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Stanford scholar argues for better understanding of the diversity of global Islam

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Ancient Islamic manuscript
Manuscript of Sughrat (Socrates) by a 13th century Seljuk illustrator.
Photo Credit: 
Wikimedia Commons

Islam is often front-and-center in today’s media-rich global environment. But amid dominant Western narratives that frame Islam and Muslims in terms of homogeneity and extremism, one Stanford scholar says the reality of Islam is diversity.

Shahzad Bashir, a religious studies professor at Stanford, has done extensive work on the nature and position of Islam around the world. He focuses on the intellectual and social histories of Persianate societies of Iran and Central and South Asia from the 14th century into the present.

Through his current research, the scholar hopes to advance “perspectives that look beyond straightforward notions of homogeneity or heterogeneity, reflecting the complexity that we can actually observe in materials available for study.”

The Lysbeth Warren Anderson Professor in Islamic Studies recently received a 2015 Andrew Carnegie Fellowship to work on a new book with the working title Islamic Times: Conceptualizing Pasts and Futures. He has been exploring how the different ways Muslims around the world relate to the past, present and future point to a multitude of approachesrather than to a unified community from a single history.

“My aim is to explore this duality, the interplay between unity and diversity, through attention to the specifics of what Muslims have thought and done over the ages,” Bashir explains.

In a conversation with the Humanities at Stanford, Bashir described how his work provides an alternative understanding of diversity within Islam.

What led you to investigate the diversity of global Islam?   

The diversity of global Islam would be fairly obvious to anyone who has spent time in different parts of the world and interacted with Muslims of varying origins. The difficulty lies in explaining this in conjunction with the fact that Islam is also a uniting factor for people from different cultures.

Analytically speaking, this is not an issue that is peculiar to Islam and Muslims. One can ask the same question of all other religions that have a wide geographical scope. But in popular Western perception, there is a presumption that the diversity in Islam is at the surface level whereas some kind of essence pertains to Islam in a way that does not matter for other religions.

I find this an interesting arena to explore because it requires us to engage Islamic materials simultaneously with thinking about the problem of our perceptions. The topic then forces us out of talking about relatively basic questions about “bias” to the very fundamentals of how we create and represent knowledge about peoples and societies at the academic as well as popular levels.

To what would you attribute what your research portrays as a common misconception of Islam—as a homogenous unified community? 

I would say that because of the particular way in which representations have developed, “Islam” is somehow perceived as a thing that is more real than “Muslims.” I mean that certain ideas and practices are constantly portrayed as being essential to Islam.

Coming from this perspective, the diversity among Muslims seems a paradox when we see Muslims espousing radically different ideas with equal sincerity, leading to claims that some Muslims are orthodox or heterodox, mainstream or radical, etc., even though these terms signify theological claims about right and wrong religion rather than a neutral description of Islam as an aspect of the world.

In a related vein, once Islam is seen to have a standard version, then whatever some Muslims do that does not fit into this set understanding gets discounted as being non-essential. Now if we take Muslims in all their historical as well as contemporary diversity as the representatives of Islam—that is, we proceed from the view that Muslims are real and Islam is all that they perform or live religiously—then the religion would have to be understood as inherently diverse, having both unifying and differentiating forces within it.

How do you use Muslim concepts of time to demonstrate the diversity of Islam?

Temporality is a crucial issue for the study of Islam because, in my view, the (erroneous) sense of homogeneity attributed to Islam stems from the attribution of a single history to Islam. This history is vested in a particular timeline that begins with Muhammad and then continues in a set pattern over the centuries. We find this timeline solidified in all manner of representations today—from Wikipedia articles to school textbooks to the way graduate students are trained.

While this timeline is a standard reference for us, reading original sources tells us that it is not present in the same way in historical and other works written by Muslims over the centuries. What we find there are many different ways of constructing the “history of Islam,” varying on the basis of ideological and sociopolitical commitments, often with detailed discussions about philosophical problems associated with the way human beings can make claims about what happened in the past.

Concentrating on temporalities helps me do the double of work of showing internal diversity among Muslims (through examples rather than just the basic claim), and also demonstrating that our understandings of time and history are based on specific assumptions that can benefit from careful examination.

What sources do you look at in your research?

I try to work very broadly when it comes to sources, including art and architecture and textual sources in genres ranging between chronicles, hagiography, autobiography, geography, literary works in prose and poetry, and compendia of scholars, poets, and other professional classes. My current project invokes works produced in various places in the world, in many languages and from the earliest Muslim communities to societies contemporary to us.

The diversity of materials, genres, and sociohistorical locations is important for me for the sake of making a convincing argument about my methodological point. My other, more specialized work focuses on specific societies within time limits in order to treat materials in the richness of their details.

What does understanding the diversity of global Islam help us understand about the presence of an extremist group like ISIS?

For one, it forces us to give some more thought to the very question of “extremism.” What is the reference point with respect to which ISIS is to be considered extreme? Much of the symbolism deployed by ISIS can be found in many other representations of Islam as well, which means that we cannot distinguish it on the basis of outward religious expression.

In terms of political action, a lot of what ISIS has done is comparable to groups that have no connection to Islam. Is ISIS to be regarded as non-Muslim, as some Muslims have argued? But if one group claiming to act for Islam can be dismissed as un-Islamic, how are judgments that are consistent rather than ad hoc possible about other groups?

My inclination is to say that labels such as “extremist” befuddle the matter rather than providing analytical clarity. If we can sidestep the charged terms (which, incidentally, often have blanket judgments about all Muslims lurking underneath them), we can attempt to understand groups such as ISIS in their specifics with respect to their ideological, political, and geostrategic goals. Perhaps that can provide better grounds for countering them, and other actors who are for or against them, in comparison with the largely ineffective strategies that have been deployed to date.

Understanding visions of pasts and futures within ISIS and its deployment of Islamic symbols and tropes provides an example for the way religious ideas and practices can undergo radical change in conjunction with particular historical circumstances.

What would you most like people to take away from your research?

For readers interested in Islam and Muslims in general, I hope that my book will make a convincing case that Islam has multiple histories and that we should see Muslims as active agents who have constructed their pasts and futures in diverse ways over the centuries. That may then lead to diversity being seen as a normal aspect of Islam rather than an impossibility or an unexplained oddity.

Within the academic study of Islam, a lot has been published on the negative portrayal of Muslims in Western popular culture as well as in academic accounts rooted in the discourse known as “orientalism.” I hope that my engagement with temporalities will encourage others to invest in rethinking the fundamental categories we employ in our work. Rather than solely producing scholarship that presents counterexamples to earlier scholarly work we now consider problematic, I feel that we need to think systematically about the conceptual ground we use to make Islam an object of our knowledge.

 

Media Contact: Corrie Goldman, Director of Humanities Communication:  (650) 724-8156, corrieg@stanford.edu