Being Bilingual (But Speaking One Language): Thoughts on the Insider/Outsider Problem in Teaching Islam

quershiOver the past three academic years, I have twice been called upon to teach a class titled “The Academic Study of Islam.” This is an MA level course that is meant to introduce students to the graduate program as well as provide them some of the competencies needed to carry out their studies over the course of their degree. When I was first offered this course, I thought to myself, “Great! This is exactly the kind of introduction to the field of Islamic studies that I wish I had as a beginning graduate student!” We cover some of the perennial problems for scholars of Islam, such as which transliteration system to use (Library of Congress? IJMES? Encyclopaedia of Islam? EI2 or EI3?) and how to get it to work on your computer. The course introduces students to the primary scholarly reference works, and also covers problems related to methodology and theory. How do scholars engage Islamic sources? Can we take what the sources say at face-value, or do we have to adopt a posture of radical skepticism towards these sources? This was a course I designed for outsiders of the Islamic tradition to study Islam as outsiders and so my frame of reference was not the Islamic tradition but the academy.

This class has forced me to think through my own position in religious studies as well as the study of Islam. I have pursued the study of religion throughout my academic career and I have also studied Islam at length in a more traditional manner, studying directly under religious scholars (ulama) in a non-institutional format. While the differences between the academic study of Islam and the traditional study of Islam are quite clear to me, designing and teaching “The Academic Study of Islam” has provided me with an opportunity to pause and think about some of these differences.

The insider/outsider problem is one of the seminal problems that one faces in the study of religion. Scholars have often spoken about this problem using the terms emic and etic, where the former studies religion from the insider’s perspective, and the latter studies religion from an outsider’s. For the study of Islam, Edward Said’s Orientalism presents a powerful critique of the etic study of the Orient, problematizing questions of knowledge, power, and representation. As a graduate student, I found Said’s condemnation of the Orientalist enterprise far-reaching and insightful, but it over shot and essentialized Orientalist scholarship. Further, it did not advocate a way to move forward in the study of Islam.

Perhaps the clearest statement regarding an etic view for the study of Islam was made in 1977 by Patricia Crone and Michael Cook, in their Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World. This small book was a tour de force that challenged the field of early Islamic history. Though they do not use the term, they accused the then regnant scholarship for being by and large emic, merely re-telling what the Islamic sources say about Islam’s origins. Hagarism was meant to challenge the field and its methodological assumptions. In the clearest statement of an outsider position, the authors state:

“This is a book written by infidels for infidels, and it is based on what from any Muslim perspective must appear an inordinate regard for the testimony of infidel sources. Our account is not merely unacceptable; it is also one which any Muslim whose faith is as a grain of mustard seed should find no difficulty in rejecting.” (Hagarism, viii)

The outsider position was not what turned me off from this approach, nor its undermining of traditional Muslim accounts. It appeared as a good thought experiment—“What would the origins of Islam look like if we relied entirely on non-Muslim sources?”—but this was not what the authors posited (though other scholars picked up this line of questioning with very fruitful results). What turned me off to this approach was the epistemological stance and playing fast and loose with the sources. Though the authors have distanced themselves from this “youthful idea” in the decades since its release, it remains emblematic of one approach to the academic study of Islam: it can only truly be done by outsiders.

Writing at roughly the same time, Marshall Hodgson presented a way of thinking about Islam that was not emic and that was aware of the scholar’s positionality vis-à-vis their object of study. The introduction to his monumental three-volume The Venture of Islam presented Hodgson’s own terminology, not borrowed from other disciplines and superimposed on Islam, but ideas that he developed organically from his decades of studying and teaching Islam. His introduction displayed his own awareness of the biases that scholars bring to their object of study. One quote from the introduction has stuck with me over the years, and speaks to the insider/outsider problem: “It is no guarantee of balanced insight, to be a Muslim, nor of impartiality, to be a non-Muslim.” (The Venture of Islam, 1:27) Hodgson thus was sensitive to the insider/outsider problem, but more importantly provided a method for studying Islam that acknowledged the problem.

While Hodgson was quite useful in doing Islamic studies in the academy, he did not get to the heart of the difference between Orientalism and traditional Islamic scholarship. As a doctoral student, I read Talal Asad’s seminal essay The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, where he tackled the problem of an essentialism and nominalism in the study of Islam. Essentialist studies of Islam conceive of Islam as maintaining an ahistorical unchanging essence (part of what Said problematized); nominalism on the other hand collapses the idea of an essentialized Islam (with a capital I) and conceives of multiple islams (lower case i) determined by the informants’ own ideas. Asad’s solution was to think of Islam as a discursive tradition. I do not want to dwell here on Asad’s concept of discursive tradition, as other more qualified scholars are able to do so. What I want to note is that it helped me think through the problem of Orientalism and traditional Islamic scholarship. Specifically, it made clear to me the notion that Orientalism, like traditional Islamic scholarship, is also a tradition: it has its founding figures, institutions, fundamental agreements, problems, methodologies, standards, and modes of inquiry. Drawing on the work of the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (an important source for Asad), I would further note that these traditions are not entirely incommensurable; rather, there are ways in which they not only challenge but also inform one another.

Thus, someone trained in the academic study of religion as well as in the religion itself inhabits two traditions at once. The metaphor that best clarifies this dual inhabitance to my mind is being bilingual. Each language has its own rules, its own syntax, morphology, and rhetoric, long established before you or I started using them. One option is to conform to the rules of one language when using it, and the other while using that one. Hybridity too is an option, or even pidginization, or creolization. I however prefer to speak Arabic with my Arab friends, and English as my mother tongue.

What to do then with a class like “The Academic Study of Islam”? This, to my mind, is largely dependent on the institution one is at and the particular departmental learning outcomes. Outside of the context of a Muslim institution of higher learning, in my approach, such a class is an initiation into the Western etic tradition of studying Islam.

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