Thinking About Religion
Volume 9 (2011)

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Muftis at the Margins:
Situating Islam within Religious Studies

Mashal Saif
Ph.D. Candidate
Duke University

What is religion? How is religion defined in academia and in society at large? What insights does the geneology of the discipline of Religious Studies accord us in understanding the subtle politics of inclusion and marginalization of scholarship today? In this paper, I use my work in Islamic Studies as a launching point for addressing these very questions. I argue that an examination of my work elucidates the Westo-centric nature of the academy and the politics inherent in the enterprise of knowledge construction and classification. Moreover, I contend that the vast majority of the definitions of religion in academia today are ideologically constructed in such a way that they cannot satisfactorily represent certain expressions of Islam. Consequently, I call for a liberating move that changes the definition and conception of religion and Religious Studies.

Let me now turn to an analysis of my own work to elucidate the points just detailed. I situate my scholarship within the larger field of Islamic Studies but more specifically I study a particular Islamic legal school; the Hanafi school that has approximately three hundred million adherents today. In my research I examine contemporary shifts in legal religious imaginaries and the methods in which Hanafi jurisconsults (muftis; singular: mufti) have engaged with the Hanafi legal canonical texts in the last fifty years. In a recent research paper I focused on the juridical pronouncements (fatawa; singular: fatwa) of certain Pakistani jurisconsults on the state and its legislation. I argued that these juridical pronouncements, all of which were grounded in authoritative Hanafi legal scholarship, displayed divergent attitudes towards the state and employed competing analogies.

 In certain juridical pronouncements the Pakistani state was understood as equivalent to the caliphate while in other pronouncements the state was made analogous to an ordinary individual. In explaining these competing understandings, I argued that the reason for the utilization of these different analogies had to do with the complexities of these jurisconsults’ relationship with the Pakistani state.

On the one hand, the jurisconsults whose pronouncements I examined had been deliberately marginalized by the state and their pronouncements could be read as strategic responses challenging this marginalization. On the other hand, one could make the claim that the Shari‘ah (loosely translated as ‘Islamic law’), as conceptualized by the Hanafi school, does not understand the notion of a corporate entity and the juridical pronouncements were contradictory and anachronistic for this very reason. My research was considered a contribution to ongoing discussions on the evolution of Islamic legal thought and was elucidatory of the oft-discussed relationship between religion and politics in Islam in general and the jurisconsult and the state in particular.

For the purposes of this paper, the vital question that arises is: can my very specific research on these jurisconsults and their pronouncements speak to something larger in Religious Studies? Does any of my work even relate to the study of religion? A good way to start would be by asking: do the jurisconsults who deliver these pronouncements think that they are engaged in a religious enterprise? For these jurisconsults, the term “religion” is synonymous with “Islam” and their answer would be: yes absolutely, what we are doing is religious (i.e. Islamic). For them the Shari‘ah (or Islamic law) lies at the heart of religion (i.e Islam).[1] As alluded to at this nascent point in my essay, the manner in which the term “religion” is understood differs from context to context. For example, when a scholar of religion states that Islam is a “religion,” the understanding is that Islam is a religion like other religions and each tradition is on an equal footing. However, when a Muslim jurisconsult states that Islam is a “religion,” the understanding is that Islam is the only true religion. Christianity, Hinduism etc can also be deemed “religions” by the jurisconsult but they will be understood as lesser/false religions. I use the term “religion” in both these senses in this essay. However, I clarify the manner in which I am using the term in sections where the meaning could be ambiguous.

Coming back to the specificities of my work, the jurisconsults I examine are theologically affiliated with the Deobandi movement. This movement is widely acknowledged to be one of the most prominent Islamic reform movements of the nineteenth century.[2] Qasim Zaman describes this movement as “perhaps the most prominent instance on the Indian subcontinent of inviting people to conform to the “true” Islam of authoritative religious texts.”[3] In addition to their textual focus, the Deobandis maintained a very strong emphasis on Islamic jurisprudence and emphasized “Islamic legal scripture and legal norms.”[4] Barbra Metcalf writes, “the Deobandis thought of their fundamental role as that of mufti [jurisconsults] giving advisory opinions on the Law. No single concern was more central to them than this quest for correct belief and practice in the light of classical texts.”[5]

Obviously then, the deliverance of these juridical pronouncement is understood to stand at the heart of these individuals’ conceptions of religion. However, the enterprise of deciding what does and doesn’t get regarded as religion within the academy[6] is imbued with power. And, at some point the fact that a community or individual states that a certain practice or mode of being is “religious” (i.e. Islamic, Christian, alchemistic, astrologic etc.) for them is just not good enough from the academy’s point of view. If a baseball fan declares, “baseball is my religion,” it is doubtful that the academy will alter its definition of religion to include baseball.[7] We see these debates play out in a more concrete sense when it comes to the classification of magic, voodoo and paganism.[8]

However, unlike magic, voodoo or basketball, Islam enjoys the luxury of being recognized unequivocally as a religion by the academy.[9] Dubuisson argues, and I agree, that this is unfair, since a number of other “traditions” and practices don’t enjoy this luxury of being classified as religion by the academy. But, the question remains: are the specific practices and concerns that I focus on – i.e. the issuance of juridical pronouncements on the Pakistani state - classified as “religion” or “religious practices” by the academy? Let us address this vital question by examining contestations over the definition of religion in the academy.

Thomas Tweed, a renowned scholar of American Catholicism, alerts us to the fact that there exist many definitions and theories of religion. He argues that all of these emerge from, and are reflective of, the specific contexts of the scholars – i.e. the disciplines in which they were trained, their temporal and spatial confines, their external influences etc. Tweed offers us his own definition of religion: “Religions … intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.”[10] In making this move Tweed draws upon a plethora of examples from a multitude of traditions, including Islam, to show how his definition of religion is broadly applicable. Admittedly, Tweed’s demonstration of the existence of similar phenomena across tradition is not flawed,[11] (that is, if one buys into the “comparative method”).[12] However, what is flawed is Tweed attempt to liberate himself from Western assumptions about religion that are prevalent in the academy. In identifying aspects of religion that he considers important, Tweed names, “beliefs, values, rituals, institutions, and feelings.”[13] Another Western scholar of religion, Ninian Smart identifies religion as a “six-dimensional organism, typically containing doctrines, myth, ethical teaching, rituals and social institutions, and animated by religious experiences of various kinds.”[14] I do not argue that these definitions of religion do not speak to certain formulations of Islam, but I maintain that they have very little to say about my particular research interests within Islamic Studies. If we are to take these definitions of religion as authoritative then it appears that the subject of my study might not be “religion” after all, or at best, it is only a marginal aspect of religion. This, of course, raises questions about the boundaries of the discipline and why law and politics are at best marginalized, or even worse, placed outside of its margins. At this point it is important to interject Dubuisson into my discussion to elucidate my critique of Tweed, Smart and their peers.

Dubuisson in his book The Western Construction of Religion argues that the concept of religion is a Western construct whose historical nature needs to be exposed. He states that as an academic discipline, or a branch of science, the history of religions uses Christianity as the starting point and the only reference point for its imagination of what constitutes religion. Moreover, the history of religions expects “religious” phenomenon in other societies to map perfectly onto understandings and concepts about religion and religious phenomenon that are generated in the West (and specifically from within the Christian tradition). With this serving as the backdrop to our examination of Tweed, it appears as if Tweed is doing exactly what Dubuisson is critiquing, especially given that Tweed’s starting-off point for his theory of religions is a Catholic ritual. Furthermore, I think that the bias pointed out by Dubuisson is explicit in both Tweed and Smart’s formulations of their definitions of religions. It is not so much that their definitions and theories are at odds with certain religious formations; it has more to do with what aspects and understandings of religion get marginalized as a result of their definitions. So for example, the sort of work that I do as a scholar of Islam, remains unaddressed (at least in an explicit manner) by Tweed’s and Smart’s definitions. I examine reconceptualizations of Islamic law by jurisconsults given the transition from the caliphate to the modern nation state. Where exactly does the understanding of Islam as being firmly embedded in politics and as being characterized by the law it espouses fit into Tweed’s and Smart’s definitions of religions?

At one point in his book, Dubuisson writes, “Why not put the holocaust at the center of the human imperium, at the heart of every anthropological hypothesis of any scope, instead of making it an isolated phenomenon.”[15] In the same manner, I ask, why not put law and relations with the state at the heart of all our conceptualization of religion instead of marginalizing them.[16] Of course, the fact that these understandings have not come to the epicenter of definitions of religion is telling of the politics inherent in the enterprise of knowledge production; a point that we are constantly reminded of by Dubuisson’s, Edward Said’s and Catherine A. MacKinnon’s engagements with Foucault.[17] Given the political ascendancy of the West and its enterprise of colonialism in the 19th century, the West was able to define religion in whatever manner it chose. Consequently, religion came to be, and continues to be defined with reference to Christianity. Dubuisson exposes this inherent flaw by mapping out the genealogy of the term “religion” and how it has been deployed in Western academia over the last few centuries. Talal Asad performs a similar undertaking in his books Genealogies of Religion and Formations of the Secular.

Asad and Dubussion are not the only scholars trying to make in-roads into problematizing the current definition of religion in academia. Leela Prasad has a similar project in mind in writing her book Poetics of Conduct. In the same way that I argue against the marginalization of law and politics from definitions of religions, Prasad argues against the exclusion of mundane everyday practices from the definition of ethics. Drawing on her ethnographic work in India she argues for the inclusion of practices such as roof-thatching and cooking in realm of the ethical. Similarly, I question normative understandings of “religion” and argue for the inclusion of both law and politics as central to certain understandings of religion.

With the birth of the modern, secular nation state, religion has increasingly come to be understood as a private enterprise and as the antithesis of secularism. However, as both Dubussion and Asad remind us, secularism is not equally the anti-thesis of all religions; it is only the antithesis of Christianity.[18] Moreover, the understanding of religion as divorced from politics is also one that has its basis in contemporary Western, Christian formulations. Asad writes, that unlike the modern, secular world of nation-states… Islam recognized a multiplicity of overlapping bonds and identities. People were not always expected to subject themselves to one sovereign authority…[19] This aspect of Islam is explicitly apparent in my research where jurisconsults situate themselves as legislative authorities in opposition to the state. However, the fact that these issues often remain unaddressed in Religious Studies at large attests to the modern bias prevalent in conceptions of religion whereby religion is understood as personal and addressing matters of individual belief and ethics as opposed to issues of politics and law. Moreover, it is also telling of the politics inherent in the enterprise of demarcating the boundaries of the discipline, whereby certain legal and political issues are understood as divorced from Religious Studies and belonging in departments of law and politics. In his book Formations of the Secular Asad writes, “Europe … is ideologically constructed in such a way that Muslim immigrants can not be satisfactorily represented in it.”[20] In the same way, I argue that the vast majority of the definitions of religion in academia today are ideologically constructed in such as way that they cannot satisfactorily represent certain expressions of Islam.

Dubussion writes, “Our (Western) world in no way constitutes an ideal reference point in relation to which the others can be assessed.”[21] “The preeminence that we attach to theology and to faith, which seems to us so obviously enthroned at the heart of religious matters,” is not always characteristic of non-Christian understandings of religion.[22] In fact, academia’s current “interrogations, claims, and definitions are, quite foreign” to many other religious formulations.[23] Thus, when we employ the term “religion” we need to be acutely aware of its history and hence its limitations. It is imperative that we reconceptualize this term and when doing so, our initial moves need to be clearly liberating; we need to question all our assumptions, despite how strongly embedded they are. As Tweed recommends, we need to be aware of our “dwelling” as scholars and the history of the field of Religious Studies.

When our field has been able to make the break from being antagonistic to the subject of its study[24] to increasingly treating its subjects in a much more humane manner, then it is indeed possible for the field to break away from its Christianity-centric assumptions about the concept of religion. I realize that questions of law and politics are not primary to all understanding of religion; so I am not advocating for the adoption of a definition of religion that places these two issues at its center. But, I am advocating against definitions of religion that marginalize these issues.[25] What, then, is the solution? A liberating move that changes the definition and conception of religion and Religious Studies is in order. One such move is proposed by James Laine who argues in favor of expanding the definition of religion “to that which is most fundamental to cultural identity.”[26] However, another line of though questions whether such a transforming move is possible while we continue to talk of “religion” in the singular or persist in using the comparative method, all the while assuming that there exists an essence and universality to the subjects of our study. As a proponent of such a move, Daniel Dubuisson recommends doing away with the term “religion” altogether and studying the “all-encompassing category of cosmographic formations.”[27] Dubussion suggests that this category will assemble together everything we understand as “religious” in addition to mental and corporeal techniques, symbolic constructions, imaginary worlds, etc. It will subsume the “totality of the global, comprehensive conceptions of the world, whatever their philosophical orientation.”[28] The study of cosmographic formations will free us from the shackles of the narrow field of inquiry that results from our current emphasis on “religion.” However, even while considering Dubuisson’s proposal, we need to pay heed to Tweed’s cautionary words: “No constitutive disciplinary term is elastic enough to perform all the work that scholars demand of it.”[29]


 

Notes

[1] As alluded to at this nascent point in my essay, the manner in which the term “religion” is understood differs from context to context. For example, when a scholar of religion states that Islam is a “religion,” the understanding is that Islam is a religion like other religions and each tradition is on an equal footing. However, when a Muslim jurisconsult states that Islam is a “religion,” the understanding is that Islam is the only true religion. Christianity, Hinduism etc can also be deemed “religions” by the jurisconsult but they will be understood as lesser/false religions. I use the term “religion” in both these senses in this essay. However, I clarify the manner in which I am using the term in sections where the meaning could be ambiguous.

[2] Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982), 266.

[3] Muhammad Qasim Zaman, “Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 1999), 303-4.

[4] Carl W. Ernst, and Bruce B. Lawrence, Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 106-7.

[5] Metcalf, 1982, 140.

[6] By “academy,” I mean Western academia in general, but more specifically “The American Academy of Religion” (AAR). Admittedly, the AAR is not a monolithic entity and even individuals such as myself who resist and challenge the commonly accepted definitions of religion are a part of the academy. In this essay, when I posit something as the “academy’s view,” I mean to imply, “the view held by the majority of the members of the academy.”

[7] Ninian Smart, for example, would be opposed to such an inclusion. However, scholars such as Paul Tillich might be more open to the idea. Tillich, for example, defines religion in a very broad manner by stating that it is whatever is an individual’s “ultimate concern.” Jonathan Z. Smith, “Religion, Religions, Religious” in Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor (Chicago: University of Chicagio Press, 1998), 280.

[8] See Dubuisson for an insightful critique of this bias. (Daniel Dubuisson, The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge and Ideology, trans. William Sayers (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 73.) In addition to particular “techniques” such as divination, astrology, horoscopes etc. being marginalized, we must also be conscious of the marginalization of violence from definitions of religion.

[9] Dubuisson argues, (and I agree), that this is unfair, since a number of other “traditions”/ practices don’t enjoy this luxury of being classified as religion by the academy.

[10] Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006), 167.

[11] Although one could argue that seemingly similar phenomenon in different traditions have very divergent meanings.

[12] Dubuisson, however, critiques the comparative method vehemently, and I am prone to agreeing with him.

[13] Tweed, 2006, 4.

[14] Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience – Fifth Edition (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2006), 11.

[15] Dubuisson, 2003, 182.

[16] I am not proposing that this is the correct method by which to proceed – I am merely questioning why this particular understanding has been marginalized.

[17] J.Z. Smith highlights this point in a very stark manner with regard to his discussion of the term “religion.” He writes that religion “is a term created by scholars for their intellectual purposes.” (Smith in Taylor, 1998, 281.)

[18] See Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Cultural Memory in the Present) (California: Stanford University Press, 2003) and Dubuisson, 2003, 30.

[19] Asad, 2003, 179.

[20] Asad, 2003, 159.

[21] Dubuisson, 2003, 22.

[22] Or even certain conceptions of Christianity, as argued by James Laine - James W. Laine, “Mind and Mood in the Study of Religion,” Religion, (2010): 1-12.

[23] Dubuisson, 2003, 28.

[24] J. Samuel Preus, Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), xiv.

[25] While positioning myself against these definitions, I am aware of the problems of “otherizing,” as pointed out by both Orsi and Said. Therefore, I attempt to proceed in a cautious and nuanced manner.

[26] Laine, (2010), 10.

[27] Dubuisson, 2003, 17. --- I don’t propose Dubuisson’s recommendation as flawless. Admittedly, it has its own problems, such as being too board. However, as I have stressed throughout this paper, a re-evaluation of the term “religion” is necessary in light of the historical baggage that it carries.

[28] Dubuisson, 2003, 17

[29] Tweed, 2006, 39.


Bibliography

Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Cultural Memory in the Present). California: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Dubuisson, Daniel.  The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge and Ideology, trans. Sayers, William. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Ernst, Carl W., and Bruce B. Lawrence. Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Hefner, Robert W.. “Introduction: The Culture, Politics and Future of Muslim Education.” In Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education, ed. Robert W. Hefner, and Muhammad Qasim Zaman, 1-39. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Laine, James W. “Mind and Mood in the Study of Religion.” Religion (2010): 1-12.

MacKinnon, Catharine A.. Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Metcalf, Barbara Daly. Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Orsi, Robert A. Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Preus, J. Samuel. Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from Bodin to Freud. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Smart, Ninian. The Religious Experience – Fifth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2006.

Smith, Jonathan Z.. “Religion, Religions, Religious.” In Critical Terms for Religious Studies, ed. Mark C. Taylor, 269-283. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Tweed, Thomas. Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. “Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Apr., 1999): 294-323.

Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002 


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Posted 03/14/2011

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