For Love of the Prophet:

For Love of the Prophet—A reply

posted by Noah Salomon

For Love of the ProphetIt is a rare opportunity to have one’s work engaged with the depth and care that each one of the six scholars in this series has offered in their reflections on my book, and I am truly grateful for their myriad interventions. Each essay is a work of great creativity and insight in its own right and I wish I had the space to offer them the kind of engagement they have provided me. I hope to continue to grapple with the ideas they present as I work on projects near and far, resuscitating some of the themes of my book for further inspection and proceeding along new paths.1 Here, I will take the opportunity to examine one key place for further study that each of the six interventions in some way suggests. Thus I want to use this essay to discuss what I will call “the reflexive potential” of the study of the Islamic state, or in other words, to explore what a study of the Islamic state can tell us about us.

For Love of the Prophet certainly is a book about Sudan, but, like all ethnographies, it is also very much autobiographical. Indeed, the book starts with an anecdote about me and my own wanderings during my dissertation fieldwork: How what I assumed to be true in my framing of the project proved otherwise and how I was forced to rethink my own research questions in light of what I found. In a very real sense, For Love of the Prophet is a record of my own schooling by the people and situations I confronted, forcing me to ask new sorts of things of the individuals I met and to look at the world they inhabited in new ways. Yet, in calling my book “autobiographical” I mean something more than that it is about me personally. Rather, the book serves as a mirror for a very particular moment of our history in the West, one in which “the Islamic” has unsettled how we imagine the state, not only in our examinations of experiments in Islamic statehood such as the one I study in Sudan, but at home as well.2 Everything we hold dear about our own state project—equality, liberty, rule of law, the very idea of a citizenship blind to religion—seems to be upset by the those who pose an Islamic exception. From the Muslim Ban to Brexit to the looming possibility of a Le Pen victory in France, the Islamic is frequently positioned as a challenge to the modern state, and in its conjuring often muddles the coherence of the principles the modern state claims to uphold.

In her essay, Iza Hussin writes that,

“Seeking out the Islamic state . . . might be as much a work of scholarly reflexivity—looking deeper into the core assumptions and polarities of our own fields—as it might be raising questions about the extent and limits of the modern state and the methodological and analytic tools we might deploy to understand its entanglements with, and dependencies upon, religion.”

In another vein, Kabir Tambar wonders exactly who is this “we” doing the work of “rethinking Muslim Politics” for which I call: “Qualified in this way, the “we” is presumably to be understood as lacking self-evidence or stability . . . .” Indeed, For Love of the Prophet seeks a double instability  in precisely this way, of both the Islamic state and of “us.” On the one hand, I aim to dispel fantasies constructed around the Islamic state: of its autochthonousness (see Chapter One on the colonial genealogy of the Islamic state), of its predictability (see Chapter Two on the transformation of the Islamist “Civilization Project” from the chauvinistic to the multicultural), of its singularity (see Chapters Three through Five on the multiple imaginings and instantiations of the Islamic state project by diverse actors). Through tracing its co-construction by the regime and by the myriad publics who help to sustain it, I moreover hope to destabilize political narratives of Sudan that see its history to be simply that of a brutal Islamist political class imposing its will on a public that if left free to its devices would seek some local version of Western liberalism (e.g. the “post-Islamism” thesis).3

On the other hand, For Love of the Prophet also seeks to destabilize us, not only in the sense of questioning the coherence and homogeneity of my readership, but also the fantasy of the inquiring subject sitting in knowing relationship to his object of study, as Kabir Tambar so cogently suggests. The case of Sudan forced me to ask what it might mean to think about Islamic politics not as a marginal discourse speaking to a center who is “us” (the West, the modern, the civilized)—as its other or as its idiomatic essence, as it is so often construed—but as a conversation had without “us” in mind at all. The case of Sudan, where secularism and Westernization were not the primary bugbears for the interlocutors with whom I worked, meant that another sort of conversation was being had, quite different from the one that we often read in which Islamic politics is posed as a critique of the West. In Sudan, my interlocutors were grappling with a twenty-plus year experiment in the Islamization of the state and with histories and conceptions of political life that could not simply be captured by the story of post-colonial modernization. What it means for us to listen-in on that conversation, lurking at its margins, is that we are forced to question our own generativeness, our own sense that we have established the full range of political possibility to which the rest of the world must respond. With such a fantasy dispelled, we might begin to question not only our understanding of the Islamic state, but our own place within the realm of human political imagination. This is a task that seems desperately necessary in this day and age, when the solutions posed by the national and international bodies that speak in “our” name, using “our” terms of reference (the war against terror, religious freedom, democracy), seem to breed despair and horror at an ever dizzying pace.

If political ethnography forces us to decenter our own place in the political imagination of the worlds we encounter, where might something called “the Islamic” emerge in what we observe, as Mayanthi Fernando provocatively asks in her essay? It seems ever more urgent that such a question be addressed since I begin the body of the book, following the introduction, with a study of the development of the colonial state, arguing that it is here that we find, genealogically speaking, the most important root of the contemporary Islamic state project, and not in the Islamic dynasties of yesteryear to which the regime often beckons when it wants to tell the story of the history of the Islamic project. If this is so, why then am I critical of Wael Hallaq’s assertion that the state is simply a Western invention with a particular moral stance and mode of subjectification and thus can never logically be properly Islamic? Gina Giliberti wonders this too in her questioning of the affective dissonance I saw between traditionalist and state-based promoters of “love of the Prophet.” My argument here, however, is that while the colonial state is a necessary, even foundational, element of the Islamic state project, it is not a sufficient one. That is, that while the Islamic state is built within the frame of colonial architecture, and while it, like the secular state, makes the division between religion and non-religion central to its governing strategy, it also exceeds that project by trying to create (and, I argue, successfully so) non-liberal subjects whose goal is fulfilling the virtues put forth by the Islamic tradition to which they subscribe in the political arena.

The three chapters at the center of the book look at how that occurs, both at the level of regime agendas, and among a public that has come to embrace the notion of an Islamic state even if they are critical of the regime’s version of it. It is also in this section of the book that I argue that the envelope of the colonial nation state is not an inconvenient one for the intellectuals who conjured-up the current Islamic state project in Sudan, or one that they accept begrudgingly. Rather its particular features—from its bureaucracy, to its ubiquity, to the anonymity of its authority (and one made particularly possible by grounding that authority not in human sovereignty but in God’s sovereign will or, “Islam”)—are precisely the elements exploited to further the ends of the Islamic state project, as I hope I have shown in drawing out the mechanisms and procedures of that state.

The Islamic state is also distinct in the particular places to which it dislocates political sovereignty from the institutions of the formal state. Though, as Iza Hussin recognizes, the incompleteness of state sovereignty may be a feature of all states, no matter how they define themselves, the Islamic state, precisely by locating authority outside itself (in “Islam”), changes the geography of political power in distinct ways. As Mayanthi Fernando says more clearly than I could:

“[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.”

It is these new ways of doing politics that preoccupy both Chapter Five and the first example I give in the Epilogue, of individuals grappling with this political power untethered.

To see fully whether or not Sudan’s project is an exception or rather an all-too-common example of Islamic political endeavors in this vein, I would need to put it in a context that is both wider geographically, and longer temporally, than I do, as Abdulkader Tayob rightly observes. Though the reach of my book was far more limited, indeed microscopic, I hope I have at least offered a thick description of one such attempt at placing the logics of modern statecraft within an Islamic horizon. It is my hope that scholars with a more expansive view than mine might put not only the data I have uncovered, but some of the insights it sparks, into a much broader comparative framework.

*   *   *

As an addendum, I feel it is necessary to address Abdelwahab El-Affendi’s essay individually. This is not simply because his comments provide the most totalizing critique of the six responses I received, but because they raise a series of concerns that clearly illustrate many of the key presumptions I sought to trouble in my book. The differences that separate El-Affendi’s approach to the Islamic state project from mine are both political and methodological. I will address each in turn.

Underlying El-Affendi’s essay are two arguments about politics, neither of which I find tenable given the Sudan that I encountered in my fieldwork. The first is that the Sudanese regime has no moral project. He writes,

“[The regime’s] rhetoric is thus often a mélange of nationalism, patriotism, and Islamism. In the latter, it liberally appeals to all sorts of traditions and trends. However, its main concern remained one for regime survival. It thus concealed its Islamism when necessary and overplayed it when deemed helpful . . . If it had any ‘moral’ project; it was sacrificed early in the interest of regime survival. Its enduring legacy, if any, would be linking Islamism with corruption and brutality.”

The accusation that the regime has no true moral project, but is merely playing its Islamism up when it’s useful and downplaying it when it is not, is one that many critics of the regime have raised. It is a critique that simultaneously recognizes the regime’s Islamism while arguing that (due to its instrumentality) it is inauthentic. I would respond that to be moral one needn’t be consistent, and that moral actors never are, despite their protestations otherwise. Indeed, one of the major areas of inquiry of my book—and the exclusive topic of Chapter Two—is on how the regime’s Islamic project shifted over time due to external pressures. There we learn that promoting regime survival and forwarding a moral program needn’t be mutually exclusive, and that the exact tenor of the moral project shifts with time, reflecting a contextual ethics. So, the Salvation regime may have a moral program that one finds pragmatic, inconsistent, or even abhorrent, but it seems to me hard to sustain that it is absent. The period following “Turabi’s revolution” may have led to disillusion for many, and to re-workings of the state project in new directions, but to say that the state thereby no longer has a moral project would require defining morality in an extremely limited fashion. The modern state in general is a quintessentially moral actor, no matter if it sticks to a consistent ideology or not. In Sudan, its machinations may be reprehensible, fraught, or contradictory, but they are not absent, whether institutionally (see majlis al-fiqh al-islami or al-markaz al-qumi li-dhikr wa-l-dhakirin or wizarat al-irshad wa-l-awqaf)4 or in the more dispersed ways my book discusses (from al-kawthar radio of Chapter Four, to the government-allied think tanks of Chapter Three, to the speeches of the president of Chapters One and Five, to even the anti-radicalization projects discussed in the Epilogue).

The second argument about politics that I find untenable is that Sudan’s present can be reduced to a clash between a brutal state and a noble and unsuspecting society. While El-Affendi misreads my argument that “the state is everywhere” to mean that the state is everything,5 he is right that I do in fact take issue with the idea that the state is a wholly foreign entity divorced entirely from some kind of independently-emerging will of the people. El-Affendi’s argument naturalizes the demands of the Sudanese opposition, and no matter how much I might agree with its cause, the universalization of such demands to the Sudanese public at large is empirically unsustainable. My book aims to study a large segment of the Sudanese public that is too often written-off as a holder of false consciousness or simply as non-existent: that is, those who either support or accept the regime, or support at least the idea of an Islamic state as something worth struggling for, even if they take serious issue with the regime’s particular iteration of it. In a literature obsessed with the regime’s failures (of which there are many) and the unachievability of a truly Islamic state (a theological conversation into which I am not qualified to enter), the emergence of this particular public gets ignored. We ignore it at our own peril, however, for if there is to be any option other than its obliteration, we must understand where it is coming from, and what produces and sustains its desires. This book is an attempt to do that.

El-Affendi also calls me “timid” and unwilling to take on “fiercely dogmatic global civil activists” by debunking their brutal image of Sudan. I find such a criticism to be surprising. If anything, my work has most often been attacked for its lack of attention to the brutality that has characterized the country both in media and scholarship in favor of discussing its “robust culture of theological debate . . . art and poetry . . . intellectual exchange, creativity, and perseverance.” What I refuse to do, however, is to replace stereotypes of Sudanese brutality upheld by the dogmatic activists with an equally reductionist stereotype of some inherent Sudanese civility, as El-Affendi seems to request (“the solution to this paradox is simple: Sudan remains one of the most civil countries in the world, in spite of the regime’s determination to undermine this civility”). This is too simplistic. Sudanese people and Sudanese society are as infinitely complex and multidimensional as any other people and society. In this book, I chose to focus on the cultures of debate and exchange in Sudan that I experienced so vividly because they help explain Sudan’s present in different sorts of ways than pathological narratives of Sudan’s failures have allowed. In doing so, however, I spend comparably less time analyzing the equally real violence, racism, and oppression perpetrated by state and non-state actors alike, a point with which Iza Hussin rightly takes issue. So I see the brutality of political violence and the civility of everyday life not as a paradox, but rather as the thick reality we all live in, in the United States as much as Sudan, enmeshed in the oppressions our societies have wrought, while at times exceedingly kind to our neighbors.

Finally, there is the issue of methodology. El-Affendi accuses me of focusing on “marginal issues . . . texts and individuals” and giving certain events and people more attention than they deserve. Yet, many excellent histories of the Sudanese elite have already been written, El-Affendi’s book among them. My book, however, announces itself as an ethnography. What that means is that I am less concerned with the discourse of the elite (though I do discuss its members at length, from Hasan al-Turabi to the Sudanese president) and the headline-grabbing events (although these serve as an explicit backdrop to my study), and I am precisely interested in the “marginal” individuals and the quotidian episodes that I encountered in my everyday life in Sudan. This is not because I am a collector of oddities and one-offs, but rather that, in the spirit of microhistory, I contend that we can complicate and unsettle elite and headline-grabbing narratives if we examine how they are experienced and reproduced in everyday life and by average individuals. It is in the small events and the lives of average people that we can measure to what degree public pronouncements are a façade or rather have come to shape life in indelible ways and have even been reworked to new ends. Though the elite are prone to grandiose pronouncements and though “big events” might occupy international attention, both have often turned out to be full of empty promises, as we have learned so crushingly with millions spent on peace agreements and development projects in Sudan and elsewhere with so little to show for it. My aim was to tell another kind of story. The repeated and sedimented encounter with the state project that I examine in my study of its quotidian appearance, and the common people who grapple with it, is far more representative of the lives of the vast majority of Sudanese citizens than the experiences of the elite and those events advertised on banners and in headlines. The near-exclusive focus on such events and the elite class that directs them has impoverished both politics and research on Sudan since colonial times. It is time that we begin to search beneath this surface, imagining a Sudan decoupled from the fate of its establishment, replacing monologic approaches to Sudanese history with a multitude of voices.*

*Note: Another methodological difference El-Affendi and I have centers around the story about al-Turabi and al-Bura‘i that I discuss at the beginning of Chapter Five. Although I describe the story as a “fable” and “an experiment in ethnographic fiction writing,” El-Affendi seems to assume that I have adopted it with some degree of credence and insists that it is “false.” Yet fables’ relative relationship to historical events does not compromise another sort of truth they reveal: their resonances as indicators of social moods, collective ways of seeing the world, and popular anxieties, immanent or explicit. Given that I refer to the story as a fable, I had hoped it would be clear that I was making no claims on its historical truth-value, but rather was interested in what it indicated about the conception of politics among those who told it (even if many I met did in fact express credulity in it). On another point with which El-Affendi takes issue, whether or not someone with a prostate problem would still be able to find a mechanism to pray even though urine cancels out ritual purity: this is besides the point, or as much besides the point as the fact that, in the real world, the grandma in Little Red Riding Hood would likely have known that the wolf was not in fact her granddaughter. Turabi’s inability to pray is a narrative device deployed to show his lack of power as compared to that of al-Bura‘i and provides an ironic retort to al-Turabi’s quite common claim that Sufis were misguided Muslims. Who is really the one close to God, it asks in phantasmagoric form, the modernist critic or the miracle-worker?


  1. I have begun a new book inspired by the principles of historiography embedded in the classical Arabic genre of tabaqat, in which six ethnographic biographies pose challenges to common framings of modern Islamic history. Such a study offers the opportunity to solidify some claims—for example, exploring more fully the mechanics involved in instilling public affect, as Gina Giliberti requests—as we follow the lives of interlocutors in Sudan’s political present.

  2. I thank Anver Emon and Nadia Marzouki here with whom I have been thinking through the various intertwinings of the state and the Islamic in our fraught present over the past few months. Our meeting in Toronto in May of last year on this topic was particularly generative for me.

  3. I offer a critique of this thesis in light of my Sudan research here and here.

  4. These state institutions I mention are as follows: The Islamic Jurisprudence Council, The National Center for the Mindfulness of God and those who are Mindful, the Ministry of Guidance and Public Endowments.

  5. Though there are moments when he seems to echo my argument, such as when he observes that al-Bura‘i’s popularity is “parasitical on the type of modern Islamic revivalism promoted by the modern Islamist movement” whose members founded the Salvation regime. Though I’d reject the biological metaphor, the way in which this “civil society” actor is deeply enmeshed in the state project is evidence of my point.

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