At the beginning of May I had a short but wonderful visit to the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK for its first annual postgraduate symposium. In 2013/14, when I was still a Jameel MA student, such a get-together had only existed as an idea, so I was particularly delighted to return to Cardiff for the first time since my graduation for this symposium. I had been invited to reflect on my progress as an aspiring ethnographer and an associate lecturer of contemporary Islam after completing the MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain. I am currently completing a PhD in Sociology of Religion at Goldsmiths University as an AHRC doctoral candidate. My master thesis was a case study of a young female Muslim and her experiences of/with the Qur’an on campus. It became the pilot for my doctoral research on minority faith experience in higher education, a multi-sited ethnography on the social significance of sacred texts in Sikh, Muslim and Hindu student societies. I also teach Islamic perspectives as part of Religious Studies undergraduate courses, with a particular focus on ethics, gender and sex.
Throughout the years, the Islam-UK Centre has been engaged with practitioners, Muslim researchers and sociologists to study British Islam. I am the latter. This made for a steep learning curve when I first arrived, as many of the students and staff are practising Muslims. Within the Centre and beyond, insider/outsider debates remain popular, and the most common question I get asked at conferences has to do with my positionality as a non-Muslim researcher of Muslims. My response draws on an important lesson the MA taught me: regardless of your faith, to do good socio-scientific work, what matters is that your respondents recognise you as religiously literate. As a white, non-Muslim woman, it is my job to strategically account for how respondents might categorise me. I had to utilise my status as perceived outsider: during participant observation, I gained insight into students’ individual understandings of devotional practices as they were breaking them down for me – often this was different from their societies’ prayer ethos, let alone Islamic tradition. In interviews, I had to carefully phrase questions to signal familiarity and Islamic knowledge in order to avoid surface level conversation. At the same time, several young Muslims reported being more comfortable talking with me about their spiritual struggles as they expected less judgement.
Several key decisions in my research as well as teaching were shaped under the Islam-UK Centre’s influence. Involving local communities and explicitly designing course material to include diverse sources (read non-white/male/western) and British Islam in my teaching are perhaps the most important pointers I took from the MA. A lecture on Islamic arts, featuring a local Muslim artist from Newport, particularly stayed with me. When I introduce first year students to the Qur’an as a sacred text, I invite members of Islamic student societies to the lecture for Qur’anic recitation. We organise extra-curricular mosque tours. This kind of exposure to lived experience (as social scientists would call it) not only makes for a vibrant teaching environment, it is often the first point of contact students have with British Islam. I ‘sneak’ even more sociology into my Religious Studies modules when I show them halal certificates from the local food stores they themselves eat at. This helps increase their awareness of Islam in western contexts and encourages them to think beyond the popular but disproportionate emphasis on Wahhabi Islam in Saudi Arabia. Much harder to tackle (and perhaps the bigger challenge) as a young teacher are pre-existing curricula. Studying a range of diverse Muslim communities in the UK (particularly Somali and various South Asian populations) gave me a foundation to improve outdated reading lists and exam questions that still reflect colonial heritage.
At the symposium, we all shared similar methodologies and research interests – something that I have come to appreciate as a rare luxury. During the public lecture series in 2014, a second generation South Asian man in the audience asked if it was ‘time for British Islam’, to which us MA students rolled our eyes: we had been studying two hundred years of British Islamic history. I have since learnt that much like ‘where are you really from?’ – the question posed to Sikh, Muslim and Hindu students in my research – the place of Islam in Britain remains a focal point of discourse. The Islam-UK Centre has always been a community of friends from which to draw strength and support as I unfolded my ‘networking wings’ in the sociology of religion. I spend surprisingly little time actually talking about my research: as the discipline is still heavily dominated by the anthropology/sociology of Christianity, I often find myself answering questions about basic Islamic principles, political correctness and Islamophobia instead. Students at the Centre are important advocates of the study of British Islam, and I hope they can draw as much inspiration from it as I have. The Islam-UK Centre is a hub of outstanding networking opportunities with local communities, other researchers and professional associations such as the MBRN. I am especially thankful for their growing social media presence to keep us all up to date on all things British Islam!
Sandra Maurer is a former Jameel MA scholar and is currently completing a PhD in Sociology of Religion at Goldsmiths University. @MasonSa