Identity, Politics and the Study of Islam

Current Dilemmas in the Study of Religions

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Matt Sheedy
Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation
  • Sheffield, England: 
    Equinox Publishing
    , October
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Matt Sheedy’s edited volume, Identity, Politics and the Study of Islam, based on a dispute between Aaron W. Hughes and Omid Safi in 2014, offers a timely, significant and much-needed assessment of the Western study of Islam. At stake in their debate was—and still is—what is the proper way to study Islam?

The volume is comprised of seven chapters, in addition to the editor’s introduction and Russell T. McCutcheon’s important afterword. Though some of the chapters take the issues raised by the Hughes-Safi encounter and apply them to the study of other religions (e.g., Imhoff on Judaism, and Crosley on Christian origins), the focus of this review will be on select issues that emerge for Islamic studies.

In a chapter titled “I Want My Discipline Back,” Salman Sayyid views the disagreement between Safi and Hughes on a larger scale and seeks to move far beyond the current Islamic studies discourse. Yet, Sayyid presents a naïve interpretation of the field, one that assumes that the politicization of the study of Islam emanates solely from the West (55-56).

In so doing, he practically ignores how Islam—including foundational categories such as Qur’an, Hadith, Fiqh, Kalam, as well as the Ummahas been politicized by Muslims themselves long before the colonial and postcolonial eras. Although Islam has been politicized in Western academia, especially since 9/11, we must not forget that Islam has also been sectarianized, politicized, and personalized by Muslims in the Orient as well as the Occident.

In their chapter, “Rethinking the Crisis of Western Qur’anic Studies,” Alexander Caeiro and Emmanuelle Stefanidis discuss how the Western reading of Islam reminds Muslims (“colonized people”) of the earlier colonial interpretation of Islam which included “anthropology of error, fetishism and myth” (74). The authors also believe that Edward Said’s Orientalism (Pantheon Books, 1978) to a large extent influences the study of the Qur’an methodologically, but not politically (72). They also remind readers that modern Qur’anic scholarship produced in the Muslim world needs to be taken into account—though they ignore the Muslim academia that is politically funded by policy makers.

But surely this already has been going on since at least the late 1990s when Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have examined the Qur’an on the basis of religious elites’ perspectives and their influence on the general public (but not vice versa). Despite Caeiro and Stefanidis’ invaluable effort to draw attention to the relationship between Western-Muslim Qur’anic scholarship in the Muslim world, their contribution is largely Arabo-centric (with only minor references to Turkey and Iran). Interpretation and scholarship on the Qur’an in South and Southeast Asia — largely connected to the Middle East, where the largest body of Muslim communities live, are not considered.

Chapter 4 by Carlos A. Segovia pays particular attention to the two Arabic Kufic inscriptions on the Dome of the Rock and concludes that “both inscriptions, while implicitly witnessing to the official promotion of a new confessional creed centered around the figure of Muhammad as God’s servant, prophet and messenger . . . show that the time in which those very same titles were rather applied to Jesus was not distant enough to avoid some very significant conceptual ambivalences” (114).

Devin Stewart presents the last chapter in which, besides critiquing Hughes, he lists “a modest proposal for Islamic Studies” (157-200). This involves a lengthy process that would see all scholars engage in appropriate philological and source training, among other things. Whereas Stewart argues that methodology “without content” (particularly in Islamic languages) is barren, Hughes would argue that a methodology that ignores social theory and other larger frames of analysis is equally barren.

As one who studied and worked in both Muslim and Western academic contexts, I would say that scholars of Islam ought to combine the approaches of Hughes and Stewart. This would see a balance between sources and languages, and critical analysis of how these sources and languages work in various Islamic contexts.

On the one hand I would push Stewart’s prescriptions even further and argue that it should be applied across Western academia, where many scholars are still not familiar with secondary works on Islamic topics produced in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, [Jawi] Malay, [Ottoman] Turkish, among others. Many important works dealing with Ottoman Turkish or Safavid and Qajar Persia, for example, have been produced by Turkish and Iranian scholars, but are completely ignored in Western scholars’ study of the same topic.

On the other hand, one of Hughes’ concerns is that the works, for example, by Patricia Crone and John Wansbrough, who were competent in Islamic and non-Islamic languages, should methodologically be seen as symbols of critical (and academic) works, which is true when we particularly turn our attention to the Muslim academy, where such works are not (allowed to be) read and, instead, any sort of criticism about them is rewarded.

While such critical work is ignored at best or criticized at worst in the Islamic world, more positive works (e.g., by W. Montgomery Watt and Asma Afsaruddin) are translated and appreciated. Here, the point is political: whose methods and conclusions may meet the expectations of Muslim authorities and universities? While critics of Orientalists want to show how Western scholarship on Islam is political, they refuse to acknowledge that Islamic scholarship is equally political.

The Hughes-Safi-Stewart dispute was the topic of a short lecture series in Tehran in early 2019. This is important because they represent three voices—the critical, the apologetical and the philological, respectively—that ought to form the basis of any critical Islamic studies.

The volume by Sheedy is an important, intriguing and welcome analysis of what is at stake in the Western study of Islam. I only hope that such approaches will be echoed and analyzed (and not marginalized) in other Muslim societies where the study of Islam still largely takes place in a vacuum.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Majid Daneshgar is Research Associate and Lecturer at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

Date of Review: 
May 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matt Sheedy is Visiting Professor of North American Studies at the University of Bonn, and co-editor of the method and theory section for Religion Compass. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, atheism, and Indigenous traditions in popular and political culture.


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