On Situating Islam
One of the many books I’m in the middle of right now is Aaron W. Hughes’ Situating Islam: The Past and Future of an Academic Discipline (Equinox, 2007). Hughes suggests that the study of Islam has moved from a superficial, orientalist critique of Islam (according to which Muhammad was a “self-serving, power-hungry, and over-sexed individual”) to an anti-orientalist protectionism of Islam. He suggests that the latter goes too far:
An unfortunate byproduct of [the critique of orientalism] is that it has become all too easy to write off critical scholarship on Islamic origins or the Qur’an as Orientalist, thus tainting such scholarship as somehow invested if not in physical empire maintenance then at least in the academic imperialism over others. (24)
At one point he puts nicely what is pretty close to my view on whether or not religious traditions have essences:
Neither the Orientalist nor the apologist approach … provides a proper understanding of something called Islam precisely because no such thing can exist. Despite appeals to the contrary by either practitioners or scholars of the tradition, Islam, like any other religious tradition, is a series of sites of contestation, where regimes of perceived truth do battle against other such regimes in the service of something murkily called authority, tradition, or authenticity. (54)
I’d quibble with the “no such thing can exist,” but I like the rest very much!