Secularizing Islam: Carlyle, al-Sibā'ī, and the translations of "Religion" in British Egypt

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Abstract

Secularism is said to support cultural imperialism by propagating the colonizer's religion in nonreligious guise or by touting a nonreligious worldview that attracts native intellectuals already disenchanted with local tradition. I take a different view. Reading Muhcombining dot belowammad al-Sibā'ī's Arabic translation of Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), published in Egypt in 1911, I argue that secularism attracts the colonized less by presenting itself as an alternative order - religious or not - than by validating an existing religious episteme, but doing so in translation, refracting native religion through an empowered yet seemingly empowering colonial eye. Secularity infiltrates British Egypt as Islam's likeness, not antithesis. Carlyle's alluring Islamophilia moves al-Sibā'ī to prescribe English literature to Egypt against French "unbelief," eliding the Briton's subordination of the Prophet Muhcombining dot belowammad to Shakespeare. Willing the native Islamic "religious" into translatability with the Western colonial "secular," al-Sibā'ī reconstructs modern Islam as belief in the human.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)123-139
Number of pages17
JournalPMLA
Volume126
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 2011

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