Becoming Turāth: Tradition in Modern Egypt

A seminar with Dr. Mary Elston

Tradition is a central concept in the study of Islam in the modern period. While in recent decades, scholarship in Islamic studies has investigated the diverse conceptions of tradition that animate modern Muslim societies, a parallel conversation has considered tradition as an analytical category. Despite the importance of the concept of tradition to scholarly explorations of Islam and the Middle East in the modern period, there has been no systematic investigation of the history of the Arabic term for tradition that today dominates public discourses in much of the Muslim world: turāth. In this talk I analyze the writings, publishing efforts, and educational projects of three Muslim Egyptian intellectuals—Muḥammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905), Ṭaha Ḥusayn (1889-1973), and Ali Gomaa (1952-)—to trace the development of the concept of turāth from the late nineteenth century to the present. In my analysis, I demonstrate that prior to the twentieth century, the term turāth had one meaning—that of inheritance, whether property or social status—while through the intellectual and political projects of modernist intellectuals and Muslim scholars, such as those mentioned above, turāth took on the additional meanings of “heritage” and later “tradition.” By locating these etymological shifts within the context of reformist debates about authenticity and modernity, emergent articulations of Egyptian and Arab nationalism, and competing conceptions of religious authority in twentieth century Egypt, in this talk I construct a genealogy of the concept of tradition in modern Egypt.

Mary Elston is a scholar of Islam focusing on the modern and contemporary Middle East. Her research interests are in the anthropology of Islam, religious studies, and Islamic intellectual history, with a focus on education, knowledge, politics, and language. In May 2020, Mary received her Ph.D. from Harvard University’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Her dissertation, “Reviving Turāth: Islamic Education in Modern Egypt,” combines ethnography and textual analysis to examine the politics, texts, and practices of a traditionalist education movement at Egypt’s al-Azhar, the preeminent institution of Islamic learning located in Cairo. Her dissertation received the Alwaleed Bin Talal Prize for best dissertation in Islamic Studies in 2020. Her research in Egypt was supported by the Loeb Dissertation Research Fellowship in Religious Studies, the Frederick Sheldon Traveling Fellowship, the American Research Center in Egypt, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and Harvard University Center for African Studies.

Published Mar. 17, 2021 11:57 AM - Last modified Aug. 2, 2022 2:00 PM