The Other Within and the Self Without : encounters of Muslim and Western traditions in the study of religion

Akram, Muhammad

This study is an investigation into the mutual perceptions of Muslim and western learned traditions in the study of religion. The dissertation is divided into three parts corresponding to its three central research questions. These questions are as follows. Firstly, does the emergence and development of the study of religion in both knowledge traditions relate to encounter with religious or cultural otherness, and if yes, how? Secondly, how the disciplinary self-perceptions bear on the western perceptions of the Muslim study of religions on the one hand and the Muslim views of the western religious studies on the other? Lastly, what sort of reflexivity, reciprocity, and mutuality has emerged, if any, as the result of encounters of the two knowledge traditions, especially after the mid-twentieth century? Theoretically, the study draws on ‘symbolic interactionism’ ascribed to George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) for interpretation of the self-other dialectics. Occasionally, the study refers to the distinction of ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ standpoints that the American linguist and anthropologist Kenneth L. Pike (1912-2000) introduced with reference to understanding of human behaviour in cross-cultural settings. The terms imply understanding of cultural system from within and without, respectively. Symbolic interactionism and the notion of etic and emic standpoints are used mainly for synchronic analysis. The idea of ‘invention of traditions’ propounded by the British sociologist Eric Hobsbawm is employed to take account of the Muslim tradition of study of religions in its diachronic dimension and to analyse how Muslim intellectuals identify themselves with the Muslim legacy of the study of religion (al-milal wa al-niḥal) on the one hand and how they respond to the modern approaches in religious studies on the other. The disciplinary identity of the contemporary Western religious studies is seen as an outcome of the broader conditions of modernity and the engagement of Western thinkers with religious otherness. With scholars like Hans G. Kippenberg, it is maintained that religious studies underscored an ambivalent relationship between scientific progress and the pervasiveness of religion, accepting the existential importance of religion but rejecting its claim to ultimate truth. On the other hand, the emergence and development of al-milal wa al-niḥal legacy is viewed both with reference to the Qur’ānic worldview and as an outcome of the encounters with other religious traditions which the Muslim civilization went through in its history. It is argued that the Qur’ānic view of religions combines the elements of negation and affirmation with regard to other religions, especially Christianity and Judaism. The resultant ambivalence towards other religions generates and sustains the interest in different religions and at the same time makes their objectification possible. Thus, certain Muslim scholars such as al-Bīrūnī (362/973–443/1048) and al-Shahrastānī (479/1086-553/1153) found an epistemological framework through which they could approach the plurality of religions rationally and present it descriptively. Such Muslim scholars employed the hermeneutical tools and historiography which had already developed in the Muslim intellectual history when various branches of knowledge emerged and culminated into a variety of distinct disciplines. In the second part, Western perceptions of the Muslim study of religions are classified into three broader types, that are, reception of the classical Muslim texts on religions in the course of the movement of editing oriental manuscripts. The media of these perceptions has been introduction, prefaces, and forewords to the edited manuscripts as well as marginal notes. The next phase witnessed detailed studies of individual Muslim writers on other religions. More recently, a variety of systematic and interpretive studies have appeared that venture to make an overall assessment of the Muslim study of religions. It is noticed that in general the Anglo-American scholars show comparatively greater willingness to accept the alternative scholarly models for the study of religions as credible. The continental European scholars tend to cherish the spirit of scientific inquiry reminiscent of the foundations of disciplinary landscape that emerged during the Enlightenment. On the other side, contemporary Muslim approaches and responses to religious studies, too, are divided into three categories. The first approach can be seen as the ‘(re)invention of tradition’ as selective elements of the past al-milal wa al-niḥal scholarship are used to conceptualize the Muslim religious studies. Some other Muslim scholars have taken adoptive stance towards religious studies as they discuss the situation and prospects of this discipline in Muslim countries. Finally, there are a few Muslim intellectuals who have critiqued religious studies at a variety of theoretical levels. It is noted that although this group of scholars criticises the discipline of religious studies from quite different theoretical positions, they share the concern that it is deeply embedded in secularism. Moreover, it is noticed that in all instances of the second-order Muslim reflections on the study of religion the “West” stands for the Other, which sometimes proves to be catalyst in creative developments, while in the instance of excessive othering leads to regression of the creative intellectual activity. In the third and last part it has been noted that the contemporary encounters between Muslim and Western knowledge traditions have been instrumental in developing some instances of reflexivity, reciprocity, and mutuality with regard to the discipline of religious studies. Generally, Noticeable arenas of reflexivity, reciprocity, and mutuality include - in the order of magnitude of the development- the theory and method debate, media of scholarship, institutional contexts, and formulation of categories. It is noted that scholars like Basit Bilal Koshul, Arvind Sharma, and Brodeur are trying to develop models of mutually shared intellectual spaces which can be seen as embodiment of the ideal: The Other within and the Self without. Finally, it is concluded that analogously to the identity of social agents, the disciplinary identity of religious studies emerges over against the perceived Other. However, the sheer necessity of other for acquisition of self identity generates ambivalence towards the Other. Such ambivalence lies at the heart of second-order mutual perceptions of Muslim and Western traditions in the study of religion.  


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Akram, Muhammad: The Other Within and the Self Without. encounters of Muslim and Western traditions in the study of religion. 2013.

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