Recent Posts

March 22nd, 2017

When is the Islamic state? Historical time and the agenda of Islamic studies

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For Love of the ProphetFrom the Islamic revolutions in Iran (1978-79) and Sudan (1989) to the recent emergence of ISIS, the concept of an Islamic state is often greeted in North America and Western Europe with a distinct historical anxiety, as a phenomenon of pre-modernity erupting in our midst. Scholars of Islamic studies have long countered that in fact these entities are constituted squarely within the discourses and institutions of the modern state: the movement in Iran, for instance, followed the longstanding revolutionary-national tradition in claiming that it acted on behalf of the will of “the people,” and the Sudanese leadership embraced the idea of civilizing a pre-modern religiosity, a project that has been a hallmark of Enlightenment thought. Nation-states that claim to derive their law from Islam still typically codify sharia in the format of a constitution, often drawing on the conventions and language of international law as a guide.

In reminding readers of these points, scholars of Islamic studies challenge the relegation of Islamic politics to pre-modernity. But in showing the many ways in which actual political practices in the Muslim world remain within the fold of modernity, this line of critique risks reinscribing the same temporal division, leaving it in place as the very condition of intelligibility of Islamic politics. How might a different understanding of historical time reorient the agenda of Islamic studies?

March 20th, 2017

“I am not a racist, but . . .”: The perversity of the recent ECJ ruling on the “headscarf issue”

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Look through the window | Image via Flickr user Hernán PiñeraIt is by now commonplace that ostensibly “neutral” language—such as the notorious preamble “I am not a racist, but . . .”—can serve to mask or justify covert forms of discrimination. Yet, this basic linguistic insight seems to have escaped the judges of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and—perhaps even more worryingly—many advocates of “secularism” in Europe.

In a recent landmark judgment bearing directly on the long-standing European controversy over the admissibility of Islamic headscarves in various kinds of public spaces, the ECJ has ruled that it is legal for businesses to fire employees that insist on wearing the hijab in the workplace, as long as this is in compliance with a “general company policy” that forbids “the wearing of visible signs of political, philosophical or religious beliefs.”

While many religious groups and advocates deplored the ruling, several exponents of the “far right,” as well as some advocates of secularism, have celebrated it is as a long-overdue clarification of the European Union’s stance on religious freedom.

March 16th, 2017

New itineraries in the study of Islam and the state

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For Love of the ProphetFrom Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State to Shahab Ahmad’s What is Islam?, recent scholarship on Islam and the state has been enriched by studies that seek to interrogate the boundaries of the concept and to push scholars in multiple fields to explore new empirical and analytic possibilities for an old question. Working from quite different theoretical and textual presuppositions, both Hallaq and Ahmad make the argument that we begin with where the Islamic is not: the Islamic is not to be found in the legal and governmental institutions of the modern nation state.

Noah Salomon makes a powerful case for a different starting point, grounded in ethnography: “What are we to make of Hallaq’s impossible state when it in fact becomes a practical possibility?” With admirable transparency, he notes what many of us have encountered in the field: “When I arrived in Sudan, I made the rather unsettling discovery that I could not find the state in the places where I had expected it to be.” Salomon finds the Islamic state not in government buildings, but in the logics and conduct of daily life, “structuring the landscape of discourse and debate on which diverse expressions of contemporary Sudanese life takes place.”

March 16th, 2017

For Love of the Prophet—An Introduction

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For Love of the ProphetFor Love of the Prophet argues that in moving beyond the institutional life of the Sudanese state, we are able to see its Islamic hue as something more than a response to secularism and Westernization, as it is often characterized by Muslim political elites and Western scholars alike. Instead, through examining how the Islamic state comes to life as an object of aspiration and consternation among diverse publics, we see that it is engaged in a much deeper and more diverse set of conversations within Islamic thought that are rarely captured by the categories and lenses of political science or religious studies. Understanding these features of the Islamic state helps us to comprehend how and why it perseveres as a political aspiration, against all odds and despite its many disappointments, in Sudan and beyond.

In this essay, Noah Salomon introduces a new book forum around his recently published ethnography of politics, religion, and statehood in Sudan.

March 15th, 2017

Understanding the president’s reality: A psychoanalytic contribution to public life

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Edvard Munch, "The Scream," 1895It would not have taken long for French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to realize that President Donald Trump has a paranoid vision of the world. This does not mean that President Trump is insane, but rather that he has never left the mental space we all inhabited as toddlers and that we have never entirely forgotten. A glimpse of this place comes vividly to mind when we feel insanely jealous, dismissed, or ignored. But most adults no longer live here day in and day out, because the love we took in as children is usually strong enough to help us fashion an image of ourselves that we can rely upon when we feel challenged . . . .

The paranoid structure is not foreign to us because it is a rigid, simplified, and distorted version of the ordinary way we see the world. In that sense President Trump’s behaviors, discourse, and actions are not as erratic as they appear. They follow a logic that we are equipped to understand.

March 13th, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Cohen and Kahn

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This is the fifth and final installment in the “Theologies of American exceptionalism” series. In this final post, Shaul Magid reflects on Arthur Cohen’s essay, “The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition” in conversation with Stephanie Frank’s reflection on Paul W. Kahn’s introduction to his volume Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty.

Magid’s essay explores the “double exceptionalism” that exists for the Judeo-Christian in American society, as Cohen depicts a masking of domination through tolerance for the Jewish in the United States. Frank then dives into the “possibility that American politics is distinguished by—is exceptional because of—its association with sacrificial violence” through Kahn’s text.

These essays conclude the series by leaving us with a complicated understanding of American exceptionalism and its impact on our global relationships, as well as relationships within our nation.

March 9th, 2017

The End of Theology

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The End of TheologyThere is an important ambiguity that attends the philosophical use of the term “end.” On the one hand, it can mean the termination of something (terminus). On the other hand, it can also mean the aim, goal, orientation, or purpose of something (telos). Whereas the terminus names the point of cessation for something, the telos, to some degree, names its projected essence.

With this conceptual background in mind, when I received the invitation to review the new edited volume by Jason S. Sexton and Paul Weston entitled The End of Theology, I fully expected that it would play on this ambiguity occurring in the term “end.” Indeed, the subtitle seems to anticipate this very dynamism: “Shaping Theology for the Sake of Mission.” Surely, I thought, the point of the text would be to show that theology as currently practiced needs to come to some sort of “end” (terminus) in order to return to its appropriate missional “end” (telos). However, I was surprised to discover throughout the volume that really the only notion of “end” in play was in the sense of telos.

This book is important in a lot of ways, but it is most important for highlighting what is needed in order for the book to be even better. When we confront the “ends” of theology, we should run up against the “ends” of ourselves.

March 6th, 2017

Mere Civility—A reply

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Mere Civility“First, I must thank each of the contributors to this forum for their more than merely civil responses to my book. Not only is it an honor to be read—and criticized—by scholars I admire across such a wide range of disciplines, from analytic and critical political theory, intellectual and social history, to sociology and religion, it is also a tremendous vindication.”

Thus begins Teresa Bejan’s conclusion to the discussion on her timely book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. In this essay, she gives thoughtful response to the six scholars who provided critical engagement with the text over the past few weeks. Read the rest of the series, and then read this response.

March 1st, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Ali and Khomeini

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This is the fourth installment in this series of paired essays. In this post, Noah Salomon reflects on Noble Drew Ali’s “A Warning from the Prophet in 1928,” in his essay, “Exceptional Americanism.” Salomon’s essay is paired with Spencer Dew’s reflection on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s posthumous message, The Last Will and Testament (or, The Last Message).

Through these texts, they examine narratives of race and religion in the United States and beyond, as well as the question of what creates citizenship in a nation.

February 22nd, 2017

Theologies of American exceptionalism: Moreton and Paarlberg

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“For its proponents, Americans and perhaps others, Christian free enterprise is not a religion but a natural way of being, religiously, economically, and socially, when all obstacles to freedom have been transcended. Its unstable and ambivalent naturalization and nationalization of Protestantism—the free market religion and religion of the free market—helps to secure the American exception, necessitating, for some, a tireless and violent drive to remake the world in our image.”

The above is an excerpt from Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s essay, “The America-Game,” which uses Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Wal-Mart to examine the relationships between American Protestantism and its global economics. Lisa Sideris, in her companion essay “Exceptionalism, environmentalism, and excess,” looks at a similar relationship with American excess and the effects on climate. She looks at whether “narratives of exceptionalism actually abet the destruction of nature?”