This contribution observes the titling conventions and pedagogical aims of the broader project, though it enters into the scholarly conversation on “affect” through another, related term: “emotion.”
The history of emotion is a developed field of study for the medieval and early-modern West, for medieval Byzantium, and has also been applied to select sources on medieval Islam, especially the Qur’ān. The study of emotional regimes, or, as Jamal Elias recently suggested, “emotional ecologies” or “emotional habitus,” has also been a marked feature of scholarship on Sūfism, describing the cultivation of spiritual dispositions and the language of religious experience that describes the attainment of “states” (ḥāl) of constriction and expansion (qabḍ and basṭ). In recent years the purview of emotion studies for medieval Islamicists has grown. In October 2019, a special issue of the journal Cultural History (guest edited by Helen Blatherwick and Julia Bray) on “Arabic Emotions: From the Qur’an to the Popular Epic” features contributions from a range of Islamicists and a foreword by Barbara Rosenwein, a premier scholar of religion and emotion in the medieval West.
In more contemporary studies of emotion and the Islamic world, provocations to new research have occasionally come in the form of popular representations of Muslims as essentially, and excessively, emotional. Starting in 1989, with the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, then followed by various iterations of the Muḥammad “cartoon controversy,” and up to the violent 2015 incident at the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, responses to the publication of such literatures and images in some parts of the Muslim world have ranged from verbal complaints and public protests to occasionally extreme violence. In both media reporting and scholarly analyses of these events and their aftermaths, the question of why such incidents caused so much unrest (and such violent responses) is often answered in distinctly emotional terms. Satirical images were seen as “injurious,” causing “hurt feelings” among Muslims. It was not only popular media critiques that tended to reduce modern Muslim political subjectivity to the domain of injured emotions. Even scholarly attempts to contextualize these responses could be couched in emotional terms. Anthropologist Saba Mahmood, for example, characterized the response to the Danish Cartoon Controversy of 2005 as a “moral injury,” that stemmed from some Muslims’ sense of “personal loss” or “grief and sorrow” at seeing the cartoons.
Against this type of reading, other analyses of emotion and religion have critiqued emotion-as-explanation for events among contemporary Muslims, nevertheless arguing that the politics of emotion remain crucial. They argue that the reading of these reactions as “hurt feelings” or indeed the concept of “religious feelings” itself, are tools used to render legible the illegible (and hence illegitimate) Muslim reactions to controversial events in the service of a broader public that “is still bewildered by the question of how ‘simple drawings’ can cause so much anger.” N. Yasemin Ural and Anna Lea Berg couched their analysis of the concept of “religious feeling” in a discussion of eighteenth-century theologian Friedrich Schleirmacher, William James, and contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor. They remind us that the concept of “religious feeling” has its origins in Protestant theology which, “at the end of the 18th century, redefined religion as a feeling located in the inner self as opposed to religion as dogma or church.” Ural and Berg note that this paradigm, rather than being universally applicable, is deeply rooted in how religion has been conceived in secular modernity. Importantly, Ural and Berg’s goal in clarifying this well-known genealogy for the notion of “religious feeling” was not to dismiss the role of feeling in the aforementioned controversies. Rather, they wished to provide an alternative for “hurt feelings” in what they see as the more substantive concept of affect, which for them focuses on community and “relationality” rather than on individual interiority, and which “goes beyond the mainstream idea of hurt religious feelings.”
For Islamicists who study the Middle Ages, it is also instructive to consider how popular but erroneous conceptions of “the medieval” or “pre-modern” shape contemporary discourse, as well. Some popular characterizations of contemporary Muslim political behavior, for example, see Muslims as having failed to modernize, and casts them as childishly or irrationally stunted and unable to adapt to secular modernity. This view implicitly suggests that in the pre-modern Muslim world, people were simplistic, irrational, or emotionally unsophisticated. Current scholarly trends on the history of emotion and the medieval Islamic world, however, (as carried out by Bray, Bauer, and others) are beginning to rectify such superficial understandings of how emotions helped shape life in the medieval Islamic world, and promise to open up new and fruitful avenues of inquiry across a variety of new genres, including but not limited to history, religious studies, and literary studies.