Re-examining the place of textuality in Islamic Studies

Reading Muslim Anthropologists

Joud Alkorani

February 25, 2021

Not too long ago, I asked my supervisor roughly how long a dissertation chapter should be. “Between 8 and 10 thousand words,” she replied. Sorry to have asked, I sheepishly attached my 23,000-word chapter to my email in response.

A few weeks later, I received from my committee detailed and thoughtful feedback on how to develop my thinking (and condense my writing!). “Do this,” they suggested, “what about that?” One comment common to their remarks stood out to me. Of all 23,000 words in a chapter exploring the “afterlife” of the Islamic Revival in Dubai, my readers were struck by three tucked away in the chapter’s conclusion: “I pray ẓuhr.” [1]Ẓuhr is the Arabic term for noon; it commonly refers to the noontime ritual prayer (ṣalāt).

The three words wrap up a chapter which details the changing beliefs and practices of young women growing up in the United Arab Emirates, shaped by a post-Arab Spring disillusionment with religion, a state-sponsored project of neoliberal governmentality, and a liberal education at local American universities. I contextualize these women’s stories, situating biographical time in historical time to illustrate how decisions to start or stop praying, don or remove the veil, or develop or terminate relations with men happen in particular moments. My chapter concludes with the adhān sounding from the campus mosque as one of these young women and I part ways, not long after she has declared that “no one cares about Islam these days.” And yet, as I enter the library prayer room, I find it full of women shuffling in and out. I am one of these women, and I say so in this vignette.

It is not the first time—nor will it be the last time—that an anthropologist’s admission of pious practice stands out in a text. I reacted similarly in my own reading of an ethnography written by a Muslim. Flipping through my copy of Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country shortly after this interaction, my eye caught something. While Grewal tours the pyramids with her American interlocutors in Cairo, the call to prayer comes floating through the wind. After using a water bottle to make ablutions, she writes, “we pray on a patch of thin grass overlooking the pyramids” (53). In my copy of the book, the page is bare of notes except for two words encircled in red: “we pray.” I underlined it in 2017, when reading for my exams.

Page 53 in the author’s copy of Zareena Grewal’s Islam is a Foreign Country; photo by the author

What is it about these two words that stand out to readers, including myself? Are they motivated by a curiosity at the life of the author as a person in the world, beyond the text? Do they emerge from our academic impetus to single out statements of “significance” for critique, a skill cultivated over years of institutionalized learning? Or is it something more?

In their comments, my readers urge me to better situate myself and reflect on my positionality—the words “I pray” are ones which incite discourse, demand explanation, particularly among anthropologists. “To what degree are you writing about women like yourself?” one of my readers asked. Such a question recalls anthropology’s persistent discomfort of scholars analyzing people who are “too close” to themselves in a discipline which emerged around studies of the faraway, the non-modern, the exotic. But anthropology has come a long way since. Grewal argues that “suspicions about whether ‘native anthropologists’ can be truly objective are long outdated, absent in the critical anthropology taught in college classrooms today. Anthropologists no longer imagine the ‘field’ as a distant location where the anthropologist lives among the ___ people; rather, fieldwork is defined in terms of a politics of location, of shifting insides and outsides, of affiliations and distances” (17). [2]Grewal cites Kirin Narayarin’s classic article “How Native Is a ‘Native’ Anthropologist?” and Hussein Fahim’s Indigenous Anthropology in Non-Western Countriesin a endnote (p.360, n.33) … Continue reading

A classic volume explores what this means for women of the Arab world who study their own societies. It is now recognized that, sometimes, scholars will conduct research on communities they have known for many years, or even belong to. Their research can produce valuable insights, furthering conversations in the discipline and potentially even providing a perspective inaccessible to others. The mandatory accounts of self-reflexivity are unique to each project, highlighting the differential access, privilege, and blind spots one faces when conducting ethnographic research in the body one has been born into and the traditions to which one belongs. Today, this is anthropological common sense. But does writing an ethnography of Muslims as a Muslim—or, to be even more specific, as a visibly Muslim woman—still raise eyebrows in particular ways? Is the demand for positionality a neutral one? Or do we demand some to account for their positionality more than others?

Recognizing that this heightened sense of scrutiny centers around participation in ṣalāt, a ritual act dedicated to God and usually reserved for a tradition’s practitioners, might begin to answer these questions. With other practices, for instance, it is often expected that anthropologists will work to “blend in” with their interlocutors– women ethnographers seem to always make a point about telling readers they cover their hair and body when engaging certain Muslims in certain spaces (indicating that, otherwise, they dress differently).

The uneasiness around prayer may itself be related to the awkward relationship between anthropology and theology, the discomfort that still arises when the two rub shoulders in unsanctioned ways that unsettle epistemological hierarchies which render native theologies local knowledge and anthropological theory universal. This strained relationship has a longer history and more significant consequences, which I will explore further in an upcoming contribution to the Reading Muslims project. But what does this tension mean for Muslims in anthropology who study societies not too distant from their own?

A dissertation, as I am continually, painfully reminded, is a text that will be read by no more than a handful of people. Almost every one of my dissertation readers will know me intimately—my committee, my parents, peers who have generously scrutinized drafts, encouraging friends wondering what I have been doing with my life for so many years. But what happens when portions of this text (inshaAllah) become articles, submitted to academic journals, where readers know nothing of me but my name and institutional affiliation? If this text becomes a book—which, considering the state of the academic job market, and the institutional support necessary for such an effort, is not guaranteed— who will be its readers then? And how will I be read?

This is undoubtedly a question all writers—academic, Muslim, or otherwise—reflect upon. But what contours does this question take, what assumptions are inherent, when the writer is a Muslim anthropologist?

I would like to underscore that to be Muslim is often to be recognizably Muslim. This recognition can come (or be assumed) in many ways—from choices in clothing and bodily presentation (or through unchosen identifiers like name or skin color), an abstinence from alcohol at conference receptions, a casual disappearance from seminars during winter days when the moon too quickly catches up with the sun.

Or it can come from a self-profession. In a recent issue of Religion and Society, Talal Asad reflects on how his anthropological insight has been shaped by his personal life. For one of the first times in a long and celebrated career does Asad delve into the subtleties of his faith and upbringing in writing—accessible to many, in perpetuity. [3]In a 2016 interview, Talal Asad describes the divergent ways his mother and father practiced Islam, but refrains from delving into how this Islamic heritage shapes his own ethical or theological … Continue reading Will his forthcoming and previous work be read differently as a result? Will his proximity be perceived as affording him a deeper understanding of his subject matter, or will it compromise him in some way?

In the very first sentence of the preface to her groundbreaking book, Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood situates herself as a Pakistani feminist hailing from a progressive leftist tradition. “Even though this book is about Islamist politics in Egypt, its genesis owes to a set of puzzles I inherited from my involvement in progressive left politics in Pakistan, the country of my birth” (i). In a single opening remark, she distances herself from Islam and the people she is studying. What the connotations of her name, skin color, or Pakistani heritage might suggest are, in one fell swoop, severed from how she demands her expertise be read.

Beyond attending a lecture Mahmood delivered at the University of Toronto, I did not have the opportunity to meet her, or learn more about her personal life, beliefs, or practices. I know nothing about her own relationship to Islam, and I imagine many of her readers share my ignorance. How might Politics of Piety have been read differently had Mahmood proclaimed herself in it as a Muslim—whatever that means, however she might practice? Would her work have been read in the same way? Would she have left so deep a mark in so many fields of inquiry? I cannot help but wonder.

Notes / References

1 Ẓuhr is the Arabic term for noon; it commonly refers to the noontime ritual prayer (ṣalāt).
2 Grewal cites Kirin Narayarin’s classic article “How Native Is a ‘Native’ Anthropologist?” and Hussein Fahim’s Indigenous Anthropology in Non-Western Countriesin a endnote (p.360, n.33) describing how Western academic training works to discipline students of diverse backgrounds towards practicing a standardized anthropology which replicates Western theoretical assumptions and a colonial gaze. Narayarin and Fahim retort that it is anthropological method which renders foreign the object of study, regardless of the researcher’s background.
3 In a 2016 interview, Talal Asad describes the divergent ways his mother and father practiced Islam, but refrains from delving into how this Islamic heritage shapes his own ethical or theological commitments.

Joud Alkorani

Joud Alkorani is a PhD Candidate at the Department for the Study of Religion at the University of Toronto, where she is also affiliated with the Center for Diaspora and Transnational Studies. Joud’s current project is an ethnography of how neoliberal economic and social policies shape the everyday lives of migrant Muslim women in Dubai. Her research lies at the intersection of studies of diaspora and transnationalism, religion and spirituality, and the modern Middle East.