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The Arab State of IslamEric Davis and Najib Ghadbian

The Arab State of Islam

The "Turath Workshop," as it has come to be known, reconvenes on October 29-30, 2004 for its second round of discussions

By Leonard Binder

The Arab-Islamic heritage, or Turath, was the central topic of concern at the CNES Workshop on the Arab State of Islam convened at UCLA on March 4-6, 2004. A half-dozen scholars were challenged to consider whether the "resurgence of Islam" as a core component of contemporary Arab political thought is the product of a zero-sum struggle between nationalism and religion, or the outcome of the successful ideological blending of the two identitive alternatives over the last quarter-century. Though some participants were inclined toward the blending explanation, it was also argued that the Turath writers were so successful that they lost control of their own conceptual inspiration. The transformation of the "religious tradition" into Turath-as-civilization has now become a part of the modern identity of all Arab Muslims, liberal democrats, scripturalists, ulama, Islamists of all types, secularists, and even Orientalists.

The effect of this intellectual and political movement has been to intensify the struggle over whether Islam is to be defined primarily as Shari`a or as Turath. At the present time, it appears that the historicists have lost out to the legalists and that the liberals have lost out to the jihadists, but several workshop participants argued that it may be prudent to withhold final judgment. The political turmoil prevailing in the Arab world and extending into every Muslim community suggests transition rather than arrival. The transformation of the self-understanding of what it means to be a Muslim in modern times continues to spread below the horizon of political visibility and under the influence of interpretations of Turath based upon the concept of pious civil society.

The participants in this marathon effort included Najib Ghadbian of the University of Arkansas, Eric Davis, Director of the Middle East Center at Rutgers University, Robert D. Lee of Colorado College, Muhammad Sani Umar of the University of Arizona, James Gelvin of UCLA, Robert Bianchi, formerly of the University of Chicago, and Leonard Binder, Director of CNES. The papers presented ranged from a study of the Iraqi "Turath al-sha`b" (popular cultural tradition) to the policies of the Syrian Baath regime, to analyses of the historical symbiosis of nationalism and religion, to the problematics of plural legal systems, and concluded with an in-depth study of Egyptian debates on the Arab-Islamic Turath.

From these non-stop discussions, a common understanding of the nature and importance of Turath discourse was developed. It was further agreed that this discursive phenomenon was not restricted to the Arab countries, but that parallel types of discourse are to be found in many non-Arab Muslim countries.

The participants agreed to revise their papers in the light of the discussions, to meet again in October to consider new and revised papers, to invite other scholars to join in the enterprise, to expand their geographical scope to include non-Arab countries, and to explore the possibility of intellectual exchange with scholars living in Muslim-majority countries as well.

Perhaps the most important achievement of the workshop is the formation of the Turath Study Group which seeks to continue the dialogue while expanding to include additional participants as well as additional "cases."

Center for Near Eastern Studies