by Carl J. Stoneham
As a PhD student in a U.S. Religious Studies program (now entering the dissertation phase), I am struck by the ‘emic–etic tension’ in the field of Islamic Studies. While hashing out the particulars of the debate requires more space than is available here, it is a familiar tension for those in the field of Religious Studies, and one for which Omid Safi’s article and Aaron Hughes’s response offer an excellent frame. I am excited by what turns out to be a living, breathing example of the so-called “Insider-Outsider Problem in the Study of Religion.” Any of us who entered or completed a PhD program in this field in the past 20 years must surely be aware that the “Quest of the Historical Muhammad” is something of a minefield in early 21st-century Religious Studies. While I’ve no doubt that the vast majority of religion scholars would agree that scholarship concerning Muhammad (or any religious figure) should be rigorous, methodical, and devoid of apologetics/polemics, I doubt that we could find a majority of Islamicists agreeing that it is a consistent practice.
I do not claim to be an expert with respect to current scholarship on the historical Muhammad (my own work is more closely tied to topics broadly—and unfortunately—categorized as “Islam and the West”). That said, it seems to me that in the current academic environment, one writes about the “historical Muhammad” at one’s own peril. I have seen the theoretically-sloppy, politically-charged moniker of “Islamophobe” tossed around with alarming ease by some in our field, who label as “racist” academics whose sole ‘mistake’ is to approach Muhammad as Albert Schweitzer did Jesus. This often ends with an effigy of the (usually) white, Western, male Islamicist “Orientalist” sacrificed at the postcolonial altar, with any serious academic engagement neatly deflected by appeals to “identity.” To be sure, these have been knee-jerk—dare I say “phobic”?—reactions, but they should certainly not come as unexpected for the non-Muslim scholar of Islam.
To be clear, I do not believe that Omid Safi is engaging in such low-brow fare. Indeed, I find much to like in his article. (I am particularly fond of his observation that “one cannot simply show up in a classroom of a public or private university and make normative statements that dismiss minority opinions in the Islamic traditions, or worse, dismisses [sic] certain self-identifying Muslims as in fact being beyond the pale of Islam.”) Nevertheless, I have to wonder about an environment where a senior scholar can, in writing, dismiss as “grossly polemic and simplistic” another scholar without having to at least outline the contours of the case. Perhaps I betray a sort of naïveté here, but the rules of academic discourse are such that demonstration must invariably follow assertion. If the former is absent, then, to borrow Safi’s own words, “that type of … language simply marks one outside of academia.”
From my vantage point as a student, Islamic Studies has become something of a mirror image of the field of Christian Studies. Here strong confessional stances carry a certain cachet. Whereas beginning a presentation at the AAR with “I am a Christian” might lead to a collective rolling of the eyes (it depends, of course, on “what you mean by ‘Christian’”), prefacing it with “I am a Muslim” elicits a sort of awed gaze. But if we are truly interested in good scholarship, shouldn’t both statements be greeted as little more than playing an identity game, having no real bearing on the quality of the work about to be presented? Surely none of us is so naïve as to think that one’s confessional stance and the quality of one’s scholarship are intrinsically tied? And yet, it would seem, at least for some, that one’s religious identity counts for as much, if not more than, the academic rigor of their work in the field of Islamic Studies. It feels as though there is a sort of privileging of the Muslim narrative about Islam, even as we deny the same privilege to the Christian narrative about Christianity.
This brings me back to my original point about the “Insider/Outsider Problem.” I feel that we do ourselves a disservice by not continually interrogating the (ab)uses of scholars’ personal theological positions within a(ny) tradition as academic currency. I believe we ought to approach the current debate over the “historical Muhammad” for the opportunity it is: a chance to study (again) the central tension within our field between religious narrative and academic inquiry. In an academic discipline that is assaulted from all sides by calls for increased methodological rigor, the consistent, rigorous application of theory to debates such as the one between Safi and Hughes might well provide the bedrock we so desperately need (or at least show us that we need to look elsewhere for it). If we truly believe we are important to the academy—especially in a time where the necessity of our presence is increasingly questioned—we must find a place for both emic and etic perspectives, but in a way that privileges sound argumentation rather than clever uses of identity politics.
It seems to be something of a given in our field that the AAR can be a confusing morass of theologians and Humanities scholars pretending to speak a common language. It does not seem to be equally given that the term “Academy” in “American Academy of Religion” suggests a high standard of scholarship and debate. The present “insider-outsider” impasse within Islamic Studies could prove helpful in cutting through this quagmire. We may never answer the question “Who was the historical Muhammad?” but perhaps we can settle for a more “mundane” (read, “methodologically rigorous”) answer to the question of how we rise to a higher level of academic discourse. And though I am not entirely convinced that the “Safi-Hughes Controversy of 2014” won’t ultimately amount to a case of speaking carelessly (academicians are wont to do this), if we are to survive as a field, we must ensure that it really is “just about bad scholarship.”
Carl J. Stoneham is a Ph.D. student preparing for candidacy in the Graduate Program in Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, TX. His work centers around the “distortion of Islam” narratives employed by the U.S. Government to justify military action against self-identified Muslim actors. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org