Recently, it has been almost impossible to turn on the news without some mention of the conflict in the Middle East and, by association, Islam. For Asma Afsaruddin, professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, much of the information about the Muslim faith requires more unpacking, especially for Western audiences.
“We think of Muslims inhabiting primarily the Middle East,” Afsaruddin said. “Muslims are all over, and of course as Western citizens there are certain concerns that now come to the fore for them.”
As a way to help place the discussion of Islam in a modern context, Afsaruddin was commissioned by Edinburgh University Press to write Contemporary Issues in Islam, published last fall. The book tackles hot-button issues surrounding the Muslim faith, including politics, gender roles, and Islamic law.
It is her latest foray into issues surrounding Islam. Her book Striving in the Path of God: Jihad and Martyrdom in Islamic Thought was published in 2013 by Oxford University Press and was awarded the World Book Prize in Islamic Studies by the Iranian government in 2015. It was also a runner-up for the British-Kuwaiti Friendship Society Book Prize in 2014. Afsaruddin has authored or edited six other books and written over fifty book chapters and essays on a variety of issues in Islamic thought and intellectual history.
As Afsaruddin said, the challenge for religious traditions to adapt to ever-changing societies is not new. But as national and communal boundaries between cultures dissolve, Muslims, like members of other religious traditions that are rooted in the pre-modern world, must grapple with unprecedented issues.
“The U.S. is probably the best example of a very multicultural, pluralist society,” she said. “Sometimes there appear to be no ground rules. So you have to go back to your sources, revisit these texts, plumb your history, and come up with certain pointers for the way forward.”
But while Afsaruddin said information about historical and political contexts is important to help understand the current situation in Muslim-majority societies, what tends to happen is that simplistic stories with sensational, negative headlines attract people’s attention. And that can have potentially devastating consequences for Muslim communities.
“Militancy, terrorism, oppression of women, and political authoritarianism then reflexively become associated with all these different Muslim majority societies in existence,” she said. “Obviously you can’t tar an entire spectrum of societies spread out over the globe with such a broad brush.”
To combat these stereotypes, Afsaruddin said it is important to understand the vast diversity within the Islamic tradition itself. She writes in her book about the religion’s multiple legal and theological schools and explains how even Muslim scholars rarely agree on key issues outside of worship. She said getting a firm grasp on this historical foundation may help people understand Islam in modernity, a term that is difficult to define.
“There are many different ways of being modern, and religion can be a very salient part of that,” Afsaruddin said. “This is becoming predominantly the approach rather than simply falling back on kind of the canned slogans of the past, that you have to effect this very strict divorce, if you like, between religion and society and religion and government. People are pushing back and saying, ‘Well, no, it’s never as stark as that.’ Historical reality is after all complex and requires more nuanced approaches.”
As for the future of Islam in modern society, Afsaruddin said she sees hope in the way Muslim religious scholars and practitioners are working with members of other religious groups. Some of the key issues facing Islam – politics, gender issues, violence – face other religions, as well, and Afsaruddin said maintaining a religious and cultural dialogue can help solve these problems and form a common ground between faith-based as well as secular communities.
“None of these activities centered on dialogue and stressing shared values and concerns are very sensational, therefore they don’t get picked up by the media and you don’t get these banner headlines saying, ‘Look these people are sitting together and talking about peaceful things and finding things in common’” she said. “That sounds boring but that’s where I think the momentum lies and that’s how grassroots change will occur in the future. We should not underestimate the effects of people talking to one another and working together; down the line I think that will progressively allow for significant and positive changes to take place. We are already seeing evidence of such positive transformations, as I discuss in the book.”
Hear from Afsaruddin in this new podcast from the New Books Network.