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Project Description

Observation: Over the last two centuries, many scholars and sections of the media have approached Islam as if it were a bounded entity, radically separate from its environment and neighbors. At the same time, political Islamists and certain Muslim intellectuals have presented Islam as exceptional, a unique human experience that is fundamentally incomparable to other religious and cultural traditions. In a universalizing vein that has been exacerbated since the events of September 2001, both apologists and critics have argued that there is but a single, monolithic, transnational (“true”) Islam. Such universalism obscures the world of real Muslims and the shapes Islam takes in each regional, ethnic, and linguistic community and state. As several nations in the Middle East are convulsed by political change (the so-called Arab Spring), what it means to be a Muslim, and what Islam means in the present day are constantly being negotiated. Equally, the idea that Muslim-majority societies are uniquely at odds with democracy, human rights, and gender equality has come under serious strain. Our thesis suggests that the history of Islam is a history of local innovations by Muslims in response to their surroundings. Instead of looking at the history of Islam as a singular monolith, we propose to investigate how Muslims have made Islam their own wherever they live.

Proposition and Strategy. The concept of challenging the exceptionalism of Islam is hardly novel; indeed, we would argue that we in the academy tend to do this on a routine basis by virtue of the fact that we ground our studies historically, whether in the realms of politics and power, or in literatures and theologies. But what is not emphasized—and what this project would seek to address directly—is the symbiotic nature of the various Islams as they have developed historically in different environments. While Islam is always local and takes its local shape through negotiations with other actors in multi-ethnic and multi-religious communities, the metaphor of symbiosis takes us beyond simple and imprecise notions of “influence” or “interaction” into a different conceptual world. Our aim is to turn away from models of essence and origin and their attendant search for static characterizations. Instead, we seek to focus on a heuristic of process. We are more interested in the procedures that ‘do Islamic religion’ than we are in settling the boundaries of what constitutes Islam and Muslims. We thus turn toward the complex encounters—historically and culturally grounded—that make up a history that is Islamic (not a history of Islam). Likewise, we focus on the experiments that have constituted participation in the multitude of Islamic traditions, in other words, the ongoing strategies that together generate the practices of Muslims. Here ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ are animated with a dynamism and flow, not from a recoverable center or origin, but locally in response to constantly evolving realities. Islam is in this sense constantly being invented and re-invented. In these procedures and processes, we are not seeking to identify a fixed mechanism that Muslims inevitably put into play; the experience of Islamic history itself becomes a series of locally-determined strategies, all of them unique yet fully Islamic, the strategies and practical procedures by which Islamic worlds are created, the ways Muslims experience the world. By refusing to reduce these activities to normative, ‘orthodox’, or essentialized notions of religion, we thus undo the notion of Islamic exceptionalism.