Catherine Lytle: A new type of reformation

When there is an alteration in an individual’s environment, be it political or sociological, then there is a potential for change. While this change can be considered as ‘progress’ it will not necessarily be positive progress. Everything begins with the self; we are all unique. The geist in the Hegelian sense is the constant improvement and refinement of an individual1. Perhaps if there is a surge for a common goal, such as the creation of a democratically elected government as there was in Tunisia, then there is a possibility for what we consider ‘progress’ to be in the utilitarian sense. However, as each individual improves and refines themselves to different standards there cannot be a consensus of what improvement is and therefore what ‘progress’ is as it cannot be deemed as a universal truth. There is no such thing as a perfect society in which progress is an ever continuing slope until we reach utopia; rather if we consider the geist as an entity that improves in reaction to a present state of being and adjusts to the demands and beliefs of the present society, there is a possibility for a ‘reformation’.

Recently, MENA Muslim states have wrestled with the concept of a nation state and the transition from a single-party police state to one where citizens are allowed to vote. For example, Tunisia  “succeeded in developing a modernist constitution that stipulates freedom of conscience and guarantees the rights of women and minorities…[culminating] in an independent, technocratic government tasked with managing the process of holding free and fair elections.”2 This change doesn’t necessarily indicate ‘progress’ as much as it indicates a change in a way of living. In Morocco a similar transition was possible because “King Muhammad VI, is said to be a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad [giving] him a degree of legitimacy”  which military dictators like Qaddafi or Muhammad Morsi didn’t have or failed to maintain for so much as a year.3 Even though the outcome was similar in both counties in the ‘reformation’ aspect, the process was different. The King of Morrocco remains in power, but he “wanted representatives from across the political spectrum… [to draft] a progressive modern document”4 and according to Karina Piser “political Islam can…be feasible in a democracy, though it will be forced to adapt to the will of the voters [and] adjust to political circumstances.”5 Neither one of these models is exportable and therefore each country must ‘reform,’ and adjust to the demands and beliefs of its society and not its neighbor’s society rather than striving for one universal formula.  Reformation does not always indicate progress as in seen in many Eastern European counties, where people have legally elected officials who are versions of the elected who governed under an authoritarian government. The countries reformed but did not progress.

However, if an attempt to ‘progress’ or ‘reform’ backfires, it can hurt the community even more than before as it did during the so called ‘Arab-Spring’. If there are too many detachments of individuals then that [progress] can become a conductor of violence,6 which, Hallaq views as a destructive phenomenon that has unleashed the disenchanted narcissistic individual and the scientifically determined homo economicus.7 This is can be seen in that the parameters of progress are established by the West while the rest of the world follows8 willingly forgetting their own cultural practices and traditions to pave way for the sake progress9.  Sometimes it is nationalism that comes to the rescue in an attempt to save the state and its individuals.

In response to ‘Westoxication’ Brown sums up the struggle as one between those prepared to adjust to the world as it is versus those insisting on making the world adjust to the their image of what the world ought to be10. The two outcomes of this premise are losing aspects of cultural practices and religion in lieu of Western ideals or alternatively attempting to fight the current with the possibility of succumbing to being occupied. I am a firm believer of cultural and linguistic preservation and therefore I believe that through the reaffirmation of the geist there is possibility for progress in the assurance and security of one’s own identity. The problem of using the term ‘nationalism’ in the Middle East and North Africa is that it is difficult to draw a line between ethnicity and political borders since everyone is of same ethnicity. Languages are not aligned with countries11. As the creation of race and borders is a Western phenomenon that strives to create binarisms wherever possible it is more important than ever to reaffirm ones identity through the arts and literature.

During the British occupation of the Suez Canal English street signs were mounted12, however, hand-in-hand with colonial educational reforms emerges a radically different image of language and literature13. As literacy increased a language purified of foreign words and spoken by the common people began to rise14, diminishing the division between a small literate elite and the great mass of the population. This is very important in trying to decrease the grasp that the occupier has on the occupied as it creates a sense of unity among the individuals, however, during this search for identity and cultural reformation we must be weary that the artificial does not become the real.

As these individuals unite they would be forced to confront the idea of a ‘state.’ Even though there is no consensus as to what a state is but through historical processes there are certain qualities which are essential in a ‘state.’ Hallaq describes the state something with a fundamental structure that the state has possessed for at least a century and containing a set of variables that morph within the given framework. There are five-form properties without which at this point it is impossible to call something a ‘state’: a constitution that is fairly specific and local, sovereignty, legislative monopoly, bureaucratic machinery and cultural-hegemonic engagement15. In my own experience, the emphasis must be placed on the ‘specific and local.’

The state is the reflection of the individual and mirrors what the individual is doing: if the individual reforms then the state must adjust.  The friendship and harmony between the state and its individuals is not formulaic and therefore ‘progress’ cannot be universal.  The individual must embrace its language and arts to reaffirm who they really are and then reflect those qualities within the state that they wish to live it. If the state in on the path to becoming a new God for which citizens are able to comfortably sacrifice themselves then the it must place the individual’s well being at the heart of its agenda. The state must reform with the individual’s demands and beliefs and not against it.




  1. Wael B Hallaq, The Impossible State, 17
  2.  Rached Gannouchi, “Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World” Huffington Post, February 9, 2016.
  3.  Michael J. Totten “Is Morocco the Model for an Arab Democracy” The Tower magazine, August 2013.
  4. ibid
  5.  Karina Piser, “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy” Foreign Policy,  March 31, 2016.
  6.  Wael B Hallaq, The Impossible State, 17
  7. ibid 4
  8. ibid 3
  9.  Mahallati, class lecture, September 26
  10.  L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, 90
  11.  Mahallati, class lecture, September 21
  12.  L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, 143
  13.  Wael B Hallaq, The Impossible State, 106
  14.  L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, 106
  15.  Wael B Hallaq, The Impossible State, 23.



Brown, L. Carl, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000)

Gannouchi, Rached, “Islam, Democracy and the Future of the Muslim World” Huffington Post. February 9, 2016, (accessed October 12 2016)

Hallaq, Wael B. The Impossible State. Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

Jackson, Sherman A. Islamic Law and the State: The Constitutional Jurisprudence if Shihab al-Din al-Quarafi. (Leiden: Brill, 1996)

Piser, Karina “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy” Foreign Policy.  March 31, 2016. (accessed October 12 2016)

Totten, Michael J. “Is Morocco the Model for an Arab Democracy” The Tower magazine. August 2013. (accessed October 12 2016)