Studying Muslim social formations: The importance of the Islamicate

22 March 2019

Venue: Ravensteynzaal (1.06), Kromme Nieuwegracht 80, Utrecht University


About the Symposium


Recent debates on Islam in anthropology have tended to focus on discursive tradition, piety or revivalism, drawing upon the work of Talal Asad (1986, 1994) and Mahmood (2005), and “everyday Islam” or “lived Islam” (Lambek 2010, Osella and Soares 2010, Schielke 2012) which emphasizes subjective ambiguity and ambivalence towards Islamic discourse entailing enjoyment or pleasure in negation of norms. Both streams of literature appear to be in analytical agreement on a separation of religion and secular realms, although Asad himself does not suggest such a separation. This dichotomy allows little discussion on the role of pleasure and aesthetics—which is neither Islamically ordained, nor in itself considered unIslamic/anti-Islamic in Muslim social formations (e.g., Metcalf 1984).

“Islamicate,” the term for the culture of the lands where Muslims have been historically visible, is historian Marshall Hodgson’s (1977) contribution to understanding objects and processes that are informed by Islamic discourse but not determined by it. Hodgson’s productive term has, of late, sparked a great deal of interest (Lawrence 2015, Ruthven 2016, Ahmed 2016). Shahab Ahmed’s seminal and now famous work, What is Islam? (2016), aroused heated debates on the limited theorization in anthropology-sociology, contemporary history, and religious studies, of the aesthetic realm of Islam. This realm, often exemplified in Islamicate poetry, or philosophy in poetic form, has traditionally been the subject of literary studies or history. However, the adīb—a person who has absorbed the humanities and so “versified” themselves—is an aspirational figure for many Muslims and non-Muslims, pious and otherwise. Some conceptual tensions, therefore, still remain between what is Islamicate and the properly Islamic. This raises some intriguing questions: How does one account for apparent paradoxes such as humorous hajj (pilgrimage) travelogues, metaphors like g̣ham (the celebration of failure in love) in Urdu poetry, or a burqa-wearing women’s football team? Distinctly from Mahmood (2005), how can we conceptualize agency with respect to female poets who boldly critique norms without seeking to overthrow them? What is the nature and form of communication found in Urdu shāʿirī (poetry), an Islamicate medium? How do digital technologies or the film industry shape or change the forms of Islamicate?

The symposium is organized to mark the defense of Sana Ghazi’s Ph.D. dissertation entitled “Islamicate mediations: pleasure, autonomy, and aesthetics among young women in Mumbai, India”, which aims to address some key questions about the study of Muslim social formations. Located in a comparative framework of old and new Mumbai and based on sustained ethnographic fieldwork, it discusses young Muslim women’s pursuits in terms of shauq (pleasure), marẓī (autonomy), and ẕauq (aesthetics or taste). Focused on aspects or objects that are rarely seen in ethnographies of Muslims, the dissertation tracks the young women as they play football in a burqa, engage in lively arguments on marriage and partnership, express themselves through shāʿirī, and aspire to be aptly tasteful, elegant and literary (adab). Ghazi deploys the notion of “Islamicate” in a new way and argues that young women’s pursuits in enjoyable activities in creating a “versified self” is an important consideration in the anthropological study of Muslims, not just in India but also beyond.

Participants in this symposium are invited to address, but by no means limit themselves to, the questions raised above.

Program

Every half hour is 20 minutes’ presentation and ten minutes’ discussion.

9:15 am – 9:30 am Welcome and coffee

9:30 am – 10:00 am Sana Ghazi, Ph.D. candidate at Utrecht University

10:00 am – 10:30 am Annelies Moors (University of Amsterdam)

10:30 am – 11:00 am Pooyan Tamimi Arab (Utrecht University)

11:00 am – 11:30 am Margreet van Es (Utrecht University)

11:30 am – 12:00 noon Irfan Ahmad (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity)

Chair: Peter van der Veer (Utrecht University and Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity).