The academic study of Islam has grown rapidly in American universities, particularly since the events surrounding Sept. 11, but scholarly study has turned more toward defense of the field and sometimes Islam itself rather than engaging in new lines of research, writes Richard C. Martin in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (December).
Martin notes that the field of Islamic studies really came into its own after the Iranian revolution of 1979 as it differentiated itself from the discipline known as “Orientalism,” which studied Islam from a Western perspective. By 2009, the estimated number of American Academy of Religion (AAR) members associated with Islamic studies was over 400; in 2004, it was only 130. Islamic scholars still account for only 3.5 percent of the AAR’s total membership, and barely more than 10 percent of the departments of religion and theology in colleges and universities in North America have faculty trained in Islamic studies.
Martin writes that since 9/11 Islamic scholars have worn the two hats of teachers and researchers of Islam, and defenders of the Islamic tradition against what he calls “Islamophobia.” These scholars have become “public intellectuals” as they are called upon by the media and public officials to delineate the complexities of Islam against stereotypes, simplifications and even slander. This defensive posture has turned some scholars toward an “evangelical” support of the religion, according to Martin and other observers.
This is evident in the “new enthusiasm” for the “Progressive Islam movement” he finds among some members of the Study of Islam section of the AAR. He adds that Islamic scholars may be affected by a “saviors of Islam” syndrome where they remain hesitant to acknowledge that Islam and Muslims, like all religions and their adherents, do things that are both horrible and humane. Martin concludes by calling for greater and more inclusive debate in the field.
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