At a liberal arts college like Swarthmore, it can be easy to forget that all of the departments we are used to choosing our classes from have not always been around. Religious studies, in particular, is a very recent field based largely in the United States. James Morris of Boston College spoke yesterday in the Hicks Mural Room on the development of the discipline in the context of Islamic studies in his talk entitled “Pathways of Understanding: Exploring the Intersections of Religious Studies and Islam.”
An anecdote illustrates the unfamiliarity of this field. Professor Morris was giving a lecture broadly outlining his field at the University of Edinburgh, and afterwards a number of students approached him saying “That’s amazing! I’ve never heard of this before.” There had existed a Comparative Religion field, which began in Germany in the nineteenth century, but it was a long time until it was an undergraduate field. Part of the reason it is a predominantly American field, Morris posited, is that it is “not just an academic discipline” but a reflection of the “social and political phenomenon of America’s multi-faith existence.”
Islam requires special consideration as a subsection of Religious Studies since it has often been the last world religion to be added to these departments. Traditionally, the development proceeds with a college first having a Protestant or Catholic specialist, depending on the affiliation of the particular school. Then the other would be added, and subsequently a Jewish specialist, a professor who would teach all the Eastern religions, and finally an expert in Islam.
It is unclear why this should be so. Some suggest that it is because of the frictions between Islam and the other Abrahamic faiths. Others think that its global nature since the thirteenth century allowed it to take on numerous different faces as it spread to different regions. Contrary to popular conceptions, most of the practitioners of Islam are in the East as opposed to the Middle East. At any rate, the adaptable, non-centralized nature of the religion means that there is not an orthodox form of Islam from which a professor can begin teaching and then branch out into minority views.
Morris believes that there is a need for a informed historical perspective, particularly in the context of the furor of today. “There is a need to understand each other,” as the study of Islam is “no longer just part of theological schools in the traditional Islamic world, but is now part of a global village.” Part of the unspoken backdrop of the study of Islam is the distorted paradigms of Islam that have become more prominent in the media as a result of certain ideological forms of the religion influenced by fascism and Marxism. This creates a difficulty, for while many American Christians are able to contextualize different figures such as Pat Robertson as being on the fringe of Christianity, they typically do not have the cultural background to so contextualize Islamic fringe elements as exceptions from the norm.
Unfortunately, Professor Morris was working in a compressed window of time, and so was forced to abridge his usual speech. What could be gleaned from his energetic talk is his vision of the inner human dimension of Islam and the omnipresent divine closeness that can guide Islamic ethics and shape the humanities into an expression of the relationship with the divine. He suggests that this vision could serve as a framework through which to focus the study of Islam in the context of Religious Studies. In so doing, Professor Morris hopes that academics can face the challenge of integrating Islam properly into the field and thereby enhance interfaith understanding at this crucial time.