For Love of the Prophet:

Taking the Islamic in “the Islamic state” seriously

posted by Mayanthi L. Fernando

For Love of the ProphetNoah Salomon has given us much food for thought in For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State. I will ruminate on just a few morsels here. The first concerns the nature of the modern state, and the distinction Salomon both draws and complicates between the Islamic state and the secular state. Challenging Wael Hallaq, who has argued that an Islamic state is impossible because Islam as a mode of subjectivation and of governance is incompatible with the structures and strictures of the modern state, Salomon notes that an Islamic state “is a phenomenon that has come to exist in our world in spite of the tensions that Hallaq identifies.” That is, contra Hallaq, an Islamic state is a reality in Sudan. And while this Islamic state builds on the institutions and modes of governance inaugurated by the British, “the contemporary Islamic state” is, Salomon argues, distinct from “the secular colonial state.”

As rulers of Sudan in the late nineteenth century, the British attempted to mold Islam into a form compatible with the requirements of secular-modern governance, which meant in large part producing a “singular Islam out of the crowded and diverse spiritual landscape of Sudan.” They did this by suppressing neo-Mahdist and Sufi organizations and privileging a class of Egyptian religious scholars and officials. In other words, the British attempted to “establish something akin to an Islamic orthodoxy, or perhaps in British officials’ minds even ‘Islam’ itself.” The British feared Sufi orders in particular for engaging “not only in structures of discipline that are unfamiliar, but ones misrecognized as undisciplined, stirring the passions.”

I will return to this point about passion later, but for now, I want to focus on Salomon’s argument that the secular state—in this case the British colonial one—is in the business not of separating religious from political life but of administering and managing religion, which necessarily includes defining its proper form and molding the various practices the state finds on the ground to fit that form. Moreover, although the National Islamic Front (NIF) claims that the Islamic state it established in contemporary Sudan constitutes a radical break with the colonial past—in part through its projects of Islamizing the public sphere and political institutions—Salomon argues that “in significant ways its project in managing religion is the continuation of an effort that began nearly one hundred years ago” under the British. Indeed, like the British, the NIF has been particularly invested in reforming Sufism, though unlike the British, who feared Sufi orders’ potential for political resistance, the NIF government finds Sufism not political enough. The NIF has therefore sought to reform not doctrine or ritual practice but rather Sufism’s relationship to nation-state politics.

Yet the Sudanese state is not, Salomon also wants to argue, merely another instantiation of a secular state; there is something specific to the “Islamic” in this Islamic state. As he writes, “the method by which Islamic sources are engaged in order to produce the present state, the way in which these sources inflect its politics in new directions unimagined by the state’s colonial pioneers, and the results of state projects in religion-making as they intersect with diverse spiritual practices on the ground, certainly distinguish the contemporary Islamic state from the secular colonial state.” Salomon describes, for example, the NIF’s attempts at morally reforming the individual citizen-subject through aesthetic forms so as to develop in Sudan’s citizenry the affective qualities the regime deems necessary to the foundation of an Islamic state. Chapter 4 thus describes the state’s propagation—via radio stations and poetry competitions—of praise-poetry, or madīḥ, where the madīḥ form’s traditional aim of cultivating love of the Prophet is combined with an effort to transcend communal identities in the service of a new, post-civil war nation.

The dexterity with which Salomon maps these continuities and discontinuities between the secular colonial state and the Islamic post-colonial one is compelling. But it made me wonder about the distinction he draws between a secular state and an Islamic state. The colonial state is defined as secular through its management of religion, a point echoed by other scholars of secularism as well, who push against the conventional notion that secularism entails the separation of church and state, religion and politics. Yet, if this is how we have come to define a secular state, then why isn’t the Islamic state of Sudan, which also manages, defines, and administers “proper” religion, not also secular? I’m not suggesting that Sudan is not an Islamic state but a secular one; rather, I’m asking whether it’s both. Or is managing religion the feature of any modern state, be it secular or Islamic? But then what makes a secular state—like France, say—secular, as opposed to simply a modern state? Hussein Agrama has written of secularism as a questioning power concerned to determine the line between religion and politics that, as a result, “makes religion into an object of politics.” Thus the “active principle of secularism is a principle of sovereign state power” to decide, in part, what counts as religious. Given the governance practices of the NIF that Salomon describes so eloquently, whereby the regime consistently determines what counts as religion (and, concomitantly, as politics), might Sudan also be considered a secular state, as well as an Islamic one?

Or is it the particular modality of sovereignty exercised by the Islamic state that distinguishes it from the secular state? As Salomon writes, the regime operated, at least discursively, with the understanding that “sovereignty derive[s] solely from one’s relationship to God,” such that “the functionaries of the state could not be the only legitimate owners of political sovereignty.” In other words, “By justifying political participation on the basis of piety and by proposing that the desired end of political participation was a closeness to God and his prophet, the regime became vulnerable to rival claims.” And many of these claims, mostly by Sufi and Salafi actors, depend on and engender notions of political sovereignty that exceed the boundaries of politics envisioned by both the secular state and the Islamic state (in its current form). Salomon’s brilliant final chapter, “Politics in the Age of Salvation,” details these alternative political traditions, where political critique and action are mobilized not through the rational-deliberative mode of the liberal public sphere, but rather through genres like poetry, the miracle, and hagiographic fable, with very different notions of time, authority, and geography from that of secular (and certain forms of Islamist) politics. That is to say, even as it itself remains tethered to aspects of secular state-craft, the Islamist regime in Sudan—as an Islamic state—has un-tethered political sovereignty from the state. The resulting “amorphousness of political power”—amorphous because “it could potentially reside anywhere ‘Islam’ was found and not just in the formal state”—has, in turn, opened the door to a very different way of doing politics.

Thus Salomon tells the (possibly apocryphal) story of the Sufi Shaykh al-Bura‘i who, on the basis of a dream, challenges the political authority of Hasan al-Turabi (leader of the NIF). Insulted, al-Turabi accuses al-Bura‘i of being ritually unclean during the dream, but ends up himself ritually unclean (nājis), constantly leaking urine and unable to pray (prayer must be taken in a state of ritual purity, al-ahāra). Al-Turabi summons al-Bura‘i back to his office, assents to his political demands, and is cured by al-Bura‘i. This story, apocryphal or not, circulates among al-Bura‘i’s followers, a hagiographic fable enmeshed in questions of political and moral authority. “What might it mean for us, as analysts of Islamic politics,” Salomon asks, “to take ahāra (bodily purity) and nājasa (bodily defilement) as political categories, as my interlocutors certainly did, to think earnestly about their implications for understanding political action?” In the concluding chapter, Salomon writes, “all of us, Islamist, secularist, or otherwise, must take seriously the questions the Islamic state poses” (emphasis added).

What might it mean to “take seriously” these modes of political imagination and action? By “taking seriously,” scholars tend to mean: understand how certain beliefs and practices that may seem utterly foreign to us have an immanent logic that is persuasive. These logics, or traditions, make sense, and we need to make sense of how they make sense. Taking seriously therefore tends to remain at a descriptive and conceptual register. I wonder whether we might “take seriously” in a more prescriptive register. I ask because this contemporary moment —and the rise of authoritarian movements the world over—has seemingly forced secular liberals to confront the fact that politics is not the rational, deliberative space still imagined to anchor liberal-democratic government. The normative attachment to rational deliberation remains strong, of course, and I continue to hear colleagues bemoan the entry of passion, affect, and the irrational into politics, as the British once did in Sudan. It’s worth asking, though, why rational debate is so primary to liberal democracy. One answer, writes Talal Asad, is that it has a clear and decisive outcome and is therefore the best way of determining the truth. Liberals usually argue that debates generated by religion are passionate, inconclusive, and prone to violence. Asad continues:

“Less well known, is the liberal state’s dependence on early modern arguments for capitalism, in which the idea of ‘interest’ increasingly displaced the idea of ‘passion’ as the principal mode of politics. The good that is calculable (‘economic value’) was considered superior in politics to the good that isn’t (‘religious value’) because only the former could be conclusively assessed. This discursive move gave the market its ideological claim to being a neutral mediator for resolving conflicts over value, a claim that has since become central to the secular tradition of the modern liberal state.”

Passion, though, has made a comeback (if it ever went away). In her recent analysis of Donald Trump’s election, Joan Scott writes of Trump as Sigmund Freud’s father figure— “the one who can make the law without having to follow it”—and notes that Trump’s appeal to both men and women “was made not rationally or programmatically, but libidinally.” Scott continues:

“What kind of political response is possible in the face of this power? How does democracy—historically the alternative to absolutism—make an equally potent, but different libidinal appeal? What about redemption as a communal experience in the way Martin Luther King offered it?”

Though I’m not sure that the passional is necessarily the libidinal, what Scott gestures to is the need for new (old?) modes not just of conceptualizing politics but doing it. I don’t mean to suggest that we should—or even could—simply take up the political imagination of al-Bura‘i and his followers. But Salomon is asking us, it seems, to consider these alternative political traditions as more than just an occasion for intellectual reflection, the site of a difference that is merely interesting to think with. In the last paragraph of his book, Salomon references Asad’s essay cited above and calls for “modes of thinking . . . that explore possibilities of political order beyond state sovereignty, that imagine a politics of communal autonomy, and that draw critically from premodern political traditions – not as a means of resurrecting the past, but as a tool for destabilizing the naturalness of the present.” I read Salomon as encouraging us—“all of us, Islamist, secularist, or otherwise,” as he notes earlier in the paragraph—to do politics differently, to lean on genres not usually linked to the political, to (learn to) inhabit passional, embodied, and affective modes that push against secular-liberal and capitalist logics and temporalities. I’m not sure what those other political traditions might be, exactly, or how Salomon (or Asad) expect us to access them. But rather than simply engage our non-liberal and non-secular interlocutors on a conceptual level—seeing them as offering different ways to think about the world—might we also ask whether those different ways of seeing the world could lead to different ways of living it, and changing it? That is, might “taking seriously” lead us to a politics of justice that embraces rather than rejects hagiographic attachments, communal ontologies, libidinal affects, and apocalyptic and eschatological time?

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