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Introduction

Negotiating Relevant Islamic Knowledge for European Muslims

In: Journal of Religion in Europe
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Simon Stjernholm University of Copenhagen Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies Copenhagen Denmark

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Within the wide-ranging study of Islam and Muslims in Europe, there are numerous works that in one way or the other relate to the role, status, and content of Islamic knowledge in Europe. One notable publication is Martin van Bruinessen and Stefano Allievi’s edited volume Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe.1 In that book, different Muslim actors and their various audiences are investigated with a focus on what counts as authoritative knowledge in certain settings. The diverse roles of Muslims with certain forms of learning are also examined. Its contributing authors investigate a selection of Muslim communities as well as particular intellectual and communicative fields and practices. More recently, Masooda Bano has authored and edited several works that look more closely at transnational Muslim schools of thought and educational traditions with important trajectories in European settings.2 In addition, several works in recent years, in particular anthropological ones, have offered detailed insights into how individuals and local groups have engaged themselves in the production, reception, negotiation, and reformulation of distinct aspects of Islamic knowledge traditions, often in convergence with types of knowledge not typically seen as Islamic.3

This special issue can be seen as contributing to a continuation of these previous investigations, where the article authors have sought to engage with how questions as well as with what questions. This means that in addition to examining what the Islamic messages that are produced and communicated in our case studies consist of, we are also interested in, for example, how communication and learning take place, how different types of knowledge are received and combined, and how discursive and non-discursive aspects—such as bodily behavior and skills—work together.

The title of the issue, Negotiating Relevant Islamic Knowledge for European Muslims, naturally means that an ever-recurring question that cannot be avoided is: What is Islamic knowledge? Can it be recognized, delimited, and defined? If so, how? Martin van Bruinessen, in his introductory chapter to the edited volume mentioned above, uses the term to mean “whatever Muslims consider to be correct or proper belief or practice—in the widest meaning of those words, and including non-discursive, embodied forms of knowledge.”4 This understanding of what should be deemed Islamic builds on Talal Asad’s influential concept of a “discursive tradition” in which various more or less local “orthodoxies” exist in parallel with each other.5 Van Bruinessen further notes that “the context in which Islamic knowledge is being produced and reproduced is likely to have a significant impact on the process of knowledge production and the specific forms of knowledge that emerge.”6 Put differently, Islamic knowledge can be practically anything, anywhere, given that some who identify as Muslims regard it to be “correct or proper belief or practice,” and both the process by which this evaluation takes place and the characteristics of this resulting knowledge are likely to differ significantly according to context. I am not aiming to debate these formulations or ideas, as they provide a useful—although vague—framework for the purpose of this special issue as well. Rather, I simply want to emphasize certain ways in which the concept of Islamic knowledge thus relates to many different kinds of practices, ideas, processes, and modes of being.

As a brief illustration of this point, we might think of the famous narrative in the so-called Hadith Jibril, in which the angel Jibril, in the presence of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions, asks the Prophet about the meaning of several important concepts, most prominent among them Islam, iman, and ihsan.7 For our purposes here, these three terms can be understood as referring to important complementary types of Islamic knowledge. While Islam, which can be translated as “submission,” has obviously come to signify the whole religious tradition in its fullness, in the context of the hadith, it instead points to certain required practices of worship; in short, the so-called five pillars of Islam. In this context, we can say that it answers the question, within an Islamic framework, “what should I do?” The second term, iman, can be translated as “faith,” and the Prophet’s response in the narrative mentions various items to believe in—God, messengers, angels, the Last Day, and so on. It can be said to answer the question “what should I believe?” The third term that the angel Jibril asks Muhammad about in the narrative, ihsan, can be translated as “spiritual perfection,” and in the hadith, Muhammad explains it as “to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you see Him not, He nevertheless sees you.” In the context of this discussion, it can be said to answer the question “what kind of person should I be?” This simple triad of questions can be said to represent essential types of Islamic knowledge. It points to a similarly wide array of possible variant answers as does the reasoning of van Bruinessen and Asad referred to above. Islamic answers to these questions—what should I do, what should I believe, and what kind of person who should I be?—will no doubt be formulated differently depending on where, when, and by whom the questions are posed. They will also range from very concrete bodily actions (including instructions like “hold your hand like this,” or “repeat these words”), to abstract concepts and ideas (such as how each action you perform will affect your afterlife), and aspects of one’s inner lifeworld (for example, the complex issue of how one feels when performing certain actions). The articles in this special issue aim to reflect this multiplicity concerning important what, how, when, and where aspects of what constitutes Islamic knowledge.

The title of this special issue furthermore adds two central concepts to that of Islamic knowledge, namely “negotiating” and “relevant.” The term “negotiation” points to the processual view that we advocate when looking at knowledge production. Islamic knowledge, also in its contextually specific form, is never fixed or finished—it is always in a state of becoming as new needs, opinions, and experiences arise with successive generations. The term “relevant” in turn serves to emphasize that it is not possible to know for certain in advance what will count as relevant to a particular individual or group. Types of knowledge that are sanctioned by a complex institution, such as a mosque or an educational structure, might not necessarily provide the type of knowledge that feels relevant to a particular individual or group, as it may not reflect the needs or “problem-space” of that local context at a certain time.8 Moreover, relevance may be dependent not just on semantic content (the “what”) but also on semiotic form (the “how”) and its reception or “fit” within certain ways of living a Muslim life. This means that specific uses of, for example, technology, language, and material objects such as clothing in crucial ways affect how a particular message will be received (or not) in a particular setting. For those aiming to persuade or instruct a specific audience, for example, a young and culturally diverse generation of Muslims in a European country, in aspects of Islam that they consider important, it is therefore necessary to find ways of giving form to the message that resonates with that audience. This might require some form of adaptation of one’s way of teaching a class on religious principles, engaging children in theater productions rather than simply lecturing to them, or trying out new oral genres for discussing and negotiating Muslim ways of life in ways that can make sense.9

The last part of the issue’s title specifies that the negotiation of relevant Islamic knowledge concerns “European Muslims.” This choice of words, rather than possible alternatives like “Muslims in Europe” or “Islam in Europe,” is deliberate and carries some significance. To once again refer to the 2011 volume Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe, Stefano Allievi in his chapter pointed to an ongoing process of transition from the recent “existence of two cultural worlds (Islam and Europe)” to a situation where “Islam has become part of the European religious and social landscape (Islam in Europe).”10 Allievi continues to note that:

Now, with the passage from one generation to another, we are increasingly facing a shift from the previous situation (Islam in Europe) to a third phase, which we might call the phase and process of indigenization of Islam (in which an Islam of Europe may be emerging). As a subcategory of the latter, both social behaviour and a new intellectualization produced by Muslims are showing the growth of a newer process: the construction of a European Islam.11

The development of European Islam has received the attention of many researchers during the more than a decade since (as well as before) these words were published. Often, there has been a relatively large focus on ideas, institutions, and certain figures of authority.12 While all these focus points are relevant, arguably there is still a need for more engagement with how ideas and ideals are made sense of in people’s actual lives, as well as on actors, practices, and modes of communication that go well beyond the “typical” Muslim settings of mosques, sermons, and established rituals.

In this special issue, then, we have sought to supplement earlier research on Islamic knowledge in Europe by focusing on, on the one hand, different negotiations of what constitutes “relevant Islamic knowledge” in various settings, and, on the other hand, different modes of engaging with such forms of knowledge, including non-discursive or embodied aspects. This means that we have sought to analyze the how in addition to the what of Islamic knowledge production and negotiation in European settings. The issue brings together four research articles, each of which deals with distinct practices, groups, and contexts, including Muslims from Denmark, Norway, and Germany. There is significant variation among the contributions, as authors focus on, for example, both formal and informal Islamic education; adults and children, women and men; public, semi-public, and private modes of communication; embodied aspects such as journeying, performing, conversing, exercising, laughing, and planning one’s time. Despite this variation within and among the articles, certain shared features bring them together. All of them concern how what is deemed as relevant Islamic knowledge locally is being produced, communicated, and made sense of by particular Muslim actors in their respective social, religious, and linguistic environments. Moreover, most of the different Muslim actors investigated in the articles gathered here are closer to the young end of the age spectrum rather than the old.

In Maximilian Lasa’s article, the motivations and experiences of young German Muslims who have traveled to Turkey in order to study at the International Theology Program are investigated. Using the concepts aspiration and emerging adulthood to analyze his material, Lasa finds that the students in their individual ways “were navigating a period of emerging adulthood in which they were able and allowed to explore various sources of meaning.” A high degree of Islamic piety was not necessarily the starting point of the students’ educational trajectory, yet they were, in Lasa’s words, “exploring piety” as one mode of being and learning alongside, and in necessary conjuncture with, other sources of meaning. Through his analysis, Lasa contributes to existing research on higher Islamic education with a much-needed focus on individual motivations, experiences, and narratives.

Maria Lyngsøe devotes her article to analyzing how Danish Muslim women make time and space for engaging in a continuous search for Islamic knowledge while also leading busy lives that include study, work, and family obligations. Lyngsøe points to several supplementary “routes to Islamic knowledge” and emphasizes the importance of “pious socialities” for the process of making the search for Islamic knowledge meaningful. The article thus highlights the temporal and social aspects of these women’s striving to continuously engage with forms of Islamic learning. Among other factors, motherhood is shown to be highly important, as it both “made their engagement in Islamic education more difficult to maintain,” and at the same time motivated their continued learning as “they wanted to be knowledgeable enough to teach their children.”

In attempts to pass on core parts of one’s religious tradition to children, forms of education that depart from a classical hierarchical instructive teaching can be highly effective. By focusing on theater productions related to the commemoration of Imam Hussein and his companions’ deaths at Kerbala in 680 CE, Ingvild Flaskerud shows how embodied and sensory engagements with the well-known story make young actors relate to the felt suffering and meaning of these experiences in a different way than through simply listening to or reading about them. Flaskerud discusses ways in which a combination of stage design, props, and actors’ bodies contributed to knowledge that was seen to “emerge from the spectators’ and actors’ aesthetic and affective experiences,” leading to a different form of understanding than oral or textual instruction. One of the participants Flaskerud quotes expresses it thus: “It is like you live the part, feel that you are in the place of the person you act.”

The article by Simon Stjernholm analyses how Muslim speakers and producers in a minority setting use the podcast genre to engage with topics related to Islam in ways that resonate with their experiences. Stjernholm examines three recent podcast series produced by Muslims in Denmark. The article focuses on both aural and discursive aspects of the concept of “voice” and offers an analytical distinction between “being” and “having” a Muslim voice. Pointing to, for example, aural dimensions such as the sound of laughter, or discussions of various instances of recitation of the Qurʾan, Stjernholm discusses how the podcast genre appears to provide the studied Muslim speakers and producers with opportunities for “giving an account of oneself that can give the speaker a sense of resonance, being heard, and making a difference.”

There is still much to be said about the negotiation of relevant Islamic knowledge for European Muslims. Nevertheless, we hope that the contributions included in this special issue will help develop existing research by emphasizing a number of how questions in addition to what questions.

Acknowledgments

The preparation of this special issue and the research resulting in most of its content was funded by Velux Fonden, grant no. 00021825.

1

Martin van Bruinessen and Stefano Allievi, (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe (London: Routledge, 2011).

2

See, e.g., Masooda Bano, Modern Islamic Authority and Social Change: Evolving Debates in the West, Vol. 2: Evolving Debates in the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018); Masooda Bano, The Revival of Islamic Rationalism: Logic, Metaphysics and Mysticism in Modern Muslim Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

3

See, e.g., Jeanette S. Jouili, Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015); Anabel Inge, The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Giulia Liberatore, Somali, Muslim, British: Striving in Securitized Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2017); Mieke Groeninck, “Reforming the Self, Unveiling the World: Islamic Religious Knowledge Transmission for Women in Brussels’ Mosques and Institutes from a Moroccan Background,” PhD diss. (Leuven: KU Leuven, 2017); Nadia Fadil, “Recalling the ‘Islam of the Parents’ Liberal and Secular Muslims Redefining the Contours of Religious Authenticity,” Identities 24/1 (2017), 82–99; Daan Beekers, Young Muslims and Christians in a Secular Europe: Pursuing Religious Commitment in the Netherlands (London: Bloomsbury, 2021); Thijl Sunier, Making Islam Work: Islamic Authority among Muslims in Western Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2024).

4

Martin van Bruinessen, “Producing Islamic Knowledge in Western Europe: Discipline, Authority, and Personal Quest,” in Martin van Bruinessen and Stefano Allievi (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe (London: Routledge, 2011), 1.

5

Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1986).

6

Bruinessen, “Producing Islamic Knowledge in Western Europe,” 2.

7

This very well-known report can be found in the hadith collection Sahih Muslim, but is also reproduced in, for example, Bano, The Revival of Islamic Rationalism, 51 (who quotes its rendering in Nuh Ha Mim Keller, “The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islamic Sciences,” 1995, http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/sufitlk.htm). Bano uses the hadith in order to explain key aspects of how a particular, traditional-minded, group of contemporary Islamic scholars view Islamic tradition. My comments on the hadith here are admittedly simplistic and do not in any way exhaust—or aim to exhaust—its meaning potential.

8

On David Scott’s useful concept “problem-space,” see e.g., David Scott, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); David Scott, “The Temporality of Generations: Dialogue, Tradition, Criticism,” New Literary History 45/2 (2014), 157–181.

9

For further elaboration, see Simon Stjernholm, “DIY Preaching and Muslim Religious Authority,” Journal of Muslims in Europe 8/2 (2019), 197–215; Simon Stjernholm, “Brief Reminders: Muslim Preachers, Mediation, and Time,” in Simon Stjernholm and Elisabeth Özdalga (eds.), Muslim Preaching in the Middle East and Beyond: Historical and Contemporary Case Studies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 132–151.

10

Stefano Allievi, “Muslim Voices, European Ears: Exploring the Gap between the Production of Islamic Knowledge and its Reception,” in Martin van Bruinessen and Stefano Allievi (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe (London: Routledge, 2011), 31.

11

Allievi, “Muslim Voices, European Ears,” 31.

12

For a small selection, see e.g., Jocelyne Cesari, (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of European Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Mohammed Hashas, Jan Jaap de Ruiter, and Niels Valdemar Vinding, Imams in Western Europe: Developments, Transformations, and Institutional Challenges (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018); Mohammed Hashas, The Idea of European Islam: Religion, Ethics, Politics and Perpetual Modernity (London: Routledge, 2019).

References

  • Allievi, Stefano, “Muslim Voices, European Ears: Exploring the Gap between the Production of Islamic Knowledge and Its Reception,” in Martin van Bruinessen and Stefano Allievi (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe (London: Routledge, 2011), 2846.

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  • Asad, Talal, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, 1986).

  • Bano, Masooda, Modern Islamic Authority and Social Change, Vol. 2: Evolving Debates in the West (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

  • Bano, Masooda, The Revival of Islamic Rationalism: Logic, Metaphysics and Mysticism in Modern Muslim Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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  • Beekers, Daan, Young Muslims and Christians in a Secular Europe: Pursuing Religious Commitment in the Netherlands (London: Bloomsbury, 2021).

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  • Bruinessen, Martin van. “Producing Islamic Knowledge in Western Europe: Discipline, Authority, and Personal Quest,” in Martin van Bruinessen and Stefano Allievi (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe (London: Routledge, 2011), 127.

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  • Bruinessen, Martin van, and Stefano Allievi, (eds.), Producing Islamic Knowledge: Transmission and Dissemination in Western Europe (London: Routledge, 2011).

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    • Export Citation
  • Cesari, Jocelyne, (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of European Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • Fadil, Nadia, “Recalling the ‘Islam of the Parents’ Liberal and Secular Muslims Redefining the Contours of Religious Authenticity,” Identities 24/1 (2017), 8299.

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  • Groeninck, Mieke, “Reforming the Self, Unveiling the World: Islamic Religious Knowledge Transmission for Women in Brussels’ Mosques and Institutes from a Moroccan Background,” PhD diss. (Keuven: KU Leuven, 2017).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hashas, Mohammed, Jan Jaap de Ruiter, and Niels Valdemar Vinding, (eds.), Imams in Western Europe: Developments, Transformations, and Institutional Challenges (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hashas, Mohammed, The Idea of European Islam: Religion, Ethics, Politics and Perpetual Modernity (London: Routledge, 2019).

  • Inge, Anabel, The Making of a Salafi Muslim Woman: Paths to Conversion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

  • Jouili, Jeanette S., Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keller, Nuh Ha Mim, “The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islamic Sciences,” 1995, http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/sufitlk.htm.

  • Liberatore, Giulia, Somali, Muslim, British: Striving in Securitized Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2017).

  • Scott, David, Conscripts of Modernity: The Tragedy of Colonial Enlightenment (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

  • Scott, David, “The Temporality of Generations: Dialogue, Tradition, Criticism,” New Literary History 45/2 (2014), 157181.

  • Stjernholm, Simon, “Brief Reminders: Muslim Preachers, Mediation, and Time,” in Simon Stjernholm and Elisabeth Özdalga (eds.), Muslim Preaching in the Middle East and Beyond: Historical and Contemporary Case Studies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020), 132151.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Stjernholm, Simon, “DIY Preaching and Muslim Religious Authority,” Journal of Muslims in Europe 8/2 (2019), 197215.

  • Sunier, Thijl, Making Islam Work: Islamic Authority among Muslims in Western Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2024).

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