Abstract

History has been difficult to dislodge from its colonial trajectory in spite of at least a half-century of post-Orientalist critique. Accordingly, a critical theory that is genuinely global in its lineaments is difficult to establish as practice without more decolonial histories of the modern world. This paper thus moves on two fronts in order to meet the stated objectives of expanding the field of critical theory while tracking “untimely traditions” and the horizons they’ve drawn. It will offer a history of anticolonial practice that was simultaneously theorized within a distinct Islamic mystical tradition and against a globally emerging conception of state sovereignty (on which much of history writing wittingly or unwittingly concentrates). These political and intellectual histories converge around the biography of a nineteenth-century itinerant Sufi, Sayyid Fadl Ibn Alawi. The critical potentiality of this life will be extrapolated into the present by considering the death-defying horizons opened by the newly expanded repertoire available to a mystical tradition, which allows us to reflect on the anticolonial as an ontology refused and yet a promise. Finally, the paper seeks to answer a question that was only treated partially in my recent book For God or Empire. Does the mysticism of this tradition devolve into apolitical practices or does its survival and even proliferation compel a revisioning of emancipation in history and in theory?

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