by KRISTIAN PETERSEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on APRIL 13, 2015:
When did religion begin in South Asia? Many would argue that it was not until the colonial encounter that South Asians began to understand themselves as religious. In Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hinduism and Islam in British India (Oxford University Press, 2012), Peter Gottschalk, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, outlines the contingent and mutual coalescence of science and religion as they were cultivated within the structures of empire. He demonstrates how the categories of Hindu and Muslim were constructed and applied to the residents of the Chainpur nexus of villages by the British despite the fact that these identities were not always how South Asians described themselves.
Throughout this study we are made aware of the consequences of comparison and classification in the study of religion. Gottschalk engages Jonathan Z. Smith’s modes of comparison demonstrating that seemingly neutral categories serve ideological purposes and forms of knowledge are not arbitrary in order. Here, we observe this work through imperial forms of knowledge production in South Asia, including the roles of cartographers, statisticians, artists, ethnographers, and photographers. Continue reading →
“We invoke the name of Allah to bless a meal. We invoke His name before opening a book we are about to read. We invoke His name to anticipate an action. We invoke His name to mark a ritual slaughter. Why do all religions put such a focus on the name of this or that deity, divinity, prophet, saint, or savior? Because the name moves beyond the unbounded, unspecified space that surrounds and engulfs all life, whether human, animal, animate, inanimate, earthly or celestial. For Muslims, Allah is that name beyond all names that becomes the singular, most potent name to be invoked, remembered, and reproduced day after day, time and again, in joy and sorrow, in life and death.” – Bruce Lawrence
by BRUCE LAWRENCE for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 25, 2015:
Who is Allah? No one really knows but many claim to know. In framing my book, I highlight twin needs: to look at Islam with fresh eyes, and to understand Allah with dispassionate insight. The alternative is to settle for journalistic sloganeering, too often sensationalist even when it is highbrow.
The very name Allah is interwoven into the everyday experience of millions of Muslims. While Allah does not belong to Muslims, Allah is supreme for Muslims. In the Islamic tradition, Allah creates, motivates, and sustains the universe as well as humankind. It is a name invoked over 2500 times in the Holy Qur’an. It is the basis of the ‘witness’ (or shahada), a creed as integral to Islam as is the Shema to Jews or baptism to Christians.
But Allah is also contested. Believing Muslims advocate the superseding power of Allah, while disbelieving or disputatious others claim Allah as the tribal deity, or moon god, of Arabs.
Is Allah the same as God in Christianity or Yahweh in Judaism? Brahmin in the Hindu tradition, and the Buddha (or Bodhisattva) in the Buddhist tradition? Yes, but that easy identity of celestial doorstops, or ultimate spiritual authorities, does not help us understand the contemporary power of Allah.
What is most needed now is to understand both the historical nuance of Allah throughout the past 1500 years and Allah’s relevance today, in 2015.
For Muslims, as for adherents of other religions, intentions as well as practices are paramount in one’s religious life. While the practice of the heart demonstrates how Allah is remembered in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, the practice of the mind examines how theologians and philosophers have defined Allah in numerous contexts, often with conflicting aims.
It is the practice of the ear that marks the contemporary period, as we hear competing calls for jihad, or religious struggle, within the cacophony of an immensely diverse umma, the worldwide Muslim community. Continue reading →
by Sümeyye Kocaman for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 7, 2015:
As we hear more and more about the Caliphate, the ummah, Islamic law and the Islamic State, I am surprised by many things: the so-called experts’ lack of information; how the facts are being politically manipulated; how people of faith are letting religion be used in this minefield; and worse, how people of faith believe that religion can be used to legitimize inhumane, political arguments.
When we hear religion as a political argument — e.g. how an ‘Islamic state’ is needed to provide freedom for Muslims who have been victimized for centuries — we must see this as merely a new wave of nationalism backed up by the power of religious discourse. Religious discourse has the highest potential to mobilize crowds. If the discourse is powerful enough some local groups or even the society at large can be mobilized into an emotional mob that cares little for reason. Their voices — pure political ideology.
In the modern world religion and politics continue to be dangerously intertwined. We can regard this crisis of religion as a chance to reverse a vicious cycle. Continue reading →
LISTEN: Michael Cook on Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective
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by AMARNATH AMARASINGAM for NEW BOOKS IN GLOBAL CONFLICT on NOVEMBER 5, 2014:
[Cross-posted from New Books in Global Conflict] Michael Cook, a widely-respected historian and scholar of Islam begins his book with a question that everyone seems to be asking these days: is Islam uniquely violent or uniquely political? Why does Islam seem to play a larger role in contemporary politics than other religions? The answers that are provided for these questions, particularly in the media, range from the ludicrous to the islamophobic. Cook, on the other hand, embarks on a much more nuanced and learned attempt at answering the question.
His book, Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective (Princeton University Press, 2014), rightly begins with the assumption that if there is something unique about Islam in this regard, the uniqueness of it can only be understood through comparative study of other religions and their engagement with politics. Cook looks at Hinduism and Christianity’s involvement in modern political life and places them alongside Islam, delving deeper into issues of political identity, warfare, and social values. What he finds is interesting, and goes to the heart of almost every debate taking place in a wide variety of fields like religious studies and the sociology of religion. Listen as we talk with him about his book, about contemporary global politics, ISIS and Al-Qaeda, as well as fascinating future projects.