The Commendatory Republic in 1930s Egypt: Constructing the Esoteric Reader and Community Making through al-Ma’rifa’s Book Commendations
The Arabic periodical al-Maʿrifā (Knowledge) [which ran between 1931-34 in interwar Cairo] presented itself as a Ṣūfī esoteric print enterprise, with a scholarly interest in producing articles and texts concerned with spiritism, Easternism, science, and the arts. Abd al-‘Azīz al-Islāmbūlī (1905-1964), the periodical’s editor, aimed at situating Cairo to an Eastern and spiritual global culture, as well as to amend people’s perception of Sufism and spiritualism. This thesis aims to (i) highlight an esoteric print scholar and his connections, allowing us to map unaddressed intellectual networks that brought together the contributors, editors, translators, and readers of al-Maʿrifāfrom various regional nodes to Cairo; (ii) I trace these geographic connections to Cairo by looking at the genre of taqārīz (book commendations) (singular taqrīz).
In the thirty issues of the periodical, a section was dedicated particularly to reviewing the latest publications of texts in the Islamicate world. In the taqrīẓ section, the aforementioned scholars’ literary output is solicited by the young al-Islāmbūlī so that he can “commend and review” important texts for the Muslim youth and intellectuals of the time. While it is usually done the other way around, i.e. the medieval author would seek out a master or a celebrity-scholar to commend his book for the scholarly community, for al-Islāmbūlī it is a different process. It is this process that I examine, in order to identify what literary capital does the muqarriẓ gain from requesting books from his network of close colleagues and friends to review in his journal’s taqrīẓ section. In addition, in recommending these particular texts that, to al-Islambuli, reflect a particular esoteric ethos, what does he hope the reader gets from reading such a text? How does the recommendation and commendation of a text construct the reader of al-Ma‘rifa’s worldview? Who is writing, translating, and publishing these esoteric books? And was there a demand for such texts from the readers in the Interwar period? I follow the textual traces of what I henceforth refer to as a commendatory republic, to examine how this continued practice from the manuscript age was found to be relevant by the editor of the Ṣufī periodical. I do this through immersion in the journal and its paratexts, in addition, I identify and narrate the network’s community-making as articulated in autobiographical writings, memoirs, tributes, biographical dictionaries, and journal articles. In this way, I am able to highlight the reasoning behind the particular choices of commended texts and their reception history. I reconstruct these textual traces into a narrative of what connects the authors and their muqarriẓ, and the readers, in turn, identifying a window into how they came to conceive of esotericism in the Interwar period.
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