When Bad Scholarship Is Just Bad Scholarship: A Response to Omid Safi

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by Aaron W. Hughes

I’ve never been called a racist before. Yet, if Omid Safi’s undocumented musings about the current state of Islamic Studies is to be believed, I am one of several non-Muslims who have the nerve to attack and critique “the prominence of Muslim scholars in the Study of Islam Section” of the AAR. It’s funny, but I never thought of myself as critiquing Muslims, only bad scholarship.

I could respond in so many ways. Who says I’m not a Muslim? Who cares? That he can classify me with Richard “Martin” and David “Freidenreich,” two scholars for whom I have a lot of respect, I guess implies, by innuendo, that “Hughes” is not a Muslim name.  If I told him that my grandfather’s name was “Nejdi,” that he was a Lebanese Shi`i, that he was responsible for the construction of the first mosque in Canada (the masjid al-Rashid in Edmonton, Alberta)—would this make any difference to him? Apparently not.  Safi has already lumped me into the category “Islamophobe” because my work is “grossly polemical.” According to his reading, I am an enemy of Islamic Studies because I insist on issues that transcend particularistic and apologetical concerns.

I have criticized Safi in print. His soft and historically inaccurate portrayal of Muhammad in Memories of Muhammad is woeful. But, and here I differ from him, I believe in giving evidence as to why bad scholarship is bad scholarship. I list, seriatim, why his argument is weak. It is based on a misreading of the sources, of wanting to find solid ground when all we possess is quicksand, of engaging in hermeneutical legerdemain. I counter his utopic vision with a dystopian universe. And I do so, moreover, with fact and with argumentation, not with insinuation. I don’t care whether he is a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, or a member of the Seneca First Nation. I care about scholarship. I do so because, as a scholar, my first commitment is to uncovering truth. Not to apologetics; not to wishful thinking. Perhaps this is what he is upset about.

If scholarship is to be scholarship, as opposed to identity politics, it must take ideas seriously, and not engage in a “with us or against us” mentality. I am glad, pace Safi, that there are more Muslims (men and women) in the field of Islamic Studies. I also wish that there were more Muslims in Buddhist Studies, in Jewish Studies, and in Christian Studies.

Perhaps Safi is upset because I occupy a Chair in Jewish Studies? We all know that Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam. Perhaps this is also why he is so critical of David Freidenreich, who also occupies such a position. Freidenreich’s award winning scholarship is bizarrely referred to as “outdated” by Safi. I won’t speak for Freidenreich, but, I can probably guarantee Safi that my thinking of Jewish-Palestinian issues far transcends his wildest “liberal” (read: illiberal) dreams. But this is not the point, unless, of course, people like Safi want to make it the point. Please tell us, Omid, what is your point? Are you upset that Muslim scholars must face questions? Are we simply to accept what those with names such as “Safi,” “Rahman,” and “Moosa” say because, well, they have those names?

So, Mr. Safi, if you want to engage my critique of the field, may I suggest you do what the Western tradition of scholarly discourse demands and respond to my ideas in print as opposed to engaging in innuendo and identity politics. If you do so, I will, to be certain, learn from your critique and format my previous positions accordingly. I will respond to you, and perhaps a conversation will ensue. What I will not do is pejoratively call you a “Muslim.” I presume that this is what you want me to do. But I am not Fox News. I am not a Neo-Con who thinks Islam is a danger to national or any other kind of security.  Detailed and documented scholarship is the way scholarship works. You should know better than to introduce identity politics where none previously existed. If this is all you can rely on then you have no sense of the field, only opinion and pseudo-science.

To write someone off, paternalistically, as engaging in “friendly concern” (as you do Richard Martin), or, critically, as “inaccurately outdated” (as you do David Freidenreich) or as “grossly polemical and simplistic” (as you do me) without a shred of argument is, simply stated, irresponsible. You have created a line. On this side are insiders; on that side, outsiders. I fell vindicated because I have been writing from some years now that this would be one possible future of Islamic Studies. I see that I was correct, but trust me I don’t gloat about it.

Mr. Safi, you have introduced race, religion, and ethnicity into this debate when none has previously been mentioned. I guess this is the way you argue. You end citing the work of, among others, “scholars like Sherman Jackson, Amina Wadud, Jonathan Brown, Kecia Ali, Ingrid Mattson.” Many, though certainly not all, of these individuals engage in special pleading. Is this the future of Islamic Studies for you?

Are we simply to agree with you because of your last name?

Sometimes, Mr. Safi, bad scholarship is just bad scholarship.

Your musings, as impressionistic as they are based on identity politics, are all that is wrong with Islamic Studies (at least in Religious Studies) at the present moment. It also shows how far Islamic Studies must travel to engage with non-apologetical Humanities scholarship.

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Rochester. Professor Hughes’s books include:  The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (Oxford UP, 2012), The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (SUNY Press, 2013), and the forthcoming Rethinking Jewish Philosophy: Beyond Particularity and Universality (Oxford UP, 2014).

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27 Responses to When Bad Scholarship Is Just Bad Scholarship: A Response to Omid Safi

  1. Sarah Murphy says:

    This response to Omid Safi is unclear. I am not sure here what Hughes is upset about, apart from the fact that he feels Safi has heavily critiqued polemical works by “outsiders.” I would much rather have seen an analysis of how Safi constructs insider/outsider issues in Islamic Studies – or how Safi, along with other scholars do that. We need a discussion on insider/outsider issues, but sorry, Hughes, this is not the way to do it.

    • Carl says:

      I believe Hughes’ complaint is with the categorization of his work as “polemical” (“a strong verbal or written attack on someone or something”) in the first place.

    • Aaron Hughes says:

      Sarah,

      I have dealt with this explicitly in my *Situating Islam (Equinox, 2006),* *Theorizing Islam (Acumen, 2012),* and “Muslim Identities* (Columbia 2013)

      aaron

      • Sarah Murphy says:

        I think you have engaged in ad hominem attacks, rather than providing an academic response to Safi’s discussion about the field. And from everything I know, Islam or Muslims are NOT the enemy of Judaism or Jews. That is a false idea if I ever saw one, affecting politics and academics now too.

        • I agree with you Sarah. I too didn’t get what Hughes wanted to say in this article other than personally attacking Safi. It seems that there are some issues between Safi and Hughes (academic and maybe personal too) that the general reader are not aware of. On my part, I can’t see how the mere phrase “grossly polemical” can provoke such an angry attack. It is strong, no doubt, but doesn’t justify such an emotional tone.

    • Parveneh Sarshar says:

      Omid Safi libels people he doesn’t like. He’s not a “scholar” and is a person of the lowest moral character.

  2. Carl says:

    My comment is not intended to dismiss the concerns laid out above, but I’d highlight an point you touched on (and, by extension, others of its ilk).

    As a PhD student in a U.S. Religious Studies program (now entering the dissertation phase), I am struck by the current emic-etic tension in the subfield of Islamic Studies. While I don’t feel the need to hash out the particulars here (Dr. Safi’s article and your response frame things quite well), I am excited by what turns out to be a living, breathing example of the so-called “Insider-Outsider Debate” in the ‘discipline’ of Religious Studies. I agree wholeheartedly that scholarship on Muhammad should be rigorous, methodical, and, ultimately, devoid of apologetics/polemics, yet any of us who entered or completed a PhD program in this field in the past 20 years must surely be aware that the “Quest of the Historical Muhammad” is one of the two primary minefields of early 21st-century Religious Studies (with the aforementioned Wendy Doniger bravely exploring the other).

    I do not claim to be an expert with respect to scholarship on Muhammad (my own work is more closely tied to topics broadly categorized as ‘Islam and the West’), but my own sense of things is that, today, one writes about the “historical Muhammad” at one’s own professional peril (which is one reason I have not chosen that particular path). The theoretically-sloppy moniker of “Islamophobe” is tossed around with alarming ease in our field, invariably casting as “racist” an academic whose sole “mistake” is to approach Muhammad as Albert Schweitzer did of Jesus in 1910. The modern-day white, Western (often male) Islamicist—by virtue of his skin color and nationality rather than the merits of his scholarship—is inevitably burned at the stake of the “colonial invader.” To be sure, it is an unfair categorization, but it should certainly not be unexpected (we can ‘thank’ Edward Said for this). As such, the tension here is not simply religious, but political as well (if, indeed, the two are not, in reality, one).

    It seems to me that we do future religion scholars (be they “insider,” “outsider,” or “both”) a disservice if we allow such conversations to revolve around the weight of one’s scholarship and miss the very real issues surrounding those who study, as human, a figure upon whom rests the divine imprimatur. I propose we approach the current debate over the “historical Muhammad” for what it is: a rare opportunity to study *the* central tension within our field. That AAR is a confusing morass of theologians and Humanities scholars pretending to speak a common language strikes me as given. That the “Religion” in “AAR” is of tremendous theoretical importance seems not to be (I have some theories as to why). This debate within Islamic Studies could prove helpful in cutting through this quagmire, providing that rarest of opportunities afforded to religion scholars: the chance to examine the ages-old tension between ‘believer’ and ‘skeptic’ “in the flesh,” so to speak.

    *Before I suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for my use of the term “insider” or “outsider,” let me confess to having my own concerns about the theoretical usefulness of such descriptors. That said, in the popular medium of a blog post, I believe they have some value.

    • Aaron Hughes says:

      Hi Carl,

      I like your post, and I think you are dead on. I think Islamic Studies is going through growing pains at the moment (in large part brought about by 9/11). My worry–and I have tenure!–is that the insider approach will carry the day with the result that scholarship–that arena in which ideas are formulated, tested, and critiqued–will be replaced by identity politics. This is the only reason why I “outed”myself: to implode Safi’s essentialized binaries.

      The AAR is a mess because of this. The Study of Islam is not unique. We could say the same for Jewish Studies, Buddhism, Hinduism (as you allude to).

      I’d be happy to talk more about this off-list with you. Feel free to email me.
      aaron

    • Matt Sheedy says:

      Hi Carl,

      I like your response very much and would like to consider posting it (or some revised variation) on the Bulletin site. I am the blog editor.

      If you’re interested then please let me know. In either case, please send me a message at matt_sheedy@umanitoba.ca.

  3. MP says:

    I found Safi’s original piece rather problematic, and I do agree with many of the above points — though I find the tone here rather harsh. I feel compelled to point out, however, that Safi’s characterization of Freidenreich’s argument as “outdated” refers not to his work in general or to his prizewinning book, but rather specifically to an argument he made in an AAR panel discussing the recent critique of Hughes (a panel to which I believe Hughes was invited, but unfortunately could not attend). Freidenreich and Safi are now engaged in a discussion about this via the AAR listserv. I think it’s important to recognize that Safi’s critique is not levied at Freidenreich or his work in general, but only at aspects of his attempt to compare the development of the fields of Jewish Studies and Islamic Studies.

  4. Jonathan Brown says:

    I’ve never commented on anything other than facebook, so I’m not sure how this works. Someone sent this article to me. What is “special pleading,” and I am (allegedly) guilty of it?

  5. Peter Klok says:

    I wish that the discussion here only alluded to, would be more squarely presented.

  6. Hugh Slaman says:

    Hi Aaron,

    I do like the idea that scholarship is an arena in which ideas can be formulated, tested and critiqued, and not an arena in which identity politics govern the discussion.

    The problem, though, is that the way in which scholarship actually gets done and presented allows plenty of room for suspicions that identity politics are playing a role in the research, no matter how apparently “objective” the presentation appears to be.

    I think what is needed is a clearer understanding of how we can actually gain reliable information about past events and processes; and then a way for historians to express their inferences and arguments which allows everyone to see exactly what their presuppositions and assumptions are.

    At the moment, the writing of history in general is very impressionistic and subjective, in that conclusions are stated authoritatively with no clear idea of what they are based on. When a very learned scholar like Wilferd Madelung writes on the early caliphate, for example, you are left in no doubt about his immersion in the sources. Unfortunately, immersion in the sources in no way prevents anyone from making blatantly fallacious inferences or indulging in flights of fancy, and this is how Madelung’s interpretations strike me.

    If this is the way history in general is done, then there is no way that historians can avoid the suspicion of being biased, no matter what their good intentions might happen to be. What is needed is for historians to lay out the key elements of their arguments very explicitly, including any presuppositions about religious issues that they make.

  7. I don’t understand what’s going on. In the offending article, which was really not so offending apart from the crude mis-characterization of Aaron and other “outsiders,” Safi actually makes the same point made by Aaron himself, as to the urgent need for more methodological and theoretical sophistication on the part of scholars of Islam, especially on the part of “insiders.”

  8. aaron hughes says:

    Hi Zak,

    I think “theory and method” in our two posts are, what the Rambam might call, amphibolous terms.

    aaron

  9. joshuayahia says:

    Aaron writes:

    ” I don’t care whether he is a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, or a member of the Seneca First Nation. I care about scholarship. I do so because, as a scholar, my first commitment is to uncovering truth.”

    This statement about “uncovering the truth” in itself should give one pause about the scholarship of someone (Aaron) who wants to question the scholarship of someone else (Omid).

  10. I am both bemused and saddened by Mr. Hughes’s reactionary and unbecoming response to Omid. Based on Omid’s reflection, it is unclear to me why Hughes would undignify himself with this sort of vitriol. Omid’s piece hardly warrants this.

  11. Maria Nosh Saskia says:

    “So, Mr. Safi, if you want to engage my critique of the field, may I suggest you do what the Western tradition of scholarly discourse demands and respond to my ideas in print as opposed to engaging in innuendo and identity politics. If you do so, I will, to be certain, learn from your critique and format my previous positions accordingly.”

    My gosh, I cannot even begin to grasp the basis of the ill-logic of Aaron’s so-called “scholarly” response. Mr. Aaron seems to be operating in an archaic world that he has forced himself to believe is “scholarly,” as opposed to “identity politics.” Who can purvey these claims about scholarship and “Western tradition” without already smuggling in politically-deadly presumptions about theory and its proper (whatever) location, indeed identity politics? Scholarly theory/discourse is Western…? And this is how Aaron thinks scholarship is just scholarship and not political? After having inserted politics already into the debate? After having already made a (geo) political division? I too agree that Safi’s is a simple opinion- based piece, and Aaron surely shows the complete lack of any intellect to restrain himself and think about the unavoidable political stakes involved in our modern thinking about Islam. And Aaron wants to correct Safi’s “woeful” scholarship with these kinds of claims? No wonder Safi needs no demonstration to show that this is “grossly polemical” and “simplistic.” That is to put things mildly!

  12. Lidiya Slovak Binder says:

    Aaron Hughes writes: “Perhaps Safi is upset because I occupy a Chair in Jewish Studies? We all know that Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam.”

    If Aaron Hughes had any intellectual credibility as an academic, he has lost (or should lose) that credibility because of these racist rants. They are leveled not just a single “Muslim” scholar (Safi Omid) but “Muslims” in general. Indeed I consider the vulgar rhetorical gestures he performs hateful speech (see below).

    I don’t know how many had the misfortune of reading by Hughes’s so-called “scholarly” works that “probably guarantee” (sic) to set straight the “woeful” scholarship by Islamic scholars like Safi. But if the substance of above remarks indicates anything at all, they are surely not by a scholar qualified to think through and critique the field of Islamic studies. One can do a sentence-by-sentence unpacking of Hughes’s rants that betray the careless and troubling mind-set of someone praising himself as a scholar who “transcends… illiberal dreams,” “apolgetical concerns,” “identity politics” of others’ scholarship.
    What I find ghastly is the insidious logic underlying the rhetoric that ostensibly mocks Safi’s inability to respond to the “Western tradition of scholarship.” We are told that Safi cannot and does not respond to the Western tradition of scholarship because Safi is “engaging in… identity politics.” The point is not, as some noted correctly, that the very idea of “Western tradition of scholarship” that claims to “transcend” identity politics (of non-Westerners) already remains anchored in a political division that Aaron Hughes claims to bypass. But note what Aaron Hughes asserts next: In his inability to respond the Western tradition of scholarship, Safi traffics in identity politics so much so that his “reading” of the Islamic studies (i.e. the claim that Hughes’s work is “grossly polemical and simplistic”) makes Aaron Hughes an “enemy” of Islam. (The point here is not that Safi hardly made such a claim.) Safi simply does not “know” what is really at stake because he practices identity politics.

    But note something remarkable: ultimately the problem here is not about Safi (one Muslim scholar) practicing identity politics. The particular case of Safi the scholar remains exemplary of all Muslims. This is how and why Aaron Hughes authorizes himself to make the following unbelievable gesture: “Perhaps Safi is upset because I occupy a Chair in Jewish Studies? We all know that Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam.” So what is wrong with Safi’s identity politics in his academic life is not an isolated example of one or more Muslim scholars: it points to the universal state of identity politics among Muslims at large. Again that is why Aaron Hughes has to (sneeringly) remind Safi: “We all know that Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam.” According to this gesture, if Muslims “know,” anything at all, they “all know” that “Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam.” (What Muslims know… “we all know” now.) This is the only “knowledge” that Muslims who practice identity politics can possess. That knowledge of Jews as the “arch-enemy” defines and guides Muslim identity politics. Yet this knowledge is false-knowledge because it has no touch with the Western tradition of scholarship, in which Huges’s “first commitment is to uncovering truth.” Thus the Muslim false-knowledge can only be cured by the Western tradition that critiques identity politics and uncovers “truth.” Sounds familiar!

    There is no other way to say it: The statement “We all know that Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam” is not just racist speech. It is hateful speech; it performs the work of inciting prejudice. Talk about who really embodies identity politics! If Aaron Hughes finds himself so care-free to air these statements in public space, one can ask justifiably what he may (not) be capable of saying and doing elsewhere, in his power as a self-proclaimed “chair” holder in religious studies and editor of the journal Theory and Method in the Study of Religion, etc.

  13. Nathan Nepster says:

    I too concur that Hughes’s comments, projecting anti-semetism onto Safi, are beyond the pale, and they hardly advance any substantive debate. Contra some, what really matter are not the insider/outsider issues. They are bygone problems without any critical purchase. The problem has to with how we continue to write secular presumptions into the study of Islam. Being an “insider” or “outsider” does not necessarily free one from those presumptions.

  14. I am intrigued by this exchange as a doctoral candidate trying to achieve a more theoretically-informed approach to my dissertation. I would very much like to cite some of these exchanges in treating the emic-etic concerns scholars have highlighted here. The problem is that many of the scholars making substantive remarks here appear to be using pseudonyms, while others are clearly identifiable. I expect this is deliberate, but in case you wouldn’t mind your reflections being attributed to you more directly, can I request some of you to contact me via email. The email should be found at the website linked. If not, please google “Usaama al-Azami Princeton.” I’m particularly interested in the more strictly theoretical bases for Maria Nosh Saskia and Lidiya Slovak Binder’s responses. Both of you appear to be using pseudonyms. If you’d prefer I simply cite you by these names, I’d be happy to do that. Thanks!

  15. Maria Nosh Saskia says:

    Usaama al-Azami,

    Please feel free to cite my comments.

  16. I am watching now a 1986-documentary about Edward Said. He says in the beginning, “Right from the moment I arrived in the West in the early 50’s until the present, initially there was always a sense in which as an Arab, and obviously as a Palestinian, you feel in some way criminalized or delinquent. So powerful is the definition of ‘you’ as somebody who is outside the pale, whose purpose in life is to kill Jews.”

    I think not much has changed since then, at least for Hughes, except for the fact that the definition has extended from Arabs to all Muslims:

    “Perhaps Safi is upset because I occupy a Chair in Jewish Studies? We all know that Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam. Perhaps this is also why he is so critical of David Freidenreich, who also occupies such a position.”

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  19. Parveneh Sarshar says:

    Omid Safi enjoys lying about people who disagree with him. In an email to me a number of years ago he accused Robert Spencer of trying to kill him. He’s a fruitloop of the first order. He reminds me of Tiny Tim.

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