“Islam and Religious Identity: The Limits of Definition”

CPA_16-17_Sufi_Tag_200pxThis event is one of two conferences to be held in conjunction with the 2016-2017 season of Carolina Performing Arts (CPA)  at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The CPA season will include a festival on Sufism titled “Sacred/Secular: A Sufi Journey.” Read more about this program here. The conference is free and open to the public.

Recent decades of research in historical, cultural, and social studies of religion have produced a body of scholarship on the construction and development of religious identities that seriously questions essentialist claims about the unchanging nature of religions. Nonetheless, essentialist notions of religions as unchanging entities are remarkably persistent, and relations between supposedly unchanging religions are generally conceived in terms of categories that are simplistic, exclusive, and totalizing. Religions are commonly imbued with agency as if they were conscious entities (“Islam says that ….”). Highly metaphorical concepts (syncretism, influence and borrowing, survivals) portray religions as entities that are by definition separate, so any overlaps or similar features are problematic. The legacy of the Protestant Reformation, combined with European imperialism, produced the concept of multiple competing religions that are inherently in conflict. These categories have been reinforced by modern instruments of state such as the census, constitutions, elections, and the courts in ways that solidify boundaries between religions; colonial and neocolonial interventions have been particularly effective in hardening competitive religious identities.

These questions of religious definition are particularly acute when the field of study includes Islam. A template of standardized religious categories, derived from the history of Christianity, was applied to Islam by colonial administrators and elaborated by Orientalist scholars. At the same time, debates with Christian missionaries familiarized Muslim thinkers with European concepts of religion. The displacement of traditional education by European schools was accompanied by the introduction of printed books and the spread of literacy. Reformist movements arose, armed with powerful new concepts of Islam as anti-colonial identity, which entailed the rejection of traditional legal schools as well as the mediation of Sufi saints. Indeed, Islam was reconceived as a world religion, pitted mainly against Christianity in a contest for global domination. Recent enumerations of religious groups by demographers (Pew Research) point to a future where Christianity and, increasingly, Islam are the main identities.

In contrast to the abstract notion of religious essences, case studies and focused analyses of religion and culture reveal a picture that is not so simple. The numerous examples of people, whether historic or contemporary, whose religious life does not fit in a single category pose a challenge to religious authorities who demand strict consistency in belief and practice; in the same way, such confounding examples present a problem to students of religion whose textbooks offer no room to account for evident exceptions. The ubiquitous fallback category, “None of the above,” is an admission of the inevitable limitations of this systematic approach to classification. Yet there is a distance separating the prescriptive decrees of theologians (and politicians) from the descriptive accounts of scholars who have no stake in directing the behavior of believers. To declare that unexpected religious phenomena are somehow inauthentic begs the question of how accurate current categories are. How should the academic study of religion deal with the tensions between received categories and the cases that don’t really fit?

The workshop on “Islam and Religious Identity” invites presentations on the problem of representing examples of religious behavior, community, or faith that fall outside of conventional expectations. This conference is conceived as a multidisciplinary event drawing on the disciplines of religious studies, history, literature, and anthropology.

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