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Wadi Rum. Photo provided by Basit Kareem Iqbal.
The Brink

Reprising Islamic Political Theology: Genre and the Time of Tribulation

Against that paradigm of crisis–critique–historical consciousness, in which phenomena need to be given a proper categorical frame of reference to achieve the fullness of their historical meaning, this essay turns to the theological figure of “tribulation” in order to animate another tradition of thinking the difficulty of the present.

This introduction first appeared in Political Theology volume 23, issue 6, available here.

Despite their different theories and methods, the analyses of historians, anthropologists, and political scientists often rely upon a figure of crisis to which modern Islam is the reaction.[1] Such analyses typically contrast a ‘modern Islam’ against a ‘classical Islam’. The difference that this operation generates is then leveraged to separate contemporary Islam from its history. By these accounts, the disparate practices of Muslim life today reflect the essential ruptures of Islam in the secular age: after colonialism, the consolidation of the nation-state, the codification of the shari‘a, the demise of local community, the domestication of Sufi charisma, the globalatinization of the world, the differentiation of social domains, and more. There is no continuity viable across such radical divisions (at least if continuity is read as reproduction of the same). This historicist operation thus works to demonstrate how Islam today is captured by or produced by modernity. Such exposure to history, which can account (for example) for the many differences between premodern and modern Islamic political theologies, promises to explain the crises of modern Islam.

Of course, “crisis” is not a neutral, descriptive term.[2] It is a narrative device that emphasizes an event and convenes a decision for how to overcome it, often requiring the proper historical critique. Crises need to be put into their proper historical position to be absolved; the right critique will relieve us of crisis by granting us historical consciousness. The contours of this critical-historical paradigm were already spelled out in Reinhart Koselleck’s 1959 Critique and Crisis, which establishes how modern philosophies of history were developed as an anti-political language of bourgeois justification. Such critique repeats the division of the world into truth and falsehood, peace and war, good and evil, leaving history in a state of permanent crisis but allowing critical individuals the enjoyment of their good conscience even in the shadow of absolute government. And this is, paradigmatically, critique of religion, in an epochal division that leaves theological temporalities behind through the constant production of historical crisis.[3] Such philosophies of history imply that, given the proper critique, modern Islam can be properly located in the history of which it is a product. Analysis of contemporary Islamic political theologies must be defined by that history.

Against that paradigm of crisis–critique–historical consciousness, in which phenomena need to be given a proper categorical frame of reference to achieve the fullness of their historical meaning, this essay turns to the theological figure of “tribulation” in order to animate another tradition of thinking the difficulty of the present. As evidenced by the articles gathered in this special issue, to which this essay serves as a programmatic introduction, anthropological engagements with contemporary Islamic political theology must centrally reckon with the temporal resistance catalyzed by the figure of tribulation. Indeed, in this special issue we propose ethnographies of tribulation as one means of focalizing contemporary Islamic politics. Although some of its instantiations may resemble the critical-historical paradigm Koselleck held responsible for the “pathogenesis of modern society,”[4] the theological figure of tribulation in fact opens onto a complex set of political, ethical, and eschatological relations. If, following Koselleck, “crisis” constantly incites decision, the figure of “tribulation” rather resists such division: according to its grammar, efforts at separating this time from its past may be only another form of trial. At minimum the divine trial “contains an address, the sign of a divine interpellation,” whose meaning may be obscure or withdrawn.[5] At the least it requires translation, and perhaps always has (modern ruptures notwithstanding). In this essay, I present a methodological argument for attending to “tribulation”, briefly illustrate the contours of this figure across the “ecosystem of genres”[6] which gives it shape, and then consider the affordances of genre for such an inquiry. Although Islamicists have similarly relied upon genre in order to reach conclusions about time “in” Islam,[7] to be clear, this broadly anthropological effort is less directed at identifying and recovering different temporal modes (dawām, zamān, ‘aṣr, khulūd, waqt, yawm, sā‘a, etc.) than in considering how the chronotope of tribulation itself “defines genre and generic distinctions.”[8] That is, I am not suggesting that a natural time is then “represented” through the concept of tribulation. Instead, much as form is not separate from life, time is encountered in and disclosed through practice: as one inhabits a tribulation.[9]

Because it resists the (secular) periodization of Islam even while retaining a productive relationship to history, the figure of tribulation reprises the rupture conventionally narrated in and of Islamic political theology. As a matter of history, of course, as we have learned from many important genealogical accounts, Islamic political theologies see both continuity and rupture, or, better yet, reflect the historical reconfiguration of Islamic traditions. Tribulation provides an alternative means of focalizing contemporary Islamic politics as a contested scene of inheritance without grounding its difference in a single historical frame. And because (as seen shortly) the Quran makes tribulation fundamental to creational existence, the figure cannot be comprehensively delimited as an object of historical knowledge: as but one part of a religious ideology legitimizing material reality, for example, or as a political concept for representing a local experience of crisis. Indeed, it offers a means of translating across ostensibly separate historical periods and social domains. Foregrounding “tribulation” thus displaces the task of identifying what of Islam is a “political theology” and what is not.[10] Instead of beginning with the problem of translating “political theology” from its Christian history into the archives of Islam—compounded by the problem of secularization and whether one is presuming a genealogical or homological relation between politics and theology—this journal issue traces contemporary discourses and practices of “tribulation” in sites of Muslim struggle.

Finally, my hope is that developing tribulation as an analytic term may allow for a more adequate conceptualization of the temporal architecture of Islamic forms of life. In doing so this essay (and this special issue) joins an ongoing conversation in anthropology on concept-work. The discipline has long worried at the tension between emic and etic concepts, figuring their relationship as one of translation across discursive contexts which are, importantly, structured by linguistic, political, and historical asymmetries.[11] Yet the anthropological translation of concepts still often rests on the assumption either that they are “tools to be manipulated at will,” or that they are “equivalent to, or function as, signs” of a more fundamental reality.[12] As developed in this essay (and this journal issue), tribulation neither stands apart from our narrated experience nor serves simply as its medium of representation. In my own ethnographic research, for instance, discussions of displacement, refuge, and the Syrian war often returned to contesting the same set of terms, arguing for which theological paradigm best fits a contemporary example, distinguishing between multiple senses and uses.[13] What is a tribulation? Does that concept obtain in this case? What are its other, perhaps latent senses? What alternative terms are available? These terms were not static, of course; what my interlocutors meant by “tribulation” varied widely. Yet its substance in each case was not merely a polemical function of their respective politics. Nor did it simply reflect a theological doctrine.[14] As a concept which insists on the opacity of experience, tribulation defamiliarizes historicist explanations by redoubling historical reflection. It presses in on our interlocutors, and on us alongside them. We learn the grammar of tribulation through our ethnographic engagements at select sites of contemporary Muslim struggle: Azad Kashmir (Zunaira Komal), War on Terror Los Angeles (M. Bilal Nasir), the aftermath of the Rabaa massacre in Cairo (Walaa Quisay) and of the Shapla massacre in Dhaka (Tanzeen Doha), and in the shadow of the Syrian war (myself—albeit not presented here). In sum, pursuing a broadly grammatical investigation (in Wittgenstein’s sense), we are less concerned with defining the limits of tribulation than with exploring what it helps us understand.

The ethnographies of tribulation gathered in this special issue show how anthropological analyses can variously and productively take up this concept. For Zunaira Komal, working in Azad Kashmir, tribulation marks the unbearable proximity between divine calamity (aafat) and revolutionary passion (josh) in her interlocutor Ayesha Sitara’s ecstatic, excessive poetry. The freedom to come heralded in Ayesha’s poetry signifies not only territorial independence from Indian occupation but also a reassertion of the conditions of possibility of freedom (found in the revolutionary equation of sovereign liberation with the theological-political testimony of divine singularity: azadi ka matlab kya? la ilaha illa llah). Yet the undecidability between divine calamity and revolutionary passion remains necessary: Ayesha restlessly orbits between them. In response, Komal develops a psychoanalytic listening practice seeking the “sense” of Ayesha’s Islamopoetics without assimilating one into the other.

For M. Bilal Nasir, working in War on Terror Los Angeles, tribulation translates the narrative model of the Battle of Uhud to the conditions of Muslim Americans under sharp state surveillance. Against the racial infrastructure of the terror-industrial complex, Muslim youth and Islamic scholars now engage what Nasir calls a “caliphate of care”: a repertoire of ethico-political actions that radically protest, rather than seek incorporation into, the US security state. Such actions include refusing to collaborate with antiterror policing; refusing to betray community members who do collaborate; refusing to blame themselves for their plight; and reaffirming divine sovereignty. The caliphate of care thus responds to the “racial tribulation of surveillance” by authorizing a certain kind of American Muslim subject.

For Walaa Quisay, working in the aftermath of the 2013 Rabaa Massacre in Cairo, attending to tribulation allows for contrasting three theodicies. Islamist theodicies (exemplified by Sayyid Qutb’s account of the martyrs of Najran) classically make suffering redemptive, anticipating an otherworldly recompense if denied worldly success. By contrast, post-Rabaa theodicies make suffering mundane in the face of divine silence: worldly victory simply is not a matter of divine justice, whatever may obtain in the afterlife. Finally, Egyptian state theodicy authorized the infliction of horrific violence against anti-coup protesters in Rabaa. Uniting these three cases is the event of the massacre itself, in which—against both God’s justice and his mercy, notes one interlocutor—one thousand civilians protesting the military coup were killed and thousands more injured.

For Tanzeen Doha, working in the aftermath of the 2013 Shapla Massacre in Dhaka, tribulation convenes a series of engagements: shock, confusion, hate, withdrawal, despair, walking, rituals, vigilance, and more. These differing means of relating to the mass killing of Islamic students and clerics yield an ethnographic meditation which traverses multiple scales and registers (e.g., noting the violence of secularity against an Islamic orientation; the simultaneity of theological and concrete abstractions; the distinction between divine wrath (ghazab) and catastrophic corruption (fasad)). Far from simply exhorting the endurance of worldly suffering, he writes, tribulation is generative of fundamental questions; tribulation is what allows us to dwell in our own essential heartbreak, attuning ourselves to the immanent disintegration of secular history.

As a methodological counterpoint to the ethnographies of tribulation presented by Komal, Nasir, Quisay, and Doha, this issue also includes a short essay by Hussein Ali Agrama. He notes that Islam has come to be seen as an existential threat to a variety of states around the world. Rather than approaching this as a problem of political theology,[15] Agrama explores the modern historical relations between suspicion and authority. He identifies an enduring formation of secrecy and suspicion that is structural to liberal, democratic imaginaries. Although Muslims may occupy that space today, this has less to do with the exceptionality of Islam than with a structural conflation of secret truth and latent threat in modern politics. Agrama’s brief exploration echoes Koselleck in diagnosing a problem of modern politics without repeating its crisis narration.

[1] Bernard Lewis’s The Crisis of Islam infamously claims that Muslims reject “modernity” in order to return to a pure sacred past, but the trope of crisis organizes much more nuanced scholarship, even to the point of ubiquity. See Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear, for detailed discussion of crisis as a trope organizing scholarship on modern Islam. The trope of Islam in “crisis” succeeds earlier observers’ declarations of the “resurgence” of Islam.

[2] Note how the structure of the event in crisis narration generates a temporality that shares a logic with the exception of decisionist political theory. The “sovereignty effect” by which even critiques of sovereignty end up adopting its terms (see Jennings, “Sovereignty and Political Modernity”) can then be read as parallel to a “crisis effect” by which efforts to separate and distinguish criticism from critique only serve to redefine crisis. And see Masco, “The Crisis in Crisis,” for whom “Crisis talk today seeks to stabilize an institution, practice, or reality rather than interrogate the historical conditions of possibility for that endangerment to occur” (9). The “crisis in crisis today is the inability to both witness the accumulating damage of this system and imagine another politics” (11).

[3] See here also the remarkable first two chapters of Koselleck, Futures Past. The epochal division achieved by secularization—in the contrast generated, if retrospectively, between (theological) stasis and (secular) acceleration, prophecy and prognosis—then comes to serve as the basis of modern sovereignty (Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty, 95).

[4] Koselleck, Critique and Crisis. See, for example, al-Sarhan, Political Quietism in Islam.

[5] Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul, 225.

[6] Longo, Spiritual Grammar, 128.

[7] Among others, see, helpfully, Massignon, “Le temps dans la pensée islamique”; Goodman, “Time in Islam”; Böwering, “Ideas of Time in Persian Sufism”; Böwering, “The Concept of Time in Islam.”

[8] Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel.”

[9] Form-of-life resists the spatializing division into archaic origin and historical change. Thus Abeysekara writes: “The necessary connection between life and its form can help us think more carefully what we mean by tradition itself. The form of life embodied within a tradition, where time itself is encountered in a habituation of activities, is not reducible to the modern concept of time” (“Religious Studies’ Mishandling of Origin and Change,” 49). See also Longo, Spiritual Grammar, 23, citing Robyn Ferrell: “Perhaps it could also be said that the genre, conceived of in this way, produces the ‘zone’ of possibility for an activity, or at least produces the conditions of its possibility. The desire to speak a certain way is a desire to enter into life in a certain way.” See also now Eldridge, “Movement in Repose,” for whom (reading Wittgenstein, Asad, and Heidegger together) “form of life is a dense articulation of crystallized temporalities, which are ultimately glimpsed in the dynamism that the stillness of form at once manifests and conceals” (21); “the temporality of form of life, of its ‘presencing’ and concealing retreat, is neither linear progression nor cyclical repetition but resists spatialization as such” (29).

[10] On such methodological considerations, see Ralston, “Political Theology in Arabic” and the recent issue of this journal (Political Theology 23, nos. 1-2) on “Deprovincializing Political Theology.”

[11] Among many others on the problem of commensuration and anthropological difference, see Asad, “The Concept of Translation in British Social Anthropology.”

[12] See Brandel and Motta, “Introduction,” 6.

[13] Iqbal, “The Dread Heights.” Across my interlocutions, I came to learn variously that witnessing the divine trial means the difficult and sometimes ambivalent acceptance of sacrifice; or engaging the divine trial yields a militant reckoning with the corrosive drift of idolatry; or the divine trial is the secret means by which God distributes the worldly occasions of good and ill (on which see Iqbal, “Economy of Tribulation”); or the divine trial is disclosive, revelatory, apocalyptic: not of a single rule or divine habit but of the evanescent dynamic of outer meaning and inner reality.

[14] As surveyed, for instance, in (on fitna) Ayalon, “From Fitna to Thawra” or (on ibtilā’) Watt, “Suffering in Sunnite Islam.”.

[15] For a methodological warning against employing common critical theoretical strategies (he names deconstruction, genealogy, political theology, negative dialectics) in the study of secularism, see Agrama, “Notes on the Idea of Theorizing Secularism.” There he writes that secularism “actually lends itself to political theological interpretation because of the epistemological obscurity that it produces; such interpretation and contestation is a manifestation of the questioning activity that it animates. This is for both the practical political and legal contestations over religion characteristic of secular polities and the reigning scholarly analyses of these contestations.”

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