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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.