Neo-Traditionalist Islam as Postmodernity

By Mark Sedgwick
Submitted to Session P4762 (Tradition and Modernity: Reform, Gender, and Neo-traditionalism in Egypt and beyond, 2017 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
A network of “Neo-traditionalist” teachers and institutions, covering both the Muslim world and the West, is increasingly visible. In the Muslim world it encompasses the Dar al-Mustafa in the Hadramawt, Habib Ali al-Jifri in the UAE, and the now-closed Dar al-Imad in Cairo. In the West, it encompasses Hamza Yusuf and Zaytuna in Berkeley, California, and the Abdal Hakim Winter and the Cambridge Muslim College in England. There are also similar teachers and institutions in North Africa, France and Italy. The aim of the paper is to describe this network and analyze its relationship with modernity. This appears paradoxical, as all the teachers and institutions involved stress that they represent traditional Islam and distance themselves from other contemporary forms of Islam, which they condemn as inauthentic. These teachers and institutions, however, are not simply survivals of an earlier age. Their critiques of modernity are often informed by very modern or even postmodern understandings of modernity, their sphere of activity is global rather than local, and their visibility depends on the skillful use of media, especially new media.

The paper argues that, for these reasons, the network in question is better described as Neo-traditionalist than as traditionalist. The paper also draws on theories of multiple modernities to argue that Neo-traditionalism is a form of postmodernism. Like Western postmodernism, it is skeptical of grand narratives and ideologies, and appreciates the significance of systems of discourse and interpretation. The grand narrative and ideologies of which Neo-traditionalism is skeptical, however, are not only those of Western modernity, but also those of Islamic modernity, especially Islamism and Islamic modernism. In this sense, Neo-traditionalism can also be seen as a form of post-Islamism, as Islamism can be understood as one of many multiple forms of modernity.

The paper draws on fieldwork and interviews in the Neo-traditionalist milieu, and also on textual sources and videos generated by teachers within that milieu.