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methodology

Methodology

The project focuses on mapping the theological debates and positions taken on core contemporary issues by the Islamic authority structures selected for study; and on combining this analysis with developing an understanding of their followers’ aspirations and examining the factors that make them follow a particular institution or scholar. This necessitates the use of research techniques from both the humanities (primarily in Phase 1) and social sciences (mainly in Phases 2 and 3).

Phase 1: Mapping the Positions

To understand the position of any religious authority, the starting point is ideally study of the texts they produce. What do the scholars representing a particular theological or intellectual tradition say and write? Speeches, books and newspaper articles are central to understanding an individual scholar’s approach to reform and to mapping the methodological and conceptual tools they use. The first two years of the project are therefore dedicated to study of the texts and speeches of the scholars associated with the institutions under study.

In order to map the real-life consequences of their theological and intellectual positions, the writings and speeches of prominent scholars within the selected institutions are being analysed across six thematic areas. The themes selected for this comparative analysis are often seen to reflect Islam’s incompatibility with the West:

Political engagement

What forms of political structures are possible within an Islamic legal framework? This highly contested debate has major implications for the shaping of modern Muslim states, and for young Muslims’ understanding of legitimate forms of political participation. Some of the sub-themes being studied include the role of sharia in shaping the constitution; approaches to democracy; legitimate forms of political dissent; and views on jihad and suicide bombing.

Gender

When studying an institution’s approach to gender roles, the emphasis is on understanding their positions on the idealised role of a Muslim woman, while also studying their positions on specific Islamic injunctions that are seen to be discriminatory or limiting of women’s agency. Examples include: women receiving half the share of men under Islamic inheritance laws; the emphasis on a wife’s submission to her husband; and gender segregation.

Economy

Although Muslim societies are heavily embedded in the global economic order, discussions around developing an Islamic economic framework are gaining ground. Adopting a broad interpretation of ‘economy’, the project is investigating a number of sub-themes such as views on interest (riba) and interest-free banking; Islamic financial instruments; the Islamic emphasis on wealth redistribution in society (zakat) and how well-to-do Muslims should best use their money; and state involvement in regulating big business.

Science

Islam’s contribution to scientific progress in earlier centuries plays a critical role in modern Muslims’ imagination that Islam is not against reason. However, today Muslims are often presented as being opposed to modernity. What is the approach of leading Islamic institutions to the importance of scientific progress? Are some sciences seen as more legitimate than others? How do Muslim scholars deal with advances in medicine and the ethical challenges posed by modern science? These are some of the questions under study.

Art and aesthetics

Islam is often seen as restricting artistic human expression. Many forms of entertainment such as the cinema and music, which are part of daily life for most Muslims, are prohibited by traditional Islamic authorities. The project is therefore studying the institutions’ approaches towards the performing and visual arts. Which forms of artistic expression are restricted and which are encouraged? Why are some of these institutions increasingly using historical Islamic architectural sites as a teaching medium?

Spirituality

While mapping the underlying philosophical positions of these competing schools of thought, their approach to spirituality (tasawwuf) will also be a key area of cross-cutting thematic analysis.

Phase 2: Interviews and Ethnographic Fieldwork

Textual analysis is being complemented by in-depth interviews with scholars from the selected institutions, as well as extensive engagement with their students and followers. Individual interviews and groups discussions are being organised with students who take regular classes at these institutions; and also with the young Muslims who follow these scholars in person or through media such as YouTube, the internet or cable TV. The most extensive fieldwork will be carried out with followers of the institutions being studied in the West, since these have as yet received limited scholarly attention. Over the five years of the project, the project team will develop institutional histories; build profiles of their key scholars; understand their approach to intellectual revival and reform; map their organisational and transnational networks; and identify the factors which make them appeal to their students and followers.

Phase 3: Followers’ Survey

After mapping the theological and intellectual positions of the selected institutions during the first two years of the project, the team will develop and implement a number of surveys with their followers. The surveys will aim to capture the changing aspirations of young Muslims and to understand how important religion is, if at all, in shaping their everyday life choices. These surveys will also identify the factors that make a Muslim follow one Islamic authority structure over another.