The Critical Humanist Study of Islam [transcript]

The Critical Humanist Study of Islam

Podcast with Khurram Hussain (7 February 2022).

Interviewed by Andie Alexander

Transcribed by Jacob Noblett

Audio and transcript available at:


Islam, Critical Religion, Critical Theory, Identity, Experience, Classification, Liberalism, Politics, Critical Humanism, Orientalism, Rhetoric

Andie Alexander (AA)  0:00 

Hello and welcome. I am Andie Alexander and today I am very pleased to be joined by Dr. Khurram Hussain

Khurram Hussain (KH)  0:06 

You pronounced my name so well! Awesome!

AA  0:09 

Oh—excellent! … who is associate professor of religious studies at Lehigh University, where he is also the director of the Humanities Center. Dr. Hussain is the author of Islam as Critique: Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Challenge of Modernity, which was published with Bloomsbury in 2019. He also has a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Humanism in the Middle East, as well as a new article in Religion Compass titled “Against Binary Thinking: Reconceptualizing the Political in the Study of Modern South Asian Islam.” But today, we are here to talk about your recent book, The Muslim Speaks, which was published with Zed Books in 2020. Now, I believe this is your very first appearance at The Religious Studies Project. So welcome, and thank you so much for joining me here today!

KH  0:58 

Yes, yes, I’ve used The Religious Studies Project quite a bit in my classes and other ways, but this is the first time I’m being recorded, so that’s exciting!

AA  1:06 

Well, I am very glad to have you here, and I’m also very happy to know that the podcast has been such a useful resource for you. That’s really great to hear. Thank you. I’d love to start off by asking you first a bit about the various approaches to Islamic Studies and Religious Studies, particularly the critical study of Islam, the study of Islam…

KH  1:26 


AA  1:27 

… and how your work builds on and diverges from these approaches?

KH  1:32 

Yeah, so the study of Islam is quite fraught in the western academy, and for good reasons, both political, intellectual, and historical. There have been camps, let’s just say, historically and in the current environment, and there are certain camps that fall into what I would call a kind of “apologia” or what Aaron Hughes called “normative Islam,” which basically treats the sources of Islam as sacrosanct. Then there isn’t always a kind of critical distance between the scholarship and the identity of Islam. This suddenly became more prevalent in recent years with the influx of more Muslims in Islamic scholarship. I mean, until the [19]70s, there were very few, but now there’s all these newly minted PhDs and they’re not writing from a first-person perspective, in the sense of ‘being Muslim,’ but clearly, with a certain kind of normative angle.

KH  2:27

Then there is the much longer-standing approach, which [Edward] Said famously called Orientalism in the negative, which really thinks of Islam as an object of study vis-à-vis the ‘western experience’. It framed the study of Islam very much as a source of knowledge about something that has relevance—political, intellectual, historical—for the west. So those are the camps that I look at, and I think those camps also roughly map onto, although not always, what I call the study of Islam as sympathetic to Muslims. Also, the study as not so sympathetic or even critical of Muslims. That’s also critical of the Muslim experience, critical of Muslim history, and critical because of what has happened to Islam in the last 200 years.

KH  3:17

Of course, this is a gross simplification. I mean, there are a lot of really wonderful ethnographic works on Islam that have been done, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the camps that I look at in my work, because I find both of these camps to be deeply problematic for different reasons. In my book, I talk about the fact that there is a kind of Islamophilia-adjacent type scholarship. Then, there is Islamophobia-adjacent scholarship. These both feed into public discourses that are similarly binary, right? Islam as a religion of peace, hijacked by terrorists, or Islam as a religion of violence. It, internally, essentially, has an obstructionist essence, especially the last, so those are the approaches that I was dealing with in the work.

KH  4:06

My approach is, I would say, more of a critical humanist approach, which makes the drastic proclamation that we’re all human. To quote Hannah Arendt, “we’re all similarly human because we are all differently human.” There is a kind of a unity in the diversity and diversity in the unity. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that as human beings living in the world, and what is increasingly a common world, there are underlying basis for our participation in the human condition. At the same time, our situatedness is also an aspect of a human being, whether it’s culturally, intellectually, religiously, in whatever way. So, I reject these more apologetic conceptions of Islam and more sort of critical conceptions of Islam as being dehumanising. In either case, these are the dehumanising impulses. Whether you dehumanise somebody as a friend, or demonise somebody as an enemy, or demonise somebody as being somehow radically different or radically similar; I don’t like those approaches, because I feel like they guard against my very base, normative positions on what it means to be a human, what it means to be a Muslim, what it means to be an American, any of those identities.

AA  5:30 

Could you talk a little bit more about this critical humanist approach and the benefits that you see in this particular way of studying these issues and questions?

KH  5:42 

One of the things that I do in the book right at the very beginning is talk about what I call “critical Islam,” which pertains to what important ways the Islamic corpus, intellectual corpus, or cultural corpus; in what important ways can we engage with that as westerners? I would think of myself at this point as a western man. In what important ways can we actually critically converse with that corpus, rather than thinking of that corpus of experience of intellectual history as being either just another variation on our corpus. However, we find where we excavate liberal democratic values in the Qur’an and in Muslim thinkers, or as being so different as to be illegible, as being in a different language altogether. Having its own rules and grammar is somehow so obscure and peculiar that it’s its own thing.

KH  6:36

My constructive task that I do in my other book as well, less so in this one, but more so than the other one is to identify Islam as a source of critique. Examples include Islamic writers, thinkers, and intellectuals throughout history and certainly in the contemporary modern period; how have they engaged with the challenges of modernity? What kind of insights do they have coming from their particular situatedness? What kinds of ideas have they explored? What kind of answers that they come up with for the problematics of identity? What kind of philosophical, ethical, and political insights do they have; and to prefer a kind of conversation with these, not just in their provincial capacity as Muslims, but in their universal capacity as other human beings?

KH  7:20

In my work, I read Muhammad Iqbal the same way as I would read [Georg] Hegel. I don’t differentiate between the two as one somehow being more provincial or less provincial. I’m just taking, these are all people. They’re all folks, smart folks sometimes, who are engaging with human issues. A real value and reading like that, especially the corpus, I make the point that this is no different than in a critical race studies or feminist theory or erstwhile obscured domains of knowledge being pulled into a global public conversation. So, Islam to me is just a species of the domain of knowledge that has hitherto been obscured or been like put in a bin somewhere. My sociological, normative point here is that we can’t afford as human beings in the world we’re living in to silo off stuff. We have serious global problems, right? We need all the help we can get, and clearly, a lot of these problems have been caused by the very provincial mindset that we have been preferring as being universalist. Yes.

KH  8:28

For example, modern capitalist economics, certain ways of sort of thinking about identity, nationality, certain ways of imagining community; these are all our particular—by “our” I mean western, (I will have to keep saying that because my name is Khurram Hussain and people would like to put me in some kind of pigeonhole, also), but I’m very much a westerner. In our capacity, we might not have the grammar within our systems because our systems have in fact produced a lot of the problems that we’re now dealing with. Muslims are about 25% of the world population, 1.8 billion people, and have a rich history of culture, civilization, and intellect, and so we need that information. We need it. We need concessions with it. We don’t need this affirmation of it or denial of it because that’s what’s happening, usually.

AA  9:15 

You actually take up the issues of how we understand identity or nationalism. A really interesting way it’s mentioned in this book is that you frame it through this lens of discursive traps, and you name three of them as freedom, reason, and culture. Can you talk a little bit more about these traps and the work that you understand them to do in these particular conversations?

KH  9:44 

Yeah, great. So those are basically what I identify as three domains or ways of talking about Islam and Muslims. There’s freedom talk, there is reason talk, there is culture talk. I mean, the names are kind of arbitrary. The freedom talk, well, I was just being cute a little bit. However, it’s really about thinking of Islam as a form of doing politics or talking about Islam as a form of doing politics, right? Is that form of doing politics compatible with western, modern forms of doing politics? So, it’s basically a compatibility discourse or a commensurability discourse, and it usually turns into a kind of binary conversation that never ends because it really can’t end, it traps you in this dyad. On the one side, you have figures from all across the political spectrum, from neoconservatives to certain liberals to Muslims themselves, who say, “hey, Islam is totally compatible with western modernity, we are compatible with democracy, and we’re compatible with secularism.”

KH  10:49

It can take the light form, which basically says, “oh, Muslims will get there, they’re just a little behind.” Or it can take the hard form, like neoconservative hawks who say, “oh, they’re slumbering. We need to intervene and interrupt them to get them to hurry up.” There’s that camp, which makes for strange bedfellows like I said, in the book, and there’s the other camp that also makes strange bedfellows. Folks like the multi-cultural crowd, which is very sympathetic to Muslims, but as like a different species that we need to preserve somehow. There was an ecological sort of metaphor of “we need to preserve a species for the sake of the species.” It’s all local, there are different details on how interesting it is, and yet it’s not. It’s not the same as ours, but that can also include folks like Sam Huntington and his Clash of Civilizations people who believe Islam is totally different and totally dangerous. We must think about how Huntington famously said, “Islam has bloody borders.”

KH  11:38

So, freedom talk, when I call it freedom talk, is a way of talking about Islam that mostly aligns with one of these two ways of thinking about what Islam is and thinking about it almost entirely with reference to the ‘west’. This discussion encompasses whether it is compatible or incompatible, either conventional or incremental, and almost a daily sort of appropriating it into an internal conversation that westerners are having with themselves for the most part.

KH  12:05

I think it’s very important to point out, and this is something that is, I think, important for me to make clear: Muslims themselves also take part in this freedom talk; Muslims here and Muslims elsewhere. Freedom talk is a global public discursive architecture that has been sanctified by Western Power, but it is entirely not just the way only certain westerners talk about this. So, this way of talking about Islam is now operating everywhere, to a certain extent. To me, that’s deeply problematic, because it’s just like I said earlier, it’s dehumanizing to an extent. It also then fundamentally does not really account for the reality of Muslims as they really are out there in the world. That’s the thing, there is something—even despite our postmodern predicament—there is something called the truth out there. There’s truth about particular intellectual cultural systems and religious systems, and we as scholars should be attentive to that, rather than getting caught up in these side projects which really, ultimately don’t do justice to our subjects.

AA  13:13 

One thing that struck me about your book is how you critically engage individual experiences in your analysis. It strikes me as diverging somewhat with popular discourses about experience in the field of Religious Studies. I wonder if you could speak to that move that you’ve made and how you understand this idea of experience?

KH  13:35 

I think experience is—it’s another very fraught category in the study of religion—what exactly is experience? What is the value of experience? I think experience, to a certain extent, to me is—there are many different ways of thinking about it. There is the particular turn that a lot of academia took with the cultural turn, which was this idea that experience is the synecdoche, or even the lodestar. If you want to understand a particular phenomena, we have to attend to the experience of those experiencing it. This has led, I think, in the academy to an… I want to make sure I will say this properly and appropriately: I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing. I’m certainly not saying that the idea that Muslims should study Muslims, Christians study Christians, or women should just study women. There’s something about your own personal experience that can give you special access to the truth about a particular object of investigation that would otherwise not be available.

KH  14:33

In fact, if you crossover then there will be some problems that you will not be able to get through. This is something I was talking about also, which is this idea of mysticism—that there is a kind of mystical access that experience gives you to the truth about identity within which you are situated. I’m certainly not saying that that’s not a viable way of getting at the truth, but it’s a viable way of getting at one kind of truth. One of the ways in which it can be detrimental is that that particular assertion, that there is some kind of a special access based on identity, can lead to other ways of getting at the truth being side-lined because there are other truths, too. I mean, we’re not living in a single truth kind of situation here. So certainly, I think, for example, the exposition of women’s experience in scholarship is very useful and very important, but it’s not the case that women should only study women and men should only study men as though there is some kind of clock there.

KH  15:35

So, one of the things that I’m doing in this book is to position myself not as an insider anywhere. I’m not claiming special access to the truth of the Muslim, and I’m certainly not claiming full access to the truth. As somebody who lives in the west and was trained in the western academy, I’m saying that I am providing the particular kind of gaze that is associated with my particular expertise and my particular experience. Because experience, as you said earlier, experience informs everything we do. So, I’m not suggesting that scholarship should be, in the old sense, objective and neutral and standing outside and looking. So, I certainly I reject that, because I feel like that’s stupid and not true. However, I also don’t think that this kind of a funnelling of ‘all truth’ into a direct access to something is particularly useful. I think this book was very difficult to read because of that, because in many ways, I didn’t want to call it The Muslim Speaks. It makes it sound like I’m speaking, but I’m not the Muslim in this book.

KH  16:35

I wanted to say that in my first sentence. I wanted to say, “I am not a Muslim in this book.” The publisher said, “what are you talking about?” I wanted to call it The Muslim Questions and not The Muslim Question. Not with a question mark, but simply called The Muslim Questions. It can be brought to the Muslim asking the question, or the question of Islam that keeps coming up in the book over and over again. That said, I’ve run into trouble with the whole question formulation, which has a fraught history in and of itself, in the west. So that’s what I would say were experienced traps, for example, going to the earlier question about the different discursive traps.

KH  16:47

Another trap that I have identified is what I call the reason talk, which in an earlier iteration was called science talk. It’s very much about the associate of the idea of reason, with one particular subjective experience of rationality; like universal reason, as being the repository of one particular cultural intellectual iteration of rationality, especially in the 19th century and earlier. This idea is where the whole objective comes from, like the idea of objective scholarship, because it’s based on universal reason. I certainly am not denying the idea that there are reasons in rationalities, and I’m also not denying the idea that there are certain aspects of reason and rationality that very much could be and have been shared across cultural geographic historical context.

KH  17:55

The very particular one that we’re dealing with when it comes to Islam is a kind of story about religion in the west, which is the story of the overcoming of religion, and the effulgence of reason as being an aspect of that story. By that story, that there is a Reformation and there’s Enlightenment, there is secularism. You know that there is a broad kind of arc of this story that tells you how religion can be tamed into reason. It’s a very particular story, but we hear the story constantly being invoked when it comes to Islam. You hear it constantly being invoked about Islam needs a Reformation and Islam needs a Martin Luther, when are the Muslims going to have the Enlightenment? Not just an enlightenment, but the Enlightenment—literally arresting into very particular grooves of history. The grooves were already there, as long as you walk these grooves, it’s a prime example of where a particular set of experiences located in a particular cultural system have become the standard by which other systems, which are not totally different and not totally the same, are being evaluated.

KH  19:03

Again, one is just plain boring. Why would you just want everybody to follow the same exact path? It seems like human beings just don’t do that. But two, it’s impossible, right? There is a sense that by these standards, Muslims are always going to be behind because the vanishing contemporary is constantly shifting and moving—like the standard, so to say. Like 20 years ago, it was all democracy and secularism. Now, it’s also that you can’t have homophobia—not that I want homophobia. I’m saying that as the cultural system develops in the west, it’s the production of this particular cultural system that becomes the new standard for everybody else, including Muslims here and elsewhere. You get into, instead of actually engaging with Islam as a cultural system, engaging with Islamic conceptions, which are not, by the way, uniform. It’s not a conception of rationality, reason, its relationship with religion, or how a religion invests in it. There’s these really vacuous conversations about Islamic Reformation and Islam needing the Reformation now.

AA  20:07 

Yeah, because it actually becomes a way of managing and governing difference rather than actually engaging it in a “real” way. Now, these marginalised groups have to conform to a very particular understanding of experience so that it is then legible to the governing group and majority group.

KH  20:33 

Absolutely true, and it’s really there. The question then becomes, as I say to my students, when were the good old days? When exactly, 1949, some barbecue, and July 4th in Nebraska? I don’t know. So, this idea that there is some there there, the others have to adapt, too. There’s not—there there, so to say, which is, again, not to make it totally postmodern and say, “oh, there’s nothing there. There’s no there there ever.” All various discourses about commensurability and adaptability that rely on certain tropes about the meaning of the west. The ‘west’ is another very fraught term, about what the meaning of the west is, and what its relationship is to the meaning of Islam.

KH  21:17

Already implied is that Islam and the west are somehow totally lock-boxed out of each other implies that the west is a thing. Like you can actually identify what it is. It says Islam is the thing that you can identify. As I talked about in my book, I mention the idea of ‘the west’ and the idea of ‘the Muslim world’ as things is totally modern. I traced the language of the west, and it really begins to emerge in the 19th century—late 19th century—and really only becomes codified post-World War II as the West versus the East. Same thing with the Muslim world. The idea of a Muslim world that has a tangible character, architecture, and structure; where Muslims are supposed to care about each other as Muslims is also a 19th century phenomenon where the Muslim world is first identified by western scholars as ‘the Muslim world’. Then, you can talk about the decline of the Muslim world, what happened to the Muslim world, and who’s in the Muslim world.

KH  22:12

All these questions about the Muslim world, from Morocco to Indonesia, China, and the U.S., all of these people are part of this thing called the Muslim world just like they’re part of this thing called the west. In the book, I traced the co-production of these two categories, very much in conversation with each other in the 19th and 20th centuries. I called the chapter “Mirror, Mirror” because it’s both a kind of mirroring resonance that’s producing these categories, essentialised categories, but it’s also about a tongue-in-cheek thing to “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them, all?” Each of them is basically seeing themselves as being the fairest. That mirror resonance by which these conceptual categories get created and then get reaffirmed and confirmed is a really important aspect of where we are today in the discourse about Islam.

KH  23:00

I could write that book, and I don’t think I want to. I could write a book like this, like The Westerner Speaks. When I look at all of the stereotypes and all of the ways in which Muslims around the world talk about the west, and the caricature of the west, and they feared the doubling binary is for the west. These discourses of the western world are really mirrored resonances, and that is the interesting part to me. Not so much that they are true or not, but rather what the work that they’re doing is and affirming these kinds of centralised identities.

AA  23:35 

Yeah, and they really are co-constitutive in many ways, especially with regard to Islamophobia, which is not something that you talk a great deal about, but it’s certainly something that is informing part of this conversation. You discuss wanting to re-politicise rather than de-politicise Muslim voices, can you speak a little bit more about this move that you’re making and how you understand this to work?

KH  24:03 

So, Islamophobia, I’m not a scholar of Islamophobia. I’m very self-consciously so. Which is not to say that—I’m not saying that there is no Islamophobia and there is not a problem. Very clearly it’s a problem, just like anti-Semitism is a problem, just like misogyny is a problem. These are all problems. Islamophobia, I think, is mentioned maybe once in the entire book, because I wanted to make it clear that this is not a book about Islamophobia. The reason being that I think Islamophobia is a particular kind of attitude towards Muslims. This certainly informs other things, but really, the big problem that I identified in the book is not so much a kind of fear of Muslims, but rather current, de-politicization of the Muslim voice. The de-politicization is taking form where the Muslim is either asked to affirm previous values, virtues, and cultures; or to reject either friend or foe, not a critic.

KH  25:08

To me, following along an ages-old Aristotelian schema, the critic position is the fundamentally human position, because for Aristotle, as for Hannah Arendt, and I know, I’m totally showing my like of very old-fashioned modernist inclinations which have not been fashionable since 1950s. But the idea that it’s talking to each other about the good life, in the open agora and in the polis. That is what is fundamentally human about it and about us. Everything else are versions of being an animal, like eating, sleeping, having sexual reproduction, making sure we have enough money, which is basically comparable to the acorns that squirrels collect acorn. It’s so everything else becomes variations that are animal things.

KH  26:01

The one thing that makes us human, is, in fact, one that we ask the question of our humanity to ourselves, but also to others. We then are political creatures, meaning that we discuss with each other and we talk to each other about what the meaning of a good life is. “What is the good life?,” to use Aristotle’s language. So that’s what fundamentally makes us human. Politics, for me in this conception, is precisely the mechanism by which humans in critical engagement with others continue to enact their humanity. So, imagine you being human is a verb, it’s something you do. So, when Muslims are either turned into these friends, the “you’re just like us,” or into foes, it’s like nobody can talk. This is a kind of dehumanizing, de-politicizing move. It’s not just made by westerners, it can be made by Muslims themselves, vis-à-vis the west or vis-à-vis each other when you either affirm or reject.

KH  26:52

My reading of the situation is that this constant attempt to affirm and reject, in fact, it produces a lot of the pathologies that are now evident between these categories of the ‘west’ and ‘the Muslim world’. It can explain a lot of why—because I don’t consider, for example, Al Qaeda blowing up the World Trade Center, politics. That’s also a total rejection, that’s not talking to somebody about, well, what is the good life? That’s saying, “no, I just kill you”, like a hungry animal goes and kills and eats. Those are not human kinds of activities.

KH  27:28

So, what I’m saying is that in order for the clear and obvious problematics that are operating in these broken relationships, what you need is for the Muslim voice to be re-politicised. Muslims need this to be able to participate in the global public sphere, through a kind of critical engagement with the issues and problems at hand, and with other human beings, be they from America or Nigeria or Russia. I think that re-politicisation will, in fact, both be constructive in terms of providing more interesting voices into our conversations, but it’s also an acknowledgement of our shared humanity. The fact that we’re all human in some ways. So that’s why Islamophobia to me is—let me put it this way, Islamophilia is just as much a problem for me as Islamophobia, when it comes to this question.

KH  28:18

Now, obviously, I’d rather take somebody who’s Islamophilic. So, it’s on that level, clearly, I’m not equating the two, but on an intellectual level, or a humanistic level, they’re both different ways of dehumanising Muslims by de-politicising them. My work, for the most part, it’s just, I’m constantly engaging this question of humans and humanity as very important, right. If you take out the humanity and don’t engage with humanity, and the conclusion I call “Amor Mundi”, which is like “love of the world.”

KH  28:56

We have to cultivate a certain kind of love of the world. The world would be the only place in the universe that we can all call home. This is the only place, and we share it. That’s to me, I mean, I get emotional with this stuff because love is like empathy. Critical engagement doesn’t mean you lack empathy. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It means that you actually engaged with each other in full knowledge and acknowledgement of the other person’s humanity, not saying that you will always agree, but you must come at it from that angle. I see so little of it in the world we live in today, and especially when it comes to Muslims.

AA  29:31 

You’re absolutely right. This nicely demonstrates what we were talking about earlier with the discursive traps and the binaries that we end up in where something can only be this or that, and also thinking back to this idea of experience, and that it can only be one type of truth when, in fact, our experiences are entirely and necessarily social. They’re entirely based on our engagement with others. Experiences aren’t things that just happen to us privately, removed from the social or public sphere.

KH  30:07 

That’s such a good way of putting it, Andie. That’s such a great way of putting it. Yeah, they’re inter-subjective. Experience is always intersubjective. Experiences is not the idea—this is a very Protestant idea that experience is lodged inside your brain as a belief state of propositional state. I mean, that’s just utter nonsense, because well, it’s just not true. Our own experience tells us it’s not true. But also, suppose we were to accept that there was something like that. It would be useless, and it would have no relevance to anything. I mean, I completely absolutely agree. Also, I think it makes sense because inter-subjective experiences—or experience as being a quality of our sociality, rather than a quality of our individual minds is a very different way of approaching it. To me, it’s acknowledging that what you’re thinking Andie, what your dog is thinking, they’re equally obscure to me.

AA  31:06 

Yeah, because it’s only based on what we can share with one another.

KH  31:11 

Exactly. But even if you share something, I can’t know it. Like I can’t experience it, right?

AA  31:16 

Yeah, exactly. Because you can’t read my mind. I can’t read yours. I certainly can’t read my dogs, though, I’m not sure that I would want to. So, it really is all interpretation at that point, because anything that we even try to convey is not the experience itself, it’s just a redescription of our interpretation of an event.

KH  31:38 

I think what goes on within the discourse on Islam is a lot of reading minds. It’s a lot of like, “this is the essence of Islam”, or “this is what Muslims really are like”. They’re either all super peaceful or they’re all moderate. I don’t understand the term ‘moderate Muslim’—I’ve never quite understood what exactly the moderate vis-à-vis what? The ones who don’t eat too much sugar? What are they moderating? Where’s the moderation coming from? What are the standards? Anyways, the point being that these are kinds of ideas about the ‘moderate Muslim’, ‘peaceful Muslim’, ‘violent Muslim’; and these are just all suppositions about internal states of mind. That’s really not the purview—maybe neuroscientists, I mean, they just make images and things they don’t really know.

KH  32:24

Partly, the aspiration for this book is also to expand the scope, to start talking more about humans, so that’s what I’m really interested in. I’m really super interested in human beings. That’s my real interest. I wrote this because of a particular personal experience, because after 9/11, I was looking around at what was happening, and suddenly these two camps were emerging. I don’t understand why, because—well I understand why, but I was very deeply disturbed about this emergence of this binary thinking. Then I realised after doing a lot of research that this is not new, like this has been going on for at least 200 years, and this way of talking about Islam, whether here or in ‘the Muslim world’, are very sedimented.

KH  33:08

They have followed very particular kind of intellectual, historical, political, and economic reasons that are therefore why this has sustained itself for so long. Said talks about this very interestingly, saying Orientialism is not affliction, is not a lie. If it was just a lie, it’d be easy to adjudicate, but nothing is said that has persisted, any way of thinking about the world that has persisted for now, close to 200 years, we cannot think of it as a lie. We cannot refute it. We have to fully engage with, well, what are the processes by which this way of thinking and writing and talking sustains itself? What are the parameters of intervention? It’s just being like, well, that’s not true. You know, that’s not that. It’s because in some ways, it is inter-subjectively true.

AA  33:58 

Yeah, I think you’re right, but now I also realised that we are starting to run out of time. So, before we go, can you give us a sense of what projects you’re working on and what you have on the horizon?

KH  34:12 

Yes, so there are two projects. Well, there are actually three, but I’ll just talk about the two because the third one is really a pipe dream. The third one is called Love as a Political Idea, where I get to be like all touchy feely. I’m really delve into the works of people like Muhammad Iqbal, Gandhi and Martin Buber, Hannah Arendt; just folks who have really thought seriously about the idea of love as a political idea, that’s a very emotional state.

KH  34:41

Well, the two that are in various stages of development, the first one is called Islam and the Disciplines: How the Study of Islam has Shaped the Western Academy, and so that’s going to be an edited volume, and this really is about how at various times in the history of the western academy, the study of Islam has really shaped to a radical mode of studying other things. Going back to the 19th century, the study of Islam becomes basically the study of religion. How you study Islam then affects how you study religion itself. It also is very important in Ernest Renan’s formulation of the Semite, which then leads to the very category of the Semite within this category of anti-Semitism all that stuff.

KH  35:18

There’s also folks like Wilfred Cantwell Smith, people don’t know he was an Islamist. He started off as an Islamist before he made his theoretical contributions to the study of religion, as such. Clifford Geertz started off working in Morocco and Indonesia and Malaysia, places like that, where a lot of his insights about thick description, about what culture is really very much rooted in the study of Islam. Edward Said, obviously not an Islamist, but his particular discussion of Orientalism has had a huge impact on god knows how many fields. So, what I want to do is gather together interesting scholars to talk about that.

KH  35:55

The other book project that I’m working on, it’s called Islam in the Negative: The Construction of Political Theologies in the Image of Islam. For this one, I basically will take the model I use for The Muslim Speaks and try and apply it in several other places in the world. Like in India, there is this Hindu nationalism; this culturally and politically, intellectually, really being made in the image of what Hindutva imagines as the Muslim. What you see in the western with Islam is happening there, too. You see similar variations of this in places like Israel/Palestine, you see French conceptions pf laïcité, which rather than being a positive project of constructive secularism it’s very quickly turning into whatever the Muslims are doing is wrong. It will shape our own understanding of our polity in response to that. So those are sort of the two projects that are in the works, not counting the third that I’m sort of just dreaming of doing at some point in the future.

AA  36:51 

Wow, that sounds excellent. We’ll have to keep an eye out for it. Hopefully, we will be able to have you back here at the RSP when those come out so we can chat a little bit more.

KH  37:01


AA  37:02

Yes. Thank you so much for being here. Today has been an absolute pleasure getting to chat with you.

KH  37:07 

Thank you so much, Andie. I really enjoyed it, too. I was really glad to be here at the RSP.

AA  37:13 

Wonderful. Thanks so much.

Citation Info:

Hussain, Khurram and Andie Alexander. 2022. “The Critical Humanist Study of Islam”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 7 February 2022. Transcribed by Jacob Noblett. Version 1.0, 7 February 2022. Available at:

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