Deconstructing Islamic Studies

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Aaron W. Hughes, Majid Daneshgar
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Ilex Foundation
    , July
     376 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If there is one central theme unifying this volume, Deconstructing Islamic Studies, it is that Islamicists need to be much more critical of the categories that we use to study Islam. Consisting of an introduction and twelve distinct essays, this volume pushes readers to ask a series of questions. How do Islamicists know what we know about Muslim history, beliefs, and practices? Where do we have textual and material evidence to support our premises, and where are we actually relying on the assumptions of others—especially “classical” insider voices? Of particular concern here is the way that Western (both Muslim and non-Muslim) scholars unconsciously reproduce different strands of apologetic discourse. Majid Daneshgar and Aaron W. Hughes describe two major (and opposing) categories for understanding approaches to Islam, namely “the polemical and the apologetical,” followed by the more recent “academic” approach (1). While the introduction articulates the contours of the problem, the heavy lifting in terms of solutions comes in the essays that follow.

David Powers’ essay examines the multifaceted combination of legal traditions predating and thereby influencing the contents of the Qur’an. He draws parallels between the Qur’an and Roman, Jewish, and Sassanian traditions, arguing that scholars must see the Qur’an as a product of discrete historical processes. Andreas Görke juxtaposes classical Muslim and modern Western scholarly approaches to ḥadīth (prophetic accounts), noting that while the former group is focused on ascertaining the authenticity (i.e., did the Prophet Muhammad really say what the tradition holds he said), the latter treats every proposed utterance as fodder for applying the historical-critical method developed originally in biblical studies. Johanna Pink argues that Islamicist’s unconsciously reproduce Sunni-centric views of tafsir (Qur’an exegesis) through treating work such as Ibn Kathir and Tabari as normative, to the exclusion of Shi`i and Sufi tafsīrs, and that in recent years there has slowly been a growth in studying non-Arabic tafsīrs.

Following in this theme, S.M. Hagi Gerami analyzes the Maktab-e Tafkīk in contemporary Iran, holding this interpretive school up as an example of highly creative approaches to what some might deem a moribund discipline. Mahmoud Pargoo makes the case that Iranian fiqh (jurisprudence) has effectively been secularized in the modern period because it has moved beyond the assumption that there is only one ultimate Truth. In his overview of kalām, Hughes argues that the term is imprecisely translated as theology, and is concerned that rendering it as such risks implying that Muslim mutakallimūn (theologians)are engaged in the exact type of discourse as Christian theologians. Kalām from an insider perspective is about understanding revelation, while an academic approach analyzes historical and sociological factors because assessing ultimate truth claims goes beyond the scope of what secular scholars can study. In a pointed critique, Hughes adds that much “of what currently passes for ‘critical’ Islamic studies in the Western academy resembles this kalāmic construction of truth claims” (141).

Christopher Furlow addresses the many permutations of `ilm (science/knowledge), specifically in contemporary Muslim institutes of higher learning in the US and Malaysia. Nuha Alshaar demonstrates that adab (belle lettres) is by no means a stable, unchanging category that we can easily track from the pre-Islamic period through to the present. In particular, she rejects the idea of adab as an exclusively secular mode of discourse, viewing this tendency as reflecting the imposition of Western historical norms positing a dichotomy between religious and secular literary genres. Mushegh Asatryan analyzes anachronistic constructions of early Islamic history with an emphasis on the sectarian division between Sunni and Shi`i. In particular, Asatryan extensively argues that “ostensibly ‘outsider’ scholarship of the West uncritically reproduces various ‘insider’ biases found in the classical sources” (205).

Khalid Andani’s essay on the Isma community, with his call that we move from a monothetic to polythetic approach, provides one of the clearest case studies with lessons for scholars of religion (not just Islam). Mahdi Tourage takes on Perrenialism in the study of Sufism, with an emphasis on pairing Rumi with Lacan. Beyond critiquing Perennialism in particular, Tourage uses some of the bawdier elements from Rumi’s Masnavi as examples of why a full understanding of mystical texts involves a close reading of their decidedly non-mystical elements. In what is a welcome rejoinder to those describing Rumi as a font of eternal wisdom in which all of human conflict could be resolved if we met in a field beyond right and wrong, Tourage mines the Masnavi for misogynistic examples demonstrating that “Rumi never transcended his cultural context” (329).

If the volume as a whole is about questioning categories and their underpinning assumptions, then it is especially appropriate that Majid Daneshgar questions Orientalism and its legacy. One of Daneshgar’s most important critiques is contemporary Islamicists largely engage in the study of particular subjects, say tafsīr, without reading nearly as widely across genres (e.g. theology, jurisprudence, mysticism)). The main problem here is that the earlier Qur’anic exegetes who we study today drew on their knowledge of all of these fields (and more) in developing their respective interpretation of the Qur’an. Few Islamicists working today can match the philological prowess of those we deem Orientalists from the past century and beyond, but by expecting proficiency not only in languages and knowledge of history, but also facility with critical theory, we have effectively altered not only the job title but also the requisite skills listed in the job description.

Some readers will disagree with the editors’ central thesis, as well as the particular critiques made in the constituent essays. The tripartite division of approaches to the study of Islam (polemical, apologetic, academic) undoubtedly has quite porous boundaries. After all, few if any scholars identify as engaging in polemics or apologetics. Instead, we apply these labels to each other, and (attempt to) engage in academic discourse throughout the entire process.

Many of the individual contributors are quite assertive about their recommendations, but the editors seem more reluctant to offer a summary judgment beyond their initial observation that Islamicists are guilty of uncritical acceptance of insider positions. In contrast, the individual articles certainly provide a host of concrete suggestions on better practices for Islamicists. It would be a mistake for readers to look up the essays that apply most directly to their particular specialization. Instead, reading through the entire volume provides the reader with the opportunity to assemble a complex representation of our field, including lessons that one could surely apply to other fields within religious studies. That said, even allowing for the fragmentary nature of an edited volume as compared to a monograph, a bit more construction would help harness the creative power and erudition seen in this text. These scholars are all highly invested in providing their colleagues with a course correction, but the volume as a whole would benefit from a comprehensive conclusion of how our understanding of Islam and Muslim communities will change through incorporating this collective intervention.


About the Reviewer(s): 

Patrick J. D’Silva is visiting instructor of philosophy at University of Colorado – Colorado Springs.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Majid Daneshgar is Research Associate in the Department of Oriental Studies at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

Aaron W. Hughes is Philip S. Bernstein Chair in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester, New York.


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