Seeking genuine “catholicity” (or pluralism) in studies of religion

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are three major contemporary religions to come out of the Middle East, my region of focus as a scholar of contemporary law and politics. I study aspects of one religion professionally (Islam), experience the impact of another publicly (Christianity) and practice the third personally (Judaism). Having lived happily, but as a religious minority, in societies with majority populations of Muslims and Christians, I have enjoyed interesting opportunities to compare and ponder the many similarities and occasional divergences among the three monotheistic traditions that I know from different compartments of my life. My teaching and research embrace the importance of impartial analysis of the many interesting issues that religion poses in Western and Middle Eastern societies.

All of this should make me a leading cheerleader for a dedicated Religious Studies Department at my university. And, yet, I am agnostic (I simply don’t know) about this. Given our national and global disagreements about how to analyze and treat religion, I think that concentrating the study of interesting questions about different religions in a Religious Studies Department is just one of several approaches a university might take to this issue. Without dismissing the value of a Religious Studies Department, I want to suggest two reasons that should cause us to at least think twice about such a Department as the best place to concentrate the unfortunately scarce resources of institutions like the flagship public institution of public higher education in Massachusetts.

First is the historical role of religion in shaping the content of university education from its beginnings. Early universities in the US, and elsewhere, were often intended for ministers of or even limited to members of a particular religious group. Even when this was not the case, would-be students of certain religions, such as Judaism, often found themselves excluded from admission. I don’t doubt that the mandate and likely result of a Religious Studies Department, particularly today, may well be open-minded research and teaching by people with and without faith on issues relating to and reflecting religious diversity. At the same time, the often subtle, embedded nature of religion in American institutions generally, and universities in particular, may well and with reason give pause to some of my colleagues considering the question of establishing a Religious Studies Department.

Of course, the Middle East and North Africa, where I focus my own work, provides even clearer contemporary examples of the embedded nature of religion in the university curriculum, particularly with respect to public universities. In the area of law, which I know well, and which has long-standing ties to Islam, some state-sponsored universities disconnect pedagogy from religion. Others insist that the former be approached intellectually as a product of the latter. Indeed, the question of how laws that citizens of Arab states consider to be responsive to their needs do and do not connect to religion is a topic of great interest for my current research. My intellectual and lived knowledge, however, suggests that the study of religion filters into many aspects of higher education in ways that can make people committed to free intellectual inquiry differ about how, or even whether, to institutionalize its study.

Given the above, it is not surprising that among many of my colleagues who study questions related to contemporary Islam, the term "Islamic Studies," the particular version of the broader term "Religious Studies," is decidedly out of vogue. This is because Islamic Studies may signify an approach to Islam limited by some, but by no means all, traditional Islamic scholars’ notions of what is acceptable and what is heresy.

My second issue is the possible intellectual trade-offs that come from putting the main focus on the study of issues relating to religion in a Religious Studies Department, as opposed to somewhere else. Should we look at one religion alongside others, should we strive to understand it using similar analytical stances, or should we consider it in the broader regional or civilizational context in which it flourishes? How we answer this question may have different implications for the merits of a religious studies department or program.

Again, let me illustrate this through issues from my own work. I strive to consider some of the contemporary political and social implications of Middle Eastern and North African Islam in the most open-minded, neutral manner possible. I can naturally appreciate what I might gain from being primarily in the company of scholars who engage with me in comparisons of how Christian and Jewish contemporary political activism is similar to what I observe in my own Arab Muslim cases.

At the same time, it may well be that legal scholars or political scientists who share my disciplinary background would be better intellectual company to help me see how issues of contemporary Islamic law and politics resemble other current questions implicating both religious and non-religious ideologies. Or perhaps people who look at the same area of the world as I do would, in fact, have more of value to offer about contextualizing the meaning of the issues I study in larger dynamics of Muslim or Arab societies. The point here is that situating the study of religion in different types of intellectual homes brings out distinct questions, approaches and answers. Ideally, universities should seek to embrace the concerns that come from studying religion in the company of other scholars of religion, particular disciplines and particular areas of the world.

Thus, I remain confused about how much of a priority a Religious Studies Department should be. I am not alone in this. The two universities I attended, each with clearly enough financial resources to have any Department they see fit, differ on the issue of an independent Department for the study of religion. While Princeton has such a Department, Harvard has an interdisciplinary major and Committee. When American universities of nearly unlimited wealth are not sure how and where to focus their inquiry into issues related to religion, I can see the problems for universities like my own that sadly and truly must make hard choices about where to spend their limited funds, particularly given their public nature.

In the end, I have come to believe that an effort to expand my university’s interdisciplinary resources with respect to the study of Muslim peoples and societies would be one way of getting at some of the critical questions many of my colleagues and I ask about Islam and its place in the world today and the past. And, knowing my university’s fiscal limitations, I openly welcome your suggestions and support for building such an effort in Amherst that could engage people throughout the state in thinking together about Islam throughout the world.

At the same time, I would be delighted if my campus found some way to afford easily a new Religious Studies Department. I would no doubt learn a great deal from, and engage wholeheartedly with, such a place…

…as long as it were just one of a number of places that we focused our inquiries about religions, in keeping with the very diversity of faith and skepticism about what religion means that makes studying it, in all of its contemporary pluralism, so vitally important.

Prof. David Mednicoff, University of MassachusettsAmherst

Author: David Mednicoff

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