Anver Emon receives Connaught Global Challenge Award to explore political power of Islamic texts

October 5, 2020 by Sean McNeely - A&S News

Bringing together experts in Islamic studies, philosophy, classical Islamic literature, anthropology, art history, political science and sociology, Anver Emon plans to advance the understanding of the meaning, power and influence of Islamic texts across different time periods.

Emon, the director of the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Institute of Islamic Studies, is leading a project titled, Reading Muslims: The Politics of Texts in Islamic Studies that was recently named a winner of the 2020-21 Connaught Global Challenge Award.

Part of the Connaught Fund, the Global Challenge Award supports new collaborations involving leading U of T researchers and students from several disciplines, along with innovators and thought leaders from other sectors.

“We’re really excited,” says Emon. “The Global Challenge grant comes out of a process recognizing that there is an intellectual problem that creates the condition for certain political problems that we must address with a certain degree of urgency.”

“This project has the potential to raise the profile of Islamic studies at the University of Toronto like no other,” says Youcef Soufi, a postdoctoral fellow with the Institute, and part of Emon’s team.

“I’m delighted to congratulate Professor Emon on this distinguished honour,” says Melanie Woodin, dean of the Faculty of Arts & Science. “He has brought together a stellar team of scholars who will no doubt bring forward new insights into the fascinating field of Islamic studies’ relationship to textuality for both academic and public audiences.”

Reading Muslims is a two-year project that examines Islamic texts from theological, academic and social perspectives. “It raises the question — how do we study Muslims today?” says Emon, who is also a professor of law and history.

“Islamic texts from across time have an ongoing political life. We speak about them in the present tense,” explains Emon. “And so, it raises the question to our text-based scholars and our anthropology-based scholars — how do we understand the place of the text as a political object, as a way of contesting who and what a Muslim is?”

The project will have four main areas of investigation. The first is Muslims’ own readings of texts and how they shape customs and practices. “We’re focusing on how Muslims make meaning for themselves out of their texts, focusing on the construction of meaning by, for and within Muslim communities,” says Emon. This will also include an examination of how the interpretation of texts has led to competing visions of Islam among North American Muslims.

The second area is the understanding of Islamic texts in Europe and North America for the surveillance and the policing of its Muslim population which can lead to Islamophobic attitudes, reflected in the reference of texts by courts and national security agencies.

“The study of Muslims and their texts is at the heart of state security agencies’ monitoring of Muslim communities,” says Emon.

The third and fourth areas focus on the academic production of knowledge about Islam, centering philology, literary studies, and anthropology as disciplinary sites of inquiry.

Engaging an established network of scholars at the Institute of Islamic Studies at U of T, Emon intends for Reading Muslims to be very interactive over its two-year span.

“We're going to start the fall with a series of podcasts, to tease out from each of the participants what their interests are in this project, why they think it's important,” he says.

A series of online webinars and workshops are also being organized that will attract scholars from Canada, the US and Europe, as well as Muslim organizational leaders. And Emon envisions a possible book, as well as articles in peer reviewed journals. This work will also lay the foundation for further policy engagement work with community and government partners.

“I suspect that once our website's podcasts, webinars and online publications are up, Islamic scholars worldwide will start following closely,” says Soufi.

Humbled by winning the Connaught Global Challenge Award, Emon calls Reading Muslims “a recipe for responsible, engaged scholarship that will have a significant shelf life.”

“It’s validation of the work we’ve been doing at the Institute already, of the community partners that have been working with us, and of the postdoctoral scholars who care about this area of study,” he adds.

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