International research: Collaborating to study the crisis of religious authority in Islam

This is the final part in a five-part series highlighting the work of the President's International Research Award recipients.

To better understand the fragmentation of religious authority in Islam, Ron Sela is working with researchers around the world. But bringing scholars of Islam together in one place isn't easy.

Description of the following video:

[Video: "Indiana University Presents" appears in the upper-left corner of the screen]

[Video: An animated hand, writing with a pen, appears on a red background.]

[Words appear: Our main goal is to study the fragmentation]

[Words appear on the left side of the screen: of religious authority in Islam.]

[Video: An icon of a mosque appears on the right side of the screen.]

Ron Sela, the director of the Islamic Studies Program, speaks in voiceover: Our main goal is to study the fragmentation of religious authority in Islam.

[Video: Sela appears on camera]

[Words appear: Ron Sela, director, Islamic Studies Program]

Sela speaks: Because there is a perception that the Muslim world is a coherent unit. And because there is a perception ...

[Words appear: Perception by: casual reader, policy makers]

[Video: An animated computer, with lines connecting to three circles, appears on the left side of the screen. An animated "scales of justice" appears on the right side of the screen.]

Sela speaks in voiceover: ... both by the casual reader or listener to media, also by policy makers.

[Words appear: There is also perception by scholars.]

[Video: Icons of two graduates in their caps and gowns appear on the right side of the screen.]

Sela speaks in voiceover: But also by some scholars that the Muslim world is in some sort of a chaos, or has been a state of crisis for a while.

[Video: Sela appears on camera.]

Sela speaks: We are trying to understand who or what is considered authoritative in Islam and has this understanding of authority.

[Words appear: We want to bring our research to the world.]

[Video: An animated, spinning globe appears on the right side of the screen. An animated hand appears, drawing an Indiana University trident on the globe.]

Sela speaks in voiceover: Part of our initiative is to really bring our research to the world and to collaborate with the world on what we do.

[Words appear: Researchers from around the world bring different perspectives.

[Video: An animated light bulb appears on the right side of the screen. It illuminates and turns from a dark color to a bright yellow.]

Sela speaks in voiceover: Researchers around the world bring different perspectives and sometimes are educated in different ways.]

[Video: Sela appears on camera.]

Sela speaks: They have more immediate connection, not only to the sources but to the languages of the sources. And so, although we boast a certain expertise, in both ...

[Words appear: Expertise in linguistic competence and historical methodologies.]

[Video: An animated "thought bubble," with three moving dots in the center of it, appears on the left side of the screen. A book icon appears on the right side of the screen.]

Sela speaks in voiceover: ... linguistic competence and in historical or other methodologies, it's only the bringing together of work ...

[Video: Two animated shaking hands appear on screen.]

Sela speaks in voiceover: ... of our work and of local scholars' work ...

[Video: An animated spinning globe appears on screen.]

Sela speaks in voiceover: ... that makes it worthwhile.

[Screen goes to black]

[IU trident appears]

[Words appear: Indiana University]

[Words appear: Fulfilling the promise]

[Words appear: iu.edu]

[END OF TRANSCRIPT]

Video by Samantha Thompson, Indiana University

The fragmentation and plurality of Islamic authority have been among the most fiercely contested phenomena among Muslims in both Muslim-minority and -majority societies and has recently been characterized as a "crisis," said Sela, associate professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University Bloomington and the director of the Islamic Studies Program.

"Despite its significant implications for Muslims and non-Muslims alike -- implications that range from the ability to perform mundane religious activities to embracing radicalized positions -- this subject has also been among the least studied in the West," Sela said.

Through a series of international workshops, Sela and his colleagues aim to assess and analyze the causes, spectrum and consequences of an increasingly diverse, decentralized and disjointed practices of religious authority in Muslim societies, both regionally and comparatively. They also intend to make the research more accessible by translating it into multiple languages with the support of international colleagues. But academics studying Islam are scattered across the globe, and the current political climate poses unique challenges to collaborative international research on Islam.

"Bringing people to the United States who are Muslims or who do scholarly work on Islam from other countries, in this day and age, can be a little problematic," Sela said.

Sela has found that researchers in his field are sometimes discouraged by the process of getting a visa needed for travel or by the treatment they receive when they come to the U.S.

Ron Sela at the IU India GatewayView print quality image
Ron Sela, right, led a workshop organized at the IU India Gateway office in Delhi, where participants discussed the changing patterns of religious authority among the Muslim communities of South Asia. Photo courtesy of the IU India Gateway

"Researchers around the world bring different perspectives and sometimes are educated in different ways," Sela said. "They have a more immediate and intimate connection not only to the sources but to the languages of the sources. So, although we boast a considerable expertise in both linguistic competence and in historical or other methodologies, it's only the bringing together of our work and local scholars' work that makes it worthwhile."

The significant value of working with international colleagues has led Sela to find alternative ways to connect with them. With the help of the President's International Research Awards, he has brought researchers together using IU's Global Gateway Network.

"The use of gateway offices is a key element of our initiative since it facilitates the participation, by virtue of geographic proximity, of Islamic studies scholars from the regions we study and who work in the local languages of these regions," Sela said.

At a recent workshop organized at the IU India Gateway office in Delhi, Sela and other IU scholars joined participants from India's leading academic institutions as well as policy-makers and political commentators to discuss the changing patterns of religious authority among the Muslim communities of South Asia, where a third of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims live.

The use of gateway offices is a key element of our initiative since it facilitates the participation, by virtue of geographic proximity, of Islamic studies scholars from the regions we study and who work in the local languages of these regions.

Ron Sela

"We were able to focus on social movements, proselytization, inter-religious influences, state interventions and other topics," Sela said.

In October, Sela will convene a similar meeting in partnership with IU's African Studies Program at the IU Europe Gateway office in Berlin, Germany. While there, researchers will further explore the theme of fragmentation of authority in Islam in Muslim Africa.

"We're bringing scholars who are Africa-based to Berlin," he said. "It's easier and cheaper to bring them there. Large centers that study similar issues are already located in Germany, and we will be able to collaborate with German institutions, other European and American institutions, as well as African institutions."

The opportunity to engage in collaborative research internationally not only strengthens Sela's particular research on religious fragmentation, but it also supports the mission of IU's Islamic Studies Program, one of the largest programs of its kind in the United States.

"As director of Islamic studies, my primary goal is the advancement of research and supporting the preparation of the next generation of scholars in the field," Sela said. "This also helps to establish IU's prominence and leadership in international research."

Read part 1 of the series Read part 2 of the series 

Read part 3 of the series Read part 4 of the series