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
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
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).
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
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
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.”
In addition to their textual focus, the Deobandis maintained a very strong
emphasis on Islamic jurisprudence and emphasized “Islamic legal scripture
and legal norms.”
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.”
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
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.
We see these debates play out in a more concrete sense when it comes to the
classification of magic, voodoo and paganism.
However, unlike magic, voodoo or basketball, Islam enjoys the luxury of
being recognized unequivocally as a religion by the academy.
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
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
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,
(that is, if one buys into the “comparative method”).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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
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
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.
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…
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.”
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
“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.
In fact, academia’s current “interrogations, claims, and definitions are,
quite foreign” to many other religious formulations.
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
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.
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.”
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
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
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.”
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.
Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband,
1860-1900. (Princeton, New Jersey:
Princeton University Press, 1982), 266.
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),
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Thomas Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion
(Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006),
Although one could argue that seemingly similar phenomenon in
different traditions have very divergent meanings.
Dubuisson, however, critiques the comparative method vehemently, and
I am prone to agreeing with him.
Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience – Fifth Edition (New
Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2006), 11.
Dubuisson, 2003, 182.
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.
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.)
See Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam,
Modernity (Cultural Memory in the Present) (California: Stanford
University Press, 2003) and Dubuisson, 2003, 30.
Dubuisson, 2003, 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.
Dubuisson, 2003, 28.
J. Samuel Preus, Explaining Religion: Criticism and Theory from
Bodin to Freud (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), xiv.
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.
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.
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in the Present). California: Stanford University Press, 2003.
The Western Construction of Religion: Myths, Knowledge and Ideology,
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Carl W., and Bruce B. Lawrence. Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order
in South Asia and Beyond. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
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“Introduction: The Culture, Politics and Future of Muslim Education.” In
Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education,
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“Mind and Mood in the Study of Religion.” Religion (2010): 1-12.
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