Yesterday evening, as I happened to be walking to the Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, I noticed this amusing piece of street art:
(Moray Place, Dunedin, New Zealand – Artist unknown)
Not bad … but wrong font choice.
Yesterday evening, as I happened to be walking to the Banksy film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, I noticed this amusing piece of street art:
(Moray Place, Dunedin, New Zealand – Artist unknown)
Not bad … but wrong font choice.
There are quite a few academic and quasi-academic studies in which statistical analysis seems to be employed as a substitute for thinking. It is, perhaps, fairly understandable why some people are tempted by the allure of numbers. Those mysteriously complex formulae, mindnumblingly boring statistics and obscure mathematical notations lend a magical aura of scientific objectivity and plausibility to even the most patently absurd claims.
What gets me talking about this at this moment is my dumbfounded reading last night of an article published by Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew, entitled “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” (2009). In this article, the McGrews utilize Bayesian probability in order to argue to the “scientific” conclusion that the probability of the resurrection of Jesus is a “staggering” 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.
Are you staggered? overwhelmed? swooning? Were you previously skeptical about the Christian claim that Jesus was resurrected, but now you’re feeling pretty silly? Perhaps not.
There is nothing new about these kind of claims. You can find similar claims in populist apologetic works ranging from Robert Anderson’s The Coming Prince to Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands A Verdict. And in every case, the flimsy basis for the odds is covered over by meaningless statistics that are intended only to impress. What is disturbing about the McGrews’ article is that it appears in a volume published by academic publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, and is typical of the approach of those trying to “resurrect” that impossibly inconclusive field known as Natural Theology. While both of the editors of the volume are academics, one, William Lane Craig, is better known for engaging in popular apologetic debates, and the other, J.P. Moreland has recently disclosed that he once “had an encounter with three angels.” This descent of purportedly academic publications and fields to the field of popular apologetics has its counterpart in recent biblical studies publications where the line between the apologetics and scholarship is increasingly hard to draw. Essentially apologetic works such as N.T. (Tom) Wright’s The Resurrection of The Son of God and Joseph (“The Pope”) Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth have been widely received within New Testament studies, a field now dominated by U.S. Southern Baptist Seminaries and Universities – a state of affairs which has meant that even a book as out-of-touch with scholarship as the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth could be largely uncriticized within the field and in fact championed by scholars in the response volume, The Pope and Jesus of Nazareth: Christ, Scripture and the Church (2009).
The major trick Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew pull when they produce their tremendous, if not entirely fanciful, odds for the resurrection of Jesus is to cover up the substantial issues regarding the resurrection of Jesus in layers of probability formulae. Moreover, by already assuming the accuracy of the Gospel accounts, the paper is as close to circular reasoning as one can get, without being completely circular. The assumptions pragmatically, if not technically a priori, rule out in advance any alternative explanations, because the Bible is assumed to provide the most accurate idea of what really happened: the major implication being that alternatives are already effectively deemed less likely. The whole exercise is deeply and unavoidably farcical. Therefore, as you read the following formulae, bear in mind that what their claim all boils down to is one very old and tired apologetic claim: if we accept the Gospel stories as credible eyewitness accounts (which is itself at best a highly disputed contention), the best explanation of what really happened is exactly what the Gospels claimed to have happened.
First up, here is the McGrews’ statistical formula for, in effect, saying “Given what the Bible says, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”
P(F1 & … & Fn|R) / P(F1 & … & Fn|~R) >>1
where P=’probability of’; F=’fact’; and ‘R’ is ‘resurrection’
The McGrews then provide a derived formula for multiple independent facts, which, again, basically says, “Given what the Bible says, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”
P(R|F1 & … & Fn)/P(~R|F1 & … & Fn) = P(R)/P(~R) x P(F1|R)/P(F1|~R) x … x P(Fn|R)/P(Fn|~R)
The McGrews then consider three “facts” (taken from the Bible) in order to apply this formula: the reports of the resurrection by the women who visited Jesus’ empty tomb (“W”); the testimony of the disciples (“D”); and the conversion of Paul (“P”, again). And this provides the following formula, which basically equates to the claim, “Given what the Bible says, especially about those women, disciples, and Paul’s conversion, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”
“P(R|F1 & … & Fn)/P(~R|F1 & … & Fn) = P(R)/P(~R) x P(W|R)/P(W|~R) x P(D|R)/P(D|~R)x P(P|R)/P(P|~R)
For reasons that escape both me and the authors themselves, the probability concerning the women is then assigned odds of 100:1, the disciples each 100:1, and Paul’s conversion 1000:1. As there are 13 “disciples” mentioned in the stories, the McGrews multiply the 100:1 odds for each one of the disciples – even though they all appear in the same story – to get 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000:1. And if you multiply that by the women’s odds (100:1) and the odds from Paul’s conversion (1000:1), you get another five zeroes: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.
Which is a real scientific way of saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”
What’s the one question that British novelist John le Carré would have asked Tony Blair, if he had had the chance? John le Carré answers in a recent interview with Democracy Now:
I think I would have asked him one question, perhaps, and I’d have asked it repeatedly. I’d have asked him about his faith, because we were told, when journalists asked about Blair’s faith, the reply was, “We don’t do God here.” Well, of course, he does do God, and he reports that his actions have been put before God and confirmed, as if somehow God has signed a chit for him. I think that the question of somebody’s religious faith is absolutely central to what we think of them, if we are members of the electorate. We have to know. If it is, for example, somebody’s conviction, widely held among Christians in the United States, that the second coming of Christ is not possible ’til the Greater Israel is established, we need to know that. That’s an important political perception. In Blair’s case, I would have asked him that question, and I’d have pressed him on it. I’d have asked him whether God had ever restrained him. I find it very strange that we elect a politician who then claims to serve a higher deity who guides him: “I did what I believe is right.” Well, will you tell us, please, how that relates to the Christian ethic? Do you believe in war first and negotiation afterwards? Exactly how does this work?
Short answer: Yes.
The long answer: So you remember Don Imus? The sports commentator who called the teenage girls of the Rutgers basketball team “nappy-headed hoes” and was dropped from NBC? How about Michael Richards—the guy who played Kramer on “Seinfeld,” caught on tape, a few years back, in a comedy club saying some nasty things to a bunch of black audience members who were heckling him?
Were they racist?
Of course they were. Despicable words. Race used as a weapon to casually demean and degrade people who have a long history of suffering indignity at the hands of others.
But there’s a twist. Both of these men almost immediately set out to make amends, to distance themselves as much as possible from those beliefs. Michael Richards famously appeared on Letterman, insisting “I’m not a racist” and calling what happened “insane.” Apologizing directly to both Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson on Jackson’s radio show, “Keep Hope Alive,” Richards said he wanted to find the two men he had verbally abused in his “three minutes of crap” and personally make amends. Imus also apologized, publicly on Sharpton’s radio show and privately to the Rutgers team at the New Jersey governor’s mansion.
And I believe, knowing that I’m treading the fine line between exoneration and explanation here, that even in a darkened bar in the desert at the edge of the world, these two men would never promote the beliefs that we have come to condemn as racist: They would never say, even away from the light of public scrutiny, that they believed one race was superior to another. And isn’t that, after all, what racism is?
And since, as anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller and the English Defence League are fond of reminding us, Islam is a religion, not a race, how is it possible that anti-Muslim prejudice is racist in the same way that anti-black or anti-Latino prejudice is racist?
During the 2008 election, Nicholas D. Kristof wrote a piece, “Racism Without Racists,” about new research coming out about our perceptions about race. For Kristof, “racism” in what we might call the “standard form” was hardly an issue at all in the 2008 campaign. The people who put up White Supremacist websites or organize hate groups weren’t making any significant dent in the polls, and they would have voted 95% Republican anyway. But, Kristof points out, an “unconscious” sense—something that springs up in our emotions and actions but never quite takes shape in words—that then-Senator Barack Obama was different, was Not-Like-Us, may have been at work, tinting perceptions of his character and intentions. It is this “soft racism” (no less cutting, but harder to identify and define) that Kristof diagnosed.
This was just as true in the 2008 election as it is with the Tea Party movements today (and the 2010 midterm elections they seek to influence). Very few of those folks out there at those rallies would stand up and tell you that whites are better than blacks—again, even behind closed doors. But the alarming increase in people—especially Republicans—who will tell you that President Barack Obama is a secret Muslim is evidence of how racism is actually symptomatic of something deeper: an impulse that lives in all of us to separate people out, to draw a hard line between Us and Not-Us.
Race is only the easiest, most obvious way that this can happen. Racial coding markers are in the open—they’re eminently visible, impossible to miss. And they work just as well for Muslims—who are often differentiated in America by clothing or skin color (how often is “Muslim” conflated with “Arab,” either in the US, ignoring the enormous population of African-American Muslims, or internationally, where many think that Saudi Arabia = Islam?)—but also by their “exotic” practices and rumors (the blogosphere burns with them, in the sense that a syphilis infection burns) of secret mandates, sick teachings, backwards worldviews.
This Us-Them game can happen on any battlefront. It happens with race just as easily as it happens with religion. It happens in non-white and non-Christian communities. (No more of the claim that some groups have become so ennobled by their own oppression that they are above the temptations to divide and hate that come along with being human. True nobility comes from knowing oneself, knowing these temptations and struggling against them—not pretending that we can achieve a sinless state.) It can even be applied to members of one’s own race or group—not white enough, not Jewish enough, not Muslim enough. Members of a community who express sympathy or solidarity with outsiders are often branded and shunned in this way—sometimes more violently than the outsiders themselves.
But there can be no doubt that this past summer, anti-Muslim attacks and episodes of discrimination skyrocketed. More and more, Americans—usually white Americans—wanted to turn Muslims away from these shores, ignorant of the fact that Muslims have been here for centuries, with thriving, well-established, peaceful, religious communities stretching back decades. (Why, I always want to ask people who claim that Islam is an “existential threat” to democracy, is the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism so very recent?) Although certain elements made a lot of noise about the proposed Park51 Islamic Community Center in downtown Manhattan—many of them claiming that they merely wanted it moved—the fact is that Muslim communities around the country have been subjected to terrorism and intimidation by angry non-Muslims. Muslims became the Not-Us, the Unwelcome, the They. Is there any difference between the death threats made against Martin Luther King, Jr., and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (and his wife, Daisy Khan, whose security detail I saw with my own eyes last week)? In both of these cases, we see the same goal, the same tactic, and the same underlying affect: an attempt to purify the social body through violence, to purge “foreign” elements, to return to a conservative fantasy of harmonious homogeneity that never existed.
I know what defenders of Islamophobia are going to say. They’re going to say that Islam “isn’t a religion, it’s an ideology, it’s a political system.” They’re going to say that Islam “requires” Muslims to kill infidels. They’re going to say that “all Muslims” want to impose “Sharia law” on the United States. They’re going to say that “any Muslim” who claims otherwise is practicing “taqiyya.”
And there are some people who are so fascinated by these ideas (or who have built a career out of them) that they will never, ever, ever give them up. But there are also people who hold these views, but genuinely want peace and want to understand Islam better. These people want to learn, want to hear that there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, but not one Pope, not one world council, no caliph or high Imam (as much as the American-backed dictators in the house of Sa’ud and the politically isolated Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei of Iran would like to persuade you otherwise) who speaks for (or to) the collective. Many want to know that, according to many commentators on Islam, Islam doesn’t even have priests, but only scholars offering opinions, interpretations of Islamic tradition. Many want to know that Islam may be the most diverse, pluralistic religion on earth. Many hear Daisy Khan when she asked on This Week on ABC, “Have you cut me open that you know my heart?”, and many understand.
Racism is not just a set of beliefs. It’s an impulse that lives in all of us. We need to be constantly asking ourselves: When I use these words of power, “We” and “They”—“They need to take responsibility,” “They need to speak up,” “They need to change”—who are “They”? Are “They” real people that we’ve listened to, shaken hands with, had a conversation with, or even seen with our own eyes? Or abstractions—composites, sketches made by filling in the blanks between a few terrible, misunderstood images—fairy tales told by those who traffic in fear? And me: what do I stand for when I use those words—and am I being true to my values? And am I honoring the people that I condemn (for condemn we must) to the best of my power?
I remember where I was on 9/11, and I remember the days after. I remember being swept up in that tide, that great, great tide that lifted so many of us up and gave us a Cause, an Answer, a Target, someone to blame, an easy solution to this extraordinarily difficult, extraordinarily unlikely problem. I remember how satisfying it was to be told that a clear enemy was in sight. I remember, and I am confident in confessing this only because, through conversations, I know it was shared by many others (though many more, wiser than I was at that young age, knew better), the thrill of feeling like a war was coming, a War that Would Change Everything. The fantasies of apocalypse that have driven every generation of human bodies since we could speak and dream of the future seemed to be made flesh.
And I am thankful that when that tide put me down, I was able to look back and say, “What just happened?” This is my answer.
Racism: using a person’s identity as a weapon against her. Racism: “You are not one of us. You are out in the cold. You can go to Hell.” But racism today is not what it is often mistaken for: a set of beliefs. Racism is a pulse, a surge of feeling that wells up in you. It is not a certainty you hold with all your heart, not an opinion you build and reflect on, not even something you say—though, as with Richards and Imus, the impulse can take its most virulent form in words. And, as with Islamophobia, those who have followed the pulse of hatred far and long enough to its cold, giddy outer reaches will always be able to come up with litanies of justifications for their beliefs. They are only the many masks worn by a deeper impulse that lurks in all of us, the face painted on the wall of the building where the real decisions are made. We must be forever vigilant against ourselves, against what rises up within us in moments of grief, anger, and righteousness. We must guard against the sweet, deadly playground games of Us-and-Them; we must ignore the distractions from the difficult, winding, and obscure paths of peace.
I met Daisy Khan, wife of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and one of the minds behind the Park51 project, when she came to my campus today, first at a lunch hosted by the interfaith Hendricks Chapel, then for an interview she gave with Professor Gustav Niebuhr of the Religion Department at the Newhouse building.
Tremendously impressive woman. Intelligent, articulate, compassionate and composed. I have to say I feel much more confident about the fate of the Park51 project knowing she is out there defending it.
Security was everywhere. I had heard about the death threats, of course, but it was still jaw-dropping to see how the rooms in the chapel and Newhouse building where Khan spoke were fortified, armed city and campus police officers and big guys in suits or tracksuits hanging around checking us out. I took a picture but didn’t want to make them nervous so gave my friend his phone back after just one. I also don’t know how to use camera phones and so that picture no longer exists.
Towards the end of her well-received talk at Newhouse, Professor Niebuhr opened the floor for questions, the second of which came from a guy wearing a lumpy, mismatched suit and sneakers in the front row.
He started out saying that he knew that many Arabs wished that the US would come to their countries to drill for oil, then demanded to know why Daisy Khan’s husband drove a two-ton SUV when he could have bought a Prius or Auris and fought terrorism that way.
Khan, completely unfazed, responded, flatly, “I don’t own an SUV and I don’t approve of SUVs.” The man sputtered for another minute before Niebuhr brusquely cut him off, much to the audience’s delight.
It occurred to me afterwards: this is this whole “controversy” in a nutshell. Some guy reads something on a blog somewhere–something he doesn’t like, something about Islam, or Park51, or Daisy Khan or Imam Rauf. He accepts it uncritically–without regard for context, counterpoint, or basic fact-checking. Then, armed with this new, secret insight into how the world works, he assigns to himself license to treat well-meaning people like dirt–with rudeness, disdain, or death threats.
I am not the kind of person to sit back and blame “The Media” or “The Mainstream Media” for any problem–that’s as dumb as blaming “The Muslims” or the “Homosexual Agenda.” But it seems to me that this is a moment, like the onset of the Iraq war in 2003, when the media allowed itself to get swept up and failed to do its job, becoming a tool of the right-wing political entities dedicated to whipping their base into a froth in an election year. I don’t anticipate easy solutions for this particular problem, but the conversation has to get underway: How do we keep rich, angry right-wing power interests from using the media as a dispersal system for their agenda?
Aaron W. Hughes received his Ph.D. at Indiana University only 10 years ago; since then he has been nothing short of prolific. The books to his name include The Texture of the Divine (Indiana University Press, 2003), Jewish Philosophy A-Z (Palgrave, 2006), The Art of Dialogue in Jewish Philosophy (Indiana University Press, 2007), Situating Islam (Equinox Publishing, 2007), The Invention of Jewish Identity (Indiana University Press, 2010), as well as a handful of edited volumes, including Defining Judaism: A Reader (Equinox Publishing, 2010). Hughes currently teaches at the University of Buffalo, where he holds three titles: Associate Professor, Department of History; Gordon and Gretchen Gross Professor of Jewish Studies; and Associate Director, Institute of Jewish Thought and Heritage.
I read Situating Islam about a year ago, and I was extremely impressed by the care with which Hughes addressed the minefield that has become the academic treatment of Islam since September 11. He suggests charting a course between orientalist depictions of Islam and apologetics for Islam, for both tend to reify Islam as if it were a “thing” with an essence. In place of these approaches, Hughes points us toward the type of critique used by Russell McCutcheon: rather than look for the essence of Islam, perhaps we should turn toward an examination of how essentialist claims work. Hughes writes,
Neither the Orientalist nor the apologist approach … provides a proper understanding of something called Islam precisely because no such thing can exist. Despite appeals to the contrary by either practitioners or scholars of the tradition, Islam, like any other religious tradition, is a series of sites of contestation, where regimes of perceived truth do battle against other such regimes in the service of something murkily called authority, tradition, or authenticity.
It is no surprise that we then get a chapter titled, “We Study Muslim Constructions, Not Muslims, Right?” Since this sort of thing is right up my alley, I loved Situating Islam—so I was happy that Hughes was willing to submit to an interview with me.
Craig Martin: What prompted you to write Situating Islam? Who was your target audience and what did you hope to accomplish?
Aaron W. Hughes: The catalyst for writing the book came from my growing (and still growing) dissatisfaction with the academic study of Islam, especially what I consider to be its overly apologetical stance and its general unwillingness to engage seriously the critical discourses associated with the study of religion. Let me state at the outset that by “critical” I refer to those discourses that query the utility of traditional terms and categories, and that refuse to recycle the liberal Protestant ecumenicism that has habitually passed for theory and method in the past. It frustrates me that we should spend ten years in graduate school only to emerge as color commentators of Muslim life and practice. Any Muslim can do this.
Related to this was the fact that two weeks into my first job the attacks of 9/11 occurred. I watched as my colleagues (both in Islam and Religious Studies more generally) did all sorts of ridiculous hermeneutical somersaults to locate authentic religious expression and belief. “Real” religious people could not perform such actions; they had to be “hijackers” of the religion. And then all these books started coming out by people like John Esposito, Karen Armstrong, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr that further essentialized Islam. I had had enough! Situating Islam was my attempt to try and offer some corrective to the regnant discourses of the field.
My target audience was twofold. The first audience was those engaged in the theoretical study of religion: I wanted to show them that all was not moribund in the academic study of Islam. The second audience was those in Islam: to show them that there was a larger theoretical world out there that has the potential to make us reframe our interpretive lenses and recalibrate our questions. Basically, I wanted to—and indeed still want to—bring these two audiences together.
This may well be an impossible task. But I thought that if I could start this rapprochement, others might pick up on it. Let me be clear: I am not saying that the academic study of Islam is lame, only that we need to rehabilitate its more apologetical tendencies by connecting it to larger disciplinary sets of issues. I am worried that most of the apologetical ranting goes on at the introductory level so that an entire generation of university students will possess no critical skills when it comes to dealing with Islam—and then think of the repercussions of this when some of these students go on to become journalists, initiators of public policy, government officials.
CM: Are there any parts of the book that you find particularly strong, or of which you’re especially proud? Are there any parts of the book that you wish you had written differently or developed more thoroughly?
AWH: I didn’t want to spend 5-10 years writing the book. So it is somewhat impressionistic. This is both the strength of the book and its potential weakness. It is a short work (135 pages) that, to quote one reviewer, “packs a sizable punch.” But to show you what I am up against another reviewer said the book could not be taken seriously because I only have 8-10 footnotes per chapter (this reviewer, of course, forgot to mention that I use MLA style for the rest of my citations)!
I am proud of several things. The first is that it really is meant as a provocation. I don’t think that anyone in Islamic Studies will read this and not think seriously about the theoretical (or lack thereof) issues of the discipline and its disciplinarity. Secondly, I am proud of the fact that in this relatively short space I isolate a problem, articulate it, and follow it through a specific historical period. I have received numerous emails from people (grad students and other faculty) that have said they really appreciate what I have tried to do here. Thirdly, I am also proud of the fact that I am attempting to, if not redefine, then at least decenter the regnant discourses of the discipline.
This also comes with a certain worry, however. I am worried, for example, that many will write the book off as too “Religious Studies,” as opposed to being firmly entrenched in Islamic Studies. (For a look of what I am up against, check out the Table of Contents by a new book edited by Carl Ernst, Richard Martin, and Bruce Lawrence entitled Rethinking Islamic Studies: From Orientalism to Cosmpolitanism.) I am also worried that others will not enter the conversation. Several times I have had articles rejected because I have been accused of being a “neo-con” in disguise (presumably because I am critical) or, the one that I particularly like, absolute denial: “I have no idea what [Hughes] is talking about, all is well in Islamic Studies…”
I was really hoping that Situating Islam might have been a book that a panel at the AAR or NAASR addressed, or that was part of a book review forum in a journal.
As for what I might have done differently, I wish that I had maybe expanded my last chapter, which is constructive by nature, to show more clearly how the study of Islam has the potential to make positive in-roads into the academic study of religion. But this will be for another time ….
CM: Where would you situate your book in relationship to other scholars or scholarship? I.e., is this book easily aligned with or against any particular scholars or schools of thought?
AWH: I am a (good natured) contrarian by nature. I have always enjoyed the intellectual company of the likes of Russell McCutcheon, Bill Arnal, Bruce Lincoln, Don Weibe, and Jonathan Z. Smith. In many ways, I hope that I am doing for the study of Islam what they have done for their respective disciplines and subfields. It is my desire is to be part of a larger group within Religious Studies that is questioning traditional axioms and exposing as halftruths all that the discipline has held to be true.
As for those the book is aligned against, I would have to say the entire apologetical and liberal Protestant interpretation of Islam. Needless to say, this does not always make me popular in Islamic Studies circles. Those who talk about not offending Muslim sensibilities as an excuse to avoid talking about the redaction history of the Qur’an or the historical Muhammad; those who want to define an “authentic” Islam (that is liberal, peaceful, and democratic); those who put together AAR panels wherein liberal Muslim academics talk about their experiences and vision of their particular version of Islam. I rail against all of this. None of this is scholarship, but theology and ecumenicism, which I personally do not have a problem with so long as those doing it make it clear to others that this is what they are doing. Too much slippage between scholarship and apologetics occurs in Islamic Studies for my liking. On some levels, this is reflective of the discipline of Religious Studies more generally, but I try to criticize it from my particular point-of-view.
CM: In your book you discuss at length how “Islam” is introduced in undergraduate textbooks. Can you comment on how you introduce “Islam” in your introductory courses? If you were going to write an intro textbook what would it look like?
AWH: Funny you should ask that. I am in the process of putting the finishing touches on an introductory, non-apologetical textbook called Muslim Identities: A Historical Introduction. I think that the plural nature of the second word in the title gives away my hermeneutic.
Its intent is to present Islam non-apologetically and from the perspective of identity formation and maintenance. I intend to introduce students to topics that have traditionally been left out of introductory texts (because they have ideologically and pejoratively been written off as “Orientalist”), especially all the issues that emerge from the thorny problems associated with Islamic origins (basically we know nothing about the first 150-200 years, but pretend we do because later sources tell us about them). Rather than say, like some, that it is all a later fabrication, I prefer to see these years through the prism of later generations creating manifold identities for themselves in the light of unruly social worlds. I argue that the exact same processes go on in the modern and postmodern worlds.
Theoretically, both my approach in the classroom and my textbook emerge from those critical discourses that stress the imprecision and messiness of traditional terms such as “religion,” “spirituality,” or “experience.” I prefer to see religion in general and Islam in particular as a set of social and cultural facts that are imagined, manipulated, and contested by various actors and groups throughout history. The book does not assume that a monolithic and essential “Islam” exists, and differs only in its “manifestations” owing to cultural idiosyncrasies. On the contrary, it regards Islamic identity—like any identity—as actively constructed and imagined.
CM: How has your theoretical approach (i.e., your trenchant anti-essentialism) in general influenced your teaching? Can you comment on whether your students are receptive or resistant to your ideas?
AWH: It is true that most students like essentialism, especially the idea that identity is something that they are born with and that this gives their lives meaning and direction. Any attempt to dislodge such notions—to suggest that identities (cultural, ethnic, religious) are invented or, at least, actively created by individuals and groups are potentially problematic.
By way of an example: I regularly teach a course entitled “A Historical Introduction to Judaism,” wherein I try to show undergraduates that Judaism is actively produced in a way that is contingent upon the category of the non-Jewish. This is not in some Hegelian sense in which “the Jew” derives its meaning by opposition to “the non-Jew”; rather, the very techniques, methods, and languages responsible for imagining diverse Jewish identities are ultimately non-Jewish. Rather than uphold reified borders between “Jewish” and “non-Jewish”—borders that are often constructed and projected retroactively—I prefer to examine their fluidity. In so doing, I contend that the project to extend knowledge of “Judaism” succeeds in othering Judaism to itself, so that ultimately the very goal of maintaining Jewish distinctiveness ends up collapsing upon itself. Indeed, through all these permutations the category of “Judaism” remains beautifully and necessarily unstable.
More practically, this obviously has major repercussions on students. For Jewish students, it shows them (ideally) that their identity is not something that they check off on a list (Jewish day school, summer camp, bar/bat mitzvah, support for Israel), but is something that others create for them on the basis of perceived normativity and what it means to be authentically Jewish. I thus spend a lot of time on the Conversos, who made their way from Spain and Portugal to Europe and, quite literally, invented a Judaism for themselves. For non-Jewish students, the goal is to get them to see that the processes at work in Judaism (e.g., its historical diasporic nature) are at work in the formation and maintenance of all cultural, religious, and national identities.
Do I get through to them? One can only hope!
CM: What theorists or what books do you think people should be reading right now in religious studies (other than your book, of course!)?
AWH: After all these years, I still think the essays of J. Z. Smith repay close readings. However, I sometimes worry that a new generation will simply invoke Smith’s name as code for the fact that they know (or think they know) and get (or think they get) “theory” in Religious Studies. (I have seen this done many times in job interviews with candidates.) The work of J. Z. Smith, then, should not be seen as the final word in theorizing—something he would never want—but a point of departure for a lifetime of thinking through and about our various data-sets.
Having said this, however, I do think that theorizing in Religious Studies is about twenty years behind the times when compared with some other disciplines. I mean we are still reading Foucault, Bourdieu, and others, whose works were published over thirty years ago. However, I do think Bourdieu’s Distinction is still magnificent.
I do think it is important for us in Religious Studies to keep up on recent trends in Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory (which, in literature circles, means something much different from what we are accustomed to in Religious Studies). Recently I have been reading Jean Baudrillard’s The Vital Illusion and Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject. They are a bit jargony for my liking, but nevertheless helpful in thinking through issues of subjectivity and invention. I have also just finished a wonderful book by Jonathan Boyarin entitled The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe.
On a related note, I must confess that I have very little time for a direction that I see much theorizing in Religious Studies going today. I refer to the discourses surrounding Science and Religion. The movement of theory out of the cultural and humanistic realms into the pseudo-scientific strikes me as fruitless and even dangerous for future theorizing in Religious Studies. The fact that some think we can decode religion or map it in the brain does not seem particularly helpful for how I conceive of the discipline.
CM: You have a forthcoming book called Situating Judaism; can you comment on its contents, and what relationship it has to Situating Islam?
AWH: I am still working on that book, so instead let me briefly comment on a new book of mine that is forthcoming in the fall of 2010, The Invention of Jewish Identity: Bible, Philosophy, and the Art of Translation. In it, I try to argue that the translation of the Bible into other idioms represents a basic human struggle with time, language, and the space that opens up in-between. Such struggles inevitably cluster around dual or competing identities and what goes on in the hyphenated space that connects such identities (e.g., “Jewish-American” or “French-Muslim”). The hyphen assumes a certain kind of translation of cultures, languages, and temporal frameworks—frameworks that all the authors I examine confronted and, successfully or unsuccessfully, tried to mediate. It is in the hyphen, the so-called space in between, that real creative and imaginative work occurs.
More specifically, the instability of Bible translation reveals that time is not some substantial thing out there. Rather, this notion of time—whether we label it as sacred history or the like—is not something in which we passively participate. On the contrary, it depends upon various investments or activities of persons in a culture and, in this regard, Bible translation shows that categories such as the “sacred” or the “holy” are constructed out of retrievals of the past in anticipation of a certain future in order to make a certain identity present at this moment.
This relates to Situating Islam, I suppose, because it is again driven by an anti-essentialism and a need to reframe earlier discourses. I am, however, less interested in the issue of disciplinarity in this book, and more interested in that of temporality as the locus of cultural formation and maintenance. Whereas in the earlier book my main data-set was the utterances of professional Islamicists (what we customarily and problematically call “secondary sources”), the new book examines “primary sources” from the longue durée of Jewish philosophical writing.
CM: Wild card question: What question do you wish I had asked you?
AWH: I don’t know. But questions that I have been thinking about lately (without attempting to answer here) include: What is the future of study of Islam (sometimes I insert: Religion or the Humanities) at this particular historical and economic moment? Is there a future for what we do or think we do? How can we undermine the status quo (instead of developing a science envy as some are currently doing)? What is the future of graduate studies in Religion? Is it worth wasting ten-twelve years of our lives just to provide color commentary to the lives of those who call themselves religious? And, especially in Islamic Studies, how can we take interdisciplinarity seriously when disciplines police their borders the way they do?