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Sociology and the History of Islam

Here’s a video of a 40-minute introductory talk I gave on the Qur’an and the early history of Islam, on 30 January 2013 at the National University of Singapore. The talk was part of a lecture series called Introduction to the Study of the Contemporary Middle East, organised by the university’s Middle East Institute, where I was then a post-doc.


I didn’t try to do anything more than summarise the current state of scholarship on the topic, including the main areas of disagreement among specialists. The video was then posted on the blog of the International Qur’anic Studies Association, which some of the big names in the field are involved in.

You’ll notice that there’s hardly anything sociological in this talk, beyond some attempts to describe, in broad terms, the sort of social environment that Islam emerged in. I think this reflects the preoccupations of mainstream research on early Islam. Sociology seems mostly absent from these preoccupations, and I can think of several possible reasons for this. First of all, the formidable empirical difficulties faced by specialists may have largely eclipsed theoretical concerns. This comment from the introduction to a recent edited volume on Qur’anic studies gives some idea of these difficulties:

The academic discipline of Qur’anic studies today is most strikingly characterized, not by any impressive scholarly achievements of the field itself, which has been appropriately diagnosed by Fred Donner as being ‘in a state of disarray’, but by the large-scale interest of the media that the Qur’an’s origin and interpretation have solicited during the last decade or so. Indeed, the lacunae of the field—impossible to overlook when confronted with the impressive list of what has been achieved in biblical or classical studies—have developed into a veritable litany: There is no critical edition of the text, no free access to all of the relevant manuscript evidence, no clear conception of the cultural and linguistic profile of the milieu in which it has emerged, no consensus on basic issues of methodology, and—what is perhaps the single most important obstacle to future scholarly progress—no adequate training of future students of the Qur’an in the non-Arabic languages and literatures and cultural traditions that have undoubtedly shaped its historical context.

Another possible reason is the uneasy relationship between the disciplines of history and sociology in general. As Robert Harrison observes:

Of history’s cognate disciplines, sociology has always seemed the closest, but at the same time the most intrusive, the most hectoring, the most contemptuous of historical practice…. Sociology has always claimed a position among the social sciences, a status which most historians have been decidedly reluctant to assume.

And yet, as he notes, ‘Weber and the other founders of the discipline were essentially historical sociologists.’

Mainstream sociology has been slow to take an interest in Islam. In 1974, sociologist Brian Turner lamented:

An examination of any sociology of religion textbook published in the last fifty years will show the recurrent and depressing fact that sociologists are either not interested in Islam or have nothing to contribute to Islamic scholarship.

The editor of a recent handbook of sociology of religion put it this way:

A generation ago, mainstream sociology of religion concerned itself almost exclusively with Western society, leaving the rest of the world to anthropology, and within that framework with Christianity.

The situation has improved somewhat in recent years, but sociological studies of religion are still mainly focused on Christianity:

Smilde and May (2010:14) report that between 1978 and 2007 just over 50 percent of the articles about religion published in sociology of religion journals dealt with Christianity. Poulson and Campbell (2010:38) also found that 82 percent of the articles published between 2001 and 2008 in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Sociology of Religion dealt with Christian communities (see also Beyer 2000).

Some prominent figures in sociology, starting with Max Weber, have proposed sociological interpretations of aspects of the history of Islam, with mixed results. In a detailed critical study entitled Weber and Islam, first published in 1974, Bryan Turner credited Weber with a valid interpretation of patrimonial state bureaucracy in Islamic empires, but found that Weber’s attempt to understand early Islam was marred by the misconceptions and false assumptions of the the Orientalist scholarship he relied on. In a recent article looking back on that study, Turner wrote:

There has unsurprisingly been in the intervening three and a half decades a steady stream of commentary on both Weber’s sociology of religion and his observations on Islam, but despite the sustained criticism his sociological approach has not been radically surpassed in comparative sociological studies of religion…. Weber’s vision of ‘Asian religions’ has been condemned as an example of Orientalism in which a dynamic West is contrasted with and counter-posed to a stagnant East…. Despite these criticisms, Weber’s approach remains valid as a general framework, partly because, while Said’s account of Orientalism provided some valuable criticisms, it did not provide—and probably did not set out to provide—a convincing or systematic alternative…. What comes after the critique of Orientalism apart from more textual deconstruction?

I agree that sociology shouldn’t be content to critique discourses, and should offer systematic explanations of social reality. However, I think Pierre Bourdieu’s account of religion improves considerably on Weber’s. Turner noted, in his earlier study, that ‘Weber’s position with regard to the relationship between beliefs and social structures is often inconsistent or at best obtuse’, and argued that ‘because of the problems of consistency within Weber’s sociology, no definitive or authoritative interpretation of Weber is genuinely possible’. Bourdieu’s concept of ‘field’ first emerged from his attempt to recast Weber’s sociology of religion as a systematic theoretical framework, focusing on the interests at stake in the production and consumption of religious ‘goods’. The notion of religious fields makes it possible to understand how the social structures involved in religion relate to those in other spheres of human activity. And the concept of ‘habitus’, which outlines a general solution to the problem of the relationship between beliefs and social structures, enabled Bourdieu to solve some of the problems in Weber’s notion of the ‘charisma’ of religious leaders.

However, the more sociology explains religion in terms of interests, the less religious believers are likely to be comfortable with it. A recent sociology of religion textbook observes:

Sociology and its relativizing perspectives can become an existential threat to the religious believer…. In all human sciences, there are differences and tensions between what social actors think and believe and the scientific interpretations of these thoughts and beliefs. Yet the tension is intensified when the scholars claim that a phenomenon is a social product and the social actors believe that it is a message from God.

A recent study suggests that the field of the sociology of religion is dominated by religious believers:

The labels used in the study of religion reflect a ‘hegemonic’ position within the discipline that religion should be normative and that actions that threaten religious fidelity are deviant…. In this article, we argue at length why we think this bias exists, suggesting it is likely due to the historical connections to religions (especially Roman Catholicism) of the three main professional organizations dedicated to studying religion and the religiosity of the members of those organizations…. In short, those with power and resources, both institutions and the majority of scholars in this area, have used that power to portray non-religion as a deviant status.

Sociologists who are also religious believers have an interest in not exploring hypotheses that would contradict their own faith. Moreover, my impression—as an outsider to the field of sociology of religion—is that there is a tacit agreement among mainstream specialists that even when they are writing about religions to which they do not belong, they should avoid challenging the core doctrines accepted by believers. It may be that the social structure of the field makes it advantageous to have good relations with peers of other faiths, and hence favours an ecumenical outlook. The extreme version of this commitment is found in arguments for purely phenomenological approaches to religion, like that of Wilfred Cantwell Smith, who claimed:

No statement of Islamic faith is true that Muslims cannot accept. No personalist statement about Hindu religious life is legitimate in which Hindus cannot recognise themselves. No interpretation of Buddhist doctrine is valid unless Buddhists can respond: ‘Yes! That is what we hold’.

A tacit understanding that ‘I won’t try to undermine your faith if you don’t try to undermine mine’ could account for Eric J. Sharpe’s observation that

several contemporary Western scholars of religion harbor an implicit commitment to religious diversity and openness…. They are critical towards the dogmatic dimensions of their childhood religious traditions, but at the same time, they reveal openness and curiosity regarding alternative religiosity and other religious traditions.

This could be one reason why, although sociological research on Islam is now more common than it once was, it seems to be interested mainly in the present day. Sociological interpretations of early Islamic history would be more likely to involve issues that are central to Muslims’ faith. For example, the papers collected in a recent edited volume entitled The Sociology of Islam are all focused on the present or on recent history, and none attempts to explain the early history of Islam as Weber did.

The reluctance of non-Muslim sociologists to approach such issues may also reflect current political struggles in the United States. Overall, the sociology of religion is highly US-centric:

In their recent review of 30 years of sociological scholarship on religion, Smilde and May (2010) found that over 70 percent of all journal articles focused on religious dynamics in the United States. Similarly, Poulson and Campbell (2010), reviewing articles published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion and Sociology of Religion between 2001 and 2008, reported that less than 20 percent showcased research on a non-Western geographic region.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the academic stances of American sociologists of religion tend to reflect their political stances regarding US domestic and foreign policy. Social scientists’ political views tend to lean towards the left. Right-wing discourse in the US demonises Muslims, portrays Islam as America’s national enemy, and advocates the invasion of Muslim-majority states. My sense is that there’s a widespread feeling among scholars—both Muslim and non-Muslim—that it’s urgent to focus on doing research that challenges this discourse, and I can’t blame them for that. By revealing social realities that political discourse obscures or misrepresents, sociology can promote mutual understanding and coexistence among people with different beliefs. On the other hand, perhaps some scholars are also concerned that any contradiction between sociological hypotheses and Muslim doctrine risks being perceived as supporting hostility towards Muslims. I think that there are ways to ask inconvenient questions while ensuring that one’s intentions are not misunderstood, and that the autonomy of social science is not served if such questions are avoided.

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