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Political Theology in Arabic

There seems to be, then, a road not yet taken by political theologians in North America and Europe: to participate with Arab thinkers in the work of writing comparative political theologies that decolonize knowledge and seek a more just alternative to the world as it stands.

Joshua Ralston’s essay first appeared as the guest editorial for 19.7 of our journal Political Theology.

How do we translate political theology into Arabic? This is not simply a question about language, although Muslims and Christians disagree about the appropriate Arabic rendering, but an inquiry into the concept of political theology and its possibilities and limitations when it migrates from its historic academic homes to North Africa and West Asia. How does the discourse and discipline of political theology—shaped as it has been by the Christian and post-Christian lineage of the Latin West—relate to long-standing debates in the Arab world about politics and power, both human and divine? If one strand of political theology is committed to tracing and exposing how “concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularised theological concepts,”[1] what does it mean when the theological concepts are those of Islam and Eastern Christianity and the post-colonial states are formed by the legacies of Muslim Empires, Islamic legal traditions, French and British colonialism, and Arab nationalism?[2] Or as George Sabra, president of the Near East School of Theology, asked at a symposium on Christian PoliticalTheology in the Middle East Today, held in Beirut in September of 2018, what relevance do Carl Schmitt, Jürgen Moltmann, and Johan Baptist Metz have to theMiddle East? Is political theology the appropriate interdisciplinary framework for engaging the practices and discourse of “religion” and “politics”in the region? And if political theology is possible in Arabic, and is in fact already vibrantly at work by other names, how might this critical analysis contribute to and challenge contemporary political theological discourse, especially Christian and post-secular, in Western Europe and North America?

Readers of the journal Political Theology will be well aware of how one important area of scholarship, anthropology of secularism and critical Middle Eastern studies, has long been engaged with similar questions. The incisive work of figures such as Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Hussein Ali Agrama, Samera Esmeir, and Noah Salomon has interrogated how the state, religion, and the secular, particularly through colonialism and in post-colonial configurations, are imagined, resisted, and re-deployed. Through in-depth anthropological and historical studies of Sufi orders in Sudan, women’s movements in the mosques of Cairo, legal curriculum in colonial Egypt, and fatwas councils in contemporary Egypt, among other things, scholarship in these fields has challenged dominant understandings of the secular, the state, and religious practices, pressing us to think more deeply, critically, and creatively about the nature of human agency, community, and power while troubling too neat divisions drawn between the “secular” and the “religious.”

While such scholarship is vital for interpreting and understanding what Mahmood dubs “the politics of piety” in the region, it rarely extends into an analysis of the rich and contested reflection within Arab intellectual thought concerning questions of sovereignty, law, justice, communal belonging, religious identity, citizenship and secularism: the very questions and issues that animate both (post)secular and (post)Christian political theological studies! Anthropological methods, as important as they are, leave the ideas of major intellectual figures in the 20th century like Rashid Ghannoushi, Hassan al-Turabi, Muhammad Shahrur, and Mohammad Abed al-Jabri —to name only a few—under-analyzed or completely passed over. While anthropologists offer a rich analysis of practice and complex engagement with secular and post-colonial theory, the actual theoretical and intellectual contributions of Arab thinkers are left aside. In addition, the longer theological and legal reflections of Islam and Eastern Christianity that have come to form and shape political life today, even as they are transformed and transmuted if not wholly secularized by the modern state, are not the object of the anthropologist’s concern. Might these contemporary deliberations and the legacies of classical political and legal thought be read as signs of the ongoing presence of political theology in Arabic, and might they be understudied sites for reflection and mutual learning by political theologians from other contexts?

Let me suggest a cautious but enthusiastic yes. First the caution. The contestations over the relationship between divine and human rule and how this impacts religious and social communities have long been a formative part of discourse in the Arab-speaking world. And yet, these debates, their histories, and the imaginative worlds they produce do not map directly on to the frameworks developed by figures like Schmitt, Agamben, or Arendt or the legacy of Augustine, Grotius, or Locke; al-Farabi, al-Mawardi, al-Shafi‘i and Ibn Khaldun are far more formative. This is not simply a recognition of differing influences or histories, but a warning that apparent similarities might well hide more fundamental differences that tempt toward a false equivalence. In fact, the question of how to translate the term “political theology” is not primarily a linguistic query but is indicative of significant differences over the place of theology, law, and power in the political imaginary of many people in the region.[3]

Earlier this year, Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology was translated into Arabic as al-lāhūtal-siyāsī by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Study based in Doha, Qatar. In one sense, the translation choice is straightforward and clear. It most accurately captures Schmitt’s meaning and use, while also being the term used by Arab-speaking Christians for political theology. However, many Muslims find the use of lāhūt problematic and inappropriate for defining human reflection on God since it is derived from the word ilāh, implying knowledge of divinity or the divine nature in itself. Rather than being viewed as political theology, then, the connotation would be more like divine politics or even the politics of the divine nature. Various alternatives have been suggested by Muslims: one is al-turāth al-siyāsī al-islāmī  (theIslamic political tradition), although this has the disadvantage of losing the crucial theological connotation.[4] Rather than searching for an alternative translation, others argue that political theology is not to be found in theology as understood in Christian or secular categories but in jurisprudence. What is needed is a theo-legal perspective and not only a theo-political approach. Here, the cautions of critical studies of the secular on howChristian and secular hermeneutical framings are often instruments of hegemony and not understanding must be heeded.[5] Translation and comparison demand both care and creativity, seeking resonances across differences and attending closely to how languages and traditions function on their own terms.[6] We can say that something like political theology exists in Arabic—and is a quite lively enterprise covering everything from sectarian representation and cultural critique to legal theory and divine sovereignty—but we must resist the temptation to collapse it simply into a reflection of Western concerns. While arguments over secularism, sovereignty, religion, God, and state are prevalent in the Arabic discussion, resonating and overlapping withWestern ones given the influence of Greek thought, prophetic revelation, modernity, and global capital, the Arabic and Western discussions move in different directions at key points because of the distinctive questions addressed in theArabic discussion including the nature of trans-national Arab identity, models of political pluralism rooted in Ottoman and ‘Abbasid traditions, and notions of community and freedom formed by the ethical impulses of Islam.

With this caution in mind, the enthusiastic yes and invitation.[7] The possibilities for engaging with political theology in Arabic and reframing dominant discourse on Christian-Muslim-secular relations remain abundant. For one, attention to internal Arab discourse has the benefit of enriching our understanding of religious traditions as well as the formations of secularism and the modern state, both within the region and in Western-Middle Eastern relations. Too often even nuanced studies fall into the misguided trap of locating Christianity and secular theories primarily in or as a legacy of the West and Islam within the Middle East, overlooking the rich Christian and secular perspectives of the Arabic-speaking world and also the variety of Islamic perspectives on secularity, sovereignty, and law. Engagement with movements and thinkers such as the Islamic leftist Hassan Hanafi, critical Muslim scholars of secularism like Taha Abdulrahman, Marxist secularists like Sadiq Jalal al-Azm, Christian theologians and ministers like George Khodr, and Christian critiques of sectarianism like the Youachim Moubarac challenge many of the same binaries that critical anthropologies of the secular do. They have the added benefit of providing a rich intellectual terrain from which comparative studies might emerge and from which to advance the project of decolonizing political theology and secular studies. For instance, Azmi Bishara’s two-volume study of religion and secularism charts the familiar historical story of the development of secularity and its roots in the Latin Christian West, Enlightenment, and colonialism.[8] His project resonates with works like Charles Taylor’s Secular Age and Michael Allen Gillespie’s The Theological Origins of Modernity. And yet his reading of this history also challenges the meta-history and meta-theory implicit in both Taylor and Gillespie as well as their failure to connect secularity and coloniality. Moreover, Bishara presses for an alternative meta-theory that refuses notions of a secular essence and instead attends to its complex histories and multiple trajectories within the multiple communities of the Middle East. Such engagement would heed Elizabeth Kassab’s call in her brilliant book, Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective, to break “the postcolonial solitude” by bringing Arab thought into conversation with cultural criticism from Europe, Latin American liberation theology, and post-colonial thought in Africa.[9]

Finally, even those thinkers often depicted as Islamists or Islamic fundamentalists have prescient insights both about the Christian political legacy of Europe and the malaise of modernity. One of the most interesting and controversial is Sayyid Qutb, whose work is replete with discussions of social justice, divine sovereignty, Christianity, and secularism. In Roxanne L. Euben’s important work Enemy in the Mirror, she convincingly argues that Western negative reactions to Islamic fundamentalism obscure the ways that the critique of the modern political project found in thinkers like Qutb overlaps at interesting points with Western political thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Charles Taylor, and Robert Bellah. Qutb may be a “religious totalitarian,” but he is also, at times, an incisive critic of modern social, religious, and political arrangements calling for alternatives to the world as it is presently construed.

These are only some of the myriad possibilities for not only studying and understanding political theology in Arabic, but engaging deeply with its questions, perspectives, and normative claims. There seems to be, then, a road not yet taken by political theologians in North America and Europe: to participate with Arab thinkers in the work of writing comparative political theologies that decolonize knowledge and seek a more just alternative to the world as it stands.

[1] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on Sovereignty, translated by George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 36.

[2] It is important to signal that I am not only speaking of Islamic Political Theology but a broader constellation of intellectual and critical exchange that includes Arab nationalists, Pan-Arabist, Arab Marxists, Middle Eastern Christians, and secularists. Islam is of course critical to all of these debates, but it would both narrow and constrict the conversation if we were to label this only as Islamic Political Theology. Islamic Political Theology encompasses far more than the Arab-speaking world and Arab Political Theology encompasses far more than Islam.

[3] A similar issue of translation has framed much of the arguments over secularism as well. In Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy, Nader Hashemi argues that “secularism is deeply suspect in Muslim societies” in part because the term “secularism” is a loanword that lacks a clear synonym in Arabic. When the term was introduced into the Muslim world (primarily through debate in the late nineteenth century between Jamal al-Afghani and Ernest Renan) it was done in such a way as to construct a “dichotomy between Islam and secularism such that secularism was interpreted as synonymous with atheism.” Nader Hashemi, Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 133, 147.

[4] See forinstance NasrMuhammad ‘Arif’s work fi-Maṣādir al-Turāth al-siyāsī al-islāmī

[5] With thanks to Talal al-Khadher and Mahammed Bouabdallah for conversations around translation and the idea of Islamic political theology.

[6] Here political theology might take a cue from the burgeoning field of comparative theology, a form of theological exchange that moves from one tradition into the imaginative, textual, and ritual world of the other and then back into the first tradition, allowing the alternative tradition to critique, reframe, and enhance the home tradition.

[7] While language remains an impediment to developing a comparative political theology, recent years have seen the publication of a number of monographs. See Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi‘, Contemporary Arab Thought: Studies in Post-1967 Arab Intellectual History (London: Pluto Press, 2004), Abedelilah Belkeziz, The State in Contemporary Islamic Thought: A Historical Survey of the Major Muslim Political Thinkers of the Modern Era (London: I.B. Tauris, 2009), and Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab, Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: Religious Authority and Internal Criticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[8] Azmi Bishara, al-Dīn wa al-‘alamāniya fi-sayqa tārīkhi (Doha: ACRPS, 2013).

[9] Elizabeth Kassab, Contemporary Arab Thought, chapter 6.

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