University of Michigan
in Anthropology and History
Muslim engagements with the classical Islamic tradition in the US are framed by a context of contending cultures where multiple and competing claims to authority emerge. For Muslim Americans the choice between traditional and modern is moot, yet the question of how to be modern in a way that is recognizably “our own” remains. In light of the crisis of religious authority, partly inherited from the post-colonial Muslim world, Muslim American youth at the end of the 20th century have begun traveling to the intellectual centers of the Muslim Middle East in search for a “traditional” education. These Muslim travelers are hoping to reform their US communities and protect the legitimacy and authority of their tradition-in-crisis by becoming literate in legal and theological discourses with deep historical roots. The issues of literacy and authority shape their curriculum. Many students claim they want to be trained in the classical tradition of evaluating the authority of texts and developing a critical faculty and authoritative interpretations, a methodology they identify as “traditional.” However, some students are simply becoming familiar with a classical canon assumed to be the exclusive and final word because of its historical origins. The more serious, long-term students and the Arab teachers hotly debate whether literacy can be achieved during an extended “vacation.” Many argue that the “democratization” of access to authoritative knowledge often undermines or reconfigures the very tradition it references. The relations of knowledge, particularly in legal contexts are transformed. The processes by which authorizing arguments and practices are drawn on highlight the various relations of power embedded in the religious tradition. By placing an ethnographic lens on the experiences of Muslim American “students of knowledge” in Damascus and Cairo, I will explore the nature of religious authority and the ways it is enacted, reconfigured and reinforced.