Is interdisciplinarity easier for scholars of South Asian studies? On the 5th Coffee Break Conference

Last week in Rome the 5th Coffee Break Conference took place. During his introductory speech our Andrew Ollett asked why was such a project, with an explicit emphasis on a interdisciplinary approach, born exactly among scholars and students of South Asian studies.

His (tentative? ironic?) answer was that it was not a coincidence, since for South Asianists interdisciplinarity is not something they need to look for, it is already a given for them —since in the same department live scholars of history, feminist studies, cinema, philology… From the point of view of Islamic studies, Marco Lauri agreed that transdisciplinarity is not bread and butter in Islamic departments. Why so? Perhaps because Islam defined itself since its beginning against the other Abrahamic religions. This led Islamic believers (and consequently also Islamic scholars) to enforce a stricter definition of Islam, one that would not allow for anthropology, religious studies, etc.

Had you asked me, I would have said that most of us work on South Asia just because the Coffee Break Project was born out of the pleasure to work together of a group of friends. Hence the question: Are we here because we work on South Asia? Or is South Asia just the reason why we met? The question is open to readers —even if they work interdisciplinarly outside the Coffee Break Project.

Cross-posted with minor differences on my own blog.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

7 Replies to “Is interdisciplinarity easier for scholars of South Asian studies? On the 5th Coffee Break Conference”

  1. How is “South Asia(n)” studies different in any (non-geographic) disciplinary-relevant manner from Near and Middle East Studies, in which Islam is examined in both comparative and inter- or trans-disciplinary fashion? Moreover, Islamic Studies, as an academic field is, today at least, often in fact transdisiplinary (take a gander at my bibliography for Islamic Studies for ample evidence of that claim), and geographically encompasses Islamic traditions in (central and southeast Asia). And the field did _not_ entirely define itself against Christianity and Islam, especially in the case of Marxist scholars like Maxime Rodinson, or those who studied Sufism, or who where predominantly historians. Knowledge of bedouin society and cultures is basic to Islamic Studies, and this generally has nothing whatsoever to do with Abrahamic traditions.

    How could Islamic Studies be said to have conceived of itself largely in these terms when most Muslims are found in in South and Southeast Asia and the fact that Islam is the most widely practiced religion in Southeast Asia! What Muslims did and what scholars of Islam did, are two very different things, and so while the former may have defined themselves in some sense “against” Judaism and Christianity (they also defined themselves in continuity in several important respects with these traditions), as well as the jāhiliyya (the pre-Islamic period of ethical and spiritual ignorance), this is not necessarily how scholars in the field defined themselves. In short, the principal claims made here (not by you, Elisa, but by those you documented) strike me as completely wrong, plain and simple.

  2. Patrick, thanks for the answer. I do not doubt that Islamic studies could be as interdisciplinary as any other areal study domain, but let me ask you a further question? You depict a colourful landscape, how much of this description is descriptive and how much is prescriptive? Are you speaking of what Islamic studies departments do or should do?

  3. It is descriptive. See this bibliography, especially the last section:
    Let’s cite a few more cases, in addition to the three examples I mentioned above, first, the area of Islamic law. Scholars here are well versed in history and sociology (and some, like Lawrence Rosen, anthropology) of law, legal theory (and sometimes philosophy of law) and civil law systems and necessarily are engaged in interdisciplinary and comparative work, it’s simply unavoidable and absolutely necessary. So too those studying Islamic philosophy: it requires a substantial knowledge of Greek philosophy and historical/cultural environments from East to West, working acquaintance several languages, apart from the methods of analytic philosophy proper (see Oliver Leaman’s work as evidence). I grabbed a book within arm’s reach that is exemplary if not representative of this interdisciplinarity: Jamal J. Elias, Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam (Harvard University Press, 2012). To be sure, the field has its narrow specialists, which have their place, but much of the best work is truly interdisciplinary (and often comparative) in significant measure. Only those with but the barest familiarity with “Islamic Studies” could believe otherwise.

  4. While the qualification sounds better, I’m still taken aback about the statement regarding “Islamic exceptionalism, namely, a way to see Islam as a largely special thing that requires special scholarly tools.” This is the one area in which I happen to have conducted considerable research (and have a few very modest things published, so you’ll have to take my word on the depth and scope of the research) and I must say I’ve never sensed nor even heard of this putative exceptionalism among academics in the field, perhaps I travel in smaller circles than Marco (or my reading and research does not overlap with his).

    I won’t attempt to argue here about the cogency of the term “Islamic philosophy” except to say that I don’t share Marco’s skepticism (and this is an ongoing complaint from a few predictable quarters), believing Oliver Leaman’s arguments on behalf of such an appellation (in several of his introductory works on same) have convincingly addressed similar complaints and concerns. At the very least, readers new to but curious about Islamic philosophy should consult section (6) on “theology and philosophy” in my aforementioned bibliography (pp. 22-32) but see, in particular, Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, eds. History of Islamic Philosophy (London:Routledge, 1996).

  5. I’ve been redirected here from the discussion in Elisa’s blog. I’m tired, so sorry for typos.
    I’ve argued there that may be no such a thing as a neutral view in humanities, and this distanced exchange may be a case in point, as my experience and readings bring a different perspective than Patrick’s.
    “Islamic exceptionalism” (an expression I created thoughtlessly commenting Elisa’s post, and that I hope gains no further currency whatsoever) seems to me very real in a number of discussions and articles I’ve read, sometimes explicit (I would point to “Hagarism” by Cook and Crone as the clearest example, but it’s arguably not even scholarship, let alone its age) far more often as unspoken assumption. It is true that it is not universal and for example, Maxime Rodinson among many others challenged it vigorously and somewhat effectively decades ago. However I have not really traveled much, so I am probably the one from smaller circles. I still confirm, however, that in my obviously limited experience and knowledge, interdisciplinary approaches are relatively rare in Islamic Studies. But again, I am from Italy, a place where interdisciplinarity seems to be actively discouraged in all fields (I had the same impression from Italian Literature scholars, though here my experience is obviously much less significant). And of course I strongly agree that interdisciplinarity is absolutely necessary in Islamic Studies (well, for me personally it is sort of the whole point of them, but I met some askance looks about it).

    For the matter of “philosophy”, I am generally of the idea that labels are tools. I confess I am not familiar with Leaman’s argument, and I lean towards the view by Dimitri Gutas that “Arabic Philosophy” may be a better label, although I admit it has its conspicuous shortcomings as well. But I don’t think it is an essential problem once it is clear what we are talking about.

  6. first, my department includes “middle eastern, south asian, and african” studies—so i, at least, had no intention of excluding islamic studies from the unintentional experiment in inter-, trans-, or post-disciplinary scholarship that i referred to. i mentioned three factors, all of which apply to islamic studies as well: (a) de-facto interdisciplinarity; (b) interaction with a long, continuous, and continuing tradition (as opposed to, say, classics, which has with few exceptions self-consciously cut itself off from the “classical tradition”); (c) the theoretical interventions of postcolonial and subaltern studies.

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