A CSSH Short Course in Interdisciplinary Islamic Studies

Daniel Andrew Birchok, Anthropology, University of Michigan-Flint

If interdisciplinary Islamic Studies is a field, it is an unusual one.
Located at the interstices of established academic disciplines it is also in conversation with a discipline established for the purpose of studying Islam. It responds to and incorporates the ethical, political, and intellectual challenges posed by the Islamic tradition and its representatives, both scholarly and lay. At times, is has been the object of vigorous critique.

This complicated positioning is in large part what gives interdisciplinary Islamic Studies its intellectual vibrancy. It also makes it ripe for consideration through a CSSH syllabus. Scholars of interdisciplinary Islamic Studies work thematically, conversing with interlocutors whose conceptual languages they do not share in full. A quick glance through the pages of CSSH reveals several key themes around which such conversations are happening.

We begin with the WRITTEN WORD. Although, and perhaps because, Islamic societies have often emphasized orality, CSSH authors give close attention to the significance and authority of inscribed texts. Chatterjee examines Persian-language legal documents known as mahzar-nama with an eye toward their role in shaping a distinctive Indo-Islamic legal culture in early modern India. Marglin uses court records and notarized documents to argue that Jews and Christians enjoyed a theoretical equality with Muslims in nineteenth-century Moroccan courts, where the written word was as authoritative as oral testimony.

Chatterjee, Nandini.
2016. “Mahzar-namas in the Mughal and British Empires: The Uses of an Indo-Islamic Legal Form.” 58(2): 379-406.

Marglin, Jessica M.
2017. “Written and Oral in Islamic Law: Documentary Evidence and Non-Muslims in Moroccan Shari’a Courts.” 59(4): 884-911.

ISLAMIZATION, the contested processes through which individuals and societies become Muslim, is our next theme. Johns offers a glimpse of a classic way of conceptualizing Islamization at the societal level. Kristić shows how personal narratives of conversion and visions of societal religious transformation converge in the polemical writings of a sixteenth-century Hungarian-Ottoman convert to Islam. Birchok examines how genealogical narratives of Islamization in twentieth-century Indonesia work to locate a long-converted society and its members within unfolding Islamic histories.

Johns, A.H.
1966. “From Buddhism to Islam: An Interpretation of the Javanese Literature of the Transition.” 9(1): 40-50.

Kristić, Tijana.
2009. “Illuminated by the Light of Islam and the Glory of the Ottoman Sultanate: Self-Narratives of Conversion to Islam in the Age of Confessionalization.” 51(1): 35-63.

Birchok, Daniel Andrew.
2015. “Putting Habib Abdurrahim in His Place: Genealogy, Scale, and Islamization in Seunagan, Indonesia.” 57(2): 497-527.

The production, maintenance, and transformation of ISLAMIC SPACES often goes hand in hand with Islamization. Lapidus explores this theme in his take on a long-standing argument about recurrent urban patterns in early Islamic societies. Ismail, working in a related vein, argues for a link between the social and spatial organization of urban environments and the success of contemporary militant Islamism. McDougall draws attention to the social and conceptual spaces in which officials attempted to encompass Islam within the French colonial state’s secularizing project. Moin demonstrates how Islamic kingship in premodern Iran and Central Asia often entailed the destruction of rival saint shrines in ways parallel, but not identical, to the destruction of temples in Indic contexts. Finally, Alatas argues that Indonesian pilgrimage to Ḥaḍramawt, Yemen, entails the poetic comparison of different models of Islamic and non-Islamic space-time.

Lapidus, Ira.
1973. “The Evolution of Muslim Urban Society.” 15(1): 21-50.

Ismail, Salwa.
2000. “The Popular Movement Dimensions of Contemporary Militant Islamism: Socio-Spatial Determinants in the Cairo Urban Setting.” 42(2): 363-393.

McDougall, James.
2010. “The Secular State’s Islamic Empire: Muslim Spaces and Subjects of Jurisdiction in Paris and Algiers, 1905-1957.” 52(3): 553-580.

Moin, A. Azfar.
2015. “Sovereign Violence: Temple Destruction in India and Shrine Desecration in Iran and Central Asia.” 57(2): 467-496.

Alatas, Ismail Fajrie.
2016. “The Poetics of Pilgrimage: Assembling Contemporary Indonesian Pilgrimage to Ḥaḍramawt, Yemen.” 58(3): 607-635.

Islamic LEGAL INSTITUTIONS and their transformations are a perennial favorite among interdisciplinary Islamic studies scholars. CSSH has seen its share of work under this rubric. Powers, for instance, explores the legal fate of family endowments in colonial Algeria and India. Burak considers the broader effects of the Ottoman adoption of, and intervention in, a particular branch of the Hanafi jurisprudential school. Peletz treats contemporary Malaysian Islamic courts as a global assemblage. Sartori weighs the effects of Russian imperial expansion on Central Asian Islamic courts.

Powers, David S.
1989. “Orientalism, Colonialism, and Legal History: The Attack on Muslim Family Endowments in Algeria and India.” 31(3): 535-571.

Burak, Guy.
2013. “The Second Formation of Islamic Law: The Post-Mongol Context of the Ottoman Adoption of a School of Law.” 55(3): 579-602.

Peletz, Michael G.
2013. “Malaysia’s Syariah Judiciary as Global Assemblage: Islamization, Corporatization, and Other Transformations in Context.” 55(3): 603-633.

Sartori, Paolo.
2014. “Constructing Colonial Legality in Russian Central Asia: On Guardianship.” 56(2): 419-447.

Transformations in Islamic legal systems give scholars a chance to reflect on the ENTANGLED GENEALOGIES of Islamic discourse and practice. Scheele takes up this theme in her analysis of how Islamic and secular scholars of various types find intellectual common ground in contemporary Algeria. Kobo turns to elective affinities between Western-educated Muslims and Islamic scholars in Ghana and Burkina Faso. Doostdar examines the intersection of French Spiritism, science, and moral subjectivity in mid-twentieth century Iran. Lastly, Ibrahim analyzes the complicated synergies that arise among middle class Christians and working class Muslims voicing homophobia in contemporary Singapore.

Scheele, Judith.
2007. “Recycling Baraka: Knowledge, Politics, and Religion in Contemporary Algeria.” 49(2): 304-328.

Kobo, Ousman.
2009. “The Development of Wahhabi Reforms in Ghana and Burkina Faso, 1960-1990: Elective Affinities between Western-Educated Muslims and Islamic Scholars.” 51(3): 502-532.

Doostdar, Alireza.
2016. “Empirical Spirits: Islam, Spiritism, and the Virtues of Science in Iran.” 58(2): 322-349.

Ibrahim, Nur Amali.
2016. “Homophobic Muslims: Emerging Trends in Multireligious Singapore.” 58(4): 955-981.

Another arena of entangled genealogies is ISLAMIC SCHOOLING, a topic that is often approached in terms of educational reform. Eickelman prepares the ground by thinking broadly about the characteristics of Islamic education and the reproduction of Islamic societies. Arjomand offers an institutional history of the central educational institutions of the classical Islamic era. Zaman explores how such institutions, in the South Asian British colonial context, became the object of reform, while Tuna attempts to separate the Islamic from the Russian roots of reform in the Volga-Ural region.

Eickelman, Dale F.
1978. “The Art of Memory: Islamic Education and its Social Reproduction.” 20(4): 485-516.

Arjomand, Said Amir.
1999. “The Law, Agency, and Policy in Medieval Islamic Society: Development of the Institutions of Learning from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century.” 41(2): 263-293.

Zaman, Muhammad Qasim.
1999. “Religious Education and the Rhetoric of Reform: The Madrasa in British India and Pakistan.” 41(2): 294-323.

Tuna, Mustafa.
2011. “Madrasa Reform as a Secularizing Process: A View from the Late Russian Empire.” 53(3): 540-570.

A final theme that has captured the imaginations of CSSH authors is that of MUSLIM(S) (AND) MINORITIES. Baer’s account of the Dönme (once-Jewish converts to Islam with their own distinct community and practice) and their response to Turkish secular nationalism sets the tone for these pieces, which explore the complexities of minority status within Islamic societies, as well as among Muslims living in non-Muslim political realms. Ӧzyürek’s comparative approach to understandings of conversion (to Islam in Germany and to Christianity in Turkey) as threats to national security brings into relief some of the political stakes of religious minority status in the “New Europe.” Bilici’s discussion of the twined experience of being Muslim and living in America analyzes the convergence of these two factors in constituting minority status among Muslims in the United States. Apellániz takes us back to late medieval Alexandria and Damascus to examine how Islamic legal biases against non-Muslims were blunted in ways that reflect more general Mediterranean notions of justice. Finally, Amzi-Erdogdular explores the transition to Habsburg rule through the eyes of Bosnian intellectuals, whose overlapping religious and political affiliations informed their aspirations towards modernity.

Baer, Marc.
2004. “The Double Bind of Race and Religion: The Conversion of the Dönme to Turkish Secular Nationalism.” 46(6): 682-708.

Ӧzyürek, Esra.
2009. “Convert Alert: German Muslims and Turkish Christians as Threats to Security in the New Europe.” 51(1): 91-116.

Bilici, Mucahit.
2011. “Homeland Insecurity: How Immigrant Muslims Naturalize America in Islam.” 53(3): 595-622.

Apellániz, Francisco.
2016. “Judging the Franks: Proof, Justice, and Diversity in Late Medieval Alexandria and Damascus.” 58(2): 350-378.

Amzi-Erdogdular, Leyla.
2017. “Alternative Muslim Modernities: Bosnian Intellectuals in the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires.” 59(4): 912-943.

The rich scholarship in interdisciplinary Islamic Studies found on the pages of CSSH far exceeds the examples I have brought together on this syllabus. One could also highlight such classic topics as the economic thought of Ibn Khaldun (Spangler 1964), saintly charisma (Dekmejia and Wyszomirski 1972), or thorny questions raised by Orientalism (Pasto 2004) and Islamism (Silverstein 2005). CSSH articles on Islamic movements, rebellions, and utopian projects—including those by esteemed scholars such as Nikki R. Keddi (1994) and Asef Bayat (1998)—are plentiful enough to fill up a syllabus of their own. The seven themes I present here should give readers an inkling of the breadth and depth of scholarship CSSH publishes in this field. Made on a different day, my syllabus might consist of different articles entirely, equally good to read and teach together. This, too, is testament to the fruitful engagements in interdisciplinary Islamic Studies that CSSH cultivates.

Daniel Andrew Birchok is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan-Flint. He is a historical anthropologist of religion whose research interests include Islam, the genealogical imagination, the anthropology of history, the Islamic temporal imagination, everyday ethics, and the continuing importance of premodern forms of Islamic practice in contemporary Indonesia. In addition to CSSH, his articles appear in Asian Studies Review and the Journal of Contemporary Religion, and he is currently working on a book manuscript titled The Pasts of Habib Abdurrahim: Genealogical Authority, Old Islam, and the Islamic Temporal Imagination. He was the editorial assistant at CSSH from 2012 until 2013.