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How "Islamic Studies" Swallowed Middle Eastern Academia

Canada's Simon Fraser University
Canada's Simon Fraser University
Los Paseos
*Paul Sedra


CAIRO β€” Assistant Professor in Islam and Modernity, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, Professorship of Islamic History, Specialist on Islam and/or Muslim Societies, Cultures, Arts, Politics, and/or Philosophy.

These are just a sampling of the positions currently featured in job listings of the Middle East Studies Association. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, there was certainly an expectation among specialists in Middle Eastern studies that attention among university planners and administrators would shift to Islam and that, accordingly, there would emerge a surfeit of positions, conferences and research projects framed in terms of Islamic studies as opposed to Middle Eastern studies.

But who could have guessed that this trend would persist for quite so long and become quite so all-encompassing? When I entered the department where I earned my PhD 16 years ago, it was a Department of Middle Eastern Studies. Today, it's a Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

There is a certain irony in such a renaming. It was there, all those years ago, where I was taught that there is more to the Middle East than Islam. I learned that to focus exceptionally upon Islam in the study of the region was fundamentally to miscast the dynamics of the region's history and politics. This was, of course, the error that our predecessors in the field had made when they had studied the Koran to understand Islamist organizations, or when they insisted that "Islam had bloody borders," as if the faith were a geographical entity.

Not that change is bad

All of this is not to suggest that use of Middle Eastern studies as a conceptual framework is unproblematic or unworthy of challenge. The need to step beyond the once-rigid boundaries of area studies is as urgent as ever, if only to render visible the manifold networks and connections that have defied such boundaries through history. Nor is this to suggest that the study of Islam is unimportant or inconsequential. Indeed, with the rise of organizations like ISIS that draw so heavily upon Islam as a political idiom, the need for level-headed analysis and demystification of the life experiences of believers is as important as ever.

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A Koran at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Photo: Muhammad Ghouri

But the recurrent recourse to Islam as a conceptual framework in contemporary academic circles β€” to the exclusion of alternatives β€” seems pernicious and problematic in a way that Middle Eastern studies were not. Every time I teach my introductory course on modern Middle Eastern history, the emphasis in the first lecture β€” and, indeed, in every lecture β€” is on a region that defies easy categorization in light of its tremendous diversity. Arguably, the whole point of the course is to encourage students to view the Middle East as a region like any other, and emphatically not exceptional in terms of purported propensities to religiosity or violence.

There are those who suggest that Islamic studies can and should embrace all those who live in "Islamic societies" or "Muslim-majority polities." But no matter the semantics, framing the field in terms of Islamic studies necessarily privileges the Islamic and the Muslim over the heretical and the heterodox, the sacrilegious and the secular β€” not to mention the non-Muslim. Whenever the claim is made that Islamic studies are inclusive rather than exclusive, it's necessary to press forward the challenge: How often are those who study non-believers in Islamic societies or Muslim-majority polities actually hired for positions in Islamic studies?

Whenever I come across one of the new positions, conferences and research projects framed in terms of Islamic studies, I can't help but think of the millions of Middle Easterners whom a university administrator or planner has seen fit to dismiss or disregard with a turn of phrase β€” the millions who are necessarily excluded from Islamic studies because they are not believers. And in turn I can't help but wonder, perhaps with a wisp of nostalgia, whatever happened to Middle Eastern studies?

*Paul Sedra is associate professor of history at Simon Fraser University.

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