In the early nineties, I was completing a BA in Religious Studies at Concordia University when I became Muslim and joined a Sufi order called the Tariqa Burhaniya. At the time, it seemed to me that the academic study of religion, particularly Islam, could only be performed from an agnostic external position rather than an internal pious one. These two perspectives could very well coexist in the same person as long as they did not mix. At least, this was the impression I was getting from my professors. Unfortunately, it felt to me like I was being asked to develop a minor form of multiple personality disorder. This was one of the reasons why I left the program and went to work as a language teacher, although I had been intending to keep going until I became a professional historian of religion. Yet the desire to study religion never left me.
More than a decade later, I returned to university firmly decided to find a solution to this problem. Well, it was a lot easier the second time around for a variety of reasons. First, I was obviously much more mature. Like most of us, over the years I had become more comfortable with tensions and apparent contradictions—be they within me or around me. Second, I registered for my MA at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at Université de Montréal, where theology and religion are generally seen to complete one another rather than to be at odds. The two approaches are distinct, taught in separate programs, but they are allowed to interact. Bridges are allowed to be built. At Concordia, religious studies and theology are taught in two very separate departments. At least when I studied there (this may have changed), most of my professors made it clear that any influence of theology within the scientific study of religion was to be avoided at all costs. When I returned to university, the third reason it was easier to study religion in a more holistic manner, drawing from all aspects of my being including my faith, is that times had changed. Cooperation and crossbreeding among various disciplines had become a popular trend. Moreover, the postmodern attack on objectivity had spread within the academy and seriously chipped away at the edifice of rationalism and scientism. A growing number of scholars now recognized that complete neutrality is impossible. Everyone has a position towards what they observe. In this mindset, honesty about one’s position, fairness, empathy and open-mindedness protect the academic from flagrant bias—not objectivity or neutrality. Rationalism as a rigid ideology was increasingly seen as a potential threat to rationality. Yet not everybody was on board. Indeed, to this day many scholars still espouse staunchly rationalist views and remain opposed to any influence of theology on the academic study of religion.
So, when I started my graduate studies it became clear to me that I needed to find theoretical approaches with some academic legitimacy that could allow me to bridge internal and external approaches to religion. This led me to decolonialism and trandisciplinarity. These have provided me with the theoretical framework within which to produce academic knowledge from a Muslim and Sufi perspective. I like Islam and Sufism. I like North Africa and West Asia. I like Arabic language(s) and culture(s). I would not be less positioned towards these subjects if I disliked them or felt fairly indifferent about them. Every position is a position. It's time to build bridges, to talk, and to share.
International Institute of Islamic Thought
The American Muslim (TAM)
La Chaire de recherche du Canada Islam, pluralisme et globalisation
Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement
Oumma.com (Islam français)
North Africa and West Asia:
Arab Information Project
Middle East Virtual Library
Middle East Studies Association
Arab Media and Society