Islamic Studies Method in the Study of Islam
Aaron W. Hughes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0132


Method, broadly conceived, refers to the techniques employed in the production and dissemination of knowledge. An analysis of method, then, does not focus so much on the results of the research or even the datasets employed but on those metaquestions or metaissues that govern the questions asked (or not asked) and the answers deemed satisfactory (or not satisfactory). Since data do not always exist naturally in the world, methods are often intimately involved in the actual creation of data by, for example, determining what is worthy of analysis in the first place and subsequently separating it from cognate data. Different methodologies used to interpret the same dataset thus often produce different results. To reduce bias, the methodologies employed by scholars should be well documented, along with the data, and thus be available to the scrutiny of other scholars. This practice, often referred to in the scientific community as full disclosure, allows for the systematic study of the first principles employed within a discipline. When applied to Islam, “methods” refers more specifically to a variety of approaches, often derived from other disciplines (e.g., anthropology, religious studies, sociology), that seek to analyze, explain, and interpret Islam and Islamic datasets. Taken together, these vast methodological frameworks (which run the gamut from the apologetic to the critical) are responsible for the production of the discipline known collectively as “Islamic studies.”

General Overviews

One only gains scholarly access to Islam through a variety of preexistent methods. Many of these methods were developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries and are now frequently referred to, both monolithically and sometimes pejoratively, as “Orientalist.” Fück 1955 conveniently charts the rise of Orientalism in Germany during this period, and the essays collected in Nanji 1997 provide a good overview of the rise of Islamic studies in various Western countries, including America, during the same time period. Orientalism, as both a discipline and an ideology, increasingly came under attack during the 1970s, culminating in the publication of Edward W. Said’s classic critique in 1978 (Said 2003), which in turn gave way to the discipline of postcolonial studies. Hodgson 1974 provides one of the most articulate approaches, which seeks to steer between the methods developed by Orientalism and those who criticize such methods. Humphreys 1991 provides the best survey of approaches, topics, and desiderata for the modern historian of Islam. Rippin 2007 affords a rich collection of materials—both primary and secondary—that provide reflection on how Islam has been constructed and contested both historically and in the modern period. Hughes 2007 and Lockman 2009 chart the recent manifold political and issues of identity surrounding the presentation of Islam in the current geopolitical moment (given events such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and so on) that impinge on all scholarship dealing with Islam and the Middle East. The essays in Wheeler 2002 chart the repercussions of all these debates in the undergraduate classroom.

  • Fück, Johann. Die Arabischen Studien in Europa bis in den Anfang des 20. Jahrhunderts. Leipzig, East Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1955.

    The classic and inclusive historiographical survey of German Orientalism, produced after the Nazi era in Germany. Fück provides a still relevant account of the various scholars, disciplines, and institutions that made the study of the Orient possible at the beginning of the 20th century.

  • Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

    Posthumously published work based on the lecture notes to a class on Islamic civilization that Hodgson taught at the University of Chicago. Magisterial first volume includes a section that seeks to redefine the terms, categories, and vocabulary employed in Islamic studies.

  • Hughes, Aaron W. Situating Islam: The Past and Future of an Academic Discipline. London: Equinox, 2007.

    Documents the contexts in which the discipline of Islamic studies was created. Argues that the interpretive lenses used to study Islam are continually caught up with larger forces (e.g., the reform of Judaism, Orientalism, identity politics of the 1960s, 9/11, the fight against terrorism, the creation of a liberal Islam).

  • Humphreys, R. Stephen. Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry. Rev. ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

    A survey and systematic review of the principal reference tools available to historians of Islam. Combines a bibliographic study with an inquiry into method, with each chapter exploring a broad topic in the social and political history of the Middle East and North Africa between 600 CE and 1500.

  • Lockman, Zachary. Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Offers a broad examination of the development of Western knowledge about Islam and the Middle East (from the ancient Greeks to 9/11). The second edition considers how the study of the Middle East has evolved in the intervening years within the broader context of the US occupation of Iraq and the “global war on terror.”

  • Nanji, Azim, ed. Mapping Islamic Studies: Genealogy, Continuity, and Change. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1997.

    A volume of essays that discusses how the discipline of Islamic studies in Europe and North America evolved in its various historical contents.

  • Rippin, Andrew, ed. Defining Islam: A Reader. London: Equinox, 2007.

    A convenient collection that presents original source material and scholarly reflections on how the word “Islam” has been used and understood.

  • Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 2003.

    The classic critique of the field of Orientalism. Said argues that knowledge of the Orient is tantamount to power over it and, as a result, that the academic disciplines associated with the East developed and remain entrenched within the domain of empire maintenance. Originally published in 1978 (New York: Pantheon).

  • Wheeler, Brannon M., ed. Teaching Islam. AAR Teaching Religious Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Focuses attention on the intersection between methods in Islamic studies and pedagogy. Wheeler brings together a number of leading scholars with rich experience in teaching Islam in a diversity of undergraduate settings. Topics addressed include Islamic law, the Qurʾan, Sufism, women in Islam, Islam in America, and teaching about Islam through Arabic literature and the use of new information technology.

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