Is the Islamic state simply a reaction against the modern secular nation-state, or is there more to it? Join us as Noah Salomon answers this question among many more as he talks about his book For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan's Islamic State.

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Sudan currently ranks in the top ten most at risk countries on the Fragile State Index. Yet despite decades of political instability and conflicts destabilizing the country, the aspirations for an Islamic state proved to be resilient, and an Islamist government of the Sudanese state continues to function. How are we to explain the resilience of this Islamic state when conventional wisdom seems to suggest it should have been an impossible project from its outset? Noah Salomon’s ethnography of the Islamic state in Sudan provides a window into the making of a modern Islamic state by focusing our attention on the Sudanese people that not only constitute it, but bring it to life through their poetry, spiritual devotions, and everyday lives.

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Islam, Politics, and Identity: The (Im)possibility of Sudan’s Islamic State [transcript]

Islam, Politics, and Identity: The (Im)possibility of Sudan’s Islamic State

Podcast with Noah Salomon (7 June 2021).

Interviewed by Ray Kim

Transcribed by Allison B. Isidore

Audio and transcript available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/islam-politics-and-identity-the-impossibility-of-sudans-islamic-state/

KEYWORDS

Islam, Sudan, Islamism, Secularization, Nation-state, Identity

Ray Kim (RK)  00:01

Welcome, everyone. My name is Ray Kim, and today we have with us Dr. Noah Solomon, Associate Professor of religion and Irfan and Noreen Galaria Research Chair in Islamic Studies at the University of Virginia, and the author of For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State. His book was published in 2016 by Princeton University Press and went on to win the 2017 Albert Hourani Prize from the Middle East Studies Association, as well as the 2017 Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion in Analytical-Descriptive Studies from the American Academy of Religion. Amazing accolades for a first book! He is joining us from Beirut, Lebanon, where he is currently conducting research for the Mellon New Direction Fellowship, looking at the question of how Islam imagines and comes to manage difference internal to its community over three sites: Beirut, Muscat, and Khartoum. So, without further ado, welcome to The Religious Studies Project, Dr. Salomon.

Noah Salomon (NS)  01:02

Thank you so much, Ray. Thanks for inviting me to this conversation. It’s really great to be here with you today.

RK  01:08

Thank you for making the time. Currently, I know that you’re in Beirut working on this new project. But I would like to start off our interview by focusing on your first book, For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State.

NS  01:25

Great.

RK  01:25

And to get the ball rolling, let’s start by saying the context and some baseline knowledge of Sudan for our listeners who may not be as familiar with Sudan. Can you tell us a bit about its modern history, its ethnoreligious landscape? What was the context in which you were conducting your research?

NS  01:45

Sure, absolutely. So, the research for this book took place, as all research for any book takes place, I suppose, at a very particular moment and Sudan’s history, and in order to understand the book and the intervention that it makes, one needs to understand where Sudan was at that moment that I started doing my research there, which was about 15 years ago, or so—a little more at this point. And what was going on at that time is Sudan was about a little over 10 years into a project to establish something called an Islamic State. And that project had gone through many different phases and forms over that period. But when I arrived in Sudan, what was going on was an attempt was made by the governing regime to come to some kind of peaceful conclusion to what had been the longest-running civil war and modern African history, that is, the war between Sudan’s North and South. And in order to do that, the regime was being asked to question some of the most basic principles of this Islamic State project because the rebels in the South are not merely demanding a sharing of power, but were demanding a rethinking of the identity of the Sudanese state and the Sudanese nation. So, when I arrived in Sudan, it was at a particularly interesting moment for me to study the Islamic State because it was responding to a bunch of really unprecedented challenges for it. So, by the time my research really kicked off, there was a power-sharing agreement in place called the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. And the research really looks at how the Islamic State became this object of debate and controversy and was rethought and reworked and rejected at times and picked up at others. At this moment, where the regime was being forced, really for the first time, to deal in a serious way with questions of diversity and the sharing of power, etc.

RK  04:10

So, when we divide the conflict within Sudan or between North and South Sudan, it’s so easy to see in terms of a binary, right? Like, North versus South, and eventually, it becomes Muslim versus Christian. But how diverse is the religious landscape in Sudan? Are we talking about only Muslims and only Christians?

NS  4:35 

Not at all. Sudan has an extremely diverse ethnic, linguistic, and religious landscape. In addition to Muslims of many different orders and varieties, there’s Christians of many different orders and varieties, and also people practicing traditional African religions. And these aren’t always exclusive categories either; people are sometimes struggling more than one of them at the same time. Also, the logic—which you’re right, it is often framed in the conflict of being one between a Muslim North and a Christian South—was an is a faulty one; there are many Christians in the North, both well, because many people converted to Christianity in the North, but also because of displacement due to the Civil War. And there are many Muslims in the South as well. And one of the problems I’d say one of the interventions that this book and then some later work that I did in on South Sudan, which became a focus for me after this book, was on the fallacy of trying to divide because the idea of Muslim North versus the Christian South wasn’t just a way that journalists framed the conflict in Sudan, it became the reality on the ground, right?

NS  6:00 

In 2011, South Sudan secedes from the North and secedes very much the mode of governmentality, through which it’s seceded; it was very much on that basis. But it doesn’t lead to success, right? We learned that the idea that if you just stuff one kind of people in one country—or you think you’re doing that—and another kind of people in another country, and then we’ll have peace shows us that diversity is like a cell that keeps dividing, endlessly, right? That no matter how many times you try to kind of separate people out, you find that new modes of difference and diversity arise and new places of conflict around those different visions for how the political community should be constituted lead to conflict. And so, if you don’t actually deal with trying to figure out how to work together, you’re going to be forced to suffer the same kinds of conflicts over and over again; that’s exactly what happened. And the North and South is that after partition, in 2011, we saw the rise of very similar-looking conflicts, but internal to those two new states.

NS  7:22 

So, one way of thinking about as the North tried to cut off the South but as in any map—no matter how much cutting of the South, there’s always a South, right? You get it no matter if the country is an inch long (laughing), you’re always gonna have a South—and by the South, I mean that in scare-quotes—the problem of the South a problem of diversity, you can’t escape by cutting off pieces of the country; and indeed, Sudan has not been able to do that throughout its modern history until today, until the post-revolutionary context that it’s in right now. It’s also struggling with similar issues.

RK  8:01 

Focusing on North Sudan, right? How did Sudan’s Islamist government navigate the country’s ethnic and religious pluralism? And did their approach and strategies change after the peace agreement with the South?

NS  8:20 

This is a hard question to answer in some ways, because many argued—and I can see where they’re coming from—that in some ways the peace agreement that was signed in 2005, which was supposed to establish a period of national unity, the language they used was to make unity attractive before the vote which would come in six years on secession. Many saw secession as a fait accompli. But I observed also that many did not, and the people who did not, and really were working to make unity attractive, were often a strange mix of people. So, for example, leftists in the North, for example, people who were not moving along with the Islamist project of the regime, they certainly wanted unity to happen because many of their political compatriots were in the South. Also, a variety of I would say, middle stream, Islamists who saw there being a certain kind of promise or model for the future and in Islam that could grapple with and come to integrate—is the word I’m looking for—diversity and successful ways.

NS  9:57 

But you certainly saw, and John Garang himself, the leader of South Sudan who tragically died, shortly after the peace agreement was signed, in a helicopter crash. He was not a secessionist. He was a unionist. He wanted Sudan to be reformed from its Northern to its Southern border, and from its Eastern to its Western border, but there was always within the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) movement, that he led, a strong secessionist tendency, a strong secessionist block, if you can call it that. And who thought there’s no working with the North. And there are many in the North, too, who thought; we can have our true Islamic State only when we get rid of, this 30% of Christians—okay, we’ll have a few leftover, but for the most part, we won’t have to deal with this problem anymore. So they were strange bedfellows, too, right? You have the sort of most conservative Islamists in the North, having the same opinion about secession as the kind of most leftist Southerners who both thought we could work together. And then this kind of whole range of people in the middle who, indeed, was really trying to think about diversity.

NS  11:18 

And so, I did see particularly in those first few years before it really did seem to everybody like a fait accompli, I did see a lot of work at many levels, both at and among government organizations and private organizations, thinking about what Islam and Islamic political order, would look like—that took some of the concerns of non-Muslims seriously, it wasn’t successful. Indeed unity was made, not attractive in the end. And, over 90% of Southerners voted for secession. But there certainly was an experiment going on to think through diversity and a more serious way than prior to the peace agreement, if that was your question.

RK  12:16 

Yeah. We’ve both mentioned Islamists quite a few times in our discussion already. But I think it might be helpful for our listeners to take a couple of steps back and maybe define what this term means or describe who the Islamists are in Sudan. We have the general understanding of Islamism as perhaps a political ideology, which tries to—an ideology that wants diverse forms of social and political or public and political life, being guided by Islamic principles or outright Islamic law. Is that the case in Sudan? Or does Islamism take up a different flavor in Sudan?

NS  13:03 

Yes, and no. I think you’ve done a great job defining what the term means both when it’s used in Arabic and in English. But what I would say that’s important to know about Sudan is that perhaps unlike, well, I don’t want to contrast it. But in Sudan—as is probably the case and other places that I haven’t studied as closely—Islamist, as a category, can merge and overlap and bleed into many other categories that are often thought of as distinct. So, for example, and this is part of maybe one of the one of the main interventions of the book in terms of thinking about the political landscape in Sudan and why it has such a funny title. You know why a book about the ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State is called For Love of the Prophet evoking Sufi poetry or whatnot, and that kind of dissonance was intentional.

NS  14:10 

And what I mean by it is that one of the things that the Islamists were successful at doing—if they were not so good at establishing successful institutions, right, a successful legal system and educational system that didn’t become a major area of conflict—one thing they were very successful at doing is instilling some of the principles of Islamism, i.e., thinking about political community in Islamic terms throughout a much wider segment of the population than just members of the Muslim Brotherhoods and I mentioned that organization because it’s the sort of classic “When we talk about Islam is in the 20th and 21st century, we’re often thinking about that organization or its offshoots.” But I came to see many people that—whereas the activists of the National Islamic Front, which was Sudan’s own branch of the Muslim Brotherhood—came to set the grammar of the conversation, many people were participating in it, many people imagined what an Islamic state would look like, and many times, in opposition to the regime, but they’re still talking about political community and Islamic terms. And those included Sufis those included Salafi organizations that were not particularly political—they were mostly proselytizing kind of organizations, but also came to think about these kinds of questions that the state was asking.

NS  16:06 

So, the state was asking these questions or sparking a conversation in which many groups who wouldn’t traditionally be called Islamists became involved. And so that’s why, on the one hand, I find it a useful descriptive term, but on another hand, it becomes a kind of meaningless term, the term Islamist, because so many people were involved in that conversation who certainly would not define themselves as Islamists but were also thinking about political community in Islamic terms. And the government saw that. They saw that they were not the activists of the National Islamic Front, saw that they that their project to create an Islamic State could become more powerful by opening the conversation, even when it got out of control to the extent of people opposing their vision of the Islamic State. At least, they could implant in society a notion that political community in Islamic terms made sense. And I think it even last close—sorry to cut you off there—I think it even last strangely post-revolution where we have a highly secularist government in control, we still see a lot of political discourse in what we might call the public sphere taking place in Islamic terms.

RK  17:32 

Yeah, everything you just said is kind of reinforces how I viewed your work as a very creative and dynamic challenge to expand our scope or understanding of how we look for the Islamic State or what we call the Islamic State, right, the usual suspects involved in creating what we what we call it, this, “Islamic State.” And your work definitely challenges us to move beyond arguments about the impossibility of Islamic State as a moral or an ethical-political project. Why do you think it’s supposed impossibility garners more scholarly attention than its feasibility? And how did you get to where you were to ask that question?

NS  18:27 

This is a great question. And let me answer the second part, the first part first, why you asked why the impossibility of Islamic State garner’s more scholarly attention than its feasibility, right? Was that how you phrased it?

RK  18:46

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

NS  18:47 

I think there are two reasons. First and foremost, we live in an era in which Islamic politics are seen as anachronistic, in which teleological models of history predominate, in which it’s, I think, really hard not to surrender to global norms. And we saw this—this is an example maybe at a tangent, but I think an important one. Given what we were just talking about, we saw this, I think with great tragedy with the foundation of South Sudan here, there was no threat of Islamic politics emerging. But we had the opportunity in 2011 of starting a new state from scratch. And still, it came to be organized in very predictable manners and lead to utter disaster. So I think Islamic politics is the same. It’s beyond the realm of our imagination.

NS  19:40 

And what I wanted to ask in this book is why and when does it become possible? And who wants it to be so? I think that’s a question we—I understand, and I oftentimes sympathize with polemics against us on the politics which a lot of the work on Islamic politics, particularly in Sudan, focuses on. But for me, it leaves a question unanswered, which is why do some people desire it? Very smart and thoughtful people come to desire Islamic politics? What’s the reason? Why? What kinds of problems is it helping them solve? What kinds of futures is helping them imagine? I wanted to ask that question. And I’ve gotten hit in many circles for not writing a polemic. I did, of course, and I hope it’s clear for anybody who reads it, I do offer a critique of the Sudanese Islamic project, which deserves a lot of critiques, without a doubt.

NS  20:45 

But it’s not the main focus of the book; the main focus of the book is to understand—a lot of scholars have done a great job telling us about the repressive aspects of the Sudanese state. There is not much more to say—they’re spot on and correct. What we haven’t understood very well is a productive aspect. What made it endure for all those years? Right? They were in power for almost 30 years. It wasn’t that they had a particularly strong state. In fact, it was a poor and weak state—fighting wars on many borders. Why did it endure? How could they last that long? Whether we hated the Islamic State or we love it, we got to answer that question for both of those camps. And that’s what the book tried to do.

NS  21:43

The other reason that I think the Islamic State becomes—that the impossibility of Islamic State is discussed more than its feasibility is, I think, many if not most times, in both the explicitly coming from a religious perspective, literature and the implicitly coming from a religious perspective literature—or I should say, the literature that doesn’t explicitly come from any kind of religious perspective, there’s a notion in a muddled way of saying, and I’m sorry for that. But what I’m trying to say is that there’s a notion of Islamic authenticity in both of those models. And it’s understood to be violated by the modern state. And that’s the argument, I think you’re referring to. Wael Hallaq’s book, which I both read appreciatively in my book, but also see some limits, and that there is a notion of an authentic or a pure Islam that is fundamentally incompatible with the modern state. And I’m with Hallaq, in that the modern state is also a political, moral order that has its own agenda. But where I depart from with Hallaq is that there’s some Islam out there to be violated by it. I would argue that Islam, since the very foundation of something called a some if not before, has always been in conversation with the world. It’s a problem of revelation is the very problem of revelations…   

RK  23:27 

Yeah.

NS  23:27 

 … is that like coming down of the divine into the dunyā, or the world, and it’s the same problem face to face with the modern state. But what I found my interlocutors doing is not blindly thinking that the modern state was just some envelope to put forward and an Islamic authenticity, but rather, they saw the Islamic State as a very useful—they were quite wise to what the Islam, to what—sorry— to what the modern state was, was doing. Came and saw it as a very useful tool to forward a certain kind of Islam that was different from Islam of 10 years ago, or 20 years ago, or a century ago.

RK  24:08 

Yeah.

NS  24:09 

And that was okay for them.

RK  24:13 

Yeah. What you just said is getting my gears turning my head. I mean, when you talk about these kind of normative frameworks that seeps in or how scholars view is the Islamic State, and they end up making, I guess, for lack of a better way to put it, some of these value judgments about, you know, should this exist, right? Should the Islamic State exist, right? Is it violate, as you said, is it a violation of this kind of authentic, pure Islam? And sure, these discussions are important, and I think they are going to be had and. But that’s a separate line of questioning than, I think, the line of question that you’re going for, which is more of…  

NS  25:06 

Exactly.

RK  25:06 

Okay, yeah. You can say all you want about whether this frame of political structuring should exist or not, but it is existing. And (laughs) we still have to reckon with that

NS  25:20 

That’s why I’m an ethnographer and not a theologian.

RK  25:22 

(Laughs) Yeah.

NS  25:25 

I’m not qualified. Yeah. Yeah.

RK  25:29 

And since you bring that topic up, what are some other advantages that taking the ethnographic approach to studying Islamic State? What are some of the additional benefits of that? What is the edge that you have?

NS  25:45 

Yeah, I think the edge that ethnography gave me was to be able to see the messiness of what was going on in Sudan as I found it, and I think there’s an autobiographical sort of narrative within the book, as well as the analytic narrative. And the autobiographical narrative, as many ethnographies do, is a kind of schooling. A self-schooling (laughs), or a of schooling of Sudanese’s interlocutors schooling me. And what I mean by that is that I had read a lot about Sudan, going into the field, both primary source literature coming out of the Islamic movement and secondary source literature.

NS  26:47 

And what I found in Sudan was something very, very different. And I think, had I not been doing ethnography, I would have painted a picture of Sudan from on high, of an ideal, of government pronouncements, of the ideas of the Islamic movement. And that, in the end, was not why I went to Sudan. I went to Sudan because it was the really one place in the Arabic speaking world at the time, that an Islamic movement had actually come to power; where, instead of the sort of pontificating in opposition, as they do in so many contexts, they actually were forced to grapple with the messiness of everyday life, the messiness of the challenges of diversity, of negotiating a peace agreement, of dealing with international pressures, etc., etc. And that kind of thing could only be seen through the ethnographic lens.

NS  27:50 

In addition—I hope I’m not going on in too much length here—I found the Islamic State, and I think I put it in the book, both more pervasive and elusive than I’d expected. And I think I couldn’t have seen that in any way except ethnographic. And what I mean by that: when I went to Sudan, I went to study a top-down Islamization model, I went to study the education system because I thought they were better to study the sort of reproduction of Islamist ideology than in the classroom. When I arrived at the Ministry of Education—and I did spend a summer and part of the beginning of my actual fieldwork there hanging out in the Ministry of Education—I found that it was at the beginning of the peace agreement, these institutional offices were occupied by either actual UN officials or people who were working under directives of the UN, or various international bodies who were trying to make unity attractive and for the peace agreement, etc.

NS  29:01

And so, the places I expected to find the Islamic State, it wasn’t there, the institutions have been taken over by a global governing order. And yet, it hadn’t gone away, right? The architects of the Islamic State had kind of implanted it in other places. So, for example, I spend a lot of time one of the chapters of the book is on an Islamic radio station—a government Islamic radio station—that was trying to do a certain kind of Islamic education through the Ministry of Education, right? (laughs) Through actually, believe it or not, this whole sort of genre of pious love songs, which has to do with the title…

RK  29:43 

DJs of Islam.

NS  29:44 

… yeah (laughs) exactly. And so, it was elusive in the sense that I didn’t find it were expected to find it, but it was even more pervasive in that the state was not just a founding in its institutions, but was sort of spread out through the intellectual-scape, the soundscape of Sudan. And the ethnographic method allowed me to encounter the state on the bus when I would hear this radio station or other places that, I think, a more traditional political science method wouldn’t have attuned its ear to as easily.

RK  30:35 

Yeah. I feel like the devotion to the Prophet is something you observed time and time again in Sudan. I think just the fact that the title of the book, right, For Love of the Prophet and these devotional songs that you said were very prevalent in the soundscape of Sudan. Are we correct to assume that this was, in part, by a very strong, thriving, vibrant Sufi culture?

NS  30:57 

Absolutely.

RK  30:57 

Which is also very interesting because conventional wisdom might have assumed that Sufis don’t get involved in politics, right? Sufis, aren’t involved in building an Islamic State, right? But what did you experience in Sudan tell us about this? Is that a correct assumption to have?

NS  31:16 

It’s absolutely incorrect. Both in Sudan and, historically speaking, we can see many movements of colonial resistance, for example, came out of Sufi orders. Sudan’s own anti-colonial movement, the Mahdist, movement was sort of a post-Sufi movement. It was led by somebody who had rejected contemporary Sufism but was very much emerging out of that. And also, in the Sudan that I observed, there was no escaping politics because the foundation of the political order had been made in an Islamic one.

NS  32:02

So to comment on Islam was to comment on politics in Sudan in many ways, given the way that the government had framed what it understood the political community to be. But more particularly, there were Sufis involved in all varieties of politics, whether it be anti-regime politics, leftist politics—there were definitely leftist Sufis out there—or Sufis who were, in some way, shape, or form, working with the regime in power. And the regime saw—and this wasn’t just something I observed, but it was an actual articulated strategy that I spoke to regime intellectuals about—the regime saw in Sufism, now given that Sufism is so widely spread in Sudan, a real opportunity to attract the public in a way that their Muslim Brotherhood variety Islam that was quite restricted to a small segment of society wasn’t able to do and also a way to work around some of the institutional structures that were going on during the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, where they couldn’t work in the law, they couldn’t work in education because they just made a peace agreement to keep those ministries acceptable to both North and South. The kind of cultural work or affective work that Sufi orders were so good at doing could be mobilized to support the Islamic State in a different sort of way. And so you saw, for example, back to this radio station that I was talking about. So, the title of the book, actually, was supposed to be something else, but my editor told me that it couldn’t fit on the spine.

RK  33:54

(laughs)

NS  33:54

I’m serious. It was supposed to be a line of a poem—a poem put into song—from this radio station that was called the People of Sudan Love You, Oh, Messenger of God. And what happened there was I kind of summarize the title with For Love of the Prophet with much kicking and screaming because I like the initial one better. But the reason I bring that up now is the part of the goal of the radio station was to change prophetic devotion or to think about prophetic devotion, outside of a kind of individual relationship of the Muslim with the Prophet to a kind of national relationship.

NS  34:42

And that’s why the original title Of the People of Sudan Love You, Oh, Messenger of God was to me—and that poem/song was so evocative of that project—because it really, to me, in a nutshell, encapsulated this whole project of using the ritual technology and the affective expertise of Sufism to think about a Sudanese nation in Islamic terms, particularly at the very moment that that was being questioned at the first time, in any serious way, since the [Al-] Ingaz, the Salvation regime, the Nationalists Islamic Front regime, came to power the identity of Sudan as secular or religious, was being seriously put into question. And at that very moment, there were forces within the ruling regime who were trying to “Okay, how can we kind of salvage this in some ways? How can we continue to think of Sudan in Islamic terms, even when we don’t know what’s going to happen with the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Education?” And so, Sufism became a very useful resource for the regime to forward its project through other means.

NS  36:02

And I should say, I don’t want to make it sound like it was the regime kind of using Sufis. There are many Sufis who saw a lot of resonances and things they were interested in in the regime. There are others who protested the regime. And there were others who supported the Islamic State but didn’t like the version of it that the regime put forward. There was a whole range of political opinions. And of course, there were those who were leftist or secular, etc., among Sufis, so a whole range. And to do the kind of demographic work that is offensive sloppily done on places like Sudan or elsewhere of “the Sufis are the tolerant ones and the Islamists are these ones…” It really is—once you get there—it’s just you see how silly that is, that it’s much more diverse.

RK  36:48 

We’re running out of time, and I think we have time for one final question. And I want us to return to the topic of Islamization. I think we’ve both said it several times throughout our conversation, and you talked about how important it is to the nation-building, state-building project within Sudan. How should we understand what Islamization is, right? I think you can think of it as like a unilateral, unimodal theocratization of these secular structures just suddenly just becoming Islamicized or Islamized. Is that the case or is the dynamic on the ground much more complex than that? Right? For instance, do these secular structures, quote-unquote, secular structures of governance, right—whether that be education or law—do these structures have a way of acting back on the Islamizing process? What kind of influence does that have on this Islamizing process?

NS  37:56 

That’s a great question. I know I’ve been taking us to the world of music a lot, but I want to bring us back there just one more time today because there’s something in what you said that reminded me of it when you were talking about kind of who’s the agent here, the Islamization or the secularization? Is it that the secular institutions come to shape Islam in significant ways, or that Islam comes to shape secular institutions? And I really think, in a way, and this is a theme that comes up throughout the book, we have a kind of chicken and egg phenomenon.

NS  38:33

And the reason I’m thinking of music is this radio station that I mentioned before, many people would often see it as a secularization of Islamic poetic tradition, right? It’s these classical love of the Prophet poems that are being put into the structure of pop songs and put on a 24-hour pop radio station and made to focus on the nation rather than on the individual etc., etc., that this would be a perfect example of the kind of secularization of a religious genre. Yet on the other hand, and even to the extent that these poems are put to the tunes and often sometimes the lyrical structure of these quiet, profane—I don’t mean profane and that it would have an ‘E-explicit’, necessarily, but profane in the sense of this worldly love songs and many more traditionally oriented Sufis found that really, really problematic.

NS  39:45 

And it was interesting because when one does a little bit more digging, one finds that these love songs that the Sufi songs are being put into their frame, oftentimes, they themselves are secular love songs written in the frame of an older Sufi love song. So there is a song about the love of the Prophet, and somebody transformed into the love of his beloved. And then somebody took the song about the love of the beloved and transformed it… So you often have this sort of reiterative process. And this sounds like a silly little example, but I actually think the same can be said about law and education—the more, the more serious matters, we might say—when discussing the state, as well. Where does the modern University come from? Where does law come out of, right? They all come out of religious traditions or interactions with religious traditions in some way, shape, or form.

NS  40:45

So, to call the modern state, a purely secular body that comes to interact with something pure, called religion, is really silly because both religion and the state have always been in conversation with one another and have always influenced one another. And I’m not a historian, but when one reads historians’ work, you can see the way in which these notions of there being something authentic called a secular political order and or authentic called Islam is really a fallacy, that these things are always in conversation with one another.

RK  41:28 

Yeah, absolutely, as these things are not so black and white. And, I think your insight speaks to just the limitations, perhaps, of our scholarly categories. The ways that our attempts to study and define and categorize things can sometimes end up becoming constraints. And we lose sight that these are just simply tools, and they’re not accurate reflections of what reality is.

NS  42:02 

Right!

RK  42:03 

Well, that’s about all the time we have today. And I just want to flip it back to Dr. Salomon and to for him to share with us about things to come.

NS  42:15 

Yeah, thanks so much. So, as you mentioned, Ray, in the introduction, I am currently in Beirut, and I’m here as Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellow. And the New Directions Fellowship is a mid-career fellowship. I like to call it the midlife crisis fellowship because what it asks midcareer scholars to do is study something they’ve always wanted to study but have never had the space to study before. So something new and different. And the project that I’m doing tries to take up that spirit by looking across three sites—two new and one old, in some sense, but in a new context. Those sites for me, as you mentioned, are Beirut, Muscat, and Khartoum. And the question that I’m asking is how Islam comes to manage difference internal to its community.

NS  43:22

We’ve read a lot about how modern governmental orders come to structure difference into which various religions are situated. But I mean, the book that I’m working on to do something really different, which is to look at what resources the Islamic tradition has to talk about and manage plurality and difference. And I mean this both in terms of confronting others and in the sense of performing one’s own distinct status within the Omar, the Islamic community. So, for this reason, I’m looking at these three sites—one Shi’i here; another Ibadi in Oman, from which I just returned last week; and the third Sunni—but at this moment in Sudan of reckoning with Islamic politics post-revolution and imagining these new kinds of Islamic futures.

NS  44:06

And the project gets me into issues about orthodoxy and authority within Islam, the nature and limits of Islamic unity and solidarity, as well as reckonings with history and what it means to think Islamically with the past to create new futures beyond the sectarian that characterizes the post-colonial present. It’s kind of my own “What is Islam?” book, and though it’s still a collage with a lot of empty pieces at this stage, it’s been really exciting exploring these new sites and doing the work of trying to sew them together in places and traditions that had been really entirely unfamiliar to me before I started on this grant, so it’s been a real delight intellectually.

RK  44:47 

Well, it’s been a delight and intellectual pleasure to have you on with us today, and I, for one, am very much looking forward to all your future work. Thank you for joining us.

NS  44:57 

Thank you so, so much, Ray. It’s really been such a pleasure chatting with you.

RK  45:01 

Take care.

NS  45:02 

 Take care. Bye-bye.


Citation Info:

Salomon, Noah and Ray Kim. 2021. “Islam, Politics, and Identity: The (Im)possibility of Sudan’s Islamic State”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 7 June 2021. Transcribed by Allison B. Isidore. Version 1.0, 7 June 2021. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcasts/islam-politics-and-identity-the-impossibility-of-sudans-islamic-state/

Transcript corrections can be submitted to editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. To support the productions of transcripts, please visit http://patreon.com/projectRS/.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or its sponsors.

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