Monday, April 21, 2014

Taking Care of Jesus and Muhammad: Reflections on Islamic Studies

The recent debate sparked by Aaron Hughes’ response to Omid Safi’s article on the state of Islamic studies in North America has again prompted discussion of emic-etic tension, of whether scholars of religion are ‘critics’ or ‘caretakers’ (to use Russell McCutcheon’s terms). In the articles and in the comments section questions about the impact of September 11 on Islamic studies were raised, as well as contentious labelling of those undertaking the quest for the historical Muhammad as ‘Islamophobe’, ‘racist’, or ‘colonial invader’. ‘Carl’, commenting on Hughes’ article, suggested that such categorisations of those ‘whose sole “mistake” is to approach Muhammad as Albert Schweitzer did of Jesus in 1910’ were ‘unfair’  but ‘should certainly not be unexpected (we can ‘thank’ Edward Said for this). As such, the tension here is not simply religious, but political as well (if, indeed, the two are not, in reality, one).’
I cannot assess Carl’s claim for the simple reason that I lack familiarity with scholarship on Muhammad. But these issues are not restricted to Islamic studies, of course. That September 11 changed the ways Islamic studies is understood is not difficult to imagine. But related issues have been intensified in the past decade or so in biblical studies, or at least the sub-field of New Testament studies. Despite the long history of ‘did it really happen or not?’ or ‘did Jesus say it or not?’, post-September 11 has seen the emergence of intensified polarised mainstream debates where scholars have identified or been identified as ‘conservatives’, ‘evangelicals’, ‘agnostics’, ‘atheists’, and ‘secularists’. We have seen mainstream books ‘proving’ the resurrection of Jesus, showing that the Gospels were eyewitness accounts of the historical Jesus and, perhaps as a reaction, even the emergence close to the mainstream of ‘mythicist’ arguments which have claimed that Jesus did not exist. Irrespective of whether these arguments are right or wrong they remain tied to the kinds of intensified ‘culture wars’ after September 11 and, in certain cases, there are some fairly clear Orientalist discourses too. In one sense, we could be more positive in our ‘thanks’ to Said: it is possible to imagine – let us say hypothetically for now – that September 11 has generated controversial interests in reconstructing Muhammad or Jesus which cohere with broader Orientalist or ‘New Atheist’ agendas (the two can overlap, as Carl implied, albeit slightly differently).
Providing historical and ideological contexts for scholarship is one thing; it is not so easy to provide an answer to what can be done in terms of (say) historical research. The quest for a given historical figure does not necessarily have to be part of such agendas and the relationship between scholarly intentions and cultural context is not straightforward, even if historical reconstructions cannot escape contemporary politicised discourses. Indeed, cultural contexts we may not like can generate questions we might find interesting and may have otherwise missed. I personally dislike a lot of New Atheist discourse, particularly as it seems to me to have strong idealist, ahistorical and Orientalist tendencies, but its prominence also provides an opportunity to raise questions about the dominance of theology in the field that might not have been so easy ten years earlier. And explaining the interrelationship of scholarly and cultural tendencies hardly means giving up the enterprise of (say) historical research. Issues surrounding the ‘historical Muhammad’ or the ‘historical Jesus’ are obviously still open to (or theoretically should be) assessment, evidence and argument (as Hughes and Carl stress). I do not have a satisfactory answer to how we deal with this tension between scholarly contexts and historical reconstruction, other than an ideal of a radical ‘anything goes’ attitude to accepting that any question, no matter how uncomfortable, can be raised in academia, or at least should be allowed. Carl’s further suggestion that we take advantage of such scholarly flashpoints to study the tensions between the ‘confusing morass of theologians and Humanities scholars’ seems worth pursuing. One of the functions of an academic society like AAR can be, and presumably is, to provide a venue for such controversies and academics have enough control and privilege to promote and engage in such debate.
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