[P6032] Islamic Knowledge and the Construction of Religious Authority in the Modern World

Created by Mary Elston
Tuesday, 10/06/20 01:30 pm


In the field of Islamic studies, the question of who has the authority to determine what constitutes sound Islamic knowledge, and how individuals and institutions acquire the right to do so, has received significant attention. In modern circumstances, the religious authority of the traditionally trained scholars ('ulama) is said to have been "fragmented," due to the rise of mass literacy, communications, and education, and with them, the emergence of an array of social actors and institutions claiming to speak for Islam (Eickelman and Piscatori 1996). This new context has pushed the production and dissemination of Islamic knowledge beyond traditional centers of learning, while also asking new and old actors to rethink questions of legitimacy, knowledge, and modalities of learning. This panel seeks to illuminate the variegated landscape of Islamic knowledge production and dissemination in the modern world by examining the diverse ways that a host of actors--religious scholars, academics, the state, and female preachers (murshidat)--have sought to define the content and form of Islamic knowledge. Our panelists bring attention to the ways that particular historical circumstances have shaped the practices and discourses of Islamic knowledge production, while also illuminating how the construction of knowledge can itself be a means of constituting religious authority.
The diversity of our cases and their geographic expanse, which includes Egypt, the United States, English-speaking "Western" academia, and Morocco, speaks to the many ways and contexts in which this process may unfold. The first case examines a contemporary traditionalist revival movement in Egypt's al-Azhar--the preeminent institution of Islamic learning--investigating how Egyptian 'ulama are redefining the practices and content of Islamic knowledge transmission in response to the spread of putative religious extremism. The second case considers the role of academics in English-speaking "Western" academia as "experts" who translate between Muslim and non-Muslim audiences, while also shaping debates over legitimate Islamic knowledge. The third case examines US-based 'ulama's use of social media platforms as a new modality of religious education, primarily focusing on how these scholars root the social activism they preach online in the teachings of the foundational Islamic texts. The fourth case explores the Moroccan state's reliance on female preachers (murshidat) to spread "moderate" Islam, bringing attention to how these women understand their role as state actors, spiritual guides, and women's rights advocates.


Rel Stds/Theo




Pegah Zohouri

(University of Oxford)
DPhil candidate in Oriental (Middle Eastern Studies) at the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College. She has been a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. Her research engages with contemporary transnational...
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Aria Nakissa

(Washington University in St. Louis)
Panel Participating Role(s): Discussant;

Mary Elston

(Harvard University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Organizer; Presenter;

Nareman Amin

(Princeton University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;

Ilham Idrissi Bichr

(Emory University)
Panel Participating Role(s): Presenter;