Some Thoughts on Navigating the “Normative/Descriptive” Divide: Reflections on Islamic Studies


by Vernon Schubel

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! Ruth Mas’ post from last week can be found here.

Omid Safi’s piece in Jadaliyyah,”Reflections on the State of Islamic Studies” is, in my opinion as an active participant in the AAR for the last two decades, an accurate and insightful essay which raises a number of crucial issues both for the study of Islam and the study of religion. How do scholars of Islam navigate the line between normative and descriptive approaches to the study of the Muslim tradition? How well have issues of theory and method been integrated into the study of Islam? How far has Islamic Studies moved from a Sunni-centric position that assumes a “real Islam” and marginalizes minority positions?

Unfortunately, Aaron Hughes in his reply ignored most of this important discussion and instead focused on a single paragraph in which Safi refers to his “critique of the prominence of Muslim scholars” as “grossly polemical and simplistic.” Hughes’ response to Safi was regrettably personal, polemical and inflammatory. Among other things Hughes wrote: “Perhaps Safi is upset because I occupy a Chair in Jewish Studies? We all know that Jews are the arch-enemy of Islam.” He further charged that Professor Safi was creating a line where “on this side are insiders; on that side, outsiders” and noted that he felt a sense of vindication because he “had been writing from some years now that this would be one possible future of Islamic Studies.” Hughes ends this argument with a rhetorical flourish: “I see that I was correct, but trust me I don’t gloat about it.”

My experience of the AAR is far different from that described by Professor Hughes. I find that Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, in fact, get along quite well, serving on committees and presenting on panels alongside each other. I should note that I consider myself not an Islamicist but rather a historian of religions who specializes in the study of Islam. As such I feel a part of the academic discipline of religious studies which, for me, is rooted in a long list of scholars that includes such diverse figures as J.G. Frazer, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Rudolph Otto, Mircea Eliade, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, Claude Levi-Strauss, Victor Turner, Talal Asad and Robert Orsi. Suffice it to say the basis of my academic career has been finding ways to study and teach about Islam in dialogue with this ongoing academic tradition. In my own work I have made particular use of the work of Victor Turner to talk about Shi’i and Alevi ritual. I have presented that work at the AAR and been well-received. One of my real pleasures as a teacher at an undergraduate liberal college is regularly teaching an undergraduate methods course where students study and learn to use these “etic” methodologies to explicate and interpret the “emic” world of the religious traditions that they are studying. I like to think that eventually serves my students well in graduate school.

As Omid Safi notes in his article, in recent years the study of Islam at the AAR has been increasingly open to these kinds of approaches to the study of Islam. More and more panels and papers give evidence of methodological and theoretical sophistication. We have paid specific attention to the discipline of religious studies in recent years in our ongoing series on rethinking Islamic studies. Of course, there is still work to be done. Our students for the most part will wind up teaching in Religious Studies departments where they will need a common language of discourse with their colleagues. How many of our graduate students are going on to the job market with a real fluency in the academic discipline of religious studies? Are most of our new Ph.D.’s rooted in the academic study of religion or are they better described as Islamicists (or specialists in Islamic Studies)? How many of our graduating Ph.D.’s feel comfortable teaching a course on “World religions” where they would need to teach sections on Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism? By the way I have similar questions about training in other traditions. How many new Ph.D.’s in Chinese religions or Buddhist studies are fluent in the discourse of religious studies and are knowledgeable about “World religions?” In my experience many new Ph. D.’s specializing in non-Western traditions, including Islam, are much more comfortable with the close reading of texts than with the academic tradition of religious studies and often can name no theoretician that has influenced their work beyond J.Z. Smith.

One reason I believe we, as scholars of religion, need to emphasize theory and method is precisely because they provide useful tools for navigating through what Safi refers to as “normative/descriptive discussions.” I fail to understand why some people seem to think that this is somehow more problematic for those of us who are Muslims, than for Jews, Christians, Buddhists or Hindus. We all have to negotiate the issue of the relationship of our religious identity (or lack of it) to our scholarship. I see no reason why people cannot teach about traditions to which they belong. I also have no problem with scholars who are engaging in rigorous “normative” approaches to the study of religion presenting papers at the same academic meetings as those of us doing more descriptive and historical work. I am even comfortable with people moving back and forth between these two modes of discourse. I, myself, sometimes speak and write as a Muslim, sometimes as a historian of religion. Professor Hughes is clearly uncomfortable with that and rejects it as “special pleading.”

Much of Professor Hughes’ argument seems rooted in the Orsi/McCutcheon debate over the place of humanism and morality in religious studies. I confess to being firmly rooted on the Orsi side of that argument. I remain, proudly, a “humanist.” As an ethnographer I am particularly sensitive to not treating the people I write about as mere “data.” More importantly, as a scholar who works on minority traditions within Islam I often find myself at odds with those exclusivist voices that claim to speak for the entirety of the tradition and in so doing seek to silence others. These are thorny issues that need to be constantly navigated, not ignored or explained away, whether in the study of Islam or any other religion. As Paul Courtright put it in a response to McCutcheon on these very issues:

As a scholar, I do not have the power, or inclination, to allow or deny Others to speak for themselves. I do have the power to decide whether to engage their critiques. I do not set the rules for civility, but I am free to make the choice…whether, where and how to participate. (“The Self-Serving Humility of Disciplining Liberal Humanist ScholarsJournal of the American Academy of Religion September 2006, Vol.74, No.3,p. 754.)

As I read him Omid Safi is clearly calling on those of us study Islam to face these challenges consciously and directly. I hope his piece moves us to vigorously and civilly continue the conversation about how to do so.

Vernon James Schubel is currently Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Kenyon College where he has taught since 1988. He is also director of Kenyon’s Islamic Civilization and Cultures Program. He has conducted research on Islam in numerous contexts including Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Turkey. His book on Shi’i Muharram commemorations , Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam, was published by the University of South Carolina Press in 1993. He has also done work on Sufi pilgrimage in South Asia and the re-emergence of the Sufi tradition in Uzbekistan. Most recently he has been working on the study of the religious worldview and practices of the Turkish Alevi community. He currently serves on the steering committee of the Islamic Mysticism section at the AAR.

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One Response to Some Thoughts on Navigating the “Normative/Descriptive” Divide: Reflections on Islamic Studies

  1. Alexander Perry says:

    While I am certainly not defending Aaron Hughes, I wanted to expand the discussion about Omid Safi’s work particularly as it relates to the critical work of which you seem to ask the field for awareness. A difference in this work relates to the quote from Paul Courtright that you connected to Omid Safi.

    My concern is that when a scholar states “as a scholar, I do not have the power to allow or deny Others to speak for themselves” a normative point is made that limits this critical awareness. Scholars, especially in the United States, are asked to act as expert intermediaries between members of a religious tradition and a society that is not fully aware of that tradition. Scholars are asked to, and must, speak on behalf of individuals who self-identify with a tradition and thus define all of the nuances of a tradition. The critical question many ask us to examine remains; what are the effects to individuals of a tradition based on how we frame a discourse that engages a tradition they identify as members within.

    Omid Safi’s edited volume Progressive Muslims is one example where this critical question was ignored or simply not asked. How this book limits the ability and voice of those in a tradition to speak with authority on their own behalf is based on how the volume is framed and titled. The fact that it is a book, gives it authority, but by only including voices of Muslims, insiders, gives it a further normative authority. Using Muslims who are western scholars also authorizes this volume based on a social authority unfortunately granted to academic, and not religious, scholarship. Claiming positions both inside and outside the tradition, as Muslims and scholars, it assumes even greater power and its effects are even more forceful.

    Unfortunately, the critically un-examined point is the reiteration of what it means to be progressive Muslims which reifies, rather than contests, the Western project of Modernity in relation to Islam. What is a “progressive Muslim” is defined with even more power by the singularity created from an edited volume. That which is included becomes part of a normative definition and that which is opposed, or simply left out, is now not progressive. Even worse, the entire project itself reauthorizes the teleological position of Modern societies progress; a progress from an inferior religious Other to the scholarly Western Modern. Those excluded voices are now even more suppressed based on the power of editing the boundaries of a category of Progressive Muslim.

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