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Studies 20 February, 2018

Ta’ifah, Sect and Sectarianism: From The Etymology of the Term and it’s Variable Implications to an Analytical Sociological Term

Azmi Bishara

Azmi Bishara is the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). He is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. A prominent Arab writer and scholar, Bishara has published numerous books and academic papers in political thought, social theory, and philosophy, in addition to several literary works, including: Civil Society: A Critical Study (1996); On the Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Statement (2007); Religion and Secularism in Historical Context (3 volumes 2011-2013); On Revolution and Susceptibility to Revolution (2012); The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context: Theoretical Problems (2017); Essay on Freedom (2016); Sect, Sectarianism, and Imagined Sects (2017); What is Salafism? (2018); The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon (2018); What is Populism? (2019) and Democratic Transition and its Problems: Theoretical Lessons from Arab Experiences (2020). Some of these works have become key references within their respective field.

As part of a wider project chronicling, documenting, and analyzing the Arab revolutions of 2011, Bishara has also published three key volumes: The Glorious Tunisian Revolution (2011); Syria's Via Dolorosa to Freedom: An Attempt at Contemporary History (2013) and The Great Egyptian Revolution (in two volumes) (2014). Each book deals with the revolution’s background, path, and different stages. In their narration and detail of the revolutions’ daily events, these volumes constitute a key reference in what is known as contemporary history along with an analytical component that interlinks the social, economic and political contexts of each revolution.

This article, a chapter from the author’s recently published book (March 2018) titled, Ta’ifah, Sectarianism and Imagined Sects, attempts to build fundamental conceptual idiomatic distinctions between community according to religious or confessional affiliation (at-tai’fah), sectarianism (at-ta’ifiyyah) and confessionalism (al-madhabiyyah) – concepts and phenomena that are deeply intertwined. The author also explores related concepts such as identity, religious affiliation, sect, difference, fanaticism (taasub), and others. Bishara analyzes the linguistic and semantic conceptual evolution of the term sectarianism, as well as the evolution of the term through the concepts of confession/group (firqa), sect (tai’fa), and craft (hirfa) – concepts that reflect on the ways (turuq), the occupational and professional congregations as well as the Sufi orders, within Islamic society. All of these developments are examined to reach an understanding of the widespread modern Arabic term sectarianism – sectarianism being a modern term, and sect an old one. Through a critical debate with the modern Western sociological concepts of sectarianism (al-ta’ifiyyah or al-firqiyyah), the study attempts to develop the term “sect” as an analytical sociological term that can be used to analyze the formation, evolution, and characteristics of new contemporary imagined communities, according to religious communities that the author calls imagined sects in his book. One of the major theses in this work is that modern religious communities (tawa’if: plural of tai’fah) do not produce sectarianism; rather, it is sectarianism which breeds the imagined communities that the author calls imagined sects.

To read the full text of this paper, available free of charge on JSTOR click here. 

The Arabic version of this study was originally published in Issue 23 (Winter, 2018) of Omran, a scholarly quarterly published by the ACRPS and devoted to the social sciences and humanities. 

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