Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity

An Inquiry into Disciplinary Apologetics and Self-Deception

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Aaron W. Hughes
  • Sheffield, UK: 
    , January
     168 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Aaron Hughes’s Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity continues the arguments found in his earlier books, Situating Islam (2006) and Theorizing Islam (2012). In all three, Hughes plays the gadfly of Islamicists in religious studies. He argues that the “majority” of Islamic religion scholars are just selling an Islam which is in accord with Western progressive values, and this is “hailed as ‘true’ and ‘authentic’” (40). These scholars, says Hughes, “systematically engage in the misrepresentation of the complexity of Islam in the service of correcting negative stereotypes and of self-aggrandizement” (xiv). Hughes volleys back that such scholarly productions are constructive theology dressed up as religious studies. “We should not be in the business of distinguishing between what we as scholars personally believe to be ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ versions of religion… The moment we do this, we cease to be scholars of religion and instead become theologians who seek to articulate and disseminate a particular religious perspective” (7). Furthermore, says Hughes, this melding of theology and the critical study of Islam creates a feedback loop which defies criticism. If one does not merely parrot this particular form of progressive Islam, “one risks marginalization as either an ‘Orientalist’ or an ‘Islamophobe’” (61).

Hughes says that this sort of scholarship of Islam by religious studies scholars is overly concerned with apologetics, identity politics, and liberalism. While Hughes is aware that there are inaccurate conceptions of Islam to combat, the products of this combat, he says, rarely amount to more than Plato’s “noble lie” (xiii, 76). The defenses of progressive Islam, which by nature is egalitarian, anti-sexist, and anti-homophobic, are “disciplinary lies, the noble lies, that we must be upfront about. This is why we, as scholars of religion, have an obligation to, put it mildly, not make stuff up” (39). “If we simply manufacture stories that equate an originary and pristine Islam with notions of democracy, liberalism, gender justice and equality for all regardless of sexual preference, we are not engaging in scholarship, but mythopoesis” (xiii).

As a critical scholar of Islam, this reader often wanted to sympathize, but Hughes’s delivery made this hard. His presentation more often than not short circuits his argument and pulls him into the errors he is trying to correct. A brief example: Hughes says that “we need to ask ourselves both constantly and consistently: What data am I using and why?… What does my narrative privilege and deny?” (39). We have canons within canons, and must acknowledge them as human constructs made to prove a case. Naturally, this is true, but when Hughes himself establishes a canon of noteworthy scholars of religion, he edits his own thoughts in order to play the same kind of identity politics he is trying to deflate. Hughes claims that “Islamic religious studies is surprisingly uninterested in… scholars such as Jonathan Z. Smith, Bruce Lincoln, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, Daniel Dubuisson, to name only a few, [who] are largely ignored. My hunch is that this is the case because they are all while males” (19; cf. 53). A few pages earlier, an almost identical list of major critical scholars of religion is given, but this list also includes Tomoko Masuzawa and Winnifred Sullivan (5). Because they do not prove his “hunch” about identity politics, they seem to have disappeared from Hughes’s later list of significant scholars of religion. While none of these scholars are to be disregarded, Hughes does not seriously consider that some Islamicists may not utilize them for reasons other than race or gender. Hughes also deliberately edits away inconvenient scholarship based on identity in his critique of Said’s Orientalism, yet claims that “the main thing [Said] had going for him was that he was a Palestinian Arab (a Christian, not a Muslim) and his experiences as such” (44-45).

These are but trifles, yet they are telling of a larger problem with Hughes’s critiques. They are valuable, but also apply to the author’s own project in ways of which he seems unaware. The larger issue at stake is what an author’s representation and positing of authenticity does. “Rather than portray Muslims ‘accurately,’ such liberal theological representations actually have the opposite effect: they deny real Muslims their agency in favor of some ideologically imagined notion of what real Muslims either are or should be” (42). Positing that a critical scholar cannot make claims about the authenticity of a certain reading of “Islam” or “religion” over another collapses in on itself as the same kind of theological claim that Hughes is railing against. To identify the edges of theology is itself a theological argument. To argue against a canon is to establish another canon. And again, such claims deny the agency of those Muslims who would not agree with Hughes that everything that calls itself Islamic is relevant data. If these scholars are crypto-theologians, then so is Hughes. And Hughes himself agrees that theology is not the issue as much as self-awareness. In the end, one must acknowledge that even the story of the “noble lie” is put in the mouth of an impossibly noble Socrates of Plato’s own (less than critical) adoration.

The problem is all in the presentation. If a critic claims that another’s scholarship is merely a projection of her own personal theology, and then follows that claim with a critique, it is by the critic’s own argument a theological debate. This makes Hughes’s claims hard to affirm. And so the cycle goes and nothing is resolved. No better argument is made. No better critical scholarship produced. One is left asking Hughes, rather than critique the scholarship, why not just make superior scholarship? Gadflies can make lazy horses kick but they cannot breed better ones. Hughes attempts to cut the Gordian knot of theology and religious studies rather than take the time to untangle it, and while this may not be necessarily be Orientalist or Islamophobic, it does not come across as the best use of rope.

About the Reviewer(s): 

George Archer is a professorial lecturer in theology and religious studies at Georgetown University.

Date of Review: 
August 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Aaron W. Hughes holds the Philip S. Bernstein Chair in the Department of Religion and Classics at the University of Rochester. He is the author 10 books and over 50 articles and book chapters. His book titles include Situating Islam: The Past and Future of an Academic Discipline (2007), Theorizing Islam: Disciplinary Deconstruction and Reconstruction (2012), Abrahamic Religions: On the Uses and Abuses of History (2012), Muslim Identities (2013), and The Study of Judaism: Identity, Authenticity, Scholarship (2013).


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