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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

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.