Dr. Anver Emon Discusses Law, Language, and the Islamic at the Clark-Horowitz Lecture Series


In the first of his two Clark-Horowitz lectures on religion, Dr. Anver M. Emon spoke on the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 20 about “The ‘Islamic’ Deployed.” This first lecture, which he described as the “theoretical prelude” to the one on Thursday, asked us to investigate how we construct the “Islamic.” It also proposed a rhetorical shift from “Islam” to “Islamic”—to the adjectival. Emon noted that his approach to the subject represents an interdisciplinary approach at the intersections of law, civil society, and religion. He began by investigating the interpenetrating forces that inform constructions of the Islamic, starting with the philological. Emon then identified the philological as the main orientation of traditional Islamic studies and he further situated this orientation as working from an Orientalist framework to construct Islam as noun/object/category. In trying to condemn or defend Islam, Emon said, philology and concern with textual originalism or authenticity remain the primary approaches. Further, philology makes claims about “high tradition,” meaning: the textual, legal, male-dominated, church-centric side of the religion based on authority, text, and dogma. This ignores “lived tradition,” the more informal, folk, and oral religion that does not necessarily align with the religion’s orthodox dogmas and inscribed codes.

To contrast and converse with philology, Emon introduced the field of ethnology, which he said offers an informal approach to the Islamic with the focus on every day and the particular. Ethnology, unlike philology, de-centers the text and renders questions of authority and authenticity mostly irrelevant by “reallocating the Islamic in radically democratic terms.” The content of the Islamic becomes constructed by/as the individual in conversation with a community, thus diffusing what constitutes the Islamic into the autonomous actions of individual Muslims. Emon also pointed out, however, that ethnology can be critiqued as over-deterministic of the Islamic (just as philology can).

Emon provided a framework for understanding how “the Islamic is deployed.” He advocated seeing how the Islamic and the Muslim are “rhetorical, historically constructed,” and employed for state and non-state purposes. He urged us to investigate how attempts to define the Islamic serve exclusionary ends and to see how “Islamic” is and has always been a “sliding signifier.” Emon proposed filtering this framework through four registers to understand how the Islamic as a sliding signifier is deployed: rhetoric, time, space, and scale. Rhetoric reveals what assumptions lie behind what is being discussed. Being cognizant of time-frames reminds us that historically-rooted politics inform present epistemic assumptions. Spatial consideration allows global comparisons of constructions and understandings of the Islamic. The scale shows us that the Islamic, for example, might be deployed in very different ways on different scales—how is its international deployment in the global marketplace distinct from its national deployment from within a Muslim country? Through these registers and this framework, Emon hoped we could see that the Islamic is  intentionally constructed in very different ways for the benefit of different state and non-state projects.

In the second of his two lectures, Dr. Emon discussed the legal subject of international child abduction. Relating back to the four registers of analysis from his theoretical prelude, Emon showed how conflicts of international private law such as child abduction exemplify jurisdiction seen through space and scale. To help us try to understand the conflicts between international private law and Islamic law, Emon moved on to unpacking Islamic family law. He first tried to “locate the ‘Islamic’ in the law.” Emon commented that deployment of the Islamic allows state and cultural actors to use the bodies of citizens to enforce an image of national and cultural values.

Emon further sought to locate the Islamic within the law by analyzing “jurisprudence as mapping.” Why is it that Muslim majority countries do not see the custodial order (child custody laws) of other countries? Emon asserted that jurisprudence served as the historical Islamic way to map space. He then introduced the idea that jihad is subjunctive in Islamic jurisprudence—“it plays a rhetorical role in mapping space.” In Islamic jurisprudence, there exists an underlying desire to conceive of the world as split between the “realm of Islam” and the “realm of war” (or, in the term Emon prefers: “dominion of Islam” and “dominion of non-Islam”). Emon said that the strictness of Islamic jurisprudence helps to reassure and clarify the fuzzy cultural-political borders. By drawing clear lines in certain technical jurisprudence, Islamic law attempts to assert its authority over both dominions and to reassure itself of its authenticity. Like political cartography, Islamic jurisprudence orders and asserts ownership over spaces that are, in reality, much less clearly delineated.

Emon concluded this year’s Clark-Horowitz Lecture Series by summarizing how he had worked through the frame of philology to that of ethnography in hopes of finding a new, third frame. He discussed how various projects of state governance deploy the Islamic and what can be learned from the intersections of global politics and economics with this deployment of the Islamic. Finally, he stressed the importance of listening to those who—though perhaps “inexpert”—deploy the Islamic, for better or worse. The audience was left with a new perspective on how culture, law, and language inform each other to construct complex and overlapping global understandings of the Islamic and how we might learn to be more critical and aware of what work these constructions of Islamic identity seek to do in the world.