Changing the World: Reflections on Islamic Studies

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by Juliane Hammer

Note: This post is part of the Reflections on Islamic Studies Series.

At the entrance to the main building of my alma mater were featured in gold lettering these words: “Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert, es kommt aber darauf an sie zu veraendern” (Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, what matters is to change it). While I may no longer identify politically or intellectually with Marxist ideas in their entirety, and of course the quote is one of Marx’s theses on Feuerbach, and thus a critique of religion as much as of Feuerbach’s approach to it, the basic point of the sentence has stayed with me over the many years since I left Humboldt University, Berlin, and Germany. This then is my writing in defense of normativity.

I want to argue that the debate about religious normativity and the possibility for and critique of religious thought in religious studies, whether expressed in specific Islamic studies terms or as part of a broader conversation about positionality, methodology and prescription can meaningfully be reframed as one about the purpose of our scholarship. In recent discussions and in reading on religion and environmentalism it has become quite clear to me that some normativities are taken for granted while others cause an immediate (mostly negative) response. Scholars working on religion and the environment critically approach religious communities and their normative resources, discuss their merit, and often celebrate their potential, but they rarely question the inherent rightness of protecting our natural environment. Contrary to this taking for granted the normative value of environmental preservation, my own experience with feminist approaches to religion, gender and sexuality, (in Islamic studies in particular) I have often found that my a priori commitment to gender justice (I know it is more complicated…) causes not only pushback against my research topics but also my results.

In my most recent research on American Muslim efforts against domestic violence the obstacles are formidable: not many people are comfortable talking about the realities of domestic abuse; talking about domestic violence in Muslim communities is potentially divisive and can be used for various rather nefarious political projects that I certainly don’t want to be coopted into; I frequently get accused of being too invested and engaged (not good scholarship that); and feminists can have a hard time talking about religion(s) as anything other than a problem for women and thus a cause of gendered abuse. I have reflected on my investments in feminism and my simultaneous critique of it in writing and continue to critically interrogate my assumptions in approaching my research subjects. But that does not take away from the fact that I want domestic abuse in Muslim families (and any abuse in any family and community) to stop. Period. That is a deeply normative commitment and it frames everything I say, write and do as a scholar.

When I started interviewing American Muslim advocates against domestic violence, they often wanted to know why I was working on this research topic. I came to rely on the rather idealistic explanation that doing research on this issue would support their advocacy work, raise awareness of the issue as well as their efforts against domestic violence, and provide them with the opportunity to reflect on their activist histories, commitments and trajectory. It was humbling, a bit naïve, and it sounds as idealistic now, five years later, as it did when I first said it to one woman advocate in her car. It also elides the power dynamics of research and the problem of representing someone else’s activism in academic writing. It became a dilemma to write in meaningful analytical terms without deconstructing the efforts I had set out to study as well as support. Beyond the problem of airing Muslim community problems in academic publics and providing fodder for anti-Muslim sentiments and pundits, I also wanted to avoid utilizing DV advocacy work in Muslim communities to advance my career and develop new ideas for which DV is just a lens.

And while it might not be as clear-cut for other research topics (ending domestic abuse should be clear-cut) this project has helped me recognize that as a scholar, teacher, and activist I want to change the world. I have no patience, in my own work, for the politically un-invested, pseudo-objective production of knowledge for its own sake. I realize that those of us working in contemporary contexts may have more direct investments in the politics of their research topics and their ramifications for living people, but ultimately all research and academic writing is political.

Normative commitments and politically as well as religiously prescriptive notions and agendas are a reality of research and teaching in Islamic studies. The subfield of Islamic studies has its own history and some particular challenges but Islamic studies exceptionalism does not take us all that far in continuing this conversation. Most of the above is easily relevant to religious studies as a discipline. Activist commitments are perhaps more acceptable, and indeed expected, in women and gender studies as well as Africana studies and ethnic studies (perhaps this is why they are also under constant threat from academic administrators, right-wing pundits and politicians?). In advocating for continued conversation on scholarship and activism, normativity and change, feminism and gender justice, I also want to challenge us to be clear in our work about our commitments, agendas, and intentions. Acknowledging multiple positionalities and allowing for different registers of scholarship as well as activism opens the door for continued conversations about what is at stake in our scholarship and teaching. And some form of change or other will come from that.

Juliane Hammer is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Kenan Rifai Scholar of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She specializes in the study of American Muslims, contemporary Muslim thought, women and gender in Islam, and Sufism. She is the author of Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland (2005) and American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (2012), as well as the co-editor of A Jihad for Justice (with Kecia Ali and Laury Silvers, 2012) and the Cambridge Companion to American Islam (with Omid Safi, 2013). She is the co-chair of the Study of Islam Section of the American Academy of Religion.

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