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Empire, Islam and the Invention of 'Politics' in Egypt: Leigh Douglas Prize for Dr Hussein Omar's thesis

7th November 2017

Pembroke Junior Research Fellow in History Dr Hussein Omar received a runner up prize in this year’s British Society Middle East Studies Leigh Douglas Prize for his thesis: The Rule of Strangers: Empire, Islam and the Invention of ‘Politics’ in Egypt 1867-1914. His provocative work engages with scholarly, historiographical and methodological debates surrounding Egyptian politics of the late 19th and early 20th century. We caught up with him to find out more about the significance of this research.

‘My research takes up the puzzle of why Egypt appears to have contributed little to the global corpus of political thought. Although the country witnessed two major revolutions in 1882 and 1919, there are no histories of the ideas they generated or the thought that fueled them. Colonial governors suggested that Egyptians were mere ‘political ciphers’, and pointed to the absence of abstract political theory in the post-classical Islamicate world as evidence for this assertion, which contemporary historians have accepted uncritically. 

Against these claims, I argue that this apparent deficit of ideas is more the product of foundational assumptions on the part of historians than an actual reflection of Egypt’s intellectual history. I show how these assumptions are bequeathed to present-day historians by the colonial archive upon which they rely.’

The Leigh-Douglas Memorial Prize judges observed that ‘The argument creatively engages with a wide range of theoretical literature and shows a strong knowledge of the relevant material of the topic…Rich in original insights this is a dissertation that represents a clear contribution to the field and would be most welcome as a fuller publication.’ Read their full commentary here.

In addition to this recent success, part of Dr Omar’s thesis was published last week in the opening essay of ‘Islam after Liberalism’ and the full thesis has been commissioned for publication by Oxford University Press as part of the Oxford Historical Monographs series.

The Leigh Douglas Memorial Prize was established jointly in 1986 by the Leigh Douglas Memorial Fund and BRISMES in memory of Dr Leigh Douglas who was killed in Beirut in 1986.The prize is awarded annually to the writer of the best PhD dissertation on a Middle Eastern topic in the Social Sciences or Humanities awarded by a British University.