Home > Anthropology of Islam > Towards a Definition of Islam Part 2:Approaches Yield Definitions

Towards a Definition of Islam Part 2:Approaches Yield Definitions

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Towards a Definition of Islam
Part 2.
Approaches Yield Definitions

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq


Praise be to Allah.

As we have seen in the previous article to this series, Islam is variously defined. I offered two theologically based definitions, one based on brief linguistic and etymological definitions as well as another theological definition rooted in aqeeda. Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah. This submission is what brings one into a state of peace, when on takes into account the linguistic meaning of Islam as Submission and couples it with etymological considerations lost in translation that suggest that there is no linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace,” unlike  in Arabic where islam(voluntary acceptance) and salam (peace) and istislam(submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace).

Islam also is: Din, Iman, and tradition. Din, although suggesting a primarily experiential understanding of Islam, encompasses ibadat(worship), ‘aqeeda(beliefs, creed,  and doctrine, and theology), and tazkiyya(spirituality), because belief without action, and action without proper intention is empty in Islam. Iman must be understood as “Faith”, and by tradition it is meant discursive tradition. If discourse is understood as a formal, ordered, extended expression of thought, then discursive should be understood to mean proceeding from topic to topic in a coherent manner. Islam is all these things. The main theme of this piece will be to extend the discussion by introducing the theme that approaches to studying Islam, although coming to the study with operating assumptions of its own about how Islam is defined and should be defined, the approaches themselves also drive the definitions. In other words, approaches yield definitions.

Approaches Yield Definitions

I have divided the approaches I am most concerned with into four broad categories, for ease of discussion: Populist, Academic, Independent, and Insider/Believer approaches. Each of these main categories has many sub categories, and, as with any categorization that tries to avoid essentialism as much as possible, there is considerable overlap of categories. For example, an Insider/Believer approach, although seeking to affirm religious beliefs rather than critique them, can be academic; just as an Academic approach can be Independent, not affiliated with any official academic institution. An approach that seeks to affirm Populist notions of Islam by utilizing an academic veneer, can still be scholarly, even if faulty, and so on and so forth. An Academic approach can consist of many academic disciplines either utilized independently or through a multi-disciplinary approach. Increasingly, however, any approach that is academic has to have a multi-disciplinary approach to be effective. The main Academic approaches I will be focusing on are the previously mentioned Theological,  Typological,  Historical,  Philological,  Literary Criticism, Cultural, Sociological, Marxist, Psychological,  Philosophical,  Phenomenological, Feminist, Modernist(not to be confused with the Muslim Modernist Movement), Post modernist,  and Anthropological academic approaches. Each of these subjects deserve their own treatment so future article will deal with them topically.

The main focus of this article is to briefly introduce how approaches to studying Islam often yield definitions of their own. I briefly introduce this topic by way of an introduction to the Populist approach to Islam. This category of approach will have its own article so this will not be as comprehensive a discussion on the Populist approach to Islam as found there. The reason the Populist approach interests me the most is  this approach to Islam has yielded the most negative images of Islam, and is the main driving force behind Islamophobia as a Social Phenomenon. Its definitions have also found their way into the Mainstream Academic discourse, so it is most important, in my view, to deconstruct this approach, and analyze how the themes of the earliest form of Islamophobia were adopted in the Medieval Period, leaving a legacy to Orientalism, Historicism, Islamicism, Scholasticism,  Culturalisim, and contemporary Neo-Colonialism and neo-Orientalism; all major disseminators of Islamophobic ideas.

The Populist Approach

The Populist approach includes the Historicist/Islamicist, Orientalist/neo-Orientalist, Scholasticism, and Culturalist/Civilizational approaches. It should not be difficult to see how all of these approaches inform an overall populist approach. The populist approach differs from the academic approach in that it utilizes the non-nuanced, often pseudoscholarly, simplified, media-driven and media-reflected popular discourses surrounding Islam. The experience of the masses with Muslims determines their understanding of Islam and Muslims. It is Islamicist when it concerns itself primarily with differences of religion. Islamicism is also a specialty, thought of as preceeding official Orientalism, that dealt with all things Islam in a scholarly way, or what passed for scholarly in that time. It is a discipline regarded as the precursor to Orientalism proper, primarily because the latter utilized many of the themes of the former. However, I use it in a different sense here. I use the term here, primarily,  in the sense of extracting certain themes related to Islam, gained by a study of Islam that is concerned with differences between Islam and other religions, but differs from the work of Missionaries in that it does not seek to promote the truth- value of a particular religion vis a vis Islam.

It is Historicist when it analyzes Islam primarily from a historical perspective centered on relations with the West. It is Orientalist when it concerns itself primarily with Islamic culture, and neo-Orientalist when it combines secular Orientalist criticism, with religious missionary and Islamicist criticism. It is scholastic when it adheres closely to dogma and/or traditional methods of a particular school of thought or is pedantic in this adherence, and Culturalist/Civilizational when it postulates an inferior Islamic culture with respect to Western culture and an inevitable clash of civilization between these cultures.


I spend quite a bit of time discussing definitions of Islam and approaches to studying Islam because I would like readers to get a sense of how definitions and approaches not only yield definitions of their own, but how they drive the discourse on Islam. It should not escape the readers’ attention that Islamophobia flourishes and survives, albeit not completely in the mainstream yet, simply because Muslim definitions and approaches are rejected out of hand; usually with the the concommitant excuse that Islamic definitions and approaches are inherently biased.

It cannot be escaped that Islam is Din and Iman. Islam is both a faith and a religion(yes it is a religion).  In this regard Islam is ibadat(worship), ‘aqeeda(beliefs, creed,  and doctrine, and theology), and tazkiyya(spirituality), because belief without action, and action without proper intention(niyyah) is empty in Islam. Islam is also Sunni and Salafi(not to be confused with the various neo-Salafiyya movements), so Islamic traditionism cannot be ignored and replaced with Islamic neo-conservatism, liberalism, modernism, revisionism, progressivism or any other -ism such as Sufi-ism that seeks to obscure the Muslim mainstream in order to proffer an Islam more palatable to the West, or an Islam that exists only as a reactionary counterweight to the West.

Islam is moderation, by definition, so the term  “Moderate Muslim” is a divisive redundancy; and therefore useless.  The linguistically derived relationship between the English word “submission” and the English word“peace” does not exist, unlike in in Arabic where islam(voluntary acceptance) and salam (peace) and istislam( submission) are all derived from the same root word “SLM” (to be in peace). Therefore it is hard for some to understand that Islam is freely submitting one’s will to the Will of Allah and it is this submission/voluntary acceptance that brings one into a state of peace. It must also be understood that Islam is an ideology, a discursive tradition, and a complete way of life where the lines of sacred and profane are blurred. And finally it must be understood that Islam is not that inherently evil, ultimate “Other” , menacing the West in secret and/or out in the open. This is the beginning of the genuine dialogue.

In anthropology of Islam, Islam is mainly studied by observing and recording practice, placing these observations in a theoretical framework for analysis. This should, but does not always, involve ethnographic fieldwork. I critique this approach of focusing on practices rather than texts and beliefs. However, one major positive development to this approach to the study of Islam and religion in general is that the adherents of a faith, its believers, are given a voice that would otherwise be ignored in a supposedly dispassionate academic study of Islam. How Islam is defined by those who would control the discourse on Islam and postulate the myth of the “Muslim Problem” is the key to understanding Islamophobia as Social Phenomenon, and combating it. Muslims must take some measure of control of the debate and counter the mythologization of Islam as the ultimate enemy to Western civilization, until such a time as Islam’s detractors are willing to meet Muslims on a level playing field and become part of a dialogue between Islam and the West. We are being spoken to and told what our faith is, not spoken with. In order to counteract the echo chamber monologue-type discourse that is increasingly becoming mainstreamed, Muslims must not be afraid to call Islamophobia what is is: an intellectual cop out and a massive case of projectionism. We must educate non-Muslims until they internalize the difference between “threat”  and “challenge”.

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