Ode to Islamic Studies: Its Allure, Its Danger, Its Power

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by Edward E. Curtis IV

Editor’s note: This post is part of the Reflections on Islamic Studies series.

By any measure, Islamic studies is a vibrant field. In the last several decades, the number of tenure-track positions dedicated to the study of Islam as a religion and to Muslim politics and societies has expanded. New journals have appeared; book sales are good; and interest in Islamic studies has led to important public humanities projects such as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Muslim Journeys Bookshelf.

What makes Islamic studies so dynamic? For one, its ever-expanding body of participants, who come from a number of disciplinary perspectives. The field is populated by intellectual networks rather than one identifiable set of intellectual authorities. Islamic studies finds institutional homes not only in religious studies and Near Eastern languages departments, but also in history, anthropology, sociology, political science, ethnomusicology, and art and architecture, among other academic units.

Islamic studies attracts some of the very best scholars in the world. There are now so many scholars producing so much scholarship that it is impossible for one person to know all of the literature in this vast field. Questions about where to do a graduate degree must be followed by the question of what the applicant wishes to study.

The multi-disciplinary study of Islam nurtures ever-expanding circles of conversation about the significance of Islam to both specialized disciplinary concerns and interdisciplinary inquiry. The origins of Islamic studies may be found in orientalism, that is, the scholarly, philological study of Islamic religion and Muslim cultures. But today, Islamic studies is a field defined by shared and intersecting questions, themes, and data, not any one methodology or set of texts. Its practitioners are not tied together by any one canon—one needn’t be an expert on the Qur’an to be in Islamic studies.

The unmooring of Islamic studies from its logocentric roots disrupts the idea that the main task of the field is the critical appraisal of the Qur’an, qur’anic commentary, the hadith, fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), poetry, and other literary genres. It’s not that the study of texts in Islamic studies has disappeared—that work remains central, obviously. It’s that the kinds of “texts” that count as data and the way in which these texts are studied have expanded. Some of the most important Islamic studies scholarship of the last four decades, for example, has been produced by anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, Dale Eickleman, Talal Asad, John Bowen, and Saba Mahmoud, just to name a few.

One of the reasons that the study of Islam has outgrown its orientalist roots is because Islam as a semiotic sign is simply too important for any one party to define or control it. Its role in global politics, ethics, and culture insures its contestability. Put too simply, Islam–again, as a sign–is everywhere. From D.C. think-tanks to the Myanmar countryside, from intimate, private interactions to public displays, it is ubiquitous in modern life.

Because of its relevance and discursive power in so many domains, the study of Islam has become indispensable to the study of what it means to be human. The most enduring questions in the liberal arts inevitably involve Islam and Muslims these days. The very definition of freedom, goodness, beauty, and justice invoke Islam and Muslims in one way or another.

The field of Islamic studies also attracts criticism, as it should, from supporters and detractors. External critics can be particularly harsh, since they sometimes accuse Islamic studies scholars of incompetence and other generally bad things. One line of critique, rehearsed on this blog, has been the concern about a lack of theoretical sophistication among a new generation of Islamic studies scholars, especially scholars who are Muslim. The more friendly of these critiques, which temper their criticism with praise, call on scholars of Islam to engage more explicitly with debates about the descriptive versus normative study of Islam or to link their study of Islam to larger conversations about theory and method in the academic study of religion. The less friendly critiques are dismissive of the entire field, sometimes claiming that Islamic studies scholars do not examine the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad or any aspect of the tradition in a critical fashion. One book written along these lines claims that Islamic studies scholars are mainly apologists for the tradition.

Such a claim is a sweeping generalization that indicts hundreds, if not thousands of people in dozens of countries at hundreds of academic institutions doing work in multiple languages as somehow engaging in an almost conspiratorial silence on issues such as the historical origins of the Qur’an or the career of the Prophet Muhammad. Unfortunately this claim is basically ignorant of the work being done in the field—simple searches on Google Scholar or other such databases yield certainly hundreds, if not thousands of critical articles on such topics.

Take, for example, scholarship on the historical Muhammad. In a recent post, Carl Stoneham claims that “one writes about the ‘historical Muhammad’ at one’s own peril.” But this is demonstrably incorrect in terms of academic awards, publishing rates, tenured professorships, and even academic leadership. For instance, Fred Donner’s Muhammad and the Believers at the Origins of Islam, a more accessible summary of much of his research, relies exclusively on contemporaneous sources, including archaeological evidence, to build a portrait of the historical Muhammad. Donner does not utilize the traditional Islamic source of the hadith, or reports of sayings and deeds of Prophet Muhammad—and thus Donner jettisons the primary authoritative sacred source for understanding Muhammad in his scholarship. How did Donner’s colleagues react to this bold, unorthodox, even heretical methodology? Did they reject this historicist argument in defense of Islamic orthodoxy? No, they elected him President of the Middle East Studies Association, one of the main scholarly associations in which Islamic studies is conducted—an organization often criticized by Islamophobes for its leftist political agenda.

Not all scholars of Islam achieve such success. And even when they do, the pleasures and payoff of Islamic studies can come at a very dear price. Scholars of Islam from the American Midwest to the Middle East face threats to their academic freedom, their livelihoods, and even to their lives (see further “Defense of Academic Freedom.” The more a scholar successfully represents Islam as a challenge to the dominant discourses of his or her audiences, including his or her employer, the more serious the threats to his or her well-being. If scholars wish to avoid such pitfalls, they have at their disposal a number of techniques: they can ignore controversial topics, resist more quietly or indirectly, or shroud their points in incomprehensible, jargon-laden prose. Sometimes, it seems as if no matter what a scholar does, the study of Islam comes across as dangerous.

So many different people and institutions with so many different goals are interested–so many people have something at stake. Practitioners of Islamic studies experience their work as a form of local, national, and/or international politics, whether they like it or not. Recent debates on this site—debates that began with concerns over subjectivity/objectivity in the interpretations of Islamic religious traditions—are just one example of what Ruth Mas helpfully discusses as the politics of Islamic studies. As Mas points out and I have amplified here, the politics of Islam take place all around us and are difficult to avoid.

The academic study of Islam also takes place in multiple institutions, languages, regions, departments, centers of interpretation, and so on. To reiterate, Islamic studies as a field of knowledge is now so large that nearly any generalization about its overall condition or nature is almost certainly an over-generalization. These over-generalizations are polemical, and they do important rhetorical work in attempting to dis/credit the field and/or to influence its direction. Given the political stakes involved in Islamic studies, the usefulness of making broad critiques cannot be discounted. The rhetoric of prophets is urgent and necessary—it is constituted by and is constitutive of the politics of Islam more generally.

But prophetic polemics should be accompanied by a different kind of intellectual conversation, one that narrows the frames of its theoretical, methodological, and critical reflection to refer to specific conversations, issues, and authors. More humble reflection nurtures the type of scholarly dialogue in which a person can be deeply influenced, even convinced by another person’s arguments. This, too, is a form of politics, and one that is as necessary as rhetorical battle.

Edward E. Curtis IV, Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts and Professor of Religious Studies at at the Indiana University School of Liberal Arts in Indianapolis, is author of the forthcoming The Call of Bilal: Islam in the African Diaspora, among other books. He is also cofounder of the Journal of Africana Religions.

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6 Responses to Ode to Islamic Studies: Its Allure, Its Danger, Its Power

  1. Amira Mashhour says:

    Thank you for sharing

  2. Harvey Stark says:

    This is a very balanced review of Islamic Studies and the politics that surround it by an impressive scholar with a comprehensive understanding of the development of and developments in the field. As Curtis points out the challenges and critics are many, and what is needed is sane discourse, similar to what the author here presents.

  3. Carl Stoneham says:

    It is perhaps worth responding (briefly) to the critique of my statement that “one writes about the ‘historical Muhammad’ at one’s own peril” as “demonstrably incorrect.” I certainly do not wish to ignore the reception of scholars such as Fred Donner. He, and others, are counterfactuals, to be sure. I’m inclined to think that nuance missing from my formulation is expressed in your statement that “it seems as if no matter what a scholar does, the study of Islam comes across as dangerous” (emphasis mine). You’ve pointed to the perceptive element of peril in a way that I did not. I agree wholeheartedly that our field is “populated by intellectual networks rather than one identifiable set of intellectual authorities.” That said—and perhaps this is pedantic on my part—I remain unconvinced that my statement is “demonstrably incorrect” insofar as “peril” refers to potential rather than actuality. Just because Fred Donner has managed to walk across the field of the Historical Muhammad unscathed, it does not mean that there aren’t mines awaiting others who make the crossing.

    All that being said, this is an excellent post, and I am pleased to have been cited, even if as an example of how not to describe the field. :)

  4. The intellectual discourse on any religion from non religious angle is basically wrong ,In my opinion all abrahamic faiths and non Abrahamic faiths should only be weighed one principle that is whether these have brought society to move further or vice versa .
    The other extraction from all faith to be that all humanitarians laws to be drwan out and assembled,and followed by human beings irrespective of particular faith, norms which are universaly acceptable and helpful for human beings to live a fuller life on this planet without eating each other meat,

  5. Saskia says:

    “If scholars wish to avoid such pitfalls, they have at their disposal a number of techniques: they can ignore controversial topics, resist more quietly or indirectly, or shroud their points in incomprehensible, jargon-laden prose.”
    This seems to me to underline that Carl has a point: if a way to go about the “pitfall” of getting in physical danger due to your research findings is to abandon a topic of research or basically hush about it.
    I think it is never ever a good idea in any academic field to follow the latter point of advise. Quite the opposite.

  6. My doctoral work at the University of Edinburgh was on the topic of ex-Muslim Christians. I did field work and interviewed them tried to analyze some of their ideas about God, the Church, Jesus, and so on.

    This is not precisely Islamic Studies (it is World Christianity, technically), but I want to say I can second the presence of a good amount of political correctness in anything that is attached to Islam (and I do speak Arabic, for what its worth). For instance, there is centuries-old consensus in all four schools of shari’a that the male apostate must be killed. There is nothing particularly radical or extremist about this, and it is based on two sahiih hadiths from the Prophet himself, most notably the rather easy-to-interpret: “Whosoever changes his religion slay him.”

    But try including such obvious and well-established facts in anything going to a publisher. It may be possible, but I feel there is an inherent aversion to publishing such things, regardless of how well-researched they may be.

    In any case, this was a good article. Thanks.

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