Islam and Religious Studies Post-9/11

Aaron W. Hughes writes in his book Theorizing Islam:

“When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one’s interest in the temporal and the contingent, or fails to distinguish between “truths,” “truth-claims,” and “regimes of truth,” one has ceased to function as a historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of import goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.” (Lincoln 1996: 227)

For much of the past forty years, scholars of religion have largely tended to look upon their departmental colleagues who specialize in Islamic data with some degree of bewilderment and bemusement. Their sparse numbers (often one scholar of Islam per department) and their highly technical philological training in other fields (e.g., Near Eastern, Middle Eastern, or Islamic studies) have often generated a set of methodological and theoretical interests perceived to be far removed from the academic study of religion. This has, at least historically, resulted in a rather tenuous and complicated relationship between the study of Islam and religious studies.1

All of this, however, radically changed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Islam’s involvement in the attacks of that day (whether this was real or perceived is certainly not the issue here) suddenly thrust this religion into the spotlight. Revealing that our larger field is truly at the mercy of global events and directly proportionate to where our troops are, scholars of Islam—or Islamicists, as they are often called—suddenly became a highly sought-after commodity. Hundreds of jobs opened up, students flocked to courses, programs were created, and Islamicists have increasingly become important players within the American Academy of Religion (AAR),2 North America’s largest organization devoted to the academic study of religion.3

…the academic study of Islam has become more, not less, insular and apologetic. It is within this latter context that scholars of Islam have presented themselves to their colleagues, to the media, and to the general public as the de facto interpreters
of Islam. They have largely invoked their authority to elevate their particular and idiosyncratic interpretation of Islam (e.g., liberal and egalitarian) over others and, in the process, deemed their version to be somehow more authentic and normative. On one level, given the anger and hostility directed toward Islam and Muslims this is certainly understandable. In this respect, many Islamicists have tried to correct the blatant and often hostile misrepresentations that frequently circulate in both the media and public opinion. However, on another level, problems inevitably arise when, to correct such misrepresentations, the only Islam that is presented as normative is the one that they have largely constructed in their own image.

The declaration of any Islamic social or identity formation as the authentic one risks overlooking or marginalizing the complex processes whereby competing Islams—or interpretations of Islam— interact with and confront one another. Unfortunately, in much of the work that I examine in the following pages this interaction and confrontation is forsaken. Instead, we encounter a liberal Islam, one whose message is largely defined by tolerance, “gender justice,” and a universal respect for human rights. While I certainly do not doubt that there are Muslims and versions of Islam to which these virtues can properly be ascribed, it is highly problematic to use these as the sole criteria whereby an authentic Islam is constructed.

The essays in this volume seek to redress such oversights and apologetics. Taken as a whole, they examine how scholars of Islam working in departments of religious studies manufacture such an Islam, the rhetorical devices they employ, and the often hidden ideological assumptions behind such devices. Within this context, this book’s thesis is simple enough: The academic study of Islam as carried out in departments of religious studies has become so apologetic that it has largely ceased to function as an academic discipline, preferring instead to propagate a theological and apologetical representation of the religion. This discourse, which I call “Islamic Religious Studies,” is largely theological in orientation, manipulative in its use of sources, and distortive in its conclusions. My goal is to study the study of Islam, with an eye to improving or reforming it. In so doing, I take my cue from Jonathan Z. Smith, who contends that it is part of our job as scholars to “expose the set of tacit understandings which inform, but are rarely the objects of, our corporate discourse about religion” (1990: 5).

* Employing the term “Islamic Religious Studies” has a number of advantages. First, as mentioned, it is a convenient term that permits me to refer to a particular set of discourses that are largely uninterested in (or, even better, hostile toward) critical scholarship. Second, and again as mentioned, it enables a neat differentiation between those who engage in such apologetic discourses and those who do not (e.g., Islamic Religious Studies vis-à-vis Islamic Studies).

* The scholars of Islam to whom I refer are largely associated with the Study of Islam section of the AAR. These individuals have created a collective response to the events of 9/11—a response that is described on their website (http://groups.colgate.
edu/aarislam/response.htm) as the product of “the cooperation of over 50 professors of Islamic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the US and Canada. These scholars are members of the Study of Islam section at the American Academy of Religion, the largest
international organization responsible for the academic study of religion.” They write that as

“scholars of religious traditions, we observe that religious symbols are used for political motives all over the world in Hindu, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions. However, we must critically distinguish between politically motivated deployment of religious symbols and the highest ideals that these traditions embody. Just as most would regard bombers of abortion clinics to be outside the pale of Christianity, so the actions of these terrorists should not be accepted as representing Islam in any way.”

This statement says much about what these scholars imagine “real” Islam to be: peaceful, non-political, internal. For them, Muslims who commit terror in the name of Islam misunderstand their own tradition and are motivated by political, as opposed to spiritual, gain. It is these “over 50 scholars” (and those like them)—and the graduate students they have trained in the meantime and whom they continue to train—who are responsible for producing this response and are whom I have in mind when I talk about the largely “apologetical” discourses that pass for academic scholarship. It is these scholars, I maintain, who have created a set of discourses associated with what we can now conveniently delimit with the rubric “Islamic Religious Studies.”

* “At present, the study of Muhammad, the founder of the Muslim community, is obviously caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, it is not possible to write a historical biography of the Prophet without being accused of using the sources uncritically, while on the other hand, when using the sources critically, it is simply not possible to write such a biography. (Motzki 2000: xiv)”

* The social and political upheavals associated with the rapid spread of Islam fatally compromise the earliest sources, according to many scholars who work in this period. These sources were written so long after the fact and with such distinct ideological or political agendas that they provide us with very little that is reliable or with which to reconstruct the period that they purport to describe.

* “In reading Muslim literature—both contemporary and classical—one can see that the evidence for the primacy of spiritual jihad is negligible. Today it is certain that no Muslim, writing in a non-Western language (such as Arabic, Persian, Urdu), would ever make claims that jihad is primarily nonviolent or has been superseded by the spiritual jihad. Such claims are made solely by Western scholars, primarily those who study Sufism and/or work in interfaith dialogue, and by Muslim apologists who are trying to present Islam in the most innocuous manner possible. (2005: 165–6)”

* In the Introduction to his In the Footsteps of the Prophet: Lessons from the Life of Muhammad (2007), [Tariq] Ramadan writes that:

“Our aim is more to get to know the Prophet himself than to learn about his personality or the events in his life. What is sought is immersion, sympathy, and essentially love … This is indeed the primary ambition of this work: making of the Messenger’s life a mirror through which readers facing the challenges of our time can explore their hearts and minds and achieve an understanding of questions of being and meaning as well as broader ethical and social concerns.” (xi)

For Ramadan, the main hermeneutic with which to understand Muhammad and his life is love. Let me put this in perspective. I know of no other discipline that would allow a “scholar” from the University of Oxford, publishing an “academic” monograph with Oxford University Press, to make such claims. Could a serious scholar of Christian origins in the year 2011 get away with saying in an academic monograph published by, say, Cambridge University Press that the main way to understand Jesus and the early Jesus movement was through love?

* In the concluding chapter of In the Footsteps of the Prophet, Ramadan summarizes Muhammad for his readers:

“He was beloved by God and an example among humans. He prayed, he contemplated. He loved, he gave. He served, he transformed. The Prophet was the light that leads to Light, and in learning from his life, believers return to the Source of Life and find His light, His warmth, and His love. The messenger may have left the human world, but he has taught us never to forget Him, the Supreme Refuge, the Witness, the Most Near. Bearing witness that there is no god but God is, in effect, stepping toward deep and authentic freedom; recognizing Muhammad as the Messenger is essentially learning to love him in his absence and to love Him in His presence. Loving and learning to love: God, the Prophet, the creation, and humankind.” (216)

As touching and moving as such a passage may be, it does not reflect the historical record.

* The goal of academic works is not to proselytize. Moreover, from an academic perspective we cannot assume that all Muslims think and believe the same thing about Muhammad. How do we understand different constructions of Muhammad? What historical, political, ideological, and cultural forces contribute to such constructions? Unfortunately, none of these authors are interested in entertaining such mundane concerns. Their interest, on the contrary, is to create a rarefied and spiritualist reading of Muhammad that fits with their own understanding of Islam.

Some Muslims create peace in the name of Muhammad and others kill in his name. Is one the right understanding of Muhammad, the most “authentic”?

* The books under discussion here maintain the guise of scholarship. Professors of religious studies at reputable universities (e.g., University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Oxford) write them; excellent university presses (e.g., Oxford University Press) publish them; their authors’ academic bona fides are printed prominently on the book jackets and within (e.g., “When I was a student at Harvard …”); and they “blurb” each others’ work on their back covers. These self-styled experts speak from positions of authority derived from their institutional frameworks…

* Despite the fact that the books described in the previous chapter claim, like Omid Safi, to present a Muhammad who “is authentic, real, and recognizable” (2009: 32), they reveal more about the authors themselves than they do about a seventh-century prophet. The end result is that we read about what Muhammad means to the lives of Muslim university professors of Islamic Religious Studies who teach in secular western universities. This is a Muhammad who, like them, is liberal, tolerant, egalitarian and, as such, the perfect symbol of the Muslim in the modern world. In presenting later accounts as if they were contemporaneous, these books gloss over the textual and chronological difficulties that face the scholar of early Islam. Invocations of ambiguous terms such as “memory” or “footsteps” mean that these authors largely eschew any of the problems that face scholars who actually work in this period, whose work they would prefer to remain, as Ernst claims, “safely buried in obscure academic journals” (2003: 97). Those interested in such problems can be written off as Islamophobic (“How dare they engage in source criticism that threatens to undermine Islam’s mythic origins”) at worse or as arcane at best.

* many Muslims and scholars of Islamic Religious Studies regard a skeptical and historical account of Muhammad as invasive, whereas skeptics believe that an account of Muhammad’s life that simply portrays him as the later sources do is biased and subjective. The goal of this chapter is to try to strike a balance between these two perspectives. That is, it seeks to show how Muhammad functions as a trope in Muslim belief and practice, while at the same time speaking to the biographical and textual problems of reconstructing the historical Muhammad. The Muhammad of history and the Muhammad of faith, at least from a
non-theological perspective, are certainly not easily reconciled.

* We possess very little textual or other evidence that dates to the period in question. Since Muhammad is generally considered to be the most important person in Islam, we possess ream upon ream of material about his life and times. However, virtually all of this material comes from a later period that retroactively seeks to project onto the character of Muhammad later virtues and messages.

* After a brief and critical discussion of the various sources that claim to provide us with evidence of Muhammad’s life… The goal is not to take these sources at face value, but to explore some of the potential reasons behind their construction. For whom were they produced? Why? What functions did they serve?

* Although the Qur’an certainly provides us with a glimpse at the changing historical circumstances that Muhammad faced as an individual, it presents us with very few specifics. Moreover, there is considerable debate as to the dating of its final recension. As for the biographies of Muhammad, they present other problems: they were written roughly 150 to 200 hundred years after his death. They are often highly stylized and, unlike historical biographers of the modern period, their authors were not interested in writing accounts firmly embedded in the historical record.

* the biographical literature about Muhammad is the work not of historians or even biographical historians, but of creative storytellers or myth-makers…

* medieval and even some modern European critics of Islam would claim that Muhammad had epilepsy and that the Qur’an is actually a product of this illness.

* It seems that the pool of available converts to Muhammad’s movement in the early period was largely composed of Arab-Christians and Arab-Jews.

* Much like the emergence of the cosmic Christ from the historical Jesus, the historical and supra-historical aspects of Muhammad’s personality eventually become fused and indistinguishable. This Muhammad now became the perfect prophet and lawgiver, the bravest general, the best military tactician, the most liberal thinker, and so on.

* Because his personality is intimately connected to the Qur’an, the creation of a cosmic Muhammad makes perfect sense. This
Muhammad had to be described as living a life of sinlessness (`isma), lest his message somehow be contaminated. Yet, although this cosmic Muhammad may make perfect sense from a religious point of view, the end result of its formation is that it is probably impossible to uncover the historical Muhammad.

* What both critics and apologists share, of course, is the desire to create a Muhammad who functions as a placeholder for their ideas of what Islam is or should be.

* hadiths may well tell us about later Muslims and what was important to them, but become problematic when it comes to telling us about a historical Muhammad.

* [John Esposito’s] assessment is so distortive and apologetic that it borders on the ridiculous. His distinction between Islam (= timeless and preaching a message of gender equality) and culture (= responsible for putting a temporal patriarchal veneer on the religion) is problematic, as is his selective use of quotations from Muslim “feminists,” who reify his distinction with claims that, for example, “both sexes are equal when it comes to performing their religious duties and in terms of rewards and punishments”…

By focusing solely on the “religious” teachings of the tradition, Esposito overlooks the reality “on the ground.” Certain texts have good things to say about gender egalitarianism, so he gravitates toward them, labeling them as “authentic” and making them the essence of the tradition. Meanwhile all those texts that do not support his claims are either completely ignored or written off as marginal or as “inauthentic.” That Muslim women are mistreated—for example, when they are attacked in the street for not veiling in Algeria or when schools for girls are destroyed in Afghanistan—is of no consequence to him and his whitewashed version of Islam because such actions have nothing to do with what he constructs as the “real” Islam…

It seems to me that Esposito can make such claims because, as he sees it, the main goal of the academic study of religion is neither nuance nor engagement in philological study, but to present often highly essentialized data (“Muslims believe …”; “Islam is …”) to policy-makers and fellow citizens… Like many humanists, Esposito makes claims to relevance in an academic climate that is increasingly defined by its shrinking financial and administrative support. In religious studies this often means invoking the mantra that, because many of the conflicts of the contemporary world have a “religious” patina, professional religionists are uniquely poised to interpret the world.1 While there can be no doubt that certain actors invoke religion to legitimate certain actions and behaviors, our goal should not be to adjudicate between “authentic” and “inauthentic” invocations, which is often done, but to reveal the manifold political, cultural and ideological contexts of such invocations.

For example, I do not doubt that Muhammad Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, thought that he was a pious Muslim. And, again, I have no doubt that both his will and the final set of instructions found in his luggage at Logan airport in Boston were saturated with Qur’anic and other legal categories and terms derived from the later Islamic tradition. This is the obvious point. What is of interest is the overlapping contexts that led him to fly a plane into the World Trade Center. How did he come to understand Islam in the manner that he did? How were the various discourses created (I do not want to say “distorted” because this would imply that they have only one, pure, and noble meaning) by him and the larger Islamist movement of which he was but a part. What social forces led to this understanding of Islam? What are the historical sources of such interpretation? How do these social and historical forces combine with political, ideological, and economic ones? Esposito, however, is not interested in any of these features because his intent is to show that Atta is not a “real” Muslim.

* whenever we make our work accessible to a general public, including policymakers, it comes at a real cost. The general public wants sound bites that are predicated on a set of essentialisms (e.g., Muslims do …; Muslims believe …; Muslims act …) that should make scholars uncomfortable.

* Islamic studies scholars who want to take their role as scholars seriously are caught between numerous subcultures. These include, but are not necessarily limited to: a) orthodox Muslim students who reject the scholarly approach and who want only positive things said about Islam; b) public discourse leaders who favor an essentialized version of Islam as under siege from within by perversions of its pure, progressive and peaceful nature, and who want the academy to back them up; c) bona fide Islamophobes who cannot think of anything “fair and balanced” or positive to say about Islam and who feel any positive claims must be anti-Semitic, anti-western, illiberal or all of these; d) students and colleagues who think all religions are basically good, and the same at heart; e) policy-makers who want to use a particular portrait of Islam, or Arabs, to justify one political decision or another.

* I certainly do not want to claim that John Esposito is undeserving of becoming President of the AAR. In fact, given the emphases of the AAR—e.g., on ecumenicism, on crypto-theologizing, on essentialism, and on the application of liberal Protestant categories to the world’s religions—he is a perfect choice to represent the Academy’s diverse constituency.

* I would contend that (1) the highly critical and ideologically motivated attacks against Islam in the media and other outlets cannot be answered by an “expert” account that is equally ideological, but from the opposite end of the spectrum. Where theirs is critical, his is apologetical. The result is further distortion because Esposito sweeps under the hermeneutical carpet all of the real issues that a general reading public wants to know about. The treatment of women, for example, becomes in his hands not a “religious” phenomenon, but a “cultural” one (e.g., 2003: 87). As for (2), Esposito creates a double standard of his own because he treats Islam—for example, his bold claim that he can tell us what Muslims really believe—in the way that no self-respecting
scholar (not theologian) of Christianity or Judaism would treat their datasets.

* In The Future of Islam, which he refers to as “the culmination of my work on Islam and Muslim politics” (2010: 4), Esposito is at his apologetical best. In the Introduction, for example, he recycles numerous clichés, such as Islam is a religion of peace:

“Why do Muslims emphasize that Islam is a religion of peace? The very word “Islam” means “peace and submission to God.” Just as Jews use the greeting Shalom (peace), and Christians greet each other with the sign of peace, Muslims say Assalam wa alaykum (peace be upon you) whenever they meet someone or say good-bye.”(38)

There are numerous problems with this. First, and quite simply, those who want to equate Islam with a “religion of peace” are apologists. No religion is a religion of peace for the very simple reason that religions pack under their large canopies numerous voices, from the peaceful to the militant. To reiterate, no self-respecting scholar of Judaism or Christianity would make the claim that either of these two religions are “religions of peace.” Second, Islam means “submission” (i.e., to the will of God); it most decidedly does not mean peace. Third, how does this square with the suggestion that Jews or Christians use the
term “shalom” as a greeting? I know very many Jews (from secular to ultra-Orthodox) and none of them uses the phrase; I also know Christians and, as far as I am aware, have never been greeted with the “sign of peace.”

* Esposito goes to great lengths, including the performance of ingenious hermeneutical backflips, to defend Muslims. Of the infamous Danish cartoons, for example, he writes that For Muslims, “opposition to the cartoons was a matter of respect for their Prophet and their religion. They see the cartoons as Islamophobic and racist, intended to humiliate rather than extend the same respect that Christians and Jews enjoy.” (2010: 27)

Christianity and Judaism can be and are “humiliated” on a daily basis in the media, on the internet, and in art galleries in “western” society (whatever this term may mean). However, and this is a key point, most Christians and Jews can get over it and they do not go on rampages throughout the “Christian” or “Jewish” worlds. Instead of apologizing for Muslims, as Esposito does, it might be more productive to claim that in the future of Islam (which is, after all, the title of his book), Muslims have to get used to the fact that Islam might also be criticized and that, in a liberal democracy with freedom of speech and freedom of the press, this is the way it is and must be.

* After one finishes reading Esposito’s work, one sees a peaceful and peace-loving Islam that has no room for those who hate or kill in its name. The reason one sees this is because Esposito has effectively sugar-coated the tradition and ingeniously removed all such individuals or groups from the pale of the tradition.

* “Women’s status in Islam is unmatched by any other system,” [preacher Amir Khaled] says, “but we Muslims have ignored these rights for too long.”

* Catholicism does not condone pedophilia, yet the Church’s authoritative and administrative structures create the space in which such crimes can occur. Does this mean that Catholicism is a religion of pedophilia? Certainly not. However, to try and completely separate the pedophilia of some priests from the Church is to ignore the latter’s authority that can create certain conditions that make it possible.

What bothers me in all of this, and the impetus behind this chapter, is that John Esposito is generally considered to be one of the major interpreters of Islam in the West. He advises government officials, is part of think tanks and NGOs, and lectures throughout the world. His neatly packaged essentialisms seem to be precisely what everyone wants to hear. “Religion” as a category is never queried or nuanced; religion, as real and quantifiable, is something whose main role is to do good in the world; is something internal or spiritual; and, as such, can never be co-opted by the forces of evil.

* We know virtually nothing about the earliest centuries of Islam because all of the materials that claim to provide knowledge of this period come from much later sources.

* How can we honestly teach our students or the general public about Islam if we peddle half-truths or simply repeat a set of slogans until we have convinced ourselves that they are true? We largely fail, both as scholars and as educators, if we create an object of study solely in our own image or in the image of what we desire that object to be. This is a form of wish fulfillment, not scholarship, and it paradoxically both results in and flows from shoddy methodological frameworks and unchecked assumptions..

Because Islam, like any religion, does not exist naturally in the world, our understanding of this tradition, in all its manifoldness and synchronic and diachronic complexity, is contingent upon the lenses we cut and through which we look. These prisms are not value neutral, but coincide with the formation of a set of terms, categories,
and rhetorical tropes. All prisms distort and it is up to us to employ those with the least amount of refraction. And the only way this can happen is to be constantly vigilant as to what we are doing and why we are doing it.

* Words are certainly not disinterested or innocent, and it is often the case that larger concepts ride, unchecked, on their backs. Many of the words employed in Islamic Religious Studies, from the most obvious ones such as “Islam” or “shari`a” are not value-neutral (as they are often presented), but sites of contestation around which various regimes of truth skirmish for control. Frequently we encounter, for example, terms such as “Islam” in the singular as opposed to the plural. Or, “Islam” is presented as existing as early as the time of Muhammad, but never the product of later generations who created the legal, exegetical, and ritual components that actively brought Islam (or, better, “Islams”) into existence.

* Terms that are fast becoming the hallmarks of Islamic Religious Studies—such as “gender justice,” “progressive Islam,” “democracy,” “transnationalism”—need, I urge, to be submitted to scrutiny. Where do such terms come from? When were they first employed and, concomitantly, what are their ideological genealogies? What sorts of intellectual work do such terms perform for those who employ them?

* “Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as ‘reductionism.’ This charge is meant to silence critique.”

* Thesis Number One. We must cease treating Islam, Muslims and Islamic data as if they were somehow special or privileged objects of study. “Reverence,” to quote from Lincoln’s fifth thesis, “is a religious, and not a scholarly virtue” (1996, 225–6).

* Thesis Number Two. It is time to identify all those approaches that masquerade as critical scholarship for what they are.

* Thesis Number Three. We cannot make claims about the tradition that are false or distorted because we believe that this is what others want to hear about the tradition.

* Thesis Number Four. Scholars of Islam must not bring the interfaith work they do in their private lives into the classroom.

* Thesis Number Five. We can be critical of Islam and Islamic identity formations without somehow undermining Islam, or being accused of having an “ax to grind,” or being a neo-conservative.

Thesis Number Six. Islams and the Muslim sources that produce them are our data, not our faith commitments.

Thesis Number Seven. We must ask of Islamic data what we would of any data.

Thesis Number Eight. As a social formation, Islam—like any such formation—is not a stable entity defined by readily ascertainable or accessible boundaries that effortlessly moves throughout history.

Thesis Number Nine. Islamic studies must appeal to the theoretical frameworks of other disciplines.

Thesis Number Ten. Finally, Islamic studies must integrate itself with those critical discourses within the academic study of religion that are non-phenomenological.

About Luke Ford

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