The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ Tunis office concluded its three-day academic symposium “On the Political Realm in Islamic Countries”, from October 8-10, 2015. Held in cooperation with the Center for the Study of Elites, Scholarship and Cultural Institutions in the Mediterranean (“Elites, Savoirs et institutions culturelles en Méditerranée”) at the University of Tunisia-Manouba, the meeting offered an opportunity for Arab and international experts to discuss the political realm in the Muslim world.

Over the course of the three days, more than 40 specialists presented their work, in sessions grouped in one the following themes: “The Roots of Islamic Political Theory”; “Authority in Muslim Societies in Theory and Practice”; “Ethics and Political Praxis”; “The Intellectual Legacy of Islam and the State”; “Elites and Politics”; “Islam at the Gates of Modernity”; “The Revival of Islam: a Lost Opportunity?”; “Islam and Secularism (‘Laique’, or ‘Rule of the laity’)”; and “Islam, Democracy and Modernity”. Opening the discussions, Dr. Mehdi Mabrouk, Head of the ACRPS Tunis Office, explained that the overall aim of the participants was to interrogate the complex and often ambiguous relationship between religion and politics, at a time when Muslim countries hold out an increasingly aberrant exception to the rest of the world, where acts of violence are cloaked in religion.

One of the earlier speakers at the meeting, Dr. Mohammed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti, fleshed out Mabrouk’s introductory ideas with his paper on “The Constitutional Crisis within Islamic Civilization”. In it, El-Shinqiti elaborated on what he termed a “constitutional crisis”, defining it as the “ethical dichotomy presented by the political values first espoused by Islam in contrast to the imperial experience of Muslim societies, which radically diverged from Islam’s founding principles”. According to El-Shinqiti, “it would be no exaggeration to say that the effects of this paradox have made themselves felt throughout the history of Islamic civilization, within every facet of Islamic civilization—including its self-consciousness as well as its relation to ‘the Other’.”

Another speaker at the meeting was Tunisian academic Salem Ayadi, whose paper focused on “Religion and Civil Polity in the Philosophy of Al Farabi”, in which he discussed the ability of philosopher Farabi to establish a link between the theological aspect of religion and the political aspect of civil polity. In his presentation, Ayadi tried to explain Farabi’s attempt to resolve the human mind from any potential tension between the theoretical basis of urban existence (metaphysics) and its religious root (theology).

Also from Tunisia was scholar Yassine Karamti, whose paper specifically focused on the question of authority enjoyed by a Wali in relation to his Murids within Sufi Muslim circles. Titled “The Wali, The Jurisprudent and the Sultan: an Anthropological Approach to the Relationship of the Wali to Politics”. Karamti presented the case study of Sidi Bu Ali, a Sufi Wali who lived between the 12th and 13th centuries, and whose teachings continue to resonate amongst Tunisians in the south of the country. Karamti’s paper went on to describe how Sidi Bu Ali came to embody three distinct roles: that of Wali, of Jurisprudent and of temporal ruler embodied in the title of “Sultan”, and how these three aspects of Sidi Bu Ali’s personality were recreated in the collective imagination of southern Tunisia.

In closing the proceedings, speakers Dr. Mabrouk and Dr. Brahim Jadla commended the spirit of cooperation between the ACRPS and the Center for the Study of Elites, Scholarship and Cultural Institutions in the Mediterranean in organizing the event and selecting the papers discussed.