Simon Conrad – Contested Religion

Mysticism, Spiritualism, and the History of Religion in Modern Egypt

Simon Conrad

My research accounts for the place of ‘mysticism’ (taṣawwuf) in the thought of Arabophone intellectuals in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century. I trace a generation of actors who— following the cataclysm of the First World War, disillusionment with the 1919 Egyptian Revolution, and widespread doubt in liberal progress towards ‘civilisation’ along European lines—brought to the fore the vast archive of Islamic mystical literature, both in young public universities and ancient institutions of religious learning, the journalistic public sphere, and, in cases, visual art. Long discarded by previous generations of Islamic reformers and others as backward and irrational, a whole range of actors—Egyptian philosophers and mystics, ʿulamaʾ and Catholic scholars, Orientalists, philologists, and esoterics—involved themselves in the study of Islamic mysticism, motivated—by and large—by a shared conviction that the modern world was in danger of losing touch with an integral aspect of what it meant to be human. Universalist in ambition, these intellectuals—including, amongst others, Abū al-ʿIlā ʿAfīfī, ʿUthman Amīn, and Muhammad Muṣṭafā Ḥilmī—edited, studied, and taught works by Ibn ʿArabī, Ibn al-Fāriḍ, alGhazālī, and others alongside more contemporary thinkers, including Henri Bergson, William James, and Muhammad Iqbal.

My project analyses how, amidst heavy and often public contestation—be it by positivists, materialists, Islamists, socialists, or liberals—scholars and intellectuals operating in Egypt within extensive intellectual networks extending beyond the Muslim world into Europe and, at times, South Asia, remade ‘taṣawwuf’ as a concept, canon, and discipline. With an eye to their legacy and parallel developments in different localities—most notably the rise of ‘the history of religion’ across religious traditions and comparable colonial or ‘integral’ humanisms that accounted for ‘the spiritual’—I hope to show how ‘taṣawwuf’ became both resource and reference point for religious and secular intellectuals alike who argued for values, epistemologies, and modes of being that transcended the material – to great effect for 20th century Arabic thought at large. In so doing, my work adds to recent scholarship in Arabic and Islamic intellectual history that seeks to uncover the multi-layered archive of Arabic thought, while taking seriously the theoretical contributions of Arabophone intellectuals to questions of lasting concern: spiritualism and modernism, humanism and tradition, religious epistemologies and secular critique.