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Contemporary Islam

Contemporary Islam

Dynamics of Muslim Life

Editor-in-Chief: Ronald Lukens-Bull

ISSN: 1872-0218 (print version)
ISSN: 1872-0226 (electronic version)

Journal no. 11562

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New Directions on Theories and Methods in Social Sciences Approaches to Islam

On the tenth anniversary of Contemporary Islam, it is my great pleasure to present this virtual issue, "New Directions on Theories and Methods in Social Sciences Approaches to Islam.” It is drawn from pages of the journal from its first 10 years. When the journal was launched, Founding Editor, Gabriele Marranci had the vision for an internationally respected journal that focused on social sciences approaches to Islam. In recent years, Daniel Varisco was instrumental in moving that vision forward. We owe Professors Marranci and Varisco a debt of gratitude for giving a community of scholars a focal journal.

One of the on-going concerns of this journal has been exploring new theoretical and methodological approaches. Divorced from these concerns, the study of contemporary Muslim life is little more that travelogue or news reportage. It is with this in mind, that we offer a selection of articles from the past ten years that highlight and expand methodological and theoretical concerns. The articles are presented chronologically.

Lost in a sea of subjectivity: the subject position of the researcher in the anthropology of Islam
The first article, was written for the second issue of the journal, and examines some of the illustrative features of doing participant observation research with Muslims both in the field and back “home.” It interrogates the balance between being a participant and an observation in field work and raises a number of ethical concerns in ethnographic research. It examines how a researcher’s religious subjectivity was important to my research in a number of ways including: (1) the ways in which a community tries to define the researcher’s subjectivity; (2) the nature of the researcher’s personal religious subjectivity; and (3) academic interpretations of the researcher role and subject position vis-à-vis Islam and the profession of anthropology.
The meta-theory of piety: reflections on the work of Saba Mahmood
In the second article, Julius Bautista discusses the extent to which Saba Mahmood’s ideas about Muslim women and agency are relevant for works beyond her ethnographic specialty. The first part will reflect upon her arguments about Muslim female piety within the larger context of progressive politics in the USA and the Middle East. The second part will describe the implications of Mahmood’s work towards the production of alternative discourses—that is, works inspired by and produced from outside the overarching influence of a Euro-American intellectual tradition.
Heavy metal Muslims: the rise of a post-Islamist public sphere
In the third article, Mark Levine explores the emergence of new, youth-oriented public spheres in the Middle East and North Africa through the lens of the burgeoning extreme music scenes across the region. I argue that the seeming incongruity of genres such as extreme heavy metal or gangsta rap becoming popular in the Muslim world is a reminder of the diversity of contemporary Islam; more deeply, it reveals that the borders between religious belief and seemingly secular practices in Muslim societies are increasingly porous, with politically marginalized young metalheads and their more activist religious peers sharing many of the same societal goals. These are greater autonomy and even democracy, the right for tolerance of divergent views, and the rejection of the hypocrisy, corruption and authoritarianism of their leaders. I conclude with an analysis of the political implications of a still tentative rapprochement between ostensibly secular artists and the religious forces who less than a decade ago were spearheading their persecution, and in some cases prosecution, across the region.
Geographical contributions to understanding contemporary Islam: current trends and future directions
Peter Hopkins’s 2009 article discusses the contribution of geography to the study of contemporary Islam. He argues that In recent years, geographers have been giving increasing attention to religion—and Islam in particular—yet such work is rarely referred to within the broader social science literature about Islam and Muslims. This paper seeks to promote interdisciplinary dialogue, discussion and debate by highlighting the contributions that human geographers are making to understandings of contemporary Islam. In particular, I draw upon research within urban, social, cultural and feminist geographies to review current trends within geographical scholarship about Muslims individuals and communities. I then use this paper to suggest ways in which interdisciplinary research—in collaboration with human geographers—might seek to advance contemporary understandings of the social and spatial experiences of Muslim families and communities. I propose that a focus upon households, nations and intersections offer potential avenues for future research, whilst also highlighting the importance of thinking critically about the methodological issues involved in understanding contemporary Islam
Goliath and David in Gaza: Indonesian myth-building and conflict as a cultural system
In 2011, Ronald Lukens-Bull and Mark Woodward wrote about Indonesian discourse about Palestine. The ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a well-established part of Indonesian religion-political discourse. Anti-Zionism if not outright anti-Semitism is foundational; Israel has few friends in Indonesia. Various media reactions to the 2008–2009 Gaza attacks are placed within wider ethnographic and linguistic contexts to explore how news is spun in a cultural system of conflict. In becoming part of a cultural system of conflict, discourses about Israel take on the properties of myth.
Islamic piety and masculinity
Geoffrey Samuel revisits Barbara Metcalf’s suggestion that a well-known contemporary Islamic movement of pietistic inclinations, the Tabligh-i Jama’at, acted in effect to produce a gentler, more feminized male Muslim identity among its adherents. Some other contemporary Islamic movements have similar tendencies. Ritual practices among the Hijaz Community, a mostly Pakistani organization in the British Midlands, for example, are explicitly aimed to produce a gentler, less aggressive orientation among their followers. Can we see these new movements as part of the evolution of new forms of masculinity among Muslim men, both in Muslim-majority and diasporic populations? I explore this question through field research carried out as part of an ESRC-funded research project on young Muslims in the UK and Bangladesh.
The political crowd: Theorizing popular revolt in North Africa
When possible and appropriate the journal address the change dynamics of Muslim societies including major political events. Andrea Khalil’s article addresses popular revolt in North Africa. It uses an interdisciplinary approach to show why Western social scientific explanations of political crowds in North Africa and the Arab Middle East have failed to provide an understanding of the causes and effects of popular revolt. I trace these misunderstandings to an inherited body of European writings on crowd theory and on Islamic and Muslim political power. Some scholars who have also criticized mainstream analysis of the so-called “Arab Street” are shown as relevant to a new understanding of political crowds.
What makes a good minority Muslim? Educational policy and the paradoxes of Muslim schooling in Uganda
Dorothea Schulz examines the interplay between Muslim schooling and being a “Good Minority Muslim.” In casual conversation, Muslims in Uganda would initially assert that there was no discrimination on religious grounds in Uganda. However, further conversations about education and the conversion of former president Yusuf Lule who, following his enrollment at King’s College Budo, an elite school shaped by its missionary legacy, converted to Christianity. Lule’s conversion, it turned out, bears an emblematic significance for many Ugandan Muslims today. It captures their fears of, and actual tendency toward, Muslims’ conversion to Christianity, in a country in which various Protestant denominations have made great inroads in recent years in converting Ugandans (among them, President Museveni’s wife and daughter) to ‘the right way’. Simultaneously, however, Lule’s conversion was remembered as a turning point in Muslim consciousness in Uganda; as an event that prompted Muslim parents across the socio-economic, regional and ethnic divides to “discover” the crucial importance of school education for Muslims; an education that would allow them to raise their children as both observant Muslims and as well-instructed citizens capable of moving ahead in the political hierarchy. Lule’s conversion, in other words, today stands at once for Muslims’ anxieties about the influences and pressures of a Christian-inflected education and for the specific remedy by which they seek to counter their fears. Rather than engaging in mobilization to publicly call for a political solution to their sense of marginality, the majority of Muslims in Uganda opt for individual, silent solutions to the problem. In so doing, Muslim parents frame the problem itself primarily as a moral, personal issue; as a matter of ensuring one’s children’s faith and moral rectitude, rather than as a matter of collective structural disadvantage that makes it more difficult for Muslims to enjoy full rights as citizens of the Ugandan nation-state.
Individual agency through imagining transnational community: converting to Islam in Modern China
In the final article in this virtual issue, Alexander Steward examines subjective, social, and transnational aspects of conversion to Islam in modern China by examining the “conversion careers” of seven “new Muslims” who reside in and around Xining, Qinghai Province. Examining their experiences that include pre-conversion socialization, initial encounters with Islam, study of the faith, conversion, and expressions of a new Muslim identity reveals a complex interaction between sociocultural circumstances and individual agency. Rather than gradually succumbing to local ideas of Islamic orthodoxy or passively obeying religious authorities, converts study Islamic texts, form a variety of interpretations, and express their newfound belief in various individual and collective ways that often conflict with social expectations, local Islamic norms, and moral authority of the Chinese state. Converts draw confidence to pursue these conversion careers by believing in the universality of their faith and imagining themselves as part of a transnational community that shares their interpretations of Islam. Thus, conversion to Islam can be seen as compatible with, or even the product of, modern trends of increasing rationality, individual agency, and transnational identity.
Taken as a whole, the articles in this virtual issue examine some of the most important issues is the social scientific study of Islam including underused methodologies, ethical concerns, gender, popular revolts, education and conversion. It is our hope that making these articles available in a virtual issue that they can be read and used by scholars everywhere to reflect on major methodological, ethical, and theoretical concerns in our field.

Ronald Lukens-Bull, PhD

Professor of Anthropology and Religious Studies, University of North Florida
Editor-in-Chief, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life

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  • Aims and Scope

    Aims and Scope


    The importance to study and understand Islam and contemporary Muslim life from a socio-scientific perspective seems more relevant than ever. Currently, there is no specific journal that offers a platform for discussion on contemporary aspects of Islam and Muslims. Indeed, the historical, political and comparative approach to Islam has been preferred over social scientific research and themes. Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life aims to fill this gap by providing an active forum for the discussion of new ideas, fieldwork experiences, challenging views, and methodological and theoretical approaches to Muslim life.       

    Topical and interdisciplinary
    Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life focuses on topical issues and takes an interdisciplinary approach that benefits from a cross-cultural perspective: articles will explore the relationship between Islam and its contemporary cultural, material, gender, economic, political, and religious expressions from different socio-scientific perspectives, such as anthropology, sociology, education, politics, international relations, ethnomusicology, arts, film studies, economics, human rights, international law, diaspora minority studies, demography, and ethics.

    The journal provides insights into the contemporary dynamics of Muslim life by focusing on questions concerning ordinary aspects of everyday life of Muslims as well as more systemic concerns.  The journal focuses on what Muslims actually do rather than what one reading or another of the texts suggest that they should do.  Papers on the lived experiences of Muslim  in both Muslim minority and Muslim Majority contexts are encouraged. Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life regards Islam as a modern religion in today’s global societies.

    Readership and Editorial Board
    As the first socio-scientific journal to focus on Muslim life, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life will be of interest to scholars and students in various academic fields related to the world of Islam. The editorial board reflects the multidisciplinary approach of the journal.

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