In 2009, and again in 2010, I taught a class on the Akeda (“Binding of Isaac”) in the arts and the humanities (syllabus). The story of the Akeda, from Genesis chapter 22, is one of the central narratives of western culture. For Jews, the Akeda became a central motif of the penitential season, during which the merit of Abraham’s faith and Isaac’s willingness to be sacrificed is invoked to call upon God to forgive the people their sins and to save them in times of persecution and danger. For Christians, who often call this chapter the “Sacrifice of Isaac,” the Akeda became a foreshadowing of the crucifixion in which God sacrificed his only son for the salvation of humankind. For Muslims, the identity of the bound one became, in the post-Qur’anic period, Ishmael, the biblical founder of the Muslim people and religion. For secularists of all types, the Akeda became the embodiment of the conflict between the parental willingness to sacrifice children to various political and other causes, as well as the focus of the Oedipal conflict between father and son.
Original essays reflecting on current events, debates in the field, and other public matters relevant to scholarship in secularism and religion.
Around Christmas time, in the heart of Europe, furor broke out over blasphemous cartoons. The newspapers and public opinion were split. Was the blasphemer a public martyr for “liberty of the Press, or the right of free speech and free thought”? Or did the cartoons represent a “gross and gratuitous insult to the religious convictions of others”?
Recent months have witnessed considerable angst in the academy over what is and isn’t Islam(ic). Spurred by events from the attacks in Paris to Graeme Wood’s Atlantic article on ISIS, scholars of Islam have agonized over whether and how to apply the label “Islamic” or “Muslim” to characterize recent events. Reviewing various commentaries, there is a limited range of arguments that, by proffering competing positivist accounts of the Islamic, thereby play into a climate of moral panic about the threat Islam poses to domestic and international orders. By playing into the moral panic, such arguments, in the aggregate, preclude both critical interrogation of the scholarly production on Islam and Muslims and reflection on the possible contribution Islamic studies can make to advanced research more broadly.
The rapid and shockingly violent establishment of a self-declared Islamic Caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq by The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), rebranded in 2014 as The Islamic State (IS), has led to what Issam Eido describes as an explosion of narratives about ISIS, many of which seek a doctrinal basis for its beliefs and behavior from within the Islamic tradition.
Commentators routinely remark on the sophisticated use of media by the organization that calls itself the Islamic State, but in the past few weeks many Muslims have been using the Twitter hashtag #NotInMyName to offer a counter-narrative about Islam. The campaign began earlier this month with a video released by the London-based Active Change Foundation, featuring British Muslims speaking out against the organization (variously known as ISIS and ISIL), which, they say, does “not represent Islam or any Muslim.” A recent tweet using the hashtag stated that, “ISIS is not a representation of Islam. My religion is based upon principles of respect, love and harmony.”
When it comes to political theology, everything old is new again. At least that is the impression given by the growing interest in political theology within early modern literary studies—a dynamic relationship between past and present that often blurs our conventional delineations of what is new and what is old.
In 2004 and 2008, South African president Jacob Zuma notoriously declared that his party, the African National Congress, will “rule until Jesus comes back.” The recent national election results favor his prediction with the ANC winning its fifth national election since 1994.
Walking down Bowne Street in Flushing, Queens, you may see a most interesting sign. “Bowne House; Built in 1661," it reads, "A National Shrine to Religious Freedom.” Flushing is known for many things—the New York Mets, for example, or its Chinatown. It is not, however, known for being the location of one of the first debates over religious conscience and tolerance in the American colonies.