First Advisory Committee Meeting

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The project envisages an active and inclusive role for its Advisory Committee. The first meeting was scheduled early on, to gain feedback on the project’s basic assumptions, conceptual framing, selection of institutions, research methodology and ethical considerations before work began in earnest.

The meeting included the following sessions to help clarify key issues and to establish the detailed work to be undertaken by the first phase of the project:

Session 1: Project introduction

The first session provided a detailed overview of the project. It introduced the project objectives, rationale and starting assumptions. It also presented a brief description of the organisations selected for study, the research methods being used, and the expected outcomes. The main objective of the session was to get the Advisory Committee members’ view on the overall scope and viability of the project.

Session 2: Defining the ideological spectrum

A core objective of the project is to investigate how the different categories of Islamic institutions to be studied are responding to societal change; and which category has the most potential to initiate ‘intellectual reform or revival’ within Islam. This session addressed the need to have firm starting definitions for terms which are widely debated in the literature – terms such as orthodoxy, reform and modernism, for example; to define what we mean by intellectual reform; and to develop clear criteria by which to categorise the institutions to be studied.

Session 3: Selection of institutions for study

The project is looking at two main categories of institutions: the new intellectual reform or revival movements in the West; and four key orthodox centres of Islamic authority based in Muslim-majority countries. However, the four established centres have many offshoots in the West: there are over 600 Deobandi madrasas in the UK alone, for example. This session considered how to establish selection criteria for such affiliated mosques and madrasas in the West.

Session 4: Dealing with textual sources

Understanding the potential for intellectual reform within the institutions under study requires an engagement with the texts they produce. This session considered how to select the most representative texts from each institution; which scholars’ works should be analysed; and which texts best capture the differing inter-generational viewpoints that exist within each institution. It also examined whether books, speeches, fatwas and institutional newsletters should be given equal weight in terms of representing an institutional viewpoint.

Session 5: Themes under study

The original project design proposed comparing the various institutions’ positions on five themes: gender equality; democracy and participatory governance; Islamic economics; legitimate jihad; and responses to recent incidents of contempt of the Prophet, particularly those which have incited violent global protest. Alternative themes were debated during this session, including notions of beauty in Islam and homosexuality. The latter is a challenging issue for the scholars from the new reform movements in the West, as they are under pressure to be politically correct.

Session 6: Putting texts into context and using media and visual material

While texts are crucial to understanding the official position of an institution, exercising religious authority demands constant adaptation of the text to the demands of the local context. This session looked at how important the ‘ethnography of public reasoning’ is to understanding the stated as against the actual positions of these institutions. It considered the extent to which ethnographic and observational methods can be replaced by watching scholars’ interactions with their followers and their lecture sessions which are now available on YouTube, DVDs and TV; and whether the project could commission video recordings of classroom sessions and workshops in order to reduce time in the field, but without compromising quality.

Session 7: Ethics review

Given the sensitive issues being researched, and in compliance with European Research Council (ERC) requirements, the project has to meet higher than average ethical requirements. Although the project already has a rigorous ethics protocol in place, which has been approved by Oxford’s Central University Research Ethics Committee (CUREC), Advisory Committee members’ feedback was sought on whether this protocol is adequate; and whether they felt it meets the requirements of the various countries in which research will take place.