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Research on Muslims in recent years has been primarily focused on understanding the causes of religious radicalisation, both in Europe and in the Muslim-majority countries. Largely ignored in the public debates, as well as in academic scholarship, is recognition of the rapid growth in a number of prominent initiatives emerging among Muslims in the West. These initiatives are aimed at initiating intellectual revival within Islamic thought and draw inspiration from thinkers such as Al-Ghazali or Ibn-Rushd (associated with the ‘rationalist tradition’ in Islam); the Muslim intellectuals and scholars at the centre of this movement for intellectual revival are arguing for ‘indigenising Islam in the West.’ At the same time, the changes emerging within some of the most influential traditional structures of Islamic authority – such as Al-Azhar University, Dar-ul Uloom Deoband, Diyanet and Al-Medina University – in response to the changing context of the twenty-first century have not received adequate scholarly attention.

CSIA is aimed at filling this gap. It aims to understand the emergence and growth of the new intellectual reform movement in the West, and the background and methodological approaches advocated by the actors leading it. At the same time, the project aims to situate the development of this movement within the broader shifts being witnessed in the traditional structures of Islamic authority in response to the changing demography and profile of young Muslims in the West as well as in the Muslim-majority countries.

By developing detailed ethnographic accounts of these new actors and mapping changes in the strategies and approaches of the old institutions of Islamic authority – examining the intellectual discourse of the scholars at the heart of the new and old structures of Islamic authority, observing the argumentations through which they socially advance their conception of Islam, and analysing how they win followers and how these discourses affect real life choices of their followers – this project aims to shed light on the complexity of Islamic thought and changes in contemporary Muslim societies. It also aims to illuminate the changing preferences and aspirations of the Muslim youth of today and the decision making processes and considerations which make them choose one Islamic authority compared to another.

In the process, the project aims to inform both the theory of religious behaviour and of institutional persistence and change. Empirically focused on studying changes within leading institutions of Islamic learning, the project has a strong theoretical focus on refining the theory of informal institutions – such as religious beliefs, social values and cultural norms – and their relationship with development processes. While the role of institutions in explaining the development trajectories followed by different societies has been well established, there is still very limited theoretical understanding of the exact nature of the relationship between informal institutions and development, despite consensus on its importance. It is now well recognised that if institutions are defined as  ‘humanly devised constraints that shape human interaction,’  then informal institutions matter just as much as – if not more than – formal institutions. Some important theoretical questions include:

  • Is institutional path dependence particularly difficult to reverse in the case of informal institutions?
  • What societal shifts trigger change in informal institutions; and are such changes incremental or sudden?
  • What strategies do old institutional elites employ to resist institutional change; and what societal contexts are most conducive to the emergence of new elites?