Noah Salomon’s ethnography of politics provides a penetrating insight on the far-reaching effects of the Islamic state project in the Sudan. It is a welcome study of an Islamic state that is more than two decades old, at a time when a new experiment in the Levant seems to overwhelm the global imagination. The older models, including the Pakistani, the Iranian, the Libyan, and earlier still the Saudi, provide food for thought of Islamic politics in its local and global manifestations. These earlier projects offer a longer-term perspective of political projects in the face of continuing challenges in Muslim societies. These include questions of diversity, legitimacy, economic prosperity, deep inequalities, ever-present foreign interventions that constitute our global world, and fractured religious identities.
Salomon’s monograph is a close interrogation of Sudan’s Islamic state, particularly in the responses that it generates from other Islamic actors. Through this ethnography, he explores other kinds of politics and other kinds of publics that unfold in response to the state’s project that was launched in 1989.
He begins with a comparison between the Islamic state and Western state formations. Bifurcation and separation marked the cultural project of the latter, which is refracted in the Islamic state. Whereas the state in the West was often shaped in response to a conception of the religious, the Islamic State in the Sudan was directed against and shaped by its perception of Sufi leaders and groups. In the Sudan, Sufi groups became the significant extremity against which the purity and progress of the state was measured and tracked. In this way, the modernity of the Islamic state is demonstrated, but also its self-perceived uniqueness and hegemony.
Salomon then explores three “itineraries” of the Islamic state. The first is a venture to create a new civilization that puts forward a new epistemology for Islam and for Sudanese Muslims. Islamization is a modernist epistemology, however, challenged by older forms of knowledge based on mystical secrets and privileged bodies. The second itinerary turns around a concerted attempt to take advantage of and replace a popular mode of madīḥ, salutations and praise directed to the Prophet Muhammad. Using new media and new forms of aesthetics, an older tradition of madīḥ is reshaped and reformed. And the third itinerary is an exploration of multiple publics and politics generated by the Islamic state. In each case, Salomon shows that the state project was challenged on epistemological, aesthetic, and political grounds. But he also shows that the state project was successful in changing the terms of the discourse, even among its strongest adversaries. For example, when the state attempted to change its discourse on Christians and traditional religionists after 2007, it was opposed by Sufis and other groups who recalled the state’s earlier exclusivist discourse. The planned itineraries of the Islamic state were frustrated or challenged, and sometimes redirected in interesting ways.
Salomon, like many recent ethnologists, turns attention to the aesthetics and affective dimensions of public practices. Using this lens, he sometimes reminds readers that the modernist Islamic state generated its own aesthetic. Thus, for example, when he writes of the attempt to use the praise poetry of the Prophet (madīḥ) to generate more support for the state and to undercut its Sufi opponents, he first suggests that it’s a systematic process of disembodiment. But he soon acknowledges the affective and aesthetic dimension of the new mode of madīḥ broadcast on radio as it filtered into homes, streets, and other public places. I appreciate this awareness, but I think that it should have been extended to new state projects in general. Most of the analysis of the latter assumes that a modern, Cartesian-like political and epistemological project faces pre-modern forms of politics and knowledge traditions rooted in the body, in mysticism, and in diverse aesthetic forms. The Islamic project may have aspired to some of this modernism in an implicit and unacknowledged way, but there is not enough discussion and analysis of its aesthetics and its affective dimensions. Hassan al-Turabi, for example, is challenged by Sufi shaykhs, but in performance at public meetings commands loyalty and support through his charisma and aesthetics in practice. Elsewhere, Salomon tells us about the military uniforms and the study circles (ḥalaqāt) of Islamic state recruits and adherents, but little on their aesthetics. In Formations of the Secular, Talal Asad has alerted us to the cultural formation of the secular West that is not only rooted in rationality or pragmatism. A similar awareness must be directed at the formation of the modern Islamic state.
The Islamic state project in each country and region has been unique, but there are spatial and temporal connections that cannot be ignored. Salomon refers to some of the connections between Egypt and Sudan, but there is an opportunity to go further. The Islamization project, for example, has a long history in the United States (that Salomon briefly mentions), but also Pakistan, Malaysia, and other Muslim sites (which he does not). More particularly, the competing visions of Islamization developed by Isma’il al-Faruqi and Seyyed Hossein Nasr at American universities, and Naguib al-Attas in Malaysia, may be contrasted and compared with the Sudan’s state experiment over time. Such a venture, which attracted the imagination of intellectuals inside and outside the Sudan, calls for comparative analysis. Perhaps this is asking for too much from one ethnographic study. But Salomon makes references to some of these connections, which only whets the reader’s appetite.
The spatial connections may be extended to temporalities. Salomon offers a perspective on the Islamic state in the twentieth century, which may be compared with earlier Islamic state projects (whether in the Sudan or elsewhere). The Islamic state is a project that extends over time. In the Sudan, it stretches over more than two decades and has antecedents in the nineteenth century that Salomon brings into comparative reflection. But the whole project needs to be appreciated for its successes and failures over a longer period. Olivier Roy wrote off the state in its particular form and shape too early in 1992. If one considers the twentieth to twenty-first century as a unit of analysis (or the fifteenth hijra century to put the project in one century), then the Islamic state projects cannot be limited to their specific location and experience. They must be linked to the de-establishment of the Ottoman caliphate, the imagination of an Islamic state between the two world wars, and several experiments that began with the Iranian Islamic revolution.
In this theatre, the Sudan’s experience of a discourse on Islamic state is interesting, as Salomon’s book has shown. There is clearly a discourse of competing visions and practices, drawing on the past and the present. The discourse is not without its contradictions, and its deep fault lines. But it is discourse that produces self, ethics, and politics, as Asad expected of new discourses. Asad is better known for pointing to pre-modern Islamic discourse that continues in the modern world. But the discourse of Islamic politics and state represents a tradition on power, the self, and others derived from Islamic teachings, neo-colonial interventions, capitalist rentier states, and ideas of authenticity.
So what is this political discourse? If politics is concerned with the management of power, then Salomon’s ethnography offers competing visions of knowledge, of aesthetics, and of social life. But Islamic state visionaries also wield considerable power. Or the idea of Islamic politics generates considerable attraction in spite of evident failures. Salomon concludes the book with new challenges that arise from Salafis and jihadists to Sudan’s project. It concludes with questions about the intractable problems of the region facing Muslim political practice and thought.