Friday, 8 December 2017

Dr. Kecia Ali - Muslim Scholars, Islamic Studies, and the Gendered Academy

The International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) hosted its fourth annual Ismail Al Faruqi Memorial Lecture at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Boston on Sunday, November 19, 2017. Dr. Kecia Ali (Boston University, Department of Religion) delivered the keynote lecture, titled “Muslim Scholars, Islamic Studies, and the Gendered Academy.” In her speech, Dr. Ali situated ongoing and gendered contestations in Islamic Studies within a number of broader contexts: the history of the AAR (currently the largest American organization dedicated to the study of religion), contemporary crises in higher education, and our shifting national climate.

Professor Ali began her talk by tracing the origins of the AAR to 1909, when it emerged as a Protestant organization called the National Association of Biblical Instructors (NABI). It was only in the 1960s, after a number of internal debates, that the organization assumed its current title. This shift, however, came with new challenges and debates: Was the AAR to welcome only theological and confessional approaches to the study of religion? What of critical-analytical and political approaches? Professor Ali - an AAR member of almost two decades - emphasized that the assumed bifurcation between the two continues to represent a wider problem.

As Muslims became increasingly involved with the AAR after the 1960s, criticisms arose from two parties simultaneously: non-Muslim academics concerned about maintaining ‘non-biased’ scholarship, and Muslims worried about the potential for “inappropriately constructed Islamic theological work” taking place outside of conventional centers of Islamic learning. The latter worried AAR would be “run by a cabal of progressive Muslims with activist agendas,” and some even went so far as to decry the alleged heterodoxy (and sometimes even “apostasy”) of Muslim scholars affiliated with the AAR. The conservative critics of the former category instead emphasized the necessity of “safely critical” studies of religion, characterized by supposed moral neutrality and analytical distance. Dr. Ali problematized these accounts by demonstrating the (gendered) workings of power in both contexts.

Beyond challenges within the AAR, the general decline in public research funding, the crisis of “adjunctification”, recent threats to Title IX protections, and the shortage of tenure-track positions are all issues that disproportionately and negatively impact women in the academy. Through mechanisms like gatekeeping tenure committees, ever-changing “standards of excellence”, all-male panels, and discriminatory funding agencies, the (neo)liberal university maintains itself as a site of institutionalized sexism. However, as Dr. Ali suggested, to speak only of these mechanisms is to under-emphasize other sites of gendered contestation, including recent and ongoing public accusations of sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape within and beyond the academy.

The most technical part of Dr. Ali’s talk, however, focused on the politics of citation. In this portion of the lecture, Professor Ali discussed four books by three well-known Muslim male scholars and noted the shockingly low citation of female scholars (Muslim and otherwise) in each. In one case, female authors comprised a little over 1% of the works cited. Dr. Ali asserted that the widespread tendency to frame the findings of Islamic Gender Studies and its emerging canon as ‘common sense’ highlights the devaluation of women’s scholarly (and other) work.

Dr. Ali traced this form of devaluation in 1980s media representations of Lois Lamya Al Faruqi - the late musician, expert on Islamic art, and professor at Temple University. While few newspaper-references to her husband Ismail Al Faruqi (a co-founder of IIIT and the Study of Islam Unit at AAR) mention her, Lamya Al Faruqi’s accomplishments frequently appear peripheral and sometimes even invisible compared to those of her husband. By centering the voice of Lamya al Faruqi, Dr. Ali redefined IIIT’s annual Al Faruqi Memorial Lecture and situated it within ongoing and timely conversations in Islamic Studies focused on gender, power, and equity.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

UCC academic: A changing Ireland scares some people - a Conversation with Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

DR Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork (UCC) is passionate about the way we view religion.

“I always try to push people to consider is that religion isn’t a thing,” Dr De Sondy explained.

“So, I always joke to my students; I say ‘When you see Christianity, Judaism or Islam walking in the street, please say hello from me.’ It sounds very odd but I always ask them ‘Well, what am I trying to get you to think about?’

“It’s about the manifestation of those religions. So I say to my students: ‘What is Christianity, who is the best Christian?’ And they’ll be like ‘Well you’ve got Catholics, you’ve got Protestants, and you’ve got everything else in between.’ I’ll say ‘Well, Muslims are exactly the same’ and that diversity is often not appreciated. So that for me is something that I’m trained to do and what I think I was hired to do here at UCC.”

Before Dr De Sondy joined UCC in 2015, he spent six years teaching and lecturing in the United States. He had one year in upstate New York and five years in Florida.

Born and raised in Glasgow, he decided to make the move to Cork to bring him closer to home.

“After six years, I just wanted to come back in some way; to get a little bit closer back to Scotland.”

The study of contemporary Islam at UCC examines the religion from the 18th and 19th century onwards.

“But for me, it’s about dealing with very contemporary issues,” Dr De Sondy said, including subjects like gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity and pluralism.

“So that’s my core focus, in Islam but also in religion generally, that’s what I look at.

“What’s written about it, what people have said. To relate it specifically to scripture, to the Koran, but also to kind of look towards the lived realities.”

It’s a lot more exciting to look at Islam this way, he believes, than the way in which the religion is usually presented.

“We like to present very neat boxes of what Muslims should and should not look like,” he said.
“When Muslims don’t fit that box, we get very frustrated. When you meet a Muslim woman who doesn’t cover, who could identify in any of the sexuality spectrums, it’s very confusing to people because people think ‘I need Muslims to look and to act in a specific way.’ I think is part of my interest in the field of contemporary Islam: to see and to look at lived realities which are very, very diverse.”

“You know Ireland is changing,” he continued.

“Ireland is changing and whenever I now speak to people I say ‘I, in a sense, am your future.’ When you have a brown-faced person whose heritage is equally split, my heritage is Pakistani so I always say I’m 50% Pakistani and 50% Scottish, with a Scottish accent.

“This is what Ireland is going to look like within the next 10, 20 years and I think that scares the living daylights out of people! And people say ‘Oh but we’re such a small nation, just four million people’ but Scotland is the same.

“It’s not an us and them and I’m not trying to make it like that but the reason why I’m saying it is because, for me, I think that the Celtic fringes are very welcoming, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to come to Ireland because there is a connection between Scotland and Ireland and Wales.”

Scotland embraced diversity, he said.

“From what I can gather, the vast majority of the Irish want to embrace it too.

“The problem is, you have a small minority of people who want to strengthen the cultural divide. A small minority of people who don’t want to appreciate diversity, who don’t want to appreciate pluralism and that I think is unfortunate.

“I’m greatly strengthened by the new president who has come to UCC who spent 30 years in the States and has been talking a lot about diversity and about equality and that makes me feel very happy. To be very honest with you, there were times when I first came here and I thought ‘What am I doing here?’

“I really felt my skin here, especially at UCC. For all sorts of different reasons, the university is very white. When I was in Miami, when I was teaching in Miami, I didn’t feel that. I was surrounded by a very thriving Latin-Cuban culture and on a similar level, in Scotland, it’s not like that.

“Universities there are very diverse. But you know, as I began to speak to more and more people, they said to me: you have to help us understand this, how to move forward from this and strengthen this and that’s what has been what’s kept me here because I see there is a lot of promise and there are a lot of people who are saying very, very good things.”

But there are a lot of people who say the opposite, Dr De Sondy said, adding that he was reminded of this recently after reading some of the online comments left under an article he wrote.

“So that gives you an idea of where we’re at. But I’m an optimist, I’m a real optimist and I really believe that we have to have hope and we have to embrace our differences and be able to allow the differences to exist but you know, I think that is very challenging to a lot people.”

Islamophobia exists, he said, but he prefers to focus on the positives.

“People often say to me ‘Aman, do you think people are racist or Islamophobic?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, of course.’ There are some people like that who exist but I always want to look at the positives. I wonder whether it’s just ignorance, of not having the liberty of being in the company of people who are radically different from you, because that’s how you learn. I say to my students ‘I can make you sit here and read all these books about how Judaism and Christianity are similar, how Catholicism and Sunni are similar, but the experience that you have when you actually sit with a Muslim is going to be very, very different.’”

Dr De Sondy said this fact scares a lot of people.

“Those barriers of being in our little bubble are breaking down through the boom in social media and through how much easier it is to be able to understand because we live in a very globalised world.”

The monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all come from the same root, he points out.

“I’m working on a book at the moment with my former colleagues from Miami; Bill is Jewish, Michelle is Catholic-Christian-Cuban and I’m Muslim, and we’re writing a book together on the history on monotheism. What we’re trying to do is to look at what brings these three faiths together. There’s a lot more that brings us together than tears us apart but sadly there are lunatics and there are crazy people who want to strengthen that divide.”

Dr De Sondy was previously a Religious Education (RE) teacher in Scotland, even writing material about the education of Islam for the Scottish Government.

“One of the best parts of RE that I really liked in secondary and primary schools was the idea of personal search and for me, it’s really important. You can try to spoon feed morality but students have to digest it.

“For me, religion is really important because religion isn’t just something in a vacuum; it’s about understanding culture, it’s about understanding race, it’s about understanding philosophy, it’s about critical thinking and if it’s done right, it’s a very, very good subject. But on the other hand, if it’s a subject that’s going to be about attempts to indoctrinate, or to give very clear-cut morals then this is going to fail. Especially in this day and age, students will rebel against that.

“With my educational background, what I do gather is that you have to set free at some level the enquiring mind of students to make them question and critique and when you do that, religion is a very good subject.

“A lot of these students are coming from very, varied backgrounds and I explain ‘Because the study of religions can be something very, very exciting. It can give you an insight into all sorts of different worlds.”

Jess Casey talks to Dr Amanullah De Sondy, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork, about Islam, diversity and religious education in Ireland.

Monday, 30 October 2017

BBC Radio Scotland - Thought For The Day

Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland
Monday 30th October 2017

The first minister is to apologise on behalf of the Scottish government to gay men convicted of now-abolished sexual offences. Nicola Sturgeon will make the apology at the Scottish Parliament to coincide with new legislation giving an automatic pardon to those affected. 

Minorities who were often silenced in the past now push us to consider the society we all want to live in.  Yet I find that offences against minorities, in this case gay men, are often weaved together in complicated patterns with religious, historical and cultural traditions.  And these patterns were set in place in a time where things were very different.  How do we respectfully bring together the past with the present as we look to the future? This is no easy task and often religious communities will speak in clear terms on traditions but the lived realities are very different.  This is where it becomes important for governments to act in fairness and equality. Yet I’m finding the term ‘evolve’ being frequently used by religious leaders too.  Our thoughts have evolved on issues of slavery, race and women’s rights. 

I’m faithfully assured that within my own Islamic communities, much is being said and done on these issues too.  There is clearly more to do and for many it can be difficult and challenging placing our current sentiments to history. 

In society and also in our own lives, apologies are important but only when we build upon them.  No apology can undo the harm or even the death caused by actions or words.  But they can help strengthen our future by making sure that we build understanding leading to respectful relationships and a society which values differences, equally.  I’m heartened by the students I teach every day who seem to understand and live out differences in ways my generation didn’t.  It is through the humility of accepting a wrong and meeting others who have different lives and beliefs with generosity and compassion that we can build a fairer and brighter society.      

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

We are not that different from Saudi Arabia - Dr. Amanullah De Sondy

The Unites States of America voted with Botswana, Barundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, India, Iraq, Japan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against a UN Human Rights Council resolution which specifically condemned the death penalty as a punishment for consensual same-sex relations. This move has left many in the US specifically and the whole ‘Western’ world aghast.

Here was the US, the leader of the free world, seemingly aligning itself with Islamic countries widely disdained as oppressive on social issues, particularly as relates to gender and sexuality.

But why should we be so shocked? These days, it’s not so easy to divide global culture along even loosely hemispheric lines. Just last month, on September 26, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman issued a decree that will allow women to drive — welcome news to the numerous Saudi feminists who have fought a long battle for this right. It’s a right that women have long had here in Ireland, but it’s an unmistakable sign of forward motion.

And in our own country, we see intensifying debates around the repeal of the eighth amendment, which recognises equally the rights of gestational parent and unborn fetus. Abortion rights are said to be among a number of public referendums that will be put before the country next summer. Whatever transpires with the eighth amendment, Ireland boasts a handful of other progressive firsts: the country voted for equal marriage in 2015 and is now led by a mixed-race, openly gay Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar. Australia, too, is currently in the process of a public vote on equal marriage: polls indicated that the people will vote in support, with results expected after November 7.

And back in the so-called Muslim world, Pakistan’s Allama Iqbal Open University, located in the capital city of Islamabad, has announced that it will offer free education to the transgender community in order to lift the stigma attached with the marginalised community.

All this, and yet we are often expected to accept and act in accordance with the narrative that in some way we Irish are ‘worlds apart’ from countries beyond Europe and North America. Is this really the case? Is it time for us to un-condition our mind and actions in our thinking that the ‘West’ is more enlightened on matters and the ‘rest’ are catching up.

In any country, gender and sexuality are shaped by religion, which has evolved along distinct trajectories but in every case supplies adherents a basis for understanding the world. Today, we are pulled into the politics of understanding, attaching or separating ‘religious’ or ‘secular’. Religion scholars like me spend a long time thinking about complicated issues that are then reduced in public discourse to sartorial matters — what we wear or what we don’t wear.

Binaries reign supreme — and all the more effectively when we try to classify issues of gender and sexuality as ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’. Issues we think of as modern may be inescapably salient in our own times were present but silenced in the past. ‘Traditions’ aren’t so much regressives as they are markers of hegemony —what has been accorded authority. It is the challenge to traditional authority structures in religions and society that has allowed us to finally see vibrant diversity.

The world is changing precisely because of how important diversity, with all its complexities, is to society. The social media boom now pushes us closer to streets and homes to places we never imagined or imagined in the most extreme way. The challenges and counter-narratives are now in full bloom, and the time for generalizing about places and peoples is past.

Ideas and actions grow when they react with each other. As an academic, I appreciate that it is through cross-disciplinary work in the arts and humanities that we begin to explore the deeper problems and questions in all their dimensions. We are beginning to appreciate that diversity and difference enriches our society. And yet appreciating the depth of pluralism and diversity shakes our own world while we move toward appreciating a completely different one, ideally an equal one.

Grand narratives pitting country against country or continent against continent are not helping us understand the world. We see progress made in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan when they expand rights for women and uphold the humanity of transgender people, while here in Ireland we are still arguing about fundamental rights for women.

There isn’t a single continuum from backward to progressive onto which we could plot these current events. It is this diversity and pluralism that challenges the fanatics who play on cultural divides. Adopting a more global approach to the ‘shared troubles’ of gender and sexuality can be effective tools against extremists on all sides.

Unconditioning ourselves from totalizing, dichotomous thinking begins locally. Here at University College Cork, the LGBT Staff Network will celebrate its 10-year anniversary this afternoon (October 12). There will be much cheer and pomp as the President of the University, Professor Patrick O’Shea, leads a succession of distinguished guests addressing the university community. Milestones like these carve out space for us to appreciate our differences and see how, pulling together, we progress. The times of uniformity and monoliths are gone, we are charged now with how we live in our differences, equally.

Amanullah De Sondy is a Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam at University College Cork, and author of The Crisis of Islamic Masculinities, published by Bloomsbury. The UCC LGBT Staff Network’s 10-year anniversary celebration will take place at the University’s Aula Maxima on October 12 at 4:30pm. All welcome.

Monday, 4 September 2017

The seeds that giants plant

Today I attended a Christian-Muslim conference in Edinburgh. I was stunned by the painting of Marcella Althaus-Reid that hangs in the Rainy Hall at Edinburgh's New College.

During my Ph.D, I shared a platform with her at the Edinburgh Festival on Spirituality. After the talks, she took me aside and told me to keep asking the difficult questions. Looking up at this painting today made me think...these special moments during my academic studies were the priceless seeds. May she be resting in peace.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Begum Akhtar - Ghazal - Kuch to Dunya Ki Inayat Ne

Poem by Sudarshan Faaker
Sung by Begum Akhtar
Translation - Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Partially, the favour/blessing of the world - broke my heart
Partially, condition of bitterness - broke my heart

I had thought that during the rainy season alcohol would pour too
But when the rainy season came, the rain broke my heart

The heart wept, yet nothing poured from the eyes
These traditions of the heart - broke my heart

Are they mine, will they be mine, will they appear
These futile thoughts - broke my heart

Is there love for me - or is there not
Wonderment. Such questions - broke my heart.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

10th Year Anniversary - Mum, Trees and the Swings of Life

It’s been 10 years since I started this blog. I was a Ph.D student in theology and religious studies at the University of Glasgow.  Endless hours and days at the library reading led me to producing this blog. I still haven’t figured out what ‘progressive Scottish Muslims’ is all about but what I do know is that it is about thinking and questioning Scottish Muslims. And that it is not the domain of any one ‘side’ – thinking cuts across the political spectrum. I believe passionately about differences of opinion and the depth of diversity which agitates and disturbs us to something good. Something to build bridges with.

A lot has happened in 10 years. I graduated with my Ph.D. I moved to the USA for 6 years and now live in Ireland where University College Cork is my academic home.  It’s lovely to be back in the Celtic fringes. I continue to play a part in civic society in Scotland and now in Ireland.

On this 10th Anniversary of this blog I wanted to write a special piece dedicated to my Mum, Nasim Akhtar.  I’ve been following the development of GlaswegAsians which showcases the history of Asians in Glasgow. A great project. I’ve written previously on my Dad, Inayat Ullah but this ones for my mum. The stories of our parents need to be given a platform. They are the roots of who we are today as Scottish Muslims.

When I was growing up in Glasgow’s west end there were some enormous trees around Great Western Road but the ones I could see from my house in Napiershall street were removed to make space for parking.  Urban societies are not always hospitable to trees. For those who have no fixed place of shelter - a tree offers cover, space and possibly fruits.  Trees are a world in themselves. There was a lone palm tree that was planted outside my apartment block when I lived for five years in South Beach Miami.  It grew slowly but strongly. I now live in an area of Cork with some beautiful trees.  Trees offer much to our world.

My Mum talked to me about trees in her village in Sialkot, Pakistan.  They were marking points for the girls to meet up.  They were the places where swings would be hinged for playful moments.  They rooted a moment of innocence in these young girls.  My Mum’s face lights up when she talks about those swings.  We recently had a family barbecue at Strathclyde Country park where my Mum immedietly lept on to the swing and swing she did. Higher than many of us could get. Giggling like she was back in her village in Pakistan.

Coke Studio Pakistan re-produced an old folklore song that resonated with me as I was thinking about my conversations with my Mum.

The song opens with Javed Bashir singing the following lines:

My husband has come home
Oh my dear friend, my husband has come home
Fortune has shown favour to my home
I gazed upon my beloved’s beautiful face
And became devoted to him with all my heart and soul

The times were not of courtship but of arrangements and family honour. It was just the way it was. Marriage was a right of passage. It must have been a difficult yet exciting time. Marriage of a daughter was a moment of pride for a family. Fathers would be fulfilling their understood duties. I find the line about devotion and love difficult to comprehend. Ironic? Is it happening naturally or does it have to happen? A lot is at stake. I try to understand these lines from my Mum’s eyes – from the moment her wedding palanquin arrived. Without enforcing my own mixed identity and the western ideals of romantic love and marriage. I may never understand the feelings that my Mum had on her wedding day.

Humera Channa then picks up with Javed Bashir accompanying:

Put down the palanquin beneath the mango tree at home
The rainy season has blossomed
I was in my father’s place happily playing with my dolls
Palanquin-bearers arrived to carry me to my husband’s home
O my dear friends, I could play with my dolls no longer
My husband sent the palanquin-bearers for me
I am a servant, submitted, Yearning for love. I sing my beloved’s praises.
Dear friends, I devote my very being to him

The tree where she played with dolls and met her girl friends was now the site for a new life as a wife.  There’s an urgency in these words. It seems to be happening quickly. What is blossoming? A world where girls are passed from father’s to husbands.  Patriarchy. The dolls will become children soon. 

Humera Channa adds:

I was in my father’s palace happily playing in the swing
Palanquin-bearers arrived to carry me to my husband’s home
Oh my dear friend, I can no longer swing (like a child)
Fine little raindrops drizzled down from the sky

The time of innocence has ended. Rain has arrived. It has the ability to dampen play or blossom the fruits. The ‘little raindrops’ are also pushing me to think about associations with little kids - playful and innocent.  It’s a move from the outside to a world inside. The roles of homemaker and breadwinner were being entrenched.  These folk songs from Pakistan are magical. They give me an insight to a world that is not mine. A slight look into the world where my Mum and Dad grew up.  For my Mum who always brings a cheer and laugh to any crowd. It must have been those dizzy heights she achieved on that simple tree.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Eid-al-Fitr 2017

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Monday 26th June 2017
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland

Eid celebrations have swept the world near and far. Muslims have ended their thirty days of fasting with religious events, food, greetings and, of course, new clothes.  I’ve been following a number of Eid fashion blogs as I was preparing for Eid.  It comes amidst horrific events during the month of Ramadhan here in the UK from Manchester and London, to yesterday’s devastating fuel tanker inferno in Pakistan’s Ahmedpur East which killed 150 people. Shopping and wearing clothes on Eid is one small pleasure that many seek. But I’m also conscious that there are many Muslims in the world who don’t have this privilege.  I laughed thinking about that time when I was about ten or so and my Mum, a talented seamtress, created a purple velvet outfit for me. I can’t quite remember which shoes I wore but let’s just say I do remember shining out at the Mosque.

Fashion at Eid has certainly picked up in the last few years. The colours and designs are fascinating.  The Pakistani blogs showcasing designs seem to infuse a mixture of western and eastern detail. Pakistani men’s clothes in the past were quite plain but today their colours are vibrant and bright.

I’ve come to appreciate that no two countries, Muslim or otherwise, are alike when it comes to types of clothing.  And this becomes all the more clear when I visit the Mosque on Eid day where Muslims display their roots colourfully.  We all wear clothes for different occasions, for different reasons. I think there are also cultures where they wear none at all. Some religions make mention of the link between clothing and piety, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  I’ve always found discussions in Islamic traditions about inner and outer garments humbling.  Faith is understood as a matter of the heart that should effect the morals and manners acted out in life and society. Here’s to more colours in this fabulously diverse world that surrounds us.  Eid Mubarak.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

If you want to know about Muslim women's rights, ask Muslim women Susan Carland

Islam’s patriarchy and western feminism have said a lot. Now Muslim women who fight sexism (yes we exist) must be heard 

Sunday 7 May 2017
Published in The Guardian - Copyright - All Rights Reserved

Within minutes of arriving to collect my professionally bound thesis, I found myself on the receiving end of an unsolicited and impenetrable rant about female genital mutilation.

“What’s your paper on?” the shop owner inquired.
“It’s on Muslim women and … ,” I began, but before I could finish my sentence, he had launched into the subject.

The fact that I hadn’t even mentioned the words “fe
male genital mutilation” was irrelevant; merely saying “Muslim women” was a wide enough rabbit hole for him to dart down. My presence as a Muslim woman and my half-delivered topic were the only encouragement he needed.
That he felt authorised to deliver a lecture to me about his understanding of the allegedly sexist treatment of women in Islam, the very subject of my years-long PhD dissertation, didn’t surprise me. This was not the first time a stranger had felt entitled to raise the potential religious interference of my genitals with me.

It’s uncanny how often people try to demonstrate their concern about the alleged oppression of Muslim women by humiliating them. Even finding out the details of my research findings doesn’t seem to deter them from baldly sharing opinions.

When I was neck-deep in my doctoral research, I attended a black-tie journalism-industry dinner on a windy Sydney night. Some of Australia’s most intelligent and perceptive thinkers were in the well-dressed crowd. I had grown accustomed to answering questions about my subject. I had also grown quite used to the standard responses I received to my thesis, and habitually gave ambiguous answers to avoid them.

A well-known and popular journalist approached me and asked what I did for living. His reaction, despite belonging to a group of people usually known for their cognitive skills, was so representative that I scribbled it down on a dinner napkin as soon as he left so I would not forget a word:

Journalist: So what do you do?
Me: I’m completing my PhD.
Journalist: On?
Me: (purposefully vague) Sociology and politics.
Journalist: But what is your exact research question?
Me: (inward sigh at what was inevitably to follow, but valiantly indifferent exterior) I’m investigating the way Muslim women fight sexism within Muslim communities.
Journalist: (with widened, alarmed eyes) That’s dangerous waters!
Me: (through gritted teeth) Not really. It’s been going on for many hundreds of years, and I’ve been spoiled for choice with the number of women who have been willing to be participants in my research.
Journalist: Did they want it known what they were doing? Or did they need it kept secret?
Me: (icy frustration descends into Arctic winter) Oh, many of them were happy to be identified in my research. In fact, some were angry when I suggested giving them a pseudonym, insisting they wanted to be known for this work.
Journalist: (now completely flabbergasted) But … but, did their husbands know of their apostasy?!
Me: (choosing to ignore use of “apostasy” as eyes take on glacial sheen) Actually, many of the women listed their husbands, or another Muslim man – like their father or imam – as their greatest supporters.
Journalist: (now quite literally speechless) …

I’ve had similar exchanges — too many to count — with non-Muslims over the course of my research. Commonplace is the firm conviction that sexism against Muslim women is rife, most often coupled with the utter disbelief that women who challenge sexism could exist, let alone that there are many of them, that they are not a new phenomenon, and that Muslim men often support them in their efforts. I often wonder how people can be so comfortable presenting these attitudes directly to me, a clearly identifiable Muslim woman in a hijab. They do not appear at all uneasy in making it apparent just how bad they think life is for any and all Muslim women, and how unengaged they believe Muslim women to be in confronting the sexism they invariably face.

I have received similar, but different, reactions within some sections of various Muslim communities when they found out the focus of my research. Often I would be purposefully vague when discussing my topic with them, too. I would restrict myself to saying that I was researching “Muslim women”, and avoid highlighting the “fighting sexism” part, as there is a complicated, often suspicious attitude towards anything that may be perceived as “feminism” within Muslim communities. Or I would rush to reassure them that I was not framing this in an anti-religious perspective.
Their scepticism is perhaps an understandable reaction from a minority community that frequently feels under siege, particularly when it comes to women’s rights. I hoped the fact that my research was being carried out from within a common faith, and that it drew explicitly and deeply on the theological resources afforded by this, reassured them that I, unlike many others, was not engaging in an attack on the faith and communities they held dear.

But still certain people within the Muslim community were scornful, rolling their eyes and calling me a feminist — not as a compliment, but a warning. They saw feminism and Islam as inherently at odds.

This is the terrain in which my research into Muslim women occurred. The subject is fraught on multiple fronts; the topic of “Muslim women and sexism” is a minefield of unflappable certainty and indignation from all corners. Yet for something about which so many people are adamantly sure, I feel there is very little information from the women actually involved. It seems to me that, in the argument in which Muslim women are the battlefield, the war rages on and the angry accusations zing past their heads from all sides. The main casualty is, ironically, women’s self-determination.

Islam is arguably the most discussed religion in the west today, in both media and society, and, after terrorism, the plight of Muslim women is probably the most controversial topic of debate. I have been asked, challenged, harangued and abused about “Islam’s treatment of women” countless times in person and online. Nonetheless, there is only a small amount of published work available on the topic of Muslim women fighting sexism within Muslim communities, and much of that focuses on women who see Islam as inherently part of the problem — if not the whole problem — that Muslim women face.

The assumption is that Muslim women need to be extricated from the religion entirely before anything close to liberation or equality can be achieved.

There are limited sociological accounts of Muslim women who fight sexism from a faith-positive perspective, and only a handful of studies that investigate the theological works of some Muslim feminists. The responses to, and motivations of, these women are dealt with coincidentally, as opposed to primarily. This small pool of available resources clashes with what I know anecdotally to be happening in many Muslim communities, as well as the historical accounts of Muslim women who, from the earliest days of Islam, have been challenging the sexism they have experienced by using religious arguments.

For years now I have been speaking about issues relating to Islam, Muslims and gender to the media, both Australian and overseas. In one sense I choose this, but in another it has been chosen for me, moulded by the way others attempt to define and restrict me, more or less obliging me to respond.
It’s a common story. Jasmin Zine, a Canadian scholar, once observed that not just our actions but also our very identities are constantly being shaped by dual, competing discourses that surround us.

There’s the fundamentalist, patriarchal narrative, persistently trying to confine the social and public lives of Muslim women in line with the kind of narrow, gendered parameters that are by now so familiar. But there are also some western feminist discourses that seek to define our identities in ways that are quite neocolonial: backward, oppressed, with no hope of liberation other than to emulate whatever western notions of womanhood are on offer. This wedging chimes with my experience, and it’s a problem because, as Zine argues, both arms deny Muslim women the ability — indeed the right — to define our identities for ourselves, and especially to do so within the vast possibilities of Islam.

It is as though male Muslim scholars and non-Muslim western feminists have handed down predetermined scripts for us to live by. And it is left to those people thought not to exist — Muslim women who fight sexism — to rewrite those scenarios and reclaim our identities.

This is an edited extract from Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism by Susan Carland, out now through Melbourne University Press

Proud of being a part of this department - wonderful students - Study of Religions - University College Cork - Ireland

Monday, 15 May 2017

The Myth of the Muslim World

May 14, 2017 
Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education
Copyright, All Rights Reserved
In his influential History of the Saracen Empires, the early-18th-century British scholar Simon Ockley remarks benignly about Islam and its beliefs: "The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the hours of the Prophet have never transgressed the measure of human virtues; and his living precepts have restrained the gratitude of his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion." Such views influenced Edward Gibbon and his largely favorable depiction of Islam in his The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Similar positive assessments of Islam continued to be found through the first quarter of the 19th century; Goethe lists the Prophet Muhammad as his third source of inspiration, after Jesus and Apollo.

But a very different view emerges in the latter half of the 19th century. More typical of European attitudes during this period was that expressed by the French philosopher Ernest Renan in his now (in)famous lecture titled "Islam and Science," delivered at the Sorbonne in 1883. Renan pilloried Islam as being opposed to reason, progress, and reform. Continuing a familiar Orientalist theme grounded in the racial theories of the period, he attributed medieval Arab advances in the sciences and philosophy to Aryan and non-Muslim (primarily Greco-Sassanian) influences.

Cemil Aydin, in his thoughtful and provocative new book The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History (Harvard University Press), explores the reasons for this sea change in fundamental European attitudes toward Muslims. His study of the historical record demonstrates that the racialization of Muslims as a homogeneous group and the construction of the "Muslim world" as a seamless whole began in this period, with the onset of Western colonization of much of what we term today the Middle East and other parts of Asia.

What is interesting is that this European project of constructing a monolithic "Muslim world" was bolstered by Muslim intellectuals themselves, who, in the same period, sought refuge in Pan-Islamism. Aydin’s exhumation of the historical record yields no evidence from before the period of colonization of a pan-Muslim consciousness arrayed against an imagined monolithic Western Christian polity. Travelers like the 14th-century North African Ibn Batutta and the 17th-century Ottoman Evliya Çelebi wrote about the cultural and linguistic diversity of Muslim lands and displayed no sense of an "abstract and globalized concept of a Muslim civilization," nor did they feel threatened by alien non-Muslim cultures. Aydin skillfully recounts the complex web of relationships that existed between and among European Christian and Muslim nations before the 19th century, in which religious affiliation played no predictable role as a unifying, rallying factor.

All of this would change during the cataclysmic political encounters between European colonizers and colonized Muslim populations. The former painted Islam as a backward ideology that, in promoting political despotism and resistance to science, had contributed to the civilizational decline of Muslims, who were now imagined as an undifferentiated collectivity. Such accusations prompted impassioned responses from Muslim intellectuals, like Muhammad 'Abduh, Syed Ahmad Khan, and Syed Ameer Ali, who challenged imputations of cultural inferiority by emphasizing the superior values and intellectual contributions of a global Islamic civilization. As Aydin remarks, "In these circumstances, civilizational conflict was the principal lens through which global history was understood." Collective amnesia wiped out memories of earlier cosmopolitan Muslim empires that had regularly interacted with "Hindus, Jews, and Buddhists; shamans; Christian Arabs, Greeks, and Armenians.

In the postcolonial world and particularly in the 21st century, the racialized European imperialist discourse of the 19th century has become transmuted into Islamophobia, while the Pan-Islamism of the same era has been succeeded by political Islam or Islamism. The assumed fault lines between the West and Islam have become only more entrenched in these new, acrimonious discourses, which, as the author shows, are in many ways the mirror image of each other: Islamophobes and radical Islamists equally embrace the narrative of civilizational difference and conflict that makes their exclusivist worldviews credible.

Yet one must ask if the idea of a unified Muslim world is totally without antecedent in the premodern era. The concept of Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) has no basis in Islamic scripture but was created by early Muslim jurists to refer to realms under Muslim control, as Aydin briefly notes. Contraposed to it was the Dar al-Harb (Abode of War), which indicated non-Muslim realms that were potentially hostile. An Abode of Peace or Security was posited by one group of jurists to refer to those non-Muslim polities that had entered into peace treaties with Muslim authorities and were therefore not considered to be hostile. But another group of jurists argued that once non-Muslim polities signed peace treaties with Muslims, they were to be considered part of the Abode of Islam. In their more capacious and cosmopolitan conceptualization of the Muslim polity, it is peaceful intent, rather than confessional faith, that signifies inclusion in the Abode of Islam. These early contestations of the meaning of belonging could have been fruitfully explored in further detail, since they have important repercussions for contemporary Muslims as they similarly negotiate parochial and cosmopolitan understandings of their collective identity.
On the whole, however, this is a carefully argued book that will provoke specialists and nonspecialists alike to revisit commonly held assumptions about the nature of relations between "Islam and the West" in the past, present, and future. As Aydin reminds us, there was nothing inevitable about the development of the clash-of-civilizations thesis made popular by academics like Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis in the late 20th century, for it is in the theater "not of timeless doctrine but of contingent politics and ideas … that contemporary conflicts play out."
Aydin counsels toward the end of the book that we should study premodern history, with its messy record of shifting political allegiances in both Muslim and Christian realms — which often had nothing to do with religious identity — in order to challenge simplistic contemporary stereotypes. The current ascendancy of right-wing illiberal groups in the United States and Western Europe that demonize Islam as a common enemy of the West makes this message both timely and urgent. The author’s masterly historical survey drives home the point that, in the past, shared values and interests rather than shared religion typically allowed for the creation of alliances among people from varied backgrounds. Those are exactly the kinds of alliances that need to be forged today.
Asma Afsaruddin is a professor of Islamic studies in the School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University at Bloomington. She is the author of Contemporary Issues in Islam (Edinburgh University Press, 2015).

Friday, 21 April 2017

Paris Attack

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland
Friday 21st April 2017

The news of the shooting of policemen in Paris last night has put the city and the whole of France on alert again having suffered so many similar attacks in recent years.  It’s also a sad reminder of the events in Westminster only a few weeks ago.  And earlier this week a policeman was killed by gunmen, who opened fire at a checkpoint, near St Catherine's monastery in Egypt's south Sinai.  Located at the foot of Mount Sinai, St Catherine's is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, built in the 6th century, and a UNESCO world heritage site.  I remember reading about the monastery years ago, especially its significance to Muslim/Christian relations.  The prophet Muhammad is said to have issued a peace covenant to the monks at the monastery and to this day it is used to affirm peaceful co-existence. 

However strong a testament there is to peace there always seems to be some on the side of war.  The attack at the monastery comes just days after bombings at two Coptic Christian churches in Egypt.

Tolerance can never be over emphasized in the world we live in today but I think tolerance comes from lived experience. It helps shatter stereotypes we have about each other.  Differences of opinion, faith or otherwise are always a challenge but it is appreciating them that makes for a colourful society.  These questions came up at a recent Church of Scotland event I attended where we discussed the tension between mission, belief and interfaith work in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  We often lose sight of how differences within a faith tradition are more difficult to deal with than building bridges outside.  A strong belief in anything should not demand the conversion of others, that mindset can lead to bloodshed, but accepting the challenges of doubt and the role of minorities in our lives is something that surely strengthen identities and society.

Monday, 27 March 2017

BBC Radio Scotland
Thought for the Day
Dr. Amanullah De Sondy
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Islam
University College Cork, Ireland
Monday 27th March, 2017

I was in a discussion panel yesterday - part of a Glasgow film festival, highlighting the contributions made by minority groups.  The documentary (Poshida by Faizan Fiaz)

Watching a film has often led me to a variety of emotions, sentiments and most importantly questions.  The last time I was in Pakistan was in 1999 and from what I saw, a lot has changed.

I often use film as a teaching tool in my own contemporary Islam class to offer students an insight into places they’ve not been to. Sometimes we watch lives on film that are hidden from us in our real world.

Anything that has the power to make us rethink our understanding, can make us uncomfortable. Issues of gender and sexuality are at the forefront of Muslim concern and of many other religions too. As a society we are expanding our understanding on these issues.

The way people live their lives can challenge our different religious texts and challenge our different cultural traditions which try to present neatly the messy realities we actually live in.

May we find thoughtful paths to embrace these tensions, in the hope that we can learn to live peacefully with and appreciate all our differences.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Riz Ahmed: we will lose kids to extremism if we don't make them heroes in our stories

British Muslims are turning to extremism because they do not see themselves represented as heroes on screen, according to the actor Riz Ahmed.

In a speech at the House of Commons, Ahmed said: “When we fail to represent, people switch off. They switch off their telly, they switch off at the ballot box. They retreat to fringe narratives, which are sometimes very dangerous.

“In the mind of the Isis recruit, he’s a version of James Bond, right? Everyone thinks they’re the good guy. Have you seen some of the Isis propaganda videos? They’re cut like action movies. Where’s the counter-narrative? Where are we telling these kids that they can be heroes in our stories?”

Delivering the Channel 4 Diversity Lecture to an audience that included the Culture Minister, Matt Hancock, Ahmed recalled growing up in Wembley, north west London, with his family. “I remember when they’d be watching TV downstairs in the lounge, I’d be upstairs and all of a sudden I’d hear one of them call out, ‘Asian!’

“I’d pause my game and run downstairs just to go and look at Sanjeev Bhaskar on Goodness Gracious Me, Meera Syal in Bhaji on the Beach, Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham, Jimi Mistry in East is East.

“If you’re used to seeing yourself reflected in culture, I really want you to take a minute to understand how much it means to someone who doesn’t see themselves reflected back. Every time you see yourself in a magazine or on a billboard, TV, film, it’s a message that you matter, that you’re part of the national story, that you’re valued. You feel represented.”
Black and minority ethnic people feel alienated because so much of Britain’s “national story” is white - from the way history is taught in schools to the glut of all-white period dramas on television, said Ahmed, seen most recently in the Star Wars prequel Rogue One and the Sky Atlantic/HBO drama The Night Of.

“What people are looking for is a message that they belong. That they are part of something, that they are seen and heard and valued. They want to feel represented.

“If we don’t step up and tell a representative story, we’re going to start losing people to other stories. We’re going to start losing British teenagers so the next chapter in their lives is written by Isis in Syria. We’re going to start losing MPs like Jo Cox, who are murdered in the street because we’ve been sold a story that’s so narrow about who we are and who we’ve been and who we should be.

“In the 1930s we had a very similar situation to what we have today: political polarisation, economic disenfranchisement after a big financial crash, rising inequality, systematic scapegoating of certain minorities. What’s at stake here is whether or not we will move forwards together or whether we will leave people behind.”

Ahmed began his film career in The Road To Guantanamo and Film4’s Four Lions, and went on to critical acclaim in The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Nightcrawler. His performance in The Night Of earned him a Golden Globe nomination. But like other BAME actors, including Idris Elba and David Oyelowo, he has found more opportunities in the US.

“We end up going to America to find work,” he said. “I meet producers and directors here, I think they’re being honest when they say they want to work with me but ‘we don’t have anything for you, all our stories are set in Cornwall in the 1600s’.

“It’s weird because Asians are such a big proportion of the population here. Asian doesn’t even mean people that look like me in America. When I say I’m Asian they look at me, see I’m not Chinese and think I’m crazy. But it takes American remakes of British shows to cast someone like me.”

Ahmed said the government must step in to increase representation in the creative industries, citing figures showing that only 1.5 per cent of TV drama directors are from BAME backgrounds. 

He added: “Sometimes it’s very easy to look at the screen and say, ‘Oh, look! It’s changed so much! There’s Riz, there’s Idris, there’s Michaela Cole in Chewing Gum… but these examples are often prominent because they are the exception that proves the rule.

“I’m getting on a plane to LA to attend the Star Wars premiere and I still get that second search before I get on the plane.” He had the surreal experience “of being asked for a selfie by someone who’s swabbing you for explosives”.

Ahmed said he had no political ambitions but joked that "as a Muslim socialist creative type, I can't rule out a leadership bid for UKIP. These are topsy-turvy political times."

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Islamic world did liberalise – but then came the first world war

Published in The Spectator - February 25th 2017
Copyright - All Rights Reserved

I am quite used to people smirking into their sleeves when they hear that I’ve just written a book called The Islamic Enlightenment. The really helpful wags say they expect something along the lines of The Wit and Wisdom of Spiro Agnew, which was billed as a collection of all the memorable aphorisms of the former US vice-president, and contained only blank pages.

So, the Islamic Enlightenment — good for a laugh. But we’re all familiar with the serious argument that lies behind the jests; that Islam has not been through an Enlightenment, a Reformation, or any of the other rites of passage that have formed our modernity, and that, ergo, Muslims and modernity are strangers. Not just strangers, but enemies: ever since Gutenberg revolutionised mass printing in the 1450s, pushing the West into the modern age, the Muslims have set their face against innovation. And to be fair, when you take into account the fact that it took some 400 years for movable type to come into general use in the Middle East, and that for much of this period the Ottoman authorities punished book-printing with death, is it any wonder that this bleak view of Muslim improvability has acquired the wide acceptance and legitimacy it currently enjoys?

In fact, rarely has there been a better time to test the belief — widespread in the Trump White House, among Europe’s rising populists, and the Kremlin — that Islamic society is incapable of reforming because it hates progress. Wouldn’t it be awkward if proof were adduced to show that, on the contrary, for long periods in their recent history the central and most influential lands of Islam, having been confronted by dynamic western modernity, embraced that modernity in spades and only lapsed into Islamist recalcitrance after the first world war obliterated them physically and the victorious allies tried to subjugate them politically? But this is what happened in Turkey, Egypt and Iran during the ‘long’ 19th century until 1914.

A key aspect of Islamic modernisation (in Egypt’s case only until the British invasion of 1882) was that the lands in question acted as free, independent agents. Change was not only driven by royal autocrats like Iran’s Crown Prince Abbas Mirza, who reformed the Persian military during the Napoleonic wars, but also by commoners of vision such as the Egyptian administrator and intellectual Rifaa al-Tahtawi, whose conception of progress accommodated steamships, girls’ education and linguistic reform. Another secular visionary was Ibrahim Sinasi, father of Turkish journalism, who peppered the Ottoman government of the early 1860s with impertinent advice on how to deal with Greek irredentists and poured scorn on reactionaries who opposed the introduction of gaslights in Istanbul (the same innovation had met with the same reaction in Georgian London).

Islamic society on the eve of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1798 had indeed been medieval in many ways, its backwardness perpetuated by despotic government, almost universal illiteracy and the clergy’s monopoly over knowledge. Now change came in a rush. The telegraph, the postal service and table manners arrived almost simultaneously, closely followed by the first polite calls for the crowned head to share power. Theatres of anatomy overturned the prophet’s injunction against cutting up corpses (‘though it may have swallowed the most precious pearl’) and there was an increase in religious scepticism; a photograph of an Istanbul medical school around the middle of the century shows a cohort of medics posing in fezzes amid ghoulish arrangements of human remains. As for the plague, quarantine and hygiene did for this mass killer as they had in Europe two centuries earlier, while slavery was first challenged by a ban on the trade itself (insisted upon by those newbie zealots the British), and ultimately condemned by the decline of the harem, shared habitat of eunuchs and concubines.

The growing integration of the sexes and the decline in polygamy among the new middle class were two manifestations of a broader feminine emancipation. Having begun the century as unlettered chattels of their menfolk, by the first world war a growing number of educated women in Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran were equipped to contribute to an emerging national life. They wrote for feminist journals, led humanitarian campaigns and — to the dismay of puritans — shed layer after layer of chaste Islamic covering.

In the early 1890s, Zainab Fawwaz, an Egyptian feminist, declared that there was nothing in Islamic law prohibiting women from ‘involvement in the occupations of men’. This in a country where only a few decades earlier efforts to found a school for midwifery had foundered on popular hostility and the school had had to be filled with Abyssinians bought from the Cairo slave market.

That Islam’s liberal moment came juddering to a halt in 1914 is a little-known tragedy. In the first decade of the 20th century, Iranian and Turkish democrats had launched revolutions establishing parliamentary systems that limited the powers of the ruler — a similar movement in favour of popular sovereignty in Egypt had been thwarted by the British occupation two decades earlier. But war laid waste to the region and the British and French chopped up much of the former Ottoman Empire into mandate-sized chunks. Egypt stayed under British supervision, while in Iran and Turkey the powers were only kept at bay by new regimes that westernised furiously along Roman lines (Mussolini was the model), not Jeffersonian ones.

One of the reasons why Islam’s liberal moment was never revived was its association with an avowedly liberal West that in fact behaved anything but liberally; this confusion of message and messenger fuelled the Muslim Brotherhood and subsequent Islamist movements, while defenders of a measured westernisation such as the secular-minded Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh were rewarded for their political independence with the hostility of the West. (In 1951 Mossadegh nationalised Iran’s British-run oil industry; the CIA and MI6 toppled him in a coup two years later.)
Now, amid the beastliness of Isis and its fellow travellers, and the tendency of a growing number of westerners to demonise not Islamism or the terrorists but Islam tout court, it seems vital to recall that hopeful century when the lands of Islam engaged lustily with modernity in the hope that something of it can be recaptured — as, indeed, it briefly looked as though it might during the Arab Spring. The alternative is to perpetuate the self-fulfilling consensus around which the Isis ideologues and our own populists unite: a story of inevitable conflict and alienation based on a historical fallacy.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

If Aquinas is a philosopher then so are the Islamic theologians

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast.

Published at
Copyright, All Rights Reserved

Maybe I’m just an optimist, but I think people today mostly acknowledge the importance and originality of philosophy in the Islamic world. Would any scholar now say in print, as Bertrand Russell notoriously did in his History of Western Philosophy (written in 1945), that ‘Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators’? I certainly hope not. But even if we now see more clearly, we still have blindspots.

Painting: Detail from ‘The Meeting of the Theologians’ by Abd Allah Musawwir, mid-16th century. Courtesy Wikipedia

The thinkers taken seriously as ‘philosophers’ are typically the authors Russell dismissed as mere commentators, men such as al-Kindī, al-Fārābī, Avicenna, and Averroes. Though they were far from unoriginal, they were indeed enthusiasts for Aristotle and other Greek authors. Yet these were not the only intellectuals and rationalists of their time, nor did rationalism and philosophical reflection die with Averroes at the end of the 12th century, as is still often believed. Throughout Islamic history, many of the figures of interest and relevance to the historian of philosophy were not Aristotelians, but practitioners of kalām, which is usually translated as ‘theology’.

The word kalām literally means ‘word’, and here abbreviates the Arabic expression ʿilm al-kalām: ‘science of the word’. It is often contrasted to the term falsafa, which as you can probably guess was imported into Arabic as a loan-word from the Greek philosophia. When modern-day scholars draw this contrast, when they assume that kalām was non-philosophical or even anti-philosophical, they are taking their lead from the medieval tradition itself. In particular, from two self-styled ‘philosophers (falāsifa)’, al-Fārābī and Averroes. In their eyes, the ‘theologians (mutakallimūn)’ engaged in mere dialectical argumentation; whereas philosophy offers demonstrative proofs. The theologian does not ground arguments in first principles, but just defends his own favourite interpretation of scripture against rival interpretations. Averroes was scornful of the results, complaining that it can lead to violent schism. For him, only a philosopher can offer a really reliable reading of the Quran, since the philosopher knows what is true on independent grounds – that is, on the grounds of Aristotelian science.

But should we accept this sharp opposition? These Aristotelians talk as if kalām makes insufficient use of reason. But most contemporaries would have seen it as controversial precisely because it was so rationalist. Theologians often departed from the surface meaning of the Quran on rational grounds: Revelation might seem to speak of God as if He had a body, but we can rule this out by giving arguments against His corporeality. The mutakallimūn also engaged in detailed disputes over such central philosophical issues as free will, atomism and the sources of moral responsibility, and debated such technicalities as the inherence of properties in substances, or the status of non-existing objects. If history had gone differently and there had been no hard-line Aristotelians writing in Arabic, I have no doubt that historians of philosophy would consider the output of the mutakallimūn to be the ‘philosophical’ tradition of the Islamic world.

That would have made our approach to Islamic intellectual history more like our treatment of Christian medieval thought. After all, medieval philosophy classes are mostly devoted to figures who considered themselves to be ‘theologians’, such as Anselm, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Of course, there are plenty of people who don’t like medieval philosophy either, precisely because of its religious context. But my view is that philosophy is where you find it, and that it is narrow-minded to ignore philosophical argumentation put forward by thinkers simply because they have a religious agenda, whether that agenda grows out of Christianity (as with Aquinas), Judaism (as with Maimonides), Hinduism (as with Nyāya epistemology or Vedānta philosophy of mind), or Islam.

The refusal to appreciate the philosophical interest of kalām is especially pernicious when it comes to the period after the pivotal figure of philosophy in the Islamic world, Avicenna (he died in 1037). His impact was enormous and pervasive. So we find ‘theologians’ such as al-Ghazālī (died 1111) and Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (died 1210) engaging in minute analysis of Avicenna’s arguments, accepting some aspects of the Avicennian system while finding fault with others. Al-Ghazālī is notorious for his critique of Avicenna’s metaphysics in The Incoherence of the Philosophers, but he also heaped ridicule on anyone who denied the utility of the philosophers’ logic. As for al-Rāzī, his enormous theological compendia are comparable to those written by men such as Aquinas and Scotus in Latin Christendom, filled with scholastic argumentation and even structured in terms of philosophical elements like the Aristotelian categories. The myth that philosophy somehow died out in the Islamic world around the time of Averroes (died 1198) is in part the result of assuming that such texts fall outside the remit of the history of philosophy, despite being chock-full of intricate philosophical argumentation.

All of which is not to deny that some other kalām texts would be of limited interest to the philosophically minded reader, or that the mutakallimūn did typically proceed on the basis of scriptural exegesis instead of (or in addition to) pure rational argument. Nor is this the only reason that kalām texts can frequently be frustrating to the philosopher. Al-Fārābī and Averroes were right that there was a ‘dialectical’ tendency in their theological contemporaries. Premises might go unexamined because an envisaged opponent is bound to accept them, and there is a tendency – in early kalām especially – to answer questions with verbal formulae that all parties might accept, rather than delving deeper to find a really satisfying answer. But that tendency is reduced to some extent in later kalām literature. In fact, my impression – which I offer tentatively, given the vast amount of later kalām literature that is as yet unedited, and unstudied – is that kalām becomes significantly more ‘philosophical’ as the tradition developed. In the post-Avicennan period, the situation was increasingly like what we find in late 13th-century France: the most interesting and sophisticated philosophers were the theologians.

It might seem greedy of me to ask that a wide readership come to appreciate kalām, when most self-described ‘philosophers’ in the Islamic world are still rarely studied by non-specialists. It’s not as if undergraduate students are already routinely asked to read Avicenna and Averroes, never mind their ‘theological’ contemporaries and heirs. But even if the relevant texts remain largely unstudied, it is worth spreading the news that rationalism in Islam did not die with Averroes, and that the famous partisans of philosophy in the Islamic world, like al-Fārābī, Averroes and Avicenna, had no monopoly on philosophical thinking there.