Ismail Fajrie Alatas

Assistant Professor, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies


Ismail Fajrie Alatas is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, and History at New York University. He holds a doctorate in Anthropology and History from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, an MA in History from the National University of Singapore, and a BA (hons) in History from the University of Melbourne, Australia. He has written extensively in English and Indonesian on Sufism, the Hadrami diaspora in Southeast Asia, and Islamic religious authority. He has published several research articles in, among others, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Journal of Islamic Studies, Die Welt des Islams, Studia Islamika, Indonesia and the Malay World. He has also been invited to write several entries related to Hadrami Sufism for the Encyclopedia of Islam. Apart from these publications, he has authored three books in Indonesian on Sufism, sainthood, and Islamic epistemology.

Award Information

Transregional Research Junior Scholar Fellowship: InterAsian Contexts and Connections (2017-2018)

Assistant Professor, Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies & HistoryNew York University (NYU)

The Labor of Sainthood: Islamic Universality and the Making of a World Religion

The Labor of Sainthood proposes a new anthropological approach to Islam that rethinks the established notion of world religion. A religion is said to be a world religion when it succeeds in being “universal,” that is, globally consistent and independent of cultural particularities. This begs the question as to how Islamic universality looks when it is envisioned in and between places that have long been regarded as peripheries. This book addresses this question by following the movement of Islam from one “peripheral” region to another, that is, from the Hadramawt region of Yemen to Java and the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago. It focuses on the labors of mobile Hadrami scholars and saints in the transmission of Islam from the 18th century to the present day. It explores the concrete processes that have allowed them to envision different shapes of Islamic universality. It observes how such visions are articulated through the particularities of forms, materialities, mobilities, relationalities, and infrastructures that simultaneously threaten to undermine them, as well as how they clash with other universalist visions. These dynamics cannot be grasped by mere attention to the locality or to individual ethical pursuits. Comprehending them requires a methodological flexibility that brings together the local and the global, the historical and the contemporary. What makes Islam a world religion, this book proposes, is not the putative existence of one common, global Islamic community (umma), or the circulation of consistent universal teachings, but the multiple contending universalizing projects that emerge in-between heterogeneous cultural terrains.