In January 1953, Sayyid Qutb declared that “historical models of Islamic Society” (al-ṣuwwar al-tārīkhiyya li-l-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī) neither define nor encompass “all its possible forms.”Footnote 1 Qutb, who had recently joined the Muslim Brotherhood, made this claim in one of a series of twelve articles entitled “Towards an Islamic Society” (Naḥwa Mujtamaʿ Islāmī) that appeared in the affiliated al-Muslimun journal. In the January 1953 entry, this literary critic turned political theorist offered a sophisticated understanding of Islamic communal formation and maintenance and how to realize such a project in the future. Qutb is best known for his engagement with the challenge posed by authoritarian Muslim rulers, and the related call to form an exclusive vanguard (ṭalīʿa) to battle what he understood to be a broader sea of pre-Islamic barbarism (jāhiliyya).Footnote 2 As he wrote between August 1952 and December 1953,Footnote 3 however, a man whose later writing would inspire successive generations of Jihadists was focused on exploring the historical roots, legal basis, and future prospects of a broader Islamic Society and, by extension, the establishment of a mass social movement in Egypt.
Qutb’s call for an Islamic Society did not emerge in a vacuum. Beginning in the 1930s and stretching through the 1970s, everyone from traditionalist scholars employed within state-controlled institutions to Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis of Ansar al-Sunna al-MuhammadiyyaFootnote 4 called for the replication and protection of a golden model ostensibly established at the dawn of Islamic history. Notwithstanding these claims to continuity, however, the precise contents of the concept of Islamic Society remained unresolved as ideologically diverse claimants to religious leadership argued for bottom-up and top-down approaches to religious change.
Neither is the focus on forming an ideologically-distinct society unique to the Islamic or Egyptian case. Whether T. S. Eliot’s 1940 call for a “Christian Society” in the United States,Footnote 5 invocations of Hindu Society (Hindu Samaj) in British-ruled India,Footnote 6 or those of Soviet Society (Sovetskoe Obshchestvo) in the USSR,Footnote 7 the aspiration to form distinct societies was part and parcel of varied nationalist projects to define and regulate identity through social practice.Footnote 8
This article traces the conceptual history of Islamic Society (al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islām ī) in twentieth-century Egypt. Historians of premodern Islam often use this term descriptively to denote the ideas and practices of Muslim communities living under Islamic political rule,Footnote 9 while scholars of Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood highlight this organization’s commitment to forming such a collective while treating the concept as both fully-formed and sui generis.Footnote 10 By contrast, a turn to conceptual history casts light on the intellectual and social roots of an idea that is central to Islamic movements and states today, yet represents a departure from premodern reformist calls for a return to the model of the Medinese community under the rule of the Prophet Muhammad.Footnote 11
In what follows, I therefore tell a story of how the concept of Islamic Society became both intellectually thinkable and politically meaningful, beginning in the 1930s as Muslim thinkers, activists, and scholars in Egypt navigated the transition from colonial to postcolonial rule. In doing so, these groups sought to differentiate their projects not merely from colonizing powers but also from fellow Muslims whom they perceived to be either insufficiently pious or competitors for the mantle of piety (and sometimes both). Specifically, I argue that as competing claimants to Islamic authority began to consider opportunities and pitfalls of postcolonial rule in mid-twentieth-century Egypt, they invoked Islamic Society to articulate a vision of communal membership premised not simply on legal obedience but on sustained individual regulation as part of an abstract horizontal social collective. In the process, two models of Islamic Society emerged, one premised on bottom-up social change and propagated primarily by Islamic movements, and the other dependent on the top-down exercise of state power and promoted by state-aligned religious elites. In both cases, however, the legibility and appeal of the call to form and maintain an Islamic society reflected this concept’s compatibility with state-sponsored projects of bureaucratic expansion and social transformation, as well as its capacity to signal both authenticity (“Islamic”) and modernity (“society”).
A history of a concept produced over half a decade through negotiation among ideological competitors requires an ambitious approach to sources. Accordingly, I draw on a wide array of Islamic print media published between 1898 and 1981,Footnote 12 including Muhammad Rashid Rida’s (d. 1935) flagship journal (al-Manar, 1898–1935), multiple journals published by the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun), the Young Men’s Muslim Association (al-Shubban al-Muslimun), the Lawful Society For Those Who Work Together According to the Quran and Sunna (al-Jamʿiyya al-Sharʿiyya li-Taʿwun al-ʿAmilin bi-l-Kitab waʾl-Sunna, henceforth the Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya), Proponents of the Prophetic Model (Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya, henceforth Ansar al-Sunna), the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (al-Majlis al-Aʿla li-l-Shuʾun al-Islamiyya) within the Egyptian Ministry of Endowments, and the Islamic Research Academy at al-Azhar University (Majmaʿ al-Buhuth al-Islamiyya).Footnote 13 Collectively, these periodicals reflect not only the diversity and dynamism of religio-political contestation in twentieth-century Egypt, but also provide a granular record of the ideological trends and tensions that define the relationship between Islam and politics in the Middle East more broadly.Footnote 14
While scholars of conceptual history have recently emphasized the importance of transnational links,Footnote 15 I deliberately focus on a single country. Historians of Egypt such as Ilham Khuri-Makdisi and Florian Zemmin have previously documented how the diffusion of “Society” is linked to global colonial projects, whether French (Societie) or British,Footnote 16 as well as its relationship to ideas of nationalism and political economy.Footnote 17 My focus, by complement, is on the second stage of this process: how a neologism was modified in the context of colonial and postcolonial rule, and reflected both a global story of the spread of nationalism and an internal Islamic debate over the role of religion in state and society.
The choice of conceptual history as a lens through which to explore religio-political change in Egypt proceeds from the centrality of calls to Islamic Society among both Islamic movements and states. While previous scholarship has documented the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in particularFootnote 18 and particular periods of religious revival,Footnote 19 a focus on this concept enables us to cut across both ideological and temporal periods to trace the roots and consolidation of a major idea that came to animate calls to piety over the course of the twentieth century. Crucially, the call to form and maintain an Islamic Society does not simply reflect shifts toward piety that are already underway, but also provides the language to help bring such changes about.Footnote 20 In line with Peter De Bolla’s argument that we must move away from a focus on what a concept is to what it does,Footnote 21 this article traces the emergence of multiple projects of Islamic Society and the ways in which this concept’s emergence reflected and facilitated competing projects of piety.
At the core of this article is a linkage between theory and method. In his study of early twentieth-century Egyptian political thought, Hussein Omar critiques an artificial separation between ideas and actions that is both reflected in and reproduced by an outsized reliance on “formal and abstract treatises over the fragmentary ideas embedded in newspaper articles, speeches, debates, diary entries and letters … the assumption that political theory determines political practices and not vice versa … has led historians to overstate the importance and influence of a few ‘great men.’”Footnote 22 Far from unique to the history of political thought and action, this approach is mirrored by historians of Islamic law who, in their reliance on canonized texts, often miss the ways in which social and political competition shape interpretative method.Footnote 23 Accordingly, this study brings together an ideologically diverse set of voices through a print media form consumed by middle class Egyptians. Just as importantly, the particular genre of the periodical has outsized value for the study of conceptual history: while a focus on books and pamphlets would highlight the prominence of a call to Islamic Society across ideological boundaries, the regular publication of periodicals makes it possible to trace the gradual process through which this concept was formed, the diverse ideological influences that shaped it, and the subtle intellectual and social linkages among competing claimants to define it.
I also intervene in three related historiographical debates, the first of which is the intellectual history of Islamism. Historians have long noted the ways in which Islamists implicitly accept the ideological claims and institutions of the nation-state even as they valorize a transnational Islamic community (umma).Footnote 24 By complement, a conceptual history of Islamic Society probes the transition from colonial to postcolonial rule and the ways in which such movements came to focus their energies on facilitating collective piety within, rather than beyond, both the borders and ideological framework of the nation-state.
This article also casts light on the development of religious nationalism more broadly. Scholars of Israel, India, Pakistan, Hungary, and Ireland have traced how this trend produces novel understandings of religious identity rather than replicating prior models.Footnote 25 The development of calls to Islamic Society reveals the ways in which religio-nationalist identity is linked to particular projects of religious practice. In doing so, this article shows how religious nationalism pivots, no less than its secular counterparts, on a project of self-regulating social practice.Footnote 26
Finally, I explore the transformation of Islamic thought between colonial and postcolonial rule. Talal Asad has argued that colonial elites and Europeanized Egyptians in the late nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries transformed the Islamic tradition by producing a “distinction between law (which the state embodied, produced, and administered) and morality (which is the concern ideally of the responsible person generated and sustained by the family), the two being mediated by the freedom of public exchange.…”Footnote 27
Particularly significant is Asad’s claim regarding the social order: contrasting umma and mujtamaʿ, he argues that the conflation of the Shariʿa with the family is premised on the creation of “the idea of a society made up of equal citizens governing themselves individually (through conscience) and collectively (through the electorate).”Footnote 28 The history of Islamic Society—which begins just as the historical period analyzed by Asad concludes—reveals the historical process by which such a collectivity was conceptualized, and how a powerful linkage between private and public was formed. In contrast to Asad’s view,Footnote 29 however, this term’s conceptual history cannot be limited to an emphasis on individual moral formation, whether through “embodied relationships,” or through the internalization of the Shariʿa. Footnote 30 Instead, the call to society, specifically an Islamic Society, also depends on public practices of self-regulation (“governance”Footnote 31) to undergird the formation of a broader moral order defined primarily by competing visions of social change.
I will begin by tracing the growing prominence of the concept of “Society” (Mujtamaʿ) generally and “Islamic Society” (al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī) specifically in early twentieth-century Islamic reformist circles, with a focus on the leading Islamic reformist periodical of this period, Muhammad Rashid Rida’s al-Manar. Drawing on a recent study of the conceptual history of “Society” in this periodical as well my own analysis of it,Footnote 32 I will argue that in the first quarter of the twentieth century, calls to Islamic Society evoked a vague ideal of religious purity rather than a specific vision of religio-political community or subject formation. To analyze the period between 1926 and 1951, I will turn to journals published by two leading Islamic movements, the Young Men’s Muslim Association and the Muslim Brotherhood, and chart early efforts to articulate a social vision through a call to legal obedience. In 1952, the Free Officers led by Muhammad Najib (r. 1952–1954) and Jamal ʿAbd al-Nasir (r. 1954–1970) came to power. The article, in turn, transitions from colonial to postcolonial periods as ʿAbd al-Nasir supplanted Najib and harnessed state religious institutions to articulate a project of pious subject formation dependent on the enforcement and expansion of state power, while Islamic movements grappled with the questions raised by significant repression. I conclude by examining the 1970–1981 period, during which Muslim Brothers and Salafis reemerged under the rule of Anwar al-Sadat, articulating an expanded concept of Islamic Society that built on the debates of the 1940s and early 1950s and sought to establish both their place within the Egyptian national framework and their authority vis-à-vis state institutions. In the process, these ideologically diverse competitors produced a concept that linked communal identity with individual practice.
From Umma to a Social Religion
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935) confronted a problem alien to his premodern predecessors. Leading reformers of the eighteenth century, such as the Shah Wali Allah al-Dihlawi (India, d. 1762), Muhammad b. Ismaʿil al-Sanʿani (Yemen, d. 1769), Muhammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhab (Arabia, d. 1792), and ʿUthman b. Fudi (West Africa, d. 1817), had articulated projects of revival and reform independent of the ideological and political challenge posed by Western European states.Footnote 33 Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, Islamic reformers were increasingly aware of European ascendencyFootnote 34 and, by the late nineteenth century, leading figures such as Rida’s mentors, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897) and Muhammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905), could not escape the threat posed to the independence of Muslim-majority countries by colonial empires’ political, economic, and military might.Footnote 35 Although Rida’s political methods shifted repeatedly during the early decades of the twentieth century—he alternated between supporting the continued existence of the Ottoman Caliphate, Saudi rule, and the Indian Khilafat movementFootnote 36—he was fundamentally concerned with a basic question: how to accomplish internal reform while simultaneously strengthening Muslims in the face of external challenges.
Based in Cairo, Rida wrote to a transnational print community that stretched to Calcutta. It was in this context that this Syrian émigré to Egypt employed the term umma to define the boundaries of the social collectivity. Traditionally used to refer to a transnational Islamic community,Footnote 37 Florian Zemmin argues that Rida used the term to denote a “moral community guided by religion…. This is not to say that umma was then equivalent to ‘society’ but rather that Rida used umma to convey, within a moral-religious framework, notions of social order.”Footnote 38 Zemmin’s careful exploration of the concept of society in al-Manar, including in the changing usage of a longstanding term such as umma, reveals the process by which notions of social order that had originated in early modern Europe were grafted onto a longstanding category of Islamic community.Footnote 39 Alongside umma, authors in al-Manar also referred less-frequently to the “social order” (al-hayʾa al-ijtimāʿiyya) and al-mujtamaʿ, which, like umma, denoted a slowly-congealing concept of society.Footnote 40 As Zemmin argues, “During the lifespan of al-Manar, no one Arabic term was established for conceptualizing society … [but] umma was a major option to this end.”Footnote 41 In sum, a concept whose origins lay in Europe had yet to find a singular term in Arabic.
The question at hand for Rida and other Islamic reformers was not only one of linguistic usage or abstract identity but also that of practice: what did a member of an Islamic community do? As Secular-nationalists in Egypt articulated a particular model of masculinity, they posited public practice as paramount and explicitly gendered public space as male.Footnote 42 In this context, the lawyer-turned-nationalist activist Mustafa Kamil (d. 1908) emerged as a model for the nationalist effort to contest the colonial narrative that Egyptians were unable to govern themselves.Footnote 43 As Wilson Chacko Jacob notes: “First and foremost was ubiquitous talk of character formation, in which self-discipline was a grounding principle. Kamil was a model subject.… The character of the next generation was to be formed through moderation at school and proper upbringing at home, and upbringing would enable success at school.”Footnote 44 Such self-discipline was premised not merely on avoiding particular vices but on engaging in a set of “productive” actions, whether prayer, exercise, work, reading, or socializing.Footnote 45 By contrast, Islamic reformers had yet to take up an understanding of the social order that pivoted on the self-regulating individual who participated in an abstract (national) community, a premise that would be central to understanding of Islamic Society. Instead, the dominant understanding of the communal order was that of a body in which different organs contributed to the broader whole in a manner that both reflected and reproduced a hierarchical political system.Footnote 46
Neither was “Islamic Society” (al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī) a common term in al-Manar, appearing a mere eighteen times from 1898–1935.Footnote 47 While Zemmin argues that “as early as 1899, Rida uses al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī in the sense of an ‘Islamic Society,’”Footnote 48 these references say little about the role of individuals within an abstract horizontal Islamic collective. Indeed, calls for such a society in al-Manar frequently reproduced a traditional vertical model of communal purity whereby Islamic scholars (the ʿulamāʾ) served as guardians,Footnote 49 or defined such a society primarily in terms of an ostensibly self-explanatory Muslim identity.Footnote 50
Rida’s reformist project, and the question of society, emerged out of not only internal debates among Muslim scholars and intellectuals over the nature of religious reform, but also the expansion of urbanization, access to print media, and political contestation in early twentieth-century Egypt. In his study of Egyptian nationalism, Ziad Fahmy argues that technological developments such as the growth of the railroad and postal systems and urbanization promoted the spread of Egyptian national identity, while enhancing the influence of key cities such as Cairo.Footnote 51 Just as important was the rise of mass politics during this period as Egyptians drew on varied methods of protest—ranging from petitioning the Khedive, to authoring editorials in newspapers and journals, to popular strikes that transcended class lines—to express their opposition to colonial occupation and to articulate contending visions of Egyptian nationalism.Footnote 52
The 1920s, in particular, was an era of political tumult and action as the local order was redefined by the end of the First World War in 1919, the Egyptian revolution of the same year, and the 1924 abolishment of the Ottoman Caliphate. The following decade would be shaped not merely by semi-colonial rule in Egypt and a tripartite struggle among colonial officials, the Egyptian monarchy, and the secular-nationalist Wafd party for primacy,Footnote 53 but also by the economic effects of the Great Depression.Footnote 54 The growth of mass politics both reflected and furthered the breakdown of traditional political, economic, and religious structures, and varied movements lay claim to alternative identities and public space alike.
In the shadow of such radical change, Islamic movements invested in the development of a national infrastructure of mosques and branches that could facilitate particular projects of subject formation.Footnote 55 Just as importantly, these movements used print to speak not only to literate Muslim Arabic speakers generally (as al-Afghani, ʿAbduh, and Rida had previously done), but specifically to members of their respective movements. As the Young Men’s Muslim Association, Muslim Brotherhood, Jamʿiyya Sharʿiyya, and Ansar al-Sunna turned to publishing bi-weekly or monthly periodicals, they mirrored the approach of secular-nationalist competitors such as the Wafd (Majallat al-Shubban al-Wafdiyyin) and Young Egypt (al-Sarkha).Footnote 56 In sum, periodicals had become a key site for articulating competing ideological visions directed at a growing middle-class readership.
Among Islamic periodicals, the Young Men’s Muslim Association’s al-Fath hosted the earliest elaborations of calls for the regulation of individual behavior. The journal, which first appeared in 1926, published a 24 February 1927 article in which the author argued that “Westernized Egyptians” (al-mutafarnajīn) posed a danger to “Islamic norms of comportment and ethics” (al-ādāb waʾl-akhlāq al-Islāmiyya), and reiterated that such norms constituted the dividing line between “[pious] Muslims and sinners (bayna al-Muslim waʾl-fāsiq).Footnote 57 Three weeks later, a second article in the journal noted that acts violating Islamic law (munkarāt) had become widespread and invoked the longstanding duty to “command right and forbid wrong” (al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf waʾl-nahī ʿan al-munkar). While the author advocated that scholars (ʿulamāʾ) engage in this duty verbally and that common folk do so in their hearts, coercive enforcement fell to the government in order to “protect Islamic Society … from open indecency … vice … and wrongdoing.”Footnote 58 Finally, a June 1929 article by the editor and a leading Syrian reformist, Muhibb al-Din al-Khatib (d. 1969), explained that, as members of the umma, Muslims have both “rights and obligations” (ḥuqūq wa wājibāt),Footnote 59 and further emphasized that Islam “is the only social religion” (al-dīn al-ijtimāʿī al-waḥīd).Footnote 60
These three articles in al-Fath did not necessarily constitute a broader conversation within reformist circles—their authors did not explicitly address one another—nor did they collectively center on the concept of Islamic Society. Instead, such calls for piety are significant because they represent early efforts by Islamic reformists to fuse the protection of public morality with secular-nationalist conceptions of individual self-regulation in the service of a communal whole. While the first article turns to voluntary observance of Islamic norms of comportment and the second to government enforcement, the author of the final source envisions a contract of rights and obligations that serves Islam’s imperative as a “social religion.” This approach, which would become the hallmark of later conceptions of Islamic Society, had far more in common with Mustafa Kamil’s model of secular-nationalist masculinity than it did with prior articulations of the umma as an organic body. As Islamic movements turned to considering the transition from colonial to postcolonial rule, they would reckon with how to articulate a vision of Islamic Society undergirded by an abstract and horizontally organized community of self-regulating individuals.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Calls to Social Change
In the face of both competition among Islamic movements and secular-nationalist challengers, the Muslim Brotherhood, too, gave increasing attention to transmitting a broad-based social vison. Established in 1928 by a schoolteacher from the Nile Delta by the name of Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949) in response to both the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate and the challenge of Christian missionary activity in Egypt,Footnote 61 the Brotherhood worked in the early 1930s to build a network of branches.Footnote 62
Hasan al-Banna’s rise also reflected the structural and cultural transformations that made the call to form an Islamic Society both intelligible and attractive. Al-Banna was a graduate of Dar al-ʿUlum, an educational institution founded by the Khedival state in 1872 to train Egyptians to teach Arabic and Islam in the civil educational system. Though sometimes framed within a narrative of secularism,Footnote 63 a growing state claim to shape Islam—of which Dar al-ʿUlum was a product—is best understood within a framework of “bureaucratization” by which the Ottoman-Egyptian state sought to exert increasingly central control over its territory and those who lived within it.Footnote 64 The early twentieth century also saw the rise of competing visions of Egyptian Nationalism, including Islamic, Easternist, Supra-Egyptian, and Pan-Arab varieties.Footnote 65 The question of defining Islam’s place in the national community was unavoidable, and it was within this context that Egyptians engaged in a “culture war” to fuse modernity and authenticity.Footnote 66
In the Brotherhood’s early years, however, this Islamist movement had yet to articulate an explicit vision of Islamic Society. Most notably, a July 1933 article authored by the General Guidance Office, the organization’s executive body, used the term umma when describing the Brotherhood’s dedication to transmitting the principle that Islam affects “all aspects of its life,”Footnote 67 while an August 1933 article by al-Banna contrasted “the principle of Islamic brotherhood” (madbaʾ al- ukhuwwa al-Islāmiyya) with the “principle of nationalism” (mabdaʾ al-qawmiyya).Footnote 68 Finally, a February 1934 article by the organization’s founder declared its commitment to shaping the umma. Footnote 69 Although references to society did appear during this period, most notably in a December 1934 article regarding the necessity of “protecting society” (ṣiyānat al-mujtamaʿ) from the threat of prostitution,Footnote 70 such language was the exception rather than the rule.
The articulation of a broader nation-state-based social vision in interwar Egypt began not with explicit invocations of Islamic Society, but rather with the fusion of religious and territorial claims through calls for “Islamic Egypt” (Miṣr al-Islāmiyya). An August 1937 article by unidentified law students in al-Fath noted the threats posed by gender mixing (al-ikthilāṭ) and immodest female behavior (al-tabarruj), asking rhetorically: “Do we live in an umma that subscribes to the Quran and Sunna…?”Footnote 71 The students then declared: “Oh virtuous ones, we are not in Paris, or Germany, or Hollywood, but rather in Islamic Egypt.”Footnote 72 Similarly, a September 1942 article in al-Fath referred to the existence of multiple “Islamic homelands” (al-awṭān al-Islāmiyya) afflicted by female immodesty,Footnote 73 with “modern Islamic Egypt” (Miṣr al-Islāmiyya al-ḥadītha) no exception to this malady.Footnote 74 In an attempt to meet the challenge, the author called on the Ministry of Social Affairs to equip young women with “pure Islamic culture.”Footnote 75 Such calls to fuse the nation-state framework with Islamic territorial visions undergirded later claims to Islamic Society.
Just as writers in al-Fath called for the protection of Islamic Egypt, so too did other Islamic movements increasingly link individual conduct and the communal whole. While scholars of Islamic law (fiqh) had long evinced a greater concern with public sin due to its capacity to normalize such behavior in comparison to its private counterpart,Footnote 76 a December 1939 fatwa in the Salafi Ansar al-Sunna al-Muhammadiyya’s al-Hadi al-Nabawi emphasized the social implications of increased male/female interaction in Egypt through the conceptual framework of social purity. Written by Muhammad Bahjat al-Baytar (d. 1976), a leading Syrian Salafi scholar,Footnote 77 this non-binding legal ruling began by tackling the question of whether men and women were permitted to shake hands. Al-Baytar then proceeded to argue that men and women being alone together (khalwa) and mixing (al-ikhtilāṭ) in public spaces would facilitate everything from alcohol addiction to gambling to beach leisure, leading to “the corruption of society” (fasād al-mujtamaʿ).Footnote 78 At this time, however, Ansar al-Sunna’s activities focused on transmitting Salafi (e.g., neo-Hanbali) understanding of Islamic theology and precise ritual practice within mosques, and it had yet to turn to articulating a broader vision of Islamic Society in print.Footnote 79 Accordingly, it is unsurprising that al-Baytar’s vision of society centers on forbidden actions rather than on practices constitutive of a broader social whole.
During the early 1940s, however, the Brotherhood first sought to link belief and action in the service of a broader social project. The organization was not exclusively focused on bottom-up change: al-Banna had first put himself forward as a candidate for parliament in his home district of Ismaʿiliyya in February 1941, before withdrawing quickly due to pressure from Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahhas Pasha.Footnote 80 Yet, a focus on social activism won out over parliamentary competition and, in an October 1942 article in al-Ikhwan al-Muslimum, the Brotherhood’s founder emphasized the “influence [of individual conduct] on the family,”Footnote 81 and declared that “if the family is pious then the umma will be pious as the umma is a collection of families.…”Footnote 82 Yet, while it would be easy to frame al-Banna’s linkage of domestic practice with broader matters of public welfare within a broader narrative of Islamic Society, his formulation hewed to older understandings of a hierarchical social order centered on a particular social unit (the family) rather than on the particular regulatory regime of an abstract and horizontal society of individuals set forth by the nationalist project.Footnote 83
Just a month later, however, ʿAbd al-Rahman ʿAzzam (d. 1976), who had previously served as the Egyptian Minister of Endowments between 1939 and 1940, published an article in the Brotherhood’s al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun in which he explicitly invoked an Islamic Society which pivoted on horizontal individual action. Although he echoed al-Banna’s linkage of individual action and collective welfare, ʿAzzam also argued for the “responsibility of the individual in Islamic Society” (masʾūliyat al-fard fī al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī).Footnote 84 In his vision, the individual and society were linked, since they constituted “a single strong, happy and productive body.”Footnote 85 Indeed, for ʿAzzam, “Muslims’ viceregency of God on earth,” long understood as taking the particular institutional form of a Caliphate,Footnote 86 is premised on “correspondence” between the individual and the collective.Footnote 87
The bottom-up thrust of ʿAzzam’s vision is most evident in his argument for the role of social norms, rather than the state, in producing an Islamic society. Specifically, he calls for a united “public opinion” that produces sound rulers and individuals alike and enables the umma to expel “evil or corruption” from its midst.Footnote 88 Indeed, “the greatest social maladies come from the absence of sound public opinion” (al-raʾī al-ʿāmm al-ṣāliḥ), and proselytization (al-daʿwa) serves to establish such norms.Footnote 89 In this vein, ʿAzzam concludes that “proselytization is the basis of reform prior to legislation.”Footnote 90 For ʿAzzam, “Islamic Society” depended on the existence of a social order whose shared moral compass was the product of a public composed of individual members who could both regulate themselves and monitor the ruler.
ʿAzzam’s questions gained urgency over the course of the 1940s as the prospect of decolonization beckoned across both Asia and Africa. With the end of French colonial rule in Lebanon and Syria and British rule in Jordan (1946), the partition of India and creation of Pakistan (1947), and the British exit from Mandatory Palestine (1947), elites within varied political movements faced challenges of the transition from colonial to postcolonial rule as they considered new questions of the objectives of sovereignty and state power. In Egypt, formal British rule had ended in Egypt in 1922, yet semi-colonial rule under the British-aligned Palace—first under King Fuʾad (r. 1922–1936) and then under his son King Faruq (r. 1936–1952)—restricted the exercise of foreign and military policy.Footnote 91
Decolonization constituted a particularly acute strategic and conceptual dilemma for Islamic activists and movements for whom transnational networks had long been central. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s itinerant career had taken him from Iran to Afghanistan to the Ottoman imperial center of Istanbul to Egypt, while Muhammad Rashid Rida had searched in vain across the Middle East for a leader who could maintain some combination of Arab and Islamic unity. Egypt’s Islamic movements, in turn, had arisen in the shadow of the ideological challenge posed by the fall of the Ottoman Caliphate.Footnote 92 By contrast, decolonization challenged Islamic movements to focus on a defined national space.
It was thus unsurprising that questions of a local social order, often framed in national terms, gained corresponding urgency. In December 1947, an article in al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun noted woman’s responsibility for both her family and broader “human society” (al-mujtamaʿ al-insānī), though it made no explicit reference to an Islamic social collective.Footnote 93 Similarly, a January 1948 article authored by a scholar employed by al-Azhar University’s Faculty of Arabic Language argued that the celebration of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad and of local saints (s. Mawlid pl. Mawālīd)—a form of worship associated with Sufism—posed a threat to “Egyptian society” (al-mujtamaʿ al-Miṣrī).Footnote 94
By the early 1950s, the Brotherhood stood at the forefront of the call to form a specifically Islamic society. Following in the footsteps of ʿAbd al-Rahman ʿAzzam, a 1951 article authored by a leading Brotherhood activist Salih ʿAshmawi (d. 1983) in the organization’s periodical, al-Daʿwa, argued that Egypt’s leading Islamist organization offered a “comprehensive system and complete program … for the formation of a virtuous society” (mujtamaʿ fāḍil).Footnote 95 ʿAshmawi fused al-Banna’s vision of Islam’s comprehensivenessFootnote 96 with an emphasis on individual regulation as he noted that each Muslim was responsible for his or her behavior “in both private and public … [including] the building of a Muslim home.” This behavior, in turn, would produce an Islamic Society (al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī).Footnote 97 While ʿAshmawi acknowledged the necessity of also calling for “an Islamic government,” such a political structure was the mere “starting point” for broader social change.Footnote 98
At a time when the prospect of national sovereignty had become thinkable even as the Brotherhood’s political future was unclear, ʿAshmawi embraced the conceptual centrality of Islamic Society as a framework through which the Brotherhood could transform society from the bottom-up. Just as important is the subtle, yet significant, shift in emphasis from al-Banna: while the Brotherhood’s founder acknowledged the influence of individual conduct on the family, the latter was the standard unit. By contrast, ʿAshmawi inverted this arrangement by emphasizing the influence of individual self-regulation on the family and broader society alike.
The Free Officers revolution of July 1952 toppled King Faruq and inaugurated Egypt’s postcolonial era. In the shadow of new opportunities and challenges alike, Sayyid Qutb expanded on ʿAbd al-Rahman ʿAzzam’s vision of social reform in a series entitled Towards an Islamic Society (Naḥwa Mujtamaʿ Islāmī). In an article published just six months after the Free Officers had come to power, this leading Islamic thinker sought to theorize Islamic society along legal lines, specifically the distinction between an unchanging vision of principles of legal obedience (Sharīʿa) and the “tens of social models” produced by substantive law (Fiqh).Footnote 99 Accordingly, Muslims must review and revise the legal tradition in order to respond to “our contemporary problems.”Footnote 100 In launching this call, Qutb not only voiced a particular vision of the Muslim Brotherhood’s future but also challenged both Salafi scholars who aspired to define daily life in non-negotiable terms of worship (ʿibāda) as well as their traditionalist counterparts who sought to maintain interpretative centrality under postcolonial rule.Footnote 101
The next month, Qutb moved from the legal to the social, asking rhetorically: “What is the meaning of the term ‘Islamic Society?’”Footnote 102 Noting the varied systems employed by “Western society” (al-Mujtamaʿ al-Gharbī)—whether feudalism, capitalism, socialism, or communism—Qutb argued, “Islamic Society is … an exclusive product of the Shariʿa … which has not changed over time … it is this Shariʿa that brought this society into existence and erected it on the basis desired by God for His Servants.… Islamic Society does not produce the Shariʿa. Rather, it is the Shariʿa that has produced Islamic Society (al-Sharīʿa hiya allatī sanaʿat al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī) … the Shariʿa enables Islamic Society to develop … according to authentic and fixed precepts.”Footnote 103 In sum, Qutb argued that an Islamic legal tradition produced an Islamic Society, yet, to return to the opening anecdote of this article, such a society had multiple legitimate manifestations.
Unlike ʿAshmawi, however, Qutb continued to reject the nation-state framework. In an April 1953 entry in this series, he declared that “Islamic Society is a global society (mujtamaʿ ʿālamī) … it is not limited by geographical borders….”Footnote 104 Noting the dominance of nationalism in the twentieth century, Qutb declared, “Islam does not recognize geographical borders … every land under Islam is a homeland for all Muslims (waṭan l-il-jamīʿa).…”Footnote 105 Unlike the writer of the September 1942 article in al-Fath who implicitly accepted geopolitical boundaries, Qutb argued for a transnational political collective. Finally, in July 1953, Qutb further elaborated on the role of individuals in such a society, arguing that “Islamic Society is distinct … from Communist Society (al-Mujtamaʿ al-Shuyuʿī) in its freedom of belief … [it is] a free and open society” (mujtamaʿ ḥurr maftūḥ).Footnote 106
Sayyid Qutb’s attempt to elaborate on the roots, principles, and application of a model for the formation of an Islamic Society reflects not only the ideas of a leading member of the Brotherhood, but also the key questions and fault lines that future advocates for the establishment of an Islamic Society would navigate. In this series of articles, he foreshadowed debates over interpretative method, application, individual practice, and the relationship between such a society and postcolonial states. In the process, Qutb refuted the claim that the particulars of an Islamic Society were well-established and self-evident. Over the next two decades, however, the opportunity for Islamic movements to articulate a project of Islamic Society narrowed considerably and Qutb’s vision hardened.
Notwithstanding Qutb’s challenge, though, many Islamic activists and thinkers had already begun to articulate a religious-nationalist vision of “Islamic Egypt.” This project challenged Muslims not merely to observe longstanding legal responsibilities such as prayer or fasting, but also to uphold the fate of an Islamic society more broadly by reframing the self-regulation characteristic of nationalism more broadly in terms of piety. ʿAbd al-Nasir would soon intensify his own religious claims and limit the opportunity of his ideological competitors to shape Egyptian society.
State Power, Socialism, and Islamic Society
In October 1954, several members of the Muslim Brotherhood’s paramilitary branch, known as the “Secret Apparatus” (al-Jihāz al-Sirrī), tried to assassinate Egypt’s secular-nationalist ruler. In the aftermath of the failed attempt, ʿAbd al-Nasir initiated a broad crackdown on his one-time revolutionary ally.Footnote 107 With the Brotherhood confined, and quietist Salafi organizations such as Ansar al-Sunna working copiously to avoid any actions that might be interpreted as a political challenge,Footnote 108 public debate over Islamic Society among Islamic movements ceased.
The period of ʿAbd al-Nasir’s rule is often identified with his efforts to position Egypt as a pan-Arab leader regionally and to implement “scientific socialism” locally.Footnote 109 Just as importantly, though, Egypt’s ruler worked to regulate existing religious institutions such as al-Azhar University,Footnote 110 and reformed the public educational system in an attempt to inculcate a religio-political vision that accorded with his policies and preempted political dissent.Footnote 111 In this context, ʿAbd al-Nasir empowered two key state institutions to transmit his priorities: the Islamic Research Academy at al-Azhar, which published al-Azhar, and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, a body within the Ministry of Endowments that regulated Egyptian mosques and published Minbar al-Islam. Footnote 112 ʿAbd al-Nasir’s project of secular nationalism thus depended not on restricting Islam to private space, but rather on utilizing it in the service of particular ideological goals.
In the wake of the repression of the Brotherhood, scholars and bureaucrats within the Islamic Research Academy and Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs appropriated the concept of Islamic Society as they articulated a vision of state power. In a November 1954 article in al-Azhar, published in the midst of the crackdown on Egypt’s leading Islamist organization, Muhammad Muhi al-Din al-Masiri (d. 1972) sought to elucidate the “systems on which Islamic Society is based” (al-nuẓum allatī yaqūm ʿalayhā kiyān al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī).Footnote 113 This Azhari scholar and prolific author then proceeded to enumerate four systems in particular: “the family,” “private property,” a “social system for all” (al- niẓām al-ijtimāʿī li-l-jamāʿa), and “the system for rule over all.”Footnote 114 Al-Masiri then turned to contrasting Islam with its ideological competitors—socialism, communism and capitalism—arguing that each had its own “social system.”Footnote 115
Al-Masiri’s vision depended not on bottom-up change but on the enforcement of the Islamic penal code (ḥudūd) by the state, with a particular focus on crimes that harmed public morality such as theft, apostasy, prostitution, alcohol consumption, and banditry (al-hirāba).Footnote 116 While ʿAbd al-Nasir had stripped al-Azhar University of much of its independence in 1961, prior government efforts to reorganize this center of Sunni learning made clear that, for the ʿulamaʾ to retain influence, they had to embrace the principle of a highly interventionist state.Footnote 117 Accordingly, for al-Masiri, the project of Islamic Society depending on access to state-controlled levers of coercion. Unlike his Islamist and Salafi counterparts, however, he was focused primarily on preventing certain practices rather than on promoting affirmative modes of individual and collective moral formation.
Calls for Islamic Society from within the Egyptian government’s religious institutions served not only to buttress state power but also to justify secular nationalism under a postcolonial state. Gregory Starrett has previously shown that, under ʿAbd al-Nasir, bureaucrats in the Ministry of Education revised the religious education curricula in public schools to support a secular-nationalist vision generally, as well as the regime’s particular socialist leanings.Footnote 118 State-aligned religious elites similarly used this concept to provide ideological legitimization for the open-ended exercise of state authority: In January 1963, Muhammad Baysar (d. 1982) published “Islamic Society between Reactionism and Progress” (al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islamibayna al-Rajʿiyya waʾl-Taqaddum) in Minbar al-Islam. In the article, this Azhari scholar, who in 1978 would become Minister of Endowments and Azhar Affairs,Footnote 119 argued that “socialist principles” stood at the core of Islamic Society, specifically the “progressive approach that seeks to realize social justice.”Footnote 120 Declaring that the principles in question could be called “socialism,” “reformist principles,” or an “Islamic system,” Baysar argued that socialism could serve as a means to “realize a shared goal.”Footnote 121 In sum, Baysar sought to reclaim Islamic Society from his Islamist competitors by reframing this concept within a broader project of socialism which could reshape state and society alike.
Along similar lines, in a May 1969 article in al-Azhar, Muhammad ʿAbd al-Munʿim Khafaji (d. 2006) sought to fuse socialist discourses regarding labor with the call to Islamic Society. Asserting that “workers hold a [lofty] status in Islamic Society” (makānat al-ʿāmil fī al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī),Footnote 122 this faculty member at al-Azhar’s Faculty of Arabic Language declared that “workers’ rights in Islam are paralleled by obligations.”Footnote 123 While Khafaji sought to meld socialism and Islam, his understanding of rights and obligations reflected longer debates over the formation and maintenance of Islamic Society. Just as importantly, his call to socialism contrasted sharply with Muhammad Muhi al-Din al-Masiri’s 1954 defense of private property, underscoring both the ideological flexibility of state-sponsored visions of Islamic Society and the shared commitment to state power that linked them.
Notwithstanding the significant repression faced by the Muslim Brotherhood during this period, its members continued to explore the parameters of an Islamic Society in both theory and practice. The most prominent voice in this regard was Sayyid Qutb, whose Milestones (Maʿalim fi al-Tariq) was published in 1964 and departed significantly from the theoretical thrust of Qutb’s earlier work. Qutb declared: “Islam only acknowledges two types of societies … Islamic Society and Jāhilī society.Footnote 124 Islamic Society is the society in which Islam is applied … creed and worship, Sharīʿa and order, morality and behavior … while Jāhilī society is the society in which Islam is not applied, and in which Islamic creed and conceptions, values and standards, order and rules of conduct, morals and manners are not followed.”Footnote 125
As Qutb gave up hope for the efficacy of the Brotherhood’s project of gradual change, his understanding of Islamic Society correspondingly shifted away from a mass project, and he came to focus on the threat posed by allegedly dangerous non-Islamic influences. Yet, his understanding of Islamic Society, like that of religious nationalists within and beyond Egypt, was inextricably premised on the decidedly novel model of self-regulating pious Muslims who, through their collective practices that far exceeded the realm of legal obedience, would uphold an Islamic Society.
Moreover, while Qutb is certainly the most prominent Islamist voice of this period, he was far from the only Muslim Brother to debate the question of Islamic Society. Rather than precluding such discussions, mass imprisonment enabled the Brotherhood’s members to engage in extended debates. Most notably, Saʿd Surur Kamil (d. 1993)—a member of the Brotherhood’s Secret Apparatus—described the al-Wahat prison camp, located in the New Valley Governorate (al-Wādī al-Jadīd), as “a perfect society (mujtamaʿ mutakāmil) in every sense of the word.” Furthermore, another imprisoned Brother, ʿAbd al-Halim Khafaji (d. 2013), described how Muslim Brothers at al-Wahat worked to reorient daily life exclusively around religious activity.Footnote 126 By contrast, this period saw no parallel development of calls for Islamic Society by Salafis. Indeed, to the extent that leading figures within Ansar al-Sunna addressed the question of public morality more broadly, they praised ʿAbd al-Nasir’s religious ambitions rather than critiquing them.Footnote 127 The question of Islamic Society would gain new urgency in the early 1970s.
Islamic Revival and Calls for Social Change
The 1967 Arab-Israeli war dealt a body blow to ʿAbd al-Nasir’s vision of pan-Arab secular nationalism. In 1970, his vice president, Anwar al-Sadat, ascended to the presidency and in the early 1970s he released many Brotherhood members from prison as part of a broader decision to allow the organization to reestablish itself.Footnote 128 At this time the Brotherhood’s grassroots infrastructure was in tatters; as Khalid ʿAbd al-Qadir ʿAwda, a leading member of the Islamic Student Movement (al-Jamāʿa al-Islāmiyya) in the Upper Egyptian city of Asyut recalled, “There was no organization … [there was merely] the idea of the Brotherhood.”Footnote 129 Conversely, the organization’s ability to engage in a project of religious transformation was hobbled: it would only regain permission to publish an official periodical, al-Daʿwa, in 1976 and had limited access to the printing infrastructure necessary to produce pamphlets.Footnote 130
Over the course of the 1970s, Muslim Brothers, along with members of Ansar al-Sunna and the Islamic Student Movement, competed to claim the mantle of public piety. This competition, waged not only among Islamic movements but between them and leading state religious institutions such as al-Azhar and the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, shaped the emergence of a broader “Islamic Revival” (Ṣaḥwa Islāmiyya) that was distinguished by the popularization of novel forms of daily prayer, gender relations, and Islamic education.Footnote 131 It would be in this context that leading Islamist thinkers, joined by their Salafi counterparts, would return to the question of Islamic Society, building on the debates over the power of social practice, the centrality of a self-regulating pious citizen, and the assumption that such a society was to be formed within postcolonial nation-states.
As Ansar al-Sunna reemerged in 1973 after regaining control of its branches and the right to publish a journal,Footnote 132 it turned to a question previously raised by the Brotherhood: how to craft a socially ambitious religious vision. That a Salafi organization tackled this question prior to the Islamist Brotherhood reflected Ansar al-Sunna’s comparatively light experience with repression during the previous two decades. Just as importantly, however, the call to Islamic Society was part and parcel of a broader expansion of Salafism’s organizing principle—exclusive worship of God (Tawḥīd)—beyond acts such as prayer traditionally considered within the realm of worship (ʿibāda) to encompass daily practices of dress, comportment, and social relations such as beard length and gender segregation.Footnote 133
As part of this turn to shaping society, ʿAbd al-Rahim SadiqʿArnus, Ansar al-Sunna’s Secretary General, published a July 1973 article in which he argued for the link between the individual, family, and society as Islam “constitutes a complementary structure that has neither limitations nor shortcomings.…”Footnote 134 Far more similar to Qutb’s vision in Milestones than in al-Muslimun, ʿArnus described how, “At the dawn of Islam, Islamic Society had an ideal and model form (wa-kāna al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī fī saḍr al-Islām ṣūra namūdhajiyya mithāliyya) … with the Quran and HadithFootnote 135 as its constitution….”Footnote 136 Ansar al-Sunna soon turned to translating ʿArnus’s theoretical concern into practice by organizing conferences that tackled perceived impiety in state and society alike. Most notably, a 20–21 November 1975 conference included a series of resolutions including a call for the use of Shariʿa as the source of state law, the prevention of gender mixing (particularly within state educational institutions and on public transportation), and “social reform” through the realization of an Islamic Society (qiyām al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī).…”Footnote 137 As Ansar al-Sunna moved beyond the mosque to shape society more broadly, their calls for Islamic Society framed this project.
Ansar al-Sunna’s focus in the mid-1970s on the imperative of forming an Islamic Society was far from exceptional. The next month, Muhammad b. Saʿud Islamic University (also known as al-Imam University) held an Islamic Law Conference. Located in Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, the conference welcomed a reported 160 scholars from some twenty Muslim-majority countries and focused on the application of Islamic law. Specifically, conference participants were concerned with “application of Islamic punishments in matters of penal law in order to create a sound Islamic Society”(taṭbīq al-ʿuqūbāt al-Islāmiyya fī al-ḥudūd li-ījād Mujtamaʿ Islāmī salīm). Footnote 138 While the relationship between state law and an Islamic Society was not the exclusive focus of conference attendees—other key topics included Islamic economics, education, and the reform of mosquesFootnote 139—the prominence of this concept as an object and method of reform reflected and enhanced broader regional ideological winds.
Yet, for Salafis and Islamists in Egypt, the access to state power on which a project of legal change depended remained a pipe dream. Instead, it was during this period that representatives of both trends came to link ritual practice and the welfare of a broader Islamic society. A spring 1976 article in Ansar al-Sunna’s al-Tawhid declared that collectively engaging in practices such as “prayer at the first permissible moment, breaking the Ramadan fast, engaging in supererogatory night vigils (ṣalāt qiyām al-layl), and sharing the meal before the fajr morning prayer … [produce] an Islamic Society defined by order and stability and complete mutual understanding.”Footnote 140 Similarly, in March 1977, the longtime Brotherhood leader Salih ʿAshmawi, who over a quarter century prior had called for the formation of a “virtuous society” (mujtamaʿ fāḍil), criticized the failure of state institutions, whether government offices or schools, to facilitate the performance of the early afternoon Zuhr prayer.Footnote 141 Specifically, ʿAshmawi argued that such observance constituted “a sincere and serious approach to the establishment of an Islamic Society”(li-īqāmat al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī).Footnote 142 In sum, both Salafis and Islamists sought to define ritual practice not only as an individual legal obligation, but also as a means to model the pious sociability necessary to form an Islamic social collective within Egypt more broadly.
During the second half of the 1970s, proponents of an Islamic Society also sought to regulate women in public space. This is not to suggest that a concern with women’s circulation outside of domestic space was new; Marion Katz has shown that as early as the ninth century, jurists articulated an explicit link between female sexuality and social disorder (fitna),Footnote 143 while Muslim Brothers in the 1930s expressed a concern with the moral implications of women’s public presence.Footnote 144 Conscious of this longer history as well of a project of State Feminism that had emerged under ʿAbd al-Nasir and valorized women’s public presence as both objects and agents of reform,Footnote 145 both Islamists and Salafis sought to link limits on women’s public movement with the broader fate of Islamic society.
Calls for Islamic Society frequently concerned women’s rights to education and employment. In June 1977, the Brotherhood’s al-Daʿwa featured an article entitled “Women’s Education in Light of the Desired Islamic Society.”Footnote 146 Echoing longstanding debates over the relative importance of top-down and bottom-up change, the author noted, “The formation of an Islamic Society cannot come only from legal change, but also depends on Islam being dominant [in society]” (yakūn al-Islām huwa al-muhaymin).Footnote 147 Accordingly, Islamic Education—transmitted either in gender segregated educational spaces or in mixed spaces in which women dress modestly—will enable “women … to raise the next generation based on an Islamic spirit so that the Islamic Society that we seek can arise.”Footnote 148 Similarly, Ansar al-Sunna’s journal, al-Tawhid, featured an article by ʿAbd al-ʿAziz b. Baz (d. 1999) in which this leading Saudi Salafi scholar argued that female employment in “domains which are specific to men … [constitutes a] danger to Islamic Society” (amr khaṭīr ʿalā al-Mujtamaʿ al-Islāmī).Footnote 149 The formation and maintenance of Islamic Society was thus disproportionately dependent on women’s dual role as exemplars of modesty and educators of the next generation.
In the face of Salafi and Islamist calls for the formation of an Islamic Society and renewed grassroots activism, state-aligned religious elites reiterated the state’s centrality and the legitimacy of its control over defined religious spaces. In July 1976, a high-ranking bureaucrat within the Ministry of Endowments, Zakariyya Ibrahim al-Zuka, published an article in Minbar al-Islam in which he argued that, since the Prophet Muhammad’s time, mosques had served as the premier engine for the formation of Islamic Society.Footnote 150 While al-Zuka did not seek to collapse the distinction between state and society, he effectively placed the regulation of society’s religiosity under the authority of the Ministry of Endowments which, for the previous twenty years, had fought unsuccessfully to assert control over independent mosques.Footnote 151 Similarly, in the April 1977 issue of Minbar al-Islam, the Egyptian poet and littérateur Hasan Fath al-Bab (d. 2015) authored “Unity and Brotherhood in Islamic Society.” In the article, al-Bab affirmed the value of cooperation irrespective of social position.Footnote 152 This unity, in turn, is a product of “coordination” overseen by the rulerFootnote 153 and a relationship defined by “cooperation and brotherhood between leadership and the base.”Footnote 154 For al-Bab, “coordination” was a euphemism for control which neutered alternative religio-political visions, including those that sought to advance competing claims to Islamic Society. In sum, as state-aligned religious elites and Islamic movements dueled for religious authority, the question was not whether an Islamic Society should exist in Egypt but who should shape it and how.
Over the course of roughly half a century, competing Islamic movements and institutions embraced Islamic Society as an organizing framework: while Islamic movements used this concept to promote bottom-up calls for public morality, state-aligned religious elites embraced top-down claims to shape society in the service of causes as varied as socialism and private property. Beginning in the 1970s, these calls came to focus on core issues of religio-political contestation, whether public ritual practice, gender relations, or state control over mosques. In sum, this concept became a catch-all box that held contradictory ideological ambitions. Yet, it is precisely because of the ubiquity of calls to form an Islamic Society that its history has persisted unexamined. By tracing the history of this concept, I have shown the process through which Islamic movements came to link communal identity and social practice, while their counterparts within the Egyptian state privileged the top-down exercise of state power in a manner that positioned the state as the arbiter of proper behavior.
The specific use of conceptual history to tell this story casts light on the history of Islamic reform within and beyond Egypt. While claims that premodern Islamic reformers could turn to a tried-and-true playbook of revival and reform always obscured a significant degree of local variation, the radical shifts in social organization, mobilization, and identity produced by modernity have fundamentally reshaped the terms of engagement with this tradition. Conceptual history enables us to take seriously the competition for authenticity among competitors for the mantle of Islamic piety, while also probing how such claims both reflect and facilitate particular projects of religious change that depend on novel organizing principles. It is through such an approach that the broader battle to define the relationship between Islam, state, and society through a focus on practice becomes legible.
The gradual development of Islamic Society also intervenes in the scholarship on religion and state in twentieth-century Egypt that has been dominated by scholars of secularism. This article began where Asad’s work on Egypt ends and charts the emergence of competing models of Islamic Society that continue to undergird debates over the role of religion in public life. In the process, I have shown the conceptual framework through which Islamist and Salafi thinkers and state-aligned religious elites negotiated the link between public and private as they emphasized the centrality of individual moral cultivation to communal integrity.
This story also has implications for the study of religious nationalism more broadly, particularly at a historical moment when calls for religiously exclusive societies have reemerged, whether among Hindu nationalists in India, Christian nationalists in the United States, or Salafi-Jihadi groups such as the Islamic State. The concept of Islamic Society as it developed in Egypt between the 1930s and 1970s, and particularly the ways in which it foregrounds the regulation of practice, either from bottom-up or top-down, shows how the subsuming of a project of moral reform by the geographical and political assumptions of the postcolonial nation-state has provided the framework for exclusivist forms of religio-political mobilization and, in some cases, regulation.
Finally, this study argues for the linkage of theory and method in the study of conceptual history more broadly. Scholars of conceptual history have focused disproportionately on books and anthologies of popular writings. While such an approach is understandable—such texts represent key themes accurately and reflect ideas that have become dominant within particular approaches—their publication often marks the end point of an idea’s development. By contrast, a focus on periodicals enables a granular story not merely of which concepts became dominant, but how and why they reached this status as rival claimants to Islamic authority sought to lay claim to an increasingly literate population. Far from the ivory tower, the ideas that shape societies emerge in dialogue among competing elites and between those elites and communities that they seek to shape.