Michaelmas Term 2016

Monday 31st October
Discussion Theme: Salafism
Introductory Reading: Eileen Barker, ‘Plus ça change’
Research Presentation: ‘Salafi women in Britain: conversion, disengagement and Islam’s new religious movement’
Presenter: Anabel Inge, (formerly) King’s College London
Salafi women are typically perceived as either the passive victims of an oppressive version of Islam or as excessively religious fanatics whose lives revolve solely around strict rules. The reality, however, is varied and complex. The vast majority of Salafis in the United Kingdom are from non-Salafi backgrounds – often less conservative Muslim families – and have consciously re-routed their religious identities to become Salafis. Implementing Salafism in a Western society, however, requires constant negotiation, contradiction and compromise. In this seminar, Anabel Inge will explore the notion of conversion as a continuing and often fluctuating process, sharing stories of both conversion and ongoing (dis)engagement from her nearly two and a half years of ethnographic fieldwork in London.

Update: Please see our interview with Anabel Inge about her new book here.

Monday 14th November
Discussion Theme: Halal lifestyles in Tatarstan
Introductory Reading: Maruta Herding, Inventing the Muslim Cool: ‘Setting the Scene’ (Chapter)
Research Presentation: Halal, coolness, and ‘form of life’. An ethnography of Russia’s Muslim youth
Presenter: Matteo Benussi, Division of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge
Abstract: I conducted 15 months of ethnographic research in the Republic of Tatarstan (European Russia), home to a vibrant Muslim community. After the collapse of the USSR, a number of transnational Sunni movements – running the gamut from intransigent Salafism to education-centred Gulenist modernism – took root amongst Tatarstan’s urban middle-class youth. Tatarstan became the hub of Russia’s ‘halal movement’, a trend bringing together young businesspeople, students, and activists. Within this group, piety is contiguous to coolness, initiative, urbanity, lofty aspirations, cosmopolitanism, and a disciplined lifestyle. In my presentation, I intend to provide fresh information about Russia’s little-known and diverse Muslim community, as well as critically engaging recent literature about the ‘Muslim cool’ by putting forth a theoretical proposal inspired by Giorgio Agamben’s understanding of ‘form of life’.

Monday 21st November
Discussion Theme:
The social life of religious leadership
Introductory Reading: Valérie Amiraux, ‘Religious authority, social action and political participation’
Research Presentation: What does it mean to be a local Muslim leader? A comparative study of mosques in Paris and London
Presenter: Amine El Yousfi, Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge
Abstract: While there is an abundant literature on Muslims in Europe, very little deals with the role and identity of local Muslim leaders, namely imams and members of mosque committees. The political and social contexts in France and the UK are very different. These differences should affect in turn the relationships between local Muslim leaders and other actors, such as doctors, teachers, prison officers, faith leaders, mayors, etc. In his project, Amine intends to study local Muslim leaders by analysing their social interactions and their influence on identity and leadership practice. Through interviews and participant observation, he is comparing several mosques in two different locations – Paris and London- asking how social relations with different local, national and international actors affect the religious, social and political identities of local Muslim leaders in Paris and London.

Monday 28th November
Discussion Theme: Gender and Representation
Introductory Reading: R Grillo and P Shah, ‘Reasons to Ban? The Anti-Burqa Movement in Western Europe’
Research Presentation: The Political Representation of Muslim Women
Presenter: Alaya Forte, Centre for Gender Studies, SOAS
Abstract: I will make a case for how the political representation of women and minorities has so far taken for granted a very narrow and almost exclusively empirical application of identity categories. This is also favoured by a liberal approach to representation that seeks to be plural by favouring interests and substantive representation forgetting to take into account the power relations at work. This is particularly important when speaking of identities that are particularly vulnerable to political framing, such as the Muslim community in Europe, which is incredibly heterogeneous in its make up. I will also highlight some of the shortcomings of current theories of political representation, equally inattentive to the intersections of race, ethnicity and gender in our modern plural European democracies. When it comes to the experiences of Muslim women’s participation and political engagement in Britain, an intersectional approach might finally shed new light on how the concept of representation can be understood in our complex modern societies.

Lent Term 2017

Tuesday 28th February (Reading Group format)
Discussion Theme: ‘Asabiyyah (‘Social cohesion’,‘group feeling’)
Convenor: Easa Saad
Reading: Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, Book 1, Chapter 2
Overview: Ibn Khaldun can be read in many ways: he is far too expansive a thinker to be pigeon-holed into just one category of analysis. However, I propose three questions that might serve as a useful starting point for discussion of the reading.
1. How helpful is it to approach Ibn Khaldun from the modern categories of intellectual inquiry that we have developed, i.e sociology, history, economics, theology? Do these help us hone in on key concepts, or do we miss something by attempting to impose our own categories on him?
2. What insights can we gain from Ibn Khaldun’s theory of ‘asabiyyah, when evaluating modern societies? Is it distinct from current approaches of the social sciences, and if so is it still relevant?
3. Section 10 and Section 23 appear to be quite interesting discussions of the impact on identity of Immigration and Colonialism respectively. In particular, when discussing Islam in Europe, to what extent can we use these discussions to shed insight on modern manifestations of these phenomenon? Does it even matter that a 14th Century scholar was already discussing these things?

Tuesday 7th March (Research Presentation format, extra-European focus)
Discussion Theme: Shi‘ism in Pakistan
Introductory Reading: Naveeda Khan, ‘A Possible Genealogy of Muslim Aspiration: Muhammad Iqbal in His Time’
Research Presentation: ‘Shi‘i Striving and the Problem of Pakistan’
Presenter: Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, University of Cambridge
Abstract: In my presentation, I will focus on Pakistan’s Twelver Shi‘is, who form the second largest Shi‘i community worldwide. The Partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 meant that Shi‘i ‘ulama, popular preachers, and ordinary believers suddenly found themselves cut off from their former center of scholarship in the north Indian city of Lucknow. This meant an increasing orientation towards the shrine cities of Iran and Iraq. I will explore how Shi‘is positioned themselves within these transnational dynamics and how they appropriated and indigenized questions of religious authority and reform. I will pay attention to how they advanced their own conceptions of Pakistan and consider in which ways the Iranian Revolution radically reshaped the issue of Muslim belonging.

Tuesday 14th March (Reading Group format)
Discussion Theme: Theology and Anthropology in conversation
Convenors: Chris Moses and Caroline Tee
Reading: Talal Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam
Overview: ‘For three decades, Talal Asad‘s work on the question of religion, and on the entanglements of this question with the sensibilities of modern life, has steadily overturned dominant paradigms in anthropology. Critiquing the textualization of social life, his work has redirected analysis away from the interpretation of behaviours and toward inquiry into the relation of practices to what he has termed a “discursive tradition”. Asad introduced this concept in making an intervention in the anthropology of Islam, yet it has also become important across a number of fields (anthropology, religious studies, postcolonial studies, critical theory) concerned with ethics and religion in modernity.’ (Qui Parle)

We would like to thank the Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge, for kindly supporting our events with visiting speakers.