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?
What major bodies of literature do you deal with in the book?
The book takes on a large topic. Islamic pilgrimages number in the thousands (or more accurately, tens of thousands) and take place all over the world—everywhere from North America to Southeast Asia. My book has nearly 300 sources. I didn’t limit myself to the work of religious scholars, but also include the work of anthropologists, art historians, scholars of media and technology, philosophers, and others who have written about Islam, pilgrimage, sacred space, gender, and related topics such as the Internet as a religious space. I wanted to create a study that would be accessible to many and provide a space for the scholarship that exists on the topic, without excluding important perspectives. As a religious scholar, I understand that my discipline has produced a lot of great scholarship, but so have other fields of inquiry. I wanted all of these voices to be in conversation with each other.
How does the book move us from understanding pilgrimage in Islam as restricted to the hajj?
Equating pilgrimage to the hajj is an Orientalist move. While the pilgrimage to Mecca is undoubtedly a very important tradition, it has never stood alone as the only practice Muslims engaged in. In my book, I begin with a chapter dedicated to the early cities of pilgrimage—Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem—to show how ziyarat (pilgrimage) has always existed as part of a network of religious journeys. The following chapter looks at Shi’i pilgrimage, but is not restricted to only Twelver traditions (which is the most dominant group in terms of population, but not alone in its tradition of numerous pilgrimages). The chapter on Sufi and shared pilgrimage begins with a discussion of the term “Sufism” and argues that it is often incorrectly used as a moniker for “mystical” Muslims. As mysticism is an invention of British Orientalists, I argue that Sufis are really just Muslims, the majority of which participate in all sorts of religious pilgrimages. For example, a Muslim may go on the hajj, but that does not restrict them from also visiting graves, mountaintops, shrines, and other places as part of what constitutes their religious practices.
The remaining chapters also support the argument for a broader and more diverse understanding of Islamic pilgrimage. Part of this involved an effort to be inclusive of communities outside of the so-called “Middle East,” which is why readers will find the pilgrimages in Indonesia (the largest Muslim country in the world), traditions attached to the NOI (the Nation of Islam, a group not considered “Muslims” by some), and other communities. I feel strongly that it is not the place of scholars, especially white scholars like myself, to make judgements about who is Muslim or what constitutes correct practice. This is, after all, part of colonialism’s legacy, isn’t it? Classification of non-Christians into “good” and “bad,” “Orthodox” and “heterodox.”
How would you like to see people using your book?
The book is written in a language that appeals to academics and the general public. I am hoping that fellow scholars use it in the classroom, to teach about Islam, pilgrimage, sacred space, and more. But I also think it would appeal to those non-academics who are interested in learning more about Islam, sacred space, or technology and religion.
How might this book help explain the varieties of Islamic experience that constitute the Islamic tradition?
Islam cannot be understood by reducing it to the practices in one community, whether it be Sunni or Shi’i. My hope is that this book serves not only to demonstrate how diverse Islamic pilgrimage is, but how diverse Muslim communities are. Muslims go on hajj, visit graves, enact “substitution hajjs,” participate in a pilgrimage through a computer screen, or use a ritual object to transport themselves to a sacred or holy place (I call these items “permanent mementos”). It simply isn’t acceptable anymore to teach Islam, or talk about Islam, in simplistic, inaccurate terms.
What is your next project?
My next project is a study of Muslimah (female Muslim) superheroes in popular culture. I examine a number of different types of graphic texts, from comics to animated cartoons, that feature powerful Muslim girls and women. This project is in some ways a sequel to my first book, which is almost exclusively focused on Muslim men. In this new book, Veiled Superheroes: Islam, Feminism, and Popular Culture (Lexington, December 2017), I present a very different view of Muslim females and of Islam—empowered, independent, heroic. Obviously, this view is very different than the typical Orientalist view of Muslim women, which casts us as oppressed, subservient, and abused. Muslim super-heroines, from Ms. Marvel (a Muslim American) to Burka Avenger (who is from Pakistan), are the opposite of this. These characters, although fictional, reflect the diverse realities of Muslim lived experience, which includes a wide variety of experiences.