Revolutionizing Religion

Scholars of various persuasions have often posed the question as to what happens to the modern state when it tries to serve the will of both humanity and God. Many works over the past decades have explored this question through excellent studies of the rise of evangelical political movements in the United States, experiments in Islamic state-making in the Middle East and South Asia, and the invention of the very category of religion through government fiat in East Asia, to take but a few prominent examples. Others have argued that the modern state itself has an indelible theological character, no matter whether political actors speak an explicitly religious language or not. While the vast majority of this trailblazing work has looked at the object of the state, its modes of sovereignty and its institutions, another set of literature has explored how the state form has come to shape modern religion, squeezing it into molds that have ineluctable and permanent effects on how it is practiced, but also spawning religious trends in response to these demands that pivot in novel directions.

While these works are crucial to our understanding of modern political and religious forms, what has been less thoroughly explored in this stream of literature, if only because the modern state seems an inescapable reality of our time, is what might happen to this state-ified religion when the foundations of the state in question are shaken to the core. As an ethnographer, I am well aware that few opportunities exist to explore this question with any seriousness or empirical rigor. Yet, once in a while, such an opportunity does arise, however fleeting, and it seems wise for the researcher interested in the standard counterfactual to take careful notice of such moments. What happens to religious groups whose current status is inextricably intertwined with the policies of the respective state project in which they exist when a serious challenge to that state is put forward? In what ways are these movements forced to rethink their positions on political and even spiritual life when the state no longer proves a reliable reference point? What new kinds of religious forms emerge in these insurgent moments in which the weight of the state is, if not entirely dislodged, at least lifted off the ground a little bit so as to allow new flowers to bloom? These are among the questions that underly my recent essay in Middle East Law and Governance, “Moments in Revolutionary Time,” in which I pause at the recent revolutionary events in Sudan and Lebanon to explore new openings in religious debate that have emerged.

Though it is due to serendipity, and not any conscious decision on my part (or at least I think this is the way it was!), that both my long-standing research home of Sudan and my new one of Lebanon experienced nearly simultaneous revolutions, this was a fact that I could not ignore, no matter what my research trajectory had been initially. And the parallels for me did not end here. In both instances, for the groups I was or had been researching—conservative Islamist activists in Sudan and Shiʿi intellectuals in Lebanon—while their stance towards the pre-revolutionary state system was diverse and varied, the state’s stance towards them was extremely consistent. In Sudan, a more than 30-year experience with mobilizing Islamist thought to form a government of “National Salvation” gave the ideas of these conservative activists an extremely bold platform, whether in concert or in critique. As I showed in my 2016 book, the state’s reach into Islamic social orders was such that indeed it was hard for any Islamic organization not to engage the state no matter what form an intervention took. In Lebanon, the sectarian system that was the object of revolutionary ire had both secured the Shiʿi community a place in the governance of the nation and straightjacketed the forms of participation that might be possible for its members. The dissolution of the Islamic political order in Sudan that was the result (though, for many, not the goal) of the December (2018) Revolution led to a deep questioning by those Islamists who had supported the revolutionary cause as to whether a new governing system for Sudan was possible that both respected the values of what it understood to be the Muslim majority and sought to think differently about justice and equity for Sudan’s new dawn. The October (2019) Revolution in Lebanon sparked a searching recalibration for Shiʿi activists. They were forced to weigh commitments to the values of this popular revolution (in which many of their constituents, at least at first, became involved) for democratic reform against those of the broader global resistance against colonial and neo-colonial hegemony that has been their hallmark (al-muqawama), all within the framework of the historical revolution of the Prophet’s grandson Husayn in which Shiʿi political action is consistently read. The goals of these multiple revolutionary paradigms did not always mesh with one another. And so that moment when the state began to recede, even if fleeting, offered an opportunity to think in creative, though often fraught, ways about how and whether a commitment to social justice at the local level could mesh with a demand for political justice at the international level. In both Sudan and Lebanon, the threat of losing the state-as-we-know-it forced a recalibration of what a just Islamic political intervention might look like. While it would be foolish to say that either revolution did away with previous political forms—in Sudan elements of the former regime remain deeply ensconced; in Lebanon we do not yet see any tangible results from the revolution at the institutional level, the previous system remaining firmly in place—in both cases, the revolutions were strong enough that space was created for imagining different sorts of futures, as the Islamic actors about whom I wrote were forced to respond to popular demand.

“Moments in Revolutionary Time” documents this extraordinary period in the history of Africa and the Middle East, attempting to bridge divides—between Arab and African, Shiʿi and Sunni, classical and modern—that often over-determine studies of these regions. That its research took place, on the whole, directly before a global pandemic that would reinscribe the state’s regulatory power in an even stronger fashion, and during a time in which popular movements (right, left, and center) were demanding a rethinking of state politics the world over, perhaps makes it all the more important that we pay attention to the interlocutors whose words I reproduce here. They, in some sense, witnessed what amounts to a solar eclipse, a rare co-ordination of events in our reiterative political present, suddenly able to consider what religion would look like untangled from the fate of the state that is normally its erstwhile partner, unhinged from the imperative to speak in its languages. In Sudan, for the first time since 1989’s Revolution of National Salvation, if not before, Islamists were exploring the political force of Islam as a language of opposition, that is after several decades in which their ideas were incorporated at the highest levels of governance. In Lebanon, Shiʿi activists were pondering what demands for popular sovereignty and de-sectarianization would mean for the entrenched place of Shiʿi authorities (and thus, by extension, the Shiʿi community they claim to represent) in the fate of the nation and its moral direction. It is very hard to predict how, or even whether, this particular revolutionary moment will lead to some sort of lasting change in the relationship between religion and the state in the countries I studied. Indeed, recent indications suggest that while the victors and vanquished may have switched in some cases, the imbrication of the state in religious affairs remains strong. Yet, what insurgent moments do offer contemporary religion is at least the possibility of reassessment, an opportunity to think boldly in the space left empty by the shaken state to imagine other kinds of partnerships. If this can be done systematically and without hinderance, perhaps we may begin to imagine other sorts of destinies for religion, beyond the state.


About the author: Noah Salomon is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the Irfan and Noreen Galaria Research Chair at the University of Virginia. A political anthropologist trained in the study of Islam, Salomon is currently based in Beirut as a Mellon New Directions Fellow exploring transnational phenomena at the intersection of Islam, the management of difference, and movements for popular sovereignty in the Middle East and Africa. He is the author of For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan's Islamic State, winner of the 2017 Albert Hourani Prize from the Middle East Studies Association.