What do we do?


A critical school has emerged in the Study of Religion that identifies the category of ‘religion’ as a modern concept inseparable from its post-Enlightenment twin, ‘the secular’ (Asad 1993; Fitzgerald 2000; for more information on this school, see the Critical Religion Association website).  Pioneering work has been done on the invention of ‘religion’ in various colonial contexts (Chidester 1996; King 1999; Masuzawa 2005; Josephson 2012; Horii 2018), but few sustained studies have been undertaken for Islam.  An early study by WC Smith (1964) identified a modern shift toward using ‘Islam’ as a reified category, but nevertheless concluded it to be a special case.  Certainly we see classical formulas such as ‘din wa dunya’ that seem to suggest an existing, perhaps even original, distinction between religion and non-religion.  Whether or not ‘religion’ has been invented wholesale in Islam as in Hinduism, Buddhism, etc, initial studies of such discourse among Muslim intellectuals by Smith and Abdulkader Tayob (Religion in Modern Islamic Discourse, 2009) have highlighted significant modern innovation.  The purpose of the CRSI network is to create a space to foster this emerging field of study, encouraging cross-regional and interdisciplinary discussions aimed at rethinking the way we talk about 'religion' and related categories in Islamic societies past and present.  The CRSI community includes anthropologists, historians, philologists, political scientists and others working on Muslim discourses and practices around the world.

Key Research Questions

To what extent, if any, is ‘religion’ a useful category of analysis in Islamic Studies?

Was there an Islam ‘before religion’ (Nongbri 2013)?

In what changing or varied ways do we see ‘religion’ as a bounded category of practice articulated, operationalised, institutionalised or legislated by or for Muslims?

How is a bounded category of 'religion' articulated or performed in popular or everyday Islam?

What distinctive characteristics and functions (e.g. rights, freedoms, authority, privatisation) does ‘religion’ have as a reified subject in Islamic discourse, that distinguish it from ‘non-religious’ or ‘secular’ domains?

How is 'religion' operationalised as one side of different conceptual pairings, for instance with 'the secular', 'politics', 'culture', 'economics', etc?

Does a ‘religion-secular’ dichotomy operate also - implicitly or explicitly - in contexts where ideological secularism is rejected as un-Islamic?

Who is empowered or disempowered by new articulations of 'religion' in Islam?

What role have colonial, post-colonial or Western states played in Muslim (re)formulations of ‘religion’ and its others?

Do such trends in Islamic contexts compare to the invention of ‘religion’ in other colonial contexts, or should we see Islam as exceptional in some way?

What new methodologies may shed light on these dynamics?

What implications may the critical study of ‘religion’ have for the way Islam is taught in schools and universities?