Embodying Sacred Texts

by Jawad Anwar Qureshiquershi

In his exceptional study of West African Quran schools, The Walking Qur’an, Rudolph Ware describes Islamic learning as follows:

“Islamic knowledge was being transmitted as much through bodily practices as mere words. This focus on bodily transmission of religious ideas expresses as understanding of knowledge as a thing that inheres in the body. What it meant “to know” in the context of Senegambian Qur’an schooling differed dramatically from what it meant for contemporary Westerners. Knowing was produced as much by the limbs as by the mind. Imitation of the teacher’s gestures and comportment was as much part of the educative process as the texts that one was required to read. Memorization of texts allowed for a person possession of the Word in the body, without requiring recourse to a written source external to the self. The people were the books, just as the Prophet was the Walking Qur’an. Islamic knowledge was embodied knowledge.” (The Walking Qur’an, p. 49)

What Ware is highlighting is that people of different faiths relate to their scriptures in unique ways. Not all religious traditions emphasize direct access to the discursive aspect of scripture through translations into the vernacular of a community. For many religious traditions, the language of scripture is usually foreign and incomprehensible, yet despite this, there is still often an intense relationship to these texts. One of the challenges that I face when teaching the Qur’an is considering how to teach the ways in which Muslims relate to their scripture. In addition to the discursive ways in which the Qur’an shapes Islamic normative traditions of theology, law, and ethics, the study of the Qur’an by Muslims through memorization and recitation shapes Muslim subjectivity in a pre-discursive fashion. How does one draw attention to this in the classroom?

The exercise I came up with is to have students in my Qur’an class memorize a portion of the Qur’an. Not the English translation, but the original Arabic. To set up this exercise and to introduce this problem, I first screen the documentary Koran by Heart, which follows the story of three young Muslim children as they compete in a competition for Qur’anic memorization and recitation in Cairo. The children are from different Muslim countries and none of them speak Arabic—Rifdha is a young girl from the Maldives, Nabiollah a young boy from Tajikistan, and Djamil is from Senegal. While the movie touches on many aspects of contemporary Islam and the tensions therein, the key feature that it draws attention to for my purposes is the value that Muslims place on the memorization and recitation of the Qur’an, with little concern for exegesis.

As further set up for this exercise, we spend some time considering the soundscape of qur’anic recitation as discussed by Michael Sells in his Approaching the Qur’an. Sells dedicates two chapters to introducing the soundscape of short surahs and also includes an audio CD that has various recitations of the same passages. Sells’ work opens up the affective aspects of the Qur’an through focusing on sound. Additionally, and what makes this exercise possible, he includes a transliteration and close phonetic analysis of select surahs.

With this set up, I have the students carry out their own Qur’anic study by memorizing one of the chapters that Sells studies. The chapter that I use is surat al-Qadar (Q. 97). This is one of the shortest chapters of the Qur’an and consists of merely five verses, just over thirty words in all, with some repetition. The verses read (Haleem’s translation):

We sent it down on the Night of Glory.

What will explain to you what that Night of Glory is?

The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months;

On that night the angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every task;

peace that night until the break of dawn!

Using the transliteration provided by Sells as well as the audio recordings (I also give them certain YouTube videos of the surah as well), I set the students on the task of memorizing this short surah. The objective is not to learn what the Arabic means, nor even to focus on the translation, but rather to open questions about this widespread Muslim practice. I start by having students consider how they memorize things. Were there any particular body practices (rocking back and forth, or sideways) that they employed? Did they recite aloud as they repeated the words, or silently? Did they listen to the recordings as they memorized, or did they rely on reading out the transliteration? How did they work on their pronunciation of some of the difficult Arabic letters? More importantly, how is this different from the other ways in which they learn at the university?

(If there were some form of a Qur’an school nearby, I would also have students visit for a day as participant-observers for greater effect.)

With these questions in mind, I wrap up this exercise by reading sections from Ware’s book, The Walking Qur’an, expanding on different modes of embodiment beyond memorization and recitation, and what this means epistemologically.

The point of the exercise is to move away from—if even for a short period—from what thinking about what the text says to draw attention to how one relates to the text. This is done through drawing attention to the affective and embodied aspects of how Muslims relate to the Qur’an, through sound, recitations, memorization, and the attendant body practices. The focus on the body as it relates to sacred texts is not in opposition to the discursive aspects of those texts but to think about this perhaps as a condition for undertaking a particular form of discursive study related to Muslim subjectivity.



“I think Islam hates us”: Teaching Islam in an Islamophobic Era

By Jawad Qureshi

quershiAs I write these words, Americans in various urban centers are descending on their airports to protest the Muslim Ban instituted by the administration a day before. There is little exaggeration in saying that our current president is the most openly hostile presidents to Muslims that we have had within my lifetime. To be sure, his immediate predecessors have initiated and adopted policies that wreaked carnage on Muslim lands and peoples globally, and they were responsible for targeting Muslim Americans with draconian laws. Few however have adopted the rhetoric of exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice to the extent that our current president did in his campaign last year. His first week in office and his staff appointees attest that his rhetoric was not mere campaign promises.

While for some, this might feel like a major shift in public discourse, scholars engaged in the academic study of Islam are all too familiar with this rhetoric. We have been in the process of becoming Trump’s America for a long time. Scholars of Islam have been tracking discourse on Muslims and Islam in public spaces, culture, and politics, and we are seeing an intensification of attitudes toward Islam and Muslims that came to the fore after 9/11, but had long been latent in American culture.

The term developed by scholars for this phenomenon is Islamophobia, defined as “hatred, hostility, and fear of Islam and Muslims, and the discriminatory practices that result.” (Todd Green, The Fear of Islam, 9) In 1997, the UK’s Runnymede Report, which popularized the term, offered some common features underlying Islamophobic conceptions of Islam. These are the sense that Islam is (1) monolithic and static, (2) separate and other, (3) inferior, (4) the enemy, and (5) manipulative. As a result, (6) racial discrimination of Muslims is justified, while (7) Muslim criticisms of the West are rendered invalid. Taken altogether, (8) these ideas render anti-Muslim discourse natural. What emerges as a result is exclusion (from politics and employment), discrimination (in employment practices), prejudice (in the media and everyday experiences), and violence (in physical assaults, vandalism, and verbal abuse) aimed at Muslims. (Runnymede Report, 12)

All of these features are present in the current president’s rhetoric and policies towards Muslims. In one of the most blatant displays of this essentializing conception of Islam, effacing the voice of Muslims and the possibility of any variety among them, candidate Trump answered a question from CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, “Do you think Islam is at war with us?” by saying, “I think Islam hates us. There’s something, there’s something there. There’s a tremendous hatred, a tremendous hatred. We have to get to the bottom of it. There is an unbelievable hatred of us.” The rhetoric of his appointees is not much better. Trump’s national security advisor retired general Michael Flynn, reduces Islam to an ideology. Flynn tries his hand at “nuance” by referring to “radical Islam” rather than Trump’s totalizing Islam.

Scholars tracking and studying Islamophobia have recommended four strategies to combat it. These are:

“(1) speaking out wherever and whenever Islamophobia occurs, (2) targeting and discrediting the individuals and institutions that benefit financially and politically from spreading misinformation about Islam, (3) cultivating interpersonal and interfaith relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims, (4) educating the public about Islam, particularly its diversity and the common ground it shares with the West and other religious traditions.” (Todd Green, The Fear of Islam, 312)

The area to which I contribute, in my role as a teacher, is the last one: education. The academic teaching of religion, at its best, is particularly well situated to counter the conceptions of Islam that underlie Islamophobia. Against these essentialist notions, scholars of religion teach that religions are not “monolithic and static,” but are diverse, and that they change and develop over time; that religions are not “separate and other” but are deeply interdependent, with shared (albeit contested) histories, and more often than not shared values. Claims of the “inferiority” of a religion, its essential enmity toward another civilization, and its being instrumentalized for ideological ends often rest on stereotypes that can be interrogated within the academic study of religion.

Tackling the foundational notions of Islam that feed into Islamophobia should not stifle criticism of Muslims, or even Islam. One of the features that distinguishes an academic and scholarly study of religion from a confessional one is the ability to critique the religion and its adherents. In combatting Islamophobia in academic settings, it is important to guard against sacralizing Muslims and Islam through silencing criticisms by heavy-handedly brandishing the Islamophobia label. This can be accomplished through safeguarding a space where criticism does not slip into hate speech, nor undermine a Muslim’s freedom to practice their religion. To disagree with a Muslim woman wearing hijab is a right; to attack her for wearing one is a crime, and to support legislation that prohibits her from practicing her religion is Islamophobia—exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice—in action.

Lastly, as an educator teaching Islam in an Islamophobic era, there are two crucial points that need to be emphasized:

The first is that Muslims have not been the first group targeted in this manner. Whether one is thinking about Native Americans, Black Americans, or the internment camps of Asian Americans, America is built on a history of oppressing communities. It is imperative for scholars teaching Islam to educate themselves about this history and to connect today’s events with the past, and with the oppression of other communities going on currently.

Secondly, it is imperative to recognize that Islamophobia is not new. It is not a product of 9/11, as my presentation above might have suggested, that targeted Arab and South Asian Muslims. While it has a name since the mid-90’s that has been usefully employed in describing rhetoric, attitudes, and policies since 9/11, it was a reality before it was a name, and it was the experience of Black Muslim communities. What has changed between now and yesterday, I would argue, is merely the scope and intensity.

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.