Thread(s) on Academic Islamic Studies

For those who are interested, here are the three relevant threads from me (originally posted on Twitter in late May 2020):

FIRST THREAD:

Advice to young academics: Too much “Islamic studies” today is 3rd-rate postmodern cultural critique — lazy riffing about Muslims as a variegated bundle of racial/gender/sexual groups with “Islam” as a symbolic cultural marker. Don’t be absorbed by that blob as many others have.

One witnesses the spectacle of tenured scholars at major research institutions who cannot even properly read classical Arabic subjecting a great Islamic polymath (or an entire field) to an analysis through a “Foucauldian” framework or “queer theory” or some other vanity project

Scholars in “Islamic studies” write entire books that are structured as an analysis of [aspect of Islam] through Foucault. No reason to even justify why one does it. Foucault can simply be presupposed without argument. It’s astonishing.

Many grad students and even early career professors don’t realize (I didn’t) that there are entire fields in academia that are almost entirely useless — actually worse, because they take promising scholars from work that is substantial and needed.

I have interviewed many job candidates, and it’s astounding how much immersion in continental “theory” degrades a scholar’s ability to think, write, and speak clearly. Many smart people didn’t get the job because they couldn’t explain what they were researching.

It’s sad to simply ask someone “How would you explain that idea to a freshman?” and watch them self-destruct. People whose research was heavily based on primary sources almost always perform far better than those immersed in postmodern “theory”

There is much that is valuable about academic Islamic studies, and there are many projects that are left undone because talented young scholars are wasting their time with junk.

Having said all that, I’m tenured and I can get away with talking like this. Remember, never pick unnecessary fights and always try to find areas of overlap. You’ll be often pleasantly surprised by the goodwill you find if you don’t keep a chip on your shoulder and are courteous.

SECOND THREAD:

Follow up on my thread about “theory” (i.e. *bad* philosophy) in Islamic studies: If you disagree with postmodern theory folks or criticize their Parisian apex philosophers they will first tell you that you just don’t understand the stuff, or they literally call you names.

But then if you carefully offer a researched critique and cite their sources, they will just dismiss it with some version of the gambit: “Your very question itself shows you are part of the structure of oppression.” Or more name-calling and emojis. Or just pretend it’s not there.

This inability or unwillingness to respond to or even enterain critique or questions is something scholars should avoid at all costs. It’s what happens when your apex philosophers teach you that truth and goodness are really just about power relationships.

Of course not everyone who “does theory” does this (lots of nice people), but if you are a scholar and attempt to offer a critique or openly disagree you will definitely get this kind of anti-rational pushback from a sizable cohort who often get vulgar and vicious about it.

That’s why I advise young scholars to keep out of that blob. Don’t let them bully you into thinking that the only way to care about racism, or women’s rights, or the oppressed, is *their* way. Don’t let bully you into thinking that sophistication begins and ends with them.

I’ll give a concrete example. S.H. Nasr has been talking about the relationship between power and knowledge production and epistemic/ideological frameworks for half a century. He’s done as much to foreground African, SE Asian, other expressions of Islam as anyone…

Not to mention his work on ecology waaaaay before anyone else in the Muslims world. He’s been teaching Muslims to reclaim their own epistemic selves for decades and to learn their own history from their own point of view.

So it’s silly that when one objects to the anti rational underpinnings and moral nihilism of postmodern philosophy one is accused of not caring about the poor and oppressed. Or of not understanding the connection between truth and power. One can be sophisticated without them

And it’s not just because I’m a traditional Muslim. Here’s Devin Stewart giving his view on religious studies theories:

Image for post

I’m genuinely curious if somewhere there exist people who are indignant and outraged at the idea that being a scholar of Confucianism requires the ability to read Chinese.

Incidentally I never claimed nor do I think that one must know Classical Arabic to be a scholar of all things related to Muslims. But to do scholarship about the content of the Quran or Hadith or Ghazali or Ibn Arabi? Absolutely.

There was just a whole to-do about people writing about Rumi who don’t read Persian. Those VERY SAME PEOPLE are upset at the suggestion that Arabic is necessary to study Islam. I see an inconsistency there.

THIRD THREAD:

Some remarks on “theory” for those who might not really know what that means in the context of academic Islamic Studies. When I started grad school I had only a dim notion of it while others really had already been immersed. It probably does not mean what you think it means.

Theory as a general term refers to that which is not pure input/data but rather an intellectual process (a formula, algorithm, rule of thumb recipe,) for taking experience and finding patterns, connections, groupings, etc. A theory processes noise into signal.

So one’s “theory” is one’s rules or guidelines of interpretation, of taking some aspect of the world and making it more intelligible through new concepts or categories. Ideally it helps you to sort out necessary connections from those which are merely probable or possible.

When scholars talk about the theoretical part of their work, they mean, “What set of ideas/concepts are you using consistently and coherently to interpret and understand what you are writing about? Would someone else using those same concepts get the same result?

In other words: a theoretical claim is, “If you have x then you have y. And if you have y you might have z.“ Another scholar might then say, “Actually no, if you have x you only *might* get y, but z follows from y necessarily.” That is a theoretical exchange.

So a theory, when made explicit, is a kind of if-then formula, a sorting mechanism for reorganizing our experience of the world. Now that is extremely broad, and in a sense is means that the theoretical is very closely related to or even coterminous with rationality.

The role of theory as the concepts or ideas we use to make experience more intelligible is as old as philosophy — for the world of nature, human relationships, law, metaphysics. It’s essentially impossible to not have a theory in that general sense of an interpretive framework.

Now within the halls of academia (in the social sciences and humanities one must emphasize) when people say “theory” they say it the way Muslims say “al-Kitab”. There are lots of books, but when you just say “the book” it’s understood to mean one book in particular (the Quran).

When you hear that use of “theory” with no qualifier they don’t mean the general category of the theoretical or rational or philosophical. They mean it the way Sufis talk about “the way”. Not just any way, but a very special and particular way.

When you first start out you don’t realize that you are hearing “theory” but they mean Theory™. What is Theory™? It’s a very specific set of continental ideas form folks like Foucault, Derrida, the Frankfurt School, with a lineage going back to Nietzsche and Marx. It’s complex

My point being: to argue against Theory™ is quite different from arguing against theory. Some fanatics pretend that opposing Theory™ is the same as opposing theory. That is a dishonest use of ambiguity. Theory is indispensable in all intellectual endeavor. Theory™ isn’t.

So if you follow discussions recently about theory vs. texts in Islamic Studies it’s not about theoretically unsophisticated Arabic readers vs. super nuanced analysts of religion. It’s about anti-rational and morally skeptical philosophy and its appropriateness in studying Islam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s