Indiana University Research & Creative Activity April 1998 Volume XXI Number 1


by Leigh Hedger

The Indiana University Bloomington students were frustrated in R152, Jews, Christians, and Muslims. As Scott Alexander, an assistant professor of religious studies, began his lecture on the historical origins of these religions, he found the students weren't getting a sense of relevance--the history was all right, but what do contemporary Jews, Christians, and Muslims think and do? How could the course enable the students to feel some contact with these traditions as influential phenomena in the lives of people in their own community?

Scott Alexander, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Indiana University Bloomington, in front of the Bloomington Mosque, where he did a third of the fieldwork for the video Abraham's Children.

Presenting the material as a historian, quoting the dates and reviewing the major events and themes that shaped the evolution of these religions, Alexander found that students' eyes would glaze over. "They were alienated from history," Alexander says. "I needed to show a direct relevance to their own lives." He wanted to find a way to tie the history to the present, making it more tangible. With a class of about 100 students, field trips were logistically out of the question. So instead, Alexander brought the field trip experience into the classroom. After receiving a grant, he approached the study of Jews, Christians, and Muslims as an ethnographer and interviewed on video individuals from Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities around Bloomington. He focused on them not as authoritative representatives of these traditions but as individuals discussing what role their religion plays in their own daily lives.

Now, instead of beginning the course unit on Judaism by plunging right into the history of ancient Israel, he plays a video clip of a young American Jewish woman talking about her recent trip to Israel. Before she went, she was skeptical when her relatives talked about their visits to the "Jewish homeland." She was dismayed that they called it a homeland when they had only "visited" on short trips. When she finally went, she says her first stop was the Wailing Wall, a sacred site of her faith. There, she saw the intense emotion shared by different people from all over the world who had gathered there because of their Judaism. She saw different age groups, cultural backgrounds, languages--all sharing an intense spiritual bond. She realized that there was no place like this in the United States. Israel was a homeland for all who called themselves "Jews."

After showing this clip, Alexander asks his students to explain what was going on as this woman encountered the Wailing Wall for the first time. Answers include: a transformation, a discovery of who she is, seeing herself as a member of a larger community, realizing her ancient roots, and finding her identity in a history that goes back to Abraham. "They saw the relevance," Alexander says. "Here is this American woman, speaking with a Midwestern accent, a student at IU, talking about realizing her place in history. The students were immediately engaged. They felt a connection to her. They could relate to ways in which they themselves had an investment in history." When it came time to get into the history lesson per se, he says it made a much deeper impression.

With his collection of footage, Alexander plays selected clips as they relate to different aspects of the course. "The video material is so useful because it allows me to combine a historical approach to the evolution of these great religious traditions with a look at the connection between this evolution and what is happening in these people's lives today," Alexander says. "We can see how all of it really does matter. It's not just dusty history, the relevance of which is a mystery, but a long-term historical evolution that is important if you want to understand why these traditions play such significant roles in the lives of the people sitting next to you." Alexander notes that by capturing on video the living, oral data of interviews in the field and combining it with a study of historical texts, the students get a richer introduction to the religions they examine in the course.

Religious studies major Brian Clark reading the Qur'an in the masalla or "worship area" of the Bloomington Mosque before he joins the congregation for afternoon prayer. --credit

This project has left Alexander wanting to do more work as a historian with an interest in ethnography. He is still committed to reading the texts and conducting historical investigations into what was going on in medieval Muslim society. But he also wants to go into the field to research living Islam to find out what is going on in contemporary Muslim communities. As a historian, Alexander's research into medieval Islam has dealt with the development of sectarian identities and the factors involved with identifying oneself as belonging to a specific religious sect within the larger Muslim environment. In light of his interest in a more ethnographic approach, he is considering going to Bahrain, a primarily Arab Persian Gulf state with significant Shi'ite and Sunni populations. "I am interested in what goes into building these kinds of sectarian identities," Alexander says. "I'd like to see if an ethnographic study of sectarian identity in a context like contemporary Bahrain would shed any light on the medieval data and vice versa. I'd like to try to bring the medieval data into conversation with the data you can get by going out into the field. There are obviously going to be some significant differences between these two contexts, but I suspect some interesting continuities may emerge, and the possibility of investigating this is exciting." Alexander is also interested in how the Muslim tradition has dealt with its own questions concerning oral and written knowledge.

Part of his work, for example, has involved investigating attitudes surrounding the issue of committing to writing religious knowledge outside the Qur'an. Much of this knowledge in question involves hadith, or reports of the sayings and deeds of Muhammad and his Companions, as distinct from the revelation that Muslims believe Muhammad received directly from God through the angel Gabriel. Evidence exists in the historical record that, at an early stage in the development of Muslim religious institutions, the Muslim community had anxiety over the degree to which the hadith might challenge the scriptural preeminence of, or even become confused with, Qur'anic revelation. It also appears that this anxiety over writing down hadith may have been part of a general ambivalence toward writing as both an important mnemonic aid on one hand, and, on the other, a means of divorcing knowledge from the proper context of responsive interaction between master and disciple.

This line of study has Alexander studying an eleventh-century scholar, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi. In his Kitâb taqyîd al-'ilm, or The Book of Enscripting Sacred Knowledge, al-Khatib puts forth both sides of the issue. One argument includes sayings from Muhammad and his Companions that appear to object to writing down extra-Qur'anic religious knowledge. The other side, also attributed to Muhammad and his Companions, sings the praises and value of committing religious knowledge to writing to preserve it for posterity and aid memory.

"A curious thing about this text is that it appears at a time when the issue of writing down hadith was already moot. It had been done," Alexander says. "As far as we can tell, hadith had taken written form for at least 300 years, so by then it was a well-established tradition. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi was an individual who was obviously writing all the time, using books and notes. The question that arises in the mind of a reader like myself is why al-Khatib bothers resurrecting the question of writing down hadith if widespread practice already seemed to endorse its legitimacy?"

Alexander says al-Khatib may have felt the need to approach this issue because although producing books of religious knowledge was a common practice, many medieval Muslim scholars like al-Khatib nonetheless harbored a fundamental ambivalence toward writing. Writing in the manuscript culture of medieval Islamic scholarship, medieval Muslim scholars "couldn't live with it, nor could they live without it." This culture valued writing as a memory aid but recognized the dangers of the ways books allowed for the decontextualization of knowledge from the authoritative control of a given teacher or school, and thus could be used for claiming religious authority independent of proper certification by an established teacher or school. Medieval Muslim culture emphasized the importance of internalizing knowledge--until knowledge is internalized and recognized by an authoritative teacher to have been integrated properly into the general understanding and conduct of the student, it's not really knowledge at all. That's a sharp contrast from today's culture, Alexander says, which allows for a view of the function of knowledge in book form that would most likely trouble medieval Muslims like al-Khatib. "I myself have . . . purchased a book and felt some kind of satisfaction at just having purchased it," he says. "I may never have cracked the cover, but I feel like I have taken a step toward the knowledge because I have the book in my possession. I haven't even read it, but I am somehow closer to it because I could read it any time I want."

Two pages from a nineteenth century Iranian Qu'ran (1892 C.E.) in the manuscript collection of the Lilly Library. The verses displayed (2:67­82) are from the sura or chapter of the "Cow" and deal with the sacrifice of a heifer in Ancient Israel, the subject from which the sura takes this name.

A medieval Muslim, he says, would ridicule that attitude and say that "even if I were to read the book, I wouldn't really know anything that I hadn't committed to memory. Medieval Muslim scholars like al-Khatib would exhort us not only to commit knowledge to memory, but to learn from someone who learned it from someone who learned it from the original author," he says. "If you don't know the author, and you go buy the book off the shelf . . . , a medieval Muslim would ask how you could possibly really know what the person is saying. You don't have any opportunity to ask questions or engage him or her in any type of exchange."

As Alexander notes, this raises the important issue of more and less oral forms of writing. The contemporary book represents a "less oral" form that compensates for the reader's lack of contact with a personal authority, while the medieval Muslim manuscript represents a "more oral" form of writing that often assumes such contact.

One important lesson we can learn from the medieval Muslim tension over writing down religious knowledge is that the question of authoritative interpretation of text is at the center of the evolution of religious traditions that place a high premium on a particular set of scriptural writings. A basic lesson the historian of religions learns when investigating the way in which scripture is interpreted is that--irrespective of a religion's claim to unchanging truth--scriptural interpretation is inextricably bound to changing historical and cultural contexts. Consider Qur'anic interpretation, for example. An eleventh-century scholar living in a geopolitically triumphant Muslim culture with no outside threats may be reading the text from a linguistic perspective, commenting on grammar, expression, command of the language, and slight nuances in the meaning of a specific word. A late twentieth-century Egyptian Muslim, however, who is concerned with throwing off Western imperialism might interpret commentary on the same set of verses much differently. These different interpretations make for the richness of historical Islam, and they allow the scholar to explore and use them to deepen his or her understanding of Islam and religion in general.

Although sacred scriptures and the many texts through which they are interpreted provide tremendous insight into different eras, Alexander says he is constantly reminded that the textual record is incomplete. While the scriptures and other texts that exist are invaluable, "It is daunting to think of all the material that, for a variety of reasons, hasn't survived," Alexander says. Because of these holes, he views reconstructing history as more of an art than a science. "What actually happened will always remain in the past," he says. As a result, what historians come up with is only an interpretative reconstruction based on available evidence, which often can be highly indirect or even slim. In such cases, the challenge for the historian who works with texts is to fill in the gaps to come up with a plausible answer to the historical questions posed. On those occasions where the data is scant but too exciting to ignore, the historian with creative audacity must not be afraid to use his or her informed imagination. Like the person doing a jigsaw puzzle with lots of missing pieces, the historian sometimes faces the challenge of going out on a limb and saying, "I think this is how the pieces fit together, and here's what goes in those empty spaces." dingbat

Return to the Table of Contents