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Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium: A potential collaboration or a foregone conclusion?

In the coming weeks, the Political Theology blog will be hosting a symposium on Political Theology and Islamic Studies, bringing together reflections from a number of leading scholars at the intersection of these fields. The editors are very grateful to our Contributing Editor, M. Owais Khan, and to Abbas Barzeger, for their long labors in putting together and editing this symposium. This first post introduces the questions to be discussed and the contributors who will be participating.

In the coming weeks, the Political Theology blog will be hosting a symposium on Political Theology and Islamic Studies, bringing together reflections from a number of leading scholars at the intersection of these fields.  The editors are very grateful to our Contributing Editor, M. Owais Khan, and to Abbas Barzeger, for their long labors in putting together and editing this symposium.  This first post introduces the questions to be discussed and the contributors who will be participating.

Political theology is many things. On the one hand it can be a normative discourse that seeks out a political ethics from a particular theological standpoint. On the other hand, it can be descriptive project—an interdisciplinary practice of critique which, like other forms of critique, seeks to illuminate otherwise unseen relationships between social, political, and cultural practices. Whereas gender critique might highlight the ways in which heteronormativity is reified in the banalities of social life or whereas post-colonial criticism may reveal the interplay of power and identity in national literatures, political theology—as critique—seeks to draw attention to the inextricability of the political and the religious in any given social context. Conventional approaches in the social sciences and humanities look at the arenas of the political and the religious as separate domains; political theology assumes their mutual and reciprocal embeddedness, their entanglements, and contemplates their implications on cultural studies. This symposium asks: what, if any, contribution can political theology offer the study of contemporary Islam? And inversely, what, if any, contribution can the study of contemporary Islam offer political theology?

Most conversations on modern political theology trace their genealogy to Carl Schmitt’s eponymous monograph on the subject, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty in which he highlighted how liberal political theory’s proceduralism cannot account for the transcendent nature of sovereignty, which, upon closer inquiry, is integral to the formation any political community.  Most recently, Paul Kahn has offered a meditation on Schmitt’s insights in order to unpack the theopolitical imagination of American exceptionalism, but other examples of political theology abound. George Shulman, through his reading of Sacvan Bercovitch has argued that American political rhetoric has always espoused a prophetic world-mission in terms of a specific Biblical genre, the jeremiad—now the American jeremiad. Theologian, J. Kameron Carter has argued that American racism cannot be understood without accounting for a particular Christian theology which legitimized slavery in the New World through certain supersessionist interpretations about Jews and Gentiles.  William Cavanaugh has also put forth a timely argument contextualizing the American War on Terror as another statist instance of misusing what he calls, the myth of religious violence—where religious violence is conceived as existentially threatening to the modern state. These contributions, which are only a few examples of the work done in political theology in the American context, interrogate the secular logic of allegedly neutral, non-religious political practices in order to reveal their theological underpinnings.

Over the last three decades, there has been a remarkable rise in the study of religion, modernity, and secularism. This has been influenced in no small way by the impact of Islamic revival in the late 20th century, which has complicated the secularization and modernization theories that underpin a range of geopolitical issues. If this observation is correct, then what implications, if any, does it hold for the interface of political theology and Islamic studies in the current political moment? The study of Muslim societies and their diasporas in North America and Europe—which has congealed in the amorphous category of Islamic studies—has taken place across a range of disciplines. As such, the study of Islam in various fields has conformed to the respective paradigms of the host discipline. For example, one finds an emphasis on rational actor theory and resource mobilization in the study of Islamic political movements in the fields of Political Science and Sociology. Less banal outcomes of this relationship continue to fuel approaches to the study of religion that assume functionalism or mere ideology (read the political use of religious rhetoric) or false consciousness (read political religion as brainwashing) as the primary determinations of religious behavior. What does it mean that such conventional approaches in the social sciences—which have themselves come under the purview of a range of critiques—remain the dominant frame through which the study of Islam proceeds? In the area of Islamic political theory, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have openly and candidly explored ways on how Islamic tradition may be adapted or reconfigured to conform to the demands of a pluralistic democratic society (although what that means remains a point of controversy). However, from a political theological perspective, democratic governance is also a theological project; and in light of a string of interventions, the assumptions of neutrality in Rawls have been thoroughly undermined. In this light, how should Islamic democratic projects and the scholarship thereon be understood? The confluence of post-colonial and post-modern approaches in the increasing interdisciplinary study of Islam has contributed greatly towards remedying the legacy of Orientalism. However, here too, the study of Islamic social formations adopted the trends of the “host” disciplines resulting, in this case, a proliferation of studies that identify the micropolitics of Muslim social life, unmask the coercion and inertia of gender normativity in orthodox hermeneutics, or deconstruct the analytic assumptions that fuel essentialist perceptions of Islamic cultures. Can a political theological study of contemporary Islam help overcome the methodological “entrapment” of following the trends of “host” disciplines?

This symposium is not meant to come to a conclusion on any of these questions. Rather, it aims to initiate an ongoing conversation on whether or not political theology, both in its normative and descriptive forms, can contribute to the study of contemporary Islam. Likewise, can Islamic studies—however it may be defined—contribute to political theology? As a practice of critique does political theology reveal anything distinct from the type of critique being conducted by scholars such as Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood for example? As a practice of normative ethics, can Islamic political thought and practice—on its own terms—contribute substantively to political theology’s ongoing critique of secular modernity and the type of humanism it demands? While participants in this symposium are not expected to answer these questions, by merely convening it, they demonstrate that they are in agreement that the bifurcation of the secular/religious is an ideological project which becomes increasingly meaningless in a progressively entangled world. It is our hope that this conversation will contribute to making those entanglements less daunting.

Abbas Barzegar                                                                           Owais Khan

abarzegar@gsu.edu                                                                 mokhan01@syr.edu

Department of Religious Studies                                       Department of Religion

Georgia State University                                                         Syracuse University



Confirmed Contributors

Ahmed Abdel Meguid is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at Syracuse University. His research areas include Islamic theosophy and German Idealism. His forthcoming monograph is based on his dissertation, The Hermeneutics of Religious Imagination and Human Nature in Kant & Ibn al-‘Arabi.

Abbas Barzegar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Georgia State University. He is co-editor of Islamism: Contested Perspectives on Political Islam. His research portfolio includes the formation of Sunni orthodoxy in late antiquity, the aesthetics of political Islam, and Islamic pedagogy in the United States. For a full bio see: http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwrel/4663.html

Dr Faisal Devji is University Reader in Modern South Asian History at the University of Oxford. He is the author of two books, Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (2005), and The Terrorist in Search of Humanity: Militant Islam and Global Politics (2009), and is currently writing a book on the emergence of Muslim politics and the founding of Pakistan. For a full biography please see: http://www.sant.ox.ac.uk/people/devji.html

Owais Khan is a Phd Candidate in the Religion Department at Syracuse University. He served as a lecturer at Fatih Sultan Mehmet University’s Alliance in Civilizational Studies in Istanbul between 2010-2012. His philosophical research is concerned with the idea of neutrality in liberal multiculturalism and its relationship to secularism while his historical research concerns formations of early modernity in the Ottoman and Moghul Empires.

Mohammad H. Fadel is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, which he joined in January 2006. Professor Fadel wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on legal process in medieval Islamic law while at the University of Chicago. Professor Fadel has published numerous articles in Islamic legal history and Islam and liberalism, including “Back to the Future: The paradoxical Revival of Aspirations for an Islamic State,” 14(1) Review of Constitutional Studies (2009)” and “Islamic Politics and Secular Politics: Can They Co-Exist?”, 25(1) Journal of Law & Religion (2009). For a full list of articles see: http://www.law.utoronto.ca/faculty-staff/full-time-faculty/mohammad-fadel

Vincent Lloyd is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Syracuse University. He is the author of The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford, 2011) and Law and Transcendence: On the Unfinished Project of Gillian Rose (Palgrave, 2009). His has also authored and edited a number of articles and special volumes. For a full biography please see: http://vwlloyd.mysite.syr.edu/

Ebrahim E.I. Moosa is Professor of Religion and Islamic Studies in the Department of Religion at Duke University. His interests span both classical and modern Islamic thought with a special focus on Islamic law, history, ethics and theology. Dr Moosa is the author of Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination, winner of the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book in the History of Religions (2006). For a full biography please see: http://religiondepartment.duke.edu/people?Gurl=/aas/Religion&Uil=moosa&subpage=profile

Matthew Scherer is an assistant professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University and a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He specializes in modern secularism, religion and politics, liberalism, constitutionalism, and political theology. He is author of Beyond Church and State: Democracy, Secularism, and Conversion (Cambridge, 2013). For a full biography see: http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/people/matthew-scherer.

Omar Shaukat is a PhD Candidate in Philosophical Theology at the University of Virginia. While writing his dissertation on Ontotheology and Kant’s conception of self-consciousness, he maintains active academic and teaching interests in topics such as Liberation Theology, South Asian Islam and Film Studies.

(Additional yet-to-be-confirmed contributors may also be participating in the symposium)

2 thoughts on “Political Theology and Islamic Studies Symposium: A potential collaboration or a foregone conclusion?

  1. looks like great fun. will be following discussions please include substantive issues of ecology, islah and atheisation

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