Escaping Essentialism: Educating Objectively About Islam in a Time of Islamophobia

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This paper was presented at the American Academy of Religion Western Region Conference at the Institute for Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, California on Sunday, March 25th. What follows is an excerpt of the full paper; we will update this article once the full paper is published.

(Note: in this conversation, when speaking of Islam, I am only referring to Sunni Islam, which represents about 80 to 85% of Muslims in the world.)

Many Muslim individuals and organizations are engaged in presenting their faith to the public, in schools and elsewhere. How is the “Islam” they are presenting defined, and who has the authority to define it? At least three questions are salient:

One: To what extent have modern ideologies and Orientalist scholarship influenced and even distorted modern Muslim scholarship on groups like ISIS that profess to operate within the tradition?

Two: More generally, what can Muslim scholars operating within the tradition learn from “outsider” academic scholarship?

Three: How can American and other “diaspora” Muslims who may have no immediate access to traditional Muslim scholarship interpret and understand their sacred texts, and what authority do their interpretations have?

ING, as an educational organization presenting Islam to a variety of audiences, confronts these issues and seeks to present Islam in light of them. Starting from presenting an essentialized version of Islam constructed to accord with “liberal values,” ING has moved towards a presentation of Islam as “lived religion,” admitting the multiplicity of Muslim practice and perspectives while itself professing and presenting Islam as practiced by the majority of American Muslims, an Islam that upholds such values as separation of church and state, gender equity, and freedom of expression and of religion and conscience.

At the same time, ING puts forward those values as fundamental to its vision of Islam, thus implicitly privileging its version of “lived Islam” over others and creating at least an apparent tension with its acknowledgment of the diversity of Islam. I will conclude by bringing forward a possible resolution to this tension.

Islam is a scriptural religion—that is, it is grounded in authoritative texts, the Qur’an and hadith, that it considers divine revelation.

Anyone familiar with the history of religion will know that texts, however authoritative, are always embedded in traditions of interpretation, and it is usually through and within those traditions that individual practitioners receive and understand the texts.

Sunni Islam has no clerical hierarchy; it has scholars, and individual Muslims generally have considerable freedom in choosing which scholars they will recognize and follow as authoritative.

There is a body, or rather there are bodies, or schools, of early interpreters generally recognized as classic; and there are of course modern scholars, some of the most distinguished of whom are present in the United States. And it is usually through the interpretations of modern scholars that contemporary Muslims have access to the classical scholars.

In other words, many Muslims, in seeking to understand and apply the Qur’an and hadith, are in fact, usually without knowing it, relying on multiple layers of interpretation and interpreters. There is nothing wrong with this; the appropriation of an authoritative text must necessarily seek to incorporate and build upon past understandings while trying to apply the text to the conditions of the present. But it does raise the question of how the biases of individuals or groups may be skewing the interpretation of the divinely revealed text.

Thus the first question we raise is this: to what extent have modern ideologies (such as Orientalism, post-colonialism, or socialism) infiltrated Islamic scholarship and thus Muslims’ own understanding and practice of their faith? And how different is this issue from other influences on Islamic scholarship?

This immediately raises a second question, the much discussed “insider/outsider” problem in the study of religion. While statements of this problem usually focus on the limitations of outsider knowledge, I wish to raise the reverse issue: can someone inside the faith fully understand it? We believe that the outsider viewpoint does have certain advantages and can produce valuable insights. The distinction of “emic” and “etic” viewpoints, derived from the work of Kenneth Pike, is of value here.

The “etic” view corresponds to an outsider viewpoint, investigating phenomena objectively and correlating them with similar phenomena in other cultures. It thus can reveal for adherents of a religion insights that their very closeness to their faith has concealed and open up possibilities for transformation and adaptation of their traditions that were previously hidden. Thus we ask: how can practicing Muslims creatively and judiciously appropriate the insights of “outsider” academic scholarship on Islam? How can such “outsider” scholarship inform Muslim scholarship operating within the tradition?

Up to this point, I have been talking as if all Muslims had access to some form of Islamic scholarship. This is clearly not the case, especially in what we might term the Muslim diaspora, which of course includes American Muslims.

Muslims in America (and elsewhere outside of Muslim-majority areas) are often left to confront their authoritative texts directly, without either a scholar in their community or a solid knowledge of a scholarly tradition. This poses yet another challenge: what authority do individual Muslims in such a situation have to wrestle with and interpret Islam’s revelatory texts directly?

ING, as an American Muslim organization, implicitly confronts all these questions of authority. I am here at this conference because we are interested in engaging on these questions. I do not profess to have found resolutions to the three questions I have just raised, but I do wish to present the framework in which I hope to resolve them. They will be dealt with more fully in a longer published paper I may write.