Birks Lecture on Islam

Birks Lecture on Islam McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 19, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 11
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Birks Lecture on Islam

The scholarly approach to Islam over the centuries has become an object of study itself, according to Azim Nanji, director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. The Faculty of Religion Birks Lecturer delivered the first of two public talks on Islam on February 16, on "The Study of Islam: Past, Present and Future."

Caption follows
Azim Nanji, Institute of Ismaili Studies
Owen Egan

Nanji, a McGill graduate, said that the study of Islam has changed both within the Muslim tradition and in the West, depending on the political and historical context.

Nanji said that much of what the West has learned in recent years — at least through mass media — has been through the filter of the World Trade Center attacks of 2001.

"It's not so much a study of Islam as it is how Muslims are coping with the West, with globalization," he said.

"I don't know if any culture is best studied in its moment of crisis."

This is hardly a new phenomenon. In its earliest days, Islam was viewed by the Christian West as a heresy. When it was studied at all, it was to support that judgment, rather than an honest attempt to learn about the new religion. The prophet Mohammed's very human nature was dwelt upon. In the medieval period there was more engagement, but mostly in the philosophical area, rather than theological.

In the 18th century, both the colonial West and the Ottoman Empires were growing in size and power. At this time, Western scholars began looking to Islamic artifacts as items of value.

Making an analogy to the Darwin-like doctor in the recent movie Master and Commander Nanji said this too was a product of its rationalist time.

"Islam was seen as a specimen, to be collected," he said.

This did lead to the great collection of Muslim texts at Oxford, but there were blind spots in the approach. Arabic texts were valued above those from other parts of the Muslim world. It was during this period that some honest scholarship began to appear on Islam.

"While there was animosity and the desire to undercut, there was also broad scholarship," he said.

This scholarship was limited in many ways — a heavy reliance on texts, origins and institutions meant that other aspects of the Islamic world were ignored. Scholars often worked in self-contained bubbles: Linguists were interpreting the meaning of documents without the benefit of historical context, while historians were trying to make sense of past events without the benefit of source documents.

This is how things stood when a Columbia University comparative literature professor named Edward Said published Orientalism, which accused Western scholars of exoticizing Eastern and Islamic culture. It woke people up, said Nanji, but at a cost.

"It unnecessarily emboldened people who thought the words in it were a tool with which to beat the West over the head," he said.

"For a while it plunged the study of Islam into an adversarial climate."

This brought Nanji to the present and future of the study of Islam. He recently participated in a worldwide survey of the study of Islam in the West and within the Muslim world.

"The survey showed that the study of Islam is thriving — it is unfocused, but thriving," he said. More scholars from Muslim countries are studying in the West and bringing new techniques to their home countries.

In the West, more faculties of religion and divinity schools are appointing Islamic scholars to their ranks. Nanji himself has accepted a visiting fellowship to Stanford University, which is increasing its efforts in this field.

One drawback to teaching Islam in a university setting is the almost total lack of knowledge undergraduate students have of the field. A program at a high school in Michigan to incorporate aspects of Islamic culture into different courses (teaching the Ottoman Empire as part of European history, for example) proved to be very effective, according to Nanji.

These are promising signs, but not necessarily a dominant trend.

"I think the study of Muslims will always be bedevilled by contemporary concerns," he said.

"There is no one Islam to be discovered. There are many sayings of the Prophet that say this is a journey."

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