Final Thoughts: On Orientalism and Religious Studies

Since our last class today and between procrastinating over the second integrative essay, I’ve been ruminating on my impressions of “Saints and Demons” and what I will I really take away from this educational experience. Will it be the specificities of baraka transmission among the Sidis of Morocco? (Probably not.) Will I recall a performance study analysis of hillulot in the coming years? (It’s doubtful.) One of the lessons that will endure in my mind, though, will be a seemingly obvious, yet often overlooked, one: simple things are much more complicated than they appear.

Here I’d like to invite Edward Said, literary theorist and writer, to my reflections. Said’s contribution to the field of post-colonial theory has been monumental: in his masterwork Orientalism, Said examined the West’s discourse of Eastern cultures, and the way in which the “East” is constructed by a set of ethnocentric, exotifying concepts imposed by Westerners. Euro-Americans, he posited, believed that their sources of information on the East stood in aggregate for all that the East could be (sources that came from colonizers, capitalists, and combatants), and that this area stood as some monolithic, static Other that the West could know, and therefore dominate. Eastern cultures, then, were perceived as perpetually backward, hopelessly oppressive, and in need of (white) intervention.

Orientalism is such an important concept even today, for this process still takes place–orientalism is not a relic of the past, but a real force in East-West relations and conceptions in the present. A look at how Islam is portrayed in the mainstream media, France’s recent banning of the hijab in schools and government places, or the so-called War on Terror serve as but a few of the many contemporary examples. Perhaps inadvertently, perhaps subconsciously, “Saints and Demons” has personally contested such orientalizing forces as a learning experience. The course was founded on an examination of Islam and Judaism, on offering the whole range of complexities that comes with the religious experience, on a deconsctruction of what we thought these religions to be.

Josef Meri introduced our class to readings on sainthoods and the construction of holy intermediaries among Muslims, a practice that flies in the face of official Islamic teaching and blurs the boundaries of what qualifies as that faith. Ben-Ami and Weingrod taught our class about hillulot for Jews in Morocco and Israel, which has become an act of ethnic reaffirmation for North Africans there and a challenge to the majority Ashkenazic understanding of what counts as valid worship in Judaism. Sh’chur further documented the tension between Sepharic popular religious practices that Moroccan Jews brought to Israel and the often negative reactions they invites from European-origin Jews. Who knew that Sufi brotherhoods existed in Islam, and existed to such a diverse degree? Based on Western-furnished mindsets, could we have expected the rich interplay between jinn in Islam and Judaism?

Through this class, I’ve reaffirmed that Islam is not a monolith. It is not a giant zone of conformity, where all believers worship and express devotion in the same manner. Conversely, Judaism is not a common ground on which all Jews stand, but a terrain of different practices and experiences from communities all over the world. There is incredible diversity within these faiths; there are stark similarities between them, too. Must they be cohesively united into tidy ‘Islam only’ and ‘Judaism, please’ boxes? Or is the religious experience more about the people around you and their influence on your cosmology; does it involve, rather than what a name  indicates,  the interactions and traditions of your ancestors–whether they were sharifian saints or a zar priestesses?

The answers to these questions, and the observations I present here, hold real implication for our thinking and for how the world works.  There are shared elements of Islam and Judaism that unite them in certain ways, as this class has affirmed. At the same time, Islam and Judaism each contain such a mélange of sects and beliefs and characters and concepts that they couldn’t possibly be reduced to a one-size-fits-all, all-inclusive lens of study. Perhaps realization of these implications will change the way members of each faith interact; maybe this knowledge will cure some of the Orientalist ignorance that afflicts many in the West. At the very least, these implications imbue “Saints and Demons” with plenty of significance–and lots of bold value in the academic study of religion.

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