MLA 2014: ‘Muslim Utopia’ – Panel Description and Abstracts

This panel will take place on 12 January, 2014, 8.30-9.45 am (Mississippi, Sheraton Chicago). This panel has been included in the 2014 Presidential Theme, ‘Vulnerable Times’.

Here is the panel description and the panel abstracts:

Muslim Utopia

 Co-organizers: Mosarrap H. Khan, New York University & Ammar Naji, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Today the concept of ‘utopia’ undergirds much of Islamic political and social thinking, deriving its legitimacy partly from religious/theological and partly from material impulses. The recent development of Arab Spring have reiterated the shifting nature of Islamic ‘utopic’ conceptions among Muslims who have incorporated modern democratic ideals into the traditional Islamic notion of Ummah, transnational affinity based on the idea of Muslim solidarity and brotherhood across nations. Through an exploration of fictional texts and use of social media, this panel intends to explore the overt as well as covert engagement with the notion of ‘utopia’ by Muslim philosophers, fictional writers and political activists. The panel seeks to present a comparative and interdisciplinary approach to the study of Muslim ‘utopia’ by drawing on fictional works and the role of social media in three distinct geographical regions – Egypt, Turkey, and South Asia – in an attempt to unravel the regional and transnational convergences and divergences that exist between Muslims in various social contexts.

A related concern is the exploration of the connection between utopia and Muslim everyday life. In this regards, the panel hopes to raise and address some of the following questions: How does the idea of ‘utopia’ – both in its theological and material registers – constitute Muslim everyday life? What new visions and conceptions of utopia do we find in Muslim countries striving for political and religious reform? Following Karl Mannheim’s formulation, what are the ideological and utopian impulses sustaining Muslim everyday life? How does the use of social media influence the dissemination of material and spiritual impulses of ‘utopia’ and the expansion of a global Muslim community or Ummah?

How does the genre of the novel mediate the aesthetics of Muslim literary ‘utopia’?  What are the temporal and spatial coordinates that enable thinking of ‘utopia’ in Muslim everyday life?

Through a reading of Muslim South Asian writers such as Mariam Karim, Moni Mohsin, Altaf Tyrewala, and Abdul Bismillah (in translation), Mosarrap Khan’s paper, ‘The Notion of Material Utopia in the Sub-continental Muslim Anglophone Writing’, explores Muslim fiction writers’ notion of reform in material terms. Often such a spirit of reform is conceptualized as overt as well as covert engagement with the notion of ‘utopia’. Conceptualizing reform in worldly/material terms, the South Asian Muslim fictional aesthetic imagines liberation from constricting religious traditions by foregrounding individuals engaged in pre-marital sex, abortion, extra-marital sex, widows falling in love, and individuals trying to transform traditional religious societies by introducing economic modernity. Instead of thinking of reform within a purely religious/theological framework, South Asian Muslim Anglophone fiction offers a notion of material utopia in which theological concerns are undermined by the contingency of everyday life.

In her paper, ‘The Ottoman Molla Davutzade’s Utopia Progress in Dream, Envisioning Islamic Civilization (1913)’, Beyza Lorenz explores the first utopian novel in Turkish, Progress in Dream, Envisioning Islamic Civilization (Rüyada Terakki ve Medeniyet-i İslamiyeyi Rüyet) – a ‘forgotten text’ in the Republican Turkey (post-1923) until recently – which narrates the utopic Ottoman Istanbul of the twenty-fourth century in the form of the narrator’s dream. Davutzade’s utopia glorifies the possibility of a modern Islamic civilization. Davutzade’s utopic future offers a system where social and economic rules are governed according to Islamic law, while notions that Ottoman modernization seeks to introduce, such as gender equality, are successfully practiced. Despite its optimistic intentions, like any utopia, Davutzade’s novel is in the borderline of what might be called a Foucauldian dystopia with the totalitarian control mechanisms it prescribes. Davutzade’s projections might shed light upon modern Turkey’s current identity crisis between religion and secularism.

 In his paper, ‘Revolutionary Utopias: The State of Islamic Consciousness and the Muslim Youth’, through a reading of the Egyptian youth’s use of social media, Ammar Naji explores the theological as well as the material utopic impulses that have sparked the recent social upheavals in the Arab world. His paper traces how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has constantly reformed its political agenda to incorporate the ideological visions of the Muslim youth generating a transregional trajectory of Islamic consciousness that view Islam as a stateless political ideology capable of appropriating western forms of democracy while enunciating a Muslim identity marked by transnational and extraterritorial interests. By invoking the discourse of democracy and freedom through use of social media and sociological propaganda, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to target the Muslim youth whose visible presence in the ‘public sphere’ in the Arab world shows how trans-regionalism has exceeded the exclusive nature of modern nation-states and yet succeeded in uniting Muslims on the basis of equity, prosperity and utopic religious consciousness.


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