Sticking a Pin into the Inflated Castle of Knowledge about Islam

January 15, 2018

Is our academic knowledge about Islam based on the somewhat dubious principle of: the more it is repeated, the truer it is?

Bouncy Castle near Bognor Regis pier by Paul Gillett, CC.

Bouncy Castle near Bognor Regis pier by Paul Gillett, CC.

Clash of Disciplines: Everyday vs. Scripted Religion  

Ever since I was an undergraduate I have been puzzled by the idea that any academic or aspiring academic could believe that there is only one single way of acquiring knowledge about a phenomenon. As a student of the history of religion, I was baffled by what I considered the over-focusing on scripture and exegesis. What about lived religion, I wondered? I also remember that I thought that there was not enough focus on diversity within one tradition or on the multitude of possible interpretations of religious sources.  Similarly, as a student of social anthropology I was surprised by the strong emphasis on religious rituals far removed from scripture. To me it seemed much more fruitful, to combine these approaches.

Locating Religion in the Field

As I embarked on my first big research project I incorporated the critique of my disciplinary training into my research design. I opted to combine text studies with anthropological fieldwork. My research was about the new Egyptian divorce law called Khul’ (2000) which allowed a woman to unilaterally divorce her husband. I was determined to find out whether the Islamic sources about marriage and gender ‘everybody’ frequently referred to in academic studies and in the public debate about - Khul’ -  were at the tip of anybody’s tongue in everyday conversations about marriage and divorce, in Cairo. I was eager to collect any oral lay interpretations of relevant passages in the Quran or hadiths I might stumble across while doing fieldwork.

A key fieldwork discovery was that the usual Quranic verses cited in studies about gender and Islam did not feature much in every day conversations about marriage and divorce. In contrast, the hadith often classified as being about Khul’ was referred to frequently. This is no doubt related to the narrative qualities of a hadith: it is a tale about particular people in situations where specific things were either said or done. As such, a hadith is a much easier format to integrate into an ordinary conversation. It is also a story that it is easier to tell - and embellish on - in colloquial Egyptian Arabic. It is through my fieldwork that I came across a fascinating a spectrum of variants of the so-called Khul’ hadith. Certain elements were either added, emphasised, or downplayed in these oral re-mediations, rendering the tale either more dramatic, drab, comic or tragic. At the time, written academic discussions and public debates showed no sign of there being such a wide variety of stories attributed to hadiths or Khul’.

Hypothesising about Egalitarian Readings of Islamic Sources

I was genuinely curious about whether the Quran verses served as a ‘natural’ point of reference or not in every day life.  I discovered that for a notable few, these passages served as a reference point that was brought into the conversation without my explicit probing. But, for most of my research participants, I had to produce a copy of the Quran verses at the very end of the interviews – and ask them to read and spontaneously interpret the verses in question – an activity they undertook with more or less flair (and enthusiasm).

Many readers may be aware of the fact that Muslims who do not speak (or read) Arabic may struggle to understand the contents of the Quran, or rely heavily on various translations from Arabic.  But, it is perhaps less common knowledge that even Muslims with Arabic as a first language may have no clue what they are reciting or reading. This is because the Arabic in the Quran is archaic and very different from both most spoken Arabic colloquial dialects (which in turn vary considerably) and the constructed modernized and standardized (written) Arabic (MSA). Before setting out for fieldwork my hypothesis had been that: 1) women with less education would find the Arabic in the Quran pretty incomprehensible and hence rely heavily on traditional patriarchal  interpretations, 2) women with higher/fluent command of classical Arabic would be able to interpret the sources on their own, and hence produce more gender egalitarian interpretations. 

Oral Transmission of Feminist Readings of Islamic Sources

I was in for a surprise. While I discovered that some of the highly educated women with a high command of classical Arabic did in fact employ their fluency to wield egalitarian or feminist interpretations of the Quran, and expressed great confidence about their direct engagement with the Islamic sources - others with a high command of classical Arabic expressed hesitation to engage with the text directly – and believed that this task had to be left to religious scholars only. They expressed fears about leading others a stray with their possibly erroneous lay interpretations. The biggest surprise was discovering that some of the women with lower income professions and far less proficiency in classical Arabic provided very egalitarian readings of the Quranic verses. When discussing their interpretations further it became evident that their interpretations were strongly influenced by an Islamic Sources Course for women at a particular mosque, which they had attended, and through listening to particular preachers or sermons. My fieldwork showcased how egalitarian interpretations also circulate through oral interpretations via mosque courses and a variety of oral sermons. A number of studies have since, documented the influence of oral sermons  in cassettes and more recently through online videos or websites

Shaking an Inflated Castle of Knowledge 

I remember being somewhat puzzled by the academic postulate that the door to reinterpretation of scripture (bab al-ijtihad) was allegedly eternally closed in Sunni Islam. I found this hard to accept. Intuitively, this made no sense to me. Both what I read and saw with my own two eyes contradicted this. I was struck by how most sources cited the same original source namely ‘An Introduction to Islamic Law’ by Joseph Schacht

It seemed that this book was ‘the bible’ of Islamic studies. As I dug deeper, it increasingly seemed as if a star scholar’s theory was being cited over and over again as if it was a fact. It was an inflated castle of knowledge, and all you needed to do was stick a pin in it for it to fall down. But still, I wondered if I was delusional, who was I to go up against the grand pyramid of agreed upon truth, that was cited in all the studies we had on our curriculum? But, I could not let it go. My fieldwork in Cairo showed that nobody I talked to had heard of the door of ijtihad ever being shut. The task of single handedly taking down this theory when I was a very young if driven graduate student was somewhat daunting. 

Shattering Authoritative Understandings of Islam

I searched high and low for anyone with better academic credentials than myself that I could lean on to question the postulate that the door to ijtiihad had been shut. After an intensive search, buried away in an encyclopaedia that was too expensive for anyone but a faculty library to own, and far too expensive for me to check out of the library, I found an entry that suggested that the door to ijtihad may not have ever been firmly shut, but rather left a jar. Eventually, I also came across the work of Wael Hallaq, and discovered that he was asking very similar questions to the ones I was, but at the time this research was not as easily accessible as it is now. I was thus able to back up my suspicion that the door to ijithad was perhaps not all that closed in Sunni Islam despite a mountain of studies that suggested the contrary.

Similarly, I was bewildered by the fact that a number of studies provided stats that suggested that the majority of Muslims wanted to implement Shari’a – as if the latter a was a clearly defined entity.  Armed with my fresh academic frustration, and in an attempt to fuse the field with the books I was reading, I asked my Egyptian research participants how they defined Shari’a. Their answers departed completely from the typical academic definitions of Shari’a as ‘Islamic law’. Instead, they spoke of Shari’a as a utopian time and place devoid of crime, hunger and suffering. These ideas are reminiscent of modernist reformist thinking and have (since) flourished in tact with the spread of Islamist ideology.

The Politics of Academic Knowledge About Islam

My personal interest in documenting a multitude of interpretations of Islamic sources stemmed from the prerequisite that Egyptian family law must be guided by Islamic sources. Yet, despite similar perquisites in other Middle Eastern countries, various interpretations of the same Islamic sources led to very different codifications of laws in different countries. Thus the idea that Shari’a be classified as ‘God’s law’ or ‘law’ seemed ludicrous to me. Not only is Shari’a not a particular set of books or a single book, but the fact that whatever is deemed its content can be interpreted in multiple ways makes it very much ‘people’s law’ – and very far from God’s law.  The perception of family law as directly derived from divine sources or God, makes family law reform particularly challenging and fraught with accusations of reforms being labelled ‘un-Islamic’. I have therefore been of the conviction that it is of utmost importance that scholars of social sciences and humanities do not uncritically re-circulate the erroneous conception of Shari’a as a fixed entity of law texts that are from God. Apart from being an inaccurate definition, classifying Shari’a as ‘God’s law’ plays into local politics, hampers legal reform, and may potentially negatively effect people’s personal lives in very real ways.

Living vs. Thinking Religion

Written and oral interpretations and lived experiences of religion have continued to interest me academically. As part of my extensive study of Islam Online I examined the multiple ways in which Islamic principles were fused with secular counselling models, with the intention of providing people with tangible guidance in their every lives. I also constructed the analytical distinction between living vs. thinking Islam in order to distinguish between the ways in which Arabic and English language counselling essays were penned in very different styles that emphasised either every day life or abstract ethical principles, but seldom both.

Too much Islam in the Study of Islam?

Luckily, the fields of anthropology and history of religion have evolved since I was a student, and the lines between the two are now far more blurred.  Today anthropologists work with texts as much as they work with religious practices or everyday expression of non-religion, and historians of religion conduct field studies. Triangulation of methods is encouraged across multiple fields. The main concern in contemporary studies about Islam is in my view what the anthropologist Samuli Scheilke has elegantly identified as there being  ‘too much Islam in the anthropology of Islam’. The fact that there are so many studies on the most pious and conservative Muslims certainly threatens both our understanding of diversity – but also may produce skewed theories about religiosity that do not factor in that many Muslims are equally shaped by secular thought, or may live their everyday lives largely devoid of religious thought.