Words of Experience
Translating Islam with Carl W. Ernst
Series: Comparative Islamic Studies
- ISBN: 9781781799109
- Published By: Equinox
- Published: October 2020
After 9/11, increased public interest in Islam has resulted in new debates on how Islamic studies should be taught in the Western academy. Despite the paradigm shifts resulting from critiques of essentialist and Orientalist approaches to Islam, critical questions persist on the nature of Islamic studies. What topics and methods are acceptable? How central is the Arabic language? Do Islamic studies specialists have responsibilities to the public that exceed scholarship and specialized instruction? Words of Experience: Translating Islam with Carl W. Ernst, a festschrift dedicated to Ernst, attends to these questions while directing avenues for future research. Consequently, the forward-looking anthology contains contributions from established academics, early-career scholars, and even graduate students finishing their doctoral work.
Bruce Lawrence, Ernst’s longtime colleague, offers a conceptual framing in the introduction that structures the text into two parts: “Carl Ernst as Shaykh al-Qabd” and “Carl Ernst as Shaykh al-Bast.” In Sufi nomenclature, qabd and bast refer to the spiritual states (aḥwāl) of contraction and expansion. Thus, part 1 covers more “contained” (or contracted) themes found in Ernst’s writings revolving around notions of syncretism and essentialism, Islam in South Asia, the history of Sufism, and Islamophobia. Part 2 is less “bounded,” and more oriented toward methodology, reflexivity, and institutionalism.
In part 1, Brannon Ingram grapples with a core question in religious studies: whether the English word “religion” is universally translatable. Centered on Islamist thinker Abul Alā Mawdūdī’s writings on the term “religion” and its Arabic counterpart dīn, Ingram shows how Mawdūdī’s rejection of that equivalence is undermined epistemologically and semantically through his unwitting acceptance of “modernity's categories” (30). Instead, Ingram challenges religion-dīn equivalence using Ernstian logic that emphasizes the messiness of religion. Ali Altaf Mian, in his contribution, validates Ernst's claims about the colonial-era emergence of a singular Hinduism through his readings of Indian Muslim translations of Hinduism and their “colonial discursive paradigms” (41). Mian’s essay also brings attention to interesting Muslim-Hindu proximities in its depiction of Ahl-i Hadith readings of Vedic passages and the varying modes of critique in interreligious entanglements.
Essays by Joy and James Laine on Sufism and yoga and Michael Muhammad Knight on African American Sufism take up Ernst’s critique of generic definitions. As the Laines assert, to understand relationalities between terms (Islam, Hinduism, Sufism, yoga, etc.), we have to understand what definitions are being utilized. Following Ernst, the Laines demonstrate how what we call “influence” is an external imposition that detracts from the “intentionality” (Ernst’s term) and agency of a cultural tradition or practitioner. Collectively, these two essays follow Ernst’s spurning of analytic categories in religious studies—influence, syncretism, religion, etc.—that obscure more than they reveal.
Closing out part 1, essays by Frederick Colby and Samah Choudhury deal with problems of genre conventions in Sufi studies (Colby) and Islamophobia (Choudhury). Colby’s study of the dream experiences of Ibn Abī Jamra resonates with problems of historiography—namely, how to locate meaning in historical narratives outside of the modern fact vs. invention binary. Then, Choudhury centers her essay on Ayad Akhtar’s play Disgraced, using it to illustrate how Western obsessions with classifications and “rational” understandings, a core occupation of Ernst, leads to what she calls “the pathologized Muslim” (124).
The first three essays of part 2 further engage with issues in Sufi studies. Katherine Pratt Ewing sheds light on how agency and materiality in Sufi practice are reconceptualized in Islamist thought in ways that mirror Ingram’s analysis of Mawdūdī. Similarly, Ewing writes that reformist critiques of Sufi rituals are still inflected with “secular and scientific worldviews” and their underlying classificatory and relational systems (144). The positivist penchant for the classification of religions, or what Ernst calls “comparative zoology,” is also a central occupation of F. Cangüzel Güner Zülfikar. Zülfikar shifts the lens to Turkey to examine how Ernst's multidisciplinary methodology can benefit Sufi studies in Turkey in its emphasis on informing rather than classifying. For his part, Robert Rozehnal probes the intersection of Sufism and technology, specifically the cyber imprint of the Inayati Order and its remaking of sacred digital space.
The final four essays of part 2 shift to issues of reflexivity, methodology, and institutionalism. Brannon Wheeler, following Ernst’s earlier ethnographic reflections, poses the question of how a researcher reconciles knowledge of religious texts with the experiences of practitioners. Surveying an eclectic range of medieval empiricists, orientalists, and esoterics and their approaches to the study of religion and philology, Wheeler concludes that scholars should focus less on what practitioners think of texts and more on how a text “affects us as the reader” (220). Candace Mixon attends to Ernst’s institutional legacy and the importance of global networking and public scholarship. Similarly, Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst develops a category she calls “performing Islamic studies,” focusing on how to bridge the gap between the public and the academy as well as the inherently political nature of Islamic studies. Morgenstein Fuerst’s tour de force essay is a critical intervention into “public-facing scholarship” that clarifies many of the questions posed at the outset of this review. Her recommendations on how to navigate the dynamics of the field will benefit not just Islamic studies specialists, but humanities researchers broadly. Lastly, Katie Merriman’s contribution further reinforces the practical importance of collaboration in decolonizing methodologies and resisting Eurocentrism in Islamic studies.
Overall, this edited volume is an outstanding tribute to Ernst and his legacy. Many of the themes in this collection intersect with key dimensions of Ernst’s work, especially Ernst’s rejection of syncretism and his scrutiny of definitions. However, one wonders about the missed opportunity to solicit an essay that devises better solutions to these limitations for humanities interpreters. Religious studies scholars are acutely aware of how certain positivist or secular categories and terms offer limited analytic value, but what definitions do we have left to work with? For instance, due to its ambiguous nature, can terms like “religion” still be made useful by expanding their semantic scope? Another minor critique is that the collection might offer better clarity on how the qabd-bast (contraction-expansion) segmentation functions both organizationally and intellectually.
As a whole, Words of Experience showcases tremendous expertise in Islamic studies and pathways for future inquiry. With its emphasis on methodology, reflexivity, and public engagement, this collection might also serve as a useful reference for the academic study of religion broadly. As Morgenstein Fuerst notes about what it means to perform Islamic studies, this collection illustrates “how one exists and ought to exist in the academy” (252). For that reason, Words of Experience will be an invaluable resource for humanities and social science students for years to come.
Adam Z. Matvya is an incoming PhD student in history at the University of Notre Dame.Adam MatvyaDate Of Review:May 31, 2022