Implicit Orthodoxy in Academic Descriptions

By Steven Ramey

The Ahmadiyya movement, whose followers (Ahmadis) identify themselves as renewing Islam, has faced opposition from other self-identified Muslims. Recently in Indonesia, for example, a group attacked an Ahmadiyya mosque because Ahmadiyya teachings did not match their understanding of Islam. While such incidents often reflect local economic or political competition more than differences in belief or practice, my interest is how using labels implicitly reinforce particular definitions of orthodoxy. Labeling Ahmadiyya as “an offshoot of Islam” supports their opponents’ assertions, while describing them as “Muslim” takes their side in the dispute.

While some scholars are comfortable determining religious orthodoxy, and thus who is, or is not, properly identified with a religion, I do not want to take sides in such disputes. Teaching at a public university, my role is to examine the issues and assumptions that inform these competing claims. However, I have often told students that Ahmadis “claim to be Muslim” yet other groups commonly seen as orthodox, such as Wahabbis, are Muslim. Similarly, when I have emphasized that Catholics are “Christian” but later declared that Mormons “claim to be Christian,” I have again reinforced a particular, historically recognized orthodoxy.

Seeing such implicit assertions of orthodoxy as problematic, I have begun to highlight the contested nature of all self-identifications. Making statements like “Catholics, Protestants, and Mormons each claim to be Christian, but some question those claims” fits my role better. Thus, no religion is treated as a transhistorical entity that provides an ideal against which we can measure a group’s practices and actions.

Obviously, applying labels that implicitly marginalize Ahmadis does not directly influence the movement or their opponents, but highlighting the contested nature of all religions challenges common assumptions about religion and reinforces the realization that claims to orthodoxy are debated.

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