How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

“As researchers, you are all artists, not just reporters of facts” – Dr. John Cameron, ISS

Photo credit :Sabith Khan
Photo credit :Sabith Khan

IMG_2750 IMG_2757I presented my paper on Arab Diaspora giving at the 11th development dialogue, hosted by the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University, Rotterdam on October 10, 11 in The Hague, Netherlands. The student conference brought together 120 young researchers from across the world and despite the numbers, two regions of the world were missing, rather conspicuously – North America and the Middle East. Given this, it was quite ironic that I represented North America, while presenting my paper on Arab diaspora giving. This confirmed what Joseph Stiglitz, the eminent economist shared a few months ago, at a speech at The World Bank that the U.S. is increasingly being isolated on the world scene, when it comes to issues of development.

The issues under discussion during the two day conference spanned the entire globe – from indigenous rights to community development and environmental issues. The thoughtful presentations from the young researchers raised more questions than they answered and most of the participants seemed to agree that this was the right approach – in keeping ideas open, and exploring them deeply rather than trying to get closure, too soon and reaching hasty decisions or conclusions that may not be entirely right.

During the keynote speech, Dr. John Cameron, Associate Professor at ISS pointed out that researchers are like artists, who produce an image of reality, and one that they imagine. “You are all artists, not just reporters. Your imagination is always at play during the process of knowledge creation and one must be aware of this.” He pointed out. He spoke of the responsibility of socially responsible scholarship and reflexivity. Bringing in his own background, he pointed out how his experience of witnessing the racism against Jamaican migrant workers in his native U.K in the early 1960s’ formed his mind about the need to fight these attitudes and ultimately led him on the path to scholarship in the area. Using the metaphor of bridges, he spoke of the three levels in research: epistemological, structural and human agency. He spoke passionately about the need to look at data critically and warned that if this has not produced surprises, then perhaps we haven’t carried out real research.


Student reflections

While I could not attend all of the presentations, given that there were many parallel sessions, I did participate in a few. Here are a few key points from some of the presentations made during the conference.

Indigenous rights in Indonesia : Cypri Jehan, from Indonesia spoke about the land-grabbing issue in Papua. He spoke poignantly about the government’s efforts to take over land and colonize large parts of the indigenous people’s land. This, he framed in the context of governmentality and hegemonic discourse of “development.” “Whose development are we looking at?” he asked, pointing to the hypocrisy in much of the debate surrounding development.


Fisheries management and community based fisheries in Cambodia: Soy Sok spoke about how efforts to form fishing cooperatives in Cambodia have failed in many cases. This, he explained, is because the notion of a ‘community’ is very limited in the country. “Every family is an island” he pointed out, as he outlined the strategies used by certain groups to encourage formation of a social unit larger than the family, in an effort to facilitate and encourage growth in fisheries. He pointed out that while there is the notion of offering a ‘helping hand’ during funerals or other calamities, most of the time, Cambodians tend to think of the family as their primary unit of society.

Communal councils in Venezuela: Juan Carlos Trivino from Spain spoke about the communal councils in Venezuela and their approach to democratization. His framework was participatory democracy. His work involves proposing indicators to evaluate and analyze invited spaces of participation in a state-led model of participation. He proposed four indicators that would measure: 1. Discourse 2. Mobility of community 3. Design of community and 4. Participation of the community.

                While the themes, topics and ideas presented during the two days were all very different, the unifying theme was one of applied research and the need to question the status quo. The notion that we are a communicative species and one that is also relational came up time and again. The need for social justice, equality of opportunity and reflexivity on the role of the researchers was also stressed.