For the good of the Nation The New Horizon of Expectations in Rifaʿa al-Tahtawi’s Reading of the Islamic Political Tradition

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David H. Warren, Dr.



This article analyzes Rifaʿa al-Tahtawi’s (d. 1873) idea of Egyptian nationhood (al-ummah al-miṣriyyah) and key attendant concepts, such as civilization (tamaddun), progress (taqaddum), homeland (waṭan), and citizen (waṭanī). I revisit the intellectual origins of his thought to move our understanding of his intellectual production beyond simply the influence of the European Enlightenment. Instead, I locate al-Tahtawi’s work as part of a conversation internal to the debates of the Islamic tradition, which stretches across centuries and was never meant to finish. Consequently, I contextualize his conceptualization of nationhood as an attempt to re-imagine a role for the Muslim community in Islamic political life – from which it had long been excluded – and ground Muslim political theory and practice within a normative Islamic framework. Furthermore, I contend that al-Tahtawi’s contributions to both the conversations of his immediate context and those of his tradition were underpinned by a shift in his generation’s horizon of expectations, namely, the shared assumptions through which they received the conversations of their tradition. Underpinning this shift was the redefinition of time as progress, specifically the progress of the nation. If we conceptualize the Islamic tradition as a framework for inquiry rather than as a set of doctrines, then we should recognize that al-Tahtawi and his peers’
new concern for the futurity of the nation represented a key addition to this framework.

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