Conceptual change through transformation of linguistic norms: Tyranny in the Arab Muslim context

By Mohammed El-Sayed Bushra
Submitted to Session P4950 (Between Continuity & Change: Conceptualizing Slavery, Tyranny, Gender, and Tolerance in Islamic Thought & the Middle East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
All Middle East; Arab States; Islamic World;
19th-21st Centuries; Islamic Thought; Theory;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Political discourse in the Arab Muslim context has developed rapidly in recent years, particularly in light of the events leading up to the ‘Arab Spring’ and its aftermath. Among its salient features is a heightened concern surrounding the concepts of tyranny (tughyan) and despotism (istibdad), as reflected in the project of contemporary thinker Hakem al-Mutairi and in renewed popular interest in the works of 19th c. thinker Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi.
The purpose of this study is to trace the recent development of the concept of tyranny (tughyan) in the Muslim (and particularly the Arab Muslim) context, and to investigate the way in which such conceptual change might be related to transformations in linguistic norms.
Methodologically, this study takes cue from the work of Danielle Allen and other political theorists working in the spirit of Quentin Skinner and Thomas Kuhn. Allen demonstrates how Aristotle, in arguing with contemporaries over the status of rhetoric and sophistry, employed a term of scarce prior philosophical use—prohairesis—after which it came to be used by all subsequent 4th c. Athenian orators. Allen argues that this constituted a conceptual revolution in the social and political realms, of the kind and magnitude that Kuhn had restricted to the realm of scientific development.
In tracing the recent conceptual development of terms connoting tyranny, I first consider them as they appear in classical Arabic dictionaries and in how they are employed in the Qur’an. I then turn to their use in modern Islamist political discourse during and 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. Specifically, I examine engagement with the concept of tyranny by 20th c. thinkers Syed Abul A’la Maududi (d. 1979), Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), Abdullah Azzam (d. 1989), Ali Shariati (d. 1977), and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989), before finally turning to the works of 19th and 21st c. thinkers Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (d. 1902) and Hakem al-Mutairi (b. 1964).
This study’s most central finding is that whereas al-Kawakibi in the 19th c. and al-Mutairi in the 21st c. discuss, respectively, the concepts of despotism and tyranny almost exclusively by means of abstract verbal nouns—istibdad and tughyan—the 20th c. figures fixate on the theologically charged special individual noun—taghut. My contention is that this transformation in linguistic norms, between emphasis on the individual and the abstract, carries within it the potential for revolutionary conceptual change.