German Orientalism

    Towards Trialogue: On the Future of Islamic Studies

    The field of study that devotes itself to researching the Islamic world is a behemoth. The spectrum of subjects, disciplines, methods and historical epochs it sets out to cover is far too broad to be researched and taught within a single context. The absurdity of its claim is immediately proven if one imagines a counterpart to Islamic studies. A single subject dealing with the religion, culture, history, language, ancient and modern literature, philosophy, current political reality, music, theatre, law, history of the sciences, as well as all other aspects relevant to the humanities and social sciences of all Christian denominations, continents, nations and ethnic minorities, not only in Europe but throughout the world, and which does so under the auspices of a title such as 'Christian Studies' or 'Christian Sciences' – i.e. under the implicit assumption that all these phenomena are connected to religion and should be studied with this in mind. If at the start of the 19th century a scholar could still more or less keep track of the available source texts and pieces of research on the subject, no Islamic scholar can cover the entire spectrum nowadays, and very few still attempt to do so.

    The problems registered in relation to the subject of Islamic studies – as with other regional studies, which are not, however, burdened with the additional ballast of carrying the reference to religion in their titles – can by now hardly be contested. Consideration has also, and especially, been made of how disastrously the religious-theological label under which the subject operates has affected the public image of those cultures on which Islam was a formative influence. Since early Oriental Studies treated Islam as an autonomous anthropological entity to which Muslims are meekly obedient, and declared the Muslims' religion to be the cause of their inferiority and incapability of structural reform, Muslim prehistory has become a pattern of interpretation for the present as well. In a startling analogy to Islamist conclusions, it was assumed that there was an Islamic 'original state', and the history and culture are observed primarily in terms of the degree to which they are seen to correspond to the early Islamic norm, or have led to deviation from it. Phenomena, discourses and trends not determined by religion were thus almost automatically interpreted as heterodox, instead of being perceived as possessing the kind of autonomy that would be ascribed, for example, to Shakespeare, the Second World War, or the phenomenology of the mind, all of which certainly have a religious dimension, but which cannot be reduced to this alone, let alone understood solely through reference to the Bible. This essentialist view has long been called into question within the field of Islamic studies, but it still dominates in many areas of public representation. The Islamic scholar Aziz al-Azmeh sees here 'almost a kind of complicity between Western commentators and Islamic ideologues', as on both sides the original explanation of every phenomenon in the Islamic world is found in the religious source texts (Die Islamisierung des Islams [The Islamisation of Islam], Frankfurt 1996). An observation of such normativeness, if applied to the history and present day of the 'Christian world', would discredit itself in the making.

    Occasionally explicitly, at any rate implicitly, most German Islamic scholars try to escape the religious determination implicit in the name of their field of study in that they regard themselves simply as regional experts for the Middle East. The religious and literary source texts are dealt with in the basic course of study, or are often merely touched upon; after this they only play a major role for those – ever fewer – students and teachers who focus on theological or cultural questions.

    Such specialisation in isolated, largely independent areas within the field of Islamic studies which often have nothing further to do with Islam itself appears unavoidable, not least for financial reasons, but for the most part it is taking place without reflection. It is not indebted to any concept, but rather to the limited attendance capacity of individual seminars, as well as to the public expectation that answers be given to topical political questions.

    The fact that Islamic studies research in its various orientations is today conducted primarily as a regional study means that Germany – somewhat later than the United States – has the problem of area studies looming on the horizon. Whereas the – in their own opinion, universal - systematic disciplines such as history, literature, theology and law, measured according to their own empirical repertoire, have become particular western European regional disciplines, research into the rest of the world is delegated to institutionally poorly equipped and methodologically overburdened disciplines such as Islamic, African or Asian studies.

    The consequences of this development are worrying in two respects. For a long time Islamic scholars took note at best in passing of the pivotal publications arousing attention within their respective core disciplines, and often lagged decades behind in their methodology, line of questioning and even in their style. Anthologies that dealt with Arabic or Persian literature with ostentatious naivety, referring not even in footnotes to contemporary discussion in the general literary realm, were and remain as much a part of the picture as philologists of classical Arabic who are compelled to comment on current political events in the media simply so as not to leave the field entirely to those journalistic ‘experts’ who compensate for their inadequate linguistic and historical knowledge with inflammatory prejudice. The branch of Islamic studies orientated towards the social sciences has been the most successful in making contact with the discussion within the relevant core disciplines; the growing attractiveness of research into Islamic social sciences, as manifested by the awarding of chairs and by the number of students, must also be explicable in that it as begun to communicate its relevance beyond the borders of its own subject. (...)

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    By Navid Kermani

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