Objectivity and Its Role in Historical Study

Before delving into the reading material for this module, I need to say one thing.  In reading Haskell’s assessment of Novick’s work, it immediately brought to mind a common problem I see when telling my friends/acquaintances that I’m a history major with an interest in pursuing a Master’s degree.  I am often told that they couldn’t study history “because it’s so boring”.  I cannot help but equate Novak’s perspective on history as dispassionate and detached as part of the reason many of our friends, coworkers and family members found the study of history so distasteful and uninteresting during their own time at school.  For me, and likely for many of my classmates, history is alive and full of excitement – and it’s because of the passion many of us have encountered in our readings, our interactions with other historians and our own personal path towards a history degree.

I cannot accept the view Haskell explains from Novick’s book of detachment as dispassionate evaluation.[1]  Rather, I find myself siding firmly on Haskell’s side when he explains that rather than removing passion from our pursuit and study of history, we must simply make sure that our passion and zeal puts us on a collision course with ideals and concepts that conflict with our own.[2]  While Haskell explains that Novick most likely agrees with a definition that equates objectivity with neutrality and/or indifference, Haskell advocates for historical study that is not without passion and can be seen through the lens of personal perspectives while still retaining the ideal of objectivity and intellectual honesty.[3]  While bias is present in each individual regardless of their field of study or attempts at objectivity, Haskell rightly points out that honesty, integrity and fairness can still be required without limiting or silencing individual voices or perspectives.[4]  From a historiographical perspective, it is by viewing history through the lens of individual perspectives, thoughts and bias that allows history to evolve its previous conceptions and give light to new ideas and interpretations of past events.  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned through my time studying history at SNHU, it’s that history is not static – it is fluid.  Two people can examine identical sources and come to radically different conclusions based on how they interpret those sources.  While historical facts and events can, in some instances, remain fixed, the way we view and interpret those events does not have to be fixed with no hope for differences of opinion and interpretation of them.

Within this module’s reading, I find myself firmly on the side of Haskell’s interpretation, recognizing the need for increased passion in the field of history, but maintaining the standards of objectivity within that passion, and demanding the values of integrity, honesty and fairness that many fields other than history similarly dictate.

[1] Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novik’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory 29, No. 2 (May, 1990): 134, accessed October 1, 2017, JSTOR.

[2] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 134.

[3] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 131.

[4] Haskell, “Objectivity Is Not Neutrality,” 133.

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Historiography: Methods and Approaches

This week, we looked at various types of historiographical essays, recognizing that while there may be wrong ways to treat a historiographical approach to history, there is no set “right” way of crafting an essay on the subject.  In fact, the approach and ultimate goal of writing historiographical essays seems to vary by the author, their interpretations of various historiographical trends in their chosen subject and how they choose to address often overwhelming amounts of research on the topics they’ve selected.  What is important for any historiographical project is to identify sources, identify the historiographical approaches that have been utilized over time and to write a clear interpretation of those approaches in whatever manner best suites the author.  In addition to understanding the basis of historiographical research, we were given three examples of historiographical writing that varied widely in organization and approach to the subject of Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition.

In the example laid out in chapter 6 of our textbook, Brundage gives an example of a historiographical essay arranged chronologically by order of the historiographical writings on the topic of the expedition.  While it is clear and concise, the topics are spread out throughout the essay, making it difficult to focus on one specific area of study within the field of the Lewis and Clark expedition.[1]  Ms. Autran’s essay which is quoted in the book is a great example of historiographic writing, but jumping back and forth between subjects based on the chronological time of writing was difficult for me to follow.

Our second example was the one that suited me best.  I’m not sure if it’s how I learn, how I process what I read, or how I like to organize things myself as a personal preference, but Moulton’s example of a historiographical essay on Lewis and Clark was much better organized in my option by subject matter instead of chronologically.[2]  He covered topics such as the source documents, the participants, the tools and many more aspects of the journey and how they’ve all been addressed by previously historical writing.[3]  It was a very easy-to-read narrative which summarized previously historiographical approaches to the expedition and it was easy to go back and re-read a particular section about an aspect of the journey that interested me personally after my first read-through.

The last example presented in this module by Cayton was an excellent example of a critical essay on an often studied subject.[4]  In the form of a book review, Cayton takes issue with some of the licenses that Slaughter took in his recent book about the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Cayton agrees that taking licenses with historiography is not a bad thing, but inferring those interpretations as fact without being supported by the evidence OR the previous centuries of historiography on the topic is.[5]  While I may not personally like some of his rhetoric in his narrative, it is a good example for me personally of when historiography goes too far into claiming speculation and interpretation as absolute fact when in reality, a lot of historical topics cannot be known with absolute certainty when assessed through the lens of bias and interpretation.

[1] Patricia J Autran, The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Changing Interpretations, quoted in Anthony Brundage, Going to the Sources, (West Sussex UK, Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 96-108.

[2]Gary E. Mouton “On Reading Lewis and Clark: The Last Twenty Years,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 38, no. 3 (1988): 28-39.

[3] Ibid, 30.

[4] Andrew R L Cayton, “Telling Stories about Lewis and Clark: Does History Still Matter?” Great Plains Quarterly 24, no. 4 (2004): 283-287.

[5] Ibid, 284.

Women, Sexuality and Islam – Final Thoughts

This class has been one of the most challenging, yet most enjoyable classes that I’ve experienced during my time at SNHU.  It has certainly raised far more questions about the topic of Women, Sexuality and Islam than I had prior to starting, but I think in many ways it’s designed to.  This topic is full of biases that come from simply being a part of a different culture than that which is being studied, and while the readings, discussions and papers have certainly served to allow me to see beyond those biases, the questions raised as those biases are stripped off seem far more pressing.  The reading for this final module is perfect, and I’m incredibly grateful that it did not come at any other time through this course.  Is Islam truly to blame for its treatment of women?  Is it a cultural problem?  Is it a reactionary move against Western post-colonialism, or is it in reality a combination of all 3?  Can the veil be empowering to the women who choose to wear it, or can anything that is down because of coercion truly empowering?  None of these questions have easy answers, and it seems that in its desire to demonize and distance itself from Western cultural values and practices, Islam has regressed even further and embraced the often-heavy yolk of fundamentalism.  But Islam is not alone in this regard.  We see a resurgence of fundamentalism in certain aspects of Western cultural traditions as well.  It would seem that in many ways these two clashing and competing cultural norms feed off of each other, and the result is a reactionary culture battle between East and West that serves to further entrench both sides with little progress being made towards equality, egalitarianism and cross-cultural respect.

I mentioned in my initial journal entry that Islam would be deadly to me.  In some regards, that sentiment is still true.  In others, my mind is slowly starting to shift and see Islam as an institution differently.  That’s the point, however – it’s not an institution, not any more than the multitude of Christian sects can be labeled an institution just because they share similar beliefs.  Islam is a belief system comprised of many interpretations, practices and cultural values, much like Christianity in the West is.  To try to characterize it, simplify it or categorize it would be a significant error in judgement that would forbid truly understanding it in any real meaningful way.  While apologists and legal specialists like El Fadel would argue, Islam is meant to be constantly changing and evolving.  The reality on the ground, however, is somewhat different from his idealized perspective.  The truth is that women are treated worse in Islamic cultures and states than they are elsewhere in the world in many meaningful and measurable ways.  That is not to say, though, that Western treatment of women is superior – it certainly has its own faults and a long way to go before it can be recognized as truly equal.  Ultimately the lessons that I’ve learned throughout this course will inform future dialogues I have with people about Islam as a cultural, political and legal system in the efforts to further the cause of fruitful and meaningful discussion rather than arguments and lingering xenophobic ideals.

Fundamentalism, Islam and Agency

This entire term it seems as though we’ve wrestled and understood writers who view Islam through the lens of colonialism, custom, culture and outside influence when attempting to explain woman’s role within it.  This module, however, we get a different perspective from Haideh Moghissi.  While other writers are content to insist in various ways that Islam’s view on women is inconsistent with the Quran and Muhammed’s original vision for his new religion, Moghissi places the blame for Islam’s greater treatment of women on Islam itself.  I’m incredibly glad that we got to read this perspective for our last term of the course, as I believe it balances all of the other resources we’ve explored and poses the problem from an internal-looking view, rather than the external view we’ve been seeing with few exceptions for the past several weeks.

There is little doubt that the views of women through the lenses of various religions have been less than ideal for centuries.  Women have been the scapegoats for societal ills, anti-female polemics, weaker, less intelligent and sexually dangerous.[1]  It would seem apparent from a comparative study of three of the world’s main religions that women are a powerful and intimidating force to be reckoned with, able to completely control and manipulate the men of society in deity-defying ways, and each religion has adopted different doctrines and practices within society to attempt to control and mitigate those dangers in order to safeguard society at large.  Moghissi demolishes (rather successfully, in my opinion) arguments for the empowering nature of the veil that we studied in our first week of the term, and shows the misogynistic nature of fundamentalist Islam for what it truly is with abrupt, honest and opinionated language that flies in the face of many arguments we’ve encountered throughout our work in this course.   She argues that colonialism cannot accurately take the whole measure of blame for women’s treatment in Islamic cultures, and that deeper, inherent problems must be addressed before true egalitarian change can be recognized and implemented.[2]

The discussion prompt this week asks if there is any point to reading and understanding the work of Mernissi, Abu-Lughod and Ahmed that we’ve been picking apart for the past several weeks.  Ultimately, the answer has to be yes.  The beauty of Moghissi’s work in our last week of the term is to recognize the flip side to the other arguments that we’ve been encountering, and to recognize both the positives and negatives of Islam’s view on and treatment of women in Islam.  To echo El Fadl from the last module, change in Islam – even minor change – must be implemented from within an Islamic framework.  This is a point that Moghissi seems to indirectly echo in her chapters.  Any influence from the Western “other” is simply going to be looked at in much the same way that colonial values were viewed.  It is going to cause fundamentalism to double-down on its positions, leading to even stricter adherence to an ancient and misogynistic interpretation of the Shari’ah which could, in fact, make the plight of women in Muslim societies even worse.  To argue for the base egalitarianism of Islam towards gender, one would need to frame an argument in Islamic context with Islamic language in an Islamic culture to have any hope of success.

Do Muslim women need saving?  Moghissi seems to think that the answer is a tentative yes – but what they need saving from in many ways is themselves and the repressive way in which they’ve been instructed in “correct” Islam which prompts them to behave in a manner consistent of and in deference to Islamic fundamentalism.  They cannot, by contrast, be dragged kicking and screaming into the western values and culture, nor is western culture necessarily superior or goal-worthy.  Instead, encouraging women to study the Quran, the Hadith and the Shari’ah for themselves and to practice it in a manner that they are comfortable with seems to be the best practice in improving their treatment both by outside sources such as the legal system and their families but also by themselves for themselves.

[1] Haideh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism, (London:  Zed Books, 1999): 25.

[2] Ibid, 19.

Can Islam Evolve to Accept the LGBTQIA Community

Islam, at least as understood by Western society and culture does not seem particularly accepting of gays and lesbians within the greater Muslim community.  It is surprising to realize, therefore, that the Quran and the Prophet Muhammed have very little – if anything – to say about gays and lesbians, and are entirely silent on the topics of sexual orientation and gay and lesbian relationships.  Islam’s ultimate authority, therefore, unlike the Bible in Christian tradition does not condemn or forbid homosexual unions – unions that were not unheard of in Muhammed’s time.[1]  While it’s true that many predominately Muslim countries proclaim homosexuality as illegal with several even invoking the death penalty for those found guilty, attitudes are perhaps beginning to shift due to the constant and heroic actions of many gay and lesbian Muslims and their allies.[2]

While the Bible condemns homosexual acts and behaviors in both the Old and New Testaments, the Quran is virtually silent on the matter, aside from the familiar story of Lut and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  The Prophet Muhammed was also silent on both sexual orientation and homosexual behaviors, although they were certainly practiced throughout his lifetime by those he knew.[3]  By understanding not only where the predominant view of homosexuality in Islam comes from but also the heterosexism inherent in much of Muslim culture, it is possible to trace these attitudes and map out a possible course of action to stop them.  Surprisingly the West has a part to play in Islamic attitudes on sexuality and sexual orientation.[4]  A return to traditionalism and fundamentalism in Islamic culture, jurisprudence and authority, much like its counterpart in Western society, has forced a hardline approach towards homosexual behavior and sexual orientation.[5]  But fundamentalism in much of Muslim society – at least society that is not found in an Islamic or Shari’a state government – has not stemmed the tide of growing awareness and acceptance at a societal level.[6]  In Muslim communities not governed by a state-sanctioned or enforced Shari’a legal code, understandings about homosexuality and sexual orientation have begun to develop as more and more professionals have come out to denounce both reparative therapy and calls for perpetual celibacy for those in the gay community.[7]

State-sanctioned persecution and repression are not the only obstacles to gay and lesbian Muslims, however.  Many members of the gay community are marginalized, stigmatized and disowned by their families or communities upon coming out.[8]  In order for the gay community to gain acceptance in Muslim culture, therefore, it is imperative to not only confront the legal reality facing many members of the gay and lesbian community, but also the social reality inherent in coming out and attempting to live an authentic life.  Many gay and lesbian Muslims mention being disowned, cut off or even facing violent retribution from their family members.[9]  It is unreasonable to assume that should sexual orientation be understood as involuntary and inherent under the law in Muslim countries that it would automatically be accepted on a societal or familial level as well.  Much like the culture in many Western societies where homosexuality is being normalized on a daily basis, individual acceptance varies widely by not only religious norms but cultural ones as well.  Acceptance for the gay community in any societal group is ultimately dependent upon shifts in thinking that cannot happen solely at the state level, but on the individual level as well.

As more and more courageous members of the LGBTQIA community step forwards and identify themselves in predominately Muslim communities, the louder their collective voices will become, and the more normalized homosexuality will be.  Although the voices of fundamentalism may be loud, they are gradually being outdone by voices of compassion, science, reason and counter-apologetics.  The conversations within family groups, cultural groups and societal groups are beginning to shift more towards acceptance and tolerance around the world, and the Islamic world [10]at large is not immune from the change.  Although it seems unlikely in the current divisive and cultural climate, the winds of tolerance are sweeping through the Muslim world one voice at a time, and it seems evident from similar trends that Muslim jurisprudence will find a way to accept sexual orientation eventually in much the same way as the United States has.  Though those critical and opposed to equality may never completely fade, new generations are lending their voices to the change on a daily basis, often putting their lives on the line in the process.  Ultimately this will result in the ability of Islam to respect the differences of their gay and lesbian members, and welcome them into the fold of Islam.  When asking if Islam can evolve to accept their LGBTQIA members, the answer has to be yes because, in reality, it is already in process.  Although progress is slow, the change has already begun.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

AbuKhalil, Asad.  “A Note on the Study of Homosexuality in the Arab/Islamic Civilization.”  The Arab Studies Journal 1, no. 2 (1993): 32-34, 48.

 

Helie, Anissa.  “Holy Hatred.”  Reproductive Health Matters 12, no. 23 (2004): 120-124.

 

Jahangir, Junaid B & Hussein Abdul-latif.  “Investigating the Islamic Perspective on Homosexuality.”  Journal of Homosexuality 63, no. 7 (2016): 925-954.

 

Kugle, Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle.  Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims.  New York: NYU Press, 2014.

[1] Anissa Helie, “Holy Hatred,” Reproductive Health Matters 12, no. 23 (2004): 121.

[2] Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Muslims (New York: NYU Press, 2014): 22.

[3] Ibid, 32.

[4] As’ad AbuKhalil, “A Note on the Study of Homosexuality in the Arab/Islamic Civilization,” The Arab Studies Journal 1, no. 2 (1993): 33.

[5] Ibid, 33.

[6] Kugle, 22.

[7] Junaid B Jahangir & Hussein Abdul-latif, “Investigating the Islamic Perspective on Homosexuality,” Journal of Homosexuality 63, no. 7 (2016): 934.

[8] Helie, 121.

[9] Kule, 38.

[10] Jahangir & Abdul-latif, 935.

Authority, Responsibility and the Law

If there is one thing that the reading this weak made abundantly clear is the element of personal responsibility in the Islamic world.  I find the idea admirable in a way.  In so much of culture of the United States that I see and experience (especially these days) there is a tendency to try to shift blame to someone – anyone else – and not take any level of personal responsibility for your own words, actions and beliefs.  To be fair, the United States has always been a litigious society, just ask the Pilgrims.  But I digress.  The simple base knowledge that each individual Muslim is responsible to God for all of their actions regardless of their education, beliefs or knowledge levels means that diligently seeking the truth, seeking out those more educated and aware than yourself and making sure that you are reasonably well informed on God’s will and expectations becomes critical.[1]  I also found it particularly interesting that in Islamic thought, God judges a person not necessarily on their conclusions or the end result of their search for the Divine will but rather on their efforts.[2]

Although the reading was difficult to follow at times and was highly technical and informative, the concepts of authority verses authoritarianism were also particularly interesting.  Since there is no “church” in Islam, and no central authority or religious leadership that could be compared to the Pope in the Catholic faith, understanding the will of God and accepting that will and “submitting” – literally the meaning of the world Islam – to that will becomes the product of individual search.[3] Since it is not possible for every Muslim to become an expert on Islamic jurisprudence, they rely on various jurist schools within Islamic tradition, though these jurists themselves are not in a position of authority with an expectation of obedience without question.[4]  Although debated and somewhat curtailed, questioning is actually a foundational principle of Islam, and choosing a jurist school to follow is completely up to the individual.[5]

While Shari’a should necessarily be evolving, changeable and informed by the culture and the people of various generations, it seems to have become more fixed and unchangeable.  I see this as an indication of power struggles within Islam itself and the desire to exert authority over Muslim people, not necessarily keeping the fundamental teachings, beliefs and practices of Muhammed himself or his vision for Islam going past his death. For women specifically, this manifests in a male-dominated society and cultural practices that in many ways keep them from the equality that was perhaps Muhammed’s original intent.

[1] Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name, (London: United One World, 2001), 58.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 43.

[4] Ibid, 33.

[5] Ibid, 58.

Islam’s Relation to Culture

As our readings throughout this course became more and more advanced, they combined into a functional understanding of what Islam is – as well as what Islam isn’t.  I think it’s absolutely certain that Islam exists apart from the collection of Muslims who practice it.  Religions have come and gone throughout history, but the memory of them lingers even when their followers no longer exist.  Almost everyone can name at least one Greek or Roman god, even though the practice of those ancient religions have faded into obscurity.  As religions stop being practiced, they start being viewed through the lens of mythology rather than practiced religions, but nevertheless the memory of them persists.

That being said, I also believe that Islam is as much a product of the multiple cultures where it is practiced as it is about a particular holy text or collection of beliefs.  We saw this in our readings from the very beginning of the term, and it has held true throughout all 6 weeks so far.  It started in regards to the veil as we read in our very first module, expressed and argued by Abu-Lughod and its place in culture and society in Muslim communities it became obvious that the practices of Islam vary by culture, region and people.[1]  It continued through the aftermath of Muhammed’s death and the influence of both his male and female followers in Module 3.[2]  How women are viewed under the veil of Islam varies greatly by culture, locale and attitudes of those enmeshed in those societies.

This module as we look at both gendered reactions towards death and female genital mutilation, we are faced with a lot of cultural norms that are abhorrent to us in Western society that are practiced by Muslims in Africa, instead of the Middle East.  Although FGM is not a tradition exclusive or even originating within Islam, it is one that is practiced widely in various areas.  Understanding the practice is difficult, since no one really knows who started it or why, but understanding various positive reactions and implications associated with it starts to shed light on the tradition.[3]  In my opinion, this is yet another example to follow many others in previous modules of culture influencing Islam, and Islam both condemning and supporting cultural norms in a specific society.[4]

In closing, I think it may be possible in some instances to separate Islam from the cultures it is practiced in, but doing so would be tedious and difficult.  Islam, like many other religions practiced around the world, seems deeply connected to various cultures and societal norms in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.

[1] Lila Aabu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?  Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 784.

[2] Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminists Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1991): 70.

[3] Kathryn M Yount, “Symbolic Gender Politics, Religious Group Identity and the Decline in Female Genital Cutting in Minya, Egypt,” Social Forces 82, no. 3 (2004): 1063.

[4] Ibid, 1083.