"YUSUF AL-NABHANI AND CONSERVATIVE MODERNITY IN THE LATE OTTOMAN PERIOD"
Friday, March 5th
Part of the Silsila Spring 2021 Lecture Series, Translations
In recent years the impact that Sunni reform movements had on the nineteenth-century Islamic world has attracted increasing attention. On the one hand, the austere reform movement popularly known as Wahhabism gained influence in the Arabian peninsula. On the other, an influential group of Salafi reformers based in Cairo made use of print media to communicate their idea of reform to a global community of Muslims. Both groups sought to regulate the role of mediation and the materiality of devotional practices in Islam.
The reaction to both sets of reformers on the part of those Muslim scholars and thinkers who espoused the principle of taqlid, the need to follow established convention and tradition, has attracted far less attention. Many such thinkers were also sufis who promoted and supported material forms of devotional practice, including shrine visitation and respect for relics. Often dismissed as conservatives at odds with modernization (if not modernity), in fact these traditionalists often negotiated a de facto middle ground between the status quo and radical reform.
This panel considers the life and thought of one of these conservative thinkers, Yusuf al-Nabhani (d. 1849-1932). Born in Palestine, al-Nabhani was a Sunni scholar and sufi who promoted devotion to the Prophet Muhammad. A passionate supporter of the Ottoman caliphate, a scholar and judge, al-Nabhani was a fierce opponent of the reformist trends that sought to shape the world that he inhabited. The panel seeks to acknowledge the role that visions of ‘conservative modernity’ such as al-Nabhani’s played in the intellectual and religious life of late Ottoman Palestine and Syria, and the impact that they had in regions far beyond, from Anatolia and Arabia to East and North Africa.
12.00-12.30 Amal Ghazal, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, "Between Conservatism and Anti-Liberalism: Yusuf al-Nathani and Wahhabi Polemics"
12.30-1.00 Ahmed El Shamsy, University of Chicago, "Al-Nabhani and the question of religious authority"
1.00-1.30 Stephennie Mulder, UT Austin, "Abdülhamid and the ʿAlids: Ottoman patronage of “Shi’i” shrines in the Cemetery of Bab al-Ṣaghir in Damascus"
1.30-2.00 Finbarr Barry Flood, Silsila/NYU, "Al-Nabhani and the Image in the Modern Era of Technological Reproducibility"
2.00-2.30 Questions and Discussion
Title: Between Conservatism and Anti-Liberalism: Yusuf al-Nathani and Wahhabi Polemics
Abstract: This paper discusses how my thinking of Yusuf al-Nabhani’s thought moved from a “conservative” paradigm to an “anti-liberal” one. I will outline the intellectual trajectory between both paradigms and discuss the role of the polemics between al-Nabhani and Najdi Wahhabis in this paradigm shift. I will focus in this instance on the commonalities between Sufis and Wahhabis in the late Ottoman period and highlight their shared opposition to liberalism.
Bio: Amal Ghazal earned her BA from the American University of Beirut and her MA and PhD from the University of Alberta. She was the director of the Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and is currently the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
Ahmed El Shamsy
Title: Al-Nabhani and the question of religious authority
Abstract: As someone deeply committed to the late Ottoman religious tradition yet familiar with reformist Muslim concerns, al-Nabhani became a prominent conservative polemicist. A close reading of his work reveals a series of strategies for justifying and anchoring traditional authority in a new textual landscape, created through print, that threatened his views of Islamic orthodoxy.
Bio: Ahmed El Shamsy is an associate professor of Islamic thought at the University of Chicago. He studies the intellectual history of Islam, focusing on the evolution of the classical Islamic disciplines and scholarly culture within their broader historical context. He is the author of The Canonization of Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History and Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition.
Title: Abdülhamid and the ʿAlids: Ottoman patronage of “Shi’i” shrines in the Cemetery of Bab al-Ṣaghir in Damascus
Abstract: At the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II (r. 1876-1909) did something that seemed a bit strange for the Sunni Sultan: he sponsored the building of a number of ostensibly “Shi’i” shrines in Syria. These shrines were devoted to the ʿAlids, the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, and were located in the ancient and venerable cemetery of Bab al-Saghir just outside the walls of Damascus. Devotion to the Prophet’s family is a cornerstone of Shi’ism, and the ʿAlid shrines had a long prior history as critical sites of Shi’i devotional practice within this majority Sunni city. But the key role the shrines played within the consolidation of Sunnism toward the end of the Ottoman Empire is often overlooked. How and why the Ottoman Sultan decided to intervene in their histories, and the degree to which this transformed the meaning of these sites, will be the question investigated in this paper.
Bio: Stephennie Mulder is Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin and is President of the Middle East Medievalists Organization. She is a specialist in Islamic art, architectural history, and archaeology. She worked for over ten years as the head ceramicist at Balis, a medieval Islamic city in Syria, and has also conducted archaeological and art historical fieldwork in Syria, Israel Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere in the region. Dr. Mulder’s book The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria: Sunnis, Shi’s and the Architecture of Coexistence, published in 2014, received numerous awards. She has also published on matters related to heritage preservation and the trade in looted antiquities. She has appeared in media interviews and written editorials for media outlets such as the BBC, IB Times, al-Jazeera, the L.A. Times, Huffington Post, and U.S. News and World Report on cultural heritage issues, Islamic art, antiquities, and the history of sectarian relations in Islam.
Finbarr Barry Flood
Title: Al-Nabhani and the Image in the Modern Era of Technological Reproducibility
Abstract: Among the many concerns of Yusuf al-Nabhani were the implications of a modern image culture for Islam. The proliferation of print culture and new technologies such as photography made the issue pressing for many Muslim jurists in the late nineteenth century. Al-Nabhani took a predictably conservative line, railing against the depiction of living beings of any sort in any medium. Yet, having worked at a printing press in Istanbul, he clearly saw how new print media might be harnessed to a central tenet of his vision of Islam: promotion of devotion to the Prophet Muhammad and his relics. In this regard he authored a print version of the Prophet Muhammad’s sandal, an especially revered relic. The image was said to convey some of the blessings and protective powers of the original relic, and versions of it circulated widely in the Islamic world, probably along transregional Sufi networks. This paper considers the ambivalences associated with al-Nabhani’s attitude to a modern image culture, including the apparent paradox inherent in the use of mass production to amplify and disseminate spiritual blessing (baraka).
Bio: Finbarr Barry Flood is director of Silsila: Center for Material Histories and William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of the Humanities at the Institute of Fine Arts and Department of Art History, New York University. He teaches and publishes on intercultural dimensions of Islamic art, image theory, devotional art, technologies of representation, modernity and Orientalism. Publications include Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter (2009) and Technologies de dévotion dans les arts de l’islam: pèlerins, reliques, copies (2019). He is currently completing a book project, provisionally entitled Islam and Image: Contested Histories, which formed the basis of the 2019 Slade Lectures at the University of Oxford.