For Love of the Prophet

An Ethnography of Sudan's Islamic State

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Noah Salomon
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , October
     2016.
     264 pages.
     $29.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780691165158.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This title is also being reviewed in JAAR by Abdullahi Gallab.

The last footnote of Noah Salomon’s arresting book, For Love of the Prophet, asks the question, “For, in what sense can we speak of a functioning system of states in significant parts of Africa and the Middle East any longer?” (215n30). This question puts a timestamp on the project. Salomon began fieldwork for this ethnography of the Islamic state in Sudan in 2003, an era when many wondered about the potential for an Islamic state. Committed democrats believed Islamist parties should prove their merits through electoral politics; while a cadre of governmental officials, security experts, vested interests, and ideologues fretted about this possibility and worked to thwart it. Recognizing that the conversation need not remain conjectural, Salomon set out to understand the “first Islamic state” in the Arabic speaking world. The years between his fieldwork and writing the epilogue witnessed a dizzying and tragic series of events concerning Islamic states, including the frequent success of those who sought to stymie Islamists, the splitting of Sudan, and the rise of the entity claiming exclusive naming rights to the phenomenon, the “Islamic State,” itself. This framing—from the first Islamic state through the crumbing of the regional system of states—makes this book vital for our understanding of the relationship between Islam and governance in this moment.

The timeliness of Salomon’s inquiry is reason to pick up the book. Salomon’s ethnographic acuity and fine-grained analysis makes reading every word rewarding. In the introduction, the author tells us that the Islamic state proved more elusive than he expected it to be. In the Ministry of Education, for example, he found not discussions about Islamic education but curricula developed by the United Nations (2). With time, his research uncovered the state in less conspicuous places, written into the architecture of buildings (chapter 2), as praise poems blended with pop melodies on the radio (chapter 4), and in the tales of his numerous interlocutors (chapter 5). The Islamic state resembled more the diffuse epidural nervous system of a jellyfish than the metaphor of state-as-brain that is so common to political theory. The state was not merely a set of agreed upon institutions or an expression of singular sovereignty. Instead, he found it in the, “political practice of everyday life” (6).

In a 1989 coup, the National Islamic Front [NIF] instigated what it called the “Revolution of National Salvation.” Salomon argues that change occurred, not at the level of statecraft, but in the reframing of Sudanese political life generally. The regime, “opened [space] up for specifically Islamic modes of deliberation” (97). Salomon tracks this change in the political life of Sudan over two distinct phases. The first, “version 1.0,” brought about an epistemological project deemed the Islamization of knowledge (167). The second, inaugurated by the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the representatives of South Sudan in 2005, promoted a shift to recognizing Sudan as a plural society. Both phases provoked modes of critique, cooptation, and support between the state and diverse Muslim groups, including Salafis and Sufis. A fascinating example from the second phase comes in Salomon’s analysis of two conferences held on the same day in 2007 to address the issue of religious diversity. The first conference, held by the NIF, looked for multiculturalist solutions to the issue. The second, a Salafi affair, sought to uncover modes of dealing with religious others from Muslim source texts (186-194). Here, we see how state and non-state actors tracked with each other but also diverged in their efforts to address evolving problems. In questioning the state/society binary, part of Salomon’s point is to challenge scholarly “fetishizing allegiance to state sovereignty,” showing the state, instead, as “yet another function of our shared political life” (13). Some might question his success, as the government often seemed to set the terms of the discourse. This critique, however, misses the mark. In opening the country to “Islamic modes of deliberation,” the NIF was not an autonomous brain, reorganizing the limbs of society. Instead, it was a node on the jellyfish’s neural net, reacting and undulating together with the other nodes.

Salomon argues that scholars working on Islamic political theory have too often searched for Muslim analogues to Western political theory. This has caused them to read Muslim political theorizing with an eye to questions of freedom, secularism, Western hegemony, and the like (178). In Sudan, Salomon’s interlocutors asked different questions: Rather than, “what is the good life?” they theorized about, “the good death” and “God’s role in shaping political order” (177n18). In his call for scholars to look for politics that do not take the West as an analogue or central reference point, Salomon refers to the work of the anthropologist, Ruth Marshall, who writes that social science remains inadequate to understanding the central concerns of Nigerian Pentecostals, including their focus on “faith” and “religious ideas of historical agency and time” (173). Salomon posits a similarity between his Sudanese Muslim interlocutors and Marshall’s Nigerian Christian subjects. The use one of case to illuminate the other made this reviewer wonder about the limits of the analogy. What makes both groups resistant to western frames of analysis? Is Marshall’s use of the category of religion relevant to the kinds of Islamic politics described by Salomon? What makes the groups distinctive? While beyond the bounds of the project, such a line of questioning might have brought into sharper focus the stakes and contours of Salomon’s reference to “Islamic political thought” (178).

Salomon’s initial problems in “finding” the Islamic state became his challenge to scholarship: we should look beyond the institutions and framing concepts thought to define the state. Doing this, he argues, will help us to understand politics to come, even as we lose our ability to speak of a system of functioning states (215). This fact, combined with its masterful attention to the texture of Sudanese political life and rich theoretical discussion makes this book important reading for specialists in a variety of fields and useful in courses, beginning at the advanced undergraduate level.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Kigar is a doctoral candidate in religion at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
May 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Noah Salomon is Assistant Professor of religion at Carleton College.

Keywords: 

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