Book: Identity, Politics and the Study of Islam
Chapter: 2. I Want My Discipline Back
The appearance of Islam in the contemporary world is marked by its disruptive role. Mainly, this disruption is represented through international crisis or social and cultural problems of cohesion and integration; however, there is also an epistemological dimension. This epistemological dimension takes the form of a recurring series of disputes within the US academy over the status of Islamic Studies and related disciplines. If one steps back from the often personalized, and occasionally petty tones of these debates in which academic reputations and careers are ventured, it is possible to see the contours of this epistemological conflict: In one corner are those who believe that their venerable discipline has been invaded by ‘identity politics’ or ‘political correctness’ or anti-Americanism or whatever is the current designation of the latest threat to the civilizing mission as we know it. In the opposite corner are those who seem in the claims on behalf of the discipline to conduct business as usual the dead weight of privilege and power. The recent spat between Omid Safi and Aaron Hughes seems to be another instance of the epistemological dislocation marked by the way in which Islam seems to also disrupt the conventional wisdom of scholarship on Muslims, Islam and the Islamicate. Both sides of the debate may not share the same understanding of the ‘Western tradition of scholarly discourse’, they may not even agree with intrinsic and necessary relationship between Western values and universal values, but they share an intensely parochial take on what is at stake and thus miss the transformations in the conditions that make the discipline of Islamic Studies and its cognates possible. There is a need to recognize that current disciplines are reflections not timeless verities but contingent historical processes. Rather than trying to reform Islamic Studies or Religious Studies, there is need to decolonize these disciplines. This decolonial move is what I describe as Critical Muslim Studies.