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?

Noah Salomon’s groundbreaking book, For Love of the Prophet, provides some avenues for thinking about this question. The text asks us to rethink the very concept of the state in our attempts at understanding Islamic politics today. In doing so, the book pushes us to take seriously and on its own terms something he calls “Islamic political theory.” The point of studying Islamic political theory, Salomon maintains, is not merely to show how Muslims contend with concepts with which we are already familiar (party politics, the rule of law, democratic accountability, etc.), but to examine formations of the political that are not subsumable to the given arrangement of politics in the modern nation-state. He urges us to ask how classical Islamic genres, such as hagiography, devotional poetry, and sermons, provide resources for the contemporary political imagination.

Salomon’s text does not begin with the question posed by the title of this commentary. Instead he asks, where is the Islamic state? The question is more complicated than it might appear at first glance. In part, Salomon is asking about location, and he tells us that we should not assume the state is to be found primarily in its bureaucratic apparatus—its ministries, its legal codes, and its schools. He counsels us to shift our gaze, but he does not then simply describe other locations. Rather, he analyzes ritual practices, genres of religious devotion, and techniques of subjectification—all of which might indicate locations but only as one element of the historical processes through which these rituals, genres, and techniques have been formed, critiqued, and refashioned. To be sure, a ritual needs a space for its enactment, as a poem requires a site for its utterance, but one can always ask, was this place a suitable setting, does it conform to exemplary instances of its performance, and does it thereby meet our expectation? Our assessments draw on historical experiences of its prior actualization, and these evaluations are themselves shaped by the account that we give of that history.

For this reason, the question, where is the Islamic state, necessarily points to the question of when, but not as a position within the premodern-modern binary. Let’s consider one example from the rich set of materials presented in Salomon’s text, concerning the madīḥ, or a genre of poetry that Sufi communities in Sudan employ to cultivate love of the Prophet in its listeners. The Inqadh regime leading the Sudanese state, which has tended to be critical of the sectarian fragmentation of Sufi organizations and the forms of authority they evince, began to champion the performance of madīḥ but only by repurposing, relocating, and refashioning the genre as such. The regime supported the founding of a radio station in 2005 and the production of pop musical renditions of madīḥ. Salomon lays out in detail how this process removed madīḥ from traditional contexts of Sufi ritual, set it into new contexts of circulation and audition, and thereby helped to produce not a Sufi disciple but a national subject. The Inqadh regime’s project of making an Islamic state is visible here, as it both remakes an Islamic practice through pop aesthetics and redefines the national citizen as someone who expresses praise for the Prophet. Salomon’s analysis does not, however, end here, with this already complicated account of the remaking of madīḥ. He goes on to show that the Inqadh regime has not managed to gain the consent and support of many Sudanese Muslims in this project. Instead, the regime opens itself up to criticism, precisely because it employs a devotional genre over which it does not exert final authority and control. Many Sufis are troubled by the repurposing of the genre, seeing it as mislocated, improperly performed, and not aimed at producing the appropriate sort of ethical subject. The Sufi critique evaluates the pop-rendition of the madīḥ by judging it against the genre’s own history. By this criteria of assessment, the regime’s political project falls short of adequately embodying the aspiration for an Islamic state.

Salomon’s analysis focuses on Sudan, but its lessons for Islamic studies are far broader. Any regime that seeks to institute an Islamic state is, effectively, asking the question, “How do we establish a political order based on Islamic foundations?” The answer to this question will always and necessarily be contestable, not only because of the empirical heterogeneity of the Muslim world, but because the genres and practices that would instantiate such a project historically precede the posing of the question. Genres like the madīḥ precede the modern state and claims to authority within it. Any regime that asserts political authority through Islamic genres enters a historical tradition whose terms it does not fully control, and it invokes forms of religious authority that its leaders do not necessarily embody.

This point about the historicity of the Islamic tradition does not mean that it is inherently incompatible with the modern state (on this point, I refer the reader to Salomon’s critique of Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State). Rather, it suggests that a regime claiming the mantle of the Islamic state will always be potentially vulnerable to the criticism that it is misusing and improperly employing the historical practices that are at its disposal. As much as the modern state reorganizes the terms of religious life, including the accounts we give of the religious past, the genres that the state employs in this project also contain the potential for narrating the present in other terms and along alternate axes. Salomon’s study presents us with an understanding of the modern state—of the sovereignty it projects and the citizen-subject it promotes—as obligated to histories that precede it and opening on to futures that its own disciplines and knowledge forms cannot fully contain.

What is the task of Islamic studies today, especially in North America and Western Europe where the ideological division of the world into the premodern and modern remains as tenacious as ever? It may be that in these contexts it remains imperative to make visible how Muslim actors operate within the institutions and discourses of the modern state in its various permutations (colonial, nationalist, neo-liberal). But when we continually underscore the modernity of Islamic politics, we can lose sight of the many ways that Islamic political theory references historical experiences that remain irreconcilable with and exterior to the premodern-modern binary.

Salomon marks this historical exteriority in a crucial passage that nonetheless never fully untangles the terms that it problematizes. It is with this passage, as provocative as it is mysterious, that I would like conclude. He calls on us to acknowledge a “register of Islamic political thought that is neither the West’s other, nor its mirror image, but rather is holding an entirely different conversation in which ‘we’ are not the reference point.” If “we” are neither addressee nor referent of this conversation, what does it mean for us to listen in—to lurk outside the threshold of a discourse in which we have no ratified role? If there is an ethical implication here, it does not end with the issue of listening to a discourse not intended for us. It concerns, rather, the status of the “we” that Salomon is careful to place in scare quotes. Qualified in this way, the “we” is presumably to be understood as lacking self-evidence or stability. Perhaps the first person plural represents a sense of self that is contingently projected in the very act of conjuring Islam as the West’s other or its mirror image. Salomon is describing a conversation in which we are not the addressee, and in which we might not even be who we think we are. What can this remarkably complex assertion mean? Perhaps in listening to a conversation in which our own fantasy of selfhood is left unaddressed and unintelligible, we can begin to question the coherence of that fantasy itself.