[For all dates, the group meets from 11am-1pm on Zoom until further notice]
For the 2019-2020 reading group findings, click here
September 23rd, 2020
David Kloos, Becoming Better Muslims: Religious Authority and Ethical Improvement in Aceh, Indonesia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
How do ordinary Muslims deal with and influence the increasingly pervasive Islamic norms set by institutions of the state and religion? Becoming Better Muslims offers an innovative account of the dynamic interactions between individual Muslims, religious authorities, and the state in Aceh, Indonesia. Relying on extensive historical and ethnographic research, David Kloos offers a detailed analysis of religious life in Aceh and an investigation into today’s personal processes of ethical formation.
October 14th, 2020
Ahmed El Shamsy, Rediscovering the Islamic Classics: How Editors and Print Culture Transformed an Intellectual Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020).
In the first wide-ranging account of the effects of print and the publishing industry on Islamic scholarship, El Shamsy tells the fascinating story of how a small group of editors and intellectuals brought forgotten works of Islamic literature into print and defined what became the classical canon of Islamic thought. Through the lens of the literary culture of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Arab cities—especially Cairo, a hot spot of the nascent publishing business—he explores the contributions of these individuals, who included some of the most important thinkers of the time. Through their efforts to find and publish classical literature, El Shamsy shows, many nearly lost works were recovered, disseminated, and harnessed for agendas of linguistic, ethical, and religious reform.
November 18th, 2020
Faiz Ahmed, Afghanistan Rising: Islamic Law and Statecraft Between the Ottoman and British Empires (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017).
Debunking conventional narratives of Afghanistan as a perennial war zone and the rule of law as a secular-liberal monopoly, Faiz Ahmed presents a vibrant account of the first Muslim-majority country to gain independence, codify its own laws, and ratify a constitution after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
January 13th, 2021
Noah Salomon, For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
For some, the idea of an Islamic state serves to fulfill aspirations for cultural sovereignty and new forms of ethical political practice. For others, it violates the proper domains of both religion and politics. Yet, while there has been much discussion of the idea and ideals of the Islamic state, its possibilities and impossibilities, surprisingly little has been written about how this political formation is lived. For Love of the Prophet looks at the Republic of Sudan’s twenty-five-year experiment with Islamic statehood. Focusing not on state institutions, but rather on the daily life that goes on in their shadows, Noah Salomon’s careful ethnography examines the lasting effects of state Islamization on Sudanese society through a study of the individuals and organizations working in its midst.
February 24th, 2021
Johanna Pink, Muslim Qur’anic Interpretation: Media, Genealogies, and Interpretive Communities (Sheffield: Equinox Publishing, 2019).
Muslim Qur’anic interpretation today is beset by tensions: tensions between localising and globalising forces; tensions between hierarchical and egalitarian social ideals; tensions between the quest for new approaches and the claim for authority raised by defenders of exegetical traditions. It is this complex web of power structures, local as well as global, that this book seeks to elucidate. This book provides a fresh perspective on present-day Qur’anic interpretations by analysing the historical, social and political dimensions in which they take place, the ways in which they are performed and the media through which they are transmitted
March 24th, 2021
Richard Bulliet, Methodists and Muslims: My Life as an Orientalist. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).In Methodists and Muslims, Bulliet has fashioned a critique of both Orientalism and Middle East Studies. His memoir also recounts how a young Methodist from Illinois made his way into the then-arcane field of Islamic Studies, became involved in shaping Middle East Studies, and developed relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran, culminating in the controversial visit to New York City by President Ahmadinejad of Iran.
2019-2020 in Review
In the 2019-2020 academic year, the inaugural Institute of Islamic Studies Reading Group convened monthly at the Institute’s boardroom in the Jackman Humanities Building. Building off the momentum generated by graduate students in Religious Studies and Anthropology the preceding year, this new reading group benefited from institutional support, regular meetings, and an interdisciplinary cohort. Together, the group determined a reading list, individual discussion leaders, and salient themes to explore. The monographs chosen for this year were Nile Green’s Bombay Islam (2011), Naveeda Khan’s Muslim Becoming (2012), Rudolph Ware’s The Walking Qur’an (2014), Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? (2016), and Alireza Doostdar’s The Iranian Metaphysicals (2018). These monographs exemplified the diverse temporal, geographical, and disciplinary foci that constitute Islamic Studies. The rich reading list was complemented by the individual expertise of the reading group participants, who each brought to the table their own strengths and perspectives. What follows below is a brief precis of each monograph, authored with the dual intentions of capturing the central questions and themes that inspired each work as well as ensuring that new members can peruse the summaries to ensure they are up to date on the discussion. The reading group will convene again in 2020-2021; those interested in joining are invited to contact Youcef Soufi at email@example.com.
It was somewhat fitting that the first discussion revolved around Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? (2016). The monograph is critical of what it considers to be two representative and widespread theorizations of Islam: an overdelimited Islam (usually Islam as law) and a “religious” Islam divorceable from the secular culture of Muslim peoples. Arguing that both of these approaches are conceptually flawed, the book presents Islam as a process of meaning-making or “hermeneutical engagement.” Ahmed notes that Islam is the product of Muslim engagement with three modes of Revelation: a Pre-Text (the ontology upon which the truth of Revelation depends), Text (the Qur’an), and Con-Text (the collective meanings produced through the history of Muslim engagement with Revelation). The attention to a continuing history of meaning-making brings to the fore unity and diversity, a phenomenon encompassed in Ahmed’s notion of “coherent contradiction.” The monograph draws upon an impressive array of mostly textual, but also material culture, archives across the Balkans, into Bengal, and everything in between, with the bulk of the sources dated to the mid-14th through to the mid-19thcentury.
In stark contrast to the geographical and temporal expanse of the previous work, Nile Green’s Bombay Islam (2011) turns to a very specific city and tradition. Yet, the book is about much more than Bombay or Islam: indeed, the title serves as a metonym for a complex “cosmopolitan and class-differentiated capitalist city” (22) that itself was integrated into broader transnational networks, whether through labour migration or religious forms. The book examines the long 19th century, and argues that conditions of modernity did not lead to decline or even a stagnation in religious production. Instead, producers and consumers of an active religious economy evince the dynamic and central role of religion in the social and cultural life of Bombay. Additionally, this religious marketplace model challenges simple conceptualizations of ‘popular Islam’ or ‘local Islam’. The competitive marketplace undermines abstract conceptions of ‘popular’ Islam by revealing the tangible links between patronage, production, and consumption. Any ‘local Islam’ turns out to be situated within and in conversation with networks that extend far beyond the local. Bombay Islam turns to underutilized textual genres, produced in, around, and about 19th century Bombay, such as guidebooks, biographies, newspapers, and travelogues, across Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English: the very pursuit of these sources as texts in motion, rather than static texts to be interpreted, is in and of itself a methodological choice that adds to the richness of the monograph.
Sticking with the 19th century, we next turned to Alireza Doostdar’s The Iranian Metaphysicals (2018). Doostdar produces an ethnography of the occult in contemporary Iran. The overarching argument of the book is that Iranians engaged in uncanny practices, such as those involving jinns or sorcery, appeal to reason and science to justify their engagements with the occult. While exploring modes of rationality which organize Iranian encounters with the uncanny, Doostdar reminds the reader that the process of rationalizing the occult is an ongoing part of a Shi‘i history that discerns between superstition and al-gheyb (the world of the unseen). Doostdar suggests, in contrast to existing scholarship, that occult practices are a key constituent of the modern experience. Thus, the monograph goes beyond the dichotomy of science as a rational phenomenon and magic as an irrational phenomenon. The group appreciated Doostdar’s grappling with the Iranian state’s bureaucratic attempts to mold its citizenry; such an approach de-exceptionalizes Iran from other modern states and moves away from a focus upon its repressiveness in the post-Revolution period.
Combining fieldwork conducted in several working and middle class neighborhoods of Lahore with a new reading of prominent Indian Muslim thinkers like Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), Naveeda Khan’s Muslim Becoming (2012) expanded our understanding of the anthropology of piety and religiosity. Firstly, Khan moves away from a monolithic view of Pakistan’s Muslim identity. She shows the diverse and protean nature of Muslim piety in Pakistan by focusing on a range of ethnographic material. This material includes disputations among Pakistani citizens in different public, religious, and institutional settings (e.g. in a hall of a library, in a hotel room in Mecca during the hajj pilgrimage, etc.) over the correct interpretation of Islam, constant contestations over ownership of neighborhood mosques, and routine daily encounters with diverse technologies (e.g., law, etc.) of the state. According to Khan, Pakistanis of diverse religious and ideological backgrounds, such as Shi‘is, Barelwis, Deobandis, Ahl-e Hadis, and Ahmadis are in a state of constant striving to realizing individual and collective Muslim piety. Secondly, Khan argues that such ‘aspiration and skepticism’—the subtitle of Khan’s monograph—in every day Pakistan also allows us to appreciate the contested construction and expression of ideals of Pakistani Muslim identity in a post-partition South Asia.
Rudolph Ware’s The Walking Qur’an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (2014) provided our group with the means to focus on Islamic history within an understudied geographical location. West Africa, as Ware points out, has rarely been an academic focal point for Islamic practice or knowledge-production. West Africa not only stands out from the Balkan to Bengal complex that we examined in Shahab Ahmed’s work but is also removed from the Arab world that typically comprises the center of Islamic studies. Yet Ware’s use of extensive archives in diverse languages and his ethnographic analysis into Qur’anic education today highlights the deep intellectual, social, and political impact of Islam on West African lands. Through examining Qur’anic schools, Ware’s study simultaneously shows how West Africa was intimately linked to a cosmopolitan Islam drawing from the Prophet (the first “Walking Qu’ran”) yet was distinct in the political relations between scholars, masses, and rulers. For instance, he illustrates how the West African experience with trans-Atlantic slavery led to Muslim mobilization against the institution of slavery itself. Closing with Ware’s text also offered our group a sense of the various methodologies that Islamic Studies scholars might use in approaching their research subject. Indeed, Ware transcends the historical/anthropological divide that marks much of Islamic studies by making scholars of both fields his interlocutors. For instance, he not only provides a historical account of Islam within West African Muslim empires like Mali, but reveals how processes of embodiment that have long concerned anthropologists working on Islam are also sites of epistemology. In the end, his work reminds us of the shared conversations of Islamic studies scholars across subfields.