Scholars in Context: Issam Eido
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Issam Eido (IE): The main focus of my current research is the epistemology of hadith criticism in the early period of Islam among major legal and theological Muslim schools. My PhD thesis focused on discovering the history and methodology of hadith criticism. Since then, most of my research works—including conference presentations, book chapters, and journal pieces—evolved from this field. However, I have recently added another related field to my writings, through which I hope to take the discussion beyond the well-known, traditional path. In the last two years, I have attempted to add the epistemology of testimony as a philosophical sub-field to the discussions of hadith criticism, and have tried to shift the discussion towards a new scholarly focus.
I am also occupied with two other research interests. First is Qur’anic studies and the second is Sufism and Islamic ethics. I have developed the former since leaving Syria and moving to Berlin, where I was a research fellow at the Corpus Coranicum for one year. I then moved on to the University of Chicago Divinity School, where I created a new course called the Qur’anic Arabic. This transition motivated me to study other Semitic languages such as Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. I am still working on these languages and using them in my courses at the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University, where I currently teach. I had previously pursued Sufism and Islamic ethics and resumed engagement with it after being invited to participate in a University of Chicago conference on Islamic bioethics. Since then, I have engaged with the topic in a variety of academic sites and forums.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
IE: These main research foci address two topics. One is the epistemological approaches followed by early Muslim schools, as well as the implications of these approaches in our modern times and how some modern Islamic schools have revived these old methodologies. This led me to work on three major Muslim schools in the contemporary period: Salafism, traditionalism, and rationalism. The epistemology of testimony opened for me a new vista on how these modern and old schools can be addressed and analyzed. But this cannot be done without expanding the nature and focus of literatures; thus literatures such as the theory of knowledge, epistemology of testimony, modernity, and philosophy more broadly must be engaged. Sufism and Islamic ethics have been expanding to incorporate the theories of ethics and virtues in both Islamic studies and general ethics, including the writings of Alasdair MacIntyre. In addition, in order to understand the milieu of the Qur'an and late antiquity, I have engaged with pre-Islamic Arabic and developed some skills to read pre-Islamic inscriptions.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
IE: My research works have been inspired by different elements. Some are inspired by scholarly discussions taking place within my classes or conference presentations, while others emerge from the academic nature of the department in which I work. Divinity schools tend to have a different mission, objectives, and interests than departments of religious studies, history, or Near Eastern studies, namely that they focus on changing the world while the latter aim to analyze it. In each of these academic sites, the researcher is surrounded by people with a specific academic interest and research focus. These elements play a huge role in shaping one’s academic interests and can also be a source of inspiration.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
IE: I would like to reach those who are teaching and researching in Islamic studies in general, and those in hadith studies, Qur’anic studies, and Sufism and Islamic ethics in particular. However, I have already established a strong network with those who are working on the same topics, and in academia there are always new and young faces. I hope my writings on hadith criticism and epistemology of testimony have a role in moving the traditional discussions towards new and undiscovered ideas in the field among traditionalists and Western researchers.