I. Reconsidering the Non-Muslim Other: Internal and External Religious Differentiation
During the thesis year, we would problematize the areas of contact, the so-called borderland and frontiers, arguing that Islam is always local and the forms it takes are conditioned by close interactions with other individuals and groups. We would also address the historiographical assumptions behind the development of the Shi’i and Sufi traditions. In areas where Islam has been established as the dominant norm, we would discuss the boundaries of exclusion, such as those found in heresiography, the rights of minorities in Islamic states, separate courts for religious communities, shared sacred sites, and religious figures whose followers demonstrate allegiance to different, often multiple, communities. In locales where forms of Islam coexist and interact with other ethnic and religious alternatives, for instance in the worship associated with tombs and holy men, especially throughout Asia and Africa, we can recognize a double-effect: the culture bears the distinctive impact of the Islamic presence (Hodgson’s characterization as ‘Islamicate’), while that plural environment dramatically affects the shape of Islam-as-practiced. The forms of Islamic experience in the farther reaches of the Islamic world will reflect the strong cultural effects of such traditions as Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, and Christian, giving the Islamic experience a unique shape in each locale.
II. Genres of the Imaginaire: How Creativity Mediates Islam through Local Vernaculars
Experiments in Islamic theology express the constant negotiations with other theological and philosophical traditions which historically led to different schools of thought and this creative activity is a function of the imaginaire, though it is seldom characterized as such. We define the imaginaire as the ‘limits of possibility’ or the structures within which the local imagination can be exercised. It is both constraining and enabling. The Islamic imaginaire fosters creativity in literature and the arts more generally by opening a space for and encouraging an exploratory mode that reflects each immediate geographical locale and its accompanying vernacular—literary, musical, visual languages—as proper vehicles for valid Islamic expression. In the study of Islamic religion, literary and artistic expression has been routinely subject to a double critique: assumed to be different from theology, these expressions are often demoted to entertainment or pirated as a vehicle for doctrinal propaganda, but seldom evaluated according to their own standards. In this section we will question the established scholarly divide between the theological and the creative by exploring the diverse genres operational within the Muslim imaginaire and interrogating the complex interplay between transregional and local genres. From theological and legal elaborations to other forms of artistic and aesthetic expression—including architecture, city planning, the structure of premodern cosmopolitan courts, trade and craft production, or music and visual art—we will discuss how certain forms have been endlessly elaborated in the broader Muslim imaginaire while others have remained resolutely local. Additionally, we will explore how literary, creative, and theological speculations probed creative alternatives in the face of censure, a dynamic that played no small role in the expansion of Islam.
III. Muslims Negotiating Modernities
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the various practitioners of Islam found themselves faced by different, often alien, political and legal systems, market forces, technology developments, and new forms of cosmopolitanism that required response and adaptation. Some of these encounters precipitated the crises that ultimately generated new traditions. One important response was that of “fundamentalism,” which led some Muslim intellectuals and politicians to hearken back (in a tendency echoed by some modern scholars) to an idealized fantasy of “original” Islam they believed was subsequently sullied by innovation. In opposition to the general assumption that Muslims only “reacted” to external modernities, and that Muslim modernities are essentially derived from encounters with fully-formed European modernity, we will examine conceptions of newness, innovation, and modernity in Muslim worlds, and explore the myriad modernities Muslims generated. In this year we will explore, for example, Islam beyond Arab culture and language (the majority of Muslims worldwide do not speak Arabic); the rise of empire and the institutionalization of religion; debates around gender and sexuality; responses to colonialism; questions raised by technology and globalization; and meeting the challenge of being a minority religion in Europe, North America, and so forth.The results will demonstrate the recursive generation of innovation that can ultimately be traced through the whole of Islamic history.
IV. Transnational and Local Networks of Pilgrimage
In most popular narratives of Islam, the concept of pilgrimage almost exclusively invokes the hajj to Mecca, as stipulated in the classical five pillars of religious obligation. For many Muslims it is the crowning achievement which binds the world brotherhood. But the ideal somewhat belies the reality. The Muslims who make the hajj today usually make the journey with members of their own cultural and linguistic communities who retain local identities in the process. Far greater numbers of practicing Muslims participate in regional and local pilgrimages—to cities with historical significance, shrines, and tombs. These regional and local destinations often loom as large or larger than Mecca. For instance Shi‘as relive the massacre at Karbala in their visits, or Hausa pilgrims travel to the city of Maiurno in modern Sudan as a substitute destination rather than as a jumping off point for the trip to Mecca. All through the Muslim world, but especially in South and Southeast Asia, visits to tombs of pirs and shaykhs, such as that of Mu‘in al-Din Chishti in Ajmer, displace the need to make the hajj at all. The hajj has always been set apart, but this study of pilgrimage across the Muslim world should serve as a capstone to the propositions of the project of overturning the narratives of exceptionalism.