Tafsir studies, due to its focus on reception history and tradition rather than on the origins of Islam, may be a locus of fruitful cooperation between the new field of Islamic theology and ‘regular’ Islamic studies that transcends the problematic dichotomy of insider/outsider perspectives. Redefining normativity as negotiating the future of Islam’s discursive tradition, arguably a shared concern of Islamic theologians and Islamicists, although their motivations differ, may be a way to further neutralise the conundrum of normativity in Islamic studies. I argue that ‘historically and sociologically informed normativity’ is the way forward for Islamic theology, and will make the field relevant beyond its own disciplinary boundaries.
One may argue that the relation between ‘descriptive’ and ‘prescriptive’ approaches – or ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, ‘emic’ and ‘etic’, ‘normative’ and ‘objective’ – in the study of Islam at universities in the Global North is going through a reverse development from that which took place in the study of Christianity. Initially approached from an insider perspective by default, the study of Christianity slowly learned to grapple with the boundaries between insider and outsider perspectives, and between normative, religiously engaged scholarship and more detached methodologies (Cooper, 2019; Tolstaja and Bestebreurtje, 2021). The study of Islam started with an outsider perspective pur sang, often with a problematic entanglement with colonial agendas of othering. From the twenty-first century onwards, the study of Islam has also increasingly contained a – sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit – normative Islamic theological component as well. This is mainly due to the influx of self-aware Muslims in Islamic studies in the Global North as well as to the increasing reception of scholarship from the Global North in the Global South (Wilson, 2007: 186–7; Ernst and Martin, 2010; Daneshgar, 2020; idem, 2021; Brankley Abbas, 2021). While in the study of Christianity the issue of normativity seems to have been relatively settled by the separation between theology and religious studies, in the study of Islam this issue is only now becoming increasingly urgent.
As a result of this emergence of explicit and implicit Islamic normativity, North American academia has witnessed over the past ten years a series of heated controversies on the place of normativity in Islamic studies, in response to the deliberately provocative writings of Aaron Hughes and Ayesha Chaudhry (Hughes, 2012; Safi, 2014; Stoneham, 2014; Schubel, 2014; Hughes, 2014; Mass, 2014; Hughes, 2016; Larsson, 2017; Sheedy, 2018; Stewart, 2018; Chaudhry, 2019; Siddiqui, 2019; Daneshgar and Hughes, 2020; El Shamsy, 2020). Hughes (2012: 3) has argued that ‘the academic study of Islam as carried out in departments of religious studies has become so apologetic that it has largely ceased to function as an academic discipline, preferring instead to propagate a theological and apologetical representation of the religion’. Chaudhry (2019) has pleaded for an intersectional approach to Islamic studies and a breach with what she dubbed ‘White Supremacist Islamic Studies’ and ‘Patriarchal Islamic Studies’. Her normativity is rather an issue of ‘objectivity’ vs. ‘positionality’.
In the European context, cases of Islamic-normative, prescriptive contributions within the non-theological context of Islamic studies are more difficult to trace. This is likely because the influx of self-aware Muslims with an immigrant background in academia is not (yet) as prominent as in North America because of their different migration history and social status. The participation of Muslims in higher education is still a more novel phenomenon in Europe than in North America (Alba and Foner, 2014: 284–5). Social sciences and the humanities – let alone a precarious niche as Islamic studies – are not the first logical choice for groups with an immigrant background coming from a relatively weak social position and seeking upward social mobility (Crul, Keskiner, and Lelie, 2016).
Muslims who do engage in the study of Islam from an explicitly normative perspective tend rather do so within departments of theology. This has received an extra impulse from the establishment of state-funded departments of Islamic theology in several European countries, which gives the study of explicitly normative Islamic theology an academic institutional space. In the North American context, this only exists in privately-funded seminary institutions (Salem, 2018). The situation of normative Muslim theologians working in religious studies departments, that Hughes (2012) criticizes, is thus less present in Europe. The establishment of state-funded departments of Islamic theology in Europe has given rise to their own controversies over the relationship between ‘regular’ Islamic studies and this new field, as well as over the relationship to agendas of the securitisation and domestication of Muslims and Islam (Sunier, 2014; Bauer, 2020; Groeninck and Boender, 2020; Engelhardt, 2021).
This article first discusses the potential of tafsir studies as a field in which this insider/outsider, normative/objective, prescriptive/descriptive conundrum is superfluous. On the one hand, normative Muslim theologians within academia rely on the insights of non-Muslim academics as much as on more traditional Muslim scholarship while, on the other, normative Muslim studies contain enough historical and hermeneutical analyses that are also highly relevant for more detached analyses of the tafsir tradition. Second, it discusses whether Talal Asad’s (2009) concept of a discursive tradition may help shed new light on the insider/outsider conundrum in Islamic studies. I redefine normativity as negotiating the future of Islam’s discursive tradition, a shared concern of Islamic theologians and Islamicists, although their motivations differ. I argue that ‘historically and sociologically informed normativity’ is the way forward for Islamic theology.
2 Tafsir Studies as a Shared Space between Islamic Studies and Islamic Theology?
This article is partly born out of personal experience, for several reasons. Although I may come across as ‘secular-passing’ to many, I have a quite self-aware Muslim background, and was originally trained in departments of Arabic language (BA and MA) and etic Islamic studies (PhD). I have been for four years on the staff of a government-funded Islamic theological seminary in a Faculty of Religion and Theology, where I am supposed to be teaching from an emic perspective Muslim students aspiring to become religious professionals and leaders. On a personal level, such a strict distinction between emic and etic is not so easy to make: my personal religious thoughts, ideas and practices have been shaped by insights I have gained from scholarship that passes as ‘etic’ as much as by more ‘traditional’ Islamic scholarship. There are also certain things in my emic understandings of the religious tradition that I identify with – my rootedness in Islam as an interpretive community, as well as my identification with and care for its discursive tradition – that have an influence on the academic questions I tend to ask. The fact that I primarily tackle these questions using the methods of a historian of religion and that I would unproblematically pass as ‘etic’ to readers not aware of my personal background, does not mean that the provenance of these questions is not in a sense emic.
Recent scholarship confirms my personal experience that the line between emic and etic is not so easy to draw in the field of Islamic theology. Professors of Islamic theology in Germany, as shown by Felix Engelhardt (2021), do not generally consider the field of Islamic theology as separate from ‘regular’ Islamic studies at all. Practically all professors recognise their indebtedness to and dependency on descriptive scholarship by Islamicists, and do not define their own work as prescriptive by definition. As noted by Alexandre Caeiro and Emmanuelle Stefanidis (2018: 84), ‘the border between Western and Muslim has […] become increasingly porous – and the comforts of a shared habitus perhaps irremediably lost’. As pointed out by Johanna Pink (2020: 54) in a recent state of the art overview of the field of tafsir studies, ‘the attempt to distinguish insider and outsider perspectives, in this field as in any other, is fraught with difficulties’. Pink rightly addresses the fact that non-Muslim scholars are not by definition free of normative assumptions, that Muslim scholars are not necessarily motivated by religion, and that ‘Western academe’ and ‘Muslim scholarship’ are not monoliths that one can juxtapose. Indeed, the scholarship Pink refers to makes that clear. None of the publications on tafsir that she cites in her work may be classified as explicitly prescriptive or normative, and the Muslim-ness of their authors is not obvious from their contents (ibid.: 74–6).
In the fields of Qur’anic studies and Hadith studies, the clash of faith-based epistemologies of trust with historical-critical epistemologies of suspicion is arguably still rampant today, combined with a mutual perception that the subject is politicised (Daneshgar, 2020; Rizvi, 2020; Hernandez Aguilar and Ahmad, 2020: 101–02; Daneshgar, 2021). The question now is whether this clash of epistemologies and values is equally rampant in the field of tafsir studies, which is less occupied with questions of the origins of foundational texts, and more with the reception of these foundational texts in the later tradition. Scholarly cooperation and mutual influence between descriptive and prescriptive approaches in this case may be more fruitful and less politically sensitive. Do prescriptive scholars have something to learn from descriptive scholarship, and vice versa? Can they maintain a meaningful dialogue on their scholarly findings? By the study of tafsir I here mean the academic analysis of the past and present tradition of interpretation of the Qurʾan by Muslims. I focus on scholarship on the multifaceted reception history of the Qurʾan through the lens of the past and present of the exegetical tradition, and the investigation of continuities and changes in meanings that Muslim interpretive communities have ascribed to the text of the Qurʾan throughout the centuries in their discursive tradition. Obviously, the issue of the origins of the tafsir tradition is as sensitive as the field of Hadith or variant readings of the Qurʾan, and leads to similar hermeneutical clashes between trust and suspicion (al-Ṣawwāf, 1979: 137–40; Motzki, 2013: 231–4). But does this also count for investigating the later tafsir tradition, even when the scholar is normatively invested?
For a preliminary answer to this question, we shall now take a closer look at the production of tafsir studies in German Islamic theology departments. The field of Islamic theology in Germany does not yet seem to be very productive in the field of tafsir studies. Of the scholars I could trace working in Islamic theology departments who teach tafsir or have it in their research portfolio, only a handful explicitly publish on the subject in German or English.1 Some of them do focus on Qurʾanic studies or theories of Qurʾanic hermeneutics specifically, which may be read as implying that they want to establish a framework for doing tafsir in a university context, undertaking direct analysis of the Qurʾanic text itself, bypassing its existing exegetical heritage. As becomes clear from their web pages, Mohammed Nekroumi (Münster/Erlangen) does publish on Qurʾanic hermeneutics, but not specifically on the tafsir tradition; Zishan Ghaffar (Paderborn) focuses on Qurʾanic studies rather than tafsir studies; and Ömer Özsoy (Frankfurt) focuses more on Qurʾanic studies and hermeneutical theory than on the tafsir tradition itself. This may be explained by the high hopes German public discourse on Islam and the Qurʾan has of ‘the appearance of a reformed Islam in Germany with a “proper” theology, wherein the Qurʾan would be read contextually, historically, and critically’ (Hernandez Aguilar and Ahmad 2020: 88). Some go as far as claiming that this is the underlying motive for the establishment of the Deutsche Islam Konferenz, ‘the policing of the Qurʾan – that is, a form of racialised textual governmentality seeking to discipline deviant readings by legitimising state-approved interventions in the Qurʾanic text’ (ibid.: 91).
Notable exceptions are Kathrin Klausing (Osnabrück) and Nimet Seker (Frankfurt), who have both published specifically on the tafsir tradition in relation to gender (Klausing, 2014; idem, 2015; Seker, 2020). Although this focus on gender could be similarly criticized as part of an agenda of ‘governing interpretation’ (Hernandez Aguilar and Ahmad, 2020: 94, 95–102) – without denying these two scholars’ agency and sincere, genuine concern for the subject – these studies on the relationship between tafsir and gender are useful for our purposes here. Normativity may play a role in both the ways reflected in the North American controversies: in the sense of the religious insider/outsider dichotomy, and of objectivity vs. intersectional positionality. Nimet Seker’s Koran und Gender deserves extra attention here, since this study was produced in the institutional framework of Islamic theology.2 Seker’s book consists of six essays in German that had been previously published separately elsewhere. Some of these are concerned with a critical analysis of Qurʾan interpretations by premodern authorities, and others with the work of present-day scholars such as Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas.
The academic works that Seker cites confirm the image that Felix Engelhardt sketches, that academics in departments of Islamic theology do not consider their field to be completely separate from ‘regular’ Islamic studies, but regard themselves as relying upon the knowledge produced in that field, and are in constant dialogue with its scholarship (Seker, 2020: 197–208; Engelhardt, 2021). A reading of Seker’s work does not reveal any clash of epistemologies between an Islamicist and a theological approach. There is nothing in her work that betrays an epistemology grounded in transcendent claims. She does place herself within the tradition of tafsir, however, but claims her place as a part of the ongoing conversation of the tradition, by likening her own contributions to supercommentaries (hawashi) on existing works of tafsir (Seker, 2020: 11, 13). This could be understood as a declaration of loyalty to Islam’s discursive tradition and an expression of a wish to contribute to its future by investigating its past and present. It is thus a normative contribution according to the definition I shall propose below. Its profound reflection on the past of the discursive tradition and the wish to relate oneself to it and ground one’s own ideas in it, also qualifies it as ‘historically informed normativity’.
One could say that Seker’s choice of the topic of gender is a case of an ‘Ought’ being implied in the ‘Is’. In her work, she discusses a set of exegetical themes with great historical rigour and critical, relatively ‘detached’ historically informed reflection on the thought and positions of Islamic feminist-activist (or intersectional) academic authors; she thus hopes to improve the quality and consistency of Islamic-feminist discourse. Her criticism may be likened to the work of Aysha Hidayatullah (University of San Francisco, trained in Religious Studies and Women’s Studies), on whose work Seker further elaborates in Chapter 3 (Hidayatullah, 2014; Seker, 2020: 85). Like Hidayatullah, Seker points out the limitations of the feminist readings of the likes of Amina Wadud and Asma Barlas, and puts in doubt whether certain feminist claims – such as the assertion that it is not the Qurʾan but only the later male-dominated exegetical tradition that is patriarchal – may be legitimately made on the basis of the historical source material. This is a normative rebuttal in a sense, from Seker’s personally invested positioned perspective as both a Muslim and a woman, but it is also a case of historical-critical hermeneutics positioned in an academic methodology that is recognisable and equally accessible to a non-Muslim Islamicist.
The historical data Seker generates in this process on, for example, the Qurʾan commentaries of al-Tabari (d. 310/923) and al-Wahidi (d. 468/1076), the hermeneutical method of al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505) in relation to the concept of ‘occasions of revelation’ (asbab al-nuzul), of Ibn ʿArabi (d. 638/1240) in relation to the mercy of God, are not only useful from a normative perspective, but also valuable for the historian of tafsir or of Islamic intellectual history who does not claim a form of explicit normativity. Seker critically examines the hermeneutical methods of such figures, seeks to improve them by referring to contemporary standards of knowledge and optimal intellectual honesty and consistency, and discusses the implications thereof for the present and the future of Islam’s discursive tradition on gender relations. In the process, she generates knowledge that is relevant for all scholars of tafsir, whether they self-identify as emic or etic, objective or positioned, prescriptive or descriptive, insider or outsider. From the perspective of a historian of Islam, her normativity and positionality do not lead to dubious epistemological premises or methodological problems.
3 Normativity as Negotiating the Future of the Discursive Tradition
The previous section has described Seker’s approach as ‘historically informed normativity’. A return to Talal Asad’s notion of Islam as a discursive tradition may prove helpful to clarify the role of historical accuracy in pursuing normative agendas within academic Islamic theology. Asad famously defined a discursive tradition as a set of discourses that instruct practitioners of a religion about correct practice:
These discourses relate conceptually to a past (when the practice was instituted, and from which the knowledge of its point and proper performance has been transmitted) to a future (how the point of that practice can best be secured in the short or long term, or why it should be modified or abandoned), through a present (how it is linked to other practices, institutions, and social conditions). An Islamic discursive tradition is simply a tradition of Muslim discourse that addresses itself to conceptions of the Islamic past and future, with reference to a particular Islamic practice in the present.ASAD, 2009: 143
The investigation of the past of Islam’s discursive tradition, I would argue, is of shared interest for both normative and non-normative approaches to the study of Islam. Although motivations for investigation differ, the enterprise itself still transcends a perceived binary between ‘secular’ and ‘confessional’ perspectives. It is true that, for the debate on the origins of Islam, there may be an obvious epistemological and methodological conflict, but I do not see why the study of ritual under the Mamluks, for example, would need a different approach by a normatively invested Muslim theologian from that adopted by someone who primarily identifies with the tradition of Orientalism. Even if the normative Muslim scholar ultimately wishes to use such a historical study of a ritual to argue for a particular future of that ritual within the discursive tradition, epistemologically and methodologically the toolbox of the historian is (and should be) applied, and it is legitimate for other historians of religion to demand that.4 I am not aware of any Muslim historian or Islamic theologian in the realm of the academy who would want to defend the legitimacy in an academic context of mystical or occultist epistemology (think of dhawq, kashf or ʿilm laduni) or truth claims based on them.5 One may privately believe in the existence of such phenomena, may perhaps even believe one possesses such experiential knowledge oneself, but anyone can understand that, in a strictly academic context, such claims are meaningless; one can only make knowledge claims that are equally accessible to all, as a prerequisite for a meaningful and equal conversation with others who do not share a belief in such epistemologies. In that sense, Islamic-normative intellectual discourse in the academic context is necessarily disenchanted.
The same goes for the academic analysis of the present of the discursive tradition. A normatively invested Muslim scholar may have his or her own normative and religiously (perhaps intersectionally) motivated reasons for writing an ethnography of, for example, Muslim marital conflict resolution in the European context, and may want to contribute to the development of this field in the future. But does this really lead to a methodologically or epistemologically different approach to ethnography, beyond a mere reflection on that scholar’s positionality? I doubt it, and, if it does, he or she deserves to be criticized for it, just as non-Muslims should be.6 The results of such an ethnography, despite any ulterior motives, still lead (and should lead) to an analysis of data that is significant for scholars with other motivations, and that is verifiable or disprovable. Intersectional motivations, such as Chaudhry would want to see pursued in research on such issues, should in no way obscure the verifiability or disprovability of the ethnographical data. As Siddiqui (2019: 11) points out, intersectional academic work should expose, not erase, power structures at play in these epistemologies and methodologies, which may still be valuable in themselves.
Things become more complicated where it comes to negotiating the future of the discursive tradition. This is not only a matter of epistemology and methodology, and of taking transcendence as an object of research, for here, issues of positionality and intersectionality become more prominent. Who exactly has the right to participate in these discussions on where the tradition should be heading, and on what grounds? Is this a discussion that should take place within academia at all? Should the discussion not rather take place within civil society, and does not the agency of that discussion belong to Muslims themselves first and foremost? Are academic participants in that discussion obliged to uphold an agenda of social justice? And, if so, who determines how social justice should be defined? These are questions that do not have simple answers and need serious deliberation in the context of the study of Islam; here, intersectionality in the meaning of exposing academic power structures also comes into play.
One could argue – and perhaps most academics would – that precisely this engagement with the future of Islam’s discursive tradition would be the point where ‘regular’ Islamic studies and Islamic theology in the European context should differ from each other: while ‘regular’ Islamic Studies should only engage with descriptive scholarship dealing with the past and present of the discursive tradition, it would be legitimate for Islamic theologians also to make normative claims on what direction the discursive tradition should take in the future. The two fields are methodologically equally invested in investigating the past and present of Islam’s discursive tradition – although with different motivations – and can quite easily be in dialogue with each other in this regard. Whether one’s motivation to ask specific types of question comes from religion, from humanism or from another set of values does, of course, influence the type of questions one asks and which parts of the vast discursive tradition one chooses to highlight; on the level of methodology or epistemology this should not be felt, however.7 The parting of the ways takes place with regard to discussing the future of Islam’s discursive tradition: that is where scholarship becomes prescriptive by definition, and where it becomes normative Islamic theology.
It needs to be emphasized that, despite theoretical claims to the contrary, the study of Islam often engages in practice with the future of Islam’s discursive tradition, and perhaps always has. Orientalism in colonial times was obviously deeply entangled with the wish to steer Islam’s discursive tradition in a certain direction. Critics of the establishment of Islamic theology in the European context and of bodies such as the German Islam Conference have also pointed out that a desire to steer Islam’s discursive tradition in a certain direction undergirds these government-funded projects (Hernandez Aguilar and Ahmad, 2020). The whole notion of ‘detached scholarship’ is problematic in this light. Even if one wishes to accept Max Weber’s notion that a strict separation of facts and values is possible, nay, necessary, this still does not make one a nihilist.8 One still makes ideological choices in what one chooses to study and has certain preferences in the scholarly questions one asks – as is a common insight for anthropologists. ‘Detached’ historians of Islam make value-driven choices in their subjects as much as Islamic theologians working on Islamic history do: one could argue that one’s selection of what is valuable is by definition directed towards the future.
Does one then still need to be ideological in how one answers these questions, as Chaudhry’s proposal for ‘Intersectional Islamic Studies’ would demand, or as expressed in Hughes’s suspicion of his colleagues in his construct of ‘Islamic Religious Studies’? For scholars with an intersectional agenda, does it not suffice to deliver, say, a study of historical interpretations of Q4:34, as Chaudhry indeed did? What is the added value of making one’s ideological agenda explicit in how one studies this, and allowing it to determine one’s methodology?
The relatively close proximity to Islamic grass roots of faculty members in Islamic theology departments means that their scholarship perhaps has more potential to have an impact within Muslim communities than that of non-Muslim scholars within ‘regular’ Islamic studies departments. The same can also be argued with regard to Muslims within ‘regular’ Islamic studies: even if they are trained and operate within an environment in which ‘objectivity discourse’ (Cooper, 2019) is prevalent, they are living members of vibrant communities in which Islam’s discursive tradition is constantly maintained and renegotiated. It is inevitable that their knowledge and scholarly insights disseminate into those negotiations of the future of the discursive tradition; even if that only happens on the microlevel of the family or own circles of friends -or on social media, where academics and non-academic believers exchange ideas frankly and openly in an unprecedented shared space- there is still a process of knowledge dissemination that influences the lived tradition.9 The question, then, is whether an ‘intersectionalist’ approach as proposed by Chaudhry is really necessary. Once genuine ‘historically informed normativity’ (my proposed term) is disseminated beyond academic boundaries, it is likely that it will still have the effect Chaudhry intends. Chaudhry is critical in hindsight of her own book Domestic Violence in the Islamic Tradition, realizing that she remained too close to the methodologies of what she describes as ‘White Supremacist Islamic Studies’ and wishing she had more unapologetically opted for an intersectional approach (Chaudhry, 2013). This intersectional activism, then, is still possible through a natural process of knowledge dissemination into Muslim communities, paired with grass roots activism outside the boundaries of the academy. It is then not at all necessary to paralyse open academic conversation, as the critics of Chaudhry’s ‘Intersectional Islamic Studies’ may fear.
Drawing on Asad’s definition of a discursive tradition, I would argue that anyone who wishes to participate in the negotiation of the direction Islam’s discursive tradition should – whether from an ‘insider’ or an ‘outsider’ perspective – take the past and present of that discursive tradition into consideration. A ‘historically and sociologically informed normativity’ is the only way forward for Islamic theology within the boundaries of academic institutions. Its normativity is then legitimate for two reasons: 1) non-religious engagement cannot escape (more implicit forms of) normativity and engagement with the future of Islam’s discursive tradition; in a theological framework this may sometimes be more explicit, but that is no ground for placing it outside academic boundaries; 2) when firmly rooted in the study of the past and present of the discursive tradition, normative theological studies also produce knowledge that is relevant for non-theological scholars of Islam and that is methodologically and epistemologically equally accessible and verifiable to them. Islamic theology does thus not serve its own disciplinary interests alone and therefore deserves a place within academia. A institutional space separate from religious studies may avoid the annoyance of Hughes-like critics at the presence in their midst of alleged apologetic theologians in disguise.
I can only agree with Hughes that the manipulation of historical data and apologetics should have no place in the study of religion – or in any study whatsoever, I may add, whether academic or non-academic. I agree with Siddiqui therefore, that this relatively new presence of Islamic normativity in the field should not lead to compromising general academic values, as she thoughtfully argues: ‘Now that normative projects are articulated within Islamic Studies, scholars should ensure that these projects are subjected to analysis and critique’ (Siddiqui, 2019: 24). What I have dubbed ‘historically and sociologically informed normativity’ in this article is, in my opinion, the only way forward for the normative theological study of Islam in an academic setting. It is a guarantee of verifiable scholarly quality, of the possibility of fair and serious critique of its contents, and of recognition that the future of the discursive tradition can only be negotiated through an honest and non-manipulative reflection on its past and present. Muslims have the right to normatively debate the future of Islam’s discursive tradition as much as has often been the case with non-Muslim studies of Islam. Siddiqui rightly states in her critique of Chaudhry that ‘Normativity is now a part of the study of Islam and it cannot, and should not be removed. Normative arguments, in turn, should be subject to the same debate and analysis as other scholarly works’ (ibid.).
A conflict between ‘regular’ Islamic studies and the new field of Islamic theology is really not as rampant in the European context as some may want us to believe. Only where Islamic theology takes the form of normatively speaking about God and His interaction with creation, or touches upon conceptions of Heilsgeschichte concerning its earliest history, do epistemological conflicts really arise. But the investigation and interpretation of the past and present discursive tradition has the potential to become a shared conversation in all respects. Islamic theologians and Islamicists have the fullest right to scrutinize each other’s scholarship with regard to academic rigour and methodological consistency, as well as each other’s position within power structures, and correct each other where necessary. The field of tafsir studies may be a good space of experimentation for both Islamicists and Islamic theologians to come to terms with each other’s scholarship.
This work is part of the research program “The origins, growth and dissemination of Salafi Qur’an interpretation: the role of al-Qasimi (d. 1914) in the shift from premodern to modern modes of interpretation” (Project no. 016.Veni.195.105), financed by the Dutch Research Council (NWO).
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I did not take into account publications in other languages such as Turkish and Arabic.
Klausing’s work is the result of a dissertation from the Seminar für Arabistik at Freie Universität Berlin and is thus strictly not part of the knowledge production of Islamic theology departments.
My italics. Siddiqui also refers to the importance of Asad’s definition in her rebuttal of Chaudhry (Siddiqui, 2019: 6).
Jawad Qureshi (2018) has formulated a possible solution to the conflict between insider and outsider perspectives on Islam’s origins to which I am quite sympathetic. He claims Orientalism is itself also a ‘discursive tradition’, and proposes to consider the differing epistemologies of etic Orientalism and emic Islamic traditionalism as a kind of bilingualism. The Muslim academic can code switch between the two, so to speak. This approach partly solves this perceived conflict on the level of teaching at least – stimulating awareness of differing premises is even a useful and praiseworthy academic skill in which to train one’s students. I doubt whether it also solves the conundrum for one’s own academic writings.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his perennialist school – who have a firm place in North American academia – may come close to this in their study of the Sufi tradition, their resistance to historicism and their call for a revival of Islamic metaphysical thought, but their works nevertheless have more than enough useful historical data to offer historians who do not share their epistemological paradigm.
See for example the criticism Machteld Zee and Ruud Koopmans have received on their research. Criticism on their work is not per se aimed at their obvious political positionality in itself (which entails normative claims on the future of Islam’s discursive tradition; they have clear ideas on how Muslims should develop their ideas and practices to fit within a liberal-secular nation state), but rather on how this contaminated their research methodology and analysis of data of the present practice of Muslims. (De Koning and Sunier, 2020).
A good example of this is Sean Anthony’s latest monograph. In his introduction he is clear about his humanist positionality in the history of religion: ‘This is not a call for the politicization of scholarship on early Islam, but merely to recognize that not only the findings of historical research but also its very undertaking have ramifications for our time. In the cosmopolitan pursuit of an understanding of Muḥammad’s life as a historical figure, the formation of his image among early Muslims, and the history-bound contingency of our knowledge about him and the stories of his life, we find a common humanity’ (Anthony, 2020: 20).
For a discussion of the distinction between facts and values in the work of Weber and his ‘noble nihilism’, see Strauss (1953: 40ff).
This is a personal observation. It would be useful to investigate further whether and how this process of influence takes place by conducting in-depth interviews with scholars within Islamic Studies (both Muslim and non-Muslim) and Muslims who are in contact with them.