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Islamic Studies

[This entry contains two subentries:

History of the Field

Islamic studies arose in the ninth century in Iraq, when the religious sciences of Islam began to take their present shape and to develop within competing schools to form a literary tradition in Middle Arabic. Rather than treating the study of Islam within Islamic civilization, however, the focus of this discussion is Islam as a subject matter in the West.

Theological Beginnings.

Even before the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE, the Arabs were known to the ancient Israelites, the Greeks, and later to the church fathers. Arabic names appear in the Bible as well as in the Talmud. The historian Herodotus of the fifth century B.C.E. knew of and wrote about the Arabs. After the rise of Greek Hellenistic hegemony in the Middle East in the fourth century B.C.E., it was Arab kingdoms such as the Nabateans with their capital at Petra that provided continuing Arab contact with traders, travelers, and soldiers from the Seleucid and later the Roman Empire. In the early centuries of the common era, some Arab tribes converted to Christianity and served as vassal kingdoms to the Byzantine and Sassanian empires, thus providing cultural links between Eastern Christendom and some Arab peoples.

The European view of Islam throughout the Middle Ages was derived from biblical and theological constructs. Mythology, theology, and missionary evangelism provided the main modes of formulating what the church knew about Muslims as well as its reasons for developing an official discourse on Islam. Mythologically, Muslims were conceived as peoples (Arabs, Saracens) descended from Abraham through his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael (Ar., Ismāʿīl; see Genesis 16:1–16). In the Genesis legend, supplemented by passages in the Apocrypha and Talmud, Hagar and Ishmael are turned out of Abraham's home at Sarah's insistence and, under God's direction, are taken by Abraham to the wilderness of Beer-sheba, whence they later emigrate to Paran (Sinai). In the Genesis account, God says to Abraham: “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. I shall make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed” (Genesis 21:12–14).

Religious Polemics, 800–1100.

Judeo-Christian myth and legend could account, then, for the appearance of non-Jewish, non-Christian Arab monotheists in the seventh century. It was through theological polemics, however, that the boundaries that separated Jews, Christians, and Muslims were worked out in the eighth to eleventh centuries. Theological disputations (munāẓarāt) often took place in public or in the audience of a caliph or other high official, conducted by spokespersons (mutakallimūn) for the various confessional communities. The Nestorian, Monophysite, and Orthodox Christians (as well as Samaritan, Karaite, and Rabbanite Jews) had little contact with the Holy Roman Empire and Western Christendom in the early Middle Ages. Regarded as “protected” (dhimmī) confessional communities, Eastern Christians and Jews participated in the social rituals of public discourse and disputation with Muslims (and with each other); this required some knowledge of Muslim doctrine, if only for the purpose of refuting it.

European Christians and Jews, in contrast, had to construct their own understandings of Islam, again as a theological enterprise. Lacking the symbiotic experience among scriptuary religions living under Islamic hegemony in the East, the Roman church experienced Islam more as an alien “other,” a non-Christian enemy to be converted or defeated. Whereas Eastern Christian communities could not mount successful missionary and military campaigns against their Muslim rulers, Western Christendom lay outside of the territory of Islamic rule (dār al-Islām).

For the next four centuries until the beginning of the Crusades, Europeans lived in virtual ignorance of the religion and people thriving nearby in Spain. It was not until the time of the Crusades, beginning in the eleventh century, that the name Muḥammad was known among Europeans, and then in a very pejorative way. Until the eleventh century the Bible provided for Western, as it did for Eastern, Christendom the exegetical means for identifying the Saracens as the Ishmaelites—descendants of Abraham through Hagar. This was the conclusion drawn by the Venerable Bede (672–735) in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and in his biblical commentaries. Before Bede and Isidore of Seville, Christian exegesis had seen Isaac as the precursor of Christ and the Jews as the descendants of Ishmael. Now Islam replaced Judaism in the Christian world view as the alien Ishmaelites.

Crusades and Cluniac Scholarship, 1100–1500.

The study of Islam for missionary purposes began in the twelfth century in the time of Peter the Venerable (c.1094–1156), abbot of Cluny in France. Indeed, both the Crusades and the scholarly pursuits of the monks—translating the Qurʿān and other Muslim texts—served as offensive measures against Islamic civilization, which formed the southern and eastern boundaries of Western Christendom. In 1142 Peter undertook a journey to Spain, ostensibly to visit Cluniac monasteries. Nonetheless, on the occasion of his journey he determined to undertake a wide-ranging project, involving several translators and scholars, to begin a serious systematic study of Islam. By the time Peter the Venerable had commissioned translations and interpretations of Arabic Islamic texts, many salacious accounts of Muḥammad had long been in circulation, presenting the Prophet as a god of the Muslims, an impostor, a licentious womanizer, an apostate Christian, a magician, and so on. The “Cluniac corpus,” as the results of Peter the Venerable's efforts came to be known, was the beginning of a Western canon of scholarship on Islam. Peter commissioned renowned translators like Robert of Ketton to translate such texts as the Qurʿān, the ḥadīth, the biography of Muḥammad (sīrah), and other Arabic texts, particularly polemical texts written against Muslims.

In letters to leaders of the First Crusade, Peter made it clear that the mission of the church was his principal concern and that Christianity could and should triumph over Islam. Nonetheless, like a few other scholars, he was critical of the blatantly false accounts by Christian authors of Muḥammad and the Qurʿān, and he was also critical of military campaigns and slaughter, even of infidels, in the name of Christianity. Peter the Venerable's attempts to provide Europeans with authentic accounts of Islamic texts and doctrines were not well received by the church at a time when Western Christendom was attempting to drive Islam out of the Holy Land.

One of the most influential translations of an apologetic text was that of the “Apology of al-Kindī,” a contrived disputation between a Muslim and a Christian set in the days of the caliph al-Maʿmūn (r. 813–833). Modern scholarship has not been able to reach consensus on when the text was actually composed; estimates range from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. The translator of this famous text was Peter of Toledo, a Jew who converted to Christianity and who contributed, along with other Jewish translators from Hebrew to Arabic into Latin, to the compilation of the Cluniac corpus. Al-Kindī's “Apology” gained circulation and popularity among Christian scholars in the Middle Ages because it provided a model of argumentation against Islam. These attacks focused in particular on the Qurʿān, the prophethood of Muḥammad, and the spreading of the faith by conquest (jihād). These three themes formed the main topics of Christian scholarship on Islam in the Middle Ages.

In this sociopolitical environment another kind of translation activity proved to be of much more genuine scholarly interest in Christian Europe. By the late twelfth century and particularly in Spain and Sicily, scientific and philosophical works began to be translated from Arabic to Latin by Christian, Jewish, and sometimes Muslim scholars. The first Spanish translation of the Qurʿān appeared in 1456 thanks to joint efforts of the Spanish theologian Juan de Segovia and the Muslim religious scholar Yça Gidelli. In the late Middle Ages, European scholars had started to view the contemporary Muslim world as a civilization of savants and philosophers. Another way in which the Islamic world commanded the respect of Europeans in the Middle Ages came from the Crusades themselves. The military and diplomatic successes of the Ayyūbid sultan Saladin (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn, 1138–1193) turned into legends that circulated in Europe. Even the religious comportment of Muslims, observed by many European Christians to be simple and pious in the practice of their religion, earned Islamic religion a certain respect among some Christian clerics and scholars.

Reformation, 1500–1650.

As Europe entered the period of profound religious, political, and intellectual change sparked by the sixteenth-century Reformation, the knowledge and study of Islam were also affected. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries eastern Europe had replaced Spain and Palestine as the main front between Western Roman Christendom and Islam. At the battle of Kosovo in 1389 the Ottomans took control of the western Balkans, driving a non-Christian wedge between Western and Eastern Christendom. By 1453 the Ottomans had taken Constantinople, and by 1500 they exercised rule over Greece, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Albania. Many Orthodox Christians in these conquered territories were absorbed into the Ottoman military and administration, creating a religious pluralism dominated by Islam that was at once symbiotic and contentious. The Orthodox churches, following longstanding practice in Islamic lands, were protected by Islamic law, and the Ottomans put the hierarchy in charge of the church's local affairs in the Balkans. Such measures in turn earned support for Ottoman rule from the church.

Western Christendom had a different relationship to the Ottomans. From their base in the Balkans the Ottomans were able to contend militarily with Europe for two centuries. The Ottoman challenge did not go unnoticed by Christian clergy and scholars in Europe. With Sulaymān the Magnificent at the gates of Vienna, two humanist scholars, Bibliander (Theodor Buchmann) and Oporinus (Johann Herbst), ran afoul of the Basel city council in 1542 for clandestinely publishing a new edition of the Qurʿān. The matter was resolved in favor of publishing the Qurʿān by no less a figure than Martin Luther. The Reformer said in a letter to the Basel city council that no greater discredit to Islam could be presented to Christians than to make available to them Muslim scripture and other texts in Latin and vernacular languages. The view that a rational reading of Muslim texts would evoke self-evident indictments against the Muslim faith did not contribute to a disinterested European tradition of scholarship in Islam. The Reformed impetus to translate religious texts, Christian and Muslim, into vernacular languages, however, was of far-reaching significance.

Reformers like Philip Melanchthon viewed the Turkish “Saracens,” along with the Church of Rome, as the Antichrist of the Apocalypse; Bibliander saw Muḥammad as the head and Islam as the body of the Antichrist. Protestant comparisons between Rome and Islam indicated a tendency, found already in Catholicism in the Middle Ages, to see Islam as a heresy—as Christianity gone astray, rather than as a distinct religion in its own right. It should be noted that the Reformers produced little new actual scholarship on Islam. In the sixteenth century published editions of the Qurʿān and other Muslim texts in Europe leaned heavily on the Cluniac corpus of four centuries earlier.

Discovery and Enlightenment, 1650–1900.

New and original European scholarship on Islam was to develop in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for several reasons. First were the new political realities of Ottoman aggression, which had diminished by the eighteenth century. Another factor that helped to raise European consciousness about the world of Islam was the increase in navigation, the accompanying expansion of trade beyond the Mediterranean, and conflict between Muslim and European merchants and sailors within it. The expansion of markets and of military interests was a prelude to colonial ventures and imperial ambitions. Europe entered into treaties and alliances with Muslim states—for example, the French and Ottomans against the Habsburgs. In sum, the Protestant-Catholic separation within Western Christendom redirected much of the polemic to doctrinal disputes within Western Christendom, and anti-Muslim polemic waned somewhat. On the other side, European interest in Islamic lands went beyond the polemical interests of the church to include state interest in the potential for trade, politics, and military ambitions. European reasons for studying Islam were no longer confined to theological disputes about the Qurʿān, the Prophet, and early Muslim conquests.

At the broadest level, religion was conceived differently during the Enlightenment in Europe. The recognition that other peoples had religions that were not simply heresies or aberrations of Christianity was an important aspect of the new concept of religion. The new theory of “religions” of humankind called for new methods for the study of Islam and other religions that went beyond theological polemic but did not replace it. Late in the sixteenth century the study of Arabic was introduced at the Collège de France, and by 1635 it was taught at Leiden in the Netherlands and at Cambridge and Oxford in England. It fell to the early Arabists to construct grammars and dictionaries of the classical Arabic language—work that has long since been superseded but that was essential to later progress and exemplary in its own time.

An important result of the changing conception of religion during the Enlightenment was a new concern with the life and mission of the prophet Muḥammad. By the late eighteenth century some scholars saw in Muḥammad a preacher of a religion that was more natural and rational than Christianity. Others saw in him homiletical grist for the ongoing mill of Christian.

Reform. Muḥammad the man of sexual and political extremes, some argued, was an example divinely provided in history to help Christianity avoid such mistakes. This latter interpretation of Islam as serving divine purposes as a lesson for Christians was a modern variant of the view that had prevailed from the eighth century onward, that Islam had been sent as an apocalyptic scourge to punish Christians for aberrations of faith and practice. The late-eighteenth-century variant, however, reflects the growing importance of the study of history. The portion of Islamic history that interested Enlightenment scholars most was still the life of Muḥammad, the intrigues of the Rāshidūn (Rightly Guided caliphs), and the conquests.

Interest in the life of Muḥammad and other aspects of Islamic history was not confined to specialists. In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (1737–1794) devoted a chapter to the life of the Prophet and the early stages of Islamic history. Gibbon paid little heed to the scurrilous medieval Christian biographies of the Prophet, relying instead on more recent European scholarship and accounts by travelers. He presented Muḥammad as a man of spiritual genius who conceived an admirably pure form of monotheism; however, with the emigration from Mecca to Medina came success and military power. The distinction between Muḥammad in Mecca and Muḥammad in Medina was to become a familiar theme in later European scholarship. So, too, was the attempt to credit Muḥammad for his spiritual and leadership qualities without going so far as to acknowledge him as a true prophet.

The eighteenth century ended with a European project to study Islam that was more thorough than any such attempt since the compilation of the Cluniac corpus. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt with a military force, accompanied by a large team of scholars assigned to study and document the language, culture, and religion of the Egyptian people. The transparent link between scholarly means and political ends was to replace—some would say supplement—the evangelistic ends of Islamic studies in Europe.

The Nineteenth Century.

The remoteness of the Middle East and other parts of the Islamic world began to disappear in the nineteenth century. With this came increased opportunity for European scholars, missionaries, entrepreneurs, and travelers to encounter contemporary Islamic societies. Opportunities to discuss Islam with Muslims still often took the form of disputations between Christian and Muslim clerics and leaders, but the terms of these polemics had changed, reflecting new ideas about religion and the evolution of scholarly inquiry into the “human sciences.”

One important development in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Islamic studies was historicism, the idea that events like the rise of a new religion can be explained as being historically dependent on previous events. One implication of historicism is the denial of absolute originality in the historical phenomena under investigation. Another implication is that only Orientalists, Arabists who specialize in Islamic texts, have the scholarly skills to study Islam. Islamic history, religion, science, art, and other topics became the almost exclusive scholarly domain of Orientalists rather than of historians or specialists in religion, science, and art.

The prophet Muḥammad and the rise of Islam continued to be a chief preoccupation of Western scholars, including, by the 1800s, Jewish scholars as well as more secular thinkers. Characteristic of historicist scholarship on Islam was Abraham Geiger'sWas hatMohammed aus dem Judentumaufgenommen? (What Did Muḥammad Incorporate from Judaism?; translated as Judaism and Islam, 1833). The counterthesis of Christian historicist scholarship on Islam—that Islam was based on the model of Christianity—was epitomized a century later in Karl Ahrens's Muhammad als Religionsstifter (Muhammad as Founder of a Religion, 1935). Although historicism has now mostly fallen out of favor, the charge of historicism is still frequently made against those who discuss the rise of Islam against the background of pre-Islamic Arabia and the Middle East.

Quite different was the approach of William Muir, whose four-volume Life of Mohamet (1858) reflected the growth of evangelicalism in Protestant Christianity, with the expressed missionary claim that salvation is not attainable for Muslims because they do not accept Christ as their savior. Muir regarded Muḥammad and the religion he founded as dangerous to evangelical Christianity, because Islam had borrowed so many ideas and locutions from Christianity as to be confused with some form of Christianity or a preparation for it.

Expressing a different nineteenth-century conception of religion, the idea that religion is endemic to human nature, was Thomas Carlyle. For Carlyle, as for many Western scholars since the nineteenth century, a religion's authenticity must be judged in relation to its own intellectual and cultural environment. In his widely influential lecture on Muḥammad, titled “The Hero as Prophet” (published in 1841), Carlyle argued that Muḥammad was an authentic prophet on his own terms, although he was less charitable in his analysis of the Qurʿān.

The idea that human beings are religious by their very nature was to have a profound effect on religious studies and hence on the study of Islam. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, various attempts were made to construct a science of the study of religion (Religionswissenschaft). Characteristic of Religionswissenschaft was the dependence on philology as the chief method of understanding another, particularly an ancient, civilization. Friedrich Max Müller (1823–1900) held that “he who knows one, knows none,” meaning that one does not really understand religion if he knows and acknowledges only his own. Müller supervised the Sacred Books of the East series in the 1870s, some fifty volumes of texts and translations of Asian scriptures in English. Volumes 6 and 9 contained E. H. Palmer's translation of the Qurʿān. By placing an edition of the Qurʿān in a textual series on Asian religions, Orientalism was linked with efforts at many European universities to found a scientific method of studying religions.

Orientalism, the Twentieth Century and Beyond.

The study of Islam as a separate discipline, like so many disciplines of the modern university, also emerged in the nineteenth century. The discipline was called Orientalism. Classical humanism, with its interest in recovering the richness of past human achievement through the textual record, along with the lingering spirit of the Enlightenment, deeply influenced Orientalism. Nineteenth-century philology was moreover imbued with the worldview of Romanticism and its search for what is noble in the past and in the exotic “other.”

Arabic manuscript work was undertaken mainly by scholars who were broadly erudite in biblical and classical philology. Medieval Islam left one of the richest legacies of written works in manuscript form among major world civilizations. Thousands of manuscripts in collections throughout the Middle East, Europe, and North America have yet to be edited critically and studied seriously. The task of producing scholarly editions of ancient texts surviving in manuscript form was an important achievement of nineteenth-century Orientalists. The training of scholars in the Muslim world as well as in the West to carry on this important work remains an important project for at least a segment of the scholarly community. As in biblical criticism and historical work on the origins and early periods of Judaism and Christianity, Orientalists had set about reconstructing a critical account of the origins and rise of Islam. Some historians of Islamic studies have noted that Western Orientalists and orthodox Muslim scholars have tended to share a common trait of conservatism in their approaches to historiography.

Orientalism has by and large accepted the traditional account of Muḥammad's life, the articulation of the Qurʿān in Mecca and Medina, and the early formation of the Muslim community. While the age, exact provenance, and authenticity of many of the sayings (ḥadīths) attributed to Muḥammad have been disputed between Orientalists and modern Muslim scholars, radical source criticism of the Qurʿān and other early Islamic texts has been attempted by very few scholars.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, Orientalist scholarship has continued to evolve in its scope, as well as in its understanding of itself. This has occurred in response to criticism coming from both inside and outside the field of Islamic studies, and it is also an attempt to meet the demands and challenges of the modern Western academy, as well as those of contemporary geopolitics. The best-articulated and most influential—albeit not the first—critique of the Orientalist enterprise was formulated by the Arab-American literary critic Edward Said (d. 2003) in his work Orientalism (1978, 1994). Said sought to chart the history of Europe's construction of a fictional “Orient” situated outside of the West, and therefore vulnerable to its colonial ambitions and romanticized or sometimes willfully misleading representations by European, and later American, scholars and artists. Said and others have also passionately argued that Orientalism knowingly supported Western political, economic, and intellectual hegemony over the Muslim world. Although Said's work itself has been criticized for its lack of historical depth, it has nevertheless served as an empowering starting point for scholars wishing to reconstruct and revise many of the outdated paradigms into which Muslim civilization has been cast.

Gradually, and perhaps less comprehensively than the postcolonial ethos of Orientalism, Islamic studies has also come to familiarize itself with the body of postmodern theory that has so influenced the rest of the Western academy. If scholars of Islam have tried to reassess the limits of their objectivity with regard to their subject, so too have they begun to rethink the very epistemological bases on which they ground their historical and literary studies. Added to this is an increasing interest in interdisciplinarity, highlighting the methodological usefulness of disciplines such as literary criticism and anthropology for the study of Islam. This is no doubt indicative of a wider aim to end the former isolation of Orientalism and better incorporate the study of the Muslim world into the various branches of the humanities and social sciences. An important example of these trends has been the growth and success of women's and gender studies within Islamic studies, with more and more scholars and academic publications focused on the diverse roles of women in Islam. Another promising trend has been to look at the Muslim world less as a geographical entity in its own right, but rather in relation to, for example, the broader history of the Mediterranean basin, or to attempt to assess its role in the emerging field of global history. Nevertheless, as Islamic studies engages with other disciplines, new paradigms and methodologies will have to evolve, a process already well underway in the field of religious studies, to name but one.

Area studies departments and centers, which gained popularity in the U.S. during the Cold War, advocate an interdisciplinary framework, which, often under the designation “Middle East studies,” also seeks to accommodate the study of the Muslim world within the Western academy. Language training and an emphasis on contemporary political and social developments, as well as East-West relations, are characteristic of—although not exclusive to—the study of Islam within area studies programs. Middle Eastern studies has been critiqued both by those who see it as a continuation of the Orientalist alliance with imperialism and by those who feel that it has not fulfilled its purpose of protecting American interests in the face of mounting tensions between the U.S. and the Muslim world. Nevertheless, there has been a significant rise in the funding given to and the creation of Middle East and Islamic studies programs following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their aftermath. Likewise, there has also been a distinct increase in the number of popular studies on Islam by non-specialist historians and members of the mass media.

In the future, Islamic studies is unlikely to stray from its traditional goals of training specialists in the languages, creeds, literatures, and pre- and postmodern histories of the diverse peoples who make up the Muslim world. Collaboration between Muslim and non-Muslim scholars will be imperative to this enterprise, as will a commitment to scholarly vigor and creativity.



  • Daniel, Norman. Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Edinburgh, 1960. Still important comparative study of Christian and Islamic intellectual encounters in Europe in the Middle Ages.
  • Hourani, Albert. Islam in European Thought. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991. Collection of articles and reviews (most previously published) about European and American conceptions of Islam and Islamic studies.
  • Irwin, Robert. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. Woodstock, N.Y., 2006. Also published under the title For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies (London and New York, 2006). History of Orientalism and Orientalists and a critique of Edward Said's work that seeks to highlight the role of the solitary and sincere intellectual within Islamic studies.
  • Ismael, Tareq Y., ed.Middle East Studies: International Perspectives on the State of the Art. New York, 1990. Essays by scholars around the world, including Asia, on the state of Islamic studies in their respective countries.
  • Kritzeck, James. Peter the Venerable and Islam. Princeton, N.J., 1964. Thorough assessment of the Cluniac corpus of writing and scholarship on Islam.
  • Macfie, A. L., ed.Orientalism: A Reader. New York, 2000. Collection of excerpts from books and articles (previously published) by influential philosophers and scholars of Islam on the history and development of Orientalism, including both critiques and defenses of the field.
  • Rodinson, Maxime. Europe and the Mystique of Islam. Translated by Roger Veinus. Seattle, Wash., 1987. Excellent brief history of Islamic studies in Europe, with a concluding essay on proposed future directions.
  • Said, Edward W.Orientalism. New York, 1978. Reprint, New York, 1994. Highly influential critique of Orientalism, from antiquity to the modern age, and its effect on European and American conceptions of Islam.
  • Waardenburg, Jacques. Muslims as Actors: Islamic Meanings and Muslim Interpretations in the Perspective of the Study of Religions. Berlin and New York, 2007. Detailed and perceptive analysis of the relationship between the study of Islam and religious studies, including evaluations of major scholars and extensive bibliographies.

Richard C. Martin

Updated by Heather J. Empey


The term “Islamic studies” as currently used in professional journals, academic departments, and institutions of higher learning encompasses a vast field of research, all of which has “Islam” as its common bond. References to Islam, whether in the sense of a culture, civilization, or religious tradition, have become ever more frequent with the appearance of a plethora of literature in European languages treating the notion of political (“fundamentalist”) Islam, or “Islamism.” That literature speaks of Islamic banks, Islamic economics, Islamic political order, Islamic democracy, Islamic human rights, and so on. A cursory glance at booksellers ’ catalogs since the 1980s reveals countless titles containing the word “Islam” and its corresponding adjective “Islamic,” indicating the ill-defined subject matter of what has been termed “Islamic studies” in academia.

Orientalist Scholarship.

Interest in the phenomenon of “political Islam” is not entirely recent. Since the nineteenth century, Islamic studies, occasionally also called Near Eastern studies, have been a component of a broader academic field known as Oriental studies (giving rise thereby to the term “Orientalist,” for an academic who identified with this discipline). The period from 1821 to 1850 saw the creation of the Royal Asiatic Society in England, the Société Asiatique in France, the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft in Germany, and the American Oriental Society in the United States, all of which served a practical purpose from the perspective of the colonial powers. On the one hand, these learned societies conducted ethnographic research and were therefore sources of information for the colonizers; on the other hand, they studied cultural and scholarly texts written by Oriental thinkers. This led, for example, to the publication by E. M. Quatremère of the Muqaddimah (Introduction to History) by Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406) in 1858, a work viewed as a foundational text of modern sociological study, and subsequently to its first translation into French by Baron de Slane (1925). The histories of al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) and al-Masʿūdī (d. 956) and many other Arabic texts were also edited and translated for publication. The predominance of philological and historical approaches, particularly in German circles, is evident in works such as Theodore Nöldeke 's study on the history of the Qurʿān, Geschichte des Qorans (History of the Qurʿān, 1860), and Ignácz Goldziher 's work on the prophetic tradition (ḥadīth), Muhammedanische Studien (Muslim Studies, 1890). The value of such contributions in enhancing the Muslim community 's own sense of its cultural legacy can hardly be denied.

Traditional Orientalist-Islamic scholarship defined Islam as a corpus of beliefs and abstract norms that determine the various spheres that characterize a culture. A History of Islamic Societies (1988) by Ira M. Lapidus and several works by Bernard Lewis—notably The Political Language of Islam (1988)—are examples of works that have been widely translated into all the European languages, thereby promulgating a certain vision and usage of the term “Islam.” One need only contemplate the titles chosen by another prominent Islamicist, Gustave von Grunebaum—Modern Islam: The Search for Cultural Identity (1962), Medieval Islam: A Study in Cultural Orientation (1946), and Classical Islam: A History, 600–1258 (1970)—to begin to engage in an academic discourse on Islamic civilization and culture. The latter works reflect the creation of a “scientific” discipline wholeheartedly accepted by Orientalist scholars of Islam: a study of an “Islam” of history, based on Muslim law, Islamic political systems (caliphal states, imams, sultanates, emirates, and so on), and so-called “Islamic” architecture and art.

In this treatment of Islam, Orientalist scholarship exercised little or no intellectual caution in overgeneralization of the data concerning Islam. Such generalizations seem particularly problematic given that most monographs focused on a single culture or a single aspect, text, era, or author. The term “Islamic philosophy” used by several historians (including prominent figures such as Henry Corbin, Majid Fakhry, and Oliver Leaman) has not elicited the kind of theoretical debate provoked by its counterpart “Christian philosophy,” a notion rejected by Émile Bréhier in the 1930s when Étienne Gilson attempted to introduce it. The aforementioned titles related to Islam have no serious equivalents bearing the words “Christianity” or the adjective “Christian.”

The academic discourse on Islamic studies as conducted by its current practitioners, the “Islamicists,” finds itself still unable to proffer an explanation of how so many diverse fields, theories, cultural spheres, disciplines, and concepts can be associated with a single word, Islam, and why the discussion remains so one-dimensional where Islam is concerned. A 2007 government study in the United Kingdom (Siddiqui) on the state of the study of Islam at British universities spends a good deal of time trying to come to grips with the issues of the definition of the discipline, without any firm resolution. In contrast, the study of Western society is characterized by careful scrutiny, attention to precise detail, meticulous distinctions, and theory building. Indeed, the study of Western cultures continues to develop along such lines and to move in a different direction altogether from the approach adopted in the area of Islam and the so-called Arab world, a gloss itself that portrays the level of generalization that plagues the field.

The standard explanation that has emerged in recent debates about this monolithic approach based on philological studies consists of the repetition of dogma or an emphasis on sacred Islamic texts. Perhaps ironically, the discipline of Islamic studies faithfully and objectively reflects the myriad, and sometimes confusing, perspectives, levels, and views of reality expressed in the fundamental Islamic texts themselves, including scripture and the prophetic tradition. Contemporary scholarly analysis still has not fully reflected upon its own perspectives.

Where Islam as a religious tradition is concerned, the philological method has a drawback that continues to be either minimized or denied by its advocates among Islamicists. By its very nature, philology rejects all legends, mythologies, and apocryphal materials in favor of authentic, verifiable facts, duly dated and easily situated in real space. Even after anthropologists had established the value of myths as a rich source of historical-psychological information, Orientalists continued to view and write history in a linear, factual way along strictly chronological lines, dividing historical periods according to successive political dynasties, and manifesting a fascination with the purity of origins (SeeMotzki, 2000; Berg, 2003). Numerous ethnologists conduct fieldwork in Islamic countries, yet Islamicists have so far, for the most part, neglected to engage in dialogue with them.

Orientalist scholarship has tended to ignore the reality of the Muslim community by confining itself to the written texts and to the comparison of Islamic civilization and political culture with that of Christendom. It regards Islam as an object of study, a topic of scientific discourse, making no attempt to participate in the living Islamic tradition, maintaining the alibi of the “neutral observer” to keep its distance. Hence, in the study of Islamic law for example, Orientalism treats its historical development as an explanation of the “facts” of Islam. However, law is far more fruitfully understood as a practice than as a fact embedded in theoretical texts. Law is an endeavor engaged in by fellow humans, not by aliens. Understanding a practice requires participation, even if that be only the virtual participation of the sympathetic intellectual who suspends judgment and listens to another 's arguments. To understand Islamic law, one must be given some sense of what it means to think like a Muslim who is engaged in implementing the Muslim law, the sharīʿah. The Orientalist tradition has shown limited willingness to do this; it rests secure in its own explanatory apparatus. This security has often led to substantive errors, owing to the Orientalists ’ refusal to recognize the presence of cultural elements that are underrated by their own political schema. Religion figures surprisingly seldom, and usually as a mask for power politics, in the accounts of Islamic law offered by Orientalists who assume the normative nature of contemporary secular society. The adoption of a rigorously external view of law creates a false sense of precision. Some of this changed toward the end of the twentieth century, with the emphasis on judicial decision-making as emphasized in legal rulings (fatwās), but the foundations of the discipline remain intact.

One of the few scholars who has attempted to enunciate an overall vision of “Islamic studies” and its agenda is the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun. He discusses the implicit and explicit tenets underlying the notion of the discipline in terms of the cognitive dimension of the rigorous study of human existence in its full social context, what Arkoun invokes as the perspective of the “social sciences.” Arkoun 's goal has been to enunciate certain methodological approaches that he considers to be inseparable from epistemological theories that would make it possible to integrate Islam and Muslim cultures into a global critical theory of knowledge and values.

The Discipline of Islamic Studies: Arkoun 's Analysis.

The culminating monograph of late-twentieth-century Islamicist scholarship by Josef van Ess, Theologie und Gesellschaft im 2. und 3. Jahrhundert Hidschra: Eine Geschichte des religiösen Denkens im frühen Islam (Theology and Society in the Second and Third Centuries of the Hijrah: A History of Religious Thought in Early Islam, 1991–1997), dispels many misconceptions that have proliferated regarding the philological and historical methodology pursued by Orientalist scholarship, when contrasted with that used in contemporary, broadly based studies of social movements, particularly since the introduction of linguistics and semiotics. Van Ess 's work represents the finest example of the German philological tradition associated with a historical approach. He has greatly enriched the investigation of historical sociology. The very title of his work reveals this clearly: theology is not treated abstractly or prescriptively in isolation but rather is historicized and contextualized; that is, it is placed in its historical context and studied over the course of two critical centuries. Moreover, theology is considered in its sociological context, insofar as the author seeks to enumerate the distinctive traits of the schools that proliferated during the eighth and ninth centuries in Syria, Iraq, Iran, the Hejaz, southern Arabia, and Egypt. Van Ess 's approach differs from previous methods, which focused on a description of each sect 's tenets or an abstract list of sects, such as that found in Henri Laoust 's Les schismes dans l ’Islam (Schisms in Islam, 2d ed., 1977). Van Ess demonstrates with unparalleled scholarship that the standardization of Islamic thought and the appearance of organized religious institutions date back only to the founding of Baghdad and the creation of the ʿAbbāsid state. This historic fact has important methodological implications for the study of Islamic thought and the redefining of the loosely used term “Islam.”

The philological approach taken by Van Ess remains vital to the ongoing examination of the overwhelming amount of “Islamic” resources that are available. Numerous texts have yet to appear in critical editions or to be read using methods drawn from philology and the social sciences jointly. In that respect, the Orientalists have already provided a valuable model for the critical study of ancient texts and the application of historical reading—a linear, narrative, descriptive reading of the texts (rather than a deconstructionist approach, for example). Until the 1950s, Orientalist scholars could only imitate their counterparts studying Western societies and cultures. Philological criticism and a historical approach to Christian texts during the nineteenth century were extended to the Qurʿān, the ḥadīth, and the books of fiqh by researchers such as Theodor Nöldeke, Ignácz Goldziher, and Joseph Schacht. But whereas in Europe theologians adopted a historical approach in order to revitalize Christian theology (as did Rudolph Bultmann, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Jacques Maritain, for example), Orientalists continued to rely on the conclusions of philological critics where Islam was concerned. The latter limited themselves to denouncing conservative Muslims who refused to follow the lead of their Christian counterparts. Consequently, the field of Islamic studies was left in ruins, deserted on the one hand by potential Islamicists unable to make sense of foreign religious beliefs, and on the other by Muslims who, after 1945, adopted the ideology of the wars of liberation from colonial rule and the subsequent struggle to forge a national identity rather than follow the intellectual path provided by the European example.

The state of Islamic studies in the 2000s, then, suffers from the limitations of Western scientific reasoning (as seen in philology) when applied to foreign cultures or concepts outside the realm of Christian Europe and secular Western civilization. The discipline has been, first and foremost, hegemonic in nature: it has always imposed its classifications, categories, definitions, distinctions, concepts, and theories on others without fear of denunciation or refutation, except perhaps on polemical or ideological grounds. This has been possible because, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Muslim world that has been the object of this research has yet to come up with its own conceptual view of its history, culture, and religion that would challenge the hegemonic perspective inherent in Islamic studies and force it to acknowledge an alternative interpretation. A scholar writing on Goethe, Kant, Cervantes, or Dante consults German, Spanish, and Italian scholarly works in an effort to be thorough; when it comes to Islamic authors, texts, or cultures, however, previous research published in Arabic, Persian, or Turkish is all too often considered negligible. To make matters worse, scholars of Islamic studies constitute a closed group; they read and critique one another 's work without incurring the risk of being judged by researchers in other disciplines whose techniques they should be using to analyze Islam. In other words, the key factor in a successful multidisciplinary approach is the researcher 's educational background as well as his or her willingness and efforts to seek the opinions of colleagues known for their innovative perspectives.

Continuing Challenges for the Future: The Social Context of “Islam.”

Scientific investigation is not limited to the physical world. It can have global, all-encompassing connotations, underscoring the notion that humanity is both the object and agent of study. The fields of political science, economics, and law have, over time, become somewhat autonomous and independent of the more obviously subjective domains, such as psychology, intellectual history, literature and the arts, philosophy, and theology. Indeed, because of their nature as intellectual endeavors, topics as vital as the philosophy and anthropology of law, the philosophical and psychological ramifications of production and trade, and the role of the sacred, symbolic, mythical, and religious in political affairs have been viewed as speculative and have become fragmented to the point of being intellectually mutilated and mutilating.

In recent centuries, due to the urgent demands of industrialized nations, logical reasoning based on empirical, operational, and productive knowledge—all driven by economic factors—has acquired a status and dominance comparable to theological-legal reason in the Middle Ages or to Enlightenment reason, with its indisputable ties to classical, philosophical reason. This change with regard to the aims of knowledge has forced thinkers to adopt new ways of looking at the world, articulating their ideas, and dealing with political and economic realities, resulting in a new form of intellectual approach that renders all discussion and defense of the concepts of truth, law, and worth insignificant and lacking in credibility. Such an intellectual approach, generalized through scholarship and teaching, generated a hegemonic rise of reason interiorized by scholars as well as by the average person on the receiving end of such information. As long as Marxism and liberalism succeeded in convincing people that the ultimate stakes in their ideological struggle involved individuals ’ rights to seek the truth freely and to create laws based on “universal” values, they could allow practical concerns to supersede critical thinking. Since the downfall of Marxism, political and social scientists have proven unable to fill the void left by fifty years of ideological fervor. Political economics, which reigned supreme for so long, can barely handle the contradictions and conflicts that characterized the period from 1960 to 1970, when so-called “underdeveloped” countries attempted to forge ahead by embracing the industrialization that they saw as the key to their salvation, destroying their agricultural industries and traditional solidarities in the process.

Modern-day political experts who speak of the “threat” to “Western values” posed by Muslim “religious fanatics” only occasionally mention in passing the “economic mistakes” made by “scientific experts.” Their analyses never call into question the underlying hegemonic way of thinking that continues to set priorities based on scientific reasoning and fails to promote research methods, agendas, or programs grounded in the social sciences.

The single-party nation-states that monopolize power in the majority-world countries at the beginning of the twenty-first century have reinforced this hegemonic reason at all levels of their functioning while, at the same time, imposing a nationalistic ideology that exalts national identities and denounces Western “imperialism” or “neocolonialism.” Thus they perpetuate political, economic, and social conditions studied by researchers but far removed from the real problems affecting their countries. As a result, Islam, which is claimed by the believers to be a model of historical action “superior” to the one imposed by the West, has become a “collective fantasy,” unrealistic and preoccupied with a romanticized past. This “collective fantasy” has replaced Islam in its traditional religious meaning and function. It is the new historical force generated through struggles for liberation and national emancipation since the nineteenth century. As a new historical force, it has to be considered, analyzed, and interpreted by means of tools and methodologies of social psychology and cultural anthropology, and no longer through the vocabulary of traditional historiography or by the language of Muslim orthodoxy. Neither Western Islamicists and political scientists nor Muslim scholars and intellectuals have made this shift from the ideological framework related to Islam to the framework provided and required by the social sciences.

In contemporary Muslim societies ethnology and anthropology are still rejected on the grounds that they continue to depend on colonial strategies. This is, of course, in itself a purely ideological posture imposed by the single-party nation-states. In fact, ethnology, anthropology, and sociology as well as philosophy are seen as dangerous sciences because they may reactivate local identities that would be obstructive to the political will to bring about national unification. These fields of intellectual activity are strictly controlled in order to limit their subversive effects on religious orthodoxy and, by extension, on the state 's legitimacy. By contrast, apologetic historiography, which reinforces nationalist dreams, glorifies the past in epic style (turāth), and emphasizes Islam 's “universal” values, has produced a great deal of widely disseminated literature. Some researchers have resisted this trend, but they are few in number and their work has not been substantial enough to counteract the destructive effects of the state 's official ideology or the widespread and seemingly irresistible lure of fundamentalism.

There is a significant contrast between the current status and goals of social-scientific study in the West and the precarious position and timid initiatives of such approaches in Islamic contexts. The Islamic world has not benefited intellectually or spiritually from the kind of debates over theological and philosophical issues, controversies concerning laws and their interpretation, rich mystical experiences, and historical studies that have characterized past eras in the work of the Orientalists and Islamicists. Islam has been intellectually and spiritually disinherited ever since the Ṣafavid and Ottoman dynasties reduced the learned classes, the ʿulamāʿ, to the status of servile guardians of an orthodoxy divorced from the disputatio (munāẓarah) among the different schools of thought.

Changes since the late 1960s have had an even more dramatic effect than those engendered by bringing religion under the state control in the classical age under the Umayyads and even more under the Ṣafavids and the Ottomans. Whereas areas of ignorance continue to spread in the so-called politically “liberated” nations, the science of “man and society” in the West pursues its task of the arbitrary division of the world and fragmentation of the reality of the lived world—disseminating and imposing mental attitudes, models of knowledge, and ways of acting and creating strategies of domination, types of articulations of meaning, and so on, leading ultimately to the “we/us” mentality. This “we” exercises total intellectual and scientific sovereignty over all other cultures and countries by means of market economy “laws,” universally accepted and adopted by all political regimes, along with their implicit philosophies. They are rarely contested.

Islamic studies as carried out in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century remains the victim of this hegemonic reason. While rectifying the excesses of colonial rule, hegemonic reason continues to place “Islam” in an epistemological framework inherited from the Enlightenment—this despite the fact that the latter has been declared obsolete by all the creators, thinkers, and innovators of the postmodern condition. All of the recent literature on supposed fundamentalist, radical, or Islamist groups only serves to reinforce the narrow epistemological confines imposed on Islam and the Muslim world since the nineteenth century.

Arkoun's Global Theory of Knowledge.

For Arkoun, there is a need for a concept of critical knowledge that is continuously reconsidered in light of not only the new information provided in each discipline, but also the changing configurations of reason facing its own procedures, postulates, and statements. This situation is best illustrated by the objections addressed by postmodernists to Enlightenment reason. Few scholars in Islamic studies pay attention to these shifts in the understanding of the concept of reason. This kind of epistemological issue represents what Arkoun has called the “unthinkable” and the “unthought” for contemporary Islamic thought. This is why all social and political scientists who just transfer into European languages the various discourses articulated by Muslims in the present context of their societies contribute themselves to consolidating and spreading the unthinkable and the unthought in the academic discourse of Islam beyond Muslim discourse itself.

The vocabulary currently used by academics dealing with religion may be considered: faith, belief, sacredness, rites, myth, narration, symbol, parable, metaphor, time, profane, secular, spiritual, spirituality, divine, God, gods, revelation, interpretation, imagination, imaginary, marvelous, nature, culture, orthodoxy, heterodoxy, sects, truth, violence, and so on. Each one of these words has been worked out in several contexts by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, psychologists, psychoanalysts, and others. The question is, how are these words used in the academic literature on Islam in its classical and contemporary periods? How far and how often are they applied as cross-disciplinary concepts to deconstruct—that is, to make explicit the implicit postulates—all types and all levels of Muslim discourses, as they properly should?

In two books by Arkoun, Lectures du Coran (Readings of the Qurʿān, 2d ed., 1991) and Pour une critique de la raison islamique (Towards a Critique of Islamic Reason, 1984), a number of issues are listed that, he suggests, should receive priority in a strategic program aiming at a new critical, deconstructive articulation of an academic discourse on Islam and “Muslim” societies. The following issues illustrate the point: (1) The Qurʿānic phenomenon and the historical experience of Medina; (2) jāhilīyah (ignorance), ʿilm (knowledge), and Islām as anthropological paradigms; (3) the generations of the companions of the Prophet and the succeeding generations (the ṣaḥābah and tabiʿūn) as symbolic figures of mythical memory; (4) living tradition, ethnographic traditions, and traditionalization as an ideological strategy; (5) authority, power, and the search for legitimacy; (6) violence, sacredness, and truth in religious discourses and collective practice; (7) oblivion, elimination, and repression as dimensions of cultural and intellectual history; and (8) orthodoxy as an ideological process.

Many other examples could be given of yet unexplored topics and fields in Islamic studies. In each subject mentioned above, it is easy to perceive the necessity of using historical approaches, sociological inquiries, anthropological perspectives, linguistic analysis, and so forth. This multidisciplinary elaboration of a comprehensive, analytical, critical presentation of Islam and societies influenced by Islamic principles is not imposed only by a speculative, theoretical discussion; it is demanded by the actual forces at work in the history of every society. This means that “Muslim” societies should no longer be approached and cloaked by an ethnographic view. Ethnography insists on local particularities to single out each ethnocultural group or community from all others; anthropology, on the contrary, considers global structures and mechanisms, universal forces such as violence, sacredness, sacrifice, authority, power, time and narration, historicity, and so on, to reach all-encompassing explanations.

Traditional historiography has imposed in all known societies a narration starting from an origin, developing a linear evolution until the time in which the historian writes. This vision is related to a centralizing political power (the state, more or less complex according to the period considered); the social group that is able to write and read produces a learned culture, structures a type of knowledge with established, controlled, reproduced rules—norms and principles that become the orthodox way to write, to think, to believe, to behave. Here we see historical evolution and the sociological mechanisms at work in the leading, dominating level of society; this is the material currently described and studied by historians using written documents that speak about social aspects of human existence more or less dependent on the state (some can be opposed to it) but separated, indifferent, and more often hostile to all the social agents who belong to the popular, oral, heterodox level of social organization. This latter grouping is studied by ethnographers who are obliged to live with tribes, clans, peasants, and Bedouins, to learn the local dialects, to collect oral memories, and so forth.

The conceptualization, description, and knowledge concerning the ethnographer 's enterprise are decided, fixed, articulated, and evaluated with selections, eliminations, fragmentations, marginalizations, and minimizations by those who write, read, and teach orthodox norms on the official state level of social construction. But how do we speak of or interpret the so-called popular culture? Who uses the words magic, superstitions, paganism, polytheism, heterodoxies, or sects to refer to wrong beliefs, underdeveloped cultures, anarchy, rebellion as opposed to political order, the writing of book culture, reason, high culture, civilization, and so forth? It can be seen clearly here how modern scholarship reflects, perpetuates, and supports very old, deep, universal divisions that are political and ideological fractures hidden within cultural, intellectual, and ethical vocabulary.

In European societies these oppositions have evolved since the eighteenth century (and even since the sixteenth in some respects) toward a generalization of the dominating social and political forces and mechanisms to the global social space. Illiteracy is almost eradicated; democracy, the rule of law, and human rights are guaranteed to each citizen; but the anthropological tensions have been at work during centuries and are still at work in many respects today. In the majority-world societies—including, of course, all “Muslim” societies—the tensions inherent in the divisions in society are more devastating than ever since the emergence of the phenomenon of the single-party nation-state. The political will to eradicate illiteracy in a short time has been so brutal and so deeply motivated by ideological goals that oral culture has lost its centuries-old social, psychological, and ethical functions. Populist culture is the result of this destructive policy imposed by nationalist “elites” to deliver “masses” of peasants, highlanders, and Bedouins from their “ignorance.”

The above investigative framework is put forth by Arkoun as particularly useful to the future of Islamic studies in that it incorporates and links political and social history, intellectual and cultural history, religious history, and, of course, languages, including the various forms used by different social groups. Removed from a strictly theological perspective, religion is studied in its historical, sociological, and anthropological context, thereby setting the stage for a theory of religion as a socio-historical, universal phenomenon. In this perspective, Islam is just one example among others that can be studied with social-scientific tools as part of a global theory of knowledge. Such an approach contrasts starkly with the view promulgated by most Islamicists and political scientists, who have focused instead on Islam 's irrefutable specificity as a hieratic force, a kind of monster that has survived for centuries and controlled the fate of nations that have embraced the religion. Rather than focusing exclusively on “Islam,” the above framework enables Islamicists to analyze the forces that drive the protagonists at all levels of society—social classes and groups, the elite versus the less privileged, as well as intra-group conflicts that arise in both the social and political domains. At the same time, the scholar is freed from the narrow ideological bonds inherent in opting either to examine society globally on the basis of literature produced and edited by an elite group or to limit one 's research to an exhaustive study of a specific ethnocultural group isolated from the larger socio-historical process (as found in ethnographic monographs). Unfortunately, historical and anthropological studies that attempt to address the weaknesses and dangers inherent in both of these approaches (particularly when the two are totally distinct) are still uncommon.

The Future of an Academic Discipline.

The study of Islam as a purely religious phenomenon results in major gaps and neglected areas, which are all the more unforgivable for being gaps that are nonexistent in the study of Christianity and Judaism. Indeed, it seems almost inconceivable that Islam should be relegated to a separate historical, doctrinal, and sociological status in relation to Christianity and Judaism, given the close links among them. Whether one examines the deeply rooted continuities or the contrasts between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, a semiological and anthropological perspective would allow for a test of the theoretical validity of two constructs that underlie the study of religion.

The first of these constructs is the mimetic rivalry and competition for the exploitation and control of an original symbolic capital that appeals to diverse sociocultural groups. This occurred in the Near East from ancient Iran to ancient Egypt, where the notions of monotheism, revelation, prophets, immortality, the heavenly book, light and darkness, and good and evil gradually came to constitute a single mind-set and way of conceptualizing true knowledge and ultimate truth. At the same time, these symbols provided a set of tools for constructing belief systems that were used by competing forces to justify their power and guarantee support.

The second construct, an analytical and theoretical framework that involves a new cultural code, enables us to explain the emergence and social construction of differentiated systems of beliefs and how beliefs called Judaism, Christianity, and Islam fragmented themselves through history into “sects” or derived religions. And yet, when one considers the founding of a religion from a historical or anthropological viewpoint, it is apparent that the same constructs merely have different cultural and semiological representations; the outwardly diverse ideologies and mythologies disguise the fact that the underlying symbolic systems stem from the same creative process, especially in the context of large empires. The acts of building a mosque on the site of an ancient temple, of designating Friday as a day for collective prayer, of facing Mecca rather than Jerusalem, of fasting for an entire month as opposed to a few days, of changing the mythical figures of Isaac, Ishmael, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, of discussing God 's existence, of redefining the revelations are all forms of encoding—ritual, cultural, ethical, judicial, and political levels of human existence to transform each religion into the unique “true religion.”

The ill-defined Muslim opposition that views the application of social-scientific study to the interpretation of religion as reductionist should not stop scholarly research on Islam, in the same way that the study of Christianity proceeded in spite of Christian theologians ’ objections and refusal to accept the conclusions of researchers. For that matter, the very act of rejection should itself be studied from a sociological, historical, and psychological viewpoint: the ways in which this refusal is manifested, the underlying concepts, and the personal and collective motives behind it. Only then will we comprehend that open or closed attitudes are the result of behaviors and representations imposed by social agents; this means that Islam, as all other religions, is not the determinant factor, but is itself shaped, transformed, and obliged to fulfill functions corresponding to the needs of social agents.

Islam continues to be largely excluded from the fields of sociology, social psychology, discourse analysis, and cultural anthropology; ever since Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), Islam has been ignored by philosophers in their discussions on truth and its theory and practice. How does philosophy affect religious interpretations and discourses? Conversely, how can a cognitively based study of religion stimulate philosophical inquiry? Any Muslim scholar daring to venture down this path succeeds only in earning the condescension of “serious” fellow scholars or becoming totally isolated by refusing to accept the predominant orthodox view of Islam to which the majority subscribe. By contrast, even the most minor text written by fundamentalist militants becomes the basis for a doctoral thesis or a highly successful book.

The preceding observations suggest that Islamic studies have a long way to go before they are fully integrated into the Western tradition of academic and cultural research. Meanwhile, Islamic studies continue to be restricted to Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, or Near Eastern Studies departments where a handful of aspiring or recognized experts jealously guard their territory, refusing to collaborate on a wider academic level with other departments for fear that their ideas might be scrutinized and judged by true social scientists. Islamic studies should be recognized as a field integrated within departments of history, sociology, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, and religion, for Islam and Islamic thought are an integral part of Mediterranean cultural history, politics, and economics, and, by extension, of Europe and modern Western civilization, including North America. Some Orientalist scholars serving on university faculties have perpetuated an ideological perspective dating back to the nineteenth century, and in some respects even back to the Middle Ages, particularly where the history of religions and theology are concerned. This has been done in order to protect individual privileges that are perceived to be gradually diminishing.

From a political and economic standpoint, Islamic countries neither favor nor encourage a scholarly or empirical approach to Islamic studies because of the inherently fundamentalist nature of the political system. It remains to be seen whether research on Islam will be limited to narratives and descriptive studies, or whether it will adapt to the demands imposed on it by intellectual modernity in spite of the fundamentalist opposition, which is based precisely on the fact that this type of modernity is for them unthinkable. Such demands already exist but are neither encouraged nor satisfied because of the strict official ideology, supported by the collective conceptualizations, that narrowly defines intellectual and scientific pursuits.

Methodological and epistemological issues are directly, albeit not always visibly, tied to the world 's great ideologies. Social psychology has revealed that all knowledge is linked to a policy of refusal or integration of new knowledge that, in the former case, undermines and, in the latter, reinforces or confirms existing ideological views. Verses 5 through 29 of chapter 9 of the Qurʿān explicitly state what Muslims should reject or incorporate. Equivalent Christian and Jewish sacred texts have filled a similar function since the Middle Ages. With the advent of the age of reason, universal values were proclaimed, reinforced by Kant 's transcendental reason and Hegel 's philosophical spirit, all leading to the supremacy of liberal socialism and, for seventy years, communism. Since the downfall of communism, history has ceased in the sense that there is no single logic or worldview in a position to contradict, rival, or supersede liberal philosophy.

Very few Islamicists see the need to incorporate the scientific method evident in their writings on Islam and the Muslim world into a larger philosophical and autobiographical framework. Under such circumstances, it seems reasonable to conclude that Islamic studies will most likely remain the domain of erudite scholars, experts, essayists, narrators, journalists, hurried observers, political scientists, and academics more concerned with their careers than with improving and enhancing our knowledge—unless, of course, a group of particularly gifted and fortunate researchers and thinkers succeeds in changing the rules of the academic game and in breaking the pious molds used to reproduce existing knowledge and current intellectual theories.



  • Arkoun, Mohammed. Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers. Translated and edited by Robert D. Lee. Boulder, Colo., 1994. An illustration of Arkoun 's approach.
  • Arkoun, Mohammed. The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought. London, 2002. A collection of classic essays revised by Arkoun.
  • Berg, Herbert, ed.Method and Theory in the Study of Islamic Origins. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston, 2003. A collection of essays from leading scholars, some technical, some good for methodological overviews from the philological perspective, some groundbreaking, with new insights.
  • Hughes, Aaron W.Situating Islam: The Past and Future of an Academic Discipline. London and Oakville, Conn., 2008. Essays from the critical perspective of religious studies.
  • Irwin, Robert. Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and Its Discontents. Woodstock, N.Y., 2006.
  • An overview of the history of the study of the Middle East.Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in Religion & Education28, no. 3 (December 2007). Special issue devoted to the study of Islam in British universities.
  • Kerr, Malcolm H., ed.Islamic Studies: A Tradition and Its Problems. Malibu, Calif., 1980. Classic collection of essays discussing many aspects of the discipline.
  • Lockman, Zachary. Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  • Martin, Richard C., ed.Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies. Tucson, Ariz., 1985. A groundbreaking collection of essays that bring reflection on religious studies methodologies to Islamic studies.
  • Motzki, Harald, ed.The Biography of Muḥammad: The Issue of the Sources. Leiden, 2000. A collection of philologically oriented essays, illustrating a variety of methodological perspectives.
  • Rippin, Andrew, ed.Defining Islam: A Reader. London and Oakville, Conn., 2007. A collection of essays and chapters from classic works dealing with how “Islam” is to be conceived and studied.
  • Safi, Omid, ed.Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Oxford, 2003. See especially Part I: “Progressive Muslims and Contemporary Islam.”
  • Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York, 1978. Now classic work of analysis of Islamic studies as a tool of colonialist aspirations.
  • Schöller, Marco. Methode und Wahrheit in der Islamwissenschaft: Prolegomena. Wiesbaden, Germany, 2000.
  • Siddiqui, Ataullah. “Islam at Universities in England: Meeting the Needs and Investing in the Future: Report Submitted to Bill Rammell MP [Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education] on 10th April 2007.” Available at www.dfes.gov.uk/hegateway/uploads/DrSiddiquiReport.pdf.
  • Varisco, Daniel Martin. Islam Obscured: The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation. New York, 2005.
  • Waardenburg, Jean Jacques. L ’Islam dans le mirior de l ’Occident: Comment quelques orientalistes occidentaux se sont penchés sur l ’Islam et se sont formé une image de cette religion. 2d ed.Paris, 1963. Biographies and reflections on the leading founders of the discipline of Islamic studies.
  • Waardenburg, Jean Jacques. Muslims as Actors: Islamic Meanings and Muslim Interpretations in the Perspective of the Study of Religions. Berlin and New York, 2007.
  • Wheeler, Brannon M., ed.Teaching Islam. New York and Oxford, 2003. A series of essays that encourages pedagogical reflection on the nature of the study of Islam in universities.

Mohammed Arkoun

Updated by Andrew Rippin

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