When Bad Scholarship Is Just Bad Scholarship: A Response to Omid Safi

Aaron W. Hughes writes:

I’ve never been called a racist before. Yet, if Omid Safi’s undocumented musings about the current state of Islamic Studies is to be believed, I am one of several non-Muslims who have the nerve to attack and critique “the prominence of Muslim scholars in the Study of Islam Section” of the AAR. It’s funny, but I never thought of myself as critiquing Muslims, only bad scholarship.

I could respond in so many ways. Who says I’m not a Muslim? Who cares? That he can classify me with Richard “Martin” and David “Freidenreich,” two scholars for whom I have a lot of respect, I guess implies, by innuendo, that “Hughes” is not a Muslim name. If I told him that my grandfather’s name was “Nejdi,” that he was a Lebanese Shi`i, that he was responsible for the construction of the first mosque in Canada (the masjid al-Rashid in Edmonton, Alberta)—would this make any difference to him? Apparently not. Safi has already lumped me into the category “Islamophobe” because my work is “grossly polemical.” According to his reading, I am an enemy of Islamic Studies because I insist on issues that transcend particularistic and apologetical concerns.

I have criticized Safi in print. His soft and historically inaccurate portrayal of Muhammad in Memories of Muhammad is woeful. But, and here I differ from him, I believe in giving evidence as to why bad scholarship is bad scholarship. I list, seriatim, why his argument is weak. It is based on a misreading of the sources, of wanting to find solid ground when all we possess is quicksand, of engaging in hermeneutical legerdemain. I counter his utopic vision with a dystopian universe. And I do so, moreover, with fact and with argumentation, not with insinuation. I don’t care whether he is a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Buddhist, or a member of the Seneca First Nation. I care about scholarship. I do so because, as a scholar, my first commitment is to uncovering truth. Not to apologetics; not to wishful thinking. Perhaps this is what he is upset about.

If scholarship is to be scholarship, as opposed to identity politics, it must take ideas seriously, and not engage in a “with us or against us” mentality. I am glad, pace Safi, that there are more Muslims (men and women) in the field of Islamic Studies. I also wish that there were more Muslims in Buddhist Studies, in Jewish Studies, and in Christian Studies.

Perhaps Safi is upset because I occupy a Chair in Jewish Studies? We all know that Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam. Perhaps this is also why he is so critical of David Freidenreich, who also occupies such a position. Freidenreich’s award winning scholarship is bizarrely referred to as “outdated” by Safi. I won’t speak for Freidenreich, but, I can probably guarantee Safi that my thinking of Jewish-Palestinian issues far transcends his wildest “liberal” (read: illiberal) dreams. But this is not the point, unless, of course, people like Safi want to make it the point. Please tell us, Omid, what is your point? Are you upset that Muslim scholars must face questions? Are we simply to accept what those with names such as “Safi,” “Rahman,” and “Moosa” say because, well, they have those names?

So, Mr. Safi, if you want to engage my critique of the field, may I suggest you do what the Western tradition of scholarly discourse demands and respond to my ideas in print as opposed to engaging in innuendo and identity politics. If you do so, I will, to be certain, learn from your critique and format my previous positions accordingly. I will respond to you, and perhaps a conversation will ensue. What I will not do is pejoratively call you a “Muslim.” I presume that this is what you want me to do. But I am not Fox News. I am not a Neo-Con who thinks Islam is a danger to national or any other kind of security. Detailed and documented scholarship is the way scholarship works. You should know better than to introduce identity politics where none previously existed. If this is all you can rely on then you have no sense of the field, only opinion and pseudo-science.

To write someone off, paternalistically, as engaging in “friendly concern” (as you do Richard Martin), or, critically, as “inaccurately outdated” (as you do David Freidenreich) or as “grossly polemical and simplistic” (as you do me) without a shred of argument is, simply stated, irresponsible. You have created a line. On this side are insiders; on that side, outsiders. I fell vindicated because I have been writing from some years now that this would be one possible future of Islamic Studies. I see that I was correct, but trust me I don’t gloat about it.

Mr. Safi, you have introduced race, religion, and ethnicity into this debate when none has previously been mentioned. I guess this is the way you argue. You end citing the work of, among others, “scholars like Sherman Jackson, Amina Wadud, Jonathan Brown, Kecia Ali, Ingrid Mattson.” Many, though certainly not all, of these individuals engage in special pleading. Is this the future of Islamic Studies for you?

Are we simply to agree with you because of your last name?

Sometimes, Mr. Safi, bad scholarship is just bad scholarship.

Your musings, as impressionistic as they are based on identity politics, are all that is wrong with Islamic Studies (at least in Religious Studies) at the present moment. It also shows how far Islamic Studies must travel to engage with non-apologetical Humanities scholarship.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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