Previous Session: What is Islam?

In the first of our more theoretical Majlis roundtables, we confront the core problem of Islamic studies: what is Islam? And how can we know what Islam is? The complexity of this problem is normally confounded by political questions. Is there some sort of propensity to violence within Islam? Is the so-called Islamic State really Islamic? Are liberal democracy and Islam incompatible? For the Muslim, the questions may have a different poignancy. Is the veil a sign of a Muslim’s piety, submission, empowerment, or some mixture thereof? What is the relation between Sharia law and the nation-state’s law? In our second session we will return to the more concrete political question of the sect. But in this our first session on Islam we will concentrate on the various approaches we might take to understand Islam. We propose to do this by isolating a set of more focussed inquiries at the core of the problem. We therefore ask:

  • Does it matter who is asking this question? Does the answer change if you are a Muslim, a Christian, or an atheist philosopher?
  • What is this object that we are trying to define? Is Islam an object of subjective belief, a fixed doctrine, a social movement, a tradition, or an ineffable experience?
  • For what purpose are we asking this question? For political or ideological reasons (eg. to condemn or endorse a particular social movement)? For analytical reasons (eg. to trace the relation between secular law and ‘Islamic’ law in colonial Egypt)? For legal reasons (eg. to exempt a religious group from certain taxes)?

Joining us for the discussion is Professor James Piscatori. He is the author of Muslim Politics (2004, Princeton University Press), amongst other works, as well as the co-editor of Muslim Travellers (1990, University of California Press). Currently a Professor at CAIS, he has worked at several universities in the UK and the US. In the UK, he was Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford; and Professor of International Politics in the University of Aberystwyth.  He was an Associate Professor in the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.  He has also been Senior Fellow at two research institutions — the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London and the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.  He was also part of the Committee for the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies of the Social Science Research Council and served on other international collaborative committees.

Session will be held on Friday, 5 August in the Centre for Arab Islamic Studies Tutorial Room at 11am.


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