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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

General Director and Member of the Board of Directors of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies. Dr. Bishara is a researcher and writer with numerous books and publications on political thought, social theory and philosophy, as well as some literary works. He taught philosophy and cultural studies at Birzeit University from 1986 to 1996, and was involved in the establishment of research centers in Palestine including the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy (Muwatin) and the Mada al-Carmel Center for Applied Social Research. In 2007 he was forced to go into exile after being prosecuted by Israel. In 2002 he won the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought, and in 2003 the Global Exchange Human Rights Award. He received his doctorate in philosophy in 1986 at Humboldt University in Berlin, having previously completed his master’s degree there in 1984.

Dr. Bishara has published hundreds of papers and studies in academic journals in various languages. His best-known publications include: On the Arab Question: An Introduction to an Arab Democratic Manifesto; Civil Society: A Critical Study; Religion and Secularity in Historical Context (two parts in three volumes); On Revolution and Revolutionary Potential; Is There a Coptic Issue in Egypt?; To be an Arab in our Times; The Army and Politics: Theoretical Problems and Arab Models; Essay on Freedom; Sect, Sectarianism and Imagined Sects; What is Salafism?; and The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Daesh): A General Framework and Critical Contribution to Understanding the Phenomenon. Some of these books have become seminal works in their field.

He also produced a series of three books documenting the Arab revolutions that broke out in 2011: The Glorious Tunisian Revolution; Syria: The Painful Road to Freedom; and Egypt’s Revolution (two volumes). These books deal with the causes and stages of the revolutions in Tunisia, Syria, and Egypt. These books are a rich contribution to the field of contemporary history thanks to their combination of documentation and narration of the day-to-day details of these revolutions and sharp analysis making connections between the social, economic and political backgrounds of each individual 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.