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The Academic Approach to the Study of Islam

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The Academic Approach to the Study of Islam

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq

The academic approach to the study of Islam seems to have major shortcomings, one of them being the tendency of academics to conflate the delimited categories of Islam and how it, the religion, is manifested and understood by human moral agents. In other words, those who study Islam, both Muslim and non-Muslim, tend to confuse the Muslim understanding of the Deen with what is called Historical Islam. A noted Sufi saying, which I will paraphrase here, illustrates this tendency. People tend to mistake the content for the container. Furthermore, , imagine a path and a vehicle traveling along that path. If the vehicle is on that path with no driver,  or passengers of course, the vehicle will not move and observers may notice and wonder how the vehicle appeared as if out of nowhere, from a vacuum. If there is a passenger in the passenger seat, yet no driver, observers may wonder why this passenger just does not take the wheel and operate the vehicle. If there is a driver, then the vehicle is of course capable of  moving along the path. The question becomes, who can be a driver?

What does the above metaphorical description really represent? In Islam, the drivers are the Prophets and Messengers, possibly Imams, ‘Ulama, and “Saints”; the wilaya. The passengers are the regular adherents of the Faith. The owner’s Manual for this particular vehicle, Islam, is the Authentic Revelation(Qur’an). The vehicle is the external aspect of Islam (namely fasting, salat, etc.). The path( Shari’ah), as opposed to fiqh, or jurisprudence is the circular path that begins and ends with Allah(swt). Thus I think it becomes important to make the distinction between Religion, as a way of life and with a capital “R”, when in authentic form and religion with a lower case “r”, as normally understood, but really referring to religious tradition and the manifested externals from which these traditions stem.

Many scholars have remarked that it is actually impossible to study religion in this way, by studying its externals and religious and historically-shaped traditions, yet are averse to acknowledge that the study of religion, by studying only belief and practice, still yields many misconceptions. The human elements, the sociocultural, historical, and psychological circumstances that give rise to the individuals’ understanding of Religion are largely ignored. The Historicist and Orientalist approach, which tends to partially and erroneously separate belief from practice, has utterly failed to yield an understanding of Islam. Indeed many a scholar and so-called expert on Islam have declared that anyone declaring that there is a “true Islam” or a “true religion” is suspect. Yet without a true Islam there can be no false Islam. Both belief and practice, with respect to religion, are actually mutually driven by each other, as external symbolic representations of contact with the Divine. In essence the True Religion does exist and is something much deeper than its external manifestations for a Muslim, as any who have read the Qur’an with an open heart will attest.

But why an anthropology of Islam, then? The idea of an anthropology of Islam( or Islamic anthropology or Islam studied anthropologically by Muslims) is exciting, even if deemed potentially useless. In the wrong hands many issues pertaining to Islam can be muddled. The issue of the difference of content and container as discussed above are not even the most important. The origins of religion and belief, the impact of secularization(westernization?) on the Muslims, control of the transmission of the Message, as well as key definitions important for understanding Islam are critical. When using the common approaches, most of them indebted to Orientalists, we come up short.

Even when utilizing a newer academic and anthropological approach we come up short, not only because of the tendency to artificially separate belief from practice, but because many “experts”, whether Islamophobe, Missionary, academic, anthropologist or other social-scientist, historian, or neo-Orientalist, tend to either treat Islam as a monolith or present the extremist narrative as normative Islam. In other words in these types of approaches we are not actually studying Islam, but “fundamentalist” or “orthodox conservative” Islam, whereby the definition of “moderates” becomes those who have rejected certain aspects of Islam. In other essays I will begin to discuss the errors and limitations of studying religion by studying religious practices and the behavior of its adherents as well as provide clearer more concise definitions of such terms as “fundamentalist”, “orthodox conservatives” and why I reject the ubiquitous term, “Moderate Muslim”.

The only way to study Islam is holistically, so I envision an academic approach to Islam dominated by Muslim specialists, not the usual Missionaries, Orientalists and so-called Non-Muslim experts on Islam, academic or independent. With the unprecedented loss of authority experienced by the ‘ulama, beginning with the destructiveness of the Mongol invasions, extending to dissolution of the Caliphate,  and culminating in  the colonialist policies of the Western powers, we must all endeavor to empower our scholars with the authority and influence they previously enjoyed. We must also be ready to accept a new branch of ‘ulama, adequately equipped to deal with the issues and challenges modernity presents;  Islamic anthropologists.

Categories: Anthropology of Islam
  1. June 18, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Yes! Brilliant thoughts!

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