Islamic fundamentalists and Western Orientalists often emphasize pre-modern resonances in contemporary Muslim communities. Over the past generation, by contrast, an interdisciplinary set of scholars has come to emphasize the ways in which Islamic historical heritages are extruded, redefined, or invented through modern processes. We label this emerging field "Muslim Modernities."

The idea of modernity was invented in Western Europe to distinguish the region from the rest of the world, including Muslim societies. Scholars disagreed about what modernity consisted of -- capitalism, division of labor, rationalization, reflexivity, etc. -- but broadly agreed that these were characteristics of the West and not of other societies. Increasingly, however, the study of Muslim communities has contributed to a re-thinking of the West's monopolistic claims to modernity. Instead of measuring modernization as the adoption of Western institutions and norms, these studies have explored the development of alternative forms of modernity. These alternative forms are modern in three potentially distinct ways: their proponents claim that they are modern; they are recent, not found in "tradition", though sometimes imposed retroactively on tradition; and they exhibit characteristics frequently associated with Western modernity, such as universalism, rationalization, and reflexivity.

Prominent approaches to the concept of multiple modernities include, but are not limited to, the study of Islamic and other fundamentalisms; the formation of religious subjectivities; the conditions of post-coloniality; the operations of disciplinary power; the construction of communal, national, regional, and gender identities; discourses of democracy and rights; migration and post-migration; and global markets and responses to them. In each of these areas, Muslim modernities provide a counterpoint to analyses that view contemporary Muslim societies through the prism of premodern recrudescences.

We invite students from throughout the humanities and social sciences to consider participation in this workshop if their research plans include Muslim communities anywhere in the world, including Europe and North America. Special preference will be given to projects that consider interconnections across regional and communal boundaries. The workshop is open to a variety of methodologies, from ethnography and interviews to textual, archival, and data analyses. As Islamist movements and the global war on terror have moved the study of Muslim societies closer to the center of academic debates, the workshop will encourage a new generation of scholars with language skills and fieldwork experience to break out of the area studies framework, paying particular attention to the interplay between place-based empirical research and discipline-based intellectual questions about modern processes and institutions.


  • Said Fares Abdelrahman

    University of California / Los Angeles, Islamic Studies

    Fiqh of Muslim Minorities: A model of ongoing legal and social transformation in a religious minority, the Case of Muslims in the United States
    Islamic consciousness among Muslim communities in Europe and in the United States has been on the rise over the last decade or so. One of the representations of this consciousness is the attempt of the community to seek the Islamic legal stance pertaining not only to the ritual practices but also to other social and political issues, e.g getting divroce through the common legal system, the legality of non-Islamic political participation, etc. This interaction between fiqh and minority; religious law and society through the experience of the Muslim communities in the United States, is the focus of this reseach project. A key question would be "How this interaction made an impact on the Muslim’s communities’ application of their religious laws to the extent that some Muslim scholars call for the establishment of a specific branch of Jurisprudence for Muslims living in a non-Muslim polity, i.e. Fiqh of Muslim Minorities." The research investigates: How such production of a new category of Fiqh is relevant to the process of modernization, accommodation, protest and identity? How such a production correlates with the question of law and modernity? Can jurisprudence be modernized and accommodated, as a requirement to cope with the modern world? Or is it modernization that accommodates itself within the existing jurisprudence? How this production is connected with the process of (re)defining Islam for, or in other words islamicize, Muslim communities living in a non-Muslim 'modernities'. The proposed research will also explore the actors and agencies behind the production of this Fiqh and examine the factors that count for its production, dissemination or limitations.
  • Orkideh Behrouzan

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society

    Alternative Genealogies of Psychiatric Selves
  • Dunya Deniz Cakir

    University of Massachusetts, Political Science

    Between the Education of Democratic Civility and Islamic Activism: Alternative Modernities in Turkey and Egypt
    This research aims at bringing ethnographic scrutiny to bear on particular manifestations of modernity in the Middle East through a comparative case study of Turkey and Egypt. Taking its cue from Foucauldian analytics of government, it locates practices of modernity in the multiple forms of local reappropriation of, and negotiation over the discourse and politics of democratization through civil society development. The project aims to investigate the workings, techniques, instruments of the democratization apparatus funded by a vast network of international aid agencies. By highlighting the processes of subject-making through the inculcation of particular types of behavior and identity among the targets of democratization, the research essentially aims to excavate the different modalities of resistance to the governing democracy paradigm specifically by focusing on the relationship between civil society development projects funded by USAID in Egypt and EU in Turkey and Islamic activism. In that respect, the project emphasizes a rather underestimated topic in governmentality studies which overwhelmingly concentrate on the workings of power to the neglect of resurging patterns of local resistance to governing discourses. In that respect, Islamist movements provide a starting point for the project of examining alternative modernities sought vis-à-vis the disqualification of political Islam as a pathological component of Middle Eastern politics in need of rehabilitation through inclusion into democratic politics.
  • Gilla Mae Camden

    Georgetown University, Arabic and Islamic Studies

    “Ruling in on Muslim Women’s Role within the Judiciary System: Linguistic Identity Construction in Egypt, Malaysia, and Afghanistan"
    In order to harness the societal power of religious authority and transcend traditionally constructed boundaries associating gender reforms with a secular, Western modernity, Muslim women have become prominent contributors to the linguistic restructuring of the debate on their expanding agency within the public sphere through presenting critical reinterpretations of religious texts. Hence, I propose to examine the Islamicized discourse within which Muslim women situate and legitimate their contemporary roles, focusing on the debate on women’s right to serve as judges. Using discourse analysis and an ethnographic approach, I will conduct interviews with female, Muslim activists and adjudicators in Egypt, Malaysia, and Aghanistan and research native campaigns to introduce women within the judicial system particularly in relation to shariah courts and family law. By analyzing data from traing programs and public awareness campaigns from the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession in Cairo, Sisters in Islam in Selangor, and Afghan Women Judges Association (AWJA) in Kabul, I hope to contribute to the understanding of how Muslim women use language to construct and validate their multiple identities— reappropriating terms such as female, Muslim, modern, and educated-in order to challenge dominance within their societies.
  • Tabitha L. Decker

    Yale University, Sociology

    Planning the Global City: Negotiating Gender and Mobility on the Dubai Metro
    Dubai is a city of superlatives: home to the world’s tallest building, highest star-rated hotel, and soon, one of the world’s most technologically advanced metro rail systems. Alongside this hypermodern built environment exists a less recognized city, consisting of the everyday spaces required to meet the transportation, consumer, and social needs of 1.4 million inhabitants. With increasing population density and diversity in Dubai, what priorities have shaped its urban development? How do Dubai’s aspirations to become a global city incorporate and affect notions of local identity, tradition, and heritage? I will examine these questions through a case study of the new Dubai Metro. The Metro is both an essential infrastructure project and an important symbolic initiative. Beyond state-of-the-art driverless trains, it will feature optional sex-segregation and a first class car. This spatial configuration may diminish the Metro’s efficiency, suggesting the importance of non-economic logics. Through archival research, participant observation within the transit authority, and interviews with key planners I will develop a comprehensive account of official plans for the Metro. In addition, I will collect and analyze data on marketing and public opinion of the Metro both prior to and following its opening in fall 2009.
  • Joshua S. Gedacht

    University of Wisconsin / Madison, Southeast Asian History

    Islam's Distant Shore: Colonialism, Conversion, and the Creation of Modernities around the Sulawesi Sea, 1851-1946
    My project seeks to examine the relationship between Euro-American imperial rule and shifting Islamic identities in the southern Philippines, the easternmost islands of present-day Indonesia, and Sabah in Borneo. The advent of colonization around the mid-nineteenth century marked a period of flux; foreign rulers systematically diminished or dismantled local sultanates, competing empires severed longstanding networks of trade, and Christian missionaries inundated the islands. My research will consider how local actors refashioned their identities amidst this crucible of colonial change. I will pay particularly close attention to the interactions between foreign Christians and local Muslims as a window to understanding shifting attitudes, beliefs and practices. My working hypothesis—that this wave of missionary activity profoundly unsettled the pre-existing spiritual balance, giving impetus to a reorientation of Islamic social and spiritual life away from the sultan toward the lower strata of indigenous society; to the village teacher (pandita), the village school, and the lay person—will provide insight into the transformations constitutive of Muslim Modernities. Indeed, this project will contribute to a more nuanced framework for interpreting the formation of religious subjectivities and communal boundaries across regions with diverse historical and cultural backgrounds.
  • Shady F. Hakim

    Georgetown University, History

    The Formation of Modern Coptic Identity: Religion, Class, Gender, and Nationalism in Egypt, 1881-1919
    Egypt’s 1919 revolution has received significant attention as a historical moment in which Christian and Muslim Egyptians were united in their national aspirations and anti-colonial resistance to the British. However, scant attention has been paid to the particular trajectories of Coptic identity up until that point. Less than a decade prior, between 1907 and 1911, intercommunal relations between Copts and Muslims were strained; the Muslim and Coptic presses expressed bitter disagreements, Coptic Prime Minister Butrus Ghali was assassinated, and leaders of the two communities held mutually exclusive congresses in the spring of 1911. The dissonance of these two historical moments, taking place only a decade apart, highlights important questions related to the negotiation of minority identities within an Arab Muslim colonial context. While the imbricated categories of religion, gender, modernity and nationalism have been explored in recent Middle East historiography, rarely have they been examined with specific reference to non-Muslim communities. This project seeks to analyze the construction of Coptic identity through several interrelated prisms: the class implications of an elite-driven Coptic communal modernizing process, the formation of Egyptian nationalist consciousness among Copts under British occupation, and the gendered implications of these developments in the formation of modern Coptic identity.
  • Sarah Elizabeth Parkinson

    University of Chicago, Political Science

  • Daren E. Ray

    University of Virginia, History

    Swahili Modernities: Imagining Islamic Communities in Nineteenth-Century East Africa
    I propose to open the way towards a multi-centric analysis of Islam and Modernity by examining how East Africans created Swahili ethnicity to meet the challenges of growing Arab and European presences in the nineteenth century. Scholars centering their analyses of Islam and Modernity on the Middle East and Europe, respectively, have marginalized other regions, such as the Swahili Coast, as deviant peripheries gradually drawn into one or the other core of orthodoxy. For instance, historians often herald the nineteenth-century immigration of Omani sultans and Hadraumi merchants to the Swahili Coast as the beginning of Modernity there, since the sultans integrated the region into the world economy and the merchants introduced egalitarianism prior to British Colonialism. My research will contextualize these alleged transformations of the political-economy in centuries-deep articulations of Islamic communities along the East African coast to challenge the usual scholarly emphases on “integration” and “egalitarianism”. I will avoid the teleology of “pre-modernity” by historicizing East Africans’ debates over bid’a (innovation) and sunna (tradition) through which they created a new “Swahili” identity. This novel “imagined community” enabled individuals to participate in the large-scale engagements with strangers that characterize Modernity while retaining the Traditions that anchored them in local communities.
  • Abdoulaye Sounaye

    Northwestern University, Religion

    Muslim Epistemologies of Social Transformation in Niger
    The tendency to draw on Islam “as a template for ideas and practices” particularly when Muslim actors envision “alternative political realities” and attempt to reconfigure “established boundaries of civil and social life,” (Salvatore and Eickelman, Public Islam and the Common Good, eds, (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004) xii.) marks contemporary Islamic activism in Niger. How does this phenomenon affect the public sphere and the society as a whole? How to conceptualize the civility invoked by such activism? These questions inform my research, especially when it centers on preaching, learning institutions, and other intellectual activities (seminars, debates, etc.) as sites of social action. The making of this universe where knowledge production, acquisition and transmission are crucial in informing both individual subjectivity and sociopolitical discourses is a turning point in Muslims’ activism in Niger. Following the 1990s multiplication Islamic associations, Islamic activists now focuse on what they view as the necessary uncovering and vulgarization of the Sunna. Of course, this is predicated on the idea that the knowledge of the Sunna would reshape the ethical world of the subject and thereby the moral economy of the society. Consequently, learning becomes the vehicle through which Tarbiyya (good behavior, especially in relation to youth) and Magabarcin Kwaray (good governance, leadership) are to be achieved. My preoccupation is to analyze this unexamined connection between morality, nurturing the self and the conduct of public affairs in contemporary Niger.
  • Timur R. Yuskaev

    University of North Carolina / Chapel Hill, Religious Studies

    Toward an American Qur’an: Traditions, Modernities and Publics in American Muslim Qur'anic Interpretations
    How do American Muslims interpret the Qur’an? To answer this query I focus on two preachers, Hamza Yusuf and Warith Deen Muhammad, and one writer, Aminah Wadud. I analyze how they use the Qur’an in their pedagogies of American Muslims. They Americanize the Qur’an - a process that creates tensions and raises issues about American Muslim identity apart from, and in concert with, the global Muslim community. My research intersects practical and theoretical issues of Muslim modernities in both American and transnational contexts. I analyze how the Qur’an is spoken as well as read, and investigate how American interpreters invoke tradition as a modality of contextually driven change. I look at methodologies they employ and try to see how contexts, audiences, and rhetorical forms that are marked as American influence their interpretations. In the summer 2008, I will begin combining my study of aural and literary texts with fieldwork. I will travel to Berkeley, CA, a current home to Yusuf and Wadud. I will interview them, as well as students and faculty at Yusuf’s Zaytuna Institute. I will also talk with Bay Area Muslims who are not affiliated with Zaytuna, nor allied with Yusuf’s interpretation of the Qur’an.
  • Edoardo G. Zavarella

    University of California / Berkeley, Anthropology

    Images and Remembrance of Death
    Since the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, images of death have invaded the everyday life of Muslims all around the world. The content of these images varies from the bloody display of dead bodies to the equally morbid footage of suicide bombers' messages from the grave. This flow of images has been consistently channeled by satellite TVs such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Manar for the past 7 years: anthropologically speaking, 7 years is enough time for a phenomenon to crystallize and irradiate its meaning in people's everyday lives. I am interested in the interplay between this flow of death-images and a core practice of Islamic cultivation of sensibility, that is, the remembrance of death advocated by Al-Ghazali. I thus pose two distinct and yet interrelated questions: i) How is the Islamic practice of remembering death affected by the proliferation of live-broadcasted images of death, a phenomenon that has followed the birth and wide-spread growth of Arab satellite TVs such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Manar? ii) What is the outcome of the influence of TV images on Islamic ethical-political agency? The intersection of Islamic tradition, satellite media, and modern political struggles, defines the perimeter of my inquiry.