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Reflections on the State of Islamic Studies

[Some of the 20,000 preserved ancient Islamic manuscripts which rest in air-conditioned rooms at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali, 16 March 2003. Image by Ben Curtis via AP Photo] [Some of the 20,000 preserved ancient Islamic manuscripts which rest in air-conditioned rooms at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu, Mali, 16 March 2003. Image by Ben Curtis via AP Photo]

I have been asked to share my impressions about the state of Islamic studies in the North American academy. Given that the pioneers of this field include many of my mentors, and many of my own peers have struggled for years to help advance the field to its current state, my observations will not be dispassionate. And since I have been fortunate to have a front-row seat along the development of the field over the last twenty years, I hope I’ll be able to do justice to the current state of the field.

I became a graduate student in the field of Islamic studies in the early 1990s. In those days, almost all of us were “converts”: no one went to undergraduate studies planning to become a professor of Islamic studies. For many, particularly Muslims of transnational background, the usual academic caste options were the familiar: doctor, lawyer, engineer, maybe the always dubious “business.” Almost all of us who entered the field did so by following the siren call of one mentor or another: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hamid Algar, Roy Mottahedeh, Bruce Lawrence, Vincent Cornell, Carl Ernst, Michael Sells, Annemarie Schimmel, and a few others.

My own path was similarly convoluted: I had been accepted to medical school, and turned that down to embark on a PhD. It was three or four years before it occurred to me to ask anyone what the likelihood of getting a job in this field was, or what kind of salary one could expect. Imagine my shock towards the end of finishing my PhD to find out that in 1999, there were four jobs in Islamic studies in all of North America. That actually represented a remarkable improvement over the 1980s, when typically there was one tenure track job in Islamic studies in the whole country. 

The game changer, of course, was 9/11. In the aftermath of those events, the overwhelming majority of American universities and colleges suddenly found themselves without the necessary faculty to “explain” the event to their students, to serve as a spokesperson in engagement with local communities, and to interact with the media. Those are not identical roles, and the list of desiderata was long and imposing. But quickly, the demand for Islamic studies positions went up dramatically: the next few years (until the market crash of 2008) saw between forty and fifty tenure track positions per year. 

There was a substantial division in those days between the work on Islamic studies conducted at the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). Of course MESA was focused on the Middle East, with Palestine/Israel, Egypt, and Iran often dominating the panels. There was also a size discrepancy: MESA has had a few thousand members, and the AAR now numbers around 12,000 participants. But in the 1990s, we often had thirty to forty participants in the various Islam sections of the AAR. To put it simply, Islamic studies was marginal to the study of religion in America in those early days.

Other than the focus on regions beyond the Middle East, it was another major quality that set the AAR apart from MESA: the theoretical emphasis. Most of the AAR participants were committed to situating the conversation about Islam in the broader rubric of religious studies. By the 1990s, that meant taking very seriously not only the post-colonial and feminist critiques, but also the anthropological insights, the work being done in different realms of “theory”, the Said and post-Said critique, and more. The AAR itself had undergone a remarkable range of discussions about how one could be a scholar of a religious tradition (or more than one) and participate (or not) in that tradition in a whole spectrum of sympathetic and critical fashions. The origin of the AAR itself had been in a somewhat provincial setting: National Association of Biblical Instructors. The Journal of the American Academy of Religion had started as the Bible and Literature journal. So to go from studying Christianity (and even then not at a global level) to the largest international organization devoted to the academic study of all religious traditions had required constant adjustment, growth, and adaptations.

It pains me today to see scholars of Islamic studies—in this case I am mostly referring to Muslim scholars of Islamic studies—who move through the discussions of normative/descriptive approaches to religion without an awareness of how much effort has gone into working out the uneasy compromises in the religion academy. I have often tried to direct graduate students in Islamic studies to Rebecca Chopp’s masterful presidential speech at the AAR, "Beyond the Founding Fratricidal Conflict." There are ways for Muslim scholars to navigate their way through normative/descriptive discussions, but they/we cannot do so by being unaware of the history of these debates.

These are not absolute dichotomies. We are not dealing with oceans that never meet. But one cannot simply show up in a classroom of a public or private university and make normative statements that dismiss minority opinions in the Islamic traditions, or worse, dismisses certain self-identifying Muslims as in fact being beyond the pale of Islam. To speak in that type of a normative language simply marks one outside of academia. One has to imagine a parallel situation of an Orthodox Jewish colleague who would opine in class that Reformed Jews are not, in fact, proper Jews. Or that Mahayana Buddhists are not proper Buddhists. Or that Catholics are not Christian. One can imagine a stern lecture would be forthcoming, and quickly, from the departmental authorities. And yet it is still far too frequent to hear Muslim academics dismiss Shi‘a, Sufis, philosophers, or feminists, as being fundamentally deluded Muslims or even beyond the sphere marked “proper” Orthodox Islam.

In other words, the challenge comes when we do not realize where we are. Something that may be up for debate and discussion in a seminary setting—say, Al-Maghrib Institute or Zaytuna or ALIM program or on a Rihla journey—may not be appropriate for an academic classroom. There is an adab (proper behavior) to every location, and it is important for us to observe them even as we push to modify them, adapt them, and complicate them.

There have been some important advances as well, however. Whereas a decade ago there were thirty to forty scholars of Islamic studies, today there are some eight hundred members of the Study of Islam section at the AAR. Whereas the study of Islam was once completely marginal, we have now had incremental growth.

The first presence of Islamic studies at the AAR was through comparative panels dealing with Islam, Judaism, and Christianity under the rubric of the History of Christianity section. Afterwards there emerged parallel conversations for the study of Islam, some under the leadership of scholars like Isma'il Faruqi who were engaged in normative scholarship. Other scholars (led by a number of non-Muslim scholars) were conducting scholarship in a religious studies  model. The AAR scholarship, led by Wendy Doniger,  eventually dissolved both sections, and reconvened them under a new section, titled the Study of Islam in the mid 1980s. The non-confessional nature of the approach was to be marked by the word "Study" in the Study of Islam title.[1] Today the Study of Islam Section is widely viewed as a model of a diverse and robust section at the AAR. In addition, over a three-year period, we had three successful expansions: an Islamic Mysticism Group, a Quran Group, and an Islamic Contemporary Group.

One indication of the rising prominence of Muslim scholars of Islamic studies is that over the last few years we have seen three separate pieces attacking and critiquing the prominence of Muslim scholars in the Study of Islam Section. These have ranged from friendly concern (Richard Martin’s) to inaccurately outdated (David Freidenreich’s) to grossly polemical and simplistic (Aaron Hughes’). Yet the increasing frequency of these attacks/responses from non-Muslim scholars is one indication that something fundamental has changed. 

This growth has resulted in an influx of an unprecedented number of women and scholars of color into Islamic studies at the AAR. The change was almost instant. I remember one year where the Study of Islam Section achieved female participation well over fifty percent. The very next year, there were dozens of scholars of color for the first time, both remarkable achievements. Prior to these two diversifications, the Study of Islam had been primarily a society of friendly male Jews and Christians.  

And yet there are some important challenges: the growth has largely come from Muslims of all backgrounds, though very few of the Muslim graduate students have had extensive training in theoretical debates in religious studies. Compared to other fields, we are still less sophisticated theoretically. Part of the challenge is that many of the Islamic studies graduate students are completing master’s degrees in area studies programs (Middle Eastern studies, Near Eastern studies), making them theoretically ill-prepared to take on doctoral level work in religious studies.

A main reason to argue for the religious studies approach is of course numbers. Even in this age of an assault on the humanities, almost every American college and university has a program in religion/theology. About 10 percent of them currently have full-time faculty members devoted to the study of Islam.  So obviously there is a great deal of room for future growth in Islamic studies in North America. “Near Eastern Departments” are largely an archaic arrangement, mostly in highly prestigious departments like Princeton and Berkeley. These programs featured Arabic alongside Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic and Egyptology and tended to focus on textual and philological analysis. After World War II, the government funding and the emphasis pushed things towards “Middle Eastern studies,” which shifted the focus to contemporary topics, and often had cozy relations with political agenda determined by the Cold War.

Religious Studies programs create the possibilities for scholars of Islam to be an integrated part of the humanities, and a vital part of almost every university in America. For us to do so, however, it will be vital particularly for the Muslim scholars of Islamic studies to avoid the kind of minefields of proselytism that would be seen as violations of religious studies approaches. We can and should situate our own persons, but to do so would mean that we would have to become fully conversant with the theoretical insights of anthropology, post-colonialism, feminism, African-American studies, and other disciplines. Many scholars of Islamic studies are very open to that, but there are far too many who have adopted a polemical attitude which sees these fields as foreign, secular, and Western impositions upon “authentic” Islamic values. The more we situate Islam as being oppositional to these fields, the more we run the risk of self-marginalizing—and ultimately becoming irrelevant.

This is not an argument for political quietism, nor for self-censorship. The field of Islamic studies features a significant number of Muslim scholars—with radically different worldviews—who are brilliant and charismatic. My own hope is that once we as a community of scholars become even more conversant with the theoretical debates, we can continue to become an even more regular part of the American academy.

Lastly, we now see a number of Muslim scholars of Islamic studies who move back and forth between their work at the academy and their function in the community and/or public intellectual activity. In fact, many Muslim scholars expect that they should be able to undertake this dance as part of their multi-faceted identity.  We see scholars like Sherman Jackson, Amina Wadud, Jonathan Brown, Kecia Ali, Ingrid Mattson, and others who have mastered this negotiation in remarkable ways, and one hopes that these models continue to be emulated by the current and future generation of Islamic studies.

The history of Islamic studies vis-à-vis American institutions is a mixed bag, indeed a story in midstream. On one hand, we now have established programs in most of the leading graduate centers in America. That comes after a decade when we saw an unwillingness to replace departed giants: Harvard never entirely replaced Annemarie Schimmel, Chicago never entirely replaced Fazlur Rahman. Many programs were for a while one-man (and almost always a man) operations: Duke, Yale, and Berkeley fit that profile. But that has changed since 9/11. We now see programs with two, three, four faculty members with expertise in Islam at different universities. Some of the more established centers include Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Duke, UNC, Stanford, Columbia, Penn, NYU, Emory, Georgetown, Michigan, and others.

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[1] I am grateful to my colleagues Juliane Hammer and Carl Ernst for this correction.

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