Sami Zubaida, Islam, the People and the State: Essays on Political Ideas and Movements in the Middle East (Routledge, 1989).
Modem Western literature on political Islam in the Middle East today generally falls into two categories: US-style think tank writing and intellectual proselytism.
Think tank “scholarship” addresses Islam as a threat. Its essential concern is how Islam as represented by the Moroccan, Pakistani and Saudi governments, so congenial to the West, could suddenly tum into the hostage-taking, anti-Western Islam of the Iranian revolution. “Why did Islam become an enemy?” is the question; the answer can only be as bad as the premises within which it is formulated.
Such empathy as does exist in Western writing comes from the proselytes. This often consists in finding ingredients of “good” Islam, usually reflecting the apologetics of some self-appointed defenders of the Islamic movements. The result is usually a mass production of defensive generalities.
Critical empathy in Western writing is rare. Sami Zubaida’s welcome book offers a multi-disciplinary, comparative look into Muslim societies. In Zubaida’s hands, food, weddings, books and popular movements offer leads into the social structures of Middle Eastern religion. The result is a fine reassessment of societies where religion seems suddenly to be the dominant ideology. The chapters follow these various strands, opening up new horizons with a sense of novelty. Chapter one, on “the ideological preconditions for Khomeini’s doctrine of government,” carries us beyond the text of velayat-e faqih and its antecedents to questions about the social conditions in which it operates: “Its credibility and ‘thinkability,’” Zubaida asserts, “are facilitated by the conditions of the modem state and politics. What makes Khomeini’s theory plausible is the idea of the people as a political force which can effect revolution and transformation.” It is perhaps on the state as the substratum of Khomeini’s Islamic government that the emphasis should be made, rather than on the people, but this is worth probing further, along the paths opened in the book.
Zubaida also offers a sustained analysis in the comparisons drawn between societies which he has investigated well: Iraq, Egypt, Iran. Comparing religious fundamentalism in Egypt and in Iran, Zubaida emphasizes the spheres of autonomy vis-à-vis the state enjoyed in the latter as opposed to the former. Similarly, Zubaida comments usefully on the phenomenon of classes and classes’ “elective affinities” as they were shaped after the state remodeled them in the twentieth century, and offers a sober note on the Islamic nation-state (chapter 6).
Among the most original analyses in the book are Zubaida’s remarks on popular culture. Here weddings, clothing and food become Middle Eastern societies’ common language, embedded in several centuries of refinement. In the importance they shed on longue duree phenomena, this novel interest and its treatment here are reminiscent of a remark of Gaston Bachelard, who noted (in La Formation de l’Esprit Scientifique) his disappointment with an important university library where he could not find cookbooks. In Islam, the People and the State, food is also part of the territory. Zubaida does not allow these important things to be obfuscated by widespread panic in the face of the fundamentalist phenomenon, or by its apologetic espousal.