Zarate, Arthur

Field: Middle East; Advisor: Khalidi; Year: 2011

I am a doctoral candidate in Department of History at Columbia University. I began my academic career at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, a small community college in my hometown. I received my BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I became a graduate student at Columbia in 2011. 
My dissertation, titled "Rethinking Islamic Reform: Liberalism, Aristotelian Ethics, and Sufism in Egypt, 1947-1967," is an intellectual biography of the Egyptian Muslim reformer, Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (1917-1996), a thinker whose ideas have been foundational to the trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although reformist conceptions of Islam, particularly their “Islamist” forms, are often depicted in an antagonistic relationship with liberalism, Greco-Islamic philosophy, and Islamic mysticism (Sufism), my research shows how quintessential aspects of liberal culture and religion—American self-help and spiritualism—Islamic formulations of Aristotelian ideas, and Sufi arguments about the superiority of the esoteric over the exoteric were central to the thinking of one of the twentieth century’s foremost Muslim reformers. His life and work, I argue, challenge the dominant scholarly narrative on Islamic Reform. This narrative—which echoes in popular media portrayals of so-called “Islamic fundamentalists” as political opportunists, hostile towards non-Islamic ideas—holds that reformers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries sought to purify “Islam” from foreign accretions, and render it legalistic, rationalistic, and subservient to worldly imperatives. By tracing the diverse ethical traditions that informed this eminent reformer’s views, my research not only contests the depiction of reformist Islam as a hermetically sealed monolith, but also shows that modern reformers, like Ghazālī, were far more indebted to premodern ethical thought than previously acknowledged. It thus pays close attention to how Ghazālī’s views overlapped with those of his classical predecessors, including Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), a seminal scholar known for his Islamic reformulation of Aristotelian ethics and integration of Sufism into sharī‘a (Islamic law) aligned Islam. Ghazālī’s moorings in his classical heritage, I argue, challenge the presumed rupture between premodern and modern Islamic intellectual history.
My dissertation research has been made possible by funding from the Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation, and the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life in New York, as well as extensive Arabic language training facilitated by fellowships from the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad in Cairo, Egypt and the U.S. State Department.


I am also working on a second book which explores a postcolonial revival of interest in Sufism among Egyptian Muslim reformers titled, Sufism in the Age of Islamic Revival


I am currently a adjunct lecturer in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, where I am teaching an introduction to Islamic civilization and an introduction to the modern Middle East.