Year after year, Sudan has placed among the top three countries on Foreign Policy’s annual Failed State Index.1At the time of research and publication, this was called the Failed State Index. Since then, it has been renamed the “Fragile States Index.” Scoring a perfect ten for internally displaced persons, external intervention, group grievances, and factionalized elites, Sudan serves as a near archetype of the nonfunctioning state. Media portrayals of rampant interethnic violence, famine, and displacement reinforce this perception. Yet, even with the loss of territory following the secession of South Sudan in 2011, the persistent civil war in Darfur and the “new South” (those regions of Sudan that once were in the center of the country and now are in its southern reaches, following partition), and great economic uncertainty, the Sudanese state somehow continues to function, the National Congress (née National Islamic Front) party sitting firmly in power for over twenty-five years, despite persistent internal divisions. While the events of the Arab Spring and their reversal have made scholars of the region know better than to predict continuing stability, the itinerary of the longest-standing government in Sudan’s postcolonial history and its experiment with establishing what its intellectuals called “the Islamic state” is in need of study, no matter what tomorrow may bring. This is particularly true now as a variety of regimes across the region are experimenting with their own Islamization projects or are seeking to unravel them. Indeed, while Foreign Policy looks at formal indicators such as “uneven development,” “economic decline,” and “external intervention” as evidence of a state’s health (or, more precisely, the lack thereof), it overlooks a series of factors that make states like Sudan endure, despite their failure to meet the journal’s indices of full-sovereignty and economic well-being. What would a study of Sudan look like that did not take its lacks and lacunas, its under-development and instability, as a starting point? What do we learn if we examine state power as productive and not solely repressive, and if we explore the Sudanese public as made up of agents of its modernity and not merely victims of power struggles from on high?2“Introduction,” For Love of the Prophet (Princeton University Press 2016)
For Love of the Prophet attempts to answer these questions. While many studies of Islamic political experiments have been written over the past few years, few have examined what in fact has made them endure: as projects that produce desires as much as they suppress them, as experiments in love as much as in violence. As much a meditation on the religious dimensions of the modern state in general as it is an ethnography of religious and political life in Sudan, For Love of the Prophet asks readers to question their own assumptions about what has sustained foundational politics in our “post-foundational age.” Moving beyond arguments about the impossibility of the Islamic state as a moral-theoretical or an ethical-political project project, For Love of the Prophet draws on ethnographic research to ask by what means the Islamic state does in fact proceed in spite of its seeming contradictions. Exploring the Islamic state not only as a set of governing institutions, but as a project as much aesthetic and epistemological as it is political, For Love of the Prophet examines the intellective and passional life that has been a key feature of its unfolding over its 25 year tenure.
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.
For Love of the Prophet is also a book about the history of Sudan. Balanced between unity and partition, secular and religious politics, peace and war, the Sudan that I researched during the heart of my field work in 2005-2007, and then annually until the present day, has been a country that has experienced massive transformation. This transformation eventually led to its partition in 2011, arguably culminating in the terrible violence that has ensued in both Sudan and South Sudan since that point. For Love of the Prophet is the story of the changes that came about in political culture in Sudan as it sought to deal with the many challenges it faced over this tumultuous period. How did the National Congress/National Islamic Front (NCP/NIF), never a particularly popular movement in and of itself, nevertheless manage to change the grammar of political debate, so that even its opponents came to speak in its terms, from leftists, to “Sufists,” to Islamists?
To answer this question, my ethnography takes me beyond government offices, which I come to argue in fact mirror those of many post-colonial national states, forged as they were in the colonial state and its own peculiar relationship with religion, with very little about them exhibiting a distinctly “Islamic” character. Instead, I argue that the Islamic state sediments itself by inhering in different sorts of locales and is thus sustained by different sorts of procedures than the raw power of top-down imposition. From the knowledge reform projects of Islamist research centers to a Sudanese soundscape imbued with ritual techniques to “Make Sudan the Country that Prays on behalf of the Prophet the Most” at the very moment that Sudan’s identity was being challenged by a comprehensive peace agreement that sought to define that state on more secular foundations, For Love of the Prophet contends that political culture in Sudan is both more pervasive and more elusive than previous studies have imagined. To study Sudanese politics and to understand how the political culture of the Islamic state project has been sustained, over so many years and despite so much vocal international and local opposition, requires a different sort of methodology than studies of contemporary Islamic politics have heretofore afforded. Such a methodology, I argue, must spend as much time on the itinerary of the Islamic state project—diachronically over a period of great upheaval, spatially as it spreads beyond government institutions to the arenas of public life, intellectually as it is challenged and reworked by diverse constituencies—as its formation.
Finally, For Love of the Prophet is an intervention into debates within Islamic Studies. Keen to taxonomize contemporary Islam into a landscape of Sufis, Salafis, Islamists, and post-Islamists, Islamic studies has often foreclosed conversations that occur across these divides in the societies it claims to represent. Whether it be the government use of Sufi poetry to instill “love of the Prophet” in a country teetering at the precipice between secular and religious politics, or Salafi rejections of the categories that have structured minority relations under the Islamist regime, the book shows that both political and theological stances cut across these assumed foundational divides. The same is true with the supposed division between secular and Islamic politics that has reverberated throughout modern Sudanese history and still structures a major paradigm of opposition today. The narrative in For Love of the Prophet is bookended by two attempts at secular politics in the territory of Sudan: the first, in Chapter One, an early and fleeting British attempt to establish a secular nation state as a means of civilizing Sudan into modernity and countering the upheaval of the mahdiyya messianic government it came to replace; the second, discussed in the Epilogue, the establishment of South Sudan as an explicitly secular nation-state as a means of unraveling the Islamist experiment of the NIF/NCP government that still marked its now-liberated territory. By showing both the resonances of the colonial project and its relationship to religion in the Islamist project that claimed to be its undoing, and by reflecting on the way the secular state in South Sudan replicated the very exclusions perpetrated by Islamism (albeit on different axes), the book questions whether the secular/Islamic divide, so ingrained in the imagination of studies of contemporary Muslim experience, needs to be rethought.
After working on this book for so many years, in so many fits and starts, it is extremely gratifying finally to let go, launching it into public conversation through the opportunity afforded by The Immanent Frame. I am extremely grateful to the six interlocutors who have agreed to reflect on the book and am very much looking forward to learning from their interventions and their critiques. While the Sudanese story will move forward and this ethnography will quickly become ancient history, it is my hope that the message of For Love of the Prophet lives on in making at least a small contribution to shaping how we think about Islamic politics, its futures, and its pasts. If it can do that, then this project will have been well worth its labor.