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The Senses of Islam: A Cultural History of Perception in the Muslim World

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SENSIS (The Senses of Islam: A Cultural History of Perception in the Muslim World)

Reporting period: 2019-03-01 to 2020-08-31

"The aim of SENSIS is to write a cultural history of the senses in Islam, by examining how the senses have been conceptualised, and calibrated, in a variety of Muslim environments. This endeavor is premised on the assumption that sensory perception is not only a physical but also a cultural act: how people experience and understand sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch differs according to the historical, geographical, social and intellectual contexts in which perception occurs. How, then, are we to conceive of the Muslim sensorium, past and present?

Practices and protocols of sensation complicate and enrich multicultural coexistence. In the case of Islam, Western and European societies continuously wrestle with this challenge. Western and Muslim sensibilities towards sight inform debates about the Islamic headscarf and about what may or may not be shown in the European public sphere; initiatives to build minarets and to perform the call to prayer result in arguments over how the European soundscape ought to be organised; the symbolic importance of olfaction and gustation (think of halal food and the spices used therein), but also of touch (think of handshaking, but also unsolicited tactile interactions) frames the daily encounter between Europe’s Muslim and non-Muslim citizens. A coherent and properly communicated account of the varieties of Muslim attitudes towards the senses would go a long way in making such sensory encounters more comprehensible and easier to navigate, by raising awareness of the specificities of Muslim discourses on the senses and gauging their historical anchorings. Thus, this project aims to describe and analyze a variety of Muslim discourses on the senses, from the beginning of Islam to the early 1900s, in Islamic law (sharia), theology and mysticism, philosophy and ethics, and poetry.

On this background, the questions that are posed in SENSIS are as broad as they are fundamental. For example, how many senses should one count from a Muslim perspective? How are the senses activated, controlled, and put to use in Muslim devotional practices? What are the regulatory mechanisms by which the various senses are silenced, restricted, or enhanced, in Islamic traditions, such as ethics, law and aesthetics? How are the senses deployed in the construction of Muslim identity and non-Muslim alterity? What kind of shifts and variations in Islamically founded sensory regimes can we observe in different intellectual currents, as well as different places and epochs of Islamic history? In what ways can we speak of a specifically ""Muslim"" sensorium, and in what ways has this ""Muslim sensorium"" framed the development of Islamic culture over the centuries?"
"SENSIS has built and continues to entertain a project website (https://sensis.sites.uu.nl/) on which the SENSIS team reports on events and publications in the framework of the project. SENSIS team members are working towards a variety of written output, including monographs and chapters/articles. So far, peer-reviewed articles and book chapters written by SENSIS researchers include a chapter on Western views of the sensuality of the Prophet Mohammed; a chapter on the senses (smell in particular) in the Qur’an; an article on the question of Islam’s sensory afterlife in the early history of Muslim theology and Islamic-Christian relations; two articles on the sensory aspects of Islamic ritual (the pilgrimage in particular) during Islam's early, formative period; an article on the concept of light in the history of Islamic theology; an article on the digital analysis of Islamic jurisprudence; an article on vision, hearing and synaesthesia in late-medieval Islamic mysticism; and an article on colour theory in Islamic mysticism.

SENSIS researchers also present their work at the major scholarly conferences in the area of Religious and Islamic/Middle Eastern Studies, such as the American Academy of Religion, the Middle East Studies Association, the Deutscher Orientalistentag, or the Union Europeenne des Arabisants et Islamisants, as well as providing many invited lectures at universities in Europe and the U.S.

Since the fall of 2018, SENSIS has hosted a range of workshops, symposia and conferences. In the framework of SENSIS' digital humanities research, a digital text mining tool was developed (http://arabic-dh.hum.uu.nl/corpus-frontend/about) and the SENSIS team organised a state-of-the-art international conference “Whither Islamicate digital humanities? Analytics, tools, corpora” (Netherlands Royal Academy of Sciences, Amsterdam, 13-14 December 2018). SENSIS also hosted a graduate school of the Netherlands Interuniversity School of Islamic Studies, on “Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies in the Digital Age” (Utrecht, 28-31 November 2019, which included a hands-on workshop on computational methods (see https://sensis.sites.uu.nl/2019/08/03/co-sponsored-event-nisis-autumn-school/).

During its course, SENSIS aims to organise workshops and symposia on each of the five human senses in Muslim culture(s). So far, at Utrecht, SENSIS hosted two international symposia (6-7 June 2019, “The Taste of Islam: Gustatory Aspects in Islamic Intellectual and Cultural History”, https://sensis.sites.uu.nl/2019/05/13/symposium-taste-of-islam/; 26 October 2018: ""The senses in the Qur’an and in early Islam”, https://sensis.sites.uu.nl/2018/10/24/workshop-the-senses-in-the-quran-and-in-early-islam/) and an international conference (12-13 September 2019: ""Sufism and the Body"", https://sensis.sites.uu.nl/2019/08/06/international-conference-sufism-and-the-body/). In 2019, the PI organised a panel on the sensory history of the Islamic world at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (New Orleans, 14 November 2019, see https://mesana.org/mymesa/meeting_program_session.php?sid=6ed8a238e4e838059c4407949d39aad5."
"The goal of SENSIS is to open up a new line of research in the humanities, that of Islamic sensory history. This means that SENSIS has to develop a new analytical vocabulary and disseminate it in the scholarly conversation on Islam. If successful, SENSIS will inject a new theoretical framework into Islamic and MIddle East Studies.

An important first milestone in this endeavour will be the publication of a thematic issue in the peer-reviewed journal The Senses and Society (Taylor & Francis, edited by Michael Bull and David Howes), on ""The sensory history of the Islamic world"" (proposal accepted, publication foreseen for 2022). As for other publications, in addition to separate, article-length studies, each of the team members of SENSIS is currently working towards a monograph. This includes an introduction to the history of the senses in the Islamic world; a specialised study of late-medieval Sufi (Kubrawi) doctrrines and rituals, in particular the visionary aspects thereof; a specialised study of the senses in early Islamic ritual; and the dissertation of the DR, on the sensory culture of 19th-century Iran. The SENSIS team is also working on a joint publication, a reader on Islamic sensory history, which will include translations of Islamic key texts dealing with the senses and sense perception, from the Qur'an to the 19th century."