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Letter from the Editor

John L. Esposito, Editor in Chief

One of the most renowned scholars in the field of Islamic studies in the United States, Editor in Chief John L. Esposito provides a regular commentary for visitors to the site. These letters discuss topics pertaining to this resource and the Islamic world, developments on the site and other issues.

John L. Esposito

Every once in a while, I like to pull back the curtain to show how we run Oxford Islamic Studies Online, what challenges we face, and what compromises we have to make. Whereas a monograph or anthology can benefit from editorial focus and close collaboration, OISO is a collection of thousands of articles collected from numerous print publications, archives, and online projects stretching over many years. Moreover, new voices in the scholarship, dramatic events and world history, and changing attitudes toward religion in general have added complexity to what was already a nuanced and often contentious field. In other words, there is no easy way to update or revise the content, an issue that has grown more challenging—while also presenting more opportunities—in the wake of the extraordinary events of the Arab Awakening, the rise of a new generation of Muslim thinkers and activists, and the continued transnational threat from terrorist movements like ISIS.

We came across many of these issues in the latest update to one of our flagship publications, The Oxford History of Islam. Originally published in 1999, the OHI remained a useful and accessible introduction to the origins of the religion, the teachings and legacy of the Prophet, the artistic and scientific contributions of Muslim scholars, and the spread of Islam. But, as one can tell immediately from the year in which it was released, the book could not take into account the impact of 9/11 and the so-called war on terror that followed. In addition, the unstable situation in the Middle East—from the Syrian conflict to the struggling democratic reforms—forced us to constantly balance the desire to be current with the need for a scholarly approach.

In the process, we confirmed a few things that bear repeating here. First, while the term "Muslim world" may be useful as a kind of shorthand, the truth is that the phrase covers the entire globe, and those underreported areas such as Southeast Asia and parts of North America will need more scholarly analysis in the coming years. Every poll indicates that the Muslim populations in these and other parts of the world are growing, even as mainstream media outlets focus almost exclusively on events in the Middle East. (Indeed, we found we had to not only revise but also drastically overhaul the chapter on China and Central Asia.) And the story with many of these communities is simply that there is no story: these Muslim populations are as integrated and engaged as their neighbors, working and raising families, contributing to society and producing leaders, artists, scientists, and activists. While that does not grab one's attention the way a terrorist attack or civil war would, it is the daily reality for the majority of Muslims around the world, one that provides a new narrative for scholars to explore.

Second, and closely related, is the presence of new voices in the field, thanks to both the emergence of social media and the political reforms (and in some cases, the restoration and also entrenchment of authoritarian rulers in several Muslim-majority countries). The Twitter protests during the 2009 Iranian elections, the viral YouTube videos of demonstrations in Egypt, Turkey, and Tunisia, the popularity of new blogs from across the religious and political spectrum, and the willingness of entertainers to take political stances (such as Ramy Essam and Emel Mathlouthi) all point to an energetic and active generation of Muslims. This youth movement has taken different forms in different contexts, but the message is clear: the stereotype of Islam as a monolith is dead, and the status quo of dictatorship, and of self-appointed spokesmen claiming a monopoly on a "true Islam", is and will continue to be challenged. Scholars must engage with this new context; as the past few years have shown, the stakes are high.

Finally, there are the two questions I pose in the revision of the fifteenth chapter of OHI: Whose Islam? And what Islam? In other words, who has the authority to define the religion, and how do they go about it? In the past, authority often rested with the powerful. But doctrinal interpretations are being democratized, a fact that even repressive regimes and longstanding traditions cannot reverse. These questions get to the heart of how Muslims see themselves. Reformers and traditionalists, secularists and Islamists, fundamentalists and progressives have all claimed the mantle of authority, and this discord plays a role in the scholarship. The solution is not to strive for a single definitive work on a given subject, but to open the dialogue, and to acknowledge that we still await more voices to fill the gaps in our knowledge.

A reference article is often the first encounter a scholar or student may have with a given topic. And while an introductory piece may not be able to convey all of this complexity, it must at least acknowledge it. As OISO grows, this balancing act will continue, with all the potential for reinterpretation and discord that it implies.


John L. Esposito
Editor in Chief
Oxford Islamic Studies Online
June 2015

Oxford University Press

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