by Meir Hatina
The development of Islamic Studies during the twentieth century and beyond has found little favour with Islam as a religious phenomenon. The body of knowledge on Islam has expanded, and new genres based on new sources have gained momentum, such as social history, urban studies, public space, holy landscape, religious practices, gender, and the documentation and empowerment of subaltern voices (women, minorities, and slaves). But it seems that this wealth of scholarship has touched on Islam as a culture and civilisation, much less on Islam as religious thought, especially in terms of theology and jurisprudence, religion and state, jihad and martyrdom, war and the treatment of captives and non-combatants, international relations—issues that continue to provoke debates and polemics in the modern era as well.
The twentieth century witnessed a religious resurgence in all three monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, depicted by sociologist Jose Casanova as the “de-privatisation” of religion and its return as a contentious issue to the public sphere. The Enlightenment project, which raised the banner of secularisation, confining religion to the private sphere, was contested, whereas manifestations of blasphemy remained on the sidelines. Thus, while modernity indeed constituted a significant challenge to the established faiths, it was also a fertile breeding ground for religious redefinition, innovation, and rejuvenation. In essence, modernisation had spawned new religious ideas, communities and movements. Some of these movements, like neo-evangelical Christianity, messianic Zionism, Israeli ultra-orthodoxy, or Islamists, questioned and often defied the prevailing “secular” order. In the Islamic milieu such defiance was accompanied by assertiveness, protest and violence, affecting intellectual and scholarly discourse, which also became dominated by rigid paradigms of tensions and antagonism among the Abrahamic creeds.
These paradigms lacked a comparative historical perspective and an awareness of the diversity of Islam and the complexity of interfaith encounters. One such paradigm, nurtured by post-colonial climate, was that of Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1978), which accused Western discourse of harbouring demonic perceptions of Islam and the East as archaic and intolerant entities, in contrast to a rational and progressive West. The contribution of Orientalism to the craft of history and to Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies has been extensive. It has significantly altered the way we think, write and present the history of the peoples of Islam and the East by displaying sensitivity and empathy towards them. Orientalism heightened our awareness that non-Western societies can develop their own modernity without necessarily breaking away from indigenous identities and cultures—what Shmuel Eisenstadt called “multiple modernities.” Yet, in spite of its merits, Said’s concept precisely because of its sweeping assertions sharpened the dissonance between East and West and gave further impetus to the politics of identities. Orientalism portrayed a Western plot to uproot indigenous cultures, and it permeated not only Islamic protest movements, but also academic institutions in the Arab-Muslim world.
The rise of the “culture of criticism” (al-thaqafa al-naqdiyya), carried out by socialists and liberal circles, which challenged and even dismantled Islamic traditions and norms, has been largely marginalised in the Western scholarship. Rather, many researchers were preoccupied with political Islam or Islamism and its call for the restoration of past legacies.
Another paradigm that drew the attention of scholarly discourse in the early 1990s was Samuel Huntington’s book Clash of Civilizations (1996). It delineated a built-in tendency in Islam to violent conflict and to “bloody borders” between Muslims and non-Muslims, and demonised Islam as a religion of tyranny, intolerance and violence. The emergence of global jihad—especially in the wake of the September 11 attacks—played into Huntington’s thesis, creating a climate of cosmic war, of a permanent state of dissonance and confrontation.
The militancy image of Islam was reinforced by the rise of ISIS at the threshold of the twenty-first century and its chain of victories in Iraq and Syria. The question, posed by early Islamists in mid-twentieth century, as to whether there would be a revival of the religion of Muhammad has now been replaced by the question posed by global jihadists whether someone would be able to stand against the religion of Muhammad. Kasr al-hudud, namely the dismantling of geographical and political boundaries was ISIS’s driven force. This self-confidence mood was also reflected in ISIS’s English-language online magazine Dabiq, which opened one of its issues with the title “Break the Cross” and closed it with “By the Sword.” The cross had become a code phrase for the “new crusade,” which harboured humanity’s deviation from the path of God—such as democracy, liberalism, feminism, and atheism. It served as a trigger for violence as a purifying force.
Yet, even analysts who were not convinced of such paradigms as Orientalism and the Clash of Civilizations continued to focus on the political aspects of modern religious revival, while downplaying historical legacies and ignoring other, more ecumenical voices, in favour of such labels as “fundamentalism,” “puritanism,” “scripturalism” and “strong religion.” Accordingly, fundamentalism in world religions was explained in the five-volume Chicago Fundamentalist Project (1991–1995) as a product of pressures of modernity and reactions to these pressures: thus secularisation led to religious revivalism; the consolidation of feminist ideologies caused a backlash favouring modesty and family-based ideologies; and technology and free access to knowledge have led to religious confinement and censorship.
Neither Said’s Orientalism, nor Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, and nor the Chicago “Fundamentalism” project reflect the complex nature of interfaith encounters. Viewed from a historical perspective, civilisations were never fixed polities, but rather heterogeneous and diverse, with changing boundaries and intellectual orientations. Moreover, they were exposed to inner frictions, which at times overshadowed external conflicts with other cultures. This is true with regard to the religious wars in European history, as well as to clashes within Islamic societies, as the global jihad of al-Qaʿida and ISIS represented only one small radical fraction in a multifaceted Islamic spectrum.
On the Jewish-Christian axis recent years have witnessed an abundance of research reflecting a revived Christian interest in Jewish tradition, for example in Kabbalah. The revised scholarship has changed the long-standing stereotype of a monolithic divide between Judaism and Christianity in pre-modern times that was fed by sustained polemic traditions and modern anti-Semitism. It demonstrated the diverse nature of the study of Jewish esoteric lore among Christians, and, simultaneously, presented the Jews as agents of cultural transmission functioning within the framework of a wider society. The existence of a more diffused reality applies all the more to the multiethnic and culturally diverse Muslim world, where Jewish and Christian communities were influenced by Muslim values, norms and practices, and vice-versa, revealing deeply acculturated processes.
Approaching prevailing paradigms in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies as relative concepts that should be examined cautiously will highlight cross-cultural features and introduce a more constructive analysis of modern Islamic resurgence. Such an approach will also eschew a binary picture in favor of a diffuse reality of intertwined worlds: on the one hand, religions striving for the sole possession of revelation and holy places; and on the other, mutual recognition by religions of a shared background of myths, founding figures, injunctions, values, cosmology, social behaviour, and interactions across time and space.
Moving away from artificial precepts to examine more concrete communal realities, using sociological insights and fieldwork, is more productive and insightful. Thus, for example, many speak of religiosity and its manifestations in the public sphere. However, in the context of Islam in Israel, for instance, an increase in the number of mosques and welfare associations is clearly not a sufficient indication of the strength of the Islamic Movement and the degree of Islamisation of the Arab public domain. Public polls conducted in recent years among Muslims in Israel show that only 20% of the respondents indicated that religion should play an active role in the public sphere; the rest saw it as a moral and cultural code, and adopted a pluralistic approach to religion. Moreover, field studies conducted in mixed localities in which Muslims and Christians live, such as Haifa, Nazareth, and Kafr Qana, show cordial interethnic relations based on interpersonal and family acquaintances, joint activities in local institutions, and common interests related to their positions as minority groups vis-à-vis state authorities.
A similar picture of Islamisation as a relative process can be traced in the Middle Eastern environment. For example, with regard to the veil or head covering which stem from a social, not only a religious, trigger that allows women to move freely in public. In addition, opinion polls and interviews conducted in various Arab countries from the 2000s onward showed that a significant percentage of respondents, mainly young people, expressed a desire for the shielding of personal freedoms and the establishment of a democratic regime. Some of them even displayed indifference and skepticism to religion. These indicators, together with the different approaches regarding the place of Islam in the polity, are clear signs of religious diversity.
Perhaps it is, after all, not surprising that the Arab revolutions of 2011 (dubbed the “Arab Spring”), did not erupt on religious demands for the implementation of the shariʿa (Islamic law), but against the background of mundane issues, such as individual and civil rights, social justice, and democratisation. It is also plausible that the failure of the elected Muslim Brethren to promote these secular issues eventually brought on their downfall in 2013 only a year after they had gained power. The 2011 uprisings overturned entrenched research paradigms about the endurance of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the inherent submissiveness of the people. The Arab public space changed both its face and its historic role. It was no longer a background against which rulers projected their authority in public processions and official festivals, while the masses played a submissive role, cheering and granting them legitimacy. The demonstrators, led by educated and embittered youths, stormed the symbols of sovereignty of the Arab state, creating new modes of collective action. The dramatic events attested to a Middle East that was an integral part of the global village in terms of its exposure to modern technology, communication networks, and Western ideas.
The post-2011 scholarship was seemingly reorganising its patterns of thought, but this was not the case. Two years after the Arab revolutions, and in the shadow of civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen, and against the backdrop of the rise of ISIS, another paradigm emerged—the failed state. The failed state model refers to the breaking of the state’s authority, which is reinforced by the renewed vitality of ethnic, religious, tribal, and regional identities. Hence, ethnic-religious sectarianism became a central component of the Middle Eastern landscape and provided a platform for bloody confrontations. This conclusion seems too sweeping, and completely eliminates 100 years of state-building project in the Arab world, which witnessed the consolidation of geographical borders and the construction of national identity, even if feeble one.
Critical review of prevailing paradigms in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies does not aim to draw firm conclusions, but only to highlight the importance of having a historical and sociological perspective. Historical monitoring will keep us from falling into essentialist concepts, such as “Islam is the religion of the sword” or “the army of shrouds,” referring to suicide bombers. Of course, one cannot ignore society’s formative ethos and judicial rulings anchored in classical texts, but one must closely examine their historical evolution and the new interpretations that have permeated them. After all, social agents and movements play a crucial role in remoulding of the “truth” of scriptures, in accordance with the circumstances and aspirations of their time.
 José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), mainly chapters 1, 8.
 Said, Orientalism (new ed., London: Penguin, 2003).
 S N. Eisenstadt, "Multiple Modernities," Daedalus 129/1 (2000): 1–29.
 Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), mainly 254–265.
 Dabiq, 1437 Shawwal, no. 15. In: http://clarionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/islamic-state-magazine-dabiq-fifteen-breaking-the-cross.pdf
 Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby (eds.), The Fundamentalist Project (University of Chicago Press, 1991-1995).
 Muhammad al-Atawneh and Nohad Ali, Islam in Israel: Muslim Communities in Non-Muslim States (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 73-101; Muhammad al-Atawneh and Meir Hatina, "The Study of Islam and Muslims in Israel," Israeli Studies 24/3 (Fall 2019), 101-125.
 Brian Whitaker, Arabs without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East (California: Createspace, 2014).
 Kobi Michael and Yoel Guzansky, "The Nation State vs. the Failed State and the Arab Upheaval in the Middle East,” in Vladimir Sazonov et al (eds.), Cultural Crossroads in the Middle East (Tartu: University of Tartu Press, 2019), 220-235.
 Meir Hatina, Martyrdom in Modern Islam: Piety, Power and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).