Can the Anthropology of Islam be Post-Secular?

I rarely manage to avoid people when studying manuscripts. This is true even in such sociopathic places as the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts in St Petersburg, which was designed to preserve artefacts in lifeless, silent isolation. Differently, the work with private archives involves a lot of talking: interactions with the owners of private collections is unavoidable and one is exposed to their never-ending stories. In fact, my salvation so far has been listening, for I am a buyer in the field, not a seller. And to my students I have been telling that the job of the anthropologist is to sit in a corner and watch, listen, and take notes.

Still, after eighteen seasons of fieldwork I must confess that to hide in a corner isn’t enough. It is true of course that the presence of the anthropologist has a transformative effect on the field. Furthermore, as scholars we become part and parcel of all possible exchanges on the ground, regardless our intent and often against our will. As a result, one has to deal with the field and find a format of co-learning and cooperation, a way, that is, to be as productive as harmless to everyone involved. Yes, to dismantle the hierarchies of knowledge production is hard.

Recently, I have been most fascinated to read about the fieldwork experience of Lieke Wijnia, a Dutch anthropologist studying the post-secular art in the Netherlands ( In her magisterial work, Wijnia demonstrates an impressive, indeed unprecedented degree of openness to her interviewees. In fact, she took on board their conceptual and bibliographic recommendations! Based on this example I reason that working together with actors in the field beyond the disgraceful dependencies of discourse translation or source-acquisition has a potential of contributing to the decolonization of  the study of Islam in Central Eurasia.

These thoughts came in line with my own experience of doing fieldwork. While hunting for manuscripts and inspecting private archives, I often came across intellectually attractive, yet eccentric individuals with whom I discussed a broad range of topics ranging from human rights to Qur’anic exegesis. Clearly, one cannot avoid contemporary politics when doing a long-time anthropology of Islam in Russia and Central Asia. In most cases, when debating with people of religious background over matters of knowledge production, I felt deprived of any authority: I was routinely told that to say anything about Islam one has to combine an outer appearance of a Muslim scholar with the deep knowledge of Arabic language and other Islamic disciplines. To be sure, I did not claim any authority on religious matters, but my interlocutors in the field

would throw at me of the blame of colonial Orientalism and secularist Islam, by arguing that one ought to be part of Islam to understand it. An intellectual challenge manifested itself there: for me as a Muslim historian and for local Muslim scholars who do not really know how to establish a productive dialog in a post-secular environment.

One can reasonably ask: why should one care about the opinions of those religious-minded people, ignorant of Anglophone social theories? As a matter of fact, one decides for oneself. I do care, however, because I want to be of use for the people who need stories of their past and visions of the future and I believe that our discipline has much to offer in this regard. This is why I believe it crucial to find a common language with multiple audiences in the field, or in the societies where we happen to do research, not for the sake of self-promotion in Western academia, but for the benefit of cultures and communities.

Finding a common language is no easy task, however. To start on a high note, many religious figures in contemporary Russia have been very supportive of my projects revolving around the collection, study, and popularization of Islamic manuscripts in the region. I could feel this support when random ‘Muslim-looking’ individuals would stop on the street of Kazan to share a few positive comments on my works. Among other things, I took a step in building a shared discursive platform with religious audiences by recording a tour at our exhibition on Muslim book culture together with Shamil Aliautdinov, a prominent but controversial Moscow-based theologian( One can see that occasionally Russian Arabists appear at the conferences organized by Muslim institutions or even the councils for contemporary fatwa production. However, the authority of such experts is often contested when it comes to matters of belief.

Such is a case that has happened to me recently, and I would like to briefly share it before the publication of my article on the topic. Some time ago I learned of the existence of a Qur’anic translation penned by Muhammad Murad al-Ramzi (1855-1935), a mujaddidi shaykh famous for his history of Russia’s Muslims (تلفيق-الأخبار-وتلقيح-الآثار-في-وقائع-قزان-وبلغار-وملوك-التتار) and the translation of Sirhindi’s glorious Maktubat ( Thanks to Kamil Samigullin, the current mufti of the Republic of Tatarstan, I had the opportunity to consult the original and to use digital copy for my research. To share my preliminary findings, I delivered an online lecture for a Muslim audience interested in the intellectual history of Islam ( During the lecture, I expressed my surprise at the apparent absence of Sufi terminology in the manuscript and suggested that by the end of his career the elderly al-Ramzi became tired of Sufi cosmology and therefore produced a quite rationalist text that has a lot in common with the language of coeval Muslim reformists. Soon after I received a feedback from the mufti who pointed out the flaws in my reasoning and suggested an alternative reading of al-Ramzi’s work. Himself a Sufi shaykh affiliated with the Turkish Ismail Agha brotherhood, Samigullin rejected the idea of al-Ramzi’s farewell to Sufism and insisted that the Qur’anic commentary is not a place for talking about matters of Sufi piety. He further explained that al-Ramzi had reached such a high stage of spiritual perfection that he could deliver his message in a simple way. According to the mufti, true Sufism cannot be distinguished from shari‘a and it is faulty to look for ‘mysticism’ in a mujaddidi work. To retain an aura of intrigue, the reader can find the rest of our debate in my forthcoming article. Here I will make only a few observations pertaining to the intellectual value of such engagement with actors in the field.

In similar contexts, I would expect a mutual disregard of (semi-) secular scholars and (semi-) religious figures. The former would blame the imams on account of their ignorance. The latter would claim that Orientalists are the enemies of Islam. In our case, however, there is a degree of mutual interest that I, on my behalf, attempt to cherish, develop, and reflect upon. What we see here is that a random exchange over matters of exegesis has morphed into a debate at the intersection of Western academia and mujaddidi reasoning. I find it crucially important that one and the same manuscript can produce alternative readings, which become themselves generative of an intellectual conversation in the crucible of a post-secular environment. Neither side can claim absolute authority over the text and it is through a dialogic interaction that one can hope to achieve a nuanced understanding of both the historical artefact and its significance in the present among members of a Sufi brotherhood.

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