by Ruth Mas
Editor’s note: This post is part of a broader conversation on scholarship in Islamic Studies that was sparked by two recent articles, one by Omid Safi and one by Aaron Hughes. The Bulletin will be hosting a series of scholars in Islamic Studies weighing-in on this topic, so please stay tuned!
You may gather from the question that my title poses that I got Stuart Hall quite wrong when he argued that to ignore the politics of intellectual work was to be let off the hook by theory. But, like all good arguments, Hall’s is more complicated, more nuanced. The reason that I pose the question from the other side, so to speak—the side that believes you cannot cultivate political practice without also cultivating reflection—is because there is something unrelenting and forceful which is at stake in the study of Islam and, above all, because there has been no way of getting around its political aspects in the last decade and a half. I suspect that as a consequence, all of us for whom the study of the Islamic tradition in the field of Religious Studies is a serious intellectual practice feel guilty that the work we do has hardly changed the conditions of the lives of Muslims around us. Being a scholar of the Islamic tradition in these times has pushed many of us into defending political positions, often in very public ways, and to argue for the manner in which we have staked them within and outside the field. And for many the production of critical knowledge as a political practice is embattled and precarious. But what happens when, overcome by a desire to make a difference and to have some effect on the world, politics takes the place of intellectual work? This is still Hall’s question but let me pose it differently: Has the formulation of political projects, stances and questions that we hope will intervene in the world let us off the hook theoretically?
A recent debate between Aaron Hughes and Omid Safi couldn’t make the stakes of this question any clearer. Their exchange and the responses that have weighed in through various fora are a testament to the instability of the field, its lack of simple origins and its many trajectories. Islamic Studies has always been in a state of interruption and disruption by political forces that usher in new ideas and new spaces for theoretical work but perhaps none has been so fracturing on the field as the events of September 11, 2001. The urgency that it has fabricated and even forced on us as scholars has made our struggle to establish the space that connects critical reflection to politics seem insurmountable. And yet, as Hughes and Safi know, these issues did not originate with the attacks on the Twin Towers in NYC. It should go almost without saying that this event has marked the field in significantly different ways than it has other fields and this difference merits attention so that we can be clear about the critical projects that we want to produce. The fact that September 11 was able to exert such pressure on the field has a lot to do with how Islamic Studies has attempted to meet the demand for all too quotable sound bites by rational, loving and liberal Muslim subjects to speak for the tradition. This is what has become the Muslim scholar’s burden and indeed the burden for everybody working on the study of Islam. But what if the problem is also that the manufacturing of this urgency has given politics its alibi—the alibi which allows politics to masquerade as theory and which can so quickly and acrimoniously fold back into a deafening (or deaf) contestation over who gets to speak and how, who gets to be represented as part of the field, and even who gets to be ignored?
It worries me that I will be taken to say that we have to get beyond, or worse, leave behind, the struggles for recognition that hound the debates over the positionalities of insiders and outsiders in Islamic Studies. I am not. I want to be very clear that these debates contest in very important ways the normative study of the Islamic tradition in the field of Religious Studies and produce some of the grist of the theorising we do. They are the reminder that if nothing else, theory is not self sufficient, it needs to be politically relevant and it needs to be in irresolvable tension with politics. I am simply saying that there is more to focus on or we will utterly and completely miss the point of why and how these debates come to be in the first place. The debates themselves cannot be allowed to stand in for a serious, sustained and critical consideration of the grounds on which questions about the representation of Muslims and the Islamic tradition are posed and answered. To be very precise, I think that engaging with these grounds is what will constitute the advance of the field, and what September 11 has offered us is the opportunity to radically reconsider how they have been presented to us. After all, wasn’t September 11 an important moment in the dissolution of a unified historical and political project, the site where the advance of a liberal and secular politics faltered? What does this then mean for the study of Islam within the field of Religious studies, a field that has so proudly defended the questions of religious experience and now the questions about the experience of religious people? Is it going to be able to stake its own wager and its own critical project in the wake of this dissolution? What will the theoretical turn of the field after September 11 look like and what does it acknowledge as having the privilege and authority to do that no other field does?
I attempted to come to terms with some of these questions in a recent article entitled “Why Critique?” which addressed the beginnings of the debate between Hughes and Safi. Therein, I called into question the spectre of objectivity that pretends that our critical intellectual practices are impartial and scholarly when the foundations of humanistic enquiry, both theoretical and political, are established by the continual attachments of secularism to Christianity. What does this mean for the study of the Islamic tradition when its scholars take these claims of objectivity for granted? It seems to me that, at the very least, the study of the Islamic tradition confronts and even contests the discriminating operation of Western theory. What we have on the theoretical agenda is the need to examine in more detail the political significance of the modernist stance in the foundation of critique, and the contexts of colonialism and empire which continue to sustain it. These are the grounds that I am speaking of and the problem is that that they are now all over the map. Aren’t we all, Muslim and non-Muslim, working within the very instantiation of the modernist enterprise of critical and theoretical projects? Is this not Talal Asad’s great lesson for the field? So, how do we get out of it, can we, and where does this leave us? Do we do it by finding within the Islamic tradition the source of the critique of the secular presuppositions of what is increasingly the normative understanding of intellectual practice? Maybe, but then we will also have to deal with the fact that in many ways this very tradition contributed to the project of European enlightenment and has its own pre-modern (i.e. pre-secularising) secular genealogies, however much it was later subjected to the government apparatus that the latter put into place.
I am not convinced that simply delving into the past to find authentic notions of tradition, or modalities of being Muslim, is enough to have these stand up to the post-Christian secular demands made by powerful modern states. And this has to do with the impossibility of authenticity, as much as it has to do with the force with which secular political and intellectual projects are promoted as impartial and consequently, how aggressively Muslims, scholars, and Muslim scholars, are made to conform. But I am convinced that we must agree with Michel Foucault and refuse what he called the blackmail of the Enlightenment which obliges us to position ourselves as either for it or against it. We are in it and, for good, for worse, for all of us, these are our grounds, whether they have been thrust upon us or not. We will each hold different positionalities within them of course, some that are more resistive than others. If we have to come to terms with an intellectual and political legacy that has been imposed on many of us by force, then the good news is that contained within this legacy is what Kant espoused as a “limit-attitude” which allows us to analyse and reflect on its limits, politically and theoretically. The question that remains is: How are we going to reflect on those limits and for whom? Will we be able to reform the Enlightenment, and its limits, with the Islamic tradition, that is, with something other than what the Enlightenment has explicitly produced and endorsed?
Understanding the constitutive and political nature of the representation of Muslim scholars can instil in us the need for serious theoretical work but only if we reflect on all of its complexity and think all its fronts together. Once you hit, politically and theoretically, the Enlightenment and how people continue to live and die for its values, the world’s your limit. To stop at the politics is to miss the boat intellectually. It is to pass up the chance to engage what Hall described as “the essential nature of intellectual work and critical reflection, the irreducibility of the insights which theory can bring to political practice, insights which cannot be arrived at in any other way.” It means, as he put it, to “really know, not just pretend to know, not just to have the facility of knowledge, but to know deeply and profoundly.” At a historical juncture that is demanding political relevance, I am arguing for theoretical courage or at the very least critical attention be paid to the demand for relevance that has been foisted upon us and to the grounds which such a demand obscures. This is to say that we can never be off the hook theoretically. Aware of its own limits, theory’s call to mobilise and to resist occurs precisely at the site where the political is asserted. This is the site where theory demands the most.
Ruth Mas is a Visiting Scholar at the CCLPS-Centre for Cultural, Literary and Postcolonial Studies, at SOAS-University of London. She holds a position as an Assistant Professor of Critical Theory and Contemporary Islam in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder.