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Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

blog_yogarave_1_bellytitleThe spread of religion and practice from origin points to global phenomena is a prevalent topic within religious studies. Stephen Jacobs, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, and Theodora Wildcroft, a PhD researcher at Open University UK, are both interested in the common presence of yoga and bhakti tradition in the contemporary British rave and festival communities. This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture. As appropriation of culture and questions of authenticity pervade conversations across fields, the study of contemporary British Hindu movements is important in understanding how millennia old religious traditions are being used in new, modern contexts.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast with Steve Jacobs and Theodora Wildcroft (25 September 2017).

Interviewed by Ella Bock.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Jacobs and Wildcroft- Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities 1.1

Ella Bock (EB): Ok, so. Shall we get started? I guess I can introduce my self to you, first of all, in person. I’m Ella. I go to school at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland Oregon. But I’m currently at home for the summer in Washington DC.

Steve Jacobs (SJ): Ok. Well, I’m Steve Jacobs or Stephen Jacobs if you’re being very formal, but nobody calls me that. I’m senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, here in the UK, mostly based in the Media department, but also based in Religious Studies as well.

Theodora Wildcroft (TW): I’m Theo Wildcroft. Nobody calls me Theodora unless they want to make me giggle, basically. I’m at the OU, the Open University, in Milton Keynes, but I’m actually at home in Wiltshire at the moment – in north Wiltshire, in the south of the country. And I am just coming up on my last year of PhD, in full thesis-writing-up-joy at the moment!

SJ: That’s the most exiting bit! (Laughs).

TW: It is, actually. I had a really good supervision on Tuesday, so I’m fine right now. Good supervision, good response. So that’s another two chapters sorted. So fingers crossed!

SJ: Brill.

EB: Congratulations on your PhD!

TW: Thank you.

EB: So, I guess we can jump right into it. My first question is to just get started with introducing what “yoga raves” and “kirtan” are. So if you could, like, explain a little bit what those are, and their presence in Britain, and if they interact at all, and how they would do that.

TW: Well, I think for a while now there’s been a sub-current of kirtan influence in the UK, but it’s not particularly well-known. So we start, I think, with kirtan – because kirtan is an existing practice within South Asia and the Indic and Hindu contexts, basically – which is a practice of devotion or religious practice through sound – specifically through singing and music: sharing singing and music. And that has an interesting history which I think we’ll go into in more detail, in terms of how that has met and interacted with the kinds of sub-culture elements within British culture in the last thirty to forty, maybe even fifty years – at least fifty years, probably. Yoga and the most recent kind of incarnations of that are doing some interesting things that aren’t particularly well-known. But it’s interesting what they’re doing. Yoga raves, I think, is really a much more recent phenomenon and Steve can talk a lot more about that, really being quite specific.

SJ: Yes, I mean yoga raves is a term that’s used by a duo who come from this group called the  Art of Living Foundation, who – well, to cut a very long story short – are a kind of Hindu-derived meditation movement. They’re a very close cousin to Transcendental Meditation. And they wanted to . . . and one of the things with Art of Living is they wanted to draw in a younger audience. So these two musicians who were members of the group, started what they called yoga rave dance parties:  kind-of alcohol, drug-free events that had the same sort of format as a kind-of rave would have, but using traditional kind-of Hindu mantras, to use a loaded term, or bhajans as a sound track – but giving it a Western kind of sound track, particularly an electronic dance music beat. (5:00) So it’ s a kind of interesting syncretic phenomena.

EB: OK

TW: So we’ve got the kind of yoga raves going on – I think, mostly in London?

SJ: Well, yoga rave isn’t a term that’s used by the UK group. They prefer the term yoga jam. So there’s a whole range of different terminology: I’ve seen mantra punk; yoga rave; yoga jam.  And one of the reasons . . . and it’s based very much around a small group within Art of Living, here in the UK. And they said to me, “We do not like the term ‘rave’”, because in the UK rave is so much mixed with the culture of electronic dance music and  part of that is taking lots of NDMA or Ecstasy as it’s more commonly known. So jam – they preferred this terminology. The leader of the group said, “I like the term, it’s cool!” he said. And it kind-of has this kind of connotation of the bricolage and also something that’s fun and enjoyable.

TW: There is a wider movement as well, though, called Conscious Clubbing, which I’m aware of. I have friends from the yoga community – particularly around London, I think, maybe Brighton, maybe places like that – that do conscious clubbing events which are specifically alcohol and drug free. And often early Sunday mornings seem to be a big time for a get-together. And, of course, the music they’re using is very much rave music. But it has that similar sense of wanting to achieve a state of ecstatic kind of communion, a coming-together kind of a feeling and a celebration, but without the artificial stimulants. So there’s kind-of a cross-over there. And then, of course, they’re all often using contemporary kirtan music, contemporary kirtan tunes, which provides another link as well. Whereas kirtan is much more a practice that’s done live. I think that’s one of the big differences for me, is that – not that that’s always a difference between them and the yoga jams, I think – but one of the things that’s clear with kirtan is that it’s always live musicians, live singers, live interactions with the audience, the music happening in real time, if that makes sense.

SJ: Yes. I think one of the things that Theo and I have talked about over the years that we’ve been interested in this, is the difference between participation and just being a part of the audience. And that whole thing has kind-of – it’s a whole kind of array of different relationships of participation. So the traditional kirtan is, of course, a call and response and very much involves everybody. Whereas sometimes the yoga jams and the yoga raves seem to be less participatory, even though there is an element of participation.

TW: Yes. Definitely.

SJ: They’re much more performances, in many ways.

EB: Well, I’m interested in how the two different movements and communities are trying to reconcile traditional cultures and practices with contemporary modern . . . like having yoga and therapeutic things in raves and EDM music. How do you see them reconciling those two? And if they are[seen as] authentic ways of practising and, like, what authenticity means here – because that’s a loaded term.

SJ: OK. Authenticity is a really interesting phenomena. I’ve just been reading a book about authenticity by Lindholm and he says, really, when we’re thinking about authenticity you see two different types of discourses around authenticity. (10:00) One he calls the historical and genealogical,  and the other he calls the romantic and expressive. And what’s really interesting for me is that when you look at discourses about yoga rave and yoga jam and in Art of Living – and indeed their wider practices – is they use both of those discourses. So it’s authentic because it’s Vedic. And of course, if you know anything about the Vedas, sound is very primordial, with the primordial mantra Ohm. In fact, the notion of sound within the Hindu tradition is badly understudied. It’s not studied . . .  it’s not given the centrality by many people the way that it [should be]. So it’s got that roots in a kind of invented or romanticised Vedic past, but it also is part of the therapeutic culture where it’s the experience. But the experience without the roots becomes kind-of too ambiguous and free floating. So you experience a somatic experience, but that somatic experience is then rooted back into an imagined Vedic past.

TW: You see, I would add a third aspect. Because I think that’s all really true, and rings very true with the things I’m looking at. But a third aspect is the notion of authenticity that comes from a personal way to practice, and a personal investment into the practice. That’s what the kirtan wallahs – the musicians and the people who share kirtan – are bringing: it’s a level of experience with that practice. They’re often quite accomplished musicians, although that’s not . . . they’re not necessarily prized for their technical ability so much as a sheer devotion to the practice itself: that they spend large amounts of time doing what they do – which is singing and playing, not just for audiences, but for themselves. And that also, tangentially, has a communal aspect which . . . . One of the things I find really interesting is, when you have big bakhti events, big kirtan events where you have a number of different kirtan musicians playing one after another, they will back each other up. So if someone arrives early, or someone’s around , you know, one will say to another “Could you play shaker on this for me?” or you know, “I’d love to play tabla on yours.” And so you get these individual musicians, or small groups of musicians, but actually when they play at theses events they have all sorts of friends playing with them. And their friends are usually people who have either just played or are going to play again. So there’s this idea that the most joyous thing that they could be doing is playing. Always. So there’s an authenticity there that comes from that weight of practice and that weight of personal history, rather than necessarily genealogy. And certainly, one of the historical aspects that I’m aware of with regards to kirtan here, out in the south-west in particular, is that we have a certain community of people who’ve spent a lot of time in Indian ashrams and loved the experience of kirtan there and began to practice kirtan there. And they’re over here, they’re home again and they miss that community coming together. And a lot of these events are about them coming together with other people, regardless of whether they were at the same ashram, regardless  of whether they’re the same lineage, regardless of even if they have the same devotional roots, even. You have people from different sects and lineages coming together, people with no lineage at all coming together. But what they value is that communal coming together and singing and sharing kirtan, which is really interesting. So there’s that communal weight as well. So that, over time, the community has its own history. So it’s really interesting, when you talk about authenticity with regards to Hindu roots and South Asian roots – which are obviously very real and very true – but what I would say is what I see. And what I see is a weight of practice in this country that’s been going on for decades. And that’s the roots, as much as anything else, that they’re connected to.

SJ: I mean there is a romanticisation of Hindu traditions that Theo and I have talked about. (15:00) It goes right back to cultural roots here in the UK, of course: George Harrison, 1969, the Mahamantra by the Krishna Consciousness got to number 12 in Top of the Pops, sold 700,000. In America you’ve got the counter-cultural movements, particularly people like Ginsberg and the Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco that had some of the foremost counter-cultural groups, people like Moby Grape. And then also of course, there was Swami Prabhupada the founder of . . . [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness]. In fact, you’ll see his image on the poster for the Mantra Rock dance in ’69. So all of these kind of influences, counter kind-of influences between the West and the East, well they’ve actually been going long before the counter-culture of course. I think the counter-culture is a very important threshold.

TW: It is. It’s a threshold. But I think its a threshold of visibility. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s that we have these periodic visible manifestations of commercial culture engaging with Hindu devotional music in one way or another. I mean you shared the – was it the Cher?  Cher’s version of the Gayatri Mantra? And it’s really interesting to see those commercial expressions and commercial engagements with Hindu devotional music. But what it’s important to remember is those do not feed necessarily directly from ancient Indian practices, they feed from an existing subculture that is continually engaging with this music and continually engaging with this practice. You know, there’s a transnational culture that certainly in the UK spends time, a lot of them will spend time, going back and forward from the UK. A number of the people involved will be South Asian heritage, a number of people won’t. You know, it’s a whole transnational current that’s going on that’s always there. It’s just the bits that we tend to notice: the bits that get into the top 40 sphere, or the bits that end up on the credits of pop shows, which we were also talking about weren’t we? We were talking about how the Gayatri Mantra was used on the opening credits to Battlestar Galactica, you know – who knew that?! Because it’s a really interesting mantra in terms of its visibility. The story goes that one of the actors basically went to the show runners and said, “We have to use this. We have to use this Mantra.” And he wanted that sense of authenticity of this being something ancient, because the show itself speaks to really interesting themes around religion and rebirth and these different things. But without the counter-cultural and sub-cultural engagements with Hindu devotional music, he would never have had that to bring them. (Laughs).

SJ: Yes. No, Cher wouldn’t have been doing that Gayatri mantra . . .

TW: No. Cher doesn’t rock up at an Ashram in India and go “I think I’ll take this mantra.” She takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else. And the intermediaries are the kind of yoga jam people and the new kirtan people and the bhakti musicians that we’re talking about. And there’s a thriving – certainly in the UK and particularly, in my opinion, in the South West of the UK – it’s a thriving and vibrant little culture. I’m hoping you’ll be able to include some actual music and links.

EB: Well, I hope that David does.

TW: Yes.

EB: Well, I was wondering if you’ve seen or come across any backlash against the use of mantras in Western pop culture? Or even within the kirtan and yoga rave/ yoga jam communities?

TW: I can speak to one really interesting discussion of this by, I won’t mention her by name, but she’ll recognise herself, by an integral yoga teacher of japa, so a mantra teacher. So she was leading a session, that I was at, that wasn’t even really kirtan, it was very much on mantra and the effect of sound and how we can . . . chant, so much more chanting than singing, if that makes sense. So, the effect of mantra on the energetic field, the effect of mantra on our connection to the universe. And she talked specifically about the Gayatri Mantra. And she said a number of things about it. (20:00) She said that the Gayatri is a very ancient mantra – so she connected it to this lineage – that it’s been chanted continuously in India for thousands of years – however the story goes – and then she said, “But these days a lot of people come across the Gayatri Mantra through. . . .” She didn’t mention the Cher version but she mentioned various pop culture versions of it. And she said, in her view, that is absolutely fine because its a way in. People come across these pop culture versions of mantra and it is not the same, it does not have the same effect as a mantra that’s been chanted in community for devotional intent. But the words still have power and the sound still has power and it is the connection – a seed that is planted that can lead people to something deeper and fuller. I’m aware that in the States, in particular, there is a very, very different debate that’s going on, I think, around the issues of authenticity and appropriation. And I think it’s important to be aware that the discussions of appropriation are very different here in Europe and particularly in the UK. Our yoga culture as a whole is less commercialised. It’s still commercialised in many respects but we still . . . we have an enormous grassroots yoga community, still. And our yoga community is still much more integrated with South Asian groups and communities and influences. So, as a result, the conversations are more complicated. That’s not to say that appropriation isn’t an issue and it’s not talked about, but it’s much less polarising than debates have been recently in the States, if that makes sense. Would you agree?

SJ: The discussions about appropriation really only occur in the academic arena because when we’re talking broadly about the Hindu traditions – and I’ll use the plural here – there’s not this idea that, you know . . . . Ok, so you have a Murti and it’s installed in a temple, but anybody can go and buy an image of the Ganesh, or anything. And they’re not so precious about different uses of it. Of course you’ve got the tradition of calendar art in the more visual things. And also when you think about kirtan in India itself, you know, a lot of Hindus are chanting kirtan to Bollywood tunes. So you already have that tradition of, you know, taking a traditional kirtan that goes back to the medieval Bhakti period, but it’s being chanted to the latest Bollywood tunes. And even in India you get CDs like Cosmic Trance for Youth, which is within the Hindu community itself. Young people are taking the traditional mantras and bhajans and giving it their own electronic dance soundtrack, to try and draw young Hindus in India into it. You know, devotional music in India is one of the biggest selling kind of genres of music. You go anywhere like Rushikesh, which is a very important pilgrimage place, and you’ve literally got stall upon stall in the bazaar along the banks of the Ganges selling all of these kind of remixed mantras, if you like.

TW: I also love that the supposedly traditional kirtan instruments that are now accepted to be the ones that everyone should have are tabla and harmonium. And that’s fascinating when you think the only reason that harmoniums ever came to India, as far as I’m aware, is through Christian missionaries.

SJ: Yes, that’s correct.

TW: Christian Missionaries arrived in India with harmoniums and played lots of choral music and got them singing Christian songs. And you know, essentially Indian people, the Indian culture, went: “That’s great, we’ll have that! We’re just going to sing Vedic mantras instead.” And now, if you want a good harmonium you go to an Indian manufacturer. You don’t go anywhere else. One of the few places in the world that still has huge amounts of harmoniums being played is India. And now, if you have kirtan that doesn’t have harmonium and tabla that’s now seen as non-traditional. I mean, I was at an event the other week – it was a bhakti event – and I realised tucked away in the corners around the space were eight different harmoniums waiting for – because everybody has their own – waiting for their particular musicians to come. So I counted eight lying there, which is great. So at which point I’m less interested in  . . . .  I mean, I think cultural borrowing is really interesting, and all religious scholars hopefully are aware of how syncratic religion is, generally.(25:00) There are further discussions you can have about power and about colonialism, but I think those differences are much clearer when you’re talking about multi-million dollar selling pop artists than if you’re talking about kirtan musicians in Bristol, or wherever, who have a day job and sell a few CDS. The level of power that they have to appropriate somebody else’s power is very different, I think, than Sony might have.  (Laughs). What is more interesting to me is the syncretism involved in the music itself. And I don’t know how much that’s true of the yoga rave/ yoga jam side of things, but I know that in the kirtan movement in the south-west, singers are using not just Vedic and Hindu mantras, they’re using Buddhist mantras, they’re using Sikh mantras, they’re using Sufi mantras, they’re using all sorts of different things and bringing them together under the label of kirtan. And I think that’s really interesting.

SJ: Certainly within Art of Living Satsangs you certainly do have occasionally – but it’s very, very occasionally – do they use songs or poems from outside. I’ve heard Imagine done once in a kirtan (laughs). But they tend to stick to their kind-of favourite that come from the Sanskrit and Bhakti traditions. But they do have a kind of – well I wouldn’t call it a song book, exactly – but they do have a list and you flick through and yes, there’s poems by Rumi and [indistinct] chorus, but they very rarely use them ,interestingly enough.

TW: That is interesting.  Well I see a lot more uses of that. One of the classic examples which I personally adore, is a chap called Tim Challice who’s from down kind of Bath and Bristol way. And he has a chant which takes a Hafez poem I think, which is This Place, so, “This place where you are, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and ears and heart can move against the earth and skies a beloved has bowed there waiting.” Which is rather beautiful, but he takes that and sings that and then he takes it immediately into a Hare Krishna. So we see that as well. We see essentially taking two different traditions and bringing them together in those chants. And the sense, within this community in particular, is that it does not matter. The shape of your belief does not matter. The deity that you are calling to does not matter. These places often have these enormous long altars filled with any number of different Murtis, any number of different images of different Gurus, any deity or anything else that is considered to be sacred can go on there. The point is, is that you come together and you sing. And that’s it. And there’s the idea of devotion without prescribing the object of devotion. And that’s a really interesting thing, I think.

SJ: Yes. I mean there are other artists, we talked about Sheila Chandra who’s a British South Asian and coming from a Hindu background and then bringing in English folk music. She’ll start off with Om Namaha Shiva and then suddenly morphs into some sort of English folk song. I mean that’s kind of cultural thing as well, only from a different side.

TW: Yes. I think there’s really, really beautiful alliances and kind of borrowings that are going on and it’s interesting, again, to go back to that idea of what makes them authentic. What makes them effective. And I think it is a depth of understanding of the music that they’re working with and the practices that they’re working with.

SJ: When you talk to the yoga jam crew they talk abut the Vedic origin and what Guy Beck calls the Sonic Theology that goes back right to the Atharvaveda, is the experience that is also validated through a quasi-scientific discourse around the physics of vibration, which you know, that if you chant the mantras you do not need to know – and of course Staal talks about how it’s the sound not the semantics that’s important; that this is all to do with the science of vibration. (30:00) So it’s kind-of validated through, you know, tracing it back to romanticise a Vedic past, the somatic experience of chanting it, which is again validated through this kind of quasi-scientific discourse around vibrations, which is kind-of interesting.

TW: Yes, and it will eventually change the world. Just keep chanting the Gayatri Mantra, just keep chanting it and all will be well.

EB: Ok so we’re abut out of time for the podcast length, but I’ve enjoyed listening to both of you talk and thank you so much for doing this and talking to me and the RSP about everything you know.

SJ: Well thank you for facilitating this.

TW: Indeed.

EB: Of course. It was my pleasure.

Citation Info: Jacobs, Steve, Theodora Wildcroft. 2017. “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 September 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/hindu-traditions-in-comtemporary-british-communities/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

You can 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, Tiger Balm, and more.


A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Calls for papers

Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

Deadline: January 1, 2017

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Conference: Old Norse Myth and Völkisch Ideology

September 6–8, 2017

Basel, Switzerland

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Conference: Apocalypse and Authenticity

July 11–13, 2017

University of Hull, UK

Deadline: December 1, 2016

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Conference: SocRel: On the Edge? Centres and Margins in the Sociology of Religion

July 12–14, 2017

University of Leeds, UK

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Conference: British Association for Islamic Studies

April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

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Conference: SISR/ISSR: Religion, Cooperation, and Conflict in Diverse Societies

4–7 July 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

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Journal: American Psychological Association

Special issue: American Atheism, Agnosticism, and Non-Religious Worldviews: Theoretical Models and Psychological Measurement

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Special issue: Religion and the Rise of Populism: Migration, Radicalism and New Nationalisms

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Special issue: Religion and Genocide

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Summer School: Prophétologies musulmanes: discours et représentations

June 29 – July 5, 2017

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Universität Bremen, Germany

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African, Christian… Fake? Explorations in Religious Authenticity

A highlight of Afe Adogame’s interview is his emphasis upon the brimming capacity for African Christianities, whether in Western or African settings, to contribute to the broader, age old discourse on religious authenticity. Adogame asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic?” Certainly, as he asserts, to answer this question as a scholar is to make a loaded theological statement, and I would add, to also assume a rather provocative level of religious authority. Nevertheless, the question is important for both the practitioner and the scholar.

Presently, many Westerners (and Africans) address Christianity’s place in contemporary Africa as a colonial import. A subsequent repercussion is that Western forms of Christianity are referenced as the normative standard bearers for Christian authenticity. Indeed, in some parts of Africa, people refer to mission-based mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as “orthodox” churches. From this perspective, the question of “which kind of Christianity is authentic” is less about critically examining issues in authenticity and more about asking whether indigenously-led Christianities ought to be treated as legitimate expressions of Christianity, or as exotic Africanized pseudo-Christianities.

Adogame rightly problematizes this framework in a couple of ways. He reminds listeners that Africa has fostered Christian communities since the emergence of early Christianity, and therefore, the continent has always been relevant to discussions of authenticity. Further, he reminds listeners that transculturation is not a simple, unidirectional scheme. While African communities have appropriated Western Christianities in numerous ways, so too have Western Christian communities participated in ongoing cultural appropriations. Thus, Adogame suggests that many contemporary African Christianities are not “Africanized” versions of Christianity, but “African interpretations of Europeanized Christianities.”

This latter point is an excellent one, although I do not think that Adogame has taken it quite far enough. When he speaks of “the West” in this interview, he refers only to Europe, which inadvertently discounts the significance of Africa’s relationship with North America. Might we also consider contemporary African Christianities as “African interpretations of Americanized Christianities” or, perhaps even, “African interpretations of American adaptations of Europeanized Christianities?” My intention is not to get caught up in petty linguistic criticisms, but it is important to acknowledge the drastic differences between North American forms of Christianity and those of Europe, as well as North American relationships with Africa and those between Europe and Africa. These differences significantly affect the forms and trajectories of Christianites in Africa, including the growing presence of African ministries in Western settings.

While Adogame mentions that many African Christians today perceive Europe to be a religiously “dark continent,” I have not found the same sentiments to be very consistent when applied to North America, particularly the United States. Rather, many African Christians, especially those in the booming Pentecostal-Charismatic sector, look to American evangelical leaders for ideas on missions strategies, organizational structures, styles of preaching, as well as Christian thought and theology. This is not to say that Africans in the Pentecostal-Charismatic sector uncritically mimic thriving forms of American Christianity, but the parallels cannot be ignored when viewing the growth of the African Christian self-help literature, franchise-style church institutions, televangelism, and prosperity gospels.

Nevertheless, Adogame’s commentary makes a strong case as to how studies of African Christianities can elevate current approaches to authenticity, and I stand in full agreement. Because of Africa’s place within the longue durée of Christian history, its complicated relationships with colonial powers and missions projects, as well as its recent role in “reverse missions,” African Christianities are particularly well-positioned to elucidate issues in power, religious authority, and the ways in which religious interpretations and practices are culturally informed. All of these factors can significantly contribute to any discourse on religious authenticity.

In the remainder of this short essay, I want to turn attention to one additional dimension of religious authenticity through a quick illustration from some of my own work. When Adogame rhetorically asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic,” he implies that conversations on religious authenticity revolve around evaluating various strains of interpretation and practice. Or, put another way, that religious authenticity is a matter of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But is it?

A recent ethnographic project of mine examines what I call a “fake pastor phenomenon” in Ghana. One of the most densely Pentecostal-Charismatic places in the world today, the nation is experiencing an eruption of quackery accusations aimed at leaders in Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries from local street evangelists to African celebrity pastors such as TB Joshua or Enoch “Daddy G.O.” Adeboye. It is truly a media sensation, with fiery accusations and juicy exposés reported nearly daily in local press and tabloid sources, comedians and rappers mocking “fake pastor” prototypes, and Ghanaian film industries frequently featuring a “fake pastor” character in their plotlines. But, it is also a focal point of community gossip. Many worry that African Christianity is being run amok by charlatans. There are numerous circumstances in which a Pentecostal-Charismatic leader may rank among the accused, but the general premise is that “fake pastors” are those who are perceived as abusing their position of religious authority for the sake of personal (usually financial) gain.

One of the things that I like so much about the “fake pastor phenomenon” is how well it wonderfully complicates questions of authenticity. It places issues of sincerity and intentionality center stage, reminding us that there are more dimensions to the authenticity discourse than questioning orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I also like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications in the West. What does it mean when leaders of African churches, like Bishop Kofi Adonteng Boateng and his Virginia-based Divine Word International Ministries, are accused of “fakery?” What does it mean when influential platforms in the West such as the evangelically-inclined periodical, Christianity Today, feature a Ghanaian news dispatch that condemns religious quackery in Ghana while simultaneously attempting to bracket mainline denominations from the phenomenon?

Most of all, I like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications for responsible scholarship. How are we, as scholars, to consider “fake pastor” accusations when illustrating forms of contemporary African Christianities? When building (or deconstructing) taxonomies? When theorizing trends in global Christianity?

Podcasts

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

blog_yogarave_1_bellytitleThe spread of religion and practice from origin points to global phenomena is a prevalent topic within religious studies. Stephen Jacobs, a senior lecturer at Wolverhampton University, and Theodora Wildcroft, a PhD researcher at Open University UK, are both interested in the common presence of yoga and bhakti tradition in the contemporary British rave and festival communities. This podcast explores how Hindu belief and traditions have been incorporated into modern western practices. An overview of the British kirtan community and the Art of Living movement is followed by a discussion of authenticity, reconciliation of tradition and modernity, and the influence of popular culture. As appropriation of culture and questions of authenticity pervade conversations across fields, the study of contemporary British Hindu movements is important in understanding how millennia old religious traditions are being used in new, modern contexts.

This podcast is sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes (Masters and PhD) in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Many of the RSP team have been through the Edinburgh RS programme, which comes highly recommended. Find out more here.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities

Podcast with Steve Jacobs and Theodora Wildcroft (25 September 2017).

Interviewed by Ella Bock.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Jacobs and Wildcroft- Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities 1.1

Ella Bock (EB): Ok, so. Shall we get started? I guess I can introduce my self to you, first of all, in person. I’m Ella. I go to school at Lewis and Clark College, in Portland Oregon. But I’m currently at home for the summer in Washington DC.

Steve Jacobs (SJ): Ok. Well, I’m Steve Jacobs or Stephen Jacobs if you’re being very formal, but nobody calls me that. I’m senior lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton, here in the UK, mostly based in the Media department, but also based in Religious Studies as well.

Theodora Wildcroft (TW): I’m Theo Wildcroft. Nobody calls me Theodora unless they want to make me giggle, basically. I’m at the OU, the Open University, in Milton Keynes, but I’m actually at home in Wiltshire at the moment – in north Wiltshire, in the south of the country. And I am just coming up on my last year of PhD, in full thesis-writing-up-joy at the moment!

SJ: That’s the most exiting bit! (Laughs).

TW: It is, actually. I had a really good supervision on Tuesday, so I’m fine right now. Good supervision, good response. So that’s another two chapters sorted. So fingers crossed!

SJ: Brill.

EB: Congratulations on your PhD!

TW: Thank you.

EB: So, I guess we can jump right into it. My first question is to just get started with introducing what “yoga raves” and “kirtan” are. So if you could, like, explain a little bit what those are, and their presence in Britain, and if they interact at all, and how they would do that.

TW: Well, I think for a while now there’s been a sub-current of kirtan influence in the UK, but it’s not particularly well-known. So we start, I think, with kirtan – because kirtan is an existing practice within South Asia and the Indic and Hindu contexts, basically – which is a practice of devotion or religious practice through sound – specifically through singing and music: sharing singing and music. And that has an interesting history which I think we’ll go into in more detail, in terms of how that has met and interacted with the kinds of sub-culture elements within British culture in the last thirty to forty, maybe even fifty years – at least fifty years, probably. Yoga and the most recent kind of incarnations of that are doing some interesting things that aren’t particularly well-known. But it’s interesting what they’re doing. Yoga raves, I think, is really a much more recent phenomenon and Steve can talk a lot more about that, really being quite specific.

SJ: Yes, I mean yoga raves is a term that’s used by a duo who come from this group called the  Art of Living Foundation, who – well, to cut a very long story short – are a kind of Hindu-derived meditation movement. They’re a very close cousin to Transcendental Meditation. And they wanted to . . . and one of the things with Art of Living is they wanted to draw in a younger audience. So these two musicians who were members of the group, started what they called yoga rave dance parties:  kind-of alcohol, drug-free events that had the same sort of format as a kind-of rave would have, but using traditional kind-of Hindu mantras, to use a loaded term, or bhajans as a sound track – but giving it a Western kind of sound track, particularly an electronic dance music beat. (5:00) So it’ s a kind of interesting syncretic phenomena.

EB: OK

TW: So we’ve got the kind of yoga raves going on – I think, mostly in London?

SJ: Well, yoga rave isn’t a term that’s used by the UK group. They prefer the term yoga jam. So there’s a whole range of different terminology: I’ve seen mantra punk; yoga rave; yoga jam.  And one of the reasons . . . and it’s based very much around a small group within Art of Living, here in the UK. And they said to me, “We do not like the term ‘rave’”, because in the UK rave is so much mixed with the culture of electronic dance music and  part of that is taking lots of NDMA or Ecstasy as it’s more commonly known. So jam – they preferred this terminology. The leader of the group said, “I like the term, it’s cool!” he said. And it kind-of has this kind of connotation of the bricolage and also something that’s fun and enjoyable.

TW: There is a wider movement as well, though, called Conscious Clubbing, which I’m aware of. I have friends from the yoga community – particularly around London, I think, maybe Brighton, maybe places like that – that do conscious clubbing events which are specifically alcohol and drug free. And often early Sunday mornings seem to be a big time for a get-together. And, of course, the music they’re using is very much rave music. But it has that similar sense of wanting to achieve a state of ecstatic kind of communion, a coming-together kind of a feeling and a celebration, but without the artificial stimulants. So there’s kind-of a cross-over there. And then, of course, they’re all often using contemporary kirtan music, contemporary kirtan tunes, which provides another link as well. Whereas kirtan is much more a practice that’s done live. I think that’s one of the big differences for me, is that – not that that’s always a difference between them and the yoga jams, I think – but one of the things that’s clear with kirtan is that it’s always live musicians, live singers, live interactions with the audience, the music happening in real time, if that makes sense.

SJ: Yes. I think one of the things that Theo and I have talked about over the years that we’ve been interested in this, is the difference between participation and just being a part of the audience. And that whole thing has kind-of – it’s a whole kind of array of different relationships of participation. So the traditional kirtan is, of course, a call and response and very much involves everybody. Whereas sometimes the yoga jams and the yoga raves seem to be less participatory, even though there is an element of participation.

TW: Yes. Definitely.

SJ: They’re much more performances, in many ways.

EB: Well, I’m interested in how the two different movements and communities are trying to reconcile traditional cultures and practices with contemporary modern . . . like having yoga and therapeutic things in raves and EDM music. How do you see them reconciling those two? And if they are[seen as] authentic ways of practising and, like, what authenticity means here – because that’s a loaded term.

SJ: OK. Authenticity is a really interesting phenomena. I’ve just been reading a book about authenticity by Lindholm and he says, really, when we’re thinking about authenticity you see two different types of discourses around authenticity. (10:00) One he calls the historical and genealogical,  and the other he calls the romantic and expressive. And what’s really interesting for me is that when you look at discourses about yoga rave and yoga jam and in Art of Living – and indeed their wider practices – is they use both of those discourses. So it’s authentic because it’s Vedic. And of course, if you know anything about the Vedas, sound is very primordial, with the primordial mantra Ohm. In fact, the notion of sound within the Hindu tradition is badly understudied. It’s not studied . . .  it’s not given the centrality by many people the way that it [should be]. So it’s got that roots in a kind of invented or romanticised Vedic past, but it also is part of the therapeutic culture where it’s the experience. But the experience without the roots becomes kind-of too ambiguous and free floating. So you experience a somatic experience, but that somatic experience is then rooted back into an imagined Vedic past.

TW: You see, I would add a third aspect. Because I think that’s all really true, and rings very true with the things I’m looking at. But a third aspect is the notion of authenticity that comes from a personal way to practice, and a personal investment into the practice. That’s what the kirtan wallahs – the musicians and the people who share kirtan – are bringing: it’s a level of experience with that practice. They’re often quite accomplished musicians, although that’s not . . . they’re not necessarily prized for their technical ability so much as a sheer devotion to the practice itself: that they spend large amounts of time doing what they do – which is singing and playing, not just for audiences, but for themselves. And that also, tangentially, has a communal aspect which . . . . One of the things I find really interesting is, when you have big bakhti events, big kirtan events where you have a number of different kirtan musicians playing one after another, they will back each other up. So if someone arrives early, or someone’s around , you know, one will say to another “Could you play shaker on this for me?” or you know, “I’d love to play tabla on yours.” And so you get these individual musicians, or small groups of musicians, but actually when they play at theses events they have all sorts of friends playing with them. And their friends are usually people who have either just played or are going to play again. So there’s this idea that the most joyous thing that they could be doing is playing. Always. So there’s an authenticity there that comes from that weight of practice and that weight of personal history, rather than necessarily genealogy. And certainly, one of the historical aspects that I’m aware of with regards to kirtan here, out in the south-west in particular, is that we have a certain community of people who’ve spent a lot of time in Indian ashrams and loved the experience of kirtan there and began to practice kirtan there. And they’re over here, they’re home again and they miss that community coming together. And a lot of these events are about them coming together with other people, regardless of whether they were at the same ashram, regardless  of whether they’re the same lineage, regardless of even if they have the same devotional roots, even. You have people from different sects and lineages coming together, people with no lineage at all coming together. But what they value is that communal coming together and singing and sharing kirtan, which is really interesting. So there’s that communal weight as well. So that, over time, the community has its own history. So it’s really interesting, when you talk about authenticity with regards to Hindu roots and South Asian roots – which are obviously very real and very true – but what I would say is what I see. And what I see is a weight of practice in this country that’s been going on for decades. And that’s the roots, as much as anything else, that they’re connected to.

SJ: I mean there is a romanticisation of Hindu traditions that Theo and I have talked about. (15:00) It goes right back to cultural roots here in the UK, of course: George Harrison, 1969, the Mahamantra by the Krishna Consciousness got to number 12 in Top of the Pops, sold 700,000. In America you’ve got the counter-cultural movements, particularly people like Ginsberg and the Mantra Rock Dance in San Francisco that had some of the foremost counter-cultural groups, people like Moby Grape. And then also of course, there was Swami Prabhupada the founder of . . . [the International Society for Krishna Consciousness]. In fact, you’ll see his image on the poster for the Mantra Rock dance in ’69. So all of these kind of influences, counter kind-of influences between the West and the East, well they’ve actually been going long before the counter-culture of course. I think the counter-culture is a very important threshold.

TW: It is. It’s a threshold. But I think its a threshold of visibility. That’s what’s interesting about it. It’s that we have these periodic visible manifestations of commercial culture engaging with Hindu devotional music in one way or another. I mean you shared the – was it the Cher?  Cher’s version of the Gayatri Mantra? And it’s really interesting to see those commercial expressions and commercial engagements with Hindu devotional music. But what it’s important to remember is those do not feed necessarily directly from ancient Indian practices, they feed from an existing subculture that is continually engaging with this music and continually engaging with this practice. You know, there’s a transnational culture that certainly in the UK spends time, a lot of them will spend time, going back and forward from the UK. A number of the people involved will be South Asian heritage, a number of people won’t. You know, it’s a whole transnational current that’s going on that’s always there. It’s just the bits that we tend to notice: the bits that get into the top 40 sphere, or the bits that end up on the credits of pop shows, which we were also talking about weren’t we? We were talking about how the Gayatri Mantra was used on the opening credits to Battlestar Galactica, you know – who knew that?! Because it’s a really interesting mantra in terms of its visibility. The story goes that one of the actors basically went to the show runners and said, “We have to use this. We have to use this Mantra.” And he wanted that sense of authenticity of this being something ancient, because the show itself speaks to really interesting themes around religion and rebirth and these different things. But without the counter-cultural and sub-cultural engagements with Hindu devotional music, he would never have had that to bring them. (Laughs).

SJ: Yes. No, Cher wouldn’t have been doing that Gayatri mantra . . .

TW: No. Cher doesn’t rock up at an Ashram in India and go “I think I’ll take this mantra.” She takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else, who takes it from someone else. And the intermediaries are the kind of yoga jam people and the new kirtan people and the bhakti musicians that we’re talking about. And there’s a thriving – certainly in the UK and particularly, in my opinion, in the South West of the UK – it’s a thriving and vibrant little culture. I’m hoping you’ll be able to include some actual music and links.

EB: Well, I hope that David does.

TW: Yes.

EB: Well, I was wondering if you’ve seen or come across any backlash against the use of mantras in Western pop culture? Or even within the kirtan and yoga rave/ yoga jam communities?

TW: I can speak to one really interesting discussion of this by, I won’t mention her by name, but she’ll recognise herself, by an integral yoga teacher of japa, so a mantra teacher. So she was leading a session, that I was at, that wasn’t even really kirtan, it was very much on mantra and the effect of sound and how we can . . . chant, so much more chanting than singing, if that makes sense. So, the effect of mantra on the energetic field, the effect of mantra on our connection to the universe. And she talked specifically about the Gayatri Mantra. And she said a number of things about it. (20:00) She said that the Gayatri is a very ancient mantra – so she connected it to this lineage – that it’s been chanted continuously in India for thousands of years – however the story goes – and then she said, “But these days a lot of people come across the Gayatri Mantra through. . . .” She didn’t mention the Cher version but she mentioned various pop culture versions of it. And she said, in her view, that is absolutely fine because its a way in. People come across these pop culture versions of mantra and it is not the same, it does not have the same effect as a mantra that’s been chanted in community for devotional intent. But the words still have power and the sound still has power and it is the connection – a seed that is planted that can lead people to something deeper and fuller. I’m aware that in the States, in particular, there is a very, very different debate that’s going on, I think, around the issues of authenticity and appropriation. And I think it’s important to be aware that the discussions of appropriation are very different here in Europe and particularly in the UK. Our yoga culture as a whole is less commercialised. It’s still commercialised in many respects but we still . . . we have an enormous grassroots yoga community, still. And our yoga community is still much more integrated with South Asian groups and communities and influences. So, as a result, the conversations are more complicated. That’s not to say that appropriation isn’t an issue and it’s not talked about, but it’s much less polarising than debates have been recently in the States, if that makes sense. Would you agree?

SJ: The discussions about appropriation really only occur in the academic arena because when we’re talking broadly about the Hindu traditions – and I’ll use the plural here – there’s not this idea that, you know . . . . Ok, so you have a Murti and it’s installed in a temple, but anybody can go and buy an image of the Ganesh, or anything. And they’re not so precious about different uses of it. Of course you’ve got the tradition of calendar art in the more visual things. And also when you think about kirtan in India itself, you know, a lot of Hindus are chanting kirtan to Bollywood tunes. So you already have that tradition of, you know, taking a traditional kirtan that goes back to the medieval Bhakti period, but it’s being chanted to the latest Bollywood tunes. And even in India you get CDs like Cosmic Trance for Youth, which is within the Hindu community itself. Young people are taking the traditional mantras and bhajans and giving it their own electronic dance soundtrack, to try and draw young Hindus in India into it. You know, devotional music in India is one of the biggest selling kind of genres of music. You go anywhere like Rushikesh, which is a very important pilgrimage place, and you’ve literally got stall upon stall in the bazaar along the banks of the Ganges selling all of these kind of remixed mantras, if you like.

TW: I also love that the supposedly traditional kirtan instruments that are now accepted to be the ones that everyone should have are tabla and harmonium. And that’s fascinating when you think the only reason that harmoniums ever came to India, as far as I’m aware, is through Christian missionaries.

SJ: Yes, that’s correct.

TW: Christian Missionaries arrived in India with harmoniums and played lots of choral music and got them singing Christian songs. And you know, essentially Indian people, the Indian culture, went: “That’s great, we’ll have that! We’re just going to sing Vedic mantras instead.” And now, if you want a good harmonium you go to an Indian manufacturer. You don’t go anywhere else. One of the few places in the world that still has huge amounts of harmoniums being played is India. And now, if you have kirtan that doesn’t have harmonium and tabla that’s now seen as non-traditional. I mean, I was at an event the other week – it was a bhakti event – and I realised tucked away in the corners around the space were eight different harmoniums waiting for – because everybody has their own – waiting for their particular musicians to come. So I counted eight lying there, which is great. So at which point I’m less interested in  . . . .  I mean, I think cultural borrowing is really interesting, and all religious scholars hopefully are aware of how syncratic religion is, generally.(25:00) There are further discussions you can have about power and about colonialism, but I think those differences are much clearer when you’re talking about multi-million dollar selling pop artists than if you’re talking about kirtan musicians in Bristol, or wherever, who have a day job and sell a few CDS. The level of power that they have to appropriate somebody else’s power is very different, I think, than Sony might have.  (Laughs). What is more interesting to me is the syncretism involved in the music itself. And I don’t know how much that’s true of the yoga rave/ yoga jam side of things, but I know that in the kirtan movement in the south-west, singers are using not just Vedic and Hindu mantras, they’re using Buddhist mantras, they’re using Sikh mantras, they’re using Sufi mantras, they’re using all sorts of different things and bringing them together under the label of kirtan. And I think that’s really interesting.

SJ: Certainly within Art of Living Satsangs you certainly do have occasionally – but it’s very, very occasionally – do they use songs or poems from outside. I’ve heard Imagine done once in a kirtan (laughs). But they tend to stick to their kind-of favourite that come from the Sanskrit and Bhakti traditions. But they do have a kind of – well I wouldn’t call it a song book, exactly – but they do have a list and you flick through and yes, there’s poems by Rumi and [indistinct] chorus, but they very rarely use them ,interestingly enough.

TW: That is interesting.  Well I see a lot more uses of that. One of the classic examples which I personally adore, is a chap called Tim Challice who’s from down kind of Bath and Bristol way. And he has a chant which takes a Hafez poem I think, which is This Place, so, “This place where you are, God circled on a map for you. Wherever your eyes and ears and heart can move against the earth and skies a beloved has bowed there waiting.” Which is rather beautiful, but he takes that and sings that and then he takes it immediately into a Hare Krishna. So we see that as well. We see essentially taking two different traditions and bringing them together in those chants. And the sense, within this community in particular, is that it does not matter. The shape of your belief does not matter. The deity that you are calling to does not matter. These places often have these enormous long altars filled with any number of different Murtis, any number of different images of different Gurus, any deity or anything else that is considered to be sacred can go on there. The point is, is that you come together and you sing. And that’s it. And there’s the idea of devotion without prescribing the object of devotion. And that’s a really interesting thing, I think.

SJ: Yes. I mean there are other artists, we talked about Sheila Chandra who’s a British South Asian and coming from a Hindu background and then bringing in English folk music. She’ll start off with Om Namaha Shiva and then suddenly morphs into some sort of English folk song. I mean that’s kind of cultural thing as well, only from a different side.

TW: Yes. I think there’s really, really beautiful alliances and kind of borrowings that are going on and it’s interesting, again, to go back to that idea of what makes them authentic. What makes them effective. And I think it is a depth of understanding of the music that they’re working with and the practices that they’re working with.

SJ: When you talk to the yoga jam crew they talk abut the Vedic origin and what Guy Beck calls the Sonic Theology that goes back right to the Atharvaveda, is the experience that is also validated through a quasi-scientific discourse around the physics of vibration, which you know, that if you chant the mantras you do not need to know – and of course Staal talks about how it’s the sound not the semantics that’s important; that this is all to do with the science of vibration. (30:00) So it’s kind-of validated through, you know, tracing it back to romanticise a Vedic past, the somatic experience of chanting it, which is again validated through this kind of quasi-scientific discourse around vibrations, which is kind-of interesting.

TW: Yes, and it will eventually change the world. Just keep chanting the Gayatri Mantra, just keep chanting it and all will be well.

EB: Ok so we’re abut out of time for the podcast length, but I’ve enjoyed listening to both of you talk and thank you so much for doing this and talking to me and the RSP about everything you know.

SJ: Well thank you for facilitating this.

TW: Indeed.

EB: Of course. It was my pleasure.

Citation Info: Jacobs, Steve, Theodora Wildcroft. 2017. “Hindu Traditions in Contemporary British Communities” The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 25 September 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 7 September 2017. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/hindu-traditions-in-comtemporary-british-communities/

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Sexual Ethics and Islam

feetAlongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there is perhaps no other issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of the downtrodden Muslim woman are often countered by the claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there is a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and “problematic” topic? What are some of the most prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for Religious Studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, Chris is joined this week by Professor Kecia Ali, of Boston University.

Check out a recent lecture by Kecia on sexual ethics and Islam here.

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A transcription of this interview is available as a PDF, and has also been pasted below.


Sexual Ethics and Islam

Podcast with Kecia Ali (24 April 2017).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Chris Cotter (CC): Alongside the problematic dominant caricature of Islam as a violent religion, there’s perhaps no issue so problematic in contemporary Western discourse on Islam than discussions surrounding sexuality and gender. Western stereotypes of down-trodden Muslim women are often countered by claims of Islamic scholars that women are more liberated, respected and secure within Islam than in other religions or in the “secular” West. Regular listeners to the Religious Studies Project will be unsurprised to learn that there’s a lot more going on below the surface of these dominant discourses. Why are “we” even having this discussion about sexual ethics and Islam? How might one begin to study such a vast and problematic topic? What are some of the prescient issues that recur in this contested field? And what is the broader significance of this discussion for religious studies in general? To discuss these issues and more, I’m joined today by Kecia Ali, who is Professor of Religion at Boston University. Professor Ali is a scholar of religion, gender and ethics whose work focusses mostly on the Muslim tradition, with an emphasis on law and biography. She is currently Status Committee Director at the AAR and is a past president of the Society for the Study of Muslim Ethics. Her publication list is impressive and features five monographs, including The Lives of Muhammed, Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, and – most relevant to today’s interview – Sexual Ethics in Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith and Jurisprudence, originally published in 2006, with an expanded revised edition published in 2016. So, Professor Ali, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Kecia Ali (KA): Thank you for having me.

CC: And thanks for joining us here in Edinburgh in the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for Study of Islam in the Contemporary World.

KA: That’s a mouthful isn’t it?

CC: It is a mouthful, but they’re graciously hosting us today. And we’ll be sure to shout out about your lecture that you’re doing this evening., when we publish this podcast. So first-off, Islam? Sexual ethics? Why are we even having this discussion?

KA: Yes, it’s sort of impossible not to be having the discussion, really. I think the challenge is to find ways to have it that are productive and don’t just inadvertently reinforce the power of certain dominant discourses by contesting them, if that’s the only thing we do. Look, the question of gendered roles and rights and obligations is one that has been present since – as near as we can tell – the first Muslim community, right? Scripture records specific questions about women’s and men’s respective roles, relationship to each other, relationship to religious obligations, relationship to God, etc. Certainly, accounts of the Prophet’s normative community are replete with gendered descriptions and contestations. Now, obviously, to what extent these reflect a 7th-century community and to what extent they reflect 8th/ 9th/10th-century reflections on that community and attempts to ascribe certain later, normative patterns onto that community, that’s a subject of debate among historians of Islam. But, for Muslims, pious Muslims, lay folk, scholars, these are the stories out of which accounts of virtuous ethical life are made. So Muslims certainly have been having internal conversations about gender norms since quite early on. Now, why are “we” having this conversation?

CC: Yes.

KA: Sexuality is always one of the things that comes up when someone wants to insult someone else, right? When one community, or members of a community are looking for a way to stigmatise, oppose, define “others”, sexuality is very frequently something that gets pressed into service. Whether that’s Protestants saying bad things about Catholics, Catholics saying bad things about Protestants, Protestants saying bad things about Catholics by likening them to Muslims, or the reverse , sexuality frequently comes into play. What we know, if we want to just in very broad terms talk about “The West and Islam” – and I object on principle to those categories, but I’m going to use them anyway as a kind of shorthand – we see, really, that in the Middle Ages and in the Early Modern era, it wasn’t Muslim oppression of women that was a problem for anybody, it was Muslim lustfulness and debauchery. And it’s really in the 19th-century, with the advent of European colonialism in Muslim majority societies – Egypt, for instance, and also India – that Muslim men’s oppressiveness towards women becomes part of a colonial discourse about civilisation, right? What’s very interesting is to look at the ways that the kinds of accusations levelled against Muslims have really changed over time. So not only from wantonness to oppression, but also you’ll find that today one of the things that tends to get said of Muslims is: “Oh, they’re so intolerant of homosexuality! They’re so repressive! Look how awful . . . !” Well, in the Early Modern era, and even into the 19th-century, the claim was, “They’re too tolerant of homosexuality!” They are attached to the practice of sodomy, “ Unlike us upright Brits,” usually, right? And, “Look how awful they are, compared to how moral we are,” which is basically the gist of all of this. And of course there are Muslims equally scandalised by Western women’s dress and the ways in which women and men outside their family interact.

CC: And that’s an important link there, then, when you mention the Muslim perspective. Because contemporary Muslims, whether we’re talking scholars or lay people going about their lives, are having to articulate their views against this dominant Western view.

KA: Yes, I mean, I think part of what’s particularly challenging for me as a scholar, and for media, for lay folk, for religious studies teachers in the classroom, is : how do we talk about this in way that actually recognises the great diversity of perspectives among Muslims? Because, you know, even that phrase, “the Muslim perspective” . . . it’s one that gets bandied about a lot, including by many Muslims. And, of course, part of what’s interesting to me as a scholar of religion, is: how are claims to representing the “authoritative Muslim perspective” being pressed? What are the sources being cited? What are the extra-textual authoritative norms being deployed? How much is it about where you got your degree from? How much is it abut whether you have a beard? How much is it about whether the media is calling you speak on their programmes? And how much is it about the content of your ideas?

CC: Yes. And that’s something that comes up in Aaron Hughes’ Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

KA: Absolutely.

CC: We’ve had him on the podcast before and he talked about something completely different. We’re going to have to get him on again for that! But, yes, a very broad topic we’re talking about here: sexual ethics and Islam. How does one even go about studying that? I know that you had your own particular approach . . .

KA: So, the book Sexual Ethics and Islam really has its roots in two different things I was doing around the turn of the millennium. I did my doctoral dissertation at Duke University, about marriage and divorce in 8th -10th-century Sunni Muslim Jurisprudence. At the same time, 2001-2003, I was working part-time for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, which was directed by Bernadette Brooton and funded by the Ford Foundation. And so, for the dissertation, which I defended in 2002, I was really looking at about a dozen early Arabic legal texts. And for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project I was actually engaged in putting together a series of short essays for the site, aimed at lay folks – not necessarily Muslim – looking for a general orientation to the Muslim textual tradition. So, Qur’anic and prophetic tradition – to some extent exegesis, to some extent legal tradition – framing particular kinds of issues: issues around female dress, issues around marriage, around divorce, around slavery, around same-sex relationships, but framed in a kind of general way that would make them accessible. And I also wanted to begin to address the ways Muslims today were talking about those topics. Sexual Ethics and Islam really came together out of those two initiatives because, on the one hand, what I found when I was looking at the way contemporary Muslims were talking about these topics, is that they were often completely disconnected and, in fact, making claims that really contradicted, sometimes the positions, but far more often the logic and the assumptions of the early legal tradition. And I wanted to put those two things into conversation: put the 10th-century and the 21st-century into conversation. And I was very frustrated by the kind of “Islam liberated women” apologetic that a lot of Muslims were presenting. And I was equally frustrated with the sort of patriarchal, protective, protectionist . . . you know, “Well, of course, patriarchy done right is the only true Islamic tradition, that protects and respects women.” Which exists in a kind of funny tension with “No, no. The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammed gave Muslim women all their rights and so there’s no need for patriarchy, because Islam is against patriarchy.” And none of these really grappling with, “What is it that’s there in the texts?”

CC: And that – when you mentioned the Prophet Muhammed – is perhaps an excellent way for us to leap right into some of that analysis. I know that the undergrads at New College, in Edinburgh, will be quite familiar with the chapter of the book that focuses on the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Aisha, so maybe we could use that as an example of these various competing discourses and how people use claims to authority to negotiate sexual ethics?

KA: Sure, so of course, for the pre-modern Muslim tradition, Aisha is an absolutely vital figure. She is the youngest of the Prophet’s wives, many say his favourite wife – certainly after Khadijah died, who was the wife of his younger years – and she’s a scholar,and she’s a contentious political figure and certainly, for the construction of Sunni identity, she becomes a flash point in those debates over loyalty, over succession, over precedence. And Chase Robinson – I’m going to paraphrase him now – says that Early Christians argued about Christology and early Muslims argued over how 7th-century Muslims’ behaviour should be remembered, right? So, later Muslims are trying to construct their own authentic narratives, their own strategies of power, by reference to these early Muslims. And so Aisha was absolutely central there. Which means that the ways in which she’s remembered ends up being very central. The texts that are giving people fits today really are texts about her marriage, in which she reports in the first person, in Hadith narratives – narratives of Prophetic tradition – that she was six or, in another version, seven when the prophet married her, and nine when the marriage was consummated. And there are other details sometimes given in these accounts. Now it’s useful to point out that this isn’t something that people were particularly worried about for a very long time. And its actually really unusual that any of his wives ages would be so important in texts about the marriage. But this is there in the Hadith compilations that we have from the 9th-century. And this is similar to the ages that are reported by early biographers, who maybe sometimes go as high as 10. But really, its quite a young age that’s reported in these texts. And generally, over the centuries, Muslim biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. Western biographers didn’t particularly have any issue with this. None of them took much notice, until we get to just about 1700, when Humphrey Prideaux, who was an Anglican clergyman, writes a very nasty biography of Muhammed as, actually, part of his ongoing debate with Unitarian Christians. And he says, “Oh isn’t this sort-of amazing there in Arabia, which is the same clime as India,” just like in all these other hot countries, the torrid zone, “how women mature so quickly”. And, for him, Aisha’s age of 6 and 8 is an indication of something that is sort-of exotic and erotic. What he’s worrying about, though, is that Muhammed is marrying her to make an allegiance with her father, which shows that he is making a power grab, in service of his fraudulent imposture. And basically, it only is really in the late 19th/early 20th-century that people start to, maybe, wonder about this a little bit . . . Western biographers. And by the late 20th-century it’s making lots of people uncomfortable, including some Muslims. So the Arabic translation of Washington Irving, for instance – who though this was all very romantic in the middle of the 19th-century – in the 1960s, when its being translated in Egypt, the translator adds a real note, right? And the original marriage has been demoted to a betrothal, and then the translator feels the need to sort-of explain this. But, by the time I’m writing Sexual Ethics and Islam, the context is different and there are two very serious competing strains. There’s a set of polemical accusations that Muhammed is a paedophile, which the Rev Jerry Vines has linked in an epithet as “Demon-possessed paedophile“. So he’s linking a very old accusation against Muhammed with a very new one: a sort of medicalised rhetoric of evil. And then you start to have Muslim apologetics around this question, which say several things. One is that, “Well, things were different back then”. And a version of that is what a number of secular, sympathetic Western academics have also said. And then, the other thing that you get is, “Well, these texts really aren’t reliable on this point.” And the thing that I point out in Sexual Ethics and Islam is: it’s completely fine if you want to make that argument, but then it’s a problem if you turn to those texts as absolutely true on everything else. The thing that was really striking for me, after writing Sexual Ethics and Islam and moving onto the project that became the Lives of Muhammed – which is an investigation of Biographical texts, specifically – is the ways in which, so often in early texts, numbers have a particular kind of symbolic function and resonance. And while I don’t know that six and seven, or nine and ten have the symbolic resonance that say forty does in the accounts of Khadijah’s age, it seems to me that there is plausibly . . . I don’t want to say probably, and I don’t think we can ever know with any kind of certainty these are factually accurate unless we’re simply willing to say, “These texts are all factually accurate and we accept that.” It seems to me, plausibly, there’s an argument to be made that the very low numbers given for her age are in service of praising her, actually; of presenting her as a particularly pure figure, which is very important given that her chastity was impugned during her lifetime, or at least according to texts.They represent this as something that was challenged. And so making her so young at marriage, emphasising her virginity, becomes a way of emphasising her sexual purity. The other thing, it seems to me, is that it’s possible that making her, say nine, when the marriage is consummated, after the Hijrah to Medina, is also a way of making her age low enough that she’s indisputably born to Muslim parents. So although virtually everybody in that first Muslim community would be a convert – according to pious narratives – by the time these Hadith texts are being compiled, having your parents already be Muslim, being born to Muslim parents is quite a status marker. It becomes important to have a genealogy of Muslim parents going further back.

CC: So, time is already running on here! In terms of positioning: you’re a woman, a Western academic, a feminist . . .

KA: And a Muslim

CC: And a Muslim, writing this book, discussing these topics, how was it received? My stereotypical brain is going, “This isn’t going to be that well received in some circles”. So how do you position yourself, in that respect?

KA: One of the more flattering things somebody once told me about the book, was that her graduate advisor – who was also a Muslim man – had suggested that she not read it, because it would be dangerous. And I thought, “Oh! I must have done something right!” (laughs) But, on the other hand, I think that my original intention for the book was not really to have it end up where it’s ended up, which is in the classroom mostly with students, many of whom are not Muslim. This was written, originally, very much as a book that was engaged in a kind of intra-Muslim conversation, to address some frustrations I had with the way intra-Muslim conversations over issues of sexual ethics, were going: I thought, in not particularly productive ways. However, I’m not writing it only as a Muslim feminist. I’m writing as a scholar of Religious Studies. And I know there are some people who don’t think you can or should do both of those things, but I have Religious Studies training. And one of the things that that training enables me to do is to look at the ways in which particular traditions are being constructed, in which particular claims to authority are being made in particular ways. So, for instance, the chapter on female genital cutting in the book is really an extended meditation on: what does the category Islamic, and what do claims to the category Islamic – or, more pertinently, “un-Islamic” – tell us? How useful are they? And where might things that are useful in particular kinds of activist campaigns really break down, if we’re trying to look at them historically, or from within Religious Studies, or from within the world of scholarship, at all?

CC: Yes. And I can remember the students being a little bit frustrated in the sense that so many different points of view were being considered – and not being necessarily condemned – and they were all . . . “Which is the right way?!” (laughs)

KA: I mean, look, answers are great. I have a lot fewer answers than I have questions. And, if anything, in the expanded edition of the book there are even more questions and even fewer answers! But, look, I don’t think we’re going to get better answers until we get better at asking the right questions.

CC: Exactly

KA: And the right questions are very often – and not just for Muslims, and not just about Muslim questions – what’s behind what we’re being told? What’s the evidence for this perspective? Where is this coming from? And how much credit do we want to give it as an accurate representation of something in the world?

CC: And that leads me into, sort of, where I was wanting to get to in the interview – and you’ve been a fantastic interviewee. Religious Studies: I can imagine that some will have maybe seen the title of this interview and thought, “Oh, that’s Area Studies, Islamic Studies. I don’t need to go there.” You know, everything that you’ve been saying, I think, has been illustrating why this is important for the broader study of religion, but I just, maybe, wondered if you wanted to reflect on that from your perspective . . . in multiple different camps.

KA: Yes. I mean, within the academic world of scholars who study Islam and Muslims, some come from Area Studies training: Middle East Studies, Near Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies. Some are really trained to philological work with old texts, and there’s a lot of good work that’s being done with those texts. And some are not trained to work with those texts and instead are very historical, very presentist, very ethnographic in ways that, I think, sometimes make it difficult to understand the resonance of the appeal to the textual tradition that many Muslims take. I’m very fortunate that the American Academy of Religion brings together, in the programme units that study Islam, quite a fabulous group of scholars who have expertise in training in a variety of different disciplines, but who are committed – at least some of the time in their professional engagement – to Religious Studies as a discipline, which is of course inter-disciplinary of necessity. And I think, given that so many questions about Islam are really pivotal to questions that Religious Studies as a discipline is wrestling with, about the rights and roles and responsibilities of insiders and outsiders, with the formation of the category of religion . . . . Look, it’s not an accident that Orientalist, Imperialist categories are very much at play here. I think it’s tremendously important that Islamic Studies be having conversations with folks in Religious Studies and vice versa, to the extent that you can even draw distinctions between them.

CC: And so, on the topic of conversations between different fields, your work’s taken a different turn of late?

KA: (laughs) Yes. A detour!

CC: Your latest book, Human in Death: Morality and Mortality in JD Robb’s Novels . . . What’s this got to do with Islam? (laughs)

KA: Well, at one level, nothing. And at the other level, I suppose, everything. I read these novels recreationally. It’s a series that’s been ongoing over 20 years, published by Nora Roberts, whose a premier American author of popular romance, under the pseudonym JD Robb. They are police procedurals, set in New York, circa 2060, and I read them. And I had things to say about them, and about the way that they deal with intimate relationships; about the way they deal with friendship; about the way they deal with work, especially women’s work; about the way they deal with violence, including police violence; about the way they deal with what it means to be a human being; about abilities and perfection and the idea of a post-human future. And I think that, to the extent that this book connects to my other work, it’s really around the questions of ethics: what it means to live a good, ethical, virtuous life in connection with other human beings in a given set of circumstances. I trained as a historian before I moved into Religious Studies. And one of the things that comes up again in this series – just like it comes up looking at 8th and 9th-century legal texts and biographies – is that understanding the present is sometimes best done from a distance. So looking comparatively at the past, looking at one possible imagined future, can give us a new perspective on the world we’re living in right now.

CC: Wonderful. And that, also, illustrates even more the importance of your work with Islamic texts, with contemporary Islam, sexual ethics. And it’s been fantastic that we’ve been having this conversation on International Women’s Day! So, I know this won’t be going out for another few months, but just to get that onto the recording from the Alwaleed Centre. And I think we’re going to have to draw that to a close there. It’s been fantastic speaking with you. And I wish you all the best with the lecture this evening, which, if the recording of the lecture goes ok, we’ll link to it from this page and everyone can see it and hear it, in all its glory!

KA: Thanks

CC: Thank you.


Citation Info: Ali, Kecia 2017. “Sexual Ethics and Islam”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 24 April 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 1 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/sexual-ethics-and-islam/

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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Anthology: Religion and Ethics in Contemporary Speculative Fiction

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African, Christian… Fake? Explorations in Religious Authenticity

A highlight of Afe Adogame’s interview is his emphasis upon the brimming capacity for African Christianities, whether in Western or African settings, to contribute to the broader, age old discourse on religious authenticity. Adogame asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic?” Certainly, as he asserts, to answer this question as a scholar is to make a loaded theological statement, and I would add, to also assume a rather provocative level of religious authority. Nevertheless, the question is important for both the practitioner and the scholar.

Presently, many Westerners (and Africans) address Christianity’s place in contemporary Africa as a colonial import. A subsequent repercussion is that Western forms of Christianity are referenced as the normative standard bearers for Christian authenticity. Indeed, in some parts of Africa, people refer to mission-based mainline Protestant and Catholic churches as “orthodox” churches. From this perspective, the question of “which kind of Christianity is authentic” is less about critically examining issues in authenticity and more about asking whether indigenously-led Christianities ought to be treated as legitimate expressions of Christianity, or as exotic Africanized pseudo-Christianities.

Adogame rightly problematizes this framework in a couple of ways. He reminds listeners that Africa has fostered Christian communities since the emergence of early Christianity, and therefore, the continent has always been relevant to discussions of authenticity. Further, he reminds listeners that transculturation is not a simple, unidirectional scheme. While African communities have appropriated Western Christianities in numerous ways, so too have Western Christian communities participated in ongoing cultural appropriations. Thus, Adogame suggests that many contemporary African Christianities are not “Africanized” versions of Christianity, but “African interpretations of Europeanized Christianities.”

This latter point is an excellent one, although I do not think that Adogame has taken it quite far enough. When he speaks of “the West” in this interview, he refers only to Europe, which inadvertently discounts the significance of Africa’s relationship with North America. Might we also consider contemporary African Christianities as “African interpretations of Americanized Christianities” or, perhaps even, “African interpretations of American adaptations of Europeanized Christianities?” My intention is not to get caught up in petty linguistic criticisms, but it is important to acknowledge the drastic differences between North American forms of Christianity and those of Europe, as well as North American relationships with Africa and those between Europe and Africa. These differences significantly affect the forms and trajectories of Christianites in Africa, including the growing presence of African ministries in Western settings.

While Adogame mentions that many African Christians today perceive Europe to be a religiously “dark continent,” I have not found the same sentiments to be very consistent when applied to North America, particularly the United States. Rather, many African Christians, especially those in the booming Pentecostal-Charismatic sector, look to American evangelical leaders for ideas on missions strategies, organizational structures, styles of preaching, as well as Christian thought and theology. This is not to say that Africans in the Pentecostal-Charismatic sector uncritically mimic thriving forms of American Christianity, but the parallels cannot be ignored when viewing the growth of the African Christian self-help literature, franchise-style church institutions, televangelism, and prosperity gospels.

Nevertheless, Adogame’s commentary makes a strong case as to how studies of African Christianities can elevate current approaches to authenticity, and I stand in full agreement. Because of Africa’s place within the longue durée of Christian history, its complicated relationships with colonial powers and missions projects, as well as its recent role in “reverse missions,” African Christianities are particularly well-positioned to elucidate issues in power, religious authority, and the ways in which religious interpretations and practices are culturally informed. All of these factors can significantly contribute to any discourse on religious authenticity.

In the remainder of this short essay, I want to turn attention to one additional dimension of religious authenticity through a quick illustration from some of my own work. When Adogame rhetorically asks, “which kind of Christianity is authentic,” he implies that conversations on religious authenticity revolve around evaluating various strains of interpretation and practice. Or, put another way, that religious authenticity is a matter of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But is it?

A recent ethnographic project of mine examines what I call a “fake pastor phenomenon” in Ghana. One of the most densely Pentecostal-Charismatic places in the world today, the nation is experiencing an eruption of quackery accusations aimed at leaders in Pentecostal-Charismatic ministries from local street evangelists to African celebrity pastors such as TB Joshua or Enoch “Daddy G.O.” Adeboye. It is truly a media sensation, with fiery accusations and juicy exposés reported nearly daily in local press and tabloid sources, comedians and rappers mocking “fake pastor” prototypes, and Ghanaian film industries frequently featuring a “fake pastor” character in their plotlines. But, it is also a focal point of community gossip. Many worry that African Christianity is being run amok by charlatans. There are numerous circumstances in which a Pentecostal-Charismatic leader may rank among the accused, but the general premise is that “fake pastors” are those who are perceived as abusing their position of religious authority for the sake of personal (usually financial) gain.

One of the things that I like so much about the “fake pastor phenomenon” is how well it wonderfully complicates questions of authenticity. It places issues of sincerity and intentionality center stage, reminding us that there are more dimensions to the authenticity discourse than questioning orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I also like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications in the West. What does it mean when leaders of African churches, like Bishop Kofi Adonteng Boateng and his Virginia-based Divine Word International Ministries, are accused of “fakery?” What does it mean when influential platforms in the West such as the evangelically-inclined periodical, Christianity Today, feature a Ghanaian news dispatch that condemns religious quackery in Ghana while simultaneously attempting to bracket mainline denominations from the phenomenon?

Most of all, I like the “fake pastor phenomenon” for its implications for responsible scholarship. How are we, as scholars, to consider “fake pastor” accusations when illustrating forms of contemporary African Christianities? When building (or deconstructing) taxonomies? When theorizing trends in global Christianity?