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A Genealogy of Islamic Religious Leadership in Post-Ottoman States

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - GIRLPOS (A Genealogy of Islamic Religious Leadership in Post-Ottoman States)

Reporting period: 2018-08-01 to 2020-07-31

This project traced parallel genealogies of Islamic religious leadership in two Middle Eastern countries, Jordan and Lebanon, since their creation out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the twentieth century. Islamic religious leaders play a prominent public role in all modern Middle Eastern countries, not only as preachers but also as officials in powerful state-sponsored religious institutions. Known by traditional titles such as 'ulama' (scholars), they operate increasingly as a professional 'clergy' employed in centralised bureaucracies. Many countries in the region have a single national institution that governs a religious sector comprising mosques; shari'a courts and advisory bodies; religious education in public schools, universities and further education centres; Islamic touristic sites; and an array of other charitable endowments. The heads of these institutions also play a significant role as formal representatives of Islam to the state and national public, usually occupying a clearly-defined place in state protocol as government ministers or advisers.

The very existence and power of these official religious institutions and their leaders is often regarded as an anachronism in modern states. Often they are labelled as a vestige of a presumed pre-modern social order, and therefore a sign - for better or worse - that secularisation has not run its course. When we look at their history over the long term, however, we see something more surprising: Islamic religious leaderships have not simply been preserved but in fact largely created and consolidated into the monolithic institutions we see today. Religious institutions have been empowered alongside and as part of the grand modernising projects of the state. This research compared cases of majority Sunni leadership in Jordan, a monarchy styled in Islamic terms, and minority Druze leadership in Lebanon, a republic styled in secular pluralistic terms. In both cases, despite the seemingly very different contexts of their state-building projects and local religious traditions, similar transformations were traced in the roles of religious leaders through the modern period. The objectives of the research were firstly to better understand the changing nature of Muslim ulama through the lens of official institutions, and secondly to use these changing institutional frameworks to better understand how 'religion' has been constructed as a social category distinct from the implicitly non-religious or secular in Muslim societies in the Middle East.
"The research process for this project included both significant primary and secondary research. Primary research was based on five months of field research in Jordan and Lebanon, using archives related to major national institutions of Islamic religious leadership. Long-term secondary research was conducted in UK libraries, including a systematic review of critical scholarship on the category 'religion' in colonial contexts.

The primary research generated two original case studies of modern transformations in the role of Muslim ulama, detailing how Middle Eastern states have generated unprecedented forms of Islamic religious leadership. The case studies show how new religious hierarchies have been created through processes of professionalisation, bureaucratisation, centralisation and nationalisation. They also show that the impetus has come from among the ulama themselves as much as from state or colonial intervention. This research has been exploited in a series of outputs including 4 peer-reviewed journal articles; 1 peer-reviewed book chapter; 3 other academic book chapters; 1 magazine feature article; 3 conference presentations; 3 workshop presentations; and 2 other academic presentations.

Drawing on secondary literature, this project's Middle Eastern case studies were set within the context of a global sociology of secular modernity. That global context is used to highlight ways in which Muslims have re-invented Islam as 'religion' through the secular frame of the nation-state - whether its secularity is articulated explicitly (as in Lebanon) or implicitly (as in Jordan). Muslim ulama, by understanding their leadership role in contradistinction to (secular) government, have participated in the creation of a new language of 'religious leadership', which simultaneously defines a new 'religious' sphere of influence.

The researcher has used this project to advance a new academic subfield at the intersection of Islamic Studies and recent critical theory in the Study of Religion by facilitating interdisciplinary and trans-regional dialogue. As well as disseminating research results in various established forums, a new research network was launched to facilitate collaboration among scholars interested in 'Categories of Religion and the Secular in Islam' (CRSI). The CRSI Network's online platform includes an email discussion list, research blog and collaborative resource hub. Two highly successful dialogue activities were organised: a full-day workshop on 'Religion as a Changing Category of Muslim Practice', with 10 speakers from 6 countries; and a seminar series on 'Critical and Decolonial Approaches to ""Religion""', with 9 speakers from 5 countries. These meetings have led to several other collaborations, including a conference panel with 5 speakers from 3 countries and an edited volume entitled 'Seeing Through ""Religion"": A Practical Handbook of Critical Approaches', with 12 contributors from 5 countries."
The project has advanced the state of the art in Islamic Studies in two main ways. Firstly, it has pioneered a new conceptualisation of modern Islamic religious leadership as embedded in the institutional and discursive architecture of the modern bureaucratic state. Previous studies of Muslim ulama, based on their classical definition as scholars, have tended to focus on their functions as knowledge producers: preachers, teachers and authors. While significant, the knowledge-production paradigm's explanatory power is limited to success or failure in the marketplace of Islamic knowledge. By contract, this project's institutional-discursive paradigm helps explain the long-term empowerment and durability of mundane religious officials, as well as highlighting their large-scale monopolies over more quotidian modes of influence.

Secondly, this project has furthered the fledgling application of critical theory on 'religion' to Islam. It has modelled a new method of discerning changes in Muslim understandings of 'religion' and the 'non-religious/secular' by using institutions as a window into broad societal ways of thinking. A few previous studies had attempted to identify the presence or absence of a religion-secular binary in Islamic thought, with ambiguous and conflicting results due to the complexity of Muslim theological literature. This project, by contrast, used institutional case studies to provide more concrete evidence of how modern Muslim societies have increasingly demarcated 'religion' as an autonomous sphere requiring its own administration and representation. While demonstrating an invention (or at least re-invention) of 'religion', this study also highlighted its limits in the continued presence of counter-discourses to the globalising narrative of 'religion' and 'religions'. Such findings offer a new empirical starting point and methodological direction for future research on these questions.