Loyalty and Leadership in an Early Islamic Society
On Understanding Islam: Selected Studies
Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini
Studies on Islam
Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World
Islam in the Modern World and Other Studies
Hardly a day goes by when someone among us doesn’t ask in print, “What is Islam, and how much does it matter?” OPEC, Israel, and the hostage crisis have powerfully concentrated our minds on the subject. Journalists, scholars, politicians, apologists, even now and then an errant literary figure on a polemical holiday, address themselves to the meaning of the jihad or the doctrine of the Hidden Imam. What was once the province of a handful of people who knew Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, sometimes along with Urdu and Malay, or who happened to be posted to Beau Geste settings, is now almost as open to general discussion as Reaganomics or the cultural significance of television. Like Japanese work habits, Muslim passions are suddenly something about which it is necessary to have views.
Whatever the variety of views or the interests that motivate them, the viewers tend to come in recognizable sorts. There are the more traditional Orientalists, whom Edward Said and others have recently subjected to wholesale attack as field agents of imperialism, but who are mostly finicky textual scholars with the usual woods and trees problems of those who have read everything in sight. The ideologists grind their various axes to so fine an edge as to wound mostly themselves. The historians attempt to arrange elliptical records from a mythicized past into a plausible story. The journalists cover fires. And then there are the social scientists, who are going to explain it all. Whether “Islam” itself is or isn’t single and of a piece, whether it is the sort of thing about which one can ask “What is it?” and expect a synoptic answer, the study of it surely is not.
The matter is rendered yet more difficult by the appearance in such study of a powerful new cliché: “The Revival of Islam.” As such half-thoughts will, the notion of “revival” tends to divert attention from its referent to itself. The question becomes whether there really is such a thing out there in “Islamdom” demanding special explanation or whether there is not and our sense that there is grows out of tuning in late to a historical process, faith-driven politics, that has been going on for a very long time and has come to our attention only because it has begun directly to touch our interests. Islamicists, who not so very long ago were notably untroubled by self-reflexive anxieties, are now becoming as nervous as intelligence testers, uncertain about how much of what they see is mirage, engendered by their own ways of looking rather than by what it is they are looking at.
The chief result of these three developments in Islamic studies—increased popularity, diversification of methods, and heightened self-consciousness—is that the general agreement on what such studies should be about and how they should be conducted that persisted virtually up to yesterday has now disappeared almost altogether. To sample books now appearing that claim to deal somehow with things Islamic is to be confronted with…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.