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.”
Locating the Islamic state will no doubt occupy us for quite some time, not least because, despite the usual assertions of the radical, violent, and uncompromising nature of the Islamic state, it has proven to be fugitive as an analytic object. The work of scholars such as Hussein Agrama points to the possibility that locating the Islamic is part of the work of the secular, and that the question of Islam’s location in relation to the state is itself a question continually generated by secular doctrine. Seeking out the Islamic state, therefore, might be as much a work of scholarly reflexivity—looking deeper into the core assumptions and polarities of our own fields—as it might be raising questions about the extent and limits of the modern state and the methodological and analytic tools we might deploy to understand its entanglements with, and dependencies upon, religion. Salomon’s rich and ambitious book suggests a number of points of departure.
The first of these draws us beyond the comfort zones of text and doctrine, to soundscapes, landscapes, architecture—to environments built and improvised. For Salomon, as for Charles Hirschkind and other ethnographers, soundscapes have allowed alternative access to locales of Islam and Muslim life. By doing so, Hirschkind’s work also opened up pathways for exploring technology, markets, and media in relation to lived Islam, and emphasized the importance of the spaces between material forms and the meanings made of them. Salomon uses the metaphor of “resonances of the state” to suggest an approach to the state not as a site, but “as the effect of a series of processes that produce a novel form of modern power.” In my work on Islamic law in the colonial contexts of British India, Malaya, and Egypt, echoes and resonances emerged in visual forms, performances of authority, dress, and language; through processes of amplification, translation, and distortion, these resonances fed back into text, law, and state institutions. The Islamic state emerges from these processes not as a poor facsimile of a European ideal, nor as the political expression of a textual tradition, but through resonances with multiple sources of authority and power, each particular to its context but also recognizable across space and time.
Following from this, the second point of departure would be to consider the Islamic state as a process of co-creation, between the “official” and the “unofficial.” Anthropologists, but also political scientists, sociologists, and law and society scholars have long studied the state in this way, understanding the state as a limited and partial player in politics and society, while exploring its capacity to discipline, steer, and transform societies and individuals. Salomon divides his book into “interventions” (the official) and “itineraries” (lived experiences of the state): Beyond the state, but still infused with its normative and structural logics, are cultures of knowledge, moral geographies, and mass publics. Inscribing the limits of the state has also long been part of the agenda of theorists of the state, and of normative debates on democracy and liberalism; scholarship on the history of the state, on sovereignty, and on colonialism also suggests that we question anew the state’s claims to both sovereignty and originality.
Put another way, this rich and diverse body of scholarship tells us that the modern state form is not an emanation of post-Enlightenment political theory but a partial, contingent, and shifting construction, made possible by its compromises, not in spite of them. In this, one is reminded of David Scott’s suggestion that we write history with a “tragic sensibility,” which is “attuned to . . . the myriad ways in which we carry our pasts within ourselves as the not-always-legible scripts of our habitus . . . poignantly aware of the ineradicable metaphysical traces that connect us to what we leave behind.” Salomon shows this to be very much the case in Sudan:
“While the present regime claims to offer a break with Sudan’s recent past by constructing a ‘modern’ Islam that will erase the scars of colonialism, in significant ways its project in managing religion is the continuation of an effort that began nearly one hundred years ago under a very different banner: as an attack on an Islamic political order rather than an effort to establish one.”
Salomon points out that “the political form of the state, despite its genealogy in Europe and despite the loud rejection of the colonial past by Islamist thinkers, came to be the favored envelope in which Muslim political aspirations have been packaged from the mid-twentieth century onwards.” Similar patterns might be seen in British Malaya and Egypt, drawing upon a long genealogy of British colonial redefinitions of Islam, the Islamic, and Islamic law in India. Yet reading this genealogy reflexively, in terms of evolving colonial and native conceptions of the state (public and private), sovereignty and its overlapping bases, law, and jurisdictional plurality, might help us re-consider the modern state form not merely as a European adoption or adaptation, nor even as an opportunity for Muslim movements, but as having been shaped—in Europe, in the Muslim world, and beyond—through encounter, exchange, and struggle. As such, one wonders whether the everyday unofficial can really be understood to be a space discernibly different in any way from the supposedly more enduring forms of the state. Here, a stronger analytic engagement with violence in the everyday work of the state might play an important role. Salomon makes the entirely valid point that violence is over-represented as a feature of Muslim politics, yet that concern seems to have also had the effect of leaching violence out of the analysis of hierarchy, authority, conflict, and memory, in this and across the field more generally.
Salomon makes a compelling argument that we not seek to render the Islamic state fully legible in Western political idiom. And here is a third point of departure for scholars of Muslim politics and the Islamic state: to seek out arena of argumentation, critique, worship, and meaning in which the point of reference is neither Western paradigms nor elites who work in Western political vernaculars. The tension between this third direction and the second is important, for the study of Muslim politics as much as for comparative politics, political theory, intellectual history, and anthropology. As Salomon puts it, “how can we avoid both the alarmist approach that sees the alterity present in Islamic political thought as a threat to Western values, as well as the . . . impulse to redeem it by showing how much it looks like us?” This avenue of inquiry offers more than a way out of such a double bind: It provides a rich seam of material for exploring Muslim debates and disagreement; for hermeneutics that hold texts and law alongside love, fidelity, fear, and miracles; for engagements between the political and the supernatural, the poetic and the administrative.