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Formations of BeliefHistorical Approaches to Religion and the Secular$
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Philip Nord, Katja Guenther, and Max Weiss

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780691190754

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691190754.001.0001

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True Believers in the Modern Middle East

True Believers in the Modern Middle East

(p.150) 7 True Believers in the Modern Middle East
Formations of Belief

Max Weiss

Princeton University Press

This chapter explores the experience of two contemporary Middle Eastern thinkers: Sadiq Jalal al-ʻAzm and Nasir Hamid Abu Zayd. The former, writing in the aftermath of the Arab–Israeli War of 1967, penned a critique of Islam, alleging that its blinkered repressiveness had set the Arab world up for defeat. The latter, writing in the 1990s, sought to fashion a modern, enlightened Islam and, in pursuit of that end, subjected Islam's most sacred text, the Qur'an, to critical philological scrutiny. Both men paid a price for their heterodoxy: al-ʻAzm lost his job at the American University in Beirut and was tried for incitement of religious discord; Abu Zayd was denied promotion at Cairo University and also subjected to public prosecution. The interest in the present context is that in both instances the prosecuting agency was the so-called secular state, whether Lebanese or Egyptian, and it acted in response to the prodding of mobilized religious constituencies, thus transforming itself, though secular, into an accomplice of sectarianism. Postcolonial Arab nationalisms, as had Soviet communism before them, held out the promise of liberation, but liberation, once again, turned out to be a mixed blessing. The secular state did not set itself up in opposition to faith but catered to believers, enhancing its own power by giving satisfaction to the repressive impulses of religious orthodoxy.

Keywords:   Sadiq Jalal al-ʻAzm, Nasir Hamid Abu Zayd, Islam, Arab world, enlightened Islam, Qur'an, secular state, sectarianism, Arab nationalisms, religious orthodoxy

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