Edward Said’s Orientalism pointed out the folly of assuming ‘that the swarming, unpredictable, and problematic mess in which human beings live can be understood on the basis of what books—texts—say,’ but the field of Islamic Studies doesn’t seem to have paid much attention. Job descriptions emphasise knowledge of canonical texts, and published work, such as Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? (2016), is often written as if you could understand, say, Sufism just by reading classical Sufi philosophy, without taking a close look at what Sufis actually do.
While I was reading Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations, it occurred to me that Islamic Studies is afflicted with what Bourdieu called the scholastic fallacy: the belief that you can explain the actions of people in non-scholarly situations by projecting scholarly thinking onto them. This isn’t a matter of distinguishing between ‘elite’ and ‘popular’ practices. In everyday life, everyone, including off-duty scholars, relies on what Bourdieu called practical sense, which ‘makes it possible to appreciate the meaning of the situation instantly, at a glance, in the heat of the action, and to produce at once the opportune response.’
If you want to understand people’s practical sense, you really need to spend time with them, listen to them, and notice what they do. It would also help to get to know their cultural references, e.g. by watching the films they watch. Naturally, if you don’t speak their language, you have to learn it. In the 2000s, I was lucky enough to be able to do this in Egypt, which was then one of the best places to learn spoken Arabic. Since then, Egypt has become a more dangerous place for foreign students and researchers. Even getting access to archives can be difficult. What happens to research when students can’t learn the necessary languages, do fieldwork, or access archives? They might be tempted to use canonical texts as a substitute. But if you try to make those texts answer questions about everyday life, you fall into the scholastic fallacy.
I wrote about these problems, and about possible solutions, in ‘Training Scholars to Study Non-Scholarly Life’, a chapter in Teaching Islamic Studies in the Age of ISIS, Islamophobia, and the Internet, edited by Courtney M. Dorroll. The pre-print of the chapter is freely available here.