Book: Identity, Politics and the Study of Islam
Chapter: 3. Religion, History, Ethics: Rethinking the Crisis of Western Qur’anic Studies
What reading practices and literary sensibilities are appropriate for understanding scripture? How are different modes of historical inquiry linked to various socio-political projects? What is the proper function of critique in a (post)secular world? These timely questions constitute, we argue here, the stakes underlying contemporary debates in the field of Qur’anic studies. In this article we trace the emergence of a mode of practical history concerned with the relation between historical inquiry and ethical commitment. This historiographic mode, prompted by the reconfiguration of Qur’anic studies in the aftermath of 9/11, contrasts with the resilient ideal of disinterested scholarship that has dominated the field for most of its modern history. The onset of practical history coincides with broader institutional transformations that have unsettled the field’s regime of truth, expressed in a set of oppositions between secular Reason and religious commitment, Science and politics, the West and Islam. Rather than the widely invoked methodological challenge posed by revisionist approaches to the history of the Qur’an, it is perhaps the blurring of these constitutive binaries that best explains why the diagnosis of “crisis” and “disarray” has proliferated in spite of the field’s obvious vitality.