Hasan Azad (Columbia University, New York, NY): “ ‘Internetic Islam’: (Re)Configuring Islamic Authority through Facebook and Email”11: 00 – 11:15 a.m. Break
Abstract / Final Paper / Bio
Jacquelene Brinton (University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS): “The Changing Nature of Mediated Authority: Youtube and Conversion Performances” Abstract / Bio
Habiba Boumlik (LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, NY): “Feminist Theology: Media and Authority"
Abstract / Bio
Daniel P. Wolk (University of Chicago, IL): “ ‘Good’ and “Bad Aghas” as Persistent Models of Authority in Iraqi Kurdistan”
Abstract / Final Paper / Bio
Mirjam Künkler (Princeton University, Princeton, NJ): “Female Religious Authority in Shi ‘i Islam”
Abstract / Bio
Joshua M. Roose (Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia): “Muslim Elites: The New Islamic Political and Religious Authority in the West?” Abstract / Bio
In the Shadow of Textual Authority
Chair: Mucahit Bilici, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, NY
Discussant: Najam Iftikhar Haider, Barnard College, Columbia University, New York, NY
4:10 – 4:30 p.m.
Maria R. Volpe, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, NY
“The Concept of Authority in Muslim Societies:
Political, Religious, Social and Literary”
The 43rd Annual Conference of the North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies (NAAIMS) was cosponsored and hosted by Columbia University’s Middle East Institute on September 20, 2014. The three panel sessions of this year’s event were structured around distinctive aspects of the conference theme: “The Concept of Authority in Muslim Societies: Political, Religious, Social and Literary.”
In her welcoming remarks, the Conference Program Chair, Lila Abu-Lughod (Director, Middle East Institute (MEI), Columbia University, New York, NY) expressed Columbia University’s honor in cosponsoring this event due to the “renewed energy and vision [its] current faculty brings to the subject.” She also noted that since MEI has recently taken over the MA program in Islamic Studies, hosting the conference was a “wonderful way to launch this initiative.” In her introductory remarks, NAAIMS Treasurer, Maria R. Volpe (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, NY), welcomed all on behalf of the NAAIMS Board of Directors and commented on the timely theme given the global dialogue after the Arab Spring on human rights and constitutions. She thanked Lila and her program committee for an “awesome job in selecting the panelists and defining a terrific program schedule.” Finally, she expressed everyone’s gratitude to Layla Sein (NAAIMS Director of Academic Affairs) for the “extraordinary effort she makes each year in organizing the annual conferences and paying attention to all of the details to ensure a first-rate conference for all.”
These three panel sessions sparked animated discussions after each panel session during the question and answer periods (Q & A) by an engaged audience of established and junior scholars, including Ph.D. candidates. The following are among the questions addressed by the presentations and analyzed by the discussants: How does the digital age examine and authenticate forms of Islamic authority? Does repackaging knowledge provide credible and convincing forms to reshape Islamic authority? What types of platforms are able to effectively inspire the reshaping and reforming of Islamic authority? Where do Muslims find authority, and how do they define it?
The first panel, “New Media and Technologies of Authority,” which was moderated by the chair, Maria R. Volpe (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, NY), featured Hasan Azad (Columbia University, New York, NY), Jacquelene Brinton (University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS), and Habiba Boumlik (LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, NY). Brian Larkin (Barnard College, New York, NY) served as the discussant. The panelists examined how social media has changed the face of authority in Muslim societies by introducing powerful platforms through which Islamic thought is perceived.
According to the discussant, Brian Larkin, although the most credible authority in the digital age is the one who can sway people’s actions and decisions, it is important to distinguish and understand the vehicle used to deliver knowledge as well as the content of the message. Larkin suggested the use of a tripartite model that includes platform, content of a message and its form when reviewing the ways in which authority in Islam is communicated on the internet.
In his presentation on “Internetic Islam: (Re)Configuring Islamic Authority through Facebook and Email,” Hasan Azad examined how “new interpretive communities of Western-educated Muslim scholars are challenging and reshaping traditional ulematic (scholastic) authority in the digital sphere." Although his detailed analysis on how Western education and norms have influenced and restructured the terms of debate, Azad noted that traditional ulematic authority is also becoming fragmented due to increased sites of interpretation offered through email and Facebook discussion groups.
Jacquelene Brinton examined the influential electronic platform that Youtube and “conversion performances” play in reshaping Islamic thought in her presentation “The Changing Nature of Mediated Authority: Youtube and Conversion performances.” She examined the authoritative role of preachers in their transmission of religious knowledge. She argued that this digital medium has provided “a shift from credentialed institutional personages to how an orator is perceived” with her analysis of the authority that American Muslim Youtube orator Yusef Estes receives in his performances to convert Christians to Islam. She states that this is based on his “emotional demonstration of the superiority of Islam, instead through instruction and exhortation.” This reinforces the discussant’s commentary on the importance of platforms or mediums through which authority is conveyed or transmitted. She maintained that “the spread of new religious movements and the breakdown of ulama institutions have meant that the spectrum of authority has changed due to the presence of compelling authoritative alternatives. With electronic media those fissures have increased, placing viewer preference at the forefront of effective discourse.”
Habiba Boumlik’s presentation on “Feminist Theology: Media and Authority” sheds light on how digital media is used by Islamist feminist movements to challenge the traditional understanding of male authority. She examined how Asmae Lamrabet, Moroccan medical doctor and sociologist, has used new media technologies that “contribute to [the formulation of] a new theological discourse by questioning concepts that structure traditional Islamic thought, and investigating points of reference that govern the conception of the sacred.” In her analysis, Boumlik referenced how feminist movements have advanced the Islamist feminist-hermeneutic evolution in the Maghreb, and helped increase “the presence of women in the field of knowledge and decision-making in the legal sphere.” She added that “Lamrabet’s use of new media technology amplifies her approach [in] … widening the conversation, raising awareness, and lifting taboos in addressing authority and patriarchy.” Boumlik’s presentation also added another dimension to this vibrant and spirited discussion in her reference to the dominant role that blogs play in today’s media forum. She briefly referred to the impressive role that Tunisian activist Olfa Youssef plays in this forum by stating that Youssef views “blogs as a form of archives for future generations … [and believes] the blogosphere has helped tremendously in spreading the ideas and concepts of Muslim feminists and connect minds."S:"
These presentations sparked a brilliantly animated and lively discussion during the Q & A session which followed. Although it was noted that social media (Facebook) played a pivotal and mobilizing role during the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa (Tunisia and Egypt), it was argued that the changing nature of authenticity comes into focus because of the textual nature of the internet. The commentary by Corri Zoli (Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY) characterizes “social media discussions about Islamic authority linked to texts, figures, movements and/or events [as being] excessively decontextualized [which] makes tracking sources of authority extremely difficult.”
Liyakat Takim (McMaster University, Canada) brought up another most inquisitive and probing argument on the persuasive role of social media pertaining to “closing the gate of ijtihad” by explaining that since most people don’t really understand the processes or principles that govern the concept of ijtihad how do “reformers understand this concept and how can reformation take place through social media venues [email and Facebook discussion groups] and reshape traditional “ulematic” authority?”
In his response to this touchy and technical question, Hasan Azad quoted Wael Hallaq (Columbia University, NY) by stating that “Hallaq has convincingly argued and demonstrated that the idea of ‘the closing of the gate of ijtihad’ was/is an Orientalist invention.” Azad noted that “the gate(s) of ijtihad were never closed, and this holds true for the Sunnis and the Shias.” He further noted that it is important to “examine and interrogate the ways in which this Orientalist idea is taken up by Muslim thinkers and non-Muslim commentators alike, while examining the political and intellectual consequences.”
The second panel, “Beyond Conventional Authorities,” which was moderated by the chair, Maria Massi Dakake (George Mason University, Fairfax, VA), consisted of presentations by Daniel P. Wolk (University of Chicago, Chicago, IL), Mirjam Künkler (Princeton University, Princeton, NJ), and Joshua M. Roose (Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia). Katherine P. Ewing (Columbia University, New York, NY) served as the discussant.
In his presentation “Good and Bad Aghas as Persistent Models of Authority in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Daniel Wolk examined models of authority in a Muslim society that defined the leadership patterns used by Kurds in Iraq. He examined how people see certain leaders as if they were “good Aghas”, tribal elders who possess traits, such as generosity, humility and a sense of fairness that serve the interests of their local groups, and identified traits such as plundering, grasping self-aggrandizement, and being a lowly, out-of-step outsider, which Kurds attribute to certain leaders as if they were old-style “bad Aghas” who were bent only on their own personal benefits.
The question arose during the discussion how President Masoud Barzani could be construed as a “bad Agha,” as Wolk seemed to suggest, in spite of the good impressions Barzani has made recently in the Western media. Although Wolk argued that he meant to portray him as being controversial, some people talk about him as if he were a “bad Agha,” while others harp on his traits that make him appear as a “good Agha.” Accounting for the numerous attitudes local people entertain toward their leaders seemed to be the essence of the presentation.
In her presentation on “Female Religious Authority in Shi’i Islam,” Mirjam Künkler (Princeton University, NJ) identified the jurisprudential developments and socio-economic conditions that either promoted or obstructed female religious authority in Shi’i Islam. The panel discussant, Katherine Ewing, raised the question whether research should now aim to generate a quantitative survey of works by female religious authorities. Mirjam Künkler believed that what was most needed at this time were more detailed case studies of individual female religious authorities that could assess the scope and quality of women’s religious authority in their respective environments. She explains that while quantitative surveys of muhaddithat in the biographical dictionaries already existed, the literature on other forms of religious authority, such as sheikhas, qadiyas and faqihas was much less developed. She argued that the “significant role of women participating in, and reshaping the scholarly tradition through the centuries is still hardly reflected in either Western scholarly or public perceptions.”
During a spirited Q &A discussion, Künkler argued that “in order to arrive at a more accurate understanding of the scope of a particular woman's religious authority in a time and place, as well as its limits, we first need to understand what the designation 'faqiha' means in late 13th century Cairo compared to early 15th century Baghdad, for example, or what 'mujtahida' means in mid-19th century Qazvin compared to late 20th century Qom.”
In his presentation “Muslim Elites: The New Islamic Political and Religious Authority in the West,” Joshua Roose uses modern business and economic terminology to describe the activities of Islamic experts. He analyzes financial instruments applied in modern finance and Islamic banking to explain how Western-born Muslims (specializing in the field of trade and finance) represent the “Muslim elites.” He states that these elites identify “… opportunities for the application of Islamic principles to the free market … [and develop] mechanisms as Islamic finance, Islamic wills, marriage contracts, business- and context-specific solutions for Muslim clients.” This presentation actually echoes an idea presented by Hasan Azad in the previous session about the significance that Western education and knowledge has experienced in reconfiguring today’s models of authority in Muslim societies.
This panel was followed by Khaled Fahmy’s (American University in Cairo, Egypt) luncheon keynote address “Islamist Claims about the Authority of Shari’ah.” As a historian of modern Egypt, Fahmy analyzed how Westernization, and colonialism, in particular, “dealt serious blows to the authority of Shari’ah.” His address focused primarily on Egypt’s “two most significant Islamist players: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis.” He outlines how those Islamists claim that whether it is with regards to “legislation and governance, morality and family life, or culture and social customs … Shari’ah has lost the authority it once had in Muslim societies. In addition to examining the impact of colonialism on traditional Islamic authority, his presentation analyzes the “two groups’ invocation of Shari’ah with respect to … codification of criminal law and Hisba, which derives from the Qur’anic principle of commanding right and forbidding wrong.”
The third panel session, “In the Shadow of Textual Authority,” which was chaired by Mucahit Bilici ( John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, NY), included presentations by Emad Hamdeh (Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ), Maria M. Dakake (George Mason University, Fairfax, VA), Corri Zoli (Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY), and Liyakat Takim (McMaster University, Ontario, Canada).This panel session, where Najam Iftikhar Haider (Barnard College, New York, NY) served as the discussant, was very important since it illustrated how Muslims find authority in textual interpretation.
The examination of how textual interpretation elucidates a clear distinction between Salafism and traditionalism is highlighted by Emad Hamdeh in his presentation “Tug of War: Interpretive Authority between Salafism and Traditionalism.” He believes that “Islam may be witnessing a reshaping similar to Christianity’s Protestant Reformation which stripped interpretive authority from religious institutions and empowered individual interpretation.” Hamdeh defines “Muhammad Nasir al-Din al-Albani’s (d. 1999) brand ofSalafism [as] a movement critical of traditionalist institutions,” since traditionalism follows that which is rooted in revelation. He argues that “Traditionalists interpret scripture through the scholarly class, while Salafis believe scripture is clear and speaks for itself.”
Hamdeh examines the “context of the spiritually charged rhetoric against, and in defense of particular hermeneutical methods to explain the appeal and authority of modern Salafism. He contends that “Albani’s brand of Salafism lies in the anti-hierarchical and individually empowering hermeneutics of this religious tradition.”
The following question was raised during the discussion: “Where do Muslims find authority, and how do they define authority?” Hamdeh responded by noting that Traditionalists tend to find authority in the interpretation of the scholarly class as a group, i.e. a madhhab, while Salafis tend to find it in the text itself. Hence, Albani denies that he is interpreting texts and insists that his conclusions are not his own, but those of the text.
This was followed by Maria M. Dakake’s presentation “The Moral Authority of Self and Community in the Qur’an” where she states that the “Qur’an does recognize certain bases for hierarchy among people – most explicitly piety (taqwa), but more commonly knowledge (ilm)” [and concludes that] “moral authority on the human plane (absent the presence of a prophet) should be vested in the pious learned scholars (‘ulama’).” Her presentation ultimately endorses that the “Qur’an vests moral authority in both the individual and the community … and makes it clear that the authority of the one can and should always act as a check on, and guide for, the other.”
Corri Zoli’s examination of “Shari’ah Density in Post-Arab Spring Constitutions: The Landscape of Post Conflict Authority and Transition” highlights another dimension on how Muslims reference Islamic principles to authenticate authority in politically-charged conflict settings. She analyzed how post 9/11 wars and the Arab Spring have placed more attention on the role of religion and, in particular, Shari’ah, in the revision of state constitutions and governance in Muslim-majority nations. She argued that “few scholars have comparatively examined exactly how Shari’ah principles are embedded in states’ formal constitutions.” In her examination of post-Arab Spring constitutions, she defined Shari’ah and Fiqh and stated that “since Fiqh includes efforts by jurists to interpret Shari’ah constitutions, these interpretations represent a fascinating test-case to probe the differences between Shari’ah aspirations and Fiqh-based articles in actual charters, examine the formal structures of authority in Fiqh-based knowledge, and analyze how states in conflict-settings negotiate Shari’ah principles to establish post-crisis forms of authority.”
Zoli’s presentation raised questions during the Q & A on the definition of Shari’ah, the role of U.S. academics and legal advisors in drafting post-conflict constitutions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ways in which specific governments, as in Iraq, are using multiple mechanisms - legislative means and the courts - to ensure balanced interpretations of newly inserted, constitutional Shari’ah norms.
The final paper in this session by Liyakat Takim, which examined “Classical Shari’ah and its Applicability in Modern Times,” examined the Shi’i concept of authority during the absence of the twelfth imam in today’s world. He described how the “authority of Shi’i scholars has been grounded on their acclaimed role as the inheritors of the religious traditions that connected the prophetic times to their own.” This analysis was crucial in edifying how religious traditions basically referred to the jurists’ interpretation of the religious sciences, namely the Qur’an, Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence, and theology. He explained how the Shi’i jurists’ use of various authoritative models, including wiliayat al-faqih (authority of the jurist) has impacted Shi’i Muslims in the West, and outlined the principle of taqlid and its role in generating loyalty among Shi’i followers living in the West.
The Q & A session following this panel was thought-provoking and stimulating due to the ways textual interpretation was used to authenticate authority in social, political and religious settings. Takim enquired about the principles and tools that jurists use in exercising ijtihad, while stating that “those who advocate for ijtihad do not delineate or explain the procedures that jurists use and that this often leads to personal and haphazard reasoning.” He added that “… it is time we defined and explained what ijtihad is.”
The panelists’ high-quality presentations in the three panel sessions, including commentaries by the discussants opened the floor to engaging and sometimes controversial Q & A sessions. The assembly of junior and senior scholars turned the conference into a highly-focused, powerful and inspirational event. The concepts and perceptions articulated by scholars provided the overall dynamic mood, high energy and vibrant sentiment that emerged from this conference.
NAAIMS Director of Academic Affairs