Rethinking Islam: An Interview with Sophia Arjana, Pilgrimage in Islam: Traditional and Modern Practices (Oneworld, 2017)
What inspired you to begin this project, and how did that inspiration transform or continue during the project?
I had been thinking for a while about a number of issues surrounding the construction of the category of “religion,” more specifically, about how the idea of Islam has been a large part of colonial history, and how historical contingencies affect our reading of Islam today. My first book looks at the construction of the Muslim man in the Western imagination (Muslims in the Western Imagination, Oxford, 2015). In a way, this book is a continuation of this work, in the sense that I am asking questions about why certain ideas or subjects—in the first book, Muslim bodies, in this book, Muslim religious traditions—are presented the way they are, and what the history is behind these representations.
I have also been interested in theoretical issues in religion for many years, some of which I try to address in this book. This project is an attempt to reformulate the subject of Islamic pilgrimage while addressing some of the challenges surrounding the study of Islam, pilgrimage, and mysticism. Before I undertook the research, I spent considerable time thinking about the ways in which knowledge is constructed, as well as how this knowledge is used politically. It isn’t just a book about Islamic pilgrimage--hajj, umrah, Shi’i traditions, Sufi shrines, cyber-hajj, sacred space, religious souvenirs, and more—it is also about the fundamental questions surrounding the study of Islam (and more broadly, religion). Why do we define Muslims and their traditions in such narrow ways? Who “counts” as a Muslim? What is “Sufism”? Is pilgrimage always a physical journey? How is space constructed? What work does modernity do to religious traditions?