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Islamic Millennialism

We may tend to think of millennialism as something typical of New Religious Movements and christian fundamentalism, but it has a long and interesting history in the Islamic world too. Rob Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, takes us through the history of Islamic millennialism, and explains how it has been tied up with political events in the past, as well as the present. He raises interesting points about how the unusual form of Twelver Shi’ite millennialism developed from Islamic theological discourse.

This podcast was generously supported by cenSAMM, the centre for the study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements. This podcast is also sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes 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.

Islamic Millennialism

Podcast with Rob Gleave (18 September 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Gleave – Islamic Millennialism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Bedford at the CenSAMM Conference on Millennialism and Violence and I’m joined by Rob Gleave, who is the Director  for the Study of Islam at Exeter University.

Rob Gleave (RG): Yes.

DR: First of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

RG: Thanks very much.

DR: Today we’re going to talk about millennialism and violence in Islam, in the Islamic world. Maybe a good place to start is to tell us a little bit about the whole idea of millennialism and messianism in Islam. Is this something that comes from the Qur’an, or what’s the. . . ?

RG: Yes, there are clear indications in the Qur’an about an end time. There’s a shortage on detail as to what’s going to happen and a time as to when things are going to happen, but there’s a discussion – an extensive discussion – of something called the the Hour. And this Hour – the Hour that will come – is the time when the world will be brought to a an end and a judgement will happen and a resurrection of people who have died will occur: people from the graves. And there’s some indication in the Qur’an itself about some of the violent , catastrophic events that will happen, in terms of the sky and mountains being torn asunder and those sort of things. But there’s not a great detail and there’s not a description of a series of events that will eventually lead up to this event. So there’s a strong notion in the Qur’an that the world will come to an end, but, like many things in the Qur’an, it’s indicative. Or rather, it indicates something but it doesn’t always spell it out in detail. And that was left to Muslim theologians to try and discover what it was that the scriptures were referring to.

DR: OK.

RG: And for that they used some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – and there were sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there’s huge debates about the authenticity of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, nonetheless, there was a sort of residue of statements by the Prophet Muhammad which described various things that were going to happen at the end of the world. And from these sources a number of different versions, if you like, of the end times were developed in Muslim theology. And the crucial point is that whilst belief in the eventual day of judgement is an essential element of Islamic belief, precisely what will happen at the those end times – the details, the sequence of events, if you like – this is not an essential element of Muslim belief. It’s not something which determines whether someone is a believer or not a believer. So, it was left open for the Muslim theologians to interpret this material in ways which was highly imaginative. There are some stock elements that always reoccur. The first one was with the return of Jesus. So this was an important element. The return of Jesus was seen as a crucial element of the end times.

DR: Which might come as quite a surprise to some of our listeners, I think.

RG: Well, yes. Jesus, of course, is highly regarded in Muslim theology as one of the Prophets sent by God. But the Qur’an itself indicates that Jesus will return, or that the return of Jesus is one of the signs of the end times. And it’s linked . . .  often it’s linked, by theologians, to the Qur’anic ambiguity about whether or not Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’anic phrase seems to indicate that he appeared to die, but didn’t die, and therefore it left the way open for a return of Jesus at the end times. And it’s very likely, historically, that this was incorporated into the Muslim theological framework from Christian roots about the return of Jesus. But it was a crucial element of the end time narrative for Muslims, the belief that Jesus will come. Another crucial element was also the return of another figure, known as the Mahdi. And the Sunni and Shi’i branches of Islam have slightly different notions of what this Mahdi will do and what his role is, theologically as well as physically, in the end times. (5:00) So they have slightly different notions of that. But these two elements are always conjoined: that the Mahdi and the return of Jesus together will bring about the ushering in, if you like, of the end of the world.

DR: And a lot of the imagery, as you say, is very reminiscent of the Christian story and the imagery of . . . well, imagery which carries on into some of the new religious kind of millenialisms we’ve been talking about this week.

RG: I think apocalyptic imagery is something which . . . well, it’s a discourse which is shared across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim milieux, and used across these different religious traditions, and re-used again and again.  You find it reinvented in new religious movements within Islam as well, which emphasised the coming of the end times. So, it’s a stock of imagery which is not exclusive to an individual tradition. And quite often, the ability for apocalyptic imagery to cross-fertilise between religious traditions . . .  there’s sometimes more potential for that than in other areas of theology, or in ethics or in law. In apocalyptics, somehow a shared stock of images about the Beast, the Antichrist, the notion of the return of Jesus: all of these things together can be shared across traditions.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: And you also find, with a lot of apocalyptic movements, that they’re quite willing to borrow from different traditions and they don’t feel any reticence about the sources of their religious imagery. Muslim religious movements, they will take something which we find in the Jewish or Christian traditions which have made their way into Islam, in one way or another through the history of Islam. And they’re not worried about the sources of these things when they’re constructing their end of time narrative.

DR: Of course not.

RG: So it makes for an enormously creative image of the end of the world, when apocalyptic writers are able to draw on a great wealth of writings and sources in their creative imagination about what the end of the world will look like.

DR: The theology – and ideas about the Mahdi in particular – is quite important in the history of the schism between the Sunni and Shi’i traditions, am I right?

RG: Absolutely. For the Sunni traditions, the Mahdi is a figure sent by God who will lead a battle and bring about the preparations, if you like, for the day of judgement. In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi is the return of someone – or the reappearance of someone – who disappeared in the ninth century and who will return and re-establish their rightful, legitimate, political rule at some time in the future. So,  the Sunni and Shiite traditions didn’t divide over the question of the end times: at the beginning, it was a question of who should lead the community and what the role of that leader should be. The way in which the Shiite tradition developed was that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in 632, there was a series of leaders coming from amongst his family, his descendents, who were seen as blessed with special religious knowledge. And for one particular branch of that Shiite tradition there were twelve such leaders, and the last of these has gone into hiding. And this is the promised Mahdi, the promised messianic figure that will reappear at some point in the end of time – no one knows when. But Twelver Shiites, as they’re called – because they believe in twelve leaders after the Prophet Muhammad – Twelver Shiites have a very strong notion of the patience that’s required in expectation of the return of the Mahdi, and the internal striving to be a perfect servant. So the internal striving to be a perfect servant becomes a crucial element of Shiite identity, in the expectation of the return of the Mahdi at some point in time in the future. (10:00) And, when the Mahdi returns, it’s not simply that this person will be a military leader and bring about the end of days. This is the return of the person who should have been the leader of the Muslim community for all of these centuries. It’s the reappearance, if you like, of the Mahdi who is present in the community but unknown, suddenly making himself known again. So this is quite a different dynamic for Shiites about the end times, compared to Sunnis. And since the Mahdi is someone who’s seen as having perfect knowledge of divine matters, including the law, this means that he’s looked to, by Shiites , as a guide for daily living. And the Mahdi doesn’t fulfil such a role in Sunni theology.

DR: It’s a really fascinating, and – I think – kind-of unique situation: this idea of the Mahdi being this occulted figure who has gone into hiding but is still in the world, but hidden.  And they’re waiting on his . . . it’s not like a physical reincarnation or anything like that, it’s a re-emergence of this hidden figure. It’s really interesting.

RG: It was a belief which emerged in early Islam, through a series of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding in order to protect themselves, and the community, from oppression from a majority Sunni community. And the theme of a hidden Imam who will make themselves known again when the conditions are right became incorporated into Twelver Shiite doctrine and became an official element of Twelver Shiite belief. And so that’s something which is unusual, since most apocalyptic movements which have a messianic element think of the Messiah as returning to earth from somewhere else. Whereas, for the Shiites, the presence of the hidden Imam – the Mahdi – in the community means that at certain points they can find out what his opinion is.

DR: Yes.

RG: Which is the crucial element for Shiites: how do you know what the Imam’s opinion might be on this or that? So, for example, if all the community agree on something – on a particular doctrine – then Shiites have imagined that, well, one of the people who agree must be the hidden Imam.

DR: Yes.

RG: So the agreement suddenly becomes authoritative because the Imam’s opinion must be amongst the people who are agreeing. We don’t know which opinion it is, we don’t know the identity of the individual. But, because everyone’s agreed, the Imam must be within that agreement. And the result is that certain new doctrines might be validated by a community agreement. The theoretical possibility, if you like, of communication from the hidden Imam through community agreement, becomes possible.

DR: And I can see that being a very powerful narrative. Because in other traditions, where you want to have the prophetic figure – who is no longer with you – refer to present events, you either have to create a new revelation through a new prophet, or you discover or reveal some previously unknown writings – in the way that has happened in Buddhism quite a lot, for instance. But this . . . you can actually, quite legitimately have this figure referring to events of the day quite contemporaneously. Because he’s still around, we just don’t know where.

RG: He’s present, yes. And that creates a notion of immanence within the community which has become very important for Shiite devotional practice, in the sense that the Twelver Shiites will often pray to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi as part of their personal devotional prayers. They believe that through devotional acts one is contributing to the situation where the Imam ,who is present, can make themselves known. And it creates an internal – what you might call – piety within the religious tradition, which is a dynamic you can’t find in Sunni Islam. Because of the imagined presence of the Imam in the community, it means that there’s a emphasis on the importance, if you like, of ensuring community cohesion.(15:00)

DR: And does that spill out, then, into how millenarian ideas and prophetic ideas affect the community, then? Would we see a difference between the way that Shiites and Sunnis relate to how messianism plays into their actions in the political sphere?

RG: Well certainly within Shi’ism, the fact that the Imam is present and needs to be revealed has enabled certain claimants at different point in time to be “the man”. When, without them claiming this from the very beginning . . . . Because the revealing notion – of them being present but then revealing that they’re the Mahdi – is, in a sense, an extension of the basic theological doctrine.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: So you often find that, within the Shiite tradition, when an individual has claimed to be the Mahdi they haven’t needed to claim it straight away. Because their presence in the community, without being the Mahdi, isn’t a source of scandal – if you see what I mean – to their claim.

DR: Yes.

RG: Because the Imam decides when the time is right to appear. And the claimant can reliably or legitimately claim, “Well, it wasn’t the right time for me to make to make my personality known.” And it means that within the Twelver Shiite tradition, claiming the appearance of the Mahdi – or claiming to be the Mahdi through appearance – has a very strong potential. It’s like a trigger which is always loaded and ready to be fired at any point in time when the conditions are right, or the individual personality believes themselves to be fulfilling that particular role. And so there have been claims of people being the messianic figure throughout history of Islam, not just in Shi’i Islam. But when the claim happens in Shi’i Islam the individual is claiming more than just being a military leader. They’re claiming a special sort of knowledge which is, I suppose, akin to a form of prophecy. Although the Muslim theological doctrine means that prophecy ends with the Prophet Muhammad, even for Shiites. It’s another form of divine knowledge communicated to an individual. But the potentiality within Shi’ism for a claimant to put themselves forward is always there, because of the notion of an Imam present within the community who is just waiting to be revealed.

DR: You don’t have to posit a new prophet or messiah or anything like that. The potential is already there as part of the actual theological position.

RG: And, of course, there is a huge taboo in Islam around positing yourself as a new prophet.

DR: Yes, exactly. Yes.

RG: Because it contravenes one of the basic doctrines of Islam which is that Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and that there is no prophet after Muhammad. And so Sunni groups, or groups which have emerged out of Sunnism such as the Ahmadi movement, for example, have been treated with such strong criticism by the rest of the Sunni Muslim community because they have contravened this notion of the end of prophecy with the Prophet Muhammad. They’ve claimed to have a leader who is a new prophet. In the view of Sunni Islam, you know, the Ahmadi community has claimed that its founder is a new prophet. In Shi’i Islam the messianic figure is the hidden Imam, rather than a new prophet. Which, in a sense is slightly less of a taboo element within the theological framework.

DR: Really interesting. To move to the Sunni world, then, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about Isis. And there seems to be some debate about the degree to which they should be seen as a millennial, even apocalyptic, kind of movement. I, myself, would like to hear something from you. Your take on this is the apocalyptic millennial aspects of it being overplayed by the West, because of fears and ignorance. (20:00) Or is this something that is theologically driving . . . ?

RG: Well, my own view is that there has been a certain hyping up of the apocalyptic element, because it makes good journalism!

DR: (Laughs) Yes!

RG: Apocalypticism is always a sensationalist story for journalists in the contemporary period, because it’s seen as so “out there” and weird and bizarre. And, in a sense, accusations of being over-apocalyptic or . . . . The attraction, if you like, of the story of an apocalyptic movement, is a reflection of much of the state of – I’ll say – “British” society, and the nature of secularism and so-called rationality, and these [movements] are seen as hyper -irrational and consequently extremely interesting. And that’s certainly been, I think, an element in the attraction of journalists, and commentators as well, to the apocalyptic element of the Islamic State message. Having said that, there are strong elements within the Islamic State propaganda machine which indicate that they are quite willing to use apocalyptic imagery to describe and recruit for their military campaign. So, the most famous one being the small Syrian village of Dabiq, which is mentioned in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad – that this will be a place where the end times battle will take place. So it became very important that Islamic State captured this village and that they used it in their propaganda in particular their English language propaganda magazine, which they titled the Dabiq. And so they are quite happy to try and use that rhetoric within their propaganda. The big question is, how much of their activities are driven by apocalyptic beliefs? And, in that, I’m slightly less convinced of the primacy of apocalypticism within their military strategy and the ways in which they organise their state. Because most of the ways in which they argue for this policy or that policy, or this action or that action, you can trace back to traditional ways of thinking about the assessment of actions within the Islamic legal tradition. They argue using legal reasoning which you find in the traditional sources. And they themselves are always trying to demonstrate that their opinion is not an unusual opinion, compared to the traditional sources. So apocalypticism doesn’t really figure, I don’t think, in the internal organisation of Islamic State and the justification for some of their actions. It’s extremely important in the way in which they project themselves to the outside world. And this notion that they can recruit through this rhetoric – the fear of missing out on the success and ultimate end times, which Islamic State play a role in – is an incredibly powerful tool for them to attract new recruits.

DR: Absolutely. So that interest that comes from the media, they’re doing exactly the same thing and using it to attract attention to what they’re talking about. And, as you say as well, this is such a powerful set of imagery and deep-set, long-running narrative in human culture that it always seems to be there as a little reservoir that you can tap into.

RG: And don’t underestimate Islamic State’s awareness of this.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: They know. . . . They have quite a sophisticated media machine, which produces quite sophisticated propaganda materials. And they know that apocalyptic fears are an element within Western society, and Muslims living outside of Muslim majority contexts are the prime targets for that propaganda and recruitment. And the result is that they know how to use that in order to gain recruits. (25:00) And so it’s an element, it’s certainly an element of their rhetoric and their propaganda. How instrumental it is – how much they instrumentally use it in order to do this and how much it’s embedded within the movement – is a matter of some debate. Part of the problem is the actual internal workings of Islamic State are quite secretive, by necessity, or inevitably you might say. So precisely what the apocalyptic beliefs of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, might be, outside of the propaganda element, is actually quite difficult to identify. But it’s certainly a form of religiosity that they are very happy to project outside of the territory that they control.

DR: That’s an excellent comparative point to end on, I think. It’s very important that we don’t simply ascribe naive beliefs to any of these millennial apocalyptic discourses, be they in Islam, Christianity, new religions or popular culture. There are multiple levels of discourse going on all the time and they’re being used sometimes for their media impact, or their interest, as much as they are themselves driving actions.

RG: Yes, we make a mistake if we think that an organisation like Islamic State is a simple organisation with a single message that it’s always churning out. It’s actually quite a complicated, multi-tiered, multi-faceted organisation which knows – and which through experience has learnt – what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts. And, like all organisations, it promotes itself in appropriate ways to appropriate audiences.

DR: And, that people are driven naively by beliefs and ideologies: in fact it’s much more complicated and they are mutually creating . . .

RG: No, certainly. And we make a mistake if we think that all we need to do is really try and show these people what the truth is, and how mistaken they are, through forceful argumentation – that we’re going to convince them in some way. No: people believe things and belief, as we know, is a really complex set of factors which lead to an individual settling upon a particular doctrine which they believe is right for them. And belief in the providential nature of Islamic State is one such belief. It’s not simple. It’s actually extremely complicated and complex as a process. Just as complicated as any process of religious commitment.

DR: Rob Gleave thank you so much for taking part in our sophisticated media and propaganda machine at the Religious Studies Project.

RG: (Laughs) That’s alright.

DR: I’m afraid it’s time for us to look to the future, and the next panel, here at the conference. So thanks very much for taking part.

RG: Thanks very much for inviting me.

DR: You’re quite welcome.

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

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/

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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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 28 March 2017

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Science, Religion, and the Tyranny of Authenticity

There has been a general paucity of quality scholarship on “Islam and science/evolution,” making Hameed’s work a welcome addition. That said, his work suffers from some of same problems as other work in the study of “science and religion.” To explain what I mean, some background on the field is in order.

It’s been a quarter of a century since the label “complexity thesis” was first given life by Ronald Numbers in a review of John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: A Historical Perspective (1991), yet the rush to go “prospecting” for complexity, to use Numbers’ turn of phrase, continues full steam ahead.   Put briefly, the complexity thesis suggests that multiple relationships exist between science and religion. Instead of asking “What is the relationship between science and religion?” a complexity theorist asks “What are the relationships between sciences and religions?” The underlying desire to make such differentiations and the practical implications of such work are, however, much older than that.

Discourses surrounding “science and religion” first became popular in the late nineteenth century, primarily through the work of the so-called conflict theorists. The two men claimed by history as the exemplars of this group are John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, with some historians referring to the notion of conflict as the Draper-White thesis. Draper and White, however, never suggested that science and religion were entirely irreconcilable. Instead, they argued that science was incompatible with something more specific: dogma, theology, or Catholicism. For both of them, “true religion” was constructed as perfectly benign, which usually meant it was nothing more than a vague sense of ethics. Even so, many, if not most, current complexity theorists are eager to redeem one or both of these figures as being misunderstood advocates of complexity. This is part of the larger project of nullifying or moderating discourses of conflict that exists as a central aspect of the field as currently conceived.

Given this tendency, it might be said that it is common for those working on “science and religion” to regularly cross the boundary that Russell McCutcheon has outlined between critic and caretaker, or to be caught up in what Aaron Hughes has called the tyranny of authenticity. Even if it is not the primary or secondary goal of scholarship to produce a discourse that legitimates and delegitimates certain beliefs, institutions, etc., when this happens, and insofar as it happens, scholarship is not being done. It is worth noting that this is not always, and perhaps not even often, in defence of religion, as Draper and White both make professions their claims about a legitimate religious domain for the sake of particular scientific agendas, not for the benefit of religion. White, for example, as the first president of Cornell University, considered perceived religious interference into the work of his faculty as a frustrating roadblock to overcome. For him, the legitimizing of one space for religion was first and foremost about the delegitimizing of another space. Increasingly, these discourses seem to be geared towards supporting a sort of status quo intended to preserve the hegemonic status of secularism within scientific research without fully delegitimizing religion.

Hameed professes to be “less interested” in establishing a normative relationship between Islam and evolution, which needless to say is not the same thing as being uninterested and is not the same thing not making normative claims. Now, I appreciate that Hameed wears different hats, one of which openly and explicitly promotes a normative ideological vision based on Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). His work demonstrates no neat division between critic and caretaker, however, which is perhaps unsurprising, if other scholars of religion who attempt the same are any indication. Despite his claims to its practical efficacy, NOMA is more aspirational than descriptive, as the neat separation of an apolitical religious space distinct from a scientific space breaks down in practice, not just in theory as he suggests. The same “messiness” he speaks of to explain the varied reactions/responses to evolution within Islamic communities is also part of the reason why neat separation is not possible here: people do not compartmentalize so neatly. As Craig Martin has pointed out in Masking Hegemony, “there could never be a ‘separation of church and state’ in a liberal democracy unless the state forbade churches to produce and distribute ideology, to produce conditions of persuasion, to socialize subjects into regimes of normalization and privilege, and so on. As long as there is ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion,’ churches will be legally permitted to do these things” (2010: 164).

This does not mean that all religious scientists will behave like the Catholic biochemist Michael Behe, who gained notoriety for his work on “irreducible complexity.” Matthew Stanley’s recent work, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, offers a compelling account of work being done in science prior to the rise of scientific naturalism, where he suggests that the work of theistic scientists and early scientific naturalists was often indistinguishable. They amicably coexisted in many ways, giving positive reviews of one another’s work and building on one another’s research. Further, all scientists throughout history have carried some sort of baggage, religious or otherwise.

Fitting neatly within a complexity thesis tradition, Hameed employs what might be called normativizing nuance. By this I mean that by demonstrating the complexity/messiness of things “on the ground,” one version of a tradition can be delegitimized and/or another version of the tradition can be legitimized. In this sense, “Islam and science/evolution” has a great deal of resemblance to work on “Islam and violence.” That said, one does not need to even go as far as suggesting that ISIS or evolution deniers are bad or false Muslims and that peaceful, science-affirming Muslims are the legitimate ones, because the very act of prospecting for this complexity already functions to place “true Islam” at arms length from these concerns, making it entirely rise above what now becomes a non-Islamic issue. True religion, or I n this case true Islam, becomes something far vaguer, more personal, and less political. It may even be reasonable to call this a sort of secular apologetics, in that it produces a vision of an Islamic core that is completely amenable to a specific set of “secular” political interests.

Part of this can also be seen in the way Hameed points out that Islam has, “no Pope-like authority.” This strikes me as a sort of misleading Islamic exceptionalism. This is not only because it might be argued that many/most traditions that have been identified as “religion” have no Pope-like authority, or that certain “Islamic” traditions do have authorities that bear some similarities, if not exact correspondence, to the Catholic Pope. Instead, it seems that all traditions claiming large swaths of humanity within their membership will have considerable diversity of opinion among those members, regardless of whether or not there are institutional authorities seeking to enforce uniformity.

Further suggestive of this is Hameed’s apparent disinclination to extend this type of “messiness” to science. In discussing a science textbook, he claims that after providing a Qur’anic quote, the book could simply offer “science as is.” I am not certain what it would mean for someone to declare themselves to be teaching “religion as is,” yet the label makes little more sense when applied to science. Science is not the sort of thing one might find in a second-hand shop where “as is” labels might abound. Instead, it is a human activity with politically motivated boundaries that speak more to the interests of those who do, fund, and control science than it does about the inherent uniqueness of scientific endeavour. Whether or not he intended to do this or not, I cannot be fully certain, but the way that Hameed establishes a contrast between the messiness of religion/identity on the one hand and the matter of fact nature of science on the other is certainly troubling.

Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

science-religionScience and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.

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Calls for papers

EASR: Open sessions

September 18–21, 2017

Leuven, Belgium

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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Jobs

Postdoctoral Fellowship: Islam in North America

Stanford University, USA

Deadline: February 20, 2017

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Research Associate / Research Fellow

University of Sheffield

Deadline: February 16, 2017

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Senior Research Fellowships: Secularity in Pre-Modern Asian Cultures

Leipzig University, Germany

Deadline: Mystery

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Spiritual Performance Training and Education Coordinator

MacDill Air Force Base, USA

Deadline: Another mystery

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Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

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

Deadline: January 31, 2017

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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

Deadline: December 9, 2016

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Conference: British Association for Islamic Studies

April 11–13, 2017

University of Chester, UK

Deadline: November 30, 2016

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

4–7 July 2017

Lausanne, Switzerland

Deadline: January 10, 2017

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Journal: American Psychological Association

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

Deadline: March 31, 2017

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Journal: Religion, State & Society

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

Deadline: August 15, 2017

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Journal: Religions

Special issue: Religion and Genocide

Deadline: March 15, 2017

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Summer School: Prophétologies musulmanes: discours et représentations

June 29 – July 5, 2017

Aix en Provence, France

Deadline: January 4, 2017

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Symposium: 500 years: The Reformation and Its Resonations

September 14–15, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: April 30, 2017

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Symposium: Climate and Apocalypse

June 29–30, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: February 28, 2017

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Symposium: Violence and Millenarian Movements

April 6–7, 2017

Bedford, UK

Deadline: December 31, 2016

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Events

Conference: Communicative Figurations

December 7–9, 2016

Universität Bremen, Germany

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SSNB Lecture Series: Evangelical and Tablighi Pioneers on Post-Atheist Frontiers

December 1, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Roundtable: Who cares about unbelief?

December 2, 2016, 4 p.m. – 5:30 p.m.

London, UK

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NSRN Annual Lecture: Is atheism a religion?

December 2, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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SSNB Lecture Series: Jewish atheists in foxholes? Phenomenologies of violence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

December 7, 2016, 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.

London, UK

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Jobs and funding

Faculty Fellowships: Summer Institute for Israel Studies

Brandeis University, USA

Deadline: January 20, 2017

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Lecturer: Modern Jewish Studies

Pennsylvania State University, USA

Deadline: March 19, 2017

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Postdoctoral position: Religion and Its Publics

University of Virginia, USA

Deadline: December 15, 2016

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Speaking about Radicalisation in the Public Sphere

Given the prevalence of stories of terrorism, violence, fundamentalism, extremism, and radicalisation in the press, the need for an academic account of the construction and employment of these terms is clearly needed. The issues raised in this podcast by Matthew Francis really hit the nail on the head, and it does an excellent job of covering many key issues. Therefore, in this response, my aim will be very much to amplify some of the concerns and issues picked up. In particular, I will raise some questions about the role of academics who work in this and related fields, as well as how to get academic discourse into the public square.

Firstly, beyond the contested term radicalisation, I have thrown a whole set of often related terms into the mix: terrorism, violence, extremism, and fundamentalism. Some of these are raised in the podcast, in particular the often-presumed link of what is generally call radicalisation and what we tend to call terrorism. As Francis rightly notes, radicalisation and violence are not necessarily linked: people can be what we call radicalised without becoming violent, while many people are violent without being seen as being radicalised. In the general discourse, particularly in the media, all these terms are often seen as somewhat synonymous, which raises the ever important question about the baggage these terms hold, and what is hidden rather than revealed in using them. Are the terms analytically useful? Or do they have some other utility, perhaps in terms of communicating ideas? I leave that point hanging as different scholars vary on what terms they choose to employ or not employ, and will turn now specifically to radicalisation.

As the podcast notes, radicalisation is in some ways a meaningless word. The point Francis makes is that it is simply socialisation by another name. As such, there is not some magical or special set of things which radicalisers do which makes people into radicals. Relevant to Francis’ argument is Marc Sageman’s work on pathways into terror networks in terms of what is generally termed the “bunch of guys” phenomenon. That is, it is often friendship circles and the desire to be part of the group, or not let others down, which is often a primary factor rather than anything which seems to be commonly imagined as radicalisation. Certainly there often are ideological drivers or discontents but people are rarely, if ever, radicalised online by seeing material there without some form of interaction with peers and friendships playing a role.

Yet, I suggest that viewing radicalisation as a form of socialisation makes it both easier and trickier to mediate the term and engage in public discussion. Easier because it means you don’t need any special tools to study or explain it. It is also easier because people can get a better sense of how it happens – we are all inculcated into particular worldviews. However, it is trickier in several ways.

First, and perhaps most importantly – bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” – we are not looking for monsters or monstrous ideologies as the foundation. This is not an answer which some people want to hear. Another reason it is trickier is because if radicalisation is simply another form of socialisation it also raises the question as to why society terms certain things this way. So we have to ask questions about what society thinks is radical. An example used in the podcast is the Suffragette movement, a radical and sometimes violent movement in its contemporary context, but as Francis notes, today we would more likely see somebody who didn’t believe in women’s suffrage as the radical. This raises questions about our normative worldviews: is the question of who is radical simply subjective and culturally and historically determined? If so does it lead scholars to political quiescence? If we see gender prejudice do we ignore it because all values are simply relative? I suspect we would mostly sharply withdraw from such relativism, however, it then means we need to find a way of drawing some boundaries.

Another issue, raised above, by this is the connection, if any, between radicalisation and violent behaviour: why do certain people turn to violent behaviour, typically termed terrorism in these cases?  Within the space of this response it is impossible to follow up the kind of research that has gone into those who turn to violence, but if this is our interest (it is often what the media and politicians means when they use terms like radicalisation or extremism) we therefore need to change the questions asked. It is not (just) about how some people take paths that society sees as radical, but what psychological and social factors allow people to turn to violence to seek to enact their ideology, to defend their buddies, or defend a cause. However, as noted, we can’t pursue that here.

Francis also very usefully deals with the elephant in the room which, in the contemporary context, is Islam. As he points out, something agreed with by I think every impartial expert, Islam per se is simply not a cause of violence or terror. Indeed, he notes that there are millions of Wahhabis (as a particular Saudi form of Salafism is known) in the world but most are not terrorists or even supporters of terrorism. So even with this often-demonised ideology, let alone Islam as a whole, we simply do not see a path from religious belief or ideology to radicalism, violence, and terror. This is not to say that some people may not consider Wahhabi Islam to be a radical ideology – but again we need to ask why they make such judgements. Indeed, discussing Islam in the public sphere brings its own set of challenges.

The question of speaking to the media is one Francis addresses directly. He notes that often journalists just want a sound bite or to frame interviews for the answer they want. However, he asks if he doesn’t do it who will? Maybe some partisan figure who may reinforce negative stereotypes or perceptions he suggests. In this discussion, I also think Francis is absolutely right when he says it is often practitioners rather than policy makers or the media who are ready to listen and want to engage with the evidence – indeed, they are generally far more clued in. A minefield of professional and ethical issues is raised about how academics engage in such areas, and I won’t in the scope of this response pretend to give any answers. However, they are questions that need to be engaged and discussed not just by scholars working in such fields but, I suggest, more generally about how scholarship engages with and relates to the wider public sphere.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 November 2016

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You can find previous Opportunities Digests here: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/categ…/opportunities/

Calls for papers

Competition: 2016 Emerging Scholar Monograph Competition

De Gruyter Open

Deadline: June 30, 2017

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Events

Conference: Kraków Study of Religions Symposium: Understanding and Explanation in the Study of Religions

November 7–9, 2016

Jagiellonian University, Poland

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Public lecture: Islam after Atheism. Religious reconstruction in Albania

November 4, 2016, 12:15 p.m. – 2 p.m.

University of Oslo, Norway

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Workshop: The Living City: Social Aspects of Ancient City Life

November 1, 2016, 9:15 a.m. – 5 p.m.

University of Bergen, Norway

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Jobs

Dean

University of Chicago, Divinity School, USA

Deadline: December 27, 2016

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Two Fellowships: East Asian Buddhist Studies

University of British Columbia, Canada

Deadline: November 30, 2016

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Conference report: “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies”

A conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies” Conference was held 4-6 of October 2016 at the Herrenhausen Palace, in Hanover, Germany. The Volkswagen Foundation and the University of Hamburg’s Academy of World Religions joined together to sponsor the conference with an important and timely mission to identify innovative research approaches as well as broad political and social scopes of action to address religious plurality.

Herrenhausen Palace

Herrenhausen Palace

The conference included talks from over 30 academics, including a special lecture from Peter Berger; it also included an additional 30 “young scholars” lightening presentations, along with times for networking that allowed participants to get to know each other and further discuss research ideas. The conference was interdisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about religious pluralism. The conference location was well selected as Western Europe holds a prominent secularity. The failure of the secularization thesis (the idea that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion) in Western Europe to explain the new, often fervent religious adherents that make up the changing landscape, calls for a significant reassessment. Due to the visible demographic shifts, brought on by established immigrant populations, many of whom are more religious and have more children, along with the very recent massive influx of mainly Muslims refugees, academics are trying to address the questions of how to best meet the challenges of religious pluralisation and how interreligious dialogue can contribute.

The conference included sessions on a variety of topics: religion and dialogue in different contexts, community building and policymaking from European perspectives, the contribution of religious education to dialogue and integration, the relevance of interreligious dialogue in the public sphere, and interreligious education.

fullsizerender_1The conference began with a welcome address by Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, that invoked Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who argued that religion can have a rational basis and thus, can be a subject matter of intellectual discourse—discourse that would mediate different positions and look at contradictions, which would then pave the way for a richer understanding of God. Krull discussed that Pope Benedikt also, during his controversial Regensburg Address in 2006, made use of a rational concept of God to be applied to interreligious dialogue. Krull contrasted the approach of Leibniz and Pope Benedikt with the goal of the conference, which is not to find an unambiguous conception of divinity, but rather to focus on the phenomenon of religious plurality and coexistence of different religious convictions and mindsets in one society, which according to Krull, means that ambiguities, contradictions, and rational gaps are inevitable. Krull ended his welcome by wishing attendees much light and inspiration during their exchange of ideas.

The conference included a special lecture from Peter Berger, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. His lecture entitled, “Toward a New Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age” argued that our age is not one of secularity but of pluralism. Berger holds secularization theory to be only applicable to Western Europe and the international intelligentsia (mostly of the humanities and social sciences) and believes it to be inadequate to explain the majority world, where religion never went away. Berger feels this new paradigm of pluralism strikes a middle ground between secularization theory and the passionate vitality of religion, allowing that, places like courtrooms and hospitals are secular spaces, even though people of a variety of religious beliefs are engaged in them. According to Berger, these are examples of very important sectors of modern societies where a secular discourse necessarily dominates. Rather than it being modernity or religion, it has become modernity and religion.

Berger also highlighted two current explosions of religion: radical Islamism and the less talked about global explosion of Pentecostal Protestantism. After his discussion of these two movements, Berger posed a sensitive question: “Does Islam belong to Germany?” He responded by stating: “Islam is already in Germany! The question is rather, how will Islam belong? And how is German society going to cope with this?” Berger asked conference attendees if they could envisage a Muslim Bavarian. He added that due to the demographic realities, unless indigenous white Bavarians will have many more kids than they are willing to have now, in a few decades there will be no Bavarians at all.

During the open Q&A following the Forum on Dialogical Theology, Sallie B. King, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University, used her experience of teaching on interreligious dialogue at a university in Virginia, where many students were conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians, to answer a question regarding Christian fundamentalism. She captivatingly responded by posing another question, “Who is the fundamentalist, here? “Don’t we think that we know the truth and they [fundamentalists] are wrong?”  While King made clear that she does not agree with their theology, she encouraged those who consider themselves “liberal” and/or “progressive” to intently listen to those whom they disagree with. From her personal teaching experience in Virginia, eventually she believes everyone will find something of value, even in the fundamentalist. If not, King questioned how effective one could be in engaging in dialogue with another.

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

The young scholars lightening presentations were diverse. My presentation “Conflict on the Topic of Islam: How Comfortability with Secularity Affects Evangelical Views of Muslims in the United States” fell within the fourth and last lightening session, and offered an empirical case to investigate Peter Berger’s new paradigm, which argues that individuals in a pluralistic society undergo “cognitive contamination” that allows them to move away from an either/or distinction between their faith and secularity, and rather toward a both/and view. Other presentations dealing with the topic of Muslim-Christian relations came from Iryna Martynyak on “Contemporary Dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Ukraine” and Susan Mwangi presented on “The Role of Media in Promoting Interreligious Dialogue in Kenya,” which looked at how a Swahili radio show is encouraging dialogue between Christians and Muslims. However, the young scholar presentations were certainly not entirely focused on Christian-Muslim relations, and also included presentations on a wide array of issues, such as “Post-Metaphysical Developments in Continental Philosophy of Religion, Hermeneutic Pluralism, and Interreligious Encounter” presented by Marius van Hoogstraten and “Religious Literacy and Teaching about Religion in a Multicultural and Multi-Faith Society: A Critical Perspective” presented by Najwan Saada.

It was useful and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields. Best of all, the academic conference was open to the public—a public with concerned and fertile minds due to the changing religious demographics around them.

 

 

 

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – March 15, 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

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

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Calls for papers and applications

Workshop: Translations: indigenous, religion, tradition, culture

University of Tromsø, Norway

August 17–19, 2016

Deadline: June 1, 2016

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Travel grants: Religious Pluralisation – A Challenge for Modern Societies

October 4–6, 2016

Hanover, Germany

More information (travel grants, program)

Summer school: Religion and water

June 13–24, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: April 1, 2016

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Summer school: Religion, Culture and Society: Entanglement and Confrontation

August 28–September 3, 2016

Antwerpen, Belgium

Deadline: May 15, 2016

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Events

Conference: Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

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Conference: Radicalisaton and Violent Extremism: Society, Identity and Security

July 22–23, 2016

University of Leeds, UK

April 15, 2016

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Conference: Reconsidering Religious Radicalism

May 21, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

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Symposium: Muslims in the UK and Europe

May 13–15, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

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Jobs

Funded postgraduate positions

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Deadline: March 31, 2016

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Full-time PhD studentships

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: April 4, 2016

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Faculty Fellow: Japanese Religions

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

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Professor: Alevism in Europe

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 13, 2016

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Professor: History of Modern/Contemporary Christianity

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 14, 2016

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Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?

References

  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works

[2] http://rsn.aarweb.org/responsible-research-practices-statement-standards-professional-conduct-aar-members

Podcasts

Islamic Millennialism

We may tend to think of millennialism as something typical of New Religious Movements and christian fundamentalism, but it has a long and interesting history in the Islamic world too. Rob Gleave, Professor of Arabic Studies at Exeter, takes us through the history of Islamic millennialism, and explains how it has been tied up with political events in the past, as well as the present. He raises interesting points about how the unusual form of Twelver Shi’ite millennialism developed from Islamic theological discourse.

This podcast was generously supported by cenSAMM, the centre for the study of Apocalyptic and Millennial Movements. This podcast is also sponsored by the postgraduate taught programmes 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.

Islamic Millennialism

Podcast with Rob Gleave (18 September 2017).

Interviewed by David Robertson.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Gleave – Islamic Millennialism 1.1

David Robertson (DR): I’m here in Bedford at the CenSAMM Conference on Millennialism and Violence and I’m joined by Rob Gleave, who is the Director  for the Study of Islam at Exeter University.

Rob Gleave (RG): Yes.

DR: First of all, welcome to the Religious Studies Project.

RG: Thanks very much.

DR: Today we’re going to talk about millennialism and violence in Islam, in the Islamic world. Maybe a good place to start is to tell us a little bit about the whole idea of millennialism and messianism in Islam. Is this something that comes from the Qur’an, or what’s the. . . ?

RG: Yes, there are clear indications in the Qur’an about an end time. There’s a shortage on detail as to what’s going to happen and a time as to when things are going to happen, but there’s a discussion – an extensive discussion – of something called the the Hour. And this Hour – the Hour that will come – is the time when the world will be brought to a an end and a judgement will happen and a resurrection of people who have died will occur: people from the graves. And there’s some indication in the Qur’an itself about some of the violent , catastrophic events that will happen, in terms of the sky and mountains being torn asunder and those sort of things. But there’s not a great detail and there’s not a description of a series of events that will eventually lead up to this event. So there’s a strong notion in the Qur’an that the world will come to an end, but, like many things in the Qur’an, it’s indicative. Or rather, it indicates something but it doesn’t always spell it out in detail. And that was left to Muslim theologians to try and discover what it was that the scriptures were referring to.

DR: OK.

RG: And for that they used some sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – and there were sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Of course, there’s huge debates about the authenticity of the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But, nonetheless, there was a sort of residue of statements by the Prophet Muhammad which described various things that were going to happen at the end of the world. And from these sources a number of different versions, if you like, of the end times were developed in Muslim theology. And the crucial point is that whilst belief in the eventual day of judgement is an essential element of Islamic belief, precisely what will happen at the those end times – the details, the sequence of events, if you like – this is not an essential element of Muslim belief. It’s not something which determines whether someone is a believer or not a believer. So, it was left open for the Muslim theologians to interpret this material in ways which was highly imaginative. There are some stock elements that always reoccur. The first one was with the return of Jesus. So this was an important element. The return of Jesus was seen as a crucial element of the end times.

DR: Which might come as quite a surprise to some of our listeners, I think.

RG: Well, yes. Jesus, of course, is highly regarded in Muslim theology as one of the Prophets sent by God. But the Qur’an itself indicates that Jesus will return, or that the return of Jesus is one of the signs of the end times. And it’s linked . . .  often it’s linked, by theologians, to the Qur’anic ambiguity about whether or not Jesus died on the cross. The Qur’anic phrase seems to indicate that he appeared to die, but didn’t die, and therefore it left the way open for a return of Jesus at the end times. And it’s very likely, historically, that this was incorporated into the Muslim theological framework from Christian roots about the return of Jesus. But it was a crucial element of the end time narrative for Muslims, the belief that Jesus will come. Another crucial element was also the return of another figure, known as the Mahdi. And the Sunni and Shi’i branches of Islam have slightly different notions of what this Mahdi will do and what his role is, theologically as well as physically, in the end times. (5:00) So they have slightly different notions of that. But these two elements are always conjoined: that the Mahdi and the return of Jesus together will bring about the ushering in, if you like, of the end of the world.

DR: And a lot of the imagery, as you say, is very reminiscent of the Christian story and the imagery of . . . well, imagery which carries on into some of the new religious kind of millenialisms we’ve been talking about this week.

RG: I think apocalyptic imagery is something which . . . well, it’s a discourse which is shared across the Jewish, Christian and Muslim milieux, and used across these different religious traditions, and re-used again and again.  You find it reinvented in new religious movements within Islam as well, which emphasised the coming of the end times. So, it’s a stock of imagery which is not exclusive to an individual tradition. And quite often, the ability for apocalyptic imagery to cross-fertilise between religious traditions . . .  there’s sometimes more potential for that than in other areas of theology, or in ethics or in law. In apocalyptics, somehow a shared stock of images about the Beast, the Antichrist, the notion of the return of Jesus: all of these things together can be shared across traditions.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: And you also find, with a lot of apocalyptic movements, that they’re quite willing to borrow from different traditions and they don’t feel any reticence about the sources of their religious imagery. Muslim religious movements, they will take something which we find in the Jewish or Christian traditions which have made their way into Islam, in one way or another through the history of Islam. And they’re not worried about the sources of these things when they’re constructing their end of time narrative.

DR: Of course not.

RG: So it makes for an enormously creative image of the end of the world, when apocalyptic writers are able to draw on a great wealth of writings and sources in their creative imagination about what the end of the world will look like.

DR: The theology – and ideas about the Mahdi in particular – is quite important in the history of the schism between the Sunni and Shi’i traditions, am I right?

RG: Absolutely. For the Sunni traditions, the Mahdi is a figure sent by God who will lead a battle and bring about the preparations, if you like, for the day of judgement. In the Shiite tradition, the Mahdi is the return of someone – or the reappearance of someone – who disappeared in the ninth century and who will return and re-establish their rightful, legitimate, political rule at some time in the future. So,  the Sunni and Shiite traditions didn’t divide over the question of the end times: at the beginning, it was a question of who should lead the community and what the role of that leader should be. The way in which the Shiite tradition developed was that following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in 632, there was a series of leaders coming from amongst his family, his descendents, who were seen as blessed with special religious knowledge. And for one particular branch of that Shiite tradition there were twelve such leaders, and the last of these has gone into hiding. And this is the promised Mahdi, the promised messianic figure that will reappear at some point in the end of time – no one knows when. But Twelver Shiites, as they’re called – because they believe in twelve leaders after the Prophet Muhammad – Twelver Shiites have a very strong notion of the patience that’s required in expectation of the return of the Mahdi, and the internal striving to be a perfect servant. So the internal striving to be a perfect servant becomes a crucial element of Shiite identity, in the expectation of the return of the Mahdi at some point in time in the future. (10:00) And, when the Mahdi returns, it’s not simply that this person will be a military leader and bring about the end of days. This is the return of the person who should have been the leader of the Muslim community for all of these centuries. It’s the reappearance, if you like, of the Mahdi who is present in the community but unknown, suddenly making himself known again. So this is quite a different dynamic for Shiites about the end times, compared to Sunnis. And since the Mahdi is someone who’s seen as having perfect knowledge of divine matters, including the law, this means that he’s looked to, by Shiites , as a guide for daily living. And the Mahdi doesn’t fulfil such a role in Sunni theology.

DR: It’s a really fascinating, and – I think – kind-of unique situation: this idea of the Mahdi being this occulted figure who has gone into hiding but is still in the world, but hidden.  And they’re waiting on his . . . it’s not like a physical reincarnation or anything like that, it’s a re-emergence of this hidden figure. It’s really interesting.

RG: It was a belief which emerged in early Islam, through a series of descendents of the Prophet Muhammad who went into hiding in order to protect themselves, and the community, from oppression from a majority Sunni community. And the theme of a hidden Imam who will make themselves known again when the conditions are right became incorporated into Twelver Shiite doctrine and became an official element of Twelver Shiite belief. And so that’s something which is unusual, since most apocalyptic movements which have a messianic element think of the Messiah as returning to earth from somewhere else. Whereas, for the Shiites, the presence of the hidden Imam – the Mahdi – in the community means that at certain points they can find out what his opinion is.

DR: Yes.

RG: Which is the crucial element for Shiites: how do you know what the Imam’s opinion might be on this or that? So, for example, if all the community agree on something – on a particular doctrine – then Shiites have imagined that, well, one of the people who agree must be the hidden Imam.

DR: Yes.

RG: So the agreement suddenly becomes authoritative because the Imam’s opinion must be amongst the people who are agreeing. We don’t know which opinion it is, we don’t know the identity of the individual. But, because everyone’s agreed, the Imam must be within that agreement. And the result is that certain new doctrines might be validated by a community agreement. The theoretical possibility, if you like, of communication from the hidden Imam through community agreement, becomes possible.

DR: And I can see that being a very powerful narrative. Because in other traditions, where you want to have the prophetic figure – who is no longer with you – refer to present events, you either have to create a new revelation through a new prophet, or you discover or reveal some previously unknown writings – in the way that has happened in Buddhism quite a lot, for instance. But this . . . you can actually, quite legitimately have this figure referring to events of the day quite contemporaneously. Because he’s still around, we just don’t know where.

RG: He’s present, yes. And that creates a notion of immanence within the community which has become very important for Shiite devotional practice, in the sense that the Twelver Shiites will often pray to hasten the appearance of the Mahdi as part of their personal devotional prayers. They believe that through devotional acts one is contributing to the situation where the Imam ,who is present, can make themselves known. And it creates an internal – what you might call – piety within the religious tradition, which is a dynamic you can’t find in Sunni Islam. Because of the imagined presence of the Imam in the community, it means that there’s a emphasis on the importance, if you like, of ensuring community cohesion.(15:00)

DR: And does that spill out, then, into how millenarian ideas and prophetic ideas affect the community, then? Would we see a difference between the way that Shiites and Sunnis relate to how messianism plays into their actions in the political sphere?

RG: Well certainly within Shi’ism, the fact that the Imam is present and needs to be revealed has enabled certain claimants at different point in time to be “the man”. When, without them claiming this from the very beginning . . . . Because the revealing notion – of them being present but then revealing that they’re the Mahdi – is, in a sense, an extension of the basic theological doctrine.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: So you often find that, within the Shiite tradition, when an individual has claimed to be the Mahdi they haven’t needed to claim it straight away. Because their presence in the community, without being the Mahdi, isn’t a source of scandal – if you see what I mean – to their claim.

DR: Yes.

RG: Because the Imam decides when the time is right to appear. And the claimant can reliably or legitimately claim, “Well, it wasn’t the right time for me to make to make my personality known.” And it means that within the Twelver Shiite tradition, claiming the appearance of the Mahdi – or claiming to be the Mahdi through appearance – has a very strong potential. It’s like a trigger which is always loaded and ready to be fired at any point in time when the conditions are right, or the individual personality believes themselves to be fulfilling that particular role. And so there have been claims of people being the messianic figure throughout history of Islam, not just in Shi’i Islam. But when the claim happens in Shi’i Islam the individual is claiming more than just being a military leader. They’re claiming a special sort of knowledge which is, I suppose, akin to a form of prophecy. Although the Muslim theological doctrine means that prophecy ends with the Prophet Muhammad, even for Shiites. It’s another form of divine knowledge communicated to an individual. But the potentiality within Shi’ism for a claimant to put themselves forward is always there, because of the notion of an Imam present within the community who is just waiting to be revealed.

DR: You don’t have to posit a new prophet or messiah or anything like that. The potential is already there as part of the actual theological position.

RG: And, of course, there is a huge taboo in Islam around positing yourself as a new prophet.

DR: Yes, exactly. Yes.

RG: Because it contravenes one of the basic doctrines of Islam which is that Muhammad is the seal of the Prophets and that there is no prophet after Muhammad. And so Sunni groups, or groups which have emerged out of Sunnism such as the Ahmadi movement, for example, have been treated with such strong criticism by the rest of the Sunni Muslim community because they have contravened this notion of the end of prophecy with the Prophet Muhammad. They’ve claimed to have a leader who is a new prophet. In the view of Sunni Islam, you know, the Ahmadi community has claimed that its founder is a new prophet. In Shi’i Islam the messianic figure is the hidden Imam, rather than a new prophet. Which, in a sense is slightly less of a taboo element within the theological framework.

DR: Really interesting. To move to the Sunni world, then, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t ask you about Isis. And there seems to be some debate about the degree to which they should be seen as a millennial, even apocalyptic, kind of movement. I, myself, would like to hear something from you. Your take on this is the apocalyptic millennial aspects of it being overplayed by the West, because of fears and ignorance. (20:00) Or is this something that is theologically driving . . . ?

RG: Well, my own view is that there has been a certain hyping up of the apocalyptic element, because it makes good journalism!

DR: (Laughs) Yes!

RG: Apocalypticism is always a sensationalist story for journalists in the contemporary period, because it’s seen as so “out there” and weird and bizarre. And, in a sense, accusations of being over-apocalyptic or . . . . The attraction, if you like, of the story of an apocalyptic movement, is a reflection of much of the state of – I’ll say – “British” society, and the nature of secularism and so-called rationality, and these [movements] are seen as hyper -irrational and consequently extremely interesting. And that’s certainly been, I think, an element in the attraction of journalists, and commentators as well, to the apocalyptic element of the Islamic State message. Having said that, there are strong elements within the Islamic State propaganda machine which indicate that they are quite willing to use apocalyptic imagery to describe and recruit for their military campaign. So, the most famous one being the small Syrian village of Dabiq, which is mentioned in a Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad – a saying of the Prophet Muhammad – that this will be a place where the end times battle will take place. So it became very important that Islamic State captured this village and that they used it in their propaganda in particular their English language propaganda magazine, which they titled the Dabiq. And so they are quite happy to try and use that rhetoric within their propaganda. The big question is, how much of their activities are driven by apocalyptic beliefs? And, in that, I’m slightly less convinced of the primacy of apocalypticism within their military strategy and the ways in which they organise their state. Because most of the ways in which they argue for this policy or that policy, or this action or that action, you can trace back to traditional ways of thinking about the assessment of actions within the Islamic legal tradition. They argue using legal reasoning which you find in the traditional sources. And they themselves are always trying to demonstrate that their opinion is not an unusual opinion, compared to the traditional sources. So apocalypticism doesn’t really figure, I don’t think, in the internal organisation of Islamic State and the justification for some of their actions. It’s extremely important in the way in which they project themselves to the outside world. And this notion that they can recruit through this rhetoric – the fear of missing out on the success and ultimate end times, which Islamic State play a role in – is an incredibly powerful tool for them to attract new recruits.

DR: Absolutely. So that interest that comes from the media, they’re doing exactly the same thing and using it to attract attention to what they’re talking about. And, as you say as well, this is such a powerful set of imagery and deep-set, long-running narrative in human culture that it always seems to be there as a little reservoir that you can tap into.

RG: And don’t underestimate Islamic State’s awareness of this.

DR: Absolutely.

RG: They know. . . . They have quite a sophisticated media machine, which produces quite sophisticated propaganda materials. And they know that apocalyptic fears are an element within Western society, and Muslims living outside of Muslim majority contexts are the prime targets for that propaganda and recruitment. And the result is that they know how to use that in order to gain recruits. (25:00) And so it’s an element, it’s certainly an element of their rhetoric and their propaganda. How instrumental it is – how much they instrumentally use it in order to do this and how much it’s embedded within the movement – is a matter of some debate. Part of the problem is the actual internal workings of Islamic State are quite secretive, by necessity, or inevitably you might say. So precisely what the apocalyptic beliefs of their leader, Abu Bakr al-Bhagdadi, might be, outside of the propaganda element, is actually quite difficult to identify. But it’s certainly a form of religiosity that they are very happy to project outside of the territory that they control.

DR: That’s an excellent comparative point to end on, I think. It’s very important that we don’t simply ascribe naive beliefs to any of these millennial apocalyptic discourses, be they in Islam, Christianity, new religions or popular culture. There are multiple levels of discourse going on all the time and they’re being used sometimes for their media impact, or their interest, as much as they are themselves driving actions.

RG: Yes, we make a mistake if we think that an organisation like Islamic State is a simple organisation with a single message that it’s always churning out. It’s actually quite a complicated, multi-tiered, multi-faceted organisation which knows – and which through experience has learnt – what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts. And, like all organisations, it promotes itself in appropriate ways to appropriate audiences.

DR: And, that people are driven naively by beliefs and ideologies: in fact it’s much more complicated and they are mutually creating . . .

RG: No, certainly. And we make a mistake if we think that all we need to do is really try and show these people what the truth is, and how mistaken they are, through forceful argumentation – that we’re going to convince them in some way. No: people believe things and belief, as we know, is a really complex set of factors which lead to an individual settling upon a particular doctrine which they believe is right for them. And belief in the providential nature of Islamic State is one such belief. It’s not simple. It’s actually extremely complicated and complex as a process. Just as complicated as any process of religious commitment.

DR: Rob Gleave thank you so much for taking part in our sophisticated media and propaganda machine at the Religious Studies Project.

RG: (Laughs) That’s alright.

DR: I’m afraid it’s time for us to look to the future, and the next panel, here at the conference. So thanks very much for taking part.

RG: Thanks very much for inviting me.

DR: You’re quite welcome.

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Paths to Sexual Ethics

Sexual ethics remains a dominant topic in mainstream discussions of Islam. Like violence, sexuality—specifically the role and position of women—has taken center stage both within the academy and within broader societal discourses in the “West”. As with other discursively-dominant topics, for instance the “headscarf debates” that continue to make waves across Europe, sexuality and gender are cultural sites of both ongoing discomfort and discord. The burkini affair in France was only the latest example of struggles over sexual identity, modesty, ethics and allegiances in Europe. Discussions about sexual ethics are evidently deeply linked to broader spheres of ideas and action in contestation over the role of religion in “secular” states—from freedom to security, identity to rights.

While questions surrounding sexual ethics in Islam permeate the mainstream, scholarship on the topic remains largely lacking. Kecia Ali has pioneered in this respect, reaching deeply into the legal tradition in order to trace sexual ethics (such as in her book Sexual Ethics in Islam). She asserts at the onset of her interview that it is simply impossible not to have this discussion today. The challenge lies in unearthing and employing productive ways of having this discussion. The more specific challenge perhaps lies in moving beyond dominant discourses that tend to determine the direction of the conversation: such as the assumed “intolerance” of Muslims towards sexuality and patriarchal oppression of women.

How does one develop a more nuanced account of sexual ethics that accounts for both the past and adapts to the present? There is a strand of Islamic thought often deemed progressive, but that is in fact traditionalist. This includes the work of Professor Kecia Ali, as well as Professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, who authored (among other texts) The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, arguing that Islam has become distorted from its early tendencies towards increased freedom and inclusion. However, method matters as much as source in our attempts to understand sexual ethics in Islam, as well as other key topics in the study of religion. Meta-methodology further links these two scholars, who similarly argue that the way to present knowledge is to take seriously, while historically contextualizing, the past. To do this, both draw from early legal sources to trace patterns and developments of thought in Islam.
Kecia Ali illuminates the inconsistencies in assumptions about Islam utilized to justify devaluation by “the West” for centuries. Prior to the 20th century and the colonial apparatus that helped to spur disfiguring puritan notions of Islam (e.g. Wahhabism and certain other Salafi movements), Muslims were criticized for being too sexually open. From “the wanton”, as Kecia Ali names it, to the “oppressor/oppressed”, discourse has been consistently used to delegate Muslims to a lower position in the moral hierarchy vis a vis Europe. Sexuality, across religions and cultures, remains one of the most potent ways to both insult morality and forge a moral hierarchy. And yet, paradoxically, it is also a persuasive means to contest this insult and resist this hierarchy.

There is danger in essentialist categories. There is danger in categories, such as “the West” versus “Islam”, in the idea of a single Muslim perspective, when perspectives remain always multiple, and often moving. There is danger in naming Islam a sexually repressive or oppressive religion, just as there is it assuming it to be emancipatory. Human nature veers towards categorization, sense making about self through the perception of the other (we must only look at Freud on toddlerhood to see how early this begins). We cannot eliminate, but must move beyond categories, engaging the multiple, at times contradictory and often dynamic classifications that make up lives lived.

Kecia Ali argues in her interview that sources (such as the Qur’an, the hadith literature/Sunnah—i.e. sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad and legal rulings) provide the most compelling way to complicate the discourse on sexual ethics, and move closer to answers rather than fixate on categories. She draws out an anti-puritanist discourse deeply rooted in early Islam, with important implications for the lives of Muslims today. One particularly evocative discussion between Kecia Ali and interviewer, Christopher Cotter, revolves around the age of Ayse, the Prophet Muhammad’s youngest and arguably favored wife after the death of Khadija (his first wife). The age of Ayse only becomes a site of inquiry in the late 19th/early 20th century, causing discomfort both inside and outside of the Muslim community (as it is cited in hadith literature that she married at 7, with the marriage consummated at 9). Polemical accusations from outside, such as by Reverend Jerry Fine, nominalize Muhammad a demon-possessed pedophile, drawing together long-standing and novel accusations to undermine the authenticity of his prophecy. Apologetics respond by noting that it was another time, with other norms, or citing the unreliability of the texts. Yet what these accounts miss is the rich knowledge about Ayse—a scholar, a source of political conflict, who comes under question in the hadith literature as possibly betraying Muhammad. Ali thus suggests that her age may have been employed as a means to signal her sexual purity, rather than a literal number, a conclusion that can only be reached with deep theological and historical knowledge.

Even those who bring forth this knowledge, such as Kecia Ali, may be deemed suspect by broader religious communities, when it comes to asserting claims about sexual ethics. This is—no pun intended—a touchy subject. Kecia Ali laughs as she recounts a student being told not to read her book on sexual ethics because it is “dangerous.” The highest of compliments, she notes, lies in this statement, as she has thus succeeded at complicating falsely simplified answers to difficult questions: “Answers are great…I don’t think we will get answers until we are asking the right questions”, she explains. The idea of the single encompassing answer is but another false category. Regarding sexual ethics in Islam, as well as many other pressing sociocultural questions, we tend to ask “which is the right way”, Ali notes. Perhaps we should instead be asking: what many ways have there been, how can we authenticate them and where can they lead us in the present?

A takeaway from the interview with Ali for the broader study of religion brings us back to paths, rather than categorical answers, the tracing of lives lived and stories told—perhaps nowhere more colorfully than intricately woven hadith and Islamic legal proceedings—that link believers and non-believers alike to tradition. Paths need not be linear nor our place on them stagnant, rather we can draw from the past and draw it into the present moment, revisiting and revising as we ask new questions in enduring, and uniting, struggles over ethics in sexuality and beyond.

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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Science, Religion, and the Tyranny of Authenticity

There has been a general paucity of quality scholarship on “Islam and science/evolution,” making Hameed’s work a welcome addition. That said, his work suffers from some of same problems as other work in the study of “science and religion.” To explain what I mean, some background on the field is in order.

It’s been a quarter of a century since the label “complexity thesis” was first given life by Ronald Numbers in a review of John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: A Historical Perspective (1991), yet the rush to go “prospecting” for complexity, to use Numbers’ turn of phrase, continues full steam ahead.   Put briefly, the complexity thesis suggests that multiple relationships exist between science and religion. Instead of asking “What is the relationship between science and religion?” a complexity theorist asks “What are the relationships between sciences and religions?” The underlying desire to make such differentiations and the practical implications of such work are, however, much older than that.

Discourses surrounding “science and religion” first became popular in the late nineteenth century, primarily through the work of the so-called conflict theorists. The two men claimed by history as the exemplars of this group are John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, with some historians referring to the notion of conflict as the Draper-White thesis. Draper and White, however, never suggested that science and religion were entirely irreconcilable. Instead, they argued that science was incompatible with something more specific: dogma, theology, or Catholicism. For both of them, “true religion” was constructed as perfectly benign, which usually meant it was nothing more than a vague sense of ethics. Even so, many, if not most, current complexity theorists are eager to redeem one or both of these figures as being misunderstood advocates of complexity. This is part of the larger project of nullifying or moderating discourses of conflict that exists as a central aspect of the field as currently conceived.

Given this tendency, it might be said that it is common for those working on “science and religion” to regularly cross the boundary that Russell McCutcheon has outlined between critic and caretaker, or to be caught up in what Aaron Hughes has called the tyranny of authenticity. Even if it is not the primary or secondary goal of scholarship to produce a discourse that legitimates and delegitimates certain beliefs, institutions, etc., when this happens, and insofar as it happens, scholarship is not being done. It is worth noting that this is not always, and perhaps not even often, in defence of religion, as Draper and White both make professions their claims about a legitimate religious domain for the sake of particular scientific agendas, not for the benefit of religion. White, for example, as the first president of Cornell University, considered perceived religious interference into the work of his faculty as a frustrating roadblock to overcome. For him, the legitimizing of one space for religion was first and foremost about the delegitimizing of another space. Increasingly, these discourses seem to be geared towards supporting a sort of status quo intended to preserve the hegemonic status of secularism within scientific research without fully delegitimizing religion.

Hameed professes to be “less interested” in establishing a normative relationship between Islam and evolution, which needless to say is not the same thing as being uninterested and is not the same thing not making normative claims. Now, I appreciate that Hameed wears different hats, one of which openly and explicitly promotes a normative ideological vision based on Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). His work demonstrates no neat division between critic and caretaker, however, which is perhaps unsurprising, if other scholars of religion who attempt the same are any indication. Despite his claims to its practical efficacy, NOMA is more aspirational than descriptive, as the neat separation of an apolitical religious space distinct from a scientific space breaks down in practice, not just in theory as he suggests. The same “messiness” he speaks of to explain the varied reactions/responses to evolution within Islamic communities is also part of the reason why neat separation is not possible here: people do not compartmentalize so neatly. As Craig Martin has pointed out in Masking Hegemony, “there could never be a ‘separation of church and state’ in a liberal democracy unless the state forbade churches to produce and distribute ideology, to produce conditions of persuasion, to socialize subjects into regimes of normalization and privilege, and so on. As long as there is ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion,’ churches will be legally permitted to do these things” (2010: 164).

This does not mean that all religious scientists will behave like the Catholic biochemist Michael Behe, who gained notoriety for his work on “irreducible complexity.” Matthew Stanley’s recent work, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, offers a compelling account of work being done in science prior to the rise of scientific naturalism, where he suggests that the work of theistic scientists and early scientific naturalists was often indistinguishable. They amicably coexisted in many ways, giving positive reviews of one another’s work and building on one another’s research. Further, all scientists throughout history have carried some sort of baggage, religious or otherwise.

Fitting neatly within a complexity thesis tradition, Hameed employs what might be called normativizing nuance. By this I mean that by demonstrating the complexity/messiness of things “on the ground,” one version of a tradition can be delegitimized and/or another version of the tradition can be legitimized. In this sense, “Islam and science/evolution” has a great deal of resemblance to work on “Islam and violence.” That said, one does not need to even go as far as suggesting that ISIS or evolution deniers are bad or false Muslims and that peaceful, science-affirming Muslims are the legitimate ones, because the very act of prospecting for this complexity already functions to place “true Islam” at arms length from these concerns, making it entirely rise above what now becomes a non-Islamic issue. True religion, or I n this case true Islam, becomes something far vaguer, more personal, and less political. It may even be reasonable to call this a sort of secular apologetics, in that it produces a vision of an Islamic core that is completely amenable to a specific set of “secular” political interests.

Part of this can also be seen in the way Hameed points out that Islam has, “no Pope-like authority.” This strikes me as a sort of misleading Islamic exceptionalism. This is not only because it might be argued that many/most traditions that have been identified as “religion” have no Pope-like authority, or that certain “Islamic” traditions do have authorities that bear some similarities, if not exact correspondence, to the Catholic Pope. Instead, it seems that all traditions claiming large swaths of humanity within their membership will have considerable diversity of opinion among those members, regardless of whether or not there are institutional authorities seeking to enforce uniformity.

Further suggestive of this is Hameed’s apparent disinclination to extend this type of “messiness” to science. In discussing a science textbook, he claims that after providing a Qur’anic quote, the book could simply offer “science as is.” I am not certain what it would mean for someone to declare themselves to be teaching “religion as is,” yet the label makes little more sense when applied to science. Science is not the sort of thing one might find in a second-hand shop where “as is” labels might abound. Instead, it is a human activity with politically motivated boundaries that speak more to the interests of those who do, fund, and control science than it does about the inherent uniqueness of scientific endeavour. Whether or not he intended to do this or not, I cannot be fully certain, but the way that Hameed establishes a contrast between the messiness of religion/identity on the one hand and the matter of fact nature of science on the other is certainly troubling.

Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory

science-religionScience and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below. All transcriptions are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 24 January 2017

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Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 17 January 2017

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Radical experiences that can change worlds

Radicalisation, Fundamentalism and Terrorism are emotive topics in the 21st Century. All three terms are frequently the subject of distorted, and often highly prejudicial, usage in public discourse. It is precisely because of their contemporary relevance, a relevance that can literally have life-or-death consequences, that they are an important area for academic research. Matthew Francis’ podcast provides an excellent introduction to many of the problems caused by a simplified understanding of religion and radicalisation. As he argues, distinguishing between the three terms is crucial if we want to understand any of them and the processes that they are associated with. Not all radicals are terrorists, and not all terrorists are radicals. A narrow focus on particular forms of radicalism is limiting and dangerous, if we want to understand the processes involved we must view them in a broader context.

Radicalisation, Francis suggests, is almost synonymous with socialisation. It is the process, or processes, by which an individual or group come to hold ideas or beliefs that are deemed to be ‘radical.’ At its core, radicalisation is simply the process of religious or ideological change when that change occurs in a direction that is considered to be radical. The observation that ideas are not inherently radical, but that the term is a relative one that involves comparisons to social norms, is of critical importance. The value judgments that we ascribe to ideas are not innate to them but are instead reflections of our own beliefs. These beliefs and norms vary between societies and over time within society. It was not long ago that, in the United Kingdom, allowing women the right to vote, or homosexuals the right to marry, was considered radical and dangerous by the majority of people. Today, in many parts of the world, both of those ideas are still considered to be radical and dangerous. The ideas have not changed and yet our judgments of them have. The radical has become normal. Similarly, ideas that were once considered normative are now considered by many to be radical. The subjective nature of what is, and is not, considered radical requires researchers to suspend judgment about particular views and focus on the dynamics through which the beliefs and values of individuals change.

A second important insight into radicalisation discussed in the interview is that ‘sacred ideas’ are a core part of any and all ideologies. These are ideas, often implicit, that are considered to be absolutely true and non-negotiable. Secular examples include the belief that people have the right to freedom and self-determination, or that society has an obligation to protect children from abuse.  More controversial examples might be the belief that one’s own race or nation are superior, or that the strong deserve whatever they can take. Recognising that individuals can be radicalised to hold non-religious ideologies is important both to understand the processes of radicalisation but also to understand the growth of other social movements. These ideological movements are diverse and can come from either end of the political spectrum. Marxist ideologies and nationalisms and the emerging alt-right both involve strongly held, radical convictions. However, radicalisation is not always bad. New ideas can be improvements on old ones. Radicalisation, as a process of change, is not inherently good or bad but can be either depending on the particular ideologies involved.

Moving the frame of reference beyond just religious ideologies is an important step in the process of understanding radicalisation but it is also dangerous to go too far in that direction. Individuals who seek to sever the link between religious radicalisation and religion usually have good intentions and yet, as Francis suggests, that step is as misleading as portraying all religion as inherently bad. There are many individuals for whom religious motivations are of central importance and whose actions are driven by religiously radical ideas. For example, the conservative Christian who attacks an abortion clinic in order to prevent the ‘murder’ of the unborn does so out of deep religious conviction and without the belief that abortion is murder it is highly unlikely that they would commit such attacks. It is important to be aware of all the varying, and often conflicting, motivations that drive individuals to commit extreme actions in the name of an ideology but to focus purely on non-religious factors like economics would omit an important piece in the puzzle.

The work of Tanya Luhrmann (1991, 2004, 2012) is of relevance here. Her work has explored how individuals ‘learn’ to have spiritual experiences that reinforce developing worldviews. She describes this process of learning to attribute particular thoughts, feelings and experiences to a divine or otherwise supernatural source as ‘metakinesis’. Metakinesis, she argues, is similar to other learning processes that teach an individual to become an expert in a particular field. As an individual begins to view the world through a particular religious perspective, and interpret events in the way encouraged by the community they are joining, they find value in the traditions and practices. These practices, however, can do more than simply providing an interpretative framework for ambiguous events. The Spiritual Disciplines Project, an experiment that Luhrmann ran at Stanford University, showed that individual who pray or meditates repeatedly actually becomes more attuned to particular sensations and have increased spiritual experiences. These experiences reinforce the worldview that lead to the practice in the first place, frequently leading to increased immersion in it. Luhrmann’s early work with British magic-users and her more recent work with American Evangelicals both support the idea that religious practice can actually alter how individuals perceive and experience the world. This is, of course, a claim that many religious practitioners would agree with – spiritual practices are often intended to cultivate closer relationships with the divine. When studying radicalisation, the impact that spiritual experiences and practices can have on reinforcing ideological positions should not be neglected in favour of more ‘mundane’ influences. As Francis notes, the process of radicalisation is complex and nuanced. The role that spiritual experiences can play in encouraging individuals to adopt beliefs that are considered radical should not be overlooked. People gradually adopt ideologies through their experiences of the world and spiritual experiences can have an impact just like any other event that an individual considers significant.

It is only by appreciating and integrating the many different factors that cause people to adopt and disseminate beliefs that others consider strange or radical that we can fully understand the process of radicalisation. Doing so is important not only to devise strategies to counter the spread of ideas which are deemed dangerous but also to facilitate the spread of radical ideas that are deemed positive. Technological advances mean that ideas can now spread at a rate that was unthinkable mere decades ago. In this context, it is imperative that academics continue to focus their efforts on understanding the psychological and sociological dynamics by which ideas are spread. Equally, it is important that this research is communicated clearly and publically so that dangerous misconceptions are not allowed to flourish.

References

Luhrmann, T. M. (1991). Persuasions of the witch’s craft: Ritual magic in contemporary England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Luhrmann, T. M. (2004). Metakinesis: How god becomes intimate in contemporary U.S. Christianity. American Anthropologist, 106(3), 518–528. doi:10.1525/aa.2004.106.3.518

Luhrmann, T. M. (2012). When God talks back: Understanding the American evangelical relationship with god. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 29 November 2016

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December 7–9, 2016

Universität Bremen, Germany

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Speaking about Radicalisation in the Public Sphere

Given the prevalence of stories of terrorism, violence, fundamentalism, extremism, and radicalisation in the press, the need for an academic account of the construction and employment of these terms is clearly needed. The issues raised in this podcast by Matthew Francis really hit the nail on the head, and it does an excellent job of covering many key issues. Therefore, in this response, my aim will be very much to amplify some of the concerns and issues picked up. In particular, I will raise some questions about the role of academics who work in this and related fields, as well as how to get academic discourse into the public square.

Firstly, beyond the contested term radicalisation, I have thrown a whole set of often related terms into the mix: terrorism, violence, extremism, and fundamentalism. Some of these are raised in the podcast, in particular the often-presumed link of what is generally call radicalisation and what we tend to call terrorism. As Francis rightly notes, radicalisation and violence are not necessarily linked: people can be what we call radicalised without becoming violent, while many people are violent without being seen as being radicalised. In the general discourse, particularly in the media, all these terms are often seen as somewhat synonymous, which raises the ever important question about the baggage these terms hold, and what is hidden rather than revealed in using them. Are the terms analytically useful? Or do they have some other utility, perhaps in terms of communicating ideas? I leave that point hanging as different scholars vary on what terms they choose to employ or not employ, and will turn now specifically to radicalisation.

As the podcast notes, radicalisation is in some ways a meaningless word. The point Francis makes is that it is simply socialisation by another name. As such, there is not some magical or special set of things which radicalisers do which makes people into radicals. Relevant to Francis’ argument is Marc Sageman’s work on pathways into terror networks in terms of what is generally termed the “bunch of guys” phenomenon. That is, it is often friendship circles and the desire to be part of the group, or not let others down, which is often a primary factor rather than anything which seems to be commonly imagined as radicalisation. Certainly there often are ideological drivers or discontents but people are rarely, if ever, radicalised online by seeing material there without some form of interaction with peers and friendships playing a role.

Yet, I suggest that viewing radicalisation as a form of socialisation makes it both easier and trickier to mediate the term and engage in public discussion. Easier because it means you don’t need any special tools to study or explain it. It is also easier because people can get a better sense of how it happens – we are all inculcated into particular worldviews. However, it is trickier in several ways.

First, and perhaps most importantly – bringing to mind Hannah Arendt’s phrase “the banality of evil” – we are not looking for monsters or monstrous ideologies as the foundation. This is not an answer which some people want to hear. Another reason it is trickier is because if radicalisation is simply another form of socialisation it also raises the question as to why society terms certain things this way. So we have to ask questions about what society thinks is radical. An example used in the podcast is the Suffragette movement, a radical and sometimes violent movement in its contemporary context, but as Francis notes, today we would more likely see somebody who didn’t believe in women’s suffrage as the radical. This raises questions about our normative worldviews: is the question of who is radical simply subjective and culturally and historically determined? If so does it lead scholars to political quiescence? If we see gender prejudice do we ignore it because all values are simply relative? I suspect we would mostly sharply withdraw from such relativism, however, it then means we need to find a way of drawing some boundaries.

Another issue, raised above, by this is the connection, if any, between radicalisation and violent behaviour: why do certain people turn to violent behaviour, typically termed terrorism in these cases?  Within the space of this response it is impossible to follow up the kind of research that has gone into those who turn to violence, but if this is our interest (it is often what the media and politicians means when they use terms like radicalisation or extremism) we therefore need to change the questions asked. It is not (just) about how some people take paths that society sees as radical, but what psychological and social factors allow people to turn to violence to seek to enact their ideology, to defend their buddies, or defend a cause. However, as noted, we can’t pursue that here.

Francis also very usefully deals with the elephant in the room which, in the contemporary context, is Islam. As he points out, something agreed with by I think every impartial expert, Islam per se is simply not a cause of violence or terror. Indeed, he notes that there are millions of Wahhabis (as a particular Saudi form of Salafism is known) in the world but most are not terrorists or even supporters of terrorism. So even with this often-demonised ideology, let alone Islam as a whole, we simply do not see a path from religious belief or ideology to radicalism, violence, and terror. This is not to say that some people may not consider Wahhabi Islam to be a radical ideology – but again we need to ask why they make such judgements. Indeed, discussing Islam in the public sphere brings its own set of challenges.

The question of speaking to the media is one Francis addresses directly. He notes that often journalists just want a sound bite or to frame interviews for the answer they want. However, he asks if he doesn’t do it who will? Maybe some partisan figure who may reinforce negative stereotypes or perceptions he suggests. In this discussion, I also think Francis is absolutely right when he says it is often practitioners rather than policy makers or the media who are ready to listen and want to engage with the evidence – indeed, they are generally far more clued in. A minefield of professional and ethical issues is raised about how academics engage in such areas, and I won’t in the scope of this response pretend to give any answers. However, they are questions that need to be engaged and discussed not just by scholars working in such fields but, I suggest, more generally about how scholarship engages with and relates to the wider public sphere.

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – 1 November 2016

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Conference report: “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies”

A conference report for The Religious Studies Project by Ashlee Quosigk, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The “Religious Pluralisation—A Challenge for Modern Societies” Conference was held 4-6 of October 2016 at the Herrenhausen Palace, in Hanover, Germany. The Volkswagen Foundation and the University of Hamburg’s Academy of World Religions joined together to sponsor the conference with an important and timely mission to identify innovative research approaches as well as broad political and social scopes of action to address religious plurality.

Herrenhausen Palace

Herrenhausen Palace

The conference included talks from over 30 academics, including a special lecture from Peter Berger; it also included an additional 30 “young scholars” lightening presentations, along with times for networking that allowed participants to get to know each other and further discuss research ideas. The conference was interdisciplinary and provided a place for participants to engage in dialogue on how to think about religious pluralism. The conference location was well selected as Western Europe holds a prominent secularity. The failure of the secularization thesis (the idea that modernity necessarily leads to a decline in religion) in Western Europe to explain the new, often fervent religious adherents that make up the changing landscape, calls for a significant reassessment. Due to the visible demographic shifts, brought on by established immigrant populations, many of whom are more religious and have more children, along with the very recent massive influx of mainly Muslims refugees, academics are trying to address the questions of how to best meet the challenges of religious pluralisation and how interreligious dialogue can contribute.

The conference included sessions on a variety of topics: religion and dialogue in different contexts, community building and policymaking from European perspectives, the contribution of religious education to dialogue and integration, the relevance of interreligious dialogue in the public sphere, and interreligious education.

fullsizerender_1The conference began with a welcome address by Wilhelm Krull, Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, that invoked Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who argued that religion can have a rational basis and thus, can be a subject matter of intellectual discourse—discourse that would mediate different positions and look at contradictions, which would then pave the way for a richer understanding of God. Krull discussed that Pope Benedikt also, during his controversial Regensburg Address in 2006, made use of a rational concept of God to be applied to interreligious dialogue. Krull contrasted the approach of Leibniz and Pope Benedikt with the goal of the conference, which is not to find an unambiguous conception of divinity, but rather to focus on the phenomenon of religious plurality and coexistence of different religious convictions and mindsets in one society, which according to Krull, means that ambiguities, contradictions, and rational gaps are inevitable. Krull ended his welcome by wishing attendees much light and inspiration during their exchange of ideas.

The conference included a special lecture from Peter Berger, Professor Emeritus of Religion, Sociology, and Theology and Director of the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. His lecture entitled, “Toward a New Paradigm for Religion in a Pluralist Age” argued that our age is not one of secularity but of pluralism. Berger holds secularization theory to be only applicable to Western Europe and the international intelligentsia (mostly of the humanities and social sciences) and believes it to be inadequate to explain the majority world, where religion never went away. Berger feels this new paradigm of pluralism strikes a middle ground between secularization theory and the passionate vitality of religion, allowing that, places like courtrooms and hospitals are secular spaces, even though people of a variety of religious beliefs are engaged in them. According to Berger, these are examples of very important sectors of modern societies where a secular discourse necessarily dominates. Rather than it being modernity or religion, it has become modernity and religion.

Berger also highlighted two current explosions of religion: radical Islamism and the less talked about global explosion of Pentecostal Protestantism. After his discussion of these two movements, Berger posed a sensitive question: “Does Islam belong to Germany?” He responded by stating: “Islam is already in Germany! The question is rather, how will Islam belong? And how is German society going to cope with this?” Berger asked conference attendees if they could envisage a Muslim Bavarian. He added that due to the demographic realities, unless indigenous white Bavarians will have many more kids than they are willing to have now, in a few decades there will be no Bavarians at all.

During the open Q&A following the Forum on Dialogical Theology, Sallie B. King, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University, used her experience of teaching on interreligious dialogue at a university in Virginia, where many students were conservative and/or fundamentalist Christians, to answer a question regarding Christian fundamentalism. She captivatingly responded by posing another question, “Who is the fundamentalist, here? “Don’t we think that we know the truth and they [fundamentalists] are wrong?”  While King made clear that she does not agree with their theology, she encouraged those who consider themselves “liberal” and/or “progressive” to intently listen to those whom they disagree with. From her personal teaching experience in Virginia, eventually she believes everyone will find something of value, even in the fundamentalist. If not, King questioned how effective one could be in engaging in dialogue with another.

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

Peter Berger and Ashlee Quosigk

The young scholars lightening presentations were diverse. My presentation “Conflict on the Topic of Islam: How Comfortability with Secularity Affects Evangelical Views of Muslims in the United States” fell within the fourth and last lightening session, and offered an empirical case to investigate Peter Berger’s new paradigm, which argues that individuals in a pluralistic society undergo “cognitive contamination” that allows them to move away from an either/or distinction between their faith and secularity, and rather toward a both/and view. Other presentations dealing with the topic of Muslim-Christian relations came from Iryna Martynyak on “Contemporary Dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Ukraine” and Susan Mwangi presented on “The Role of Media in Promoting Interreligious Dialogue in Kenya,” which looked at how a Swahili radio show is encouraging dialogue between Christians and Muslims. However, the young scholar presentations were certainly not entirely focused on Christian-Muslim relations, and also included presentations on a wide array of issues, such as “Post-Metaphysical Developments in Continental Philosophy of Religion, Hermeneutic Pluralism, and Interreligious Encounter” presented by Marius van Hoogstraten and “Religious Literacy and Teaching about Religion in a Multicultural and Multi-Faith Society: A Critical Perspective” presented by Najwan Saada.

It was useful and challenging for scholars to learn from the research of others in different fields. Best of all, the academic conference was open to the public—a public with concerned and fertile minds due to the changing religious demographics around them.

 

 

 

 

Religious Studies Project Opportunities Digest – March 15, 2016

Dear subscriber,

We are pleased to bring you this week’s opportunities digest and would like to express our gratitude to everyone who has submitted calls for papers, event notifications, job vacancies, etc. On that note, we would also like to encourage you to continue to do so (and invite those who remain hesitant to begin)!

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

We thank you for your contribution.

Calls for papers and applications

Workshop: Translations: indigenous, religion, tradition, culture

University of Tromsø, Norway

August 17–19, 2016

Deadline: June 1, 2016

More information

Travel grants: Religious Pluralisation – A Challenge for Modern Societies

October 4–6, 2016

Hanover, Germany

More information (travel grants, program)

Summer school: Religion and water

June 13–24, 2016

University of Bergen, Norway

Deadline: April 1, 2016

More information

Summer school: Religion, Culture and Society: Entanglement and Confrontation

August 28–September 3, 2016

Antwerpen, Belgium

Deadline: May 15, 2016

More information

Events

Conference: Islam and Peaceful Relations

April 5, 2016

Coventry University, UK

More information

Conference: Radicalisaton and Violent Extremism: Society, Identity and Security

July 22–23, 2016

University of Leeds, UK

April 15, 2016

More information

Conference: Reconsidering Religious Radicalism

May 21, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

More information

Symposium: Muslims in the UK and Europe

May 13–15, 2016

University of Cambridge, UK

More information

Jobs

Funded postgraduate positions

University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Deadline: March 31, 2016

More information

Full-time PhD studentships

Lancaster University, UK

Deadline: April 4, 2016

More information

Faculty Fellow: Japanese Religions

University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Deadline: May 15, 2016

More information

Professor: Alevism in Europe

University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 13, 2016

More information

Professor: History of Modern/Contemporary Christianity

University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Deadline: April 14, 2016

More information

Making Space for the Better Book

A number of years ago I attended a keynote lecture during a national religious studies conference at which an esteemed professor declared in exasperated tones; “What Have They Done To My Buddhism?!” The tension in the room, rising during his overtly confessional presentation, reached a silent crescendo at this exclamation. Even I, as a (very) junior scholar of religion, could tell that this respected elder of the establishment had touched something of a nerve with many in attendance. This was an avowedly Academic Study of Religions conference, being put on by the relatively newly formed Irish Society for the Academic Study of Religion, which proclaims its non-confessional credentials proudly and upfront.

It was in this environment, studying for both my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies and History, and later a Masters in Politics, which I was introduced to Islamic Studies, within the Study of Religions department at University College Cork. I am glad to say that Aaron Hughes’ assessment of the current state of the discipline in the North American context was not my experience in Ireland. To a fairly large extent, it has not been my experience since moving across the small sea to pursue a PhD at the Chester Centre for Islamic Studies (CCIS), within a Theology and Religious Studies department, in the University of Chester.

I have sympathy with some of what Hughes has to say, both in this interview and in his most recently published book Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception. Despite this instinctive sympathy, I feel a level of discomfort with his argumentation. I’m left feeling much the same way I felt in that conference centre during the professor’s claim of offense at what was being done to ‘his Buddhism’. In both cases, an acknowledgement of limitations inherent in our singular perspectives is somewhat lacking. Thomas Tweed draws on Donna Haraway to argue that “self-conscious positioning, not pretenses to universality or detachment, is the condition for making knowledge claims” (Tweed, 2002, 257). While Hughes does go to lengths to explain the position from which he embarks on his academic career in the introduction to Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this self-reflection on the complexity of identity is not really carried through the work, nor is it evident in the interview under discussion. In both the interview, and in the most recent book, Hughes points to an issue of names which struck me as odd. In the interview, Hughes alludes to undergraduate students who contact him to thank him for ‘showing another way’ to approach the study of Islam. He assumes a Muslim identity for these students on account of their Muslim or Arabic sounding names. Again, in the book, names are mentioned when Hughes argues that we can assume Talal Asad has a “personal narrative grounded in postcolonial dislocation” (Hughes, 2015, 53), while theorists with names like Lincoln, Smith, McCutcheon, and we might infer Hughes, may be ‘safely ignored’ due to their names “and not for the force of their criticism” (Hughes, 2015, 53). I found myself thinking, are people surprised when I speak and they hear an Irish rather than German accent (my grandfather originated from Leipzig, bringing his German name with him)? Will my German surname impact on my academic career in anyway which I have not yet envisioned? Should I be focusing on more philosophical avenues to make better use of this name?

As a non-Muslim scholar, working on Islam within the discipline of Religious Studies, actively doing what I would consider (or strive to be) critical scholarship, I can also understand where Hughes is coming from in his concern for the privileging of certain ‘insider’ voices over others. I would have more sympathy if this view was expressed as discomfort with the elevation of specific insiders over others; both insiders who do not conform to a specific type, and outsiders with a more critical approach. It weighs on my mind, particularly when attending conferences with a more direct Islamic Studies slant and a high level of practitioner participation. Will my voice be heard in such a setting? If I raise a more critical point, will my position as a white male result in people in the room, either consciously or sub-consciously, downgrading the importance or value of what it is I have to say? I honestly do not think that this is the case. Attending events hosted by the Muslims in Britain Research Network – a group which actively encourages practitioner involvement in academic study – in recent years, I have never felt that my contribution has been devalued by my positionality. If it was the case that my contribution to any academic discussion was not as appreciated as I may like it to be, I could think of many more reasons for this being the case than my obvious affliction of being a white male, an argument Hughes appears happy to make (Hughes, 2015, 19). We must keep in mind that this discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. As Afroze Zaidi-Jivraj so eloquently argued in a recent piece for the online magazine Media Diversified, being a Muslim in 2016 is to be under constant media bombardment and societal suspicion. It is only right that we ‘white males’ should take time to question our assumptions and identities when engaging in a critical study of Islam(s) and/or Muslim peoples and societal structures.

Again, I can recognise, and sympathise, with some of Hughes arguments regarding the danger of confessional, non-critical scholarship pushing out critical scholars from the academy. If this danger truly does exist, I do not see it being lessened by recourse to an oppositional push back against, and attempting to exclude confessional voices from scholarship. When Hughes argues in the interview that taking a critical approach to our area of study may impact on the possibility of gaining tenured positions or opportunities for career advancement for young scholars, I cannot help but wonder if this also works in the opposite direction. By taking an individual’s theology seriously, does a scholar attempting to do critical work in some way jeopardise their own future career prospects? Will this short blog piece jeopardise my future chances in some American institutions? A real issue alluded to by a friend and colleague with whom I discussed the piece.

It is evident that Hughes is in agreement Russell McCutcheon’s argument that there is a problem of “theology being seen as an academically legitimate pursuit within the study of religion”. In Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity, this argument comes across in Hughes incredulity that a university press would publish what he considers to be “theology masquerading as scholarship” (Hughes, 2015, 66). But despite my own background in the non-confessional discipline of Religious Studies, I see much value in engaging seriously with scholars of Theology in academic discourse. If we wish to study Islam(s) seriously, be that through a study of early Islamic communities in Europe, converts to Islam in North America, or generational dynamics within transnational Shia networks, we must take seriously the religious understandings of the people who constitute those areas of life.

Much of the interview was taken up with a discussion of the recent controversy around the election of Vice President of the American Academy of Religion[1], and the publication by that same body of a bullet point code of ‘responsible research practices’. Hughes repeatedly remarks that this code is made up of little more than a collection of 25 cent words, with little to offer by way of substance and no real critical reflection. Reading through the document, one can perhaps see his point. It is a call to ‘do no harm’, essentially, an urging to be respectful of fellow academics and recognition that scholarship may be conducted “both from within and outside communities of belief and practice”[2]

A recent debate in print, between the renowned scholar of Islamic Studies Bruce Lawrence, and two academics who were in receipt of a highly critical review from him, provides an example of the danger which Hughes is speaking about as regards a single position dominating the academic space, through a monopolisation of review panels and interview boards. It also, I think provides an example of what the AAR may be referring to when urging scholars to “engage in critical and constructive debate”. In their response to Lawrence’s critique of their work, the academics explicitly call out the “’new orthodoxy’ in Islamic studies” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107), which they argue is particularly prevalent in “fashionable US academic circles” (Mirsepassi and Fernee, 2015, 107). I have not read the book concerned, so cannot comment on the validity of their claim, or the relative fairness of the offending review, but what is clear is that there exists in the United States at the very least a problem of perception; there is the perception that critical scholarship will not get a fair hearing, and there is a perception that theological or confessional scholarship is incapable of being fair. This is disastrous for academic work.

The big tent, which Hughes argues is unsustainable, should be made to hold. We are the ones who can hold it together. Like any large community, we will not always agree with one another, we may often actively and vehemently disagree, and this is healthy. In order to keep the conversation going, and perhaps more importantly, to keep things interesting and keep pushing our own thoughts to new places, we must be willing to engage with those we do not naturally agree with. While the AAR guidelines may be problematic in their broad brush approach, and they certainly lack the nuance we might expect from academic discussion, the intention of fostering civility should be appreciated. Without this holding together of the big tent, if we continue to faction and engage in increasingly partisan conversations, where will the ‘better book’ Hughes is calling for come from?

References

  • Hughes, Aaron (2015), Islamic Identities and the Tyranny of Authenticity: An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception, Equinox, Sheffield
  • Lawrence, Bruce B. (April, 2015), Tracking Iranian Cosmopolitan Options – At Home and Abroad: A Review Essay of Iranian Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Spheres of Belonging and Islam, Democracy, and Cosmopolitanism: At Home and in the World, SCTIW Review
  • Mirsepassi, Ali,&Fernee, Tadd (2015), ‘Defending the Current Academic Orthodoxy in Islamic Studies: A Response to Bruce Lawrence’, Sociology of Islam3 Issue 3-4, pp.107-124
  • Tweed, Thomas A. (2002), ‘On Moving Across: Translocative Religion and the Interpreter’s Position’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol.70 No.2, pp.253-277

[1] essentially President elect due to the way that system works

[2] http://rsn.aarweb.org/responsible-research-practices-statement-standards-professional-conduct-aar-members