Some more apologies, and some actual content

So I am continuing to not be dead – the last few months have been . . . well, I’ve been spending a lot of time just keeping my head above water, let’s go with that.  However, my schedule has at least settled down a bit, so I’m hoping to return to some of my older projects, this site included.  In sha’allah, I can get back to updating at least once a week.

I’m also in the process of reading through the backlog of my RSS feed (it’s down below 600!  hurray!), and came across this post from Ozy over at No, Seriously, What About teh Menz?[1], in which zie[2] discusses wiping the phrase ‘go educate yourself’ off the planet.  Although zie is talking more about the realm of gender theory and feminism, I have to admit, as an Islamicist, I’m inclined to second zir vote.

Ozy hits many of the high points when it comes to educating people about Islam and religious studies for the sake of clarifying public discourse – that it’s not actually a moral obligation that people educate themselves, if they don’t want to be educated it would actually be immoral to coerce them; that similarly it’s not a moral obligation that people with the relevant information go out and find people to educate, especially as those people may be resistant, uninterested, far away, etc; that trying to bring everyone into every discussion can actually hinder some of those discussions, especially when it comes to theory or more abstract conversations (or in the case of religious studies, when it comes to anything involving history, as people are often incredibly uncomfortable being taught their own history, particularly when it deviates from the history they have used to define their identity[3]), but zie misses one that is particularly important to the study of religion in general and Islam in particular: education is essentially political.

Someone has to pick what is studied, and how.  Someone has to pick which authors to recommend, and which to overlook or de-emphasize.  Someone sets the methodological, historical, geographical and theoretical boundaries for the subject.  And no one could be expected to do so in a vacuum – the reality is that people do so based on current circumstance, based on the available sources but also based on the intended outcome of studying the subject.  And unfortunately, often later generations of scholars inherit that tradition without understand the circumstance in which it arose.

Islamic studies is an apt, if often depressing, example.  The development of the field in the West corresponds to the Western awareness of the Middle East, and not in a good way – for example, the first Western translations of the Qur’an were produced during the Crusades.  Admittedly, some of these translations were used to further understanding of Islam, but for the most part, they were used to produce apologetic responses to Islam during the brief period in which Westerners (outside of the Iberian peninsula) were face-to-face with Muslims.  Much of the modern field has developed out of the related fields of Biblical studies and Semitic studies (meaning the study of Semitic languages, mostly Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and corresponds to the period of Western imperialism in Egypt, the Levant and South Asia.

This isn’t a critique of the field – I have no doubt that most, if not all, of the scholars in the nineteenth century were intelligent, diligent scholars who studied Muslims and the Middle East out of genuine interest – it’s simply our history.  The field has never been independent from political interests, and often this has severely hindered both the field and foreign policy.  My favorite example of this dual detriment – one of the first complete, Western histories of South Asia was written by James Mills, father of the philosopher John Stuart Mills, and was used to educate British civil servants being sent to serve in India.  So far, so good, right?  Educating people before shipping them half-way around the world good, yes?

Well, yes, but unfortunately, Mills wrote his history based on the available sources in the West and predominately those in Western languages (as no manual for learning Indian languages existed in the West[4]), and he never traveled to India.  Thus, his history is based predominately on third- or fourth-generation translations of Medieval and early modern histories that had trickled into the West through Persian and Arabic, to Greek or Latin, and then to English, mixed with the personal accounts of the British sailors and soldiers to first invaded the subcontinent.  Despite the academic deficiencies of the work, however, his account of the rise of the British Raj was so influential that it can be seen to dramatically change how the British ruled Indian in the early nineteenth century.

Modern historians have a tendency to paint Mills as an evil imperialist, intentionally belittling the Indian civilizations in order to bolster British authority, but I honestly believe he would have written the same history even if his intentions were good, just because the sources he was working with had passed through several other civilizations that, at various times, had gone to war and attempted to conquer India.  But whether crazed megalomaniac or failed scholar, the fact remains that much of what India became in the nineteenth century, and what it remains today, stems from that man’s work.

Today, there is hardly a greater separation between the academic study of the Middle East and the political interest in the area – several eminent scholars, including Bernard Lewis and John Woods, have been used by the US government as consultants about the Middle East.  And with good reason, as these men are incredibly learned about the area and its history.  But their knowledge is not the end-all, be-all of knowledge of the Middle East, and, more importantly, they’re not infallible.  The unfortunate reality of academic study is that no matter who you are, no matter what you do, about half of our collective research will, in a hundred years, look as ridiculous as phrenology seems now.

And that’s the sad reality of education – it’s essentially political, but it’s also essentially personal.  People’s livelihoods depend on their theories, and, as I’ve been rather sharply reminded lately, they will often fight fiercely to protect those theories.  One of the most interesting discussions I had as a graduate student was with the Chair of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford, discussing the first time she had to contradict herself in an article, how difficult it was to admit that her thinking on the subject had changed and that she no longer agreed with what she had written before, and she works on early Medieval British religious history, a field with comparatively little impact on modern political action.  For scholars in fields like Islamic studies where our theories are often integrated into foreign policy and can end up affecting the lives of millions, I genuinely don’t know how you bring yourself to announce, ‘actually, no, given what we know now, that’s no longer the best answer.’  But that always has to be an option in academia.  As the Mythbusters say, ‘failures is *always* an option.’

From my experience of Islamic studies, it’s something we don’t talk about enough.  And I understand why – it’s big and scary, and implies that we could be ruining the world, or at least big sections of it.  But that’s the fact of our field, and if we can’t accept that, we all better get out now.

[1] No, Seriously is a blog that discusses the effects of  the kyriachy on men, so not really related to Islamic history or religious studies at all, but if you’re at all interested in issues of feminism, sexism, gender identity or gender theory, I’d definitely recommend giving it a read.  As someone who has often resisted identifying as a feminist in part because the movement seems to have so actively ignored men’s voices, I’ve been really excited to read what Ozy and Noah, and the Good Men Project more generally, have produced.

[2] For the uninitiated, the definition of zie.  For anyone who reads my blog who is curious why it’s appearing here, I generally don’t use it unless I know it’s the preferred pronoun of the person I’m citing.  I would like to use it in cases where the gender of the author is unknown to me, but unfortunately it’s not widely accepted in academic writing, which tends towards ‘he’ as the neuter pronoun, and I have received the standard resistance about ‘complicating’ things.  I may start using it here, although it simply doesn’t come up very often that I don’t know the preferred pronoun of a blogger or writer, as most have bios to which I can refer (I admit, not a perfect system, but at least a pretty good guideline, in my experience).  This has turned it a slightly random diversion, but any suggestions from the audience?  Do any of the other bloggers out there have a definite pronoun policy?

[3] My favorite example of this problem still comes from my intro to Islamic history course as an undergraduate at Chicago – in the third term, which covered modern Middle Eastern history, when we got to Turkish history, the lecturer felt the need to open the lecture by saying, ‘okay, I know there are some Turks in this class.  Could you raise your hands so I know where you are?  Okay, thanks – so here’s the thing, a lot of what we’re going to discuss is going to contradict with what you were taught in school.  I know this.  Please could you just hold your questions until the discussion session [the class was half-lecture, half-seminar] and we’ll talk about it then?’  To this day, I’m not sure if that was the ‘right’ thing to do, but the reality is that there is good evidence to suggest that the Turkish government has rewritten some of its own history, and that was going to affect directly on the Turkish students in the class.

[4] Despite a personal fascination with Mills, I’m still not clear if he spoke any South Asian languages – the descriptions I’ve found have always said that he was ‘generally’ dependent on sources in Western languages, so not quite sure what that means.


About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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3 Responses to Some more apologies, and some actual content

  1. Brin says:

    I doubt I’m the only one who took note of the “her” in “who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.” When I don’t have signs like that and can’t find them after a bit of searching, I use “they”.

    Good to have you back!

  2. Pingback: On the study of the Qur’an in the West | askanislamicist

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