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Exploring Muslim world-making

By Daan Beekers . How should we understand, analyze and compare the cultural worlds that Muslims make and live by? And how should we approach the role of religion in these worlds? These are the central questions of the Muslim World-Making research seminar, a platform for researchers with an interest in studying the everyday lives of Muslims, which will start this Thursday and will be hosted by the VU department of anthropology.

With the increasing social and political interest in Islam, social science research on Muslims has grown exponentially in recent decades. Yet, the very subject matter of this field is characterized by a degree of ambiguity: we study Muslims, but what does it actually mean to say that someone is a ‘Muslim’? Is there a coherent, universal ‘Muslim identity’ that we may find when we compare, say, Indonesian villagers to Moroccan-Dutch people in the suburbs of Amsterdam? To what extent should we see religion as a defining feature of the everyday lives of Muslims? These are difficult questions, which have become only more pertinent in the light of the heated public and political debates about Islam.

This ambiguity in the study of Muslims has fostered two separate critiques of the field. The first, raised with regard to research on Muslims in Europe in particular, deplores the focus on such themes as integration, radicalization and security at the cost of in-depth investigations of religious experience and practice (see e.g. Sunier). The second critique, rather directed at studies of Muslims in predominantly Islamic societies, criticizes the focus on religious piety and the disregard of the complex and often non-pious nature of people’s everyday lives (see e.g. Schielke). In short, religion is pushed too much to the background according to the first critique and too much to the foreground according to the second. There are good arguments for both of these positions.

The challenge, then, is to take account of the aspirations to piety that many Muslims appear to have, while at same time pay attention to the complexity, conflicts and contradictions they are likely to experience in their everyday lives. This is the challenge that we hope to take up in the research seminar. We (the conveners of the seminar) intend to examine the various worlds that Muslims make and live by, without deciding beforehand what such ‘Muslim worlds’ should look like.

The concept ‘Muslim world-making’ has a number of advantages in this respect. The adjective Muslim indicates that we are concerned with Muslims. We are interested in the social activity of concrete individuals, rather than the formal or ideal-typical models of religion that the adjective ‘Islamic’ would suggest. The term world-making refers to a creative process involving acting people. We are looking at the cultural activity of Muslim world-making, rather than at the manifestation of a fixed or static ‘Muslim world’. Further, different from such concepts as ‘identity’, world-making does not only refer to how people perceive themselves, but also how they relate to others and how they are socialized in – and themselves (re)create – particular cultural worlds.

In this regard, ‘world-making’ captures, on the one hand, the ambition of religion to ‘govern access to the world’ (Lefort and Mbembe) and, on the other, the observation that people’s attempts at world-making always come up against discontinuities, inconsistencies and ‘cracks in the story’, as Mattijs van de Port has shown in his discussion of the concept in his recent book Ecstatic Encounters. It is these two sides of the coin of world-making that we hope to explore in our seminar. We will do this by discussing the ongoing work of researchers in this field from universities around the Netherlands and occasionally inviting leading scholars (from abroad) to talk about their latest research. All students and researchers working on these issues are very welcome to attend our seminars.

The seminar series is organized and convened by Thijl Sunier, David Kloos and Daan Beekers. For more information see

Daan Beekers is a PhD-candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology (VU). He works on a comparative study of young, actively practicing Muslims and Christians in the Netherlands. See also his previous posts on Standplaats Wereld.

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