My dissertation project—tentatively entitled “Return of the Spirit: Mysticism in Modern Arabic Thought, 1919-1967”—unearths the cultural and intellectual history of a generation of mostly Egyptian intellectuals who, following the cataclysm of the ‘Great War’ on the one hand and the 1919 Egyptian Revolution on the other, brought to the fore the intellectual tradition of Islamic mysticism (tasawwuf). They did so in a context dominated by intellectual currents that might be collectively referred to as ‘spiritualism(s)’: Bergsonian intuitionism, the psychology of Freud and James, the revival of Islamic philosophy, idealism and personalism, to name only a few. This recourse to mysticism, not unlike these at times contradictory modes of thought and being, was in part a rejection of the scientific positivism and materialism of a previous generation of Egyptian intellectuals. To a significant extent, though, it was part of a project to formulate solutions in the shadow of colonialism and world war. These solutions ranged from channeling various national spirits—Egyptian, Arab, or Islamic—to integrating ‘the spiritual’ into a new, integral humanism after Europe’s had failed to prevent its descent into barbaric violence. The group of intellectuals my work focuses on discussed mysticism in Egypt’s premier journals, in the context of Egypt’s young public universities, and as actors in networks of intellectual exchange that went beyond the Arabic fold into Europe. In so doing, they took on various roles: public intellectuals and cultural critics, academic philosophers and scientific editors, translators, mentors, and teachers. My project follows intellectuals having recourse to mysticism through the interwar years of parliamentary Egypt into the early years of Nasserism. Reflective of Charles Péguy’s dictum “tout commence en mystique et finit en politique”, I chart ways in which mysticism was incorporated into a number of debates that ranged from the nature of knowledge and the place of religion to political ideologies such as Islamism and Arab Socialism.
7th-year Ph.D. student