in the end, much would depend on how, in this case, Qutb’s “macro-Islamic” perspective of the “secular,” or what he calls the “the miserable break,” can be shown to have solidified such an understanding in the public imagination and translated it into forms of action or models of thought on the ground, whether among scholars, journalists, activists, leaders of religious parties, or any other socio-political category of the sort.

RF: My scholarship focuses on the intersection of classical Arabic literature and Islamic studies. I have a special interest in Qur'anic studies, as well as how the Qur’an and its rhetoric have shaped various discourses in the Islamic literary and cultural milieu, particularly poetic production and criticism. This article is a modern-focused extension of that work in that it is also concerned with how interpretation of the Qur’an functions outside of tafsir discourse as it is narrowly defined. My recent article “Interrogating Structural Interpretation of the Qur’ān” in Der Islam (2012) is concerned with how some modern methods of approaching the Qur’an exclude and suspend centuries of tafsīr in their attempts to impose a “scientific” organization on the Qur’an and its suras. “Locating the Secular in Sayyid Qutb” takes up the broader question of modern-day understandings of the Qur’an from a different angle, examining how Qur'anic ideas have been employed and configured in a new, highly politicized context.

J: What other projects are you each working on now?

MS: Right now I am working on a book project tentatively entitled Islam and the Secular in Colonial Egyptian Literature. I show how certain contending motifs, popularized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, came to inform Egyptian conceptions of national identity and organize a “cohesive” sense of Egyptianness, something in the name of which political parties would be established and anti-colonial campaigns waged. Drawing on works from Rifa‘ al-Tahtawi to early Taha Husayn, the study shows how the self-understanding of society requires its cultural and literary articulation, and how the Egyptian situation in particular shows how this articulation happens in different ways that are inspired by religion but not exclusively Islam-centered.

RF: I am currently doing work on the relationship between religious thought and literary criticism in classical Arabic discourse, a relationship organized by the evolving doctrine of the inimitability of the Qur’an (iʿjaz al-Qur’an) especially in the ninth and tenth centuries CE. On one hand, my study focuses on how this doctrine shaped conceptions of literature and its rhetorical devices. On the other hand, I am interested in how the Islamic is articulated in classical Arabic poetry in verse by the likes of ibn al-Rumi (d. 896 CE) and the Andalusi convert Ibrahim ibn Sahl (d. 1251 CE).

Excerpt from “Locating the Secular in Sayyid Quṭb”

While Quṭb calls for a return to a past state of affairs where there was nothing in society outside the religious, he does so in clear and explicit opposition to the current state of affairs. Quṭb sees the political circumstances in Egypt as the latest in a series of breaking points where society’s religious element was extracted so that a system other than religion could function (as in the case of the Church replacing God with its own system of indulgences and other manmade concepts). This modern perspective, in addition to Quṭb’s direct recourse to Qur’anic verses without the mediation of classical exegesis, renders his discourse specific to the modern era.

The traces of the secular can therefore be detected in postcolonial Islamist writing and are indeed constitutive of it. One must not only look for the secular in obvious places. Asad overlooks the complex popular currents of thought that still existed and were as vibrant and reactionary as ever. In addition to the case of institutional histories like that of the Egyptian court documents, however, the secular will be detected in various discourses as a symptom of the far-reaching consequences of modernity itself. Otherwise, it would be difficult to read Quṭb’s writings and not feel the enormity of the discontent and indignation as he toils to restore, at least textually, the sovereignty of Islam and to lift the scars that Europe’s colonial modernity visited upon the Arab-Muslim world. Perhaps it was an impossible and radically extreme task, but the point is that Quṭb was writing against his lived experience of what he understood to be the secular and its attempted implementation. In the larger relationship of this body of writing to the outside world, Quṭb’s voice has been distinct and eloquent in resisting the secular and the general direction of the times. In tracing Quṭb’s definition of the secular, we have aimed to examine his understanding of the concept not only as a postcolonial plague of foreign design but also in terms of how Quṭb appropriated what he saw as the history of secularism and recast it in his own project. We do not wish simply to dissolve the secular in a sea of categorical misconceptions nor to justify any one understanding of the secular. It is important to see, however, that, sociologically speaking, Quṭb’s oeuvre is itself symptomatic of the historical contingency of contentious socio-political struggles emanating from the postcolonial moment in the Arab-Muslim world. It is important to see as well how Quṭb tried to craft the blueprints of an Islamic umma à venir in lieu of Nasser’s “secular” nation-state.

Quṭb’s writings thus show the way these constructed Western categories of the “secular” and the “religious” are rhetorically translated in a strongly reactionary discourse. The fact that Quṭb seems to have had an understanding of these Western categories, even as he dresses them in uniquely Islamic religious language, is testament both to the hegemonic authority of the Western conception of secularism and to its cultural limitation. While Quṭb’s usage of jahiliyya and hakimiyya shows the way in which the conception of the secular leads to a reification of “the religious” or “the sacred,” his writings tell a different story about the role of religion in Egyptian society from what one would understand by reading Asad’s account of Egyptian court history alone. Asad’s account concretizes and hypostatizes his very thinking on the secular, while paying less attention to the imperial nature of this institutionalization and the power relations involved in it. Asad’s example is quite compelling and addresses a revolutionary change in legal reforms in Egypt. Yet while this account provides one narrative of institutional-level religious change in Egyptian history, it excludes other ways in which religion and secularism were configured.

Quṭb’s writing is at once symptomatic and constitutive of a powerful resistance to the type of change that Asad’s study of the court system describes. The institutional perspective is only one part of the political sphere, especially in a divided environment like colonial (not to mention postcolonial) Egypt. […] Asad concludes his book with the assertion that to consider the importation of European legal codes in nineteenth-century Egypt straightforwardly as an aspect of Europeanization or secularization would have been simplistic. He further contends that what happened in Egypt in the late nineteenth century served the important purpose of delinking the authority of law from religion. Asad emphasizes that Egyptian secularists and Islamists agree that a certain set of the Muslim population is still immersed in cultural practices that are more Pharaonic or Coptic than Islamic. Both Islamists and secularists, ironically, agree that there is a fundamental need to educate people out of ignorance and superstition, “an obstacle to becoming truly modern.”[1] As we have argued, however, Islamists in Egypt do not agree—as Asad seems to suggest—that “becoming truly modern” is an appropriate goal for the Egyptian public. In fact, if anything, it is the “truly modern” that is bifurcating and problematic.

In the end, the strength of Asad’s argument lies in the way in which it theorizes formations and articulations of the secular together within the same process. But this is the point where attention to the public sphere makes for a more compelling understanding of secularism in its wider social context. The secular is a fleeting signifier, a portmanteau concept whose value (ethical or not) fluctuates according to dominant epistemologies. It is therefore crucial for any argument on secularism not to rely on a circumstantial importation of a legal code to a colonized country, as much as it should not assume a unified public, which could easily be dissolved throughout periods of hegemonic control of power and culture. The emergence in Egypt of a new bourgeois, educated public following the establishment in 1908 of what would become Cairo University led to a number of heated confrontations between lay and religious education in Egypt, one that continues to flare up at the slightest provocation. The assumed antithesis between divine knowledge and human knowledge, so to speak, materialized in the acrimonious faceoff between the Egyptian thinker Taha Husayn and al-Azhar in the second decade of the twentieth century. The conflict also resulted in the formations of Islamist as well as non-Islamist subgroups and political parties that eventually assumed their autonomy. Some died out, like al-Haraka al-Dimuqratiyya li’l-Tahrir al-Watani, while others, like the Wafd party, survived. Since the late 1920s, Islamist subgroups began to flourish and attract public attention. The Muslim Brotherhood, al-Tabligh wa’l-Da‘wa, al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya, Salafi circles, and even Naqshbandi orders are some such groups. This is why an understanding of secularism in modern Egypt will always be confronted with an elusive and multivariate public.

[1] Talal Asad, “Reconfigurations of Law and Ethics in Colonial Egypt,” in Formations of the Secular (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 253-254.

[Excerpted from Locating the Secular in Sayyid Quṭb” by Mohammad Salama and Rachel Friedman, by permission of the authors; published in Arab Studies Journal Vol. XX No. 1 (Spring 2012). For more information on this issue of the journal, or to subscribe to Arab Studies Journal, please click here.]

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