The book blog
Much has happened since Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an came out in 2013. When I first read it, I treasured it for challenging grand narratives of Islam vs. “the West.” But now, sadly, I take away a different lesson: Rather than focusing on the tolerance espoused by some of our Founding Fathers, I am instead struck by Spellberg’s insights into the intolerance in our history and how easily attacks against a perceived Other can lead to vitriol aimed at religious and ethnic minorities more widely. Today we often refer to “Judeo-Christian civilization” but, as Spellberg points out, this term excludes Muslims from that shared history. Spellberg’s book reminds us of the strong tradition of tolerance in the United States, but also of how it is easy to fall short of that goal. . . .
Thus, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an has proven incredibly valuable for teaching. It provides students with concrete evidence against a simplistic narrative of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. As Spellberg points out, while Jefferson may have personally held some bigoted views about Muslims, he retained his curiosity about Islam and opposed any kind of religious test for American citizenship or political office; Jefferson supported the possibility of a future Muslim president.Read The American tradition of tolerance and free speech.
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. 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.Read For Love of the Prophet—A reply.
Noah Salomon’s recent book, For Love of the Prophet, is a lesson in academic creativity in the face of adversity. As the author details in his candid introduction, he went to Sudan in search of the “Islamic State,” only to discover that it was nowhere to be seen. Deprived of his object of study, he was able to conjure it by renaming it. What other researchers would call “civil society” was re-christened as an ubiquitous Islamic state that was found everywhere, from bus rides to mosques and mystical rituals. The enemies of this state, no less than its supporters, all became part of this amorphous phenomenon called the Islamic state. As he puts it, the opponents of Islamism vied with its constituencies (due to its “hegemony” and “magnetism”) in a contest to speak its language.
This “discovery,” Salomon argues, compelled him to ask his questions in a new form. Rather than focus on the state as a despotic entity, the question was re-formulated in terms of what can be learned from examining “state power as productive and not solely repressive.”
This radical claim is supported by an even more radical rejection of the widely accepted separation between state and civil society and its enveloping public sphere.Read The inevitable Islamic State? The paradoxes of Sudanese politics and society.
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 . . . .
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.” . . .
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.Read Taking the Islamic in “the Islamic state” seriously.
Studying Salafism is important not just for analyzing jihadist movements or clarifying twentieth-century Muslim history, but also for better understanding the role of religion in contemporary life. What claims to authenticity are religious movements making? What mechanisms sustain these claims? How do these mechanisms shape the preaching and writing of religious leaders, and the expectations and preoccupations of their audiences?
My new book, Salafism in Nigeria, explores these questions through a case study of Africa’s most populous country. The book argues that Salafism is animated by a canon of texts. This canon foregrounds the Qur’an and the reported words and deeds of the Prophet (texts known as hadith reports). At the same time, the canon gives a surprisingly prominent place to the work of twentieth-century scholars. The canon structures Salafi preaching and is a key tool that Salafis use in debates with other Muslims—and with each other.Read Salafism in Nigeria: An introduction.
Noah Salomon begins his work with the provocative statement that the “state may have failed according to the criteria of Foreign Policy’s index, yet by producing and sustaining novel publics, it has in fact endured,” but ends with “the Islamic public sphere [the state] had enabled was turning out phenomena they could not control.” Namely, the Islamic state’s project towards public hegemony paradoxically engendered its rejection embodied by the secular secessionist movement in South Sudan and ISIL’s rejection of the Islamic nation-state model based on sovereignty. . . .
I’m left wondering how specifically these non-discursive, non-didactic, somatic and affective circulations in the “public” played a special role in these ruptures. Is Salomon simply left agreeing with Wael Hallaq that the Islamic nation-state is an “Impossible State” due to incommensurable modes of (now insert: “affective”) disciplinary subjectification and moral governance?Read Tainted love.
Noah Salomon’s ethnography of politics provides a penetrating insight on the far-reaching effects of the Islamic state project in the Sudan. It is a welcome study of an Islamic state that is more than two decades old, at a time when a new experiment in the Levant seems to overwhelm the global imagination. The older models, including the Pakistani, the Iranian, the Libyan, and earlier still the Saudi, provide food for thought of Islamic politics in its local and global manifestations. These earlier projects offer a longer-term perspective of political projects in the face of continuing challenges in Muslim societies. These include questions of diversity, legitimacy, economic prosperity, deep inequalities, ever-present foreign interventions that constitute our global world, and fractured religious identities.
Salomon’s monograph is a close interrogation of Sudan’s Islamic state, particularly in the responses that it generates from other Islamic actors. Through this ethnography, he explores other kinds of politics and other kinds of publics that unfold in response to the state’s project that was launched in 1989.Read The rhetoric of Islamic politics in local and global dimensions.
From the Islamic revolutions in Iran (1978-79) and Sudan (1989) to the recent emergence of ISIS, the concept of an Islamic state is often greeted in North America and Western Europe with a distinct historical anxiety, as a phenomenon of pre-modernity erupting in our midst. Scholars of Islamic studies have long countered that in fact these entities are constituted squarely within the discourses and institutions of the modern state: the movement in Iran, for instance, followed the longstanding revolutionary-national tradition in claiming that it acted on behalf of the will of “the people,” and the Sudanese leadership embraced the idea of civilizing a pre-modern religiosity, a project that has been a hallmark of Enlightenment thought. Nation-states that claim to derive their law from Islam still typically codify sharia in the format of a constitution, often drawing on the conventions and language of international law as a guide.
In reminding readers of these points, scholars of Islamic studies challenge the relegation of Islamic politics to pre-modernity. But in showing the many ways in which actual political practices in the Muslim world remain within the fold of modernity, this line of critique risks reinscribing the same temporal division, leaving it in place as the very condition of intelligibility of Islamic politics. How might a different understanding of historical time reorient the agenda of Islamic studies?Read When is the Islamic state? Historical time and the agenda of Islamic studies.
From Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State to Shahab Ahmad’s What is Islam?, recent scholarship on Islam and the state has been enriched by studies that seek to interrogate the boundaries of the concept and to push scholars in multiple fields to explore new empirical and analytic possibilities for an old question. Working from quite different theoretical and textual presuppositions, both Hallaq and Ahmad make the argument that we begin with where the Islamic is not: the Islamic is not to be found in the legal and governmental institutions of the modern nation state.
Noah Salomon makes a powerful case for a different starting point, grounded in ethnography: “What are we to make of Hallaq’s impossible state when it in fact becomes a practical possibility?” With admirable transparency, he notes what many of us have encountered in the field: “When I arrived in Sudan, I made the rather unsettling discovery that I could not find the state in the places where I had expected it to be.” Salomon finds the Islamic state not in government buildings, but in the logics and conduct of daily life, “structuring the landscape of discourse and debate on which diverse expressions of contemporary Sudanese life takes place.”Read New itineraries in the study of Islam and the state.
For Love of the Prophet argues that in moving beyond the institutional life of the Sudanese state, we are able to see its Islamic hue as something more than a response to secularism and Westernization, as it is often characterized by Muslim political elites and Western scholars alike. Instead, through examining how the Islamic state comes to life as an object of aspiration and consternation among diverse publics, we see that it is engaged in a much deeper and more diverse set of conversations within Islamic thought that are rarely captured by the categories and lenses of political science or religious studies. Understanding these features of the Islamic state helps us to comprehend how and why it perseveres as a political aspiration, against all odds and despite its many disappointments, in Sudan and beyond.
In this essay, Noah Salomon introduces a new book forum around his recently published ethnography of politics, religion, and statehood in Sudan.Read For Love of the Prophet—An Introduction.
There is an important ambiguity that attends the philosophical use of the term “end.” On the one hand, it can mean the termination of something (terminus). On the other hand, it can also mean the aim, goal, orientation, or purpose of something (telos). Whereas the terminus names the point of cessation for something, the telos, to some degree, names its projected essence.
With this conceptual background in mind, when I received the invitation to review the new edited volume by Jason S. Sexton and Paul Weston entitled The End of Theology, I fully expected that it would play on this ambiguity occurring in the term “end.” Indeed, the subtitle seems to anticipate this very dynamism: “Shaping Theology for the Sake of Mission.” Surely, I thought, the point of the text would be to show that theology as currently practiced needs to come to some sort of “end” (terminus) in order to return to its appropriate missional “end” (telos). However, I was surprised to discover throughout the volume that really the only notion of “end” in play was in the sense of telos.
This book is important in a lot of ways, but it is most important for highlighting what is needed in order for the book to be even better. When we confront the “ends” of theology, we should run up against the “ends” of ourselves.Read The End of Theology.
“First, I must thank each of the contributors to this forum for their more than merely civil responses to my book. Not only is it an honor to be read—and criticized—by scholars I admire across such a wide range of disciplines, from analytic and critical political theory, intellectual and social history, to sociology and religion, it is also a tremendous vindication.”
Thus begins Teresa Bejan’s conclusion to the discussion on her timely book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. In this essay, she gives thoughtful response to the six scholars who provided critical engagement with the text over the past few weeks. Read the rest of the series, and then read this response.Read Mere Civility—A reply.
Bejan revisits early modern times of extreme verbal violence, sectarianism, and bloodshed with an eye on our own. Her brilliant re-reading of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and her rescue of the lesser-known Roger Williams from the distorting clutches of Martha Nussbaum, et al. result in her careful endorsement of an “evangelical mode and motivation of conversational engagement” as a way to address our contemporary “crisis of civility,” one that “seems uniquely well-suited to explain—and to sustain—a commitment to ongoing, active, and often heated disagreement in the public sphere.” She deserves congratulations for the feat of cultivating such succulent fruit in the overworked field of scholarship on early modern political thought and “toleration” studies.
If by their fruits ye shall know them, then Bejan’s book shows her to be a brilliant scholar of Locke, Hobbes, and Williams, a great evangelist for the importance of historicizing in a new way, and a daring and original thinker of the first order. She also writes beautifully; her dry wit and perfectly turned phrases make reading this book a true pleasure.Read How to do things in with words.
In his exciting and beautifully written book, From Christ to Confucius: German Missionaries, Chinese Christians, and the Globalization of Christianity, 1860-1950, Wu charts a fundamental shift in European missionaries’ conceptions of non-Europeans, from child-like barbarians in need of discipline to representatives of venerated civilizations worthy of respect. He meticulously reconstructs a century of missionary conferences, activities, and publications—both Catholic and Protestant—to demonstrate that German missionaries stood at the forefront of this transformation.
Like almost all Europeans, Germans of the late nineteenth century were steeped in the call for a “civilizing mission,” and took for granted that their duty was to instill both the gospel and European social norms (especially monogamy) in “heathens” across the globe. However, the shock of World War I and Germany’s humiliating defeat induced German missionaries to develop a new understanding of their place in the world.Read From Christ to Confucius.
Politicizing Islam is a comparative ethnography that analyzes the religious and political dynamics of the Islamic revival in France and India, home to the largest Muslim minorities in Western Europe and Asia. These two secular democracies make for a productive comparison on the topic of Islam and politics, despite their obvious differences. In both places, Muslims have long been racialized and suffer disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment. Islamic revival and the reactions to it in the last two decades have struck at the core of both nations’ secular doctrines.
The arguments presented in the book draw on two years of participant observation research in Lyon and the Indian city of Hyderabad, two cities with significant numbers of Muslims and forms of Islamic revival that the state has targeted in various ways. Specifically, I show how the politics of Islamic movements differ across class, a crucial factor that existing literature has largely overlooked.Read Politicizing Islam: An introduction.
As an American teaching university in Canada, where the illiberal regulation of disfavored speech is increasingly common, I am tempted to simply applaud Bejan’s book. (Or perhaps place a bulk order for distribution at a future faculty meeting.) The politics of personal outrage has reached an exhaustion point. University campuses are bedeviled by a paradoxically aggressive discourse of vulnerability, victimhood, and “triggers”. Vaguely Orwellian “human rights tribunals” police speech with increasingly minute attention. Bejan astutely suggests that the war on “hatred” (and for civility) is often disingenuously waged to silence dissent or enforce moral consensus.
Trump may well represent a Molotov cocktail thrown by those resentful of these constraints. (Though his own appalling weaponization of insult and ridicule indicates the limitations of a politics of pure verbal transparency.)Read Civility, identity, and agency.
As part of her argument in favor of mere civility, Bejan decisively rejects contemporary “civilitarian” claims that mutual respect and affection for one’s opponents are the minimum necessary for civil discourse. Her critique rests on her reading of John Locke. Although political scientists usually describe Lockean toleration as ethically minimal, Bejan contends that Locke actually imposed significant ethical demands on members of a tolerant society.
Locke’s demanding theory of civil charity may not provide the most practical solution to our current crisis of civility. However, Bejan’s reading of Lockean toleration as civil charity does have important implications for the histories of human rights and humanitarianism. Historians have recently begun to examine historical moments in which humanitarian concern for the victims of bodily depredation fused with rights talk, creating a type of liberal human rights politics that Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann calls “human rights as empathy.” The early eighteenth century was one such moment. Between 1690 and 1750, Britain began to engage in humanitarian diplomacy to prevent Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in other European states from being punished for their religious beliefs. In what follows, I will suggest that Bejan’s reading of Locke helps to explain why and how this politics—which fused natural law arguments with appeals to humanitarian sentiment—developed in early eighteenth-century Britain.Read Civility, toleration, and “human rights as empathy”.
Mere Civility’s final rendering of the link between civility and the future is suggestive; it excavates a democratic ethos from mere civility. Bejan points to an egalitarian openness about the future of others, asking citizens to engage with opponents while understanding that the person they are now may not be the person they will become.
But if citizens are thus future strangers to each other, they are also strangers to their future selves. We might then add what Williams refused to say or recognize about himself—and which, importantly, did not happen: that he, too, could have come to agree with or belong to the groups he targeted with his “evangelical toleration” and held in disdain. It should be troubling that Williams’s rendering of civility anticipates the conversion of all others, but not his own; that his politics revolve around a theology in which those marked as different need to be rescued and saved; and that his approach to difference predicates the value and inclusion of others upon their transformability.Read Power and civility.