Judging the People Whom We Study

Picture 6Do you ever listen to “Interfaith Voices” on the radio or on the web? I find it to be a fascinating place to hear how scholars of religion (who often comprise the show’s guests and experts) try to represent their work to the wider public — a representation that’s generally lodged in all sorts of methodological and theoretical problems. Whether the issue lies in how these scholars go about doing their own academic work or, perhaps, in how they think they have to talk to non-specialists is, of course, something that would require more than just a brief blog post to investigate. (You should know, however, that my money is on the former.)

Case in point, consider the episode that’s being broadcast this week (the September 11, 2014, episode) — the first story was devoted to the notion of the Islamic caliphate and the way the term is now being used by the Islamic State. The host, Maureen Fiedler, posed the opening question to Reza Aslan (one of her two guests, and whom she introduced as a scholar of religion):

Fiedler: Now, in the Muslim tradition, the words caliph and caliphate are really important. What do they mean, Reza?

Aslan: Well, the truth is is that we don’t actually know what they mean. The word itself, even when the first caliph, Abu Bakr, was named as successor to the Prophet Muhammad, really had no real definition…

If you’re not listening carefully you probably wouldn’t make much of the move Aslan just made there, one familiar to any world religions textbook reader; but a spoonful of critical thinking might make evident that the issue of meaning today was addressed in terms of origins and orthodoxy — apparently, we need to establish a timeless anchor by means of which to judge how we use words today. For to the question, “What do these words mean” — posed in the context of a group using the words right now, in the year 2014 — the answer took us back 1500 years and told an orthodox origins tale.

His answer then quickly moved listeners through its use among “the first four so-called rightly guided caliphs” — still, part of the origins tale — and then ended by emphasizing that the concept has always defined:

a purely political, I daresay secular, quality. I want to make this as clear as possible: the caliphate has never ever been a religious position and the caliph has never ever had any kind of religious authority… There was one exception to this…. It was a disaster, it lasted a couple of decades. And never again has a caliph assumed to be anything other than just the political leader of the Muslim community…

There is much going on in this answer (let alone throughout the rest of the interview [posted below]); what should at least be apparent to a careful listener is that Aslan is here using a normative tale as the set-up to delegitimize how the term is being used now by representatives of the Islamic State — for we now know that the term “has never ever” been used in the way that we now hear it being used (well…, apart from that one time), and thus this use is outside the tradition and, obviously, wrong.

Now, I’m not going to say anything about Fiedler’s troublesome notion of some homogenous thing moving through time called “the Muslim tradition,” and I’m not going to say anything about Aslan’s terribly anachronistic (and thus self-serving) use of the taxonomy political vs. religious (as if these two concepts name stable, distinguishable, transcendent identities); instead, I simply wish to point out the way listeners are being told that a specific situation today, with which many of us surely disagree, is being portrayed as deviant by means of the structure of this answer — a portrait that authorizes our disapproval and simultaneously allows listeners to be able to identify correct practitioners (those who use the word this way) as different from, I suppose, radicals who have perverted the message (and thus use the word that way). For current usage is being judged by its relation to what is seen as a normative point in the past, read in a particular way, so as to normalize one present (by portraying it as part of that thing called tradition or the community or “the worldwide body of faith,” as Aslan translates the Arabic ummah) while abnormalizing another (by portraying it as a deviation or anomaly, calling them upstarts and amateurs, as Aslan puts it later in the interview).

It’s fascinating how name-calling is fair game if we, as scholars, disagree with a position we happen to be studying. Contrary to this, it has always struck me that the challenge of being a scholar, regardless to whom you’re speaking, is to take all forms of human behavior seriously when studying them — especially those with which you may happen to disapprove personally. For the issue for scholars ought not to be whether some group is right or not but, instead, to understand how anyone can come to see themselves, their words, and their actions as correct, as persuasive, as meaningful, and, in this some cases, as worth killing and dying for.

Listen for yourself and see what you think of how hard scholars sometimes work to ensure that the public understands the right and wrong way to be a religious person — not surprising, really, given the title of the show, right?