Berlin Institute for Islamic Theology

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Berlin Institute for Islamic Theology | Research Groups | Islamic Theology in Context: Scholarship and Society

Islamic Theology in Context: Scholarship and Society (funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research)

The junior research group seeks to direct greater attention within Islamic theological research to the practical enactment or performance of religion, thus expanding the knowledge bases and reference points of Islamic theology to include the various fields and concepts of practice. In the future, the research group intends both to reinforce the academic foundation of Islamic theology in Germany and to contribute to overarching issues in the humanities, social sciences and cultural studies. Ultimately, the resulting findings will have an impact in socially relevant areas of application (such as the education sector, areas of practical theology, religious education, social work and social ethics).

Theoretical Orientation

Today, Islamic theological research in Germany is primarily concerned with textual sources, concepts of religious education, and past and contemporary aspects of the history of Islamic ideas. The realm of (religious) practice remains woefully neglected or plays a merely subordinate role. The main objective of our junior research group therefore is to analyse this practical dimension of religion thoroughly and thus make it more accessible for theological reflection. The aim is to further specify Islamic theological research in Germany and more distinctly highlight its value to society.

For our concept of practice, we employ approaches from practice theory; as a shared theoretical point of departure, we distinguish between the three terms “religious activities”, “religious practice” and the “practice of religion”.

Religious activities are concrete procedures that comprise a practice. They constitute the smallest unit of analysis and consist of doings of people. Activities are enacted between bodies and materialities in a manner that is contingent upon time, space, and situation. Practical knowledge, or “know-how”, is grounded in these activities.

Religious practice is a chain of activities in which bodily routines and practical skills are brought to bear. It follows its own internal logic, which is not always rationally justified by the participants. Thus, this is not a matter of applying norms or rules that have been consciously reflected upon, but more a case of practically rehearsed modes of behaviour. The practical knowledge necessary for this is acquired through socialisation and upbringing, reinforced by experience, and imbued with meaning by the person acting. This takes a social and cultural condition as a prerequisite.

The practice of religion denotes practising religion and spirituality in the sense of its conscious and reflective application for the sake of attaining salvation. Unlike religious practice, which is primarily marked by a prereflexive religiosity, the practice of religion involves a consciously reflected upon religiosity, in which activities are labelled and developed as Islamic/religious.

As such, we define practice as Islamic/religious insofar as it positions itself within an “Islamic tradition” and coheres thanks to practical knowledge surrounding (Islamic) religion and spirituality. At the same time, our concept of practice expands the boundaries of religiousness, bringing activities and practices into its scope that are only indirectly recognisable as religious or Islamic. We apply a wide range of methods – field work, including participant observation, field notes and interviews; material and media analyses and also discourse analyses – in order to academically explore religious activities, religious practice and the practice of religion.

In two post-doc projects and two dissertation projects, we are highlighting the aforementioned areas as independent subjects of research. We want to contemplate practice more thoroughly and not only treat it in contrast with or as an application of normative knowledge. For example, practice transcends such categories as ḥalāl and ḥarām. Thus, we are taking into consideration the diversity of practice with its wide range of manifestations, interpretations, and embeddedness within lived experience. In our research projects, we identify and investigate forms, the production, circulation, and authorisation of religious activities, religious practice and the practice of religion in Germany. In this endeavour, the transcultural, interfaith and at times mutually contradictory Islamic religious formations in all their multiplicity serve as the societal context. Our work is contemporary, empirical, and interdisciplinary without neglecting the historical and intellectual dimensions of the objects of research. Social theory concepts of materiality, embodiment, and spatiality are common threads tying together various objects of research:

Embodiment: Activities are performed by human bodies. This places the body itself, its movements, speech acts, emotions, and conditions at the centre of activities. Through experience, the human body stores the knowledge of how to perform an activity at the appropriate moment. Practical knowledge is virtually inscribed in the body, both explicitly via educational interventions and implicitly, through “silent pedagogy”, imitation and acquisition. In this context, concepts such as habitus, socialisation, routine, and improvisation serve as important analytical categories for our work. As such, embodied knowledge should not be conflated with individual character traits or isolated one-time events. It should be analysed as “socially shared knowledge” that transcends time and individuals.

Materiality: Practice theory perspectives on religion explicitly emphasise its material dimension. Bodily action is always enacted with the involvement of objects, particularly as objects call upon specific behaviours and thus enable concrete activities. Conversely, it is only the activities that determine what impacts objects can unleash. Hence, materiality is also a constitutive element in the creation and reproduction of religion as a practical enactment.

Space/spatiality: Activities occur in space, and are therefore fundamentally characterised by their spatiality. In one sense, spatiality encompasses concrete local places that possess a material form as well as translocal places that are not tied to one particular location. In another sense, we focus on an abstract definition of space, specifically discursive spaces that are created by the interactions between structure, discourse, and activities. In regard to activities, this means that they both affect a space and are influenced by it. In this way, (non-)religious or (non-)sacred spaces are created. Thus, in our conception, space is not simply a background against which things are enacted, but a social product that is created in the ongoing interplay with activities.