Teaching Islam as an Asian Religion - and Urdu. ... obvious similarities between these three Abrahamic religions. They ... Teaching Islam as an Asian Religion

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<ul><li><p>4 EDUCATION ABOUT ASIA Volume 10, Number 1 Spring 2005</p><p>As Bulliet points out,many accounts ofIslamic history actu-ally end here. Those</p><p>that continue often describe the fol-lowing period of Islamic history asone of atrophy and decay that is oflittle historical consequence untilthe recent fundamentalist resur-gence. But as Bulliet notes, this nar-rative is deeply inaccurate.3 Mostsignificantly, it privileges the Arablands of Islams origin, erroneouslyequating the political decline of theArabs with the decline of Islamiccivilization.</p><p>But as others have pointed out,the next five centuries were periodsof great cultural fluorescence inother parts of the Muslim world.4</p><p>This period saw the emergence ofthe great transnational Sufi orders,which in many ways defined thereligious culture of medieval Islam.This period also witnessed the rise of the vernacular literary traditions in Islamincluding magnificent poetry in Persian, Turkish, and Urdu. It also saw remarkable achievements of Islamic architecture, including the Taj Mahal and the Registan of Samarqand. Nowhere was this fluorescence more apparent than in Asia. In the wake of the Mongol conquests, many of the Turko-Mongol tribes converted to Islam, bringing new vitality and insights into Islamic religion and civilization. Theywent on to establish the great medieval empires of the Asian Mus-lim worldthe Safavids in Iran, and the Ottomans and theMughals in South Asia. During this period Islam became firmlyestablished in Southeast Asia. As a result, it became one of the</p><p>major religious traditions of Asia,linking populations from Anatoliato Urumchi, from Bukhara to Ben-gal, from Sindh to Jakarta. </p><p>ISLAM AS ANASIAN RELIGION</p><p>Islam is sometimes treated as aproblematic part of the curriculum.How does it fit it into the larger cur-riculum? Where should it betaught? Is it part of some nebulousfield known as Middle East Stud-ies? Should it be included in Asianand African studies programs? Thisis particularly evident in the contextof structuring introductory religioncourses. A few years ago our reli-gious studies department at KenyonCollege restructured our curricu-lum, moving from a year-long intro-ductory course, which covered bothmethods and world religions, to asingle-semester introduction. This,of course, raised the issue of how tostructure the new shorter course. We</p><p>briefly considered, and rejected, a formula used in many religiondepartments: offer two optionsa one-semester course on the Religions of the West and another on the Religions of the East.One reason we rejected this option was the difficulty of decidingwhere to teach Islam.</p><p>In departments that structure their courses this way, Islam isusually grouped with Judaism and Christianity as one of the Religions of the West. At first this seems quite logical. There areobvious similarities between these three Abrahamic religions. Theyshare a common symbolic universe consisting of a monotheisticGod, prophets, angels, and similar understandings of the afterlife andsalvation.</p><p>Teaching Islam as an Asian ReligionBy Vernon James Schubel</p><p>In the introduction to his book Islam: The View from the Edge, Richard Bulliet states, The story of Islam hasalways privileged the view from the center.1 He then recounts a standard version of that story found in manyintroductory textbooks. In summary, in 611 CE Muhammad hears the revelation of God and becomes the Prophetof Islam. In 622 he immigrates to Medina and establishes the first Islamic polity. After conquering Mecca, he diesin 632 and the Muslim community (ummah) institutes the Caliphate. After a period of civil war (fitna) followingthe death of the third Caliph Uthman, the Arab Umayyad Dynasty is established, followed by the more diverseAbbasid Caliphate, and, after a brief period of cultural fluorescence, the Islamic empire sinks into an irreparablepolitical degeneration, which culminates in the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. Thus begins the lengthydecline of Islam.2</p><p>Bektashi calligraphy creating an image of the human face from the Arabic lettersspelling the name of Ali, the first Shii Imam and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. Photograph by Vernon James Schubel.</p></li><li><p>5</p><p>But there are difficulties with this approach. In most depart-ments this course is taught by a specialist in Christianity or Judaism.This person, who usually has little graduate training in Islam, mustthen teach one third of the course on the basis of inaccurate sec-ondary sources or the scant material in introductory World Religiontexts. Furthermore, there is an unfortunate tendency to see Islam as asimple religion that requires less time to teach. Perhaps for this rea-son Islam often winds up getting a week or two at the end of thesemester. Often these courses focus on a comparison of the theologi-cal elements that link these traditions, an approach that tends toremove Islam from its historical contexts. Furthermore, the compari-son of Islam with Judaism and Christianity as they developed in theWest can create an impression that the Muslim world was primarilyfocused on the European territories to its west, while in fact Muslimswere much more actively involved in the eastern lands of Eurasia,especially in the medieval period. </p><p>In my department these problems were compounded by thefact that although I am its Islam specialist, I am by training a schol-ar of South Asian Islam. My secondary specialization in graduateschool was Hinduism. Given my expertise it did not make muchsense for me to regularly teach Religions of the West, where Iwould devote large blocks of time to Judaism and Christianity.More importantly, from my perspective as an Asianist and a scholar of Islam, it seemed obvious that any course on Asian Reli-gions or Religions of the East must necessarily include Islam.After all, Islam has played a crucial role in Asia. Any comprehen-sive understanding of Asian civilizations and cultures requires anunderstanding of Islam.</p><p>In fact, in many ways Asia became the heartland of Islam.Indonesia is the largest Muslim country. India, a country with aMuslim minority, has the second largest population of Muslimswell over 100 million. Together the three modern countries of theAsian subcontinentIndia, Pakistan, and Bangladeshcontain thelargest concentration of Muslims in the world. Muslim CentralAsialargely ignored by the North American scholarly communitybecause of its political incorporation into the former Soviet Unionwas the crucial conduit connecting a vast Asian system of trade andcultural exchange. The founders of many of the major Sufi ordersincluding Bahauddin Naqshband, Ahmet Yesevi, Najmuddin Kubra,and Muinuddin Chishtilived and worked in Asia.</p><p>Yet, despite the longstanding presence of Muslims in Asia,Islam is regularly omitted from the list of Asian religions. The text-book Religions of Asia published by St. Martins Press claims in itsintroduction to offer a comprehensive introduction to the majorreligious traditions of Asiawhich it defines as Hinduism, Bud-dhism, the religions of China and Japan, and Jainism andSikhism.5 There is virtually no discussion of Islam, except forpassing mention of how Muslims destroyed Buddhism and con-verted Hindus.6</p><p>Why is one of the most significant religious traditions of Asiacommonly omitted from the list of Asian religions? Some argue thatIslam is somehow alien to Asia, a point that is difficult to defend.Not only is it arbitrary to define the Arab East, located geographical-ly in Southwest Asia, as lying outside of the Asian continent,7 butIslam is no more alien to the Indian subcontinent, Central Asia,China, or Southeast Asia than Christianity or Judaismwhich origi-nated in Southwest Asiaare to Europe and North America. And</p><p>yet no one seriously wants to remove these traditions from the list ofReligions of the West courses simply because they originated inthe East.</p><p>Some scholars of Asia write about Islam as not only alien toAsia, but as morally or intellectually inferior. K. N. Chaudhuri in hismajor work on the Asian world system, Asia Before Europe, afterrecognizing the Islamic world as one of the four great Asian civiliza-tions, goes on to assert that Hindu civilization remained the mostformidable adversary of Islam in the Western Indian Ocean and a fargreater rival in the mental domain. No Arab or Persian thinker everapproached the intellectual depth or brilliance of Shankara orRamanuja8a statement for which he offers no proof except tofootnote Das Guptas A History of India Philosophy. This attitude isnot uncommon among certain Asianists, some of whom see Islam asunsophisticated and anti-intellectual compared to the indigenous reli-gions of the region. For these Asianists, Islam will always be thesimple religion of desert Arabs, as opposed to the intricate world-views of Hindus, Buddhists, and neo-Confucianists. Of course thisposition ignores not only the brilliant poetry of Rumi and Attar, but</p><p>Gateway to medieval madrasah complex in the old city of Bukhara,Uzbekistan. Photograph by Vernon James Schubel.</p><p>. . . Islam has played a crucial role in Asia.</p><p>Any comprehensive understanding of Asian</p><p>civilizations and cultures requires an </p><p>understanding of Islam.</p></li><li><p>6 EDUCATION ABOUT ASIA Volume 10, Number 1 Spring 2005</p><p>also the philosophical texts of Al-Farabi, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Sina,the mystical theology of Ibn Arabi, and the legal writings of al-Shafii.</p><p>Over the course of my career, I have had colleagues who arguethat Islam is non-Asian because it is monotheisticunlike trulyAsian religious systems, which are polytheistic, monistic, or non-theistic. Following this essentialist model, Islam came to Asia analien conqueror, and maintains that status to this daya rare concur-rence of the most negative viewpoints of chauvinist Orientalists andextremist Hindu nationalists. I argue that such arguments are bothinaccurate and rooted in a lack of knowledge about the way thatIslam has for centuries been integrated into the larger Asian context.</p><p>ISLAM IN ASIAN STUDIESAt Kenyon College we have developed an interdisciplinary concen-tration in Asian Studies. Our program is in many ways unique in thatit is inherently comparative. Rather than study just one region ofAsia, students are required to take courses dealing with both EastAsia and South Asia. The program culminates in a senior capstonecourse that emphasizes this comparative aspect. A central theme ofthis course has been the notion that there is an interconnected AsianWorld system. It has become increasingly clear that once we stopteaching China and India as self-contained, isolated regions, it</p><p>becomes necessary to include the neglected areas of Muslim CentralAsia that border and connect East and South Asia, the region JanetAbu Lughod refers to in her book Before European Hegemony as theMideast Heartland.9 While it is possible to teach the history andcultures of East and South Asia without reference to the Muslim ter-ritories that border them, to do so produces a distorted image of theregion and ignores the complex historical processes that shaped it.</p><p>In particular, the role of Central Asia in the larger history ofAsia is crucial for understanding the specific histories of China andIndia. The impact of both Muslim and non-Muslim Mongols onChina has been a significant aspect of Chinese history. YuanDynasty China was the result of the interaction of Han, Mongol,Buddhist, and Muslim cultures.10 An understanding of the role ofCentral Asian Turks in the development of the institutions of theDelhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire is crucial for understandingIndian history, which is also inexplicably bound up with the historyof Central Asian Turko-Mongol rulers like Babur and Shah Ismail.The legacy of Timur and the Timurids casts a powerful shadow overall of Asia; understanding that impact is essential to any deep under-standing of Asia. By understanding Central Asia we learn, in theend, a tremendous amount about East and South Asia as well. Andthat requires an understanding of Islam.</p><p>An understanding of Islam is also crucial to an effective readingof important Muslim primary sources dealing with Asiasuch asthe travelogue of Ibn Batuta and the Ain-i Akbari. Reading the account of the fourteenth-century North African traveler IbnBatuta, and his ability to travel all the way across North Africa andAsia into China and Southeast Asia by relying on the hospitality ofMuslim co-religionists, in a meaningful way requires an understand-ing of his social role as a Muslim scholar (alim), his belief in Sufisaints (auliyah), and the role of Sufi orders (tariqats) in medievalIslam.</p><p>Qawwali performers in the courtyard of the shrine of the saint Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmeer, India. Photograph by Vernon James Schubel.</p><p>While it is possible to teach the history and </p><p>cultures of East and South Asia without </p><p>reference to the Muslim territories that border</p><p>them, to do so produces a distorted image of</p><p>the region and ignores the complex historical</p><p>processes that shaped it.</p></li><li><p>7</p><p>Within our Asian Studies program we recently discussedwhether or not to count Arabic as an Asian language for the purpos-es of our interdisciplinary concentration. Given the importance ofArabic as a scholarly and ritual language for the nearly three-quarterof a billion Muslims living in Asia, the tremendous number of pri-mary sources written by Muslims about Asia, as well as primaryIslamic sources such as Tirmidhis collection of hadith (accounts ofthe sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad), and numerousSufi treatises written in Arabic, most of us agreed that it would beintellectually incoherent to not accept Arabic as an appropriate lan-guage for Asian studies.</p><p>TEACHING ISLAM AS AN ASIAN RELIGIONBalancing the Contextual and the Universal</p><p>Islam, like any religion, needs to be understood not only as a body ofideas, but as a lived faith. And that requires the teaching of context.Teaching Islam as an Asian tradition allows for the kind of contextu-al approach that brings Islam alive for students. My first academicexposure to Islam came in a course on the Religions of India taughtby the late Professor Hyla Converse at Oklahoma State University in1976. When we came to the section on Islam, I was not looking for-ward to it. We had already covered what I initially imagined wouldbe the interesting elements of the coursethe wonderful narrativesof the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the philosophical intricaciesof Buddhist thought, and the profound asceticism of Jain monks andsannyasins (Hindu ascetics). At the time, I thought of Islam as sim-ply a sterner version of Christianity and Judaisma textual religionof laws established by a patriarchal deity presenting humanity with alist of rules. To my surprise, Professor Converse began her discus-sion with spectacular slides of the Taj Mahalwalking us throughthe architecture, connecting it to Qurnic motifs and theological</p><p>doctrines. This was followed by compelling images of the rituals andfestivities at the tombs of Sufi saints. Then and there I made thedecision...</p></li></ul>