Posts

Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest, booming with calls for papers, events and job opportunities!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution.

Now, sink your teeth into this:

Calls for papers

Conference: Religious Materiality and Emotion

February 17–18, 2016

Adelaide City, Australia

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Conference: Hermeneutics, symbol and myth and the Modernity of Antiquity in Italian Literature and the Arts

December 1–2, 2015

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy

Deadline: November 10, 2015

More information

Conference: Shia Minorities in the Contemporary World

May 20–21, 2016

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: December 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Esotericism, Literature and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe

May 27–28, 2016

Belgrade, Serbia

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: January 21, 2016

More information

Conference: Dialogue among religions as strategy and means for peace

July 12–15, 2016

Havana, Cuba

Deadline: November 20, 2015

More information

Conference: Anticipating the End Times: Millennialism, Apocalypticism, and Utopianism in Intentional Communities

October 6–8, 2016

Salt Lake City, UT, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

More information

Conference: Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits

July 5–7, 2016

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 10, 2015

More information

Colloquium: Translating Christianities

December 7, 2015

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: October 30, 2015

More information

Symposium: The End of the World: A Universal Imagination

June 8–10, 2016

Nantes, France

Deadline: December 15, 2015

More information

Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2015

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: December 7, 2014

More information

Symposium: Oxford Symposium on Religious Studies

December 7–9, 2015

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 6, 2015

More information

EASR panel: Nonreligion and Atheism in Central and Eastern Europe

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

More information

Journal: Preternature

Special issue: Delineating the Preternatural: Modern Occultism in a Scientific Context

Deadline: December 15, 2015

More information

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Religion and Racism: Intercultural Perspectives

Deadline: January 31, 2016

More information

Events

Conference: Religion, Addiction and Recovery

November 2, 2015

University of Chester, UK

More information

Seminar: Islamic Studies in Scotland: Retrospect and Prospect

October 23–24, 2015

University of Edinburgh, UK

More information

Jobs

4 PhD positions: “Communication and Exploitation of Knowledge in the Middle Ages”

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: October 15, 2015

More information

Assistant Professor of Religion: Buddhist Studies

Bard College, NY, USA

Deadline: November 1, 2015

More information

Senior Research Associate: CREST

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

Doctoral positions: Muslim Cultures and Societies

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” – BSA Conference Report

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” British Sociological Association (BSA), University of Glasgow, 15-17 April 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Rachel Hanemann.

The British Sociological Association’s conference was held this year at the University of Glasgow.  The conference theme was “Societies in Transition: Progression and Regression, although many of the papers I saw raised questions about transition, but showed a sociologist’s reticence to comment on the positivity or negativity of one’s observations.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

The three keynote lectures centred on underprivileged or oppressed groups in transition.  Alice Goffman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) spoke about her book On the Run, exploring the criminalization of young black men in the United States.  Colin Samson (University of Essex) spoke on “The Idea of Progress and Indigenous Peoples: contemporary legacies of an enduring Eurocentric prophecy”, examining the historical treatment of non-European indigenous peoples at the hands of European ideas of progress.  Samson then used this historical lens to discuss the contemporary situation of the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec Peninsula in Canada. Guy Standing (SOAS, University of London) spoke on “The Precariat’s Magna Carta: from denizens to citizens”, outlining a “Precariat Charter” for today’s precariat, a class of millions of people experiencing a diversity of insecurities and being denied identity.

As always, the streams and papers featured at the BSA were varied and numerous.  Although it was impossible to see them all, one highlight for me was the Sociology of Religion stream, particularly those papers that proposed new methods or areas of research.  Titus Hjelm’s (University College London) talk, “Towards a Discursive Sociology of Religion and the State”, proposed a “discursive sociology” approach to religion-state relations, broadening the focus from legislative outcomes to the act of legislation, the discussions, processes and negotiations that produce policy outcomes.  Peter Hemming (Cardiff University) spoke on “Faith-Based Schooling in Rural Communities”, pointing out that larger discussions about urban, multi-faith school communities exclude the small, rural Anglican primary schools that make up the majority of faith-based schooling in the UK.  Tim Hutchings (Durham University) spoke on “The Bible in (Virtual) Community: Accountability in Digital Religion”.  Hutchings first summarised the findings from his research on the Youversion Bible App, before asking questions about religious authority online.  The Scoiology of Religion stream plenary featured Steve Bruce (University of Aberdeen) speaking about the decline of religion in Britain.

The Race, Ethnicity, and Migration stream on Islamophobia also bears mention.  Shamim Miah (University of Huddersfield) discussed “Trojan Horse and the Racial State: Race, Religion and Securitisation”, arguing that the Trojan Horse controversy led to the embedding of a particular secularization agenda in Britain’s schools.  Aurélien Mondon’s (University of Bath) and Aaron Winter’s (University of East London) talk, “Breaking Taboos or Strengthening the Status Quo: Islamophobia in the Name of Liberalism in France and America” presented a fascinating account of the role of liberal Islamophobia, which couches attacks on Islam in a pseudo-progressive position of protecting liberal freedoms, in political and cultural discourse in France and America, as well as in the UK.  Finally, Tania Saeed (University of Oxford), spoke on “Islamophobia: Experiential Accounts of Pakistani and British Pakistani Muslim Women in England.”  Her talk focused on the individual lived experience of a number of women, highlighting the intersection between race, ethnicity, and religion in public perception.  The three papers worked well together as commentaries on Islamophobia at the levels of legislation, media and public discourse, and individual experience.

Pierre Bourdieu’s work was heavily present at this year’s BSA conference, as numerous Twitter discussions of “theorist BINGO” pointed out.  The Sociology of Education stream featured a panel on the application of Bourdieu’s habitus to the social sciences, in which Cristina Costa (University of Strathclyde), Cirian Burke (Ulster University), Alan France (University of Auckland), and Mark Murphy (University of Glasgow) offered methodological examples of the application of a Bourdieusian framework from their own research on education.  In the Sociology of Religion stream, M. Angelica Thumala Olave (University of Edinburgh) presented her work with Susie Donnelly (University of Edinburgh), asking “With or without Bourdieu?  The Uses of His Approach for the Study of Religious and Cultural Change”.

The Presidential event, held at the end of the final day, asked the question, “Is there a British society?”  President Lynn Jamieson (University of Edinburgh) chaired a panel of Michael Rosie (University of Edinburgh), Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde), Ann Pheonix (IOE, University of London), and Aaron Winter (University of East London), who gave brief responses before opening the discussion to the floor.  Ann Phoenix effectively summed up the discussion with her response, “Is there a British society?  Yes…there are many!”

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

At the Limits of Orientalism: The Politics and Problems of Labelling in the Career of Michael A. Cook

Few scholars in the discipline of Islamic Studies could claim to be as qualified as Michael Cook to advise students on the matter of early career publications. For many years, Professor Cook has exerted a prominent and powerful presence in the fields of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, where he has distinguished himself as both an accomplished specialist and an engaged comparativist. Yet while there can be little doubt as to the scope or sophistication of Professor Cook’s eminent contributions to his field, the author himself continues to be remembered primarily in relation to his early collaboration with Patricia Crone, Hagarism. Almost forty years after the work’s publication, the project which Cook in this interview describes as a ‘youthful idea’ continues to provoke controversy and division. Having so vigorously rocked the academic boat early in his career, Cook later changed tack gracefully when he realised that he had set a course in the wrong direction. Even so, it is not uncommon today to encounter Cook’s name clustered alongside Crone’s under the title of ‘neo-Orientalists’, a categorisation that in Cook’s case is generally justified with reference to Hagarism alone. And, indeed, the methodological premise of Hagarism – that is, that the rise of Islam can be most accurately documented on the basis of non-Muslim sources contemporary with the rise of Islam read at the exclusion of, rather than in conversation with, later Muslim sources – falls easily within Said’s characterisation of Orientalism as the arrogation to Western scholars of the right to speak ‘for’ the Orient. Indeed, the Orientalist project of Hagarism is of a double sort, in that it arrogates representational power of the Muslim to the non-Muslim at both the level of primary and secondary sources, a move that appears to assume the incapacity of Muslims for engaged scholarly enquiry about their own history.

Yet if Hagarism – a work published just one year before Said’s Orientalism – remains an example of Orientalist scholarship par excellence, the caricature of its author as a ‘neo-Orientalist’ some thirty-five years later is less convincing. Far from encouraging a rigorous engagement with Cook’s subsequent scholarship, such a classification seems to justify its relegation to the status of imperialistic irrelevance. Such an easy dismissal might be seen as an ‘Orientalizing’ of the ‘Orientalist’, in both the sense of speaking ‘for’ him and in the sense of rendering him ahistorical, a figure whose contemporary contributions are perceived as merely continuous with a trajectory set deep in the intellectual past. Yet not only has Cook repeatedly distanced himself from his early thesis in Hagarism, his later works are a far cry from the contemporary ‘neo-Orientalism’ of individuals such as the ultra-conservative Zionist, Daniel Pipes, alongside whom his name occasionally appears. Ironically, Pipes is among the few Western intellectuals who continues to reference Hagarism in support of his (generally polemical) political arguments.

If the flippant dismissal of Cook’s impressive scholarship under the heading of ‘Orientalism’ is neither warranted nor desirable, there remains the question of just how Hagarism was, to borrow Cook’s words, ‘formative’ for his later scholarly approach. Here, it is worth elaborating a little further on the ‘radical skepticism’ that Cook references as the backdrop for the writing of Hagarism at SOAS in the late 1970s. The crucial and unmentioned figure here is John Wansbrough, the Harvard-educated advisor to both Cook and Crone whose radically revisionist interpretation of early Islam as a Jewish-influenced sectarian movement in his 1977 Qur’anic Studies provided the touchstone for Hagarism’s thesis. Perhaps no less critical to Cook’s early intellectual development is Bernard Lewis, who served as Cook’s dissertation advisor and who must be credited, in part, with steering his approach and explanatory framework in the direction of intellectual history. Lewis, who is notable not only for his role as a foreign policy consultant to the Bush administration after 9/11 but also for being one of the only Western scholars to still identify as an ‘Orientalist’, remains a central yet highly conservative figure in Islamic Studies, a status confirmed in no small part by his persistent and at times highly venomous opposition to the works of Edward Said.

Hagarism was the product of a highly particular scholarly environment permeated both by an emerging radicalism and a deep traditionalism within the field of Islamic Studies. Novel in its willingness to engage contemporary non-Muslim sources in the study of early Islamic history, the work nevertheless retained many of the characteristics of highly traditional Orientalist scholarship of the genre still espoused by Professor Lewis: an emphasis on textual sources in the study of religion; a focus on the early development of the religion as critical to understanding Islam’s distinctive ‘essence’; a privileging of ‘civilisation’ as the fundamental unit of analysis; and a lack of attention to questions of power and politics as they pertained to the emergence of normative understandings of critical concepts, both within and outside the traditions under analysis. Undergirding this approach is the persistent influence of the Rankean strand of scientific historicism, an intellectual debt underscored by Princeton anthropologist Lawrence Rosen, who critiques Cook for his promulgation of the Rankean catchcry, “facts speak for themselves”.1

While I am hesitant, for reasons suggested above, to join with Rosen in labelling Cook an ‘Orientalist’, there are aspects of the latter’s recent work that indeed evoke traces of the more traditional approach described above. As one example, we might take Cook’s Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong (2001), an impressive volume that is the result of more than 15 years of meticulous research and whose footnotes put even Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire philosophique to shame. While the rigour and value of Cook’s recent volume are extraordinary, two aspects of the work’s structure and methodology stand out as conspicuously traditional in their assumptions. First, there is the question of chronology. Cook characteristically begins his analysis from the earliest sources, and continues his textual sifting up to the end of ‘classical’ Islam in the twelfth century CE. From here, the text leaps abruptly into the eighteenth century. This structural choice leaves the reader with the distinct (and, to my mind, misleading) impression that modern Islam can be best understood with reference to its earliest origins and development in what have survived as ‘mainstream’ texts (a term never explicitly defined or justified by Cook), while bracketing out the messier questions about Islam’s interrelations with other intellectual systems (including ‘heretical’ ones), as well as the impact of culture, politics, and economics upon its development. Second, having masterfully delineated the tensions and diversity within the genealogy of this concept in Islamic history, Cook then attempts to force these threads back together in a chapter tellingly entitled: ‘What is Distinctive about the Islamic Case’. Cook’s concern to discover the sine qua non of the Islamic concept of commanding right and forbidding wrong – a precept which Cook believes to be “found embedded (though not necessarily articulated) in just about all human cultures”2 – appears to lead him to fuse together two distinct positions mapped out in the first section of his work, a fusion that does justice neither to the complexity of Cook’s analysis, nor to the adherents of these two positions themselves, who might well have resisted being categorised together under the rubric of the ‘distinctively’ Islamic.3 Similarly surprising, given the complexity of the evidence examined, is Cook’s concluding remark that “Islam, within certain limits, tells people what to believe and how to live; liberalism, within certain limits, is about leaving them to work this out for themselves”.4 In light of Cook’s attentive treatment of Islamic conceptions of privacy within his discussion, this statement appears as a blatant oversimplification – perhaps more consistent with what modern Islamists and modern liberals say about themselves than with the experiential and historical realities of either system.

While it is not difficult to perceive, in Professor Cook’s more recent work, traces of a more traditional approach to Islamic Studies, the rigour and meticulousness that characterise his scholarship provide an exemplary model for young scholars and caution against the intellectual torpor that results, more often than not, from overhasty characterisations and inadequate critical engagement. Throughout a long and at times tempestuous career, Professor Cook has retained his unwavering commitment to the practice of thorough scholarship based on an extensive and close mastery of primary materials, including their languages. And while his emphasis that ‘bigger things do rest on smaller things’ may stand at odds with an increasingly instrumentalised and production-focused culture in the humanities, the discipline and patience at evidence in Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong provides a timely reminder of the valuable aspects of traditional academic approaches.

 


  1.  Lawrence Rosen, ‘Orientalism Revisited: Edward Said’s Unfinished Critique,’ https://www.bostonreview.net/rosen-orientalism-revisited, 1 January 2007. 
  2.  Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 562 
  3. Ibid., 583. 
  4.  Ibid., 514. 

The Holberg Prize 2014 Episode With Michael Cook, “Bigger Things Do Rest On Smaller Things.”

 

Michael Cook is University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the first british Holberg Prize Laureate. Photo: Denise Applewhite

Michael Cook is University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the first British Holberg Prize Laureate. Photo: Denise Applewhite

Professor Michael Cook, winner of the Holberg Prize 2014, has had a huge influence on the historical study of Islam. Typical of a historian who knows from experience that there are always sources and perspectives that can skew our perceptions of the past, Cook writes in A Brief History of the Human Race (2003) that he cannot offer any “Grand Unified Theory of History”. Yet, Cook has offered significant insights to Islamic history by means of diligent research, his philological capacity and by a rigorous commitment to scholarship. His contributions have paved new paths for the study of Islam and Near Eastern history, and his legacy will be imprinted on many bibliographies for many decades to come.

In this episode, Knut interviews Professor Cook about his decision to go into history in the first place, about his writing process, the role of the humanities, his reflections about teaching, and why he finds it so important to get the details right.

You can read Knut’s presentation on Michael Cook here, and also Cook’s speech from the Prize Award Ceremony (highly recommended).

This episode was produced in collaboration with The Holberg Prize 2014. The Holberg Prize is awarded annually to scholars who have made outstanding contributions to research in the arts and humanities, social science, law or theology. The Prize amounts to 4.5 million NOK (approx. 538.000 EUR / 735.000 USD). Visit the website to learn more.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

The Secular Reality

If, as [Douglas Pratt] is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

The Secular Reality: A Response to Pratt’s “Durkheimian Dread”

By Thomas J. Coleman III, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 6 February 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Douglass Pratt on the Persistence and Problem of Religion (4 February 2013).

Douglas Pratt presents us with a most noble and worthwhile endeavor in his Religious Studies Project podcast entitled, The Persistence and Problem of Religion. It is clear that he is interested in easing tensions that exist between various religions throughout the world. However, a call for clarification is needed with regards to “persistence” and there are several contentious points that should be addressed. As a scholar specializing in religious concerns relating to Christian-Muslim relations, Pratt seems to be arguing against Secularization from an activist’s position.  Within the same podcast, Pratt labels the more conservative fundamentalist viewpoint as “nonsensical” and calls the secular stance “crazy”. This leads the listener to perceive a paradox. In one sense, Pratt appears to be a post-modernist advocating for religious freedom and expression of individual belief yet he wants to limit some forms religious expression, for example fundamentalism. Moreover he does not seem to understand the theoretical complexities and benefits of the secularization paradigm as proposed within sociology of religion. Within this paradigm religion certainly is slowly dissolving from within public sphere yet at the same time multi-cultural and religious values are equal. Secular space ensures that no one religion has dominance over another. Hence the paradox of Pratt’s view, why argue against an obvious benefit of secularization while also limiting certain types of religious forms which, in his argument, is what secularization does. As Pratt attempts to cut through the secularization hypothesis, he, perhaps unknowingly, lends it overwhelming support with his own inconsistent viewpoint. This paper will provide a point-by-point analysis of Pratt’s view as noted within the podcast.

The Problem of Persistence

First, Pratt fails to adequately define what is meant by persistence. Persistence is a highly ambiguous term as used in the podcast. In what form, and where do we really have a “persistence of religion”? Is persistence directly related to the institution of religion? Is persistence the theological continuation within a religion? Is persistence an issue of church attendance or religious self-identity? His initial remarks state, “There has been a resurgence of religious phenomena…and religion in the news”. The end of the interview sheds no more light as to what sort of persistence religion has seen, we are only left with the indubitable point that religion exists as a declarative fact. The decline of religion in Europe and many other developed countries has even been termed “apparently unstoppable” by other theologians (Oviedo, 2012). It is unclear how Pratt would address an apparent decline in many westernized nations. Either way, the term persistence evades us as Pratt acknowledges that many people “don’t want the narratives”. If, as he is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

What about Secularization?

Pratt implies that the sixties and seventies forced the secularization thesis out the door of the social sciences. His talking points, and comments throughout lend nothing short of support toward this “out-going theory”. Sociologist Mark Chaves whose research on secularization spans just over two decades (1989, 1993,1994, 2011), declared in his 2011 ARDA Guiding Paper that, “no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is increasing”.

 “Secularization is most productively understood not as declining religion, but as the declining scope of religious authority” –Chaves 1994

Chaves view is supported by other established researchers and historians such as Steve Bruce (2011) who argue that while various differences exist within the secularization paradigm (e.g. cyclical, linear, situational/geographical, etc.) a social shift is occurring but it is not addressed in any type of detail within the podcast by Pratt. The first half of the interview, Pratt repeatedly supports two main tenets of the secularization thesis, the first being that Government and public life has become/is becoming more secular. He even states that religious expressions of narrative are being “eliminated” and “pushed out of the public realm altogether”. He goes on to give us multiple examples of such from around the world. The second blessing of support Pratt gives secularization is reflected in comments such as, “the expressions of religion that relate to the narrative, are being, as it were eliminated, or pushed to one side”. If he is correct, and people are casting the underlying narratives and myths that religion has been built upon aside or directing their efforts in another form, religion in its traditional sense may indeed be falling victim to secularization. Secularization may remove religion from the public sphere of influence such as governmental recognition or funding but it certainly does not appear that there is an active effort to control or remove religions from their own sacred spaces. In other words, communism attempted to control religion through a variety of methods. It just does not appear this is happening in Western Europe or North America.

Points of Contention

“In terms of modern western history…yes society needs the values of religion, but we don’t want the stories.”  – Pratt

Pratt seems to hold what I will coin as “Durkheimian dread” for the persistence of secularization; whereby society has no replacement for, and is lost without, traditional religion. It is clear that many in today’s world may feel similar. However, research has shown that this presumed societal need for religious glue seems to be nothing more than an unsupported position (Zuckerman, 2006; Paul, 2009). Paul’s findings indicate a strong correlation between the “most successful societies” and the most secular societies. It follows from this, that the role of religion as playing an important role in the structural functionalism of today’s world is certainly in question.

“Secularist, anti-religious…”  -Pratt

The terms “secularist” and “anti-religious” are conflagulated both explicitly and implicitly throughout the podcast. Many people who identify as religious consider themselves secularists and even donate time and money towards ensuring governments and public spaces remain secular. Ascribing to a faith tradition and supporting the secularity of public spaces are in no way mutually exclusive, and should never be confused (Robbins, 2012; Voas & Day, 2010). This is the problem with gross overgeneralizations about people; they typically ignore the complexity of the human landscape – secular or religious.

Towards the end of the interview Pratt seems to advocate controlling the comprehension and transformative direction that religious narratives can and do take. He puts forth the idea that if we do not prevent more fundamentalist understandings of faith (which he describes as “narrow”) from growing, then the scope of religious studies will henceforth be more narrow, we will not have as much to study. It is hard not to picture Pratt’s argument as wild and theoretically porous, stigmatizing and complicating the religious and irreligious minorities as he attempts to kill the ills of religious conflicts in our world. Unfortunately in this most noble endeavor, he ends up demonizing what many would see as the most promising remedy for increasing religious tension in the world, a secular government. In the words of His Holiness the Dali Lama,

“Secularism does not mean rejection of all religions. It means respect for all religions and human beings including non-believers,” (Gyatso, Tenzin HH. Dalai Lama, 2006)

 

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Thomas J. Coleman III is an undergraduate student in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is one of the few undergraduates at the university to conduct research alongside graduate and post graduate students. He holds the Assistant Project Manager Position on the Bielefeld International Spirituality Research Study and is the Project Manager for the UT Chattanooga study of non-belief in America exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. Currently Mr. Coleman is overseeing and developing a research project on the domain intersections within Horizontal/Vertical Transcendence and interrelated correlates. His email address is Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu

References

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In defence of an unfashionable theory. USA: Oxford University Press.
  • Chaves, M. (1989). “Secularization and religious revival: Evidence from U.S. church attendance rates.” 1972-1986 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(4): pp. 464-477
  • Chaves, M. (1993). “Intraorganizational Power and Internal Secularization within Protestant Denominations.” American Journal of Sociology 99(1):1-48.
  • Chaves, M. (1994). “Secularization as declining religious authority.” Social Forces, 72(3), 749-774.
  • Gyatso, Tenzin HH. His holiness the Dalai Lama said secularism is the basis of all religions. (2006, November 26). Retrieved from http://tibet.net/2006/11/13/his-holiness-the-dalai-lama-said-secularism-is-the-basis-of-all-religions/
  • Oviedo, L. (2012). “Struggling with secularization.” Reviews in Religion and Theology,19(2), 188-199.
  • Paul, G. (2009). “The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 399-441.
  • Robbins, M. (2012, February 17). “Christians should unite with atheists to defend secularism.” The Guardian, Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2012/feb/17/1
  • Voas, David and Abby Day. (2010). Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers.asp.
  • Zuckerman, P. (2006). “Atheism: Contemporary rates and patterns.” In M. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (pp. 47-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).

 

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

By Gemma Gall, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Donald Wiebe on the relationship between Religious Studies and Theology (6 February 2012).

The work of Donald Wiebe is not entirely alien to me; indeed, I have found myself agreeing with his response to phenomenology. However, on the question of the relationship between theology and religious studies, Wiebe’s visit to Edinburgh in 2010 found our opinions to be very divergent.

Wiebe begins his interview by admitting that it may not be possible to clearly delineate religious studies and theology, an admirable concession which seems to lull the listener into the false belief that he is promulgating an understanding of the ‘dichotomy’ which understands the malleable nature of both academic disciplines and the relationship between them. Unfortunately, he undermines this moment of resisting reductionism by his refusal to acknowledge development in the concepts of theology.

The reasoning which Wiebe gives for this is flawed: despite his recognition of the changing nature of theology, he continues to base his understanding of this relationship in the Christian tradition of God talk. His dismissal of ‘hybrid theology’ without any assessment of what this entails (and instead indulging in biased rhetoric) is one of the main failings of his summary of the theology-religious studies situation. Very few, if any, religious studies scholars would claim that religious studies should engage in studies in which they practice God talk. Surely this is simply theology? Similarly, ‘religious studies’ which do not engage with hybrid theology, the understandings of ‘god(s)’, ‘religion’, ‘supernatural’, or whatever element the group being studied claim to be the underpinning of their group, is surely just a ‘scientific’ study of the group. Of course it is necessary for there to be anthropological, sociological etc studies, but it is also necessary to consider how theology – in its hybrid sense – impacts upon practice.

As an example of how knowledge of the theology of the group studied aids understanding, I demonstrate how I have used theology. My own studies specialise in Islam with a particular focus on gender issues, which demands an understanding of the relationship between, for example, politics, economics, spatial theory, power relations and Holy texts (with the interpretation thereof) for an issue such as veiling. Refusing to engage in studying the revelation of the ‘hijab verses’ in the Qur’an, as well as their interpretation, leads to a confused and inferior study.

This dichotomy, Wiebe argues, may even prevent scholars of religion who are themselves religious from a non-biased study. According to cognitive theory, evolutionary psychology has developed to protect the ‘supernatural instinct’ which is employed when one can’t understand something. This is “hard-wired” to protect agency, thus preventing many of those with a faith of their own from bracketing it out; therefore endangering the scientific nature of their studies. Indeed, Wiebe claims that many scholars with a religious position of their own will not undertake the ‘hard work’ to retain a vigorously scientific study. These claims are predicated on an understanding of faith as a singularly correct entity. I find it hard to believe that there are many serious religious studies scholars who hold this position; it is antithetical to the aims of the discipline. I agree with Wiebe that scholars should not invoke their own beliefs in their studies; after all, that would not be a study of the group being undertaken but instead of one’s own beliefs. However, I feel that it is impossible to bracket all aspects of one’s own faith position;  that the holding of forms of belief may even benefit a scholar’s attempts to understand how another’s faith impacts upon their life.

The notion that our inability to prove or disprove the notion of God means that we should not invoke such a concept is highly problematic. Firstly, if the concepts of God(s), supernatural or other variants, continue to impact upon how a community functions, then the study again fails to fully account for the context.

Perhaps Wiebe’s determined view of non-theological approaches to the study of religion fails because it is fundamentally based on a notion of explaining religion. This is not what religious studies should purport to do; we provide theories and data detailing what people practice and believe, we do not explain ‘religion’. If this were possible, surely the interminable debates on definitions of religion would be complete?

Ultimately, Wiebe fails to recognise that whilst there may be methodological differences between the disciplines, there is a certain amount of interdependency between the two. Religious Studies without theology fails not only to adequately study the phenomena it purports to, but it fails to justify its existence a separate discipline. The good historians and philologists of whom Wiebe speaks are just that; they are not scholars of religious studies. Similarly, theology undertaken from one’s own faith position is simply practice of belief, as Wiebe himself claims; it has no place in academia. However, theology does not have to take this form. To use Wiebe’s own terminology, ‘hybrid theology’, where a non-biased and non-personal methodology is employed, offers an alternative. If Wiebe is serious in his claim that theology has a place as an object of analysis in academia, then surely he must reconsider his own views in order to see this as a ‘third way’ between a purely ‘scientific’ study of religion and the ‘God talk’ of Christian theology.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Gemma Gall graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Religious Studies in 2010, and is currently continuing her studies at Edinburgh with an MSc by Research in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. She specialises in Gender and Islam.

Podcasts

Report: 2015 Joint Conferences of the New Zealand and Australian Associations for the Study of Religion

Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Bruno Marshall Shirley and John H. Shaver

The biennial conference of the New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) and the annual conference of the Australian Association for the Study of Religions (AASR) were held together in Queenstown, New Zealand from December 8-10 2015. Interdisciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches across the humanities and social sciences were evident in the wide-range of papers presented. Islam, and Asian religions more generally, were the most consistent objects of focus, perhaps unsurprising given Australasia’s proximity to Asia and recent increased media attention to the Islamic State.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The Manata room at the Mercure Resort Queenstown, which hosted the conference.

The conference’s emphasis on Asia and Islam were evident in the keynote lectures. In a talk entitled “Creativity and Ethical Life in India,” Tulasi Srinivas (Emerson College) described religious innovations in Bangalore and the sense of “wonder” that they often inspire. She argued that scholars ought to take emerging religious practices seriously, rather than as anomalies or deviations from established, textually-based understandings of religion. Turning to Japan, Douglas Ezzy (University of Tasmania) argued that Shint­ō is best considered a “religion of practice” in contrast to those traditional conceptions of religion as belief-oriented. He suggested that while a non-Christian can attend mass at a Christian place of worship and not be “doing Christianity,” a tourist at a Shint­ō shrine participating in its various ritual practices might be said to be “doing Shint­ō.” For many Japanese Shint­ō is not associated with doctrinal belief (shūkyō), which allows people to engage with Shint­ō ritual practice while not accepting its cosmology. Some in the audience disagreed with Ezzy’s analysis of Shint­ō and its relationship to shūkyō, but his call for a renewed focus on religious practice was generally appreciated. Sally McAra (University of Auckland), looked at one traditionally Asian religion, Buddhism, in the Australasian context. She discussed the problems facing an anthropologist conducting ethnographic research among their own group, principally a difficulty in carrying out objective analyses, due to a positive bias towards group ideals.

The final keynote lecture, from Gary D. Bouma (Monash University), turned to Islam and to Western discourses about the “threat” that each other poses. Bouma argued that both anti-Western and anti-Muslim narratives shared several key features: both narratives assert that the “other” is incorrect in some way; each is reinforced due to media bias; and both narratives are responsible for the perpetuation of conflict. Bouma’s most significant point was that Religious Studies scholars have a responsibility to discredit these discourses – particularly anti-Muslim narratives in the West, such as those put forth by Trump or Abbot. These narratives, Bouma argued, serve to legitimise attempts to gain power at the expense of civil liberties, and/or to divert attention from their own violence (including structural violence, domestic violence, or even climate change).

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper "Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult," in the panel "Religion in/and Politics."

Comfort Max-Wirth presenting her paper “Political Manipulation of the Occult in Ghana: Embracing the Occult,” in the panel “Religion in/and Politics.”

The panel “Contemporary Religions” continued the central foci on Asian religions and Islam. A paper by Douglas Osto (Massey) (based on his forthcoming book, Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, Columbia UP, 2016) outlined the history of “Psychedelic Buddhism” from the 1950s into the present, and the changing attitudes of American Buddhist practitioners towards mind-altering drugs. Osto described how some practitioners used psychedelic drugs as a “door” to advanced states of mind, before graduating to “pure” meditation practices, while others (notably Joan Halifax) continued to use drugs to supplement their meditative practices. Although psychedelia has been investigated before, Osto’s study represents the first serious examination of psychedelic Buddhism as a non-systemic religious movement, and is sure to lead to further studies of other hybrid Buddhist practices in the West. Buddhism was also the focus of a panel on “Buddhist Tales and Territories,” which featured a paper by Chaisit Suwanvarangkul (University of Otago) on the relevance of dharmakāya and the tathāgatagarbha doctrine to Therāvada Buddhism, as well as to the Mahāyāna. Suwanvarangkul’s paper was partially in response to an earlier paper by Michael Radich (Victoria University of Wellington), presented at the 2007 Australian Association of Buddhist Studies conference, entitled “There is no Dhammakāya in the Pāli Canon.” Suwanvarangkul’s inclusion of the Chinese Āgama as Theravāda was the subject of some controversy, as Osto pointed out that, despite parallels to the Theravāda nikāya, the Chinese āgama contain several key differences from the Theravāda texts. The panel also included papers by Anna Halafoff and Matthew Clarke (both of Deakin University) on the role of Songdhammakalyani monastery (Thailand) in promoting gender equality; Chiew Hui Ho (University of Sydney) on Chinese tales about the Diamond Sutra and their role in encouraging faith; and Phra Akbordin Rattana (University of Otago) on the model of Buddha devotion expressed in the Mārabandha chapter of the Paṭhamasambodhi-kathā.

Papers in the panel “Religion and the State” shared a common theme of distinctions between “religious practice” and “political actions” breaking down, in cases drawn from China, Japan, and Sri Lanka. Melissa Inoue (University of Auckland) discussed China’s True Jesus Church and its “miraculous” discourse. She argued that by directing attention to this-worldly affairs, the discourse indirectly both critiques and affirms contemporary Chinese society and the stewardship of the party-state. Ben Schonthal (University of Otago) turned to Sri Lanka and the (legal) case of a Buddhist monk who was denied an application for a driver’s license on the grounds that it was not appropriate for monks to drive. He argued that this was fundamentally a problem of contested authority over religious practice in Sri Lanka, arising from an ambiguous constitutionalising of religion. Bruno M. Shirley (Victoria University of Wellington) called for a post-secular rethinking of “religious violence” using the case study of Sri Lanka’s Bodu Bala Senā. Shirley suggested that explanations for religious violence, generally and in Sri Lanka specifically, have tended to assume a secularist dichotomy of “religion” and “politics” that is inadequate for dealing with the relationship between Buddhism, politics, and violence in Sri Lanka. Shirley suggested instead that we might reconsider this relationship within a framework of identity politics.

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper "Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion," in the panel "Naming Islamism."

Dr. Will Sweetman (University of Otago) presenting his paper “Is ISIS Islamic? Category Formation in the Academic Study of Religion,” in the panel “Naming Islamism.”

The panel “Naming Islamism,” was by far the most controversial of the conference. Will Sweetman (University of Otago), Christopher van der Krogt (Massey University), Douglas Pratt (University of Waikato), William E. Shepard (University of Canterbury), and audience members debated whether or not the Islamic State could be considered an authentic iteration of “Islam.” Van der Krogt argued that such a debate represents a misunderstanding of religion, and Islam in particular, while Sweetman argued that there is no basis for denying the Islamic State’s self-identification as Muslim. Several audience members disagreed with this assertion, instead arguing that Islam did indeed have some core norms and values with which the Islamic State does not conform. This panel also included less controversial papers by Shepard (University of Canterbury), on the development of Sayyid Qutb’s views on gender relations, and Pratt, on the Islamic State’s “theological ideology.”

Not all of the panels at the conference focussed on Asia or on Islam, and of these the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study (NZAVS) panel is particularly notable for being the most empirically-oriented of the conference. The first NZAVS talk was delivered by the director of the study, Chris Sibley, a psychologist from the University of Auckland. Sibley described the breadth of the study and some of the many challenges inherent to large-scale longitudinal data collection. Joseph Bulbulia (Victoria University of Wellington) then detailed a few of the more significant findings pertaining to religion that have emerged from the NZAVS, including his work on the distinct “faith signatures” that span and defy traditional denominational categorization. Following these talks, Geoffrey Troughton (Victoria University of Wellington) described the history of the “Christian Not Further Declared (NFD)” designation in the New Zealand census, and then used NZAVS data to describe the demographic characteristics of those individuals that have recently come to identify with this tremendously growing group. The panel concluded with John Shaver (Victoria University of Wellington) describing the complex, but unique, picture of religion and prejudice/ tolerance in New Zealand. Although highly religious New Zealanders are more tolerant of many social groups (including ethnic and religious out-groups) than their secular counterparts, they are also less tolerant of some other groups (e.g., homosexuals). Shaver interpreted this pattern as a result of the differential flexibility of human values. He argued that those values associated with conservatism are necessary for the cultural transmission of religion and are therefore less free to vary across cultures, while those that are less relevant to transmission are subject to greater environmental influence.

Perhaps due to the University of Otago’s excellent choice to host the conference in scenic Queenstown, the conference was relatively well-attended by NZASR standards, and a strong Australian presence was a welcome addition to the conference’s academic and social events. While Asia and Islam were focal, the range of perspectives and disciplinary approaches made for interesting discussions, both in panels and informally. The conference demonstrated that the study of religions in New Zealand and Australia continues to broaden its interdisciplinary focus.

New Religious Movements and Contemporary Discourses About Religion

As I listened to Susan Palmer’s RSP interview and read about her new co-authored book (with Stuart A. Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religious Communities (2015), I was reminded why NRMs make such useful case studies in the religious studies classroom. From a pedagogical perspective, the study of NRMs offers a valuable resource for creative teaching and theorizing about religion. In my introductory classes, for example, I use Scientology to illustrate how NRMs have negotiated with the state in their quest for legitimacy. There is plenty of great scholarship to assign, and students are often surprised to learn how seemingly unrelated government agencies–the Food and Drug Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation–helped legitimate Scientology’s “religion” status.

One of the most useful parts of Palmer’s interview, then, is her insistence on paying attention to the words people use to describe NRMs. Winnifred Sullivan, in her recent book, argues that the US government (and the US Supreme Court in particular) increasingly understands “religion” as “being neither particularly threatening nor particularly in need of protection” (17). The trend, as Sullivan and others have noted, is increasingly to see people as religious by default, even (and perhaps especially) those people who do not see themselves as religious. What, then, are we to make of religious groups whose relationship with the state do not fit this mold? How do we explain relationships so contentious that they result in raids and gun battles? At first glance, the events chronicled in Palmer’s Storming Zion seem to be outliers. Yet Palmer and Wright suggest elsewhere that these kinds of raids are more common than one might suspect. Why?

One possible answer is that increased attention to religion by international governments and NGOs has not necessarily resulted in less problematic models of religion being used by these governments and groups. As Elizabeth Shakman Hurd has pointed out in her recent book, what scholars understand as “religion” often makes for unwieldy government use. Hurd demonstrates how government classifications of religion are by necessity rigid and slow to respond to change, leading governments to understand and engage religion in a clumsy–and in Palmer’s studies, dangerous–fashion.

Of course, most of the large-scale government efforts directed at cultivating appropriate forms of religion aren’t directed at the kinds of groups Palmer studies. It boils down to size, as Palmer and Robertson both note: smaller groups can be more easily dismissed or ignored by those in power. This is another example of the way in which governments separate religious groups into what might be called “serious” and “unserious” camps, an approach sometimes replicated by the scholars who study them. Both Palmer and Davidson call for more work to be done to change this status quo. They would like to see groups with little political or social capital treated similarly to “big name” religions–the groups that get chapters devoted to them in World Religions textbooks. They would like to see, to paraphrase JZ Smith, how the “exotic” NRMs are just another example of “what we see in Europe everyday.” Smith notes the difference by explaining it as a tension “between religion imagined as an exotic category of human experience and expression, and religion imagined as an ordinary category of human expression and activity.”[1] (1). Thus, as Palmer points out, even the seemingly “exotic” components of NRMs–things like brainwashing and deprogramming–should be both historicized and theorized.[2]

These considerations are timely ones. Though the interview focuses on what religion scholars might expect to hear on work related to NRMs–Raelians, Scientologists, millennial movements of various stripes–I was struck by how much of what was discussed would apply to Islam. Robertson and Palmer note how the media and popular culture tend to portray NRMs in particularly dismissive or fear-inducing ways. As events of recent weeks have again reminded us, what do we make of the fact that Islam is often discussed using similar language? The same kinds of militarized policing tactics directed at NRMs have, in recent weeks, been endorsed by a number of candidates for U.S. president as a means to control Muslims in the United States and around the world.

There’s a relevant history to this “NRM-ization” of Islam, particularly in the United States. Those interested in Palmer’s work, and in her work on government raids on NRMs, should also make time for Sylvester Johnson’s African-American Religions, 1500-2000, specifically his study of the history of the US government’s surveillance of and violence towards African-American Muslims. Johnson’s work highlights many of the tensions Palmer identifies: how classificatory criticism (“authentic” religion versus “cults”) bolstered state action against the political claims of new and emerging religious groups (in this specific case, the Nation of Islam). As a result, Johnson argues, “US officials increasingly resorted to the specific grammar of terrorism to represent political Islam.”[3] While scholars do not usually place global Islam within the category of new religious movements, Johnson shows how this early racialization of Islam within the United States shapes how global Islam is treated by the US government today.

For someone like myself, interested in questions of law and religion, the tension between emerging religious groups and state authorities is one of particular importance. Susan Palmer’s interview is a great example of why new religious movements make such good tools with which scholars can think about the study of religion.

[1] Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University Of Chicago Press, 1982), xii.

[2] For one excellent and recent example, see Matthew Dunne, A Cold War State of Mind: Brainwashing and Postwar American Society (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).

[3] Sylvester Johnson, African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 382.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 13 October 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest, booming with calls for papers, events and job opportunities!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution.

Now, sink your teeth into this:

Calls for papers

Conference: Religious Materiality and Emotion

February 17–18, 2016

Adelaide City, Australia

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Conference: Hermeneutics, symbol and myth and the Modernity of Antiquity in Italian Literature and the Arts

December 1–2, 2015

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milano, Italy

Deadline: November 10, 2015

More information

Conference: Shia Minorities in the Contemporary World

May 20–21, 2016

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: December 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Esotericism, Literature and Culture in Central and Eastern Europe

May 27–28, 2016

Belgrade, Serbia

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Revolution

June 16–17, 2016

University College Cork, Ireland

Deadline: January 21, 2016

More information

Conference: Dialogue among religions as strategy and means for peace

July 12–15, 2016

Havana, Cuba

Deadline: November 20, 2015

More information

Conference: Anticipating the End Times: Millennialism, Apocalypticism, and Utopianism in Intentional Communities

October 6–8, 2016

Salt Lake City, UT, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

More information

Conference: Knowing Demons, Knowing Spirits

July 5–7, 2016

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 10, 2015

More information

Colloquium: Translating Christianities

December 7, 2015

University of Stirling, UK

Deadline: October 30, 2015

More information

Symposium: The End of the World: A Universal Imagination

June 8–10, 2016

Nantes, France

Deadline: December 15, 2015

More information

Symposium: 41st Spalding Symposium on Indian Religions

April 15–17, 2015

Cardiff University, UK

Deadline: December 7, 2014

More information

Symposium: Oxford Symposium on Religious Studies

December 7–9, 2015

University of Oxford, UK

Deadline: November 6, 2015

More information

EASR panel: Nonreligion and Atheism in Central and Eastern Europe

June 28–July 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland

More information

Journal: Preternature

Special issue: Delineating the Preternatural: Modern Occultism in a Scientific Context

Deadline: December 15, 2015

More information

Journal: Open Theology

Special issue: Religion and Racism: Intercultural Perspectives

Deadline: January 31, 2016

More information

Events

Conference: Religion, Addiction and Recovery

November 2, 2015

University of Chester, UK

More information

Seminar: Islamic Studies in Scotland: Retrospect and Prospect

October 23–24, 2015

University of Edinburgh, UK

More information

Jobs

4 PhD positions: “Communication and Exploitation of Knowledge in the Middle Ages”

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: October 15, 2015

More information

Assistant Professor of Religion: Buddhist Studies

Bard College, NY, USA

Deadline: November 1, 2015

More information

Senior Research Associate: CREST

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

Doctoral positions: Muslim Cultures and Societies

Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 September 2015

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest!

We would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has forwarded notifications. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

It is super easy to have a Religious Studies call for papers, exciting event, or alluring job vacancy appear in future Opportunities Digests! Simply use the submission form, forward them to oppsdigest@religiousstudiesproject.com or, better yet, include said e-mail address in your mailing list for such e-mails!

We thank you for your contribution. And now for this week’s digest:

Calls for papers

Conference: Yoga darśana, yoga sādhana: traditions, transmissions, transformations

May 19–21, 2016

Uniwersytet Jagielloński w Krakowie, Poland

Deadline: December 21, 2015

More information

Conference: Visual Narratives of Faith: Religion, Ritual and Identity

July 10–14, 2016

Vienna, Austria

Deadline: September 30, 2015

More information

Conference: Religion and Non-Religion in Contemporary Societies

April 21–24, 2016

Zadar, Croatia

Deadline: November 15, 2015

More information

Conference: Symposium Peregrinum

June 16–19, 2016

Tarquinio, Italy

Deadline: March 1, 2016

More information

Journal: Women: A Cultural Review

Special issue: Religion and Gender

Deadline: October 31, 2015

More information

Events

Annual meeting: American Academy of Religion

November 21–24, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Annual meeting: American Anthropological Association

November 18–22, 2015

Denver, CO, USA

More information

Annual meeting: North American Association for the Study of Religion

November 20–22, 2015

Atlanta, GA, USA

More information

Research report launch: What should young people leave school knowing about religion and belief?

November 26, 2015, 5–6:30 p.m.

London, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalization & Islamophobia: Roots, Relationships and Implications in Religiously Diverse Societies

November 30–December 1, 2015

Sydney, Australia

More information

Conference: Pluralism and Community: Social Science History Perspectives

November 12–15, 2015

Baltimore, MD, USA

More information

Grants and awards

Miklós Tomka Award

Deadline: January 10, 2016

More information

Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: History of Religion and Religiosity

German Historical Institute, Washington, D.C.

Deadline: December 1, 2015

More information

Two PhD scholarships in Buddhist Studies

LMU München, Germany

Deadline: October 18, 2015

More information

Fully funded PhD studentship

Newman University, UK

Deadline: October 23, 2015

More information

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” – BSA Conference Report

“Societies in Transition: Progression or Regression?” British Sociological Association (BSA), University of Glasgow, 15-17 April 2015. Conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Rachel Hanemann.

The British Sociological Association’s conference was held this year at the University of Glasgow.  The conference theme was “Societies in Transition: Progression and Regression, although many of the papers I saw raised questions about transition, but showed a sociologist’s reticence to comment on the positivity or negativity of one’s observations.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

Amanda Duymaer van Twist and Titus Hjelm at Glasgow City Chambers. Photo courtesy of Titus Hjelm.

The three keynote lectures centred on underprivileged or oppressed groups in transition.  Alice Goffman (University of Wisconsin-Madison) spoke about her book On the Run, exploring the criminalization of young black men in the United States.  Colin Samson (University of Essex) spoke on “The Idea of Progress and Indigenous Peoples: contemporary legacies of an enduring Eurocentric prophecy”, examining the historical treatment of non-European indigenous peoples at the hands of European ideas of progress.  Samson then used this historical lens to discuss the contemporary situation of the Innu peoples of the Labrador-Quebec Peninsula in Canada. Guy Standing (SOAS, University of London) spoke on “The Precariat’s Magna Carta: from denizens to citizens”, outlining a “Precariat Charter” for today’s precariat, a class of millions of people experiencing a diversity of insecurities and being denied identity.

As always, the streams and papers featured at the BSA were varied and numerous.  Although it was impossible to see them all, one highlight for me was the Sociology of Religion stream, particularly those papers that proposed new methods or areas of research.  Titus Hjelm’s (University College London) talk, “Towards a Discursive Sociology of Religion and the State”, proposed a “discursive sociology” approach to religion-state relations, broadening the focus from legislative outcomes to the act of legislation, the discussions, processes and negotiations that produce policy outcomes.  Peter Hemming (Cardiff University) spoke on “Faith-Based Schooling in Rural Communities”, pointing out that larger discussions about urban, multi-faith school communities exclude the small, rural Anglican primary schools that make up the majority of faith-based schooling in the UK.  Tim Hutchings (Durham University) spoke on “The Bible in (Virtual) Community: Accountability in Digital Religion”.  Hutchings first summarised the findings from his research on the Youversion Bible App, before asking questions about religious authority online.  The Scoiology of Religion stream plenary featured Steve Bruce (University of Aberdeen) speaking about the decline of religion in Britain.

The Race, Ethnicity, and Migration stream on Islamophobia also bears mention.  Shamim Miah (University of Huddersfield) discussed “Trojan Horse and the Racial State: Race, Religion and Securitisation”, arguing that the Trojan Horse controversy led to the embedding of a particular secularization agenda in Britain’s schools.  Aurélien Mondon’s (University of Bath) and Aaron Winter’s (University of East London) talk, “Breaking Taboos or Strengthening the Status Quo: Islamophobia in the Name of Liberalism in France and America” presented a fascinating account of the role of liberal Islamophobia, which couches attacks on Islam in a pseudo-progressive position of protecting liberal freedoms, in political and cultural discourse in France and America, as well as in the UK.  Finally, Tania Saeed (University of Oxford), spoke on “Islamophobia: Experiential Accounts of Pakistani and British Pakistani Muslim Women in England.”  Her talk focused on the individual lived experience of a number of women, highlighting the intersection between race, ethnicity, and religion in public perception.  The three papers worked well together as commentaries on Islamophobia at the levels of legislation, media and public discourse, and individual experience.

Pierre Bourdieu’s work was heavily present at this year’s BSA conference, as numerous Twitter discussions of “theorist BINGO” pointed out.  The Sociology of Education stream featured a panel on the application of Bourdieu’s habitus to the social sciences, in which Cristina Costa (University of Strathclyde), Cirian Burke (Ulster University), Alan France (University of Auckland), and Mark Murphy (University of Glasgow) offered methodological examples of the application of a Bourdieusian framework from their own research on education.  In the Sociology of Religion stream, M. Angelica Thumala Olave (University of Edinburgh) presented her work with Susie Donnelly (University of Edinburgh), asking “With or without Bourdieu?  The Uses of His Approach for the Study of Religious and Cultural Change”.

The Presidential event, held at the end of the final day, asked the question, “Is there a British society?”  President Lynn Jamieson (University of Edinburgh) chaired a panel of Michael Rosie (University of Edinburgh), Nasar Meer (University of Strathclyde), Ann Pheonix (IOE, University of London), and Aaron Winter (University of East London), who gave brief responses before opening the discussion to the floor.  Ann Phoenix effectively summed up the discussion with her response, “Is there a British society?  Yes…there are many!”

Sufism is a paradox?

In his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Milad Milani gives a thoughtful overview of the tradition of Sufism, answering big questions such as: what is Sufism, how did it emerge historically (see Milani 2013), and how is it configured in contemporary Western discourses? As Milani astutely indicates at various points throughout the interview, the complexities of Sufism (if one can even speak of Sufism in the singular) make it quite difficult to pin down straightforward answers to these questions. In other words, there is no single set of doctrines and practices that define Sufism as such; there is no single figure, group, or place in which Sufism emerges; and, there are a number of different contexts in which Sufism is being deployed in contemporary discourses. However, by attempting to unpack some of these complex questions Milani provides substantial insight into how the population in general ought to think about Sufism, how scholars can approach the academic study of Sufism, and how Sufism relates to the Islamic tradition as a whole. Perhaps most importantly in my opinion, his continual recognition of the multiplicities of Sufi traditions is critical for the academic study of Sufism insofar as it counters many of the popular narratives of global and universal Sufism, and provides a context for considering the plurality of the Islamic tradition and the contestations that continually constitute it.

As with most discussions of Sufism, the interview begins with the question ‘What is Sufism?’ Milani’s answer is that, primarily, Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes central aspects of the Islamic tradition and seeks to cultivate an experience of ultimate unity or oneness with the divine. From this definition we can derive two important features of Sufism – one doctrinal and the other practical. In terms of doctrine, this notion of oneness was most clearly elaborated by the twelfth-century Andalusian mystic Ibn al-Arabi who proposed the concept of wahdat al-wujud (‘oneness of being’). The basic premise of this doctrine is that all created things are essentially reflections of God and that therefore God (or Truth – al-Haqq) is present in all things in this world. Today we may call this a kind of pantheism and this affront to the transcendence of the Divine was a main point of tension with normative Islam at the time. However, I highlight this doctrinal component here not because I want to suggest that all Sufis upheld it or interpreted it in precisely the same manner. Instead, I point to it in order to bring out some of the key doctrinal components underlying Sufism because I felt that perhaps too sharp a line was drawn in Milani’s interview between ‘mainstream’ Islam as doctrinal and Sufism as experiential. In other words, there are complex theological doctrines within Sufism, making the doctrinal-experiential differences difficult to render in any straightforward manner.

The second component is the practical dimension, and by that I mean the spiritual techniques for experiencing the divine, which Milani discusses briefly in relation to the ‘aesthetic’ components of Sufism, as well as what might be called the ethical ‘technologies of the self’ (to borrow a term from Foucault). With regard to the former, we have the primary practice of sama’, that is, a ritual practice of ‘audition’ that generally involves the recitation of poetry, the invocation of the names of God (dhikr), and rhythmic bodily movements performed in groups that lead people to an ecstatic experience in which one experiences the dissolution of the self in the face of the Divine (see Frishkopf 1999, Shannon 2006). The actual details of this practice vary greatly across Sufi orders (tariqa), but this is a central practice in much of the Sufi world. In relation to the ethical side, the ethical techniques are critical to Sufism and function not only to develop one’s relationship to the Divine, but also to develop one’s relationship to oneself and one’s community (see Silverstein 2012, Waugh 2008). This practical dimension of ethical Sufism is important because many discussions of Sufism revolve solely around the individual’s relationship to God, a tendency that I heard in Milani’s interview as well. My point, however, is not to criticize him for omitting a discussion of Sufism as an ethical tradition since there is only so much that can be said in such a limited amount of time. Rather, I want to stress that in many ways Sufism is not merely a form of asceticism, i.e., not simply a rejection of the material world, because embedded within the ethical tradition is the need to be involved in an ethical community in order to reach ‘perfection.’

The emphasis on community can then be connected to the formation of Sufi orders called tariqat (sing. tariqa), which in many ways defined classical or medieval Sufism. The tariqa is named after a particular founding saint or ‘friend of God’ (wali Allah) who often gains his/her status through esoteric knowledge, performing miracles (karamat), receiving God’s blessing (baraka), and a spiritual genealogy (silsila) (on sainthood see Ewing 1997, Stauth 2004, Sedgwick 2005). Individuals then enter into discipleship with these types of figures who guide the apprentice along his/her spiritual path, and the group of disciples that enter into this relationship constitute a particular manifestation of the tariqa at a given time, though at any point in history an order can be several generations removed from the founding figure. Some contemporary scholars have argued that, especially in the modern context, the tariqa has ceased to function as it did in the premodern times and that therefore modern Sufism has taken on such a distinct character that it is possible now to speak of ‘Neo-Sufism’ (see Rahman 1979, O’Fahey 1993, and Voll 2008). The details of this debate and the utility of the term aside, it does point to the question of how Sufism articulates with discourses of modernity (see van Bruinessen 2007, Weismann 2003, Johansen 1996). For instance, are Sufi practices and beliefs commensurate with the sensibilities of modern Muslim life, however that might be defined? The relationship between Islam and modernity is a significant question posed by scholars of Islam and I feel that Sufism provides a useful focal point for these studies, but the issue I want to bring into relief here is that discussions of the communal constitution of Sufism are central to how we define Sufism, and therefore an attempt to articulate what Sufism is ought to include the topics of sainthood and tariqa, in addition to individual experience.

While the tendency to think of Sufism as a kind of individualized or more private form of Islam is quite prevalent, the representation of Sufism as a form of ‘peaceful Islam’ or as a ‘solution’ to the ‘problem’ of radical Islam is equally pervasive (see Muedini 2012, Villalon 1994). These conceptions of Sufism are quite popular in the West, but they have also entered the rhetoric of countries like Morocco, for instance, where the government patronizes many Sufi activities as a means to combat the influence of radical Islam in the country. In this context, Sufism is presented as both apolitical and peaceful, and is therefore a non-threatening method for confronting extremism. (An interesting counter-example is contemporary Egypt where the President has actually ordered the closing of Sufi prayer spaces due to supposed connections between Sufi groups and terrorist groups in the country). However, as Milani indicates, many of these formulations of Sufism decontextualize it and overlook the fact Sufi groups have initiated and been intimately involved in various militant movements throughout history. For example, early Sufis were often the ‘frontiersmen’ of Islam, bringing a new religion into hostile territories and were therefore forced to participate in military conquests (see Green 2012). More recently, Sufi leaders sparked many anti-colonial movements and the tariqa system was used as a recruiting mechanism. Examples can be found throughout the Islamic world, but as my own work focuses on the North African context I would point to Algeria, Libya, and Sudan as prime examples of what Milani called ‘militant Sufism’ (see Heck 2007). It is in this sense that I think we can begin to think about Milani’s statement that, “Sufism is a paradox.”

By this phrase I take Milani to mean that Sufism confounds our thought in a number of different ways. It is said to promote peace and tolerance, yet has often been deployed in contexts of violence and militancy. It is claimed to be apolitical and disinterested in worldly affairs, yet Sufi orders have held tremendous economic and political power throughout history (see Cornell 1998). It claims to be Islamic, yet Sufis have continually been criticized as un-Islamic by Muslims. It promotes a kind of universality, yet the myriad forms of Sufism emerged from within specific cultural contexts and retain that cultural character. It is often seen as an esoteric tradition, yet for many centuries was considered ‘popular religion.’ Finally, it emphasizes the individual’s relationship to the Divine, yet this experience is made possible through bodily practices and involvement in a community (for more on the body in Sufism see Kugle 2007, Bashir 2011). These tensions, however, provide incredibly fruitful areas for both historical and ethnographic investigation because it is precisely how individuals and groups navigate these tensions at particular places and times that will enable us to speak about how the different forms of Sufism connect with one another. Such investigations will also give us a better sense of the enduring impact of Sufism on the Islamic landscape as a whole (see de Jong 1999), and allow us to better understand the processes through which visions of normative Islamic identity are constructed.

References

Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. New York: Columbia UP, 2011.

van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell (eds). Sufism and the “modern” in Islam. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

Cornell, Vincent. Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

Ewing, Katherine Pratt. Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis, and Islam. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Frishkopf, Michael Aaron. Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy. PhD dissertation: UCLA, 1999.

Green, Nile. Sufism: A Global History. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Heck, Paul L. Sufism and Politics: The Power of Spirituality. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2007.

Johansen, Julian. Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

de Jong, Frederick and Berndt Radtke (eds). Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill 1999.

Kugle, Scott Alan. Sufis & Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, & Sacred Power in Islam. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007.

Milani, Milad. Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. London: Routledge 2013.

Muedini, Fait. “The Promotion of Sufism in the Politics of Algeria and Morocco.” Islamic Africa 3.2 (2012): 201-26.

Sedgwick, Mark. Saints and Sons: The Making and Remaking of the Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi Order, 1799-2000. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Shannon, Jonathan Holt. Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Silverstein, Brian. Islam and Modernity in Turkey. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

Stauth, Georg (ed). On Archaeology and Sainthood and Local Spirituality in Islam. Yearbook of the sociology of Islam. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2004.

Villalon, Leandro. “Sufi Rituals as Rallies: Religious Ceremonies in the Politics of Senegalese State-Society Relations.” Comparative Politics 26.4 (1994): 415-437.

Waugh, Earle H. Visionaries of Silence: The Reformist Sufi Order of the Demirdashiya Al-Khalwatiya in Cairo. Cairo: AUC Press, 2008.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden: Brill, 2001.

Sufism

Like any religious tradition, the Islamic tradition is made up of countless groups and subgroups that interpret, enact, and commit to the materials of their tradition differently. Although focus is often placed on divisions between Sunni and Shi’a communities, one of the most fascinating modalities of belonging within Islam is that of Sufism, all the more interesting because Sufi sensibilities can extend across the full spectrum of Muslim identities. Sufism is often defined as a “mystical” tradition that shares similarities with forms of mysticism from other traditions in the way that in conceptualizes the nature of divinity and the nature of human understanding.

In this interview, Milad Milani discusses the basic orientation and history of Sufi thought. He also speaks about the diverse national variations of Sufism, particularly with respect to Iranian (or “Persianate”) Sufism. The interview concludes with a few critical remarks on the questionable appropriation of Sufism in contemporary Western discourses on religion.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, rubber ducks, vacuum cleaner bags, and more.

At the Limits of Orientalism: The Politics and Problems of Labelling in the Career of Michael A. Cook

Few scholars in the discipline of Islamic Studies could claim to be as qualified as Michael Cook to advise students on the matter of early career publications. For many years, Professor Cook has exerted a prominent and powerful presence in the fields of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, where he has distinguished himself as both an accomplished specialist and an engaged comparativist. Yet while there can be little doubt as to the scope or sophistication of Professor Cook’s eminent contributions to his field, the author himself continues to be remembered primarily in relation to his early collaboration with Patricia Crone, Hagarism. Almost forty years after the work’s publication, the project which Cook in this interview describes as a ‘youthful idea’ continues to provoke controversy and division. Having so vigorously rocked the academic boat early in his career, Cook later changed tack gracefully when he realised that he had set a course in the wrong direction. Even so, it is not uncommon today to encounter Cook’s name clustered alongside Crone’s under the title of ‘neo-Orientalists’, a categorisation that in Cook’s case is generally justified with reference to Hagarism alone. And, indeed, the methodological premise of Hagarism – that is, that the rise of Islam can be most accurately documented on the basis of non-Muslim sources contemporary with the rise of Islam read at the exclusion of, rather than in conversation with, later Muslim sources – falls easily within Said’s characterisation of Orientalism as the arrogation to Western scholars of the right to speak ‘for’ the Orient. Indeed, the Orientalist project of Hagarism is of a double sort, in that it arrogates representational power of the Muslim to the non-Muslim at both the level of primary and secondary sources, a move that appears to assume the incapacity of Muslims for engaged scholarly enquiry about their own history.

Yet if Hagarism – a work published just one year before Said’s Orientalism – remains an example of Orientalist scholarship par excellence, the caricature of its author as a ‘neo-Orientalist’ some thirty-five years later is less convincing. Far from encouraging a rigorous engagement with Cook’s subsequent scholarship, such a classification seems to justify its relegation to the status of imperialistic irrelevance. Such an easy dismissal might be seen as an ‘Orientalizing’ of the ‘Orientalist’, in both the sense of speaking ‘for’ him and in the sense of rendering him ahistorical, a figure whose contemporary contributions are perceived as merely continuous with a trajectory set deep in the intellectual past. Yet not only has Cook repeatedly distanced himself from his early thesis in Hagarism, his later works are a far cry from the contemporary ‘neo-Orientalism’ of individuals such as the ultra-conservative Zionist, Daniel Pipes, alongside whom his name occasionally appears. Ironically, Pipes is among the few Western intellectuals who continues to reference Hagarism in support of his (generally polemical) political arguments.

If the flippant dismissal of Cook’s impressive scholarship under the heading of ‘Orientalism’ is neither warranted nor desirable, there remains the question of just how Hagarism was, to borrow Cook’s words, ‘formative’ for his later scholarly approach. Here, it is worth elaborating a little further on the ‘radical skepticism’ that Cook references as the backdrop for the writing of Hagarism at SOAS in the late 1970s. The crucial and unmentioned figure here is John Wansbrough, the Harvard-educated advisor to both Cook and Crone whose radically revisionist interpretation of early Islam as a Jewish-influenced sectarian movement in his 1977 Qur’anic Studies provided the touchstone for Hagarism’s thesis. Perhaps no less critical to Cook’s early intellectual development is Bernard Lewis, who served as Cook’s dissertation advisor and who must be credited, in part, with steering his approach and explanatory framework in the direction of intellectual history. Lewis, who is notable not only for his role as a foreign policy consultant to the Bush administration after 9/11 but also for being one of the only Western scholars to still identify as an ‘Orientalist’, remains a central yet highly conservative figure in Islamic Studies, a status confirmed in no small part by his persistent and at times highly venomous opposition to the works of Edward Said.

Hagarism was the product of a highly particular scholarly environment permeated both by an emerging radicalism and a deep traditionalism within the field of Islamic Studies. Novel in its willingness to engage contemporary non-Muslim sources in the study of early Islamic history, the work nevertheless retained many of the characteristics of highly traditional Orientalist scholarship of the genre still espoused by Professor Lewis: an emphasis on textual sources in the study of religion; a focus on the early development of the religion as critical to understanding Islam’s distinctive ‘essence’; a privileging of ‘civilisation’ as the fundamental unit of analysis; and a lack of attention to questions of power and politics as they pertained to the emergence of normative understandings of critical concepts, both within and outside the traditions under analysis. Undergirding this approach is the persistent influence of the Rankean strand of scientific historicism, an intellectual debt underscored by Princeton anthropologist Lawrence Rosen, who critiques Cook for his promulgation of the Rankean catchcry, “facts speak for themselves”.1

While I am hesitant, for reasons suggested above, to join with Rosen in labelling Cook an ‘Orientalist’, there are aspects of the latter’s recent work that indeed evoke traces of the more traditional approach described above. As one example, we might take Cook’s Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong (2001), an impressive volume that is the result of more than 15 years of meticulous research and whose footnotes put even Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire philosophique to shame. While the rigour and value of Cook’s recent volume are extraordinary, two aspects of the work’s structure and methodology stand out as conspicuously traditional in their assumptions. First, there is the question of chronology. Cook characteristically begins his analysis from the earliest sources, and continues his textual sifting up to the end of ‘classical’ Islam in the twelfth century CE. From here, the text leaps abruptly into the eighteenth century. This structural choice leaves the reader with the distinct (and, to my mind, misleading) impression that modern Islam can be best understood with reference to its earliest origins and development in what have survived as ‘mainstream’ texts (a term never explicitly defined or justified by Cook), while bracketing out the messier questions about Islam’s interrelations with other intellectual systems (including ‘heretical’ ones), as well as the impact of culture, politics, and economics upon its development. Second, having masterfully delineated the tensions and diversity within the genealogy of this concept in Islamic history, Cook then attempts to force these threads back together in a chapter tellingly entitled: ‘What is Distinctive about the Islamic Case’. Cook’s concern to discover the sine qua non of the Islamic concept of commanding right and forbidding wrong – a precept which Cook believes to be “found embedded (though not necessarily articulated) in just about all human cultures”2 – appears to lead him to fuse together two distinct positions mapped out in the first section of his work, a fusion that does justice neither to the complexity of Cook’s analysis, nor to the adherents of these two positions themselves, who might well have resisted being categorised together under the rubric of the ‘distinctively’ Islamic.3 Similarly surprising, given the complexity of the evidence examined, is Cook’s concluding remark that “Islam, within certain limits, tells people what to believe and how to live; liberalism, within certain limits, is about leaving them to work this out for themselves”.4 In light of Cook’s attentive treatment of Islamic conceptions of privacy within his discussion, this statement appears as a blatant oversimplification – perhaps more consistent with what modern Islamists and modern liberals say about themselves than with the experiential and historical realities of either system.

While it is not difficult to perceive, in Professor Cook’s more recent work, traces of a more traditional approach to Islamic Studies, the rigour and meticulousness that characterise his scholarship provide an exemplary model for young scholars and caution against the intellectual torpor that results, more often than not, from overhasty characterisations and inadequate critical engagement. Throughout a long and at times tempestuous career, Professor Cook has retained his unwavering commitment to the practice of thorough scholarship based on an extensive and close mastery of primary materials, including their languages. And while his emphasis that ‘bigger things do rest on smaller things’ may stand at odds with an increasingly instrumentalised and production-focused culture in the humanities, the discipline and patience at evidence in Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong provides a timely reminder of the valuable aspects of traditional academic approaches.

 


  1.  Lawrence Rosen, ‘Orientalism Revisited: Edward Said’s Unfinished Critique,’ https://www.bostonreview.net/rosen-orientalism-revisited, 1 January 2007. 
  2.  Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 562 
  3. Ibid., 583. 
  4.  Ibid., 514. 

The Holberg Prize 2014 Episode With Michael Cook, “Bigger Things Do Rest On Smaller Things.”

 

Michael Cook is University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the first british Holberg Prize Laureate. Photo: Denise Applewhite

Michael Cook is University Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. He is the first British Holberg Prize Laureate. Photo: Denise Applewhite

Professor Michael Cook, winner of the Holberg Prize 2014, has had a huge influence on the historical study of Islam. Typical of a historian who knows from experience that there are always sources and perspectives that can skew our perceptions of the past, Cook writes in A Brief History of the Human Race (2003) that he cannot offer any “Grand Unified Theory of History”. Yet, Cook has offered significant insights to Islamic history by means of diligent research, his philological capacity and by a rigorous commitment to scholarship. His contributions have paved new paths for the study of Islam and Near Eastern history, and his legacy will be imprinted on many bibliographies for many decades to come.

In this episode, Knut interviews Professor Cook about his decision to go into history in the first place, about his writing process, the role of the humanities, his reflections about teaching, and why he finds it so important to get the details right.

You can read Knut’s presentation on Michael Cook here, and also Cook’s speech from the Prize Award Ceremony (highly recommended).

This episode was produced in collaboration with The Holberg Prize 2014. The Holberg Prize is awarded annually to scholars who have made outstanding contributions to research in the arts and humanities, social science, law or theology. The Prize amounts to 4.5 million NOK (approx. 538.000 EUR / 735.000 USD). Visit the website to learn more.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make.

The Secular Reality

If, as [Douglas Pratt] is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

The Secular Reality: A Response to Pratt’s “Durkheimian Dread”

By Thomas J. Coleman III, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 6 February 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Douglass Pratt on the Persistence and Problem of Religion (4 February 2013).

Douglas Pratt presents us with a most noble and worthwhile endeavor in his Religious Studies Project podcast entitled, The Persistence and Problem of Religion. It is clear that he is interested in easing tensions that exist between various religions throughout the world. However, a call for clarification is needed with regards to “persistence” and there are several contentious points that should be addressed. As a scholar specializing in religious concerns relating to Christian-Muslim relations, Pratt seems to be arguing against Secularization from an activist’s position.  Within the same podcast, Pratt labels the more conservative fundamentalist viewpoint as “nonsensical” and calls the secular stance “crazy”. This leads the listener to perceive a paradox. In one sense, Pratt appears to be a post-modernist advocating for religious freedom and expression of individual belief yet he wants to limit some forms religious expression, for example fundamentalism. Moreover he does not seem to understand the theoretical complexities and benefits of the secularization paradigm as proposed within sociology of religion. Within this paradigm religion certainly is slowly dissolving from within public sphere yet at the same time multi-cultural and religious values are equal. Secular space ensures that no one religion has dominance over another. Hence the paradox of Pratt’s view, why argue against an obvious benefit of secularization while also limiting certain types of religious forms which, in his argument, is what secularization does. As Pratt attempts to cut through the secularization hypothesis, he, perhaps unknowingly, lends it overwhelming support with his own inconsistent viewpoint. This paper will provide a point-by-point analysis of Pratt’s view as noted within the podcast.

The Problem of Persistence

First, Pratt fails to adequately define what is meant by persistence. Persistence is a highly ambiguous term as used in the podcast. In what form, and where do we really have a “persistence of religion”? Is persistence directly related to the institution of religion? Is persistence the theological continuation within a religion? Is persistence an issue of church attendance or religious self-identity? His initial remarks state, “There has been a resurgence of religious phenomena…and religion in the news”. The end of the interview sheds no more light as to what sort of persistence religion has seen, we are only left with the indubitable point that religion exists as a declarative fact. The decline of religion in Europe and many other developed countries has even been termed “apparently unstoppable” by other theologians (Oviedo, 2012). It is unclear how Pratt would address an apparent decline in many westernized nations. Either way, the term persistence evades us as Pratt acknowledges that many people “don’t want the narratives”. If, as he is contending, we don’t want the “metaphysical dimension” and “stories” of religion at the personal as well as societal level, this is not persistence; this is a new phenomenon altering centuries of evolving theological trajectory.

What about Secularization?

Pratt implies that the sixties and seventies forced the secularization thesis out the door of the social sciences. His talking points, and comments throughout lend nothing short of support toward this “out-going theory”. Sociologist Mark Chaves whose research on secularization spans just over two decades (1989, 1993,1994, 2011), declared in his 2011 ARDA Guiding Paper that, “no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is increasing”.

 “Secularization is most productively understood not as declining religion, but as the declining scope of religious authority” –Chaves 1994

Chaves view is supported by other established researchers and historians such as Steve Bruce (2011) who argue that while various differences exist within the secularization paradigm (e.g. cyclical, linear, situational/geographical, etc.) a social shift is occurring but it is not addressed in any type of detail within the podcast by Pratt. The first half of the interview, Pratt repeatedly supports two main tenets of the secularization thesis, the first being that Government and public life has become/is becoming more secular. He even states that religious expressions of narrative are being “eliminated” and “pushed out of the public realm altogether”. He goes on to give us multiple examples of such from around the world. The second blessing of support Pratt gives secularization is reflected in comments such as, “the expressions of religion that relate to the narrative, are being, as it were eliminated, or pushed to one side”. If he is correct, and people are casting the underlying narratives and myths that religion has been built upon aside or directing their efforts in another form, religion in its traditional sense may indeed be falling victim to secularization. Secularization may remove religion from the public sphere of influence such as governmental recognition or funding but it certainly does not appear that there is an active effort to control or remove religions from their own sacred spaces. In other words, communism attempted to control religion through a variety of methods. It just does not appear this is happening in Western Europe or North America.

Points of Contention

“In terms of modern western history…yes society needs the values of religion, but we don’t want the stories.”  – Pratt

Pratt seems to hold what I will coin as “Durkheimian dread” for the persistence of secularization; whereby society has no replacement for, and is lost without, traditional religion. It is clear that many in today’s world may feel similar. However, research has shown that this presumed societal need for religious glue seems to be nothing more than an unsupported position (Zuckerman, 2006; Paul, 2009). Paul’s findings indicate a strong correlation between the “most successful societies” and the most secular societies. It follows from this, that the role of religion as playing an important role in the structural functionalism of today’s world is certainly in question.

“Secularist, anti-religious…”  -Pratt

The terms “secularist” and “anti-religious” are conflagulated both explicitly and implicitly throughout the podcast. Many people who identify as religious consider themselves secularists and even donate time and money towards ensuring governments and public spaces remain secular. Ascribing to a faith tradition and supporting the secularity of public spaces are in no way mutually exclusive, and should never be confused (Robbins, 2012; Voas & Day, 2010). This is the problem with gross overgeneralizations about people; they typically ignore the complexity of the human landscape – secular or religious.

Towards the end of the interview Pratt seems to advocate controlling the comprehension and transformative direction that religious narratives can and do take. He puts forth the idea that if we do not prevent more fundamentalist understandings of faith (which he describes as “narrow”) from growing, then the scope of religious studies will henceforth be more narrow, we will not have as much to study. It is hard not to picture Pratt’s argument as wild and theoretically porous, stigmatizing and complicating the religious and irreligious minorities as he attempts to kill the ills of religious conflicts in our world. Unfortunately in this most noble endeavor, he ends up demonizing what many would see as the most promising remedy for increasing religious tension in the world, a secular government. In the words of His Holiness the Dali Lama,

“Secularism does not mean rejection of all religions. It means respect for all religions and human beings including non-believers,” (Gyatso, Tenzin HH. Dalai Lama, 2006)

 

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Thomas J. Coleman III is an undergraduate student in psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He is one of the few undergraduates at the university to conduct research alongside graduate and post graduate students. He holds the Assistant Project Manager Position on the Bielefeld International Spirituality Research Study and is the Project Manager for the UT Chattanooga study of non-belief in America exploring the complexities of self-identity adjectives in how atheist and agnostic participants self-describe. Currently Mr. Coleman is overseeing and developing a research project on the domain intersections within Horizontal/Vertical Transcendence and interrelated correlates. His email address is Thomas-J-Coleman@mocs.utc.edu

References

  • Bruce, S. (2011). Secularization: In defence of an unfashionable theory. USA: Oxford University Press.
  • Chaves, M. (1989). “Secularization and religious revival: Evidence from U.S. church attendance rates.” 1972-1986 Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28(4): pp. 464-477
  • Chaves, M. (1993). “Intraorganizational Power and Internal Secularization within Protestant Denominations.” American Journal of Sociology 99(1):1-48.
  • Chaves, M. (1994). “Secularization as declining religious authority.” Social Forces, 72(3), 749-774.
  • Gyatso, Tenzin HH. His holiness the Dalai Lama said secularism is the basis of all religions. (2006, November 26). Retrieved from http://tibet.net/2006/11/13/his-holiness-the-dalai-lama-said-secularism-is-the-basis-of-all-religions/
  • Oviedo, L. (2012). “Struggling with secularization.” Reviews in Religion and Theology,19(2), 188-199.
  • Paul, G. (2009). “The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 399-441.
  • Robbins, M. (2012, February 17). “Christians should unite with atheists to defend secularism.” The Guardian, Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/the-lay-scientist/2012/feb/17/1
  • Voas, David and Abby Day. (2010). Recognizing secular Christians: Toward an unexcluded middle in the study of religion (ARDA Guiding Paper Series). State College, PA: The Association of Religion Data Archives at The Pennsylvania State University, from http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers.asp.
  • Zuckerman, P. (2006). “Atheism: Contemporary rates and patterns.” In M. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Atheism (pp. 47-68). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).

 

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

The Merits of Hybrid Theology

By Gemma Gall, University of Edinburgh

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 10 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Donald Wiebe on the relationship between Religious Studies and Theology (6 February 2012).

The work of Donald Wiebe is not entirely alien to me; indeed, I have found myself agreeing with his response to phenomenology. However, on the question of the relationship between theology and religious studies, Wiebe’s visit to Edinburgh in 2010 found our opinions to be very divergent.

Wiebe begins his interview by admitting that it may not be possible to clearly delineate religious studies and theology, an admirable concession which seems to lull the listener into the false belief that he is promulgating an understanding of the ‘dichotomy’ which understands the malleable nature of both academic disciplines and the relationship between them. Unfortunately, he undermines this moment of resisting reductionism by his refusal to acknowledge development in the concepts of theology.

The reasoning which Wiebe gives for this is flawed: despite his recognition of the changing nature of theology, he continues to base his understanding of this relationship in the Christian tradition of God talk. His dismissal of ‘hybrid theology’ without any assessment of what this entails (and instead indulging in biased rhetoric) is one of the main failings of his summary of the theology-religious studies situation. Very few, if any, religious studies scholars would claim that religious studies should engage in studies in which they practice God talk. Surely this is simply theology? Similarly, ‘religious studies’ which do not engage with hybrid theology, the understandings of ‘god(s)’, ‘religion’, ‘supernatural’, or whatever element the group being studied claim to be the underpinning of their group, is surely just a ‘scientific’ study of the group. Of course it is necessary for there to be anthropological, sociological etc studies, but it is also necessary to consider how theology – in its hybrid sense – impacts upon practice.

As an example of how knowledge of the theology of the group studied aids understanding, I demonstrate how I have used theology. My own studies specialise in Islam with a particular focus on gender issues, which demands an understanding of the relationship between, for example, politics, economics, spatial theory, power relations and Holy texts (with the interpretation thereof) for an issue such as veiling. Refusing to engage in studying the revelation of the ‘hijab verses’ in the Qur’an, as well as their interpretation, leads to a confused and inferior study.

This dichotomy, Wiebe argues, may even prevent scholars of religion who are themselves religious from a non-biased study. According to cognitive theory, evolutionary psychology has developed to protect the ‘supernatural instinct’ which is employed when one can’t understand something. This is “hard-wired” to protect agency, thus preventing many of those with a faith of their own from bracketing it out; therefore endangering the scientific nature of their studies. Indeed, Wiebe claims that many scholars with a religious position of their own will not undertake the ‘hard work’ to retain a vigorously scientific study. These claims are predicated on an understanding of faith as a singularly correct entity. I find it hard to believe that there are many serious religious studies scholars who hold this position; it is antithetical to the aims of the discipline. I agree with Wiebe that scholars should not invoke their own beliefs in their studies; after all, that would not be a study of the group being undertaken but instead of one’s own beliefs. However, I feel that it is impossible to bracket all aspects of one’s own faith position;  that the holding of forms of belief may even benefit a scholar’s attempts to understand how another’s faith impacts upon their life.

The notion that our inability to prove or disprove the notion of God means that we should not invoke such a concept is highly problematic. Firstly, if the concepts of God(s), supernatural or other variants, continue to impact upon how a community functions, then the study again fails to fully account for the context.

Perhaps Wiebe’s determined view of non-theological approaches to the study of religion fails because it is fundamentally based on a notion of explaining religion. This is not what religious studies should purport to do; we provide theories and data detailing what people practice and believe, we do not explain ‘religion’. If this were possible, surely the interminable debates on definitions of religion would be complete?

Ultimately, Wiebe fails to recognise that whilst there may be methodological differences between the disciplines, there is a certain amount of interdependency between the two. Religious Studies without theology fails not only to adequately study the phenomena it purports to, but it fails to justify its existence a separate discipline. The good historians and philologists of whom Wiebe speaks are just that; they are not scholars of religious studies. Similarly, theology undertaken from one’s own faith position is simply practice of belief, as Wiebe himself claims; it has no place in academia. However, theology does not have to take this form. To use Wiebe’s own terminology, ‘hybrid theology’, where a non-biased and non-personal methodology is employed, offers an alternative. If Wiebe is serious in his claim that theology has a place as an object of analysis in academia, then surely he must reconsider his own views in order to see this as a ‘third way’ between a purely ‘scientific’ study of religion and the ‘God talk’ of Christian theology.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Gemma Gall graduated from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Religious Studies in 2010, and is currently continuing her studies at Edinburgh with an MSc by Research in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. She specialises in Gender and Islam.