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Title: Islamic Reform on the Margins of Colonialism: Political Economy, Social History, and Intellectual Life at the Zaytuna Mosque-University
Authors: Weideman, Julian
Advisors: Weiss, Max
Contributors: History Department
Subjects: History
North African studies
Islamic studies
Issue Date: 2021
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: This dissertation reinterprets Islamic reform (Ar. iṣlāḥ) in the 20th century using a case study of the Zaytuna Mosque University, one of the largest centers for Muslim higher education in North Africa, the French empire, and the Arab lands. I examine the Zaytuna during the French protectorate in Tunisia (1881-1956) with reference to debates on both French colonial history and modern Islam. The dissertation is the first English-language, book-length study of the Zaytuna that focuses on the 20th century. Paradigmatically, scholarship frames Islamic reform in the colonial era, everywhere from South-East Asia to West Africa, in terms of “convergence” or “reconciliation” of Muslim scholarly traditions and European thinkers such as Marx, Darwin, Weber, or Renan. This reflects a prevailing emphasis on textual analysis. In contrast, foregrounding the institution of the Zaytuna, my central assertion is that the reform program took place on the economic, social, and intellectual margins of the colonial order. Using the Zaytuna’s own sources—never previously employed in English- or French-language scholarship—I show how the French administration withdrew from the Zaytuna decades before Tunisia’s independence in 1956. After separating from the protectorate’s education ministry in the late 19th century, the Zaytuna built up its own bureaucracy, whose documents are lodged today in the Tunisian National Archives. More than French officials, members of Tunisia’s Ottoman-era, beylical administration left intact under the protectorate performed key supervisory and regulatory roles. The Zaytuna’s rich source base, which I supplement with administrative and surveillance material from archives throughout metropolitan France, reveals the changing political economy of Islamic reform. Zaytuna students from provincial backgrounds—among the most marginalized constituencies in the protectorate—constituted the vanguard of reform. Using a broad repertoire of tactics, including strategies such as hunger strikes, students confronted the professors and administrators of their own university. These elite Zaytunians disciplined their students, in effect working against the reform process. My praxis-oriented analysis reveals tensions within the category of “Islamic reform,” a category that existing literature has tended to accept as stable and unified. From the socio-economic base of the often-contentious reform cause, I move to the notably coherent intellectual life at the Zaytuna under colonial rule. Citing print material from Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt, I analyze Zaytunian social and legal thought across local, regional, and global scales. Crucially, while the Zaytuna was riven by fault lines of class, professional status, regional background, and age, the institution articulated a shared moral outlook and reformist discourse on the margins of French North Africa. Although colonialism constrained the Zaytuna, it failed to achieve what Terence Ranger attributes to other colonial regimes in Africa: the “invention of tradition.” In the area of shariʿa personal status law, Zaytunians retained significant autonomy. It was after independence that the Tunisian Republic canonized, territorialized, archived, and re-branded Zaytunian thought using a powerful but reductive discourse of “Tunisian Islam.”
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog:
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:History

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