A religion, defined


This semester I’m taking a class called “Anthropology of Poetry and Prayer” for which I’m currently reading Carl W. Ernst’s Sufism: An Introduction to the Mystical Tradition of Islam. More than anything I learned from the bulk of the content about Sufism specifically, I was especially struck by certain facts he relayed about history and scholarship on Islam in general. For example, in the Preface (pg. xvi):

The Arabic term islam itself was of relatively minor importance in classical theologies based on the Qur’an; it literally means submission to God, and it denotes the minimal external forms of compliance with religious duty. If one looks at the works of theologians such as the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the key term of religious identity is not islam but iman, or faith, and the one who possesses it is the mu’min or believer. Faith is one of the major topics of the Qur’an, mentioned hundreds of times in the sacred text. In comparison, islam is a relatively uncommon term of secondary importance; it only occurs eight times in the Qur’an. Since, however, the term islam had a derivative meaning relating to the community of those who have submitted to God, it became practically useful as a political boundary term, both to outsiders and to insiders who wished to draw lines around themselves.

I have never heard of this before; this shocks me both because I grew up in a Muslim household and attended Islamic Sunday school, where the idea of “Islam” as such in defining what we were learning was never questioned, but also because I’ve been studying Islam through anthropology for a while and have yet to come across this fact—and perhaps never would have if I hadn’t read this text. To be sure, the fact of a word meaning “submission” defining the religion was never significant to my interpretation of Islam to begin with. But it’s fascinating to consider the implications of that word, as opposed to others, coming to define the religion.

Tracing how the hegemony of “Islam” developed, Ernst continues:

Historically, the term Islam was introduced into European languages in the early nineteenth century by Orientalists like Edward Lane, as an explicit analogy with the modern Christian concept of religion; in this respect, Islam was just as much a neologism as the terms Hinduism and Buddhism were. Before that time Europeans used the term Muhammadan or Mahometan to refer to the followers of the Prophet Muhammad. The use of the term Islam by non-Muslim scholars coincides with its increasing frequency in the religious discourse of those who now call themselves Muslim. That is, the term Islam became popular in reformist and protofundamentalist circles at approximately the same time, or shortly after, it was popularized by European Orientalists.

Ernst spends his first chapter after the Preface chronicling the earliest scholarship on Sufism and demonstrating how much our understanding of this tradition was shaped by the particular (and problematic) approach of colonial scholars called Orientalists. It’s common now to dismiss those who raise concerns about “Orientalism” or colonial understandings (in the tradition of Edward Said) because such claims have often been abused, but it’s important to take seriously the impact of Orientalist scholarship upon our understandings of Islam. As Ernst notes in the previous passage, Islam was conceptualized through “explicit analogy with the modern Christian concept of religion.” It is largely irrelevant here whether Islam was seen negatively by contrast with Christianity or positively by comparison (both of which were the case), and there are so many broad glosses and specific omissions that this scholarship entailed, for a variety of reasons and motivations, that I won’t try to exhaust here.

It is the idea of “religion” as such that I am calling attention to; we largely take for granted the idea of religion as a certain set of beliefs and doctrines, which we try to conceptualize similarly between one religion and another. In describing the historical development of the term “Sufism,” Ernst notes how the suffix “-ism” was added to the word “Sufi” (pg. 16), and the tendency, as highlighted above with reference to Hinduism and Buddhism, to make faiths into -isms for easy indexing among other doctrines and philosophies. Such definitions cause us to imagine faith traditions as largely monolithic or changeless sets of beliefs, losing our sense of how the faiths were historically—as well as contemporarily—conceptualized by believers themselves. Non-believers and believers alike begin to assume a single object that “counts” as a certain faith, arguing over whether certain practices in certain societies are attributable to that object, or instead to some other assumedly singular object like local “culture” or the import of foreigners.

Differing from theology, anthropology tends to approach religion as “a set of interpretive resources and practices,” allowing us to see that which we call “Islam” more broadly as “the ways in which Muslims endeavor to transcend the limits of their own society even as they live in it, how they try to organize their lives around their understandings of ‘high texts,’ and how these texts – the Qur’an, the hadith, and the wealth of devotional, legal, and political writings that Muslims have produced – are always grasped locally” (John Bowen, A New Anthropology of Islam, pgs. 3 and 6 respectively). To discern what Islam is, the focus is on how it is lived. And what emerges is a much more diverse, less unified picture of Islam, hardly just an “-ism” of “submission,” in its many manifestations of practice around core texts in different times and places. The same text by Bowen actually describes how Islam historically was never learned by Muslims explicitly as a system of beliefs and doctrines; learning was traditionally done through the Qur’an, sunna, and associated commentaries themselves—and the learning of Islam through universal principles, as a singular object (the kind of education I received in my youth), was the result of new developments and epistemological shifts. I can’t help but wonder if this shift is related to the approach of the Orientalist scholarship that came to define Islam as “Islam” among non-Muslims and consequently among Muslims themselves.

To give a sense of all that is lost in such a translation, the Arabic word that now translates as “Sufism” is tasawwuf, which literally means “the process of becoming a Sufi” (Ernst, pg.21). Ernst discusses at length how Sufis came to define themselves and their relation to Islam through this word, but what interests me here is their linguistic conceptualization of the tradition—done not in terms of doctrine or practice, of an object that can translate as Sufism, but rather, as a process of becoming. This falls in line with the image of Muslim devotion (another verbal word, mind you) that has emerged through other anthropological texts I’ve read about contemporary Muslims in Egypt, for example: it is aspirational, about moral striving and working towards achieving a pious self. In fact, my own academic advisor Professor Naveeda Khan’s new book is titled Muslim Becoming, for she uncovers a similar rhythm to Islam in contemporary Pakistan. Among different societies, the doctrinal stuff varies, and an image of lived Islam emerges that is much more dynamic than the religion is usually given credit for among both non-Muslims and Muslims, in both non-Muslim societies and Muslim societies.

This is something many literalists miss (again, both Muslim and non-Muslim, the latter generally being “Islamophobes” who insist on the existence of one true Islam that endangers us all). It’s also why, given a closer look, “fundamentalist” movements like Salafism and Islamism are actually defined as reform movements—contrary to popular belief, Salafists in particular aren’t truly resisting change or stagnating, but are instead trying to achieve a shift away from continuous, existing lived tradition (albeit to something that they believe does justice to the past, the experience of their ancestors). And Islamists, in short, are a much more diverse group than a focus on the Muslim Brotherhood reveals (not all Egyptian “Islamists,” for example, support the Brotherhood), and the Islamic Revival has also been characterized by acts of striving and moral aspiration (see The Ethical Soundscape by Charles Hirschkind or Politics of Piety by Saba Mahmood).

With this post, I really didn’t set out to define the anthropological method or articulate the best approach to thinking about Islam. I was just inspired by certain revelations in the book I’m currently reading (on the origins of using the word “Islam,” on the literal meaning of the Arabic word for Sufism)—facts which I found fascinating and simply wanted to share (with more explication than Twitter allows), but also which I believe are emblematic of both common problems I notice in how people think about religion in general and Islam in particular, and the refreshing understandings of religion and Islam I’ve encountered in my studies. It’s possible none of this intrigues anyone else, and in that case this can just serve as an exercise in articulating my thoughts for their own sake. But I do hope that, if you’re reading, you learned something new and possibly significant.


UPDATE (04/01): Today, during the class period for which the Sufism reading was assigned, we had a guest lecturer (to lead what was still a seminar)—another teacher of mine, a Ph.D candidate whose fieldwork in Kurdistan focuses on Sufism and poetry in particular. It was a fantastic session and I only wish I could share all of it; however, one thing was especially relevant to this post. We read the hadith in which the Prophet (SWT) explicates what are now known as the “five pillars of Islam”; the kind of thing I learned in Sunday school as the core of the faith. However, in this hadith, a dialogue is recounted in which a figure asks the Prophet, first, “tell me about islam,” then, “tell me about iman,” and finally, “tell me about ihsan.” As mentioned earlier, “islam” means submission and “iman” means faith, but “ihsan” is a word used to describe the supererogatory; from this it is clear that although “islam” may describe the primary obligations of the religion, it hardly encompasses all of worship. The rest of the class focused on ihsan, specifically how Sufis aspire to it; you could say that ihsan better explains the aspirational aspect of Muslim (Mu’min? Muhsin?) devotion. There is much more to be said about how Sufis conceptualize and realize this, to which I can’t quite do justice to here, but I thought this revelation was worth adding to the discussion above.

If you’re interested in the diversity of Muslim societies, check out my writings on the often-overlooked anomaly of Oman.

2 thoughts on “A religion, defined

  1. This is an outstanding post. Ernst’s book is a great authority too. I explored similar themes in my blog post, “Submission.”


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