Modernity in Islamic Tradition

The Concept of "Society" in the Journal al-Manar (Cairo, 1898-1940)

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Florian Zemmin
Religion and Society
  • Berlin, Germany: 
    De Gruyter
    , July
     532 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Modernity in Islamic Tradition is devoted to a systematic analysis of Arabic terms and equivalents to “society” as they were used in the Islamic reformist journal al-Manār (“the Lighthouse”). Al-Manār was an influential and popular Egyptian journal edited by Rashid Rida that was published between 1898 and 1935.

Author Florian Zemmin writes: “My main argument is that the authors writing regularly for al-Manār – and especially the journal’s editor, Rashid Rida – employed the term umma as an equivalent and also alternative to the concept of “society.” This is not to say that umma came to mean “society,” but rather that the Islamic reformists conceptualized the modern idea of society with umma, which was a very flexible term at the time. In a period where no single Arabic term for “society” had yet been established, Rida avoided the terms predominantly used by secular thinkers and associated with the hegemonic European understanding of society—namely  mujtamaʿ and al-hayʾa al-ijtimāʿīya” (16). “What matters is that ... Rida uses umma as an equivalent to mujtamaʿ and positions the umma as the object of sociological inquiry (381).

The study begins with a comprehensive methodological introduction devoted to a discussion of modernization theories applied in a globalized context. The approach situates itself within a series of critical reactions to the narrative in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard, 2007) – a narrative in which Islam is completely missing from the picture. The study identifies a distanced and self-reflective conception of society as a most distinctive feature of modernity. Such reflectiveness about society presupposes knowledge about alternative orders of living; hence “society” is the most constitutive concept of modernity. This is why the conceptual history of terms related of the notion of “society” plays a crucial role in the book.  

The methodical reflections on modernity and secularism (1-92), conceptual history of non-European languages (12-14; 177-185) and the introduction to Egypt’s situation around 1900 (93-137) are extremely useful and concise expositions of and surveys on these topics. These introductions are informed by a high theoretical awareness, and when the author opts for what he calls ‘heuristic Eurocentrism’ (18) for framing the design of his research, he argues thoroughly why he does so.

Zemmin then investigates the two Arabic terms al-hayʾa al-ijtimāʿīya (199-253) and al-mujtamaʿ (254-302) in two chapters. Based on a search of occurrences in the digitized text of al-Manār, the author engages in a meticulous detailed analysis. This is supplemented by discussions of how individual contemporary intellectuals (mostly authors writing for al-Manār or being in contact with those writers) use the terms.

Despite of all its erudition and theoretical awareness I see some problems in how this study’s approach to conceptual history combines analytical and historical aspects. Typically based on very brief pieces of text, the study’s analysis of the two Arabic terms applies its matrix of analytical concepts, such as “politics,” “morals,” “religion,” to various constellations. It is not clear whether the study assumes that there is an actual development of the concepts associated with the Arabic terms, and how changes in terminology would reflect and/or shape such a potential change of concepts. How do these levels interact in a diachronic perspective? How does a pattern emerge when several authors interact at a given time?

On the one hand, the study treats the journal al-Manār and its sometimes-anonymous authors as a single homogenous entity (from the point of reception of its readership this is a valid approach and is voiced as such in a programmatic way in Rashid Rida’s preface to the second edition). On the other hand, the study does not consistently follow its analytical approach of radically decontextualizing al-Manār as a text corpus; rather, the study aims at a complex historical contextualization wherever it is easy to accomplish. Therefore, for a reader interested in the history of terms and concepts, the analytical refinement makes more gaps visible than it can fill.

Are all these subtle differences discussed in the study really there in the authors’ minds – even when they do not use corresponding concepts? Do they see the same constellations as this study does? In order to answer to these questions, we would need a more careful contextualization of the pieces of texts analyzed within their authors’ argumentative horizons. This problem (ultimately a consequence of the ‘heuristic Eurocentrism’ adopted in the study) is most obvious when the study applies the concepts “political” and “social.” The overall design of al-Manār (which is stated, for example, in the opening section of the first year of publication) points out that this journal is devoted to the education of people, not to counselling sultans. Many of the concerns labeled as iǧtimāʿī’(social) by the authors of al-Manār  fall under what we would nowadays refer to as the political sphere, i.e. political processes that are not directly controlled by the Sultan himself.

One may also observe a certain lack of complexity in the narrative of the history of scientific entanglements between the East and the West; the book’s focus hardly extends beyond the colonial encounter.

All in all this study employs a highly refined theoretical approach. It shows, however, that this is not always easily set into practice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Heidrum Eichner is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Date of Review: 
September 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Florian Zemmin is Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Bern.


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