A Conceptual History of 'Tradition' in the Modern Arab World: Egypt and Greater Syria in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Tradition is a key analytical concept in the study of Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East in western academia. In late 19th and early 20th-century discourses, the concept elicited negative connotations, such as stagnation, backwardness, and irrationality. In recent decades, scholars revised these earlier conceptions of tradition, foregrounding the ability of a tradition to adapt and change. This reformulated understanding of tradition undergirds Talal Asad’s theorization of Islam as a “discursive tradition,” an analytical approach that has dominated the field of Islamic studies. Yet in Arabic, there is no single equivalent to the Anglophone concept “tradition.” Indeed, several distinct Arabic terms, including taqlid, turath, sunna, naql, and others, are often equated with “tradition,” even though their usages, histories, political mobilizations, temporalities, counter-concepts and affective valences differ from each other as well as from the Anglophone concept. In this action, I will conduct a diachronic and synchronic analysis of the semantic network of Arabic concepts often equated with the Anglophone concept “tradition” in Egypt and Greater Syria in the 19th and 20th centuries. The methodology for this action includes the close reading of Arabic texts representative of major intellectual and ideological currents in the modern Arab and Muslim world, as well as quantitative analyses that chart the distribution and frequency of these concepts in Arabic periodicals and other salient texts in the same period. The larger aim of the project is to integrate the experiences and worldviews reflected in Arabic concepts into the analytical vocabulary that structures the study of Islam, Muslims, and the Middle East in western academia.