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Aaron Rock-Singer

  • Near Eastern Studies
Position: Graduate Student
Title: 5th-year graduate student
Office: Jones Hall

I am a historian of Islamic thought and social practice with a particular interest in material culture. I did my B.A. at the University of Pennsylvania and my M.Phil at St. Antony’s College, Oxford. At Princeton, my dissertation examines four Islamic magazines representing a range of Islamic institutions and political positions between 1976 and 1981 as a key sit for the formation of what we now call “Islamic Revival” in Egypt. Methodologically, I draw on European studies of textual culture and an ethnographic emphasis on Islamic ritual practice to chart the continuities and ruptures of Islamic thought and practice in the modern period. This approach emphasize the Islamic intellectual and social history as “lived religion,” highlighting the relationship between structures of religious authority and practitioners while also challenging any strict division between “low” and “high” in the emergence of religious change. Based on this approach, my research reorients the study of religious transformation away from elite projects of top-down change towards the ostensibly apolitical yet nonetheless socially momentous reconfiguration of space and time through the daily practices of pious (and impious) Muslims.
My dissertation examines the emergence of the Islamic Revival in Egypt between 1976 and 1981 and the interaction of religious authorities and lay Muslims therein. This mass religious awakening is conventionally identified with the reign of Anwar al-Sadat (1970–1981), yet the exact pathways by which increasing numbers of Egyptians came to embrace public forms of piety, including modest dress, regular prayer, and voluntary religious education, is largely confined to analysis of religious elites. My dissertation, by contrast, uses Islamic magazines from this period as cultural artifacts that reveal negotiations over both this medium of religious guidance and over the competing piety projects of the Islamic Revival. In particular, it draws on a comparatively neglected component of these magazines—letters to the editor and fatwa requests—to chart the ways in which readers-turned-participants helped to shape the textual culture and programmatic visions of piety this period. It is only by historically contextualizing both the dynamics of these popular texts and the projects contained therein that contemporary religious developments (and their complications) become comprehensible. 
Alongside my dissertation research, I have two articles which have already been accepted for publication, and another two which are under consideration. An article in the British Journal of Middle East Studies, titled “‘Amr Khaled: From Da‘wa to Political and Religious Authority,” explores the rise of this Muslim televangelist in contemporary Egypt while an edited volume chapter, “Scholarly Authority and Lay Mobilization: Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s Vision of Da‘wa, 1976-1984,” examines the early preaching efforts of Sunni Islam’s most prominent scholar. This previous research on practices of Islamic outreach (da‘wa) in contemporary Egypt is complemented by two more recent studies on the social and intellectual history of religious practice in 1970s Egypt. The first, titled “The Salafi Mystique,” hones in on the development of Salafi concepts of public piety in Egypt between 1970 and 1981. Drawing on both pamphlets and magazines of this period, it historically contextualizes the prevalence of the face veil (niqab) in contemporary Egypt among Salafis by showing that contemporary Egyptian Salafi prohibitions on women revealing their face or hands emerged primarily from political competition with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s rather from unquestioned textual proofs. A second article, derived from my dissertation, employs descriptive statistics derived from the author line of letters to the editor and fatwa requests to both chart and compare the geographic contours and socioeconomic position of readers in Statist, Brotherhood, and Salafi magazines in Egypt between 1976 and 1981. It complements this profile with texts from within the magazines, exploring how and why readers from similar areas and in similar socioeconomic positions embraced competing religious visions. I have served also served as a teaching assistant for “Muslims and the Quran” with Professor Muhammad Qasim Zaman and “Introduction to the Middle East” with Professors Michael Cook and Cyrus Schayegh.