Islamic Studies Body
Oliver Leaman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0225


In recent years studies of the body have increased rapidly, both in number and in depth. The body is no longer seen as of marginal academic interest but has moved to the center of many disciplines, including theology and religious studies. In Islamic studies the body has not always received the attention it deserves and is often considered largely as an issue for the female body. Clearly, there are rules for how to use and display the body in the Qur’an and the hadith, and different accounts of how to understand these rules. Attitudes toward sex and the decoration of the body arise, as do the issue of how far it is acceptable to represent the body in art. Finally, the use of body language to describe God in the Qur’an and also to describe the next world suggests the need for a system of interpretation that will reconcile this sort of language with the central spiritual message of religion.

General Overviews

In much of the academic work on religion in the late 20th century, the modern public sphere was understood to be mainly secular, and religion was relegated to the private. The work of Talal Asad 2003 and his followers argues that precisely the reverse is the case, because the state attempts to create a form of religion that is conducive to its own interests. This has proved to be an influential line of inquiry: Agrama 2010, Hirschkind 2011, and Mahmood 2005 argue that the way in which the secular/religious dichotomy affects and is affected by the body are increasingly complex and sophisticated. Douglas 1966 shows how the body relates to basic ideas about what is clean and what is dirty and the implications this has for what we mean by the body acting appropriately in what it does. Turner 1984 argues for the body to be regarded as the primary issue in sociological analysis while Bynum 1991 stresses the link between medieval spirituality in the Christian world and the body, especially for women who had no other outlet. While these works were focused on non-Muslim groups, they have often been regarded as showing the way to understand how important the body is as an organizing concept in social studies. The qualities of sacrality and honor in Islam can be understood as part of what Dale Eickelman (Eickelman 1981, p. 86) calls a “practical ideology” for enforcing male dominance and female compliance.

  • Agrama, Hussein. “Secularism, Sovereignty, Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or a Religious State?” Comparative Studies in Society and History 52.3 (2010): 495–523.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417510000289

    The argument that modern Egypt is predominantly a religious culture, in a manner heavily influenced by the state.

  • Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

    The standard theoretical outline of the view that religion needs to be recognized as an essential feature of the modern state.

  • Bynum, Carolyn. Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone, 1991.

    In the Middle Ages control, discipline, and even torture of the body during prayer had more to do with its elevation as a means of access to the divine than the rejection of physicality. This suggests that what is done to the body is often really about something that is not physical.

  • Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 1966.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780203361832

    Very influential analysis of what a culture regards as the difference between the clean and the abominable and how important that dichotomy is to understand a social system.

  • Eickelman, Dale. The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981.

    Important account of the variety of approaches that may be taken to understanding the anthropology of the Middle East.

  • Hirschkind, Charles. “Is There a Secular Body?” Cultural Anthropology 26 (2011): 633–647.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2011.01116.x

    Important and compelling theoretical discussion about the religious implications of the body in modern culture.

  • Mahmood, Saba. The Politics of Piety. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

    An attempt at arguing against the view that secularism is the dominant ideology of modernity.

  • Turner, Bryan. The Body and Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984.

    The argument presented here is that the body is the most important organizing principle of social analysis, not class or function.

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