“The Study of Religion and the Study of Islam”

Carl W. Ernst

Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Paper given at Workshop on "Integrating Islamic Studies in Liberal Arts Curricula,"

University of Washington, Seattle WA, March 6-8, 1998.

Not for citation or quotation without permission; © Carl W. Ernst, 1998.


These remarks begin from the realization I made some years ago, when looking at the members’ directory of the Middle East Studies Association. Out of over 2500 members, I was surprised to see that fewer than 100 listed their specialty as Islam or religious studies. Of those who claimed this specialization, some were graduate students and others were European scholars. The number of academics who represent the study of Islam in religious studies today is therefore quite small, especially when one realizes that there are over 900 academic departments of religious studies in North America (according to the Directory of Departments of Religious Studies in North America).[1]

This is not the first time that anyone has pointed to the short supply of expertise in Islamic studies. Charles Adams drew attention to this situation in an informative article in 1973, written when he discovered that he was the only person to present a paper on Islam at the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion.[2] The scope of that paper, written a quarter century ago, was limited, but it presented a portrait of the institutional and disciplinary constraints that still result in conflicts and tensions between religious studies generally and the study of Islam as carried out by Orientalists and area studies specialists. [3]  Here I would like to comment on Adams’ paper as a kind of snapshot of that time, with a view to understanding what has happened to the study of Islamic religion over the past twenty-five years.[4] The study of Islam has been in effect uneasily poised between Orientalism and area studies on the one hand and religious studies on the other. It is important to examine the implications of both area studies and religious studies if the academy is to deal with issues relating to Islam in the global public culture that is being formed today.

Historically speaking, what we today can call Islamic studies emerged from Orientalism, the erudite study of texts and ideas that became a highly developed field in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and America. As Edward Said has noted, Europe’s Orient then corresponds to today’s Islamic Middle East. It is not necessary to subscribe to Said’s Foucaldian analysis to acknowledge that there were issues of power associated with the institutional aspect of Orientalist study. It may suffice to note that the term “Near East,” which is the primary designator for Orientalist departments today, was coined by a British naval historian in the period before World War I. Likewise, “Middle East” is a term invented by the OSS (precursor to the CIA) during World War II, and it had its main applicability during the Cold War. Both departments of Near Eastern studies and Middle Eastern studies can be conveniently listed under the category of area studies rather than any discipline. Near Eastern studies typically include a large array of languages from Akkadian to Arabic, with an enormous temporal range covering several discrete religions and civilizations. Departments of Middle East studies, which focus on the modern period, are supported in America by about 16 federally funded National Resource Centers for Middle Eastern studies (supported by the Title VI program in the U.S. Department of Education). These were created on the justification of the relevance of the Middle East to policy end users (I once held a National Defense Foreign Language fellowship for the study of Persian, a fact that I seldom mentioned when doing research overseas). Most Middle East specialists are social scientists (historians, anthropologists, political scientists, sociologists) or experts in language and literature.

The academic study of religion in Euro-America emerged over the last century, first from Protestant seminaries, then Catholic institutions and eventually Jewish ones. While academic departments of religious studies are frequently found in private universities with religious affiliations (some of which have divinity schools), the period since World War II has seen the establishment of departments of religious studies in public universities as well. Religious studies has struggled to gain recognition as a humanities discipline, in the face of opposition from both secularists and sectarians. I will not attempt to give any kind of complete description of the development of this field of study. But it is important to stress the framework of “world religions,” within which religious studies departments expanded to include religious traditions outside the Protestant orbit, particularly since the 1960s.

Adams described the study of religion in his day mainly under the heading of History of Religions, and he used the German term Religionswissenschaft to present its genealogy. In his view, the field was primarily the phenomenology of religion as defined by Mircea Eliade and other scholars at the University of Chicago. His critique of it began with the observation that departments of religion, when attempting to overcome their parochialism, generally preferred to concentrate on Asian traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, or Far Eastern religions. He observed that there were hardly any graduate programs in religious studies that included Islamic studies as a field. Area studies centers and departments, he maintained, generally considered religion to be a secondary subject of no major importance. In addition, the publishing industry offered very few books on Islam, in comparison with Eastern religions. Finally, the bias toward archaic religions in the History of Religions excluded historical and rational religions like Islam. The result was a situation of impoverishment, in which the History of Religions had failed seriously to engage with a major world-historical civilization. I would suggest that his observations still in part hold true.

To counter this situation, Adams proposed a stern remedy: what was needed was nothing but “old-fashioned historical, literary, and philological studies directed to the Islamic tradition, the mastery of linguistic tools, and the study of an enormous textual tradition.”[5] This immersion was unavoidable, because highlighting the general and the comparative will necessarily make the study of Islam superficial.

From today’s perspective, Adams’s point of view is odd. There are a number of items missing from his description of religious studies which would definitely be needed today. He makes no mention of the reactions of Muslims to Euro-American scholarship, or to their participation in it. His discussion of Islamic studies does not consider the impact of having Muslim students in the classroom. He does not discuss the massive stereotypes of Islam relating to terrorism, violence, oppression of women, etc. He makes no mention of recent history, particularly European colonialism, modernity, or the F word (fundamentalism). Furthermore, he does not refer at all to the role of the media and journalistic presentations in establishing the image of Islam today. And of course, the more recent phenomena of post-structuralism, deconstructive literary criticism, feminist and gender studies, post-colonial discourse, and the critique of Orientalism itself, were all to enter scholarship over the next two decades.

A word on stereotypes: It must be acknowledged that contemporary political events on the world scene have had a powerful influence on how Islam is perceived in Europe and America, though it should also be pointed out that attitudes toward religion in the academy have also been profoundly shaped by these trends. While Harvey Cox in his 1965 The Secular City could proclaim the demise of religion as a public force, the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the rise of the religious right in America have provided a decisive refutation of that position. In any case, the use of religious Islamic slogans by violent factions, whether in conflict with the state of Israel or in struggles against repressive secular governments, has firmly fixed in place the media image of the Muslim as terrorist. This actually creates a unique problem for educators. There is no other religion that is so uniformly identified with hateful characteristics as Islam. Over a billion people, and over a millennium of history, are collapsed by stereotypes into a banal set of shocking film clips and sound bites. Because of the default Eurocentrism of our curricula, this is all that most people ever know about Muslim countries. Most Islamicists that I know, and quite a few Middle East historians, find themselves beginning their introductory classes with explorations of these stereotypes, which they highlight through quick media analysis in order to get their students to begin historicizing and humanizing their subject.

But any subject in religious studies in recent years would be affected by the other items I have pointed out as missing from Adams’ account of the field. That is, we are increasingly attentive to the presence of religious pluralism in American life, so that academics necessarily take account of the current actuality of domestic versions of religions once considered foreign. It is also increasingly the case that Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are joining the ranks of the professoriate alongside Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. While textbooks of world religions used to have a largely classical and scriptural bias, they now frequently attempt to include at least some reference to contemporary religious practices and views. And all fields of religious studies have been affected to some extent by the various discourses of post-modernity, if only through defensive reaction.

So how has the field of Islamic studies actually changed over the past 25 years in America? Who are the major figures and scholars? Who has had the biggest public impact on the understanding of Islam? Without making the slightest claim to being comprehensive, I have done a little subjective checking with other scholars to come up with some lists. It is actually easy to come up with a fair number of names on the area studies/Orientalism side, and many of these are distinguished scholars who have contributed greatly to the study of various aspects of Islamic religion and culture:

Leonard Binder            G. E. von Grunebaum

Marshall G. S. Hodgson            Fazlur Rahman

Bernard Lewis            Dale Eickelman

Richard Eaton            Barbara Metcalf

Hamid Algar            Richard Bulliett

Michael Gilsenan            S. D. Goitein

Gilles Kepel            Nikki Keddie

Ali Mazrui            Clifford Geertz

Talal Asad    

But none of these scholars has had an appointment in a department of religious studies. When we try to think of religious studies specialists on Islam, the list tends to be far smaller:

Wilfred C. Smith                        Marilyn Waldman

Annemarie Schimmel                        Mohammad Arkoun

Josef Van Ess                         Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Bruce Lawrence                        Richard Martin

But a sobering conclusion emerges from even this very cursory survey. If one considers the impact that these scholars have had on the wider field of religious studies, hardly any names will get much recognition. And very few of the area studies scholars are read outside their own fields, with the exception of Clifford Geertz (ironically, most Islamicists find his Islam Observed to be highly problematic in spite of its widespread popularity, while most non-Islamicists are unaware of the devastating critique of Geertz by Mark Woodward in Islam in Java).

At this point I would like to ask an embarrassing question: what is the single most widely distributed book relating to Islam over the past 25 years, possibly over the past century? Although I do not have precise data at hand to prove the case, in my mind there is no doubt that this book must be Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Now, whether one likes Rushdie as a novelist or not, the fact remains that this book would be a very odd source from which to draw a picture of the Islamic religion or any of its history. Yet the 1989 media explosion over this book, which focused on the negative reaction of Muslims (particularly the Iranian death threat), did not result in any greater interest in Islam or in providing a more accurate picture of it. As one commentator has pointed out, while nearly every major periodical in the U.K., America, and most European countries carried front-page stories on The Satanic Verses, their analysis of Islam almost without exception remained on the most superficial and hostile level.[6] This seems to be a clear sign that the academic study of Islam has had a fairly limited impact. We can pursue this further, and ask what American scholar of Islamic studies has had the most public recognition. Here too the answer is easy, but also depressing. Several years ago Bernard Lewis was asked to give the Jefferson Lectures, one of the most prestigious national academic recognitions, but the burden of his presentation is one that most Islamicists shrink from. Like Samuel Huntington, who paints a paranoid post-Cold War picture of “the West against the rest,” Lewis speaks of Islam as the eternal other to Western civilization.[7] Despite his considerable erudition, Lewis is content to view Muslims as eternally driven by an unchanging scripture; somehow they alone among all humanity are not subject to the influences of class, gender, ethnicity, nationality, politics, or economics. This, in the final analysis, is unfortunately an anti-humanist thesis.

Is there a problem here? I would say so. Part of the difficulty lies in the way that academics in all fields have sometimes been content to write for a small circle of specialists, leaving the popular sphere for others to stake out. Statistics from Publishers Weekly indicate that publishing on religious studies is by far the largest growth area in publishing, outstripping all other subjects over the past few years. This growth has not been based on academic publishing, however. As with other areas of the academic study of religion, there is a real need (and a demand) for good popular writing by experts; we know what the alternative is. It also appears that religious studies has not had a very big impact on the study of Islamic religion and culture, which has been dominated by area studies concerns.

For Islamic studies in the academy, future development is problematic in terms of its funding. Area studies, despite its theoretical flaws, is an extraordinarily successful method of training people in the languages and histories of particular regions. It is not clear how the different federally funded area studies programs will fare, however, in the changed political climate of the new world order. Private patronage is perhaps an option, but here too there are potential problems. Recently immigrant communities have not yet become socialized to the private support of higher education. On the other hand, one positive sign for Islamic studies is the noticeable number of institutions that have made first appointments in this field; last year, the number of academic positions in Islamic studies was actually larger than the number of viable candidates. While it is still true that the older established American universities with Ph.D. programs in religious studies (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago) do not really include Islam, newer configurations (e.g., the Carolina-Duke-Emory Institute for the Study of Islam) are forming to undertake the task of successfully integrating Islamic studies into religious studies. The key to recovering Islamic studies for religious studies is summarized by two words: comparative and critical. The comparative dimension is important not only to reveal the existence of differences within and among Islamic societies, but also to explore Islamic themes in relation to other traditions in multiple contexts. The critical approach takes account of the most stringent recent theoretical tests and methodologies, to elevate this study out of the unselfconscious attitudes of 19th-century positivism that too often characterized Orientalism. With these provisos, I think it will be possible to articulate a way for religious studies to have an impact on the study of Islam. But the problem of explaining religion to the public is a task that needs to be taken up by scholars in all fields.



[1] There are another 900 departments in seminaries, yeshivas, and Bible colleges that are ministerial training schools rather than academic programs.

[2] Charles J. Adams, “The History of Religions and the Study of Islam,” ACLS Newsletter 25/3-4 (1974), pp. 1-10.

[3] As an example, one may consider the vituperative and ad hominem attack by Julian Baldick, in “Islam and the Religions of Iran in the Encyclopedia of Religion,” Religious Studies 24 (1988), pp. 47-56. In defense of what he calls “traditional European scholarship,” Baldick accuses American Islamicists of cowardly behavior that sacrifices objectivity by coddling the sensitivities of Muslims.

[4] A recent essay on Islamic studies in America by Muhsin Mahdi unfortunately is restricted to only a few figures and problems and does not give a full survey. See Mapping Islamic studies: genealogy, continuity, and change, edited by Azim Nanji (Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1997).

[5] Adams, p. 7.

[6] Shabbir Akhtar, But Be Careful with Muhammad. It is worth noting, however, that Rushdie’s idea for writing The Satanic Verses evidently derived from his study during college of the Orientalist biography of Muhammad by Montgomery Watt. The degree of religious alienation manifest in Rushdie’s internalization of such an Orientalist interpretation is certainly one of the factors behind the Muslim reaction to the novel.

[7] At least Lewis does not follow Huntington in positing the remarkably bizarre idea of an “Islamic-Confucian conspiracy” against the West; see Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations. This concept Huntington derives from the fact of a series of treaties between China and  a few Muslim countries like Pakistan. Somehow the far larger number of treaties between the U.S. and Pakistan fails to have the same kind of profound religious significance.