Over the years, several edited volumes have wrestled with the interdisciplinary project of studying Islam and Muslims. Leif Stenberg and Philip Wood’s recent contribution to this microgenre asks the basic question: What is Islamic Studies? The subtitle, European and North American Approaches to a Contested Field, declares that the answer will not be straightforward. In nine chapters, authors based primarily in the United Kingdom and the United States attempt to delineate what we talk about when we talk about Islam—and what we talk about when we talk about Islamic Studies.
Steinberg and Wood are centrally focused on “how and why Islamic studies has been distanced from religious studies, and how the study of Islam and Muslims might benefit from a closer engagement with religious studies” (1). Their other main concern is “so-called ‘identity politics’” (5), to which they and most of the contributors are decidedly unsympathetic—a move that takes on new salience when the invitation for the workshop that led to the volume considers “Muslimness and Islam” alongside “other forms of identitarian politics (class, gender, and nation)” (192). Identity, and in particular the identity of scholars, is a frequent preoccupation, sometimes quite helpfully addressed, as with the term “academics from Muslim backgrounds” in place of “Muslims” (43). Although religious identity gets a fair bit of attention, class, nation, and gender are largely sidelined. Despite prominent references in the introduction (6, 9-10, 17-8, 19, 24-25), the editors essentially delegate the work of discussing the place of gender and feminism to Juliane Hammer, whose arguments, in the only chapter in the book written solely by a woman, they deem “provocative and interesting,” but about whose “normative project” they evince considerable skepticism (24, 25).
Most of the book’s chapters focus closely on religious studies theory and questions, with resonant and repeated references to a cluster of North American male academics, including Shahab Ahmed, Talal Asad, Russell McCutcheon, Brent Nongbri, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Not all of these figures center Islam in their work; Bruce Lincoln shows up more often than Bruce Lawrence. In his chapter, Aaron Hughes points out correctly that “‘Islam’ as a category is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, and it is as problematic as it is helpful” (33). In their chapter, Susanne Olson and Leif Steinberg largely concede the point, but argue for the utility—indeed the necessity—of terms and categories like “‘religion,’ ‘Islam,’ [and] ‘Muslim’” (83) for the critical study and teaching of religion. Those focused on questions of categorization and terminology will find the volume as a whole useful, and those interested in power and critique within and beyond religious studies will benefit from Hammer’s exploration of the “inherently positional and political” nature of scholarship, especially but not only on gender (193).
Those whose work touches more lightly on questions of definition may find the chapters that use concrete cases as a means of refining approaches particularly engaging. For instance, Shahzad Bashir’s attentive investigation of an Indian chronicle in Persian from 1863 shows clearly an “everchanging vision of the Islamic past,” which, he argues (making a generalizable claim in keeping with the methodological concerns of the volume), “was as unfixed in the ninth century CE as it may appear in a work produced in the nineteenth century” (185). Jonas Otterbeck’s analysis of “the Islam expressed by the artist persona of Zain Bhikha,” a South African singer of “pop nashid” songs and videos (107, 106), aims to illustrate “how a new expression in relation to the discursive tradition” theorized by Asad “can be included through negotiation” (123). Otterbeck’s chapter as well as Hammer’s might work well in an advanced undergraduate classroom.
Before closing, I must mention the utterly inadequate nature of most contributors’ approach to women’s scholarship and to scholarship on gender and sexuality. Nearly all chapters in the collection persistently exclude the work of scholars who aren’t men. One chapter’s only substantive engagement with a woman scholar appears when criticizing Shahab Ahmed’s book, to which it attends at length, for not considering Fatima Mernissi’s work (93). In a particularly ironic touch, despite the extensive secondary literature by women on Mernissi and her oeuvre, the footnote cites only a male-authored book in which Mernissi is not the primary topic. A chapter on Islam and science focuses on men, men, men—then notes briefly that “the gender aspect” could do with further study as if a) men didn’t have gender and b) there weren’t women the author himself could have discussed (148-49).
And while the contributors largely deem specialist theoretical contributions to religious studies worth parsing at length, with explicit on-page appeal to individual thinkers and their ideas, the smart gender analysis that occasionally appears (e.g., 162) does so without any reference to the scholars, usually women, who have developed the relevant methodological, theoretical, and analytical frameworks. Instead of mentioning, for instance, Nadia Maria El Cheikh’s Women, Islam, and Abbasid Identity (Harvard University Press, 2015) on the use of stereotypes about loose Christian women as part of marking Muslim communal boundaries, the author simply asserts it.
Of course, one cannot cite everything, and it is certainly the case that any collection will necessarily draw boundaries, highlighting some themes and relegating others to the background. Still, in trying to answer its titular question, the territory the volume maps is disappointingly male-dominated, in ways that lessen its utility for the field and those of us in it.
Kecia Ali is professor of religion at Boston University.
Date Of Review:
March 21, 2023
Leif Stenberg is Dean and Professor of Islamic Studies at The Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations. Between 2010 and 2019 Stenberg was President of the Nordic Society of Middle Eastern Studies and he is currently a member of the World Congress of Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES) Council and vice-president of the European Association for Middle Eastern Studies (EURAMES). He is the editor of numerous books including: Syria from Reform to Revolt Vol. II: Culture, Society and Religion (co-edited with Salamandra, Syracuse University Press, 2015) and Navigating Contemporary Iran: Challenging Economic, Social and Political Perceptions (co-edited with Hooglund, Routledge, 2012).
Philip Wood is Professor of History, Aga Khan University, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations. His research focuses on Christians and Muslims in the Middle East c500-1000 and he is particularly interested the role of history-writing and hagiography in reflecting and asserting social boundaries. Wood is the author of The Chronicle of Seert: Christian Historical Imagination in Late Antique Iraq (OUP, 2013) and editor of the volume History and Identity in the Late Antique East (OUP, 2013). His next monograph, The Imam of the Christians: The World of Dionysius of Tel-Mahre c.750-850, is under contract for 2021 with Princeton University Press.
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