aaronThis blog was written as a guest column for The Drawing Board by Aaron Wannamaker – the celebrated writer behind www.muslisms.com, community leader, and published authour. In this op-ed, Aaron graciously offers his unique insights on what happens when someone converts to Islam.


Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world. As for the precise number of converts that make up that number, it is still unclear. But with Islam in the media spotlight, many people take it upon themselves to learn about Islam.

For those who decide to take the leap—or who have already taken it—this article is for you.

I help to run a program at one of the local mosques in Edmonton called Convert Connect. I’ve spoken one-to-one with many converts. Having been a Muslim for almost 9 years now, I’ve heard a lot of stories of people coming to Islam. Everyone has their own unique story to tell, and their own thing that drew them towards the religion. For some it was a sense of purpose; for some it came after a long, spiritual quest through many religions; for some, it just made sense.

Yet despite that, there are still many overarching themes that I find with convert stories. These are 11 of the common things you may come across, both in your personal life and in the community, after you’ve become a Muslim.

You’ll be tested. I know this sounds scary, so I might as well get it out of the way now. After you become a Muslim, there’s a strong likelihood that you’ll go through some form of difficulty. The first year is often the most difficult one. During this time, a lot of new Muslims face backlash from their friends and family and co-workers. Sometimes, health problems arise or jobs are lost. If you do go through a test or trial, think of it as your entrance exam. God says in the Quran:

“Do people think once they say, “We believe,” that they will be left without being put to the test?” (29:2)

However, He also says:

“So, surely with hardship comes ease. Surely with ˹that˺ hardship comes ˹more˺ ease.” (94:5-6)

This is a promise from God that, no matter what, things will get better. Be patient, and pray for God to help you. Eventually, your hardship will pass.

You’ll try to do everything all at once. Oftentimes, in their zeal for their new faith, a new Muslim will try and do everything: pray not just 5 times a day, but all the extra prayers—and the late-night tahajuud prayer. They’ll make an extensive, pages-long list of duas to recite morning and evening. They’ll throw themselves into studying fiqh and tajweed and hadith, with some memorization to boot. All of these things are great goals in and of themselves. But trying to take it all on at once is unsustainable.

If you try and do all of this at once, you’ll end up crashing and burning out. At which point, you’ll feel like you’re less of a Muslim because you’ve had to cut back on a lot of your ibadah (worship). You may even feel this because you’ve lost your New Muslim Zeal (which should be the name of a cologne). But fret not: this is normal. Sometimes you end up finding yourself on the extremes. A big part of Islam is finding your balance, so use this as a learning experience to help you find that balance.

You’ll become an ambassador of Islam. Like it or not, you’ll end up becoming the de-facto “Muslim” to the people in your life. In fact, you might even be the first (perhaps only) Muslim that your friends and family and co-workers meet. As such, whatever image you project of yourself inadvertently becomes an image people associate with Islam. This is why, personally, I’m against new Muslims changing their names—especially if they’re pressured into it. Your name is part of who you are. So if you’re friends grew up knowing Alex as a jean-wearing, ball-cap sporting soccer player, and now you’re Ammar with a thaub and kufi who no longer wants to deal with “filthy disbelievers” and is always talking about how evil the world is—well, would you blame them for thinking Islam turned you into this?

Islam is meant to be something that facilitates good for others. Furthermore, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said to make things easy for people, and that “The best of people are those that bring most benefit to the rest of mankind.” Who you are as a human being can change people’s hearts about Islam and about Muslims—for better or worse. You’ll be the face of Islam for many people. They will come to you with questions—do Muslims do this? what does Islam say about that? why do these terrorists call themselves Muslim? And you’re not going to have all the answers at first. But keep on learning, and stay upbeat and positive.

You’ll start to see your world differently.  It won’t happen all at once, but gradually you will start to see the world through the lens of Islam. Things you once thought were normal or acceptable will seem strange or even wrong. You’ll notice that a lot of things our society partakes in are things that Islam prohibits—promiscuity, various forms of intoxication, even dealing with interest in a bank. However, this is not an excuse to hate on your own culture and society. Yes, there are problems. But there’s a lot of good in it, too: politeness, fairness in commerce, care for the disabled—all these things and more are things that Islam encourages. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) lived in a society where people worshiped idols naked and where tribal honour took precedence over justice. And yet, as he was leaving Mecca, he turned to it and called it the most beloved place to him.

Everyone won’t see things the way you do. And remember that, for a time, you also saw things the way they do. Be empathetic towards them, and if someone questions you as to why you aren’t drinking anymore or wearing tight, low-cut skinny shorts, use it as an opportunity to tell them that it’s part of your faith.

You’ll become a minority. There’s a good chance that if you’re a Muslim convert, you’re Caucasian. For your average, 20-to-30-year-old white Canadian male or female, life is pretty normal. You may sympathize with minorities, but it’s another thing entirely to identify as one.

Even if you’re already an ethnic minority, when you become a Muslim you become part of the 3% of Muslims in Canada. For someone who grew up in your average Canadian household, it can be a bit of a shock. The words “oppression” and “fairness” take on new, and sometimes personal, meaning to you. You see how painful labelling others can be. You may even recognize prejudices within yourself that you never realized.

Unfortunately, in our heated climate, you’ll probably see or hear of things happening to your co-religion brothers and sisters that will hurt you. Prophet (pbuh) said that the Muslims are like “one body; when any limb of it aches, the whole body aches, because of sleeplessness and fever.” No matter what happens, though, don’t let it drive you to hate. We may be few, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make our voices be heard.

Your experience with the community will vary. When you get up in front of the prayer hall and repeat the shahada in Arabic, you’ll hear a lot of cheers and the whole community will come up and congratulate you (be prepared for lots of hugs). It may be a bit overwhelming, but know that everyone’s intentions are good.

The sad truth is, a lot of times Muslim communities, no matter how well intentioned, are not equipped to deal with Muslim converts. While some mosques have dedicated convert programs, many do not. Too often will a convert say their shahada and then be forgotten.

The upside is that you can usually find a way to get involved with the Muslim community. If you are at university, chances are there is a Muslim Students’ Association on campus and they’re always willing to accept new volunteers. If one mosque doesn’t seem particularly hospitable, find another one. Many mosques also function as community centers, so see which programs are going on and try to attend them. Again, at the very least, go to Friday Prayers. All of this can be a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re introverted. But the small amount of discomfort you’ll feel meeting new people will vastly outweigh the loneliness and confusion you’d feel otherwise. 

You’ll have to develop your filter. The thing about being a new Muslim is that you’re impressionable. And this is understandable. If someone who has been a Muslim all your life tells you you’re going to Hell if you wear your pants below your ankles, who are you to question him? You’ve only been a Muslim for a few days; he’s been a Muslim for a lot longer than you so he, obviously, must be an authority.

But the brutal truth is that just because someone has been a Muslim all their life doesn’t necessarily mean they understand their religion correctly. A lot of people will mix culture and religion, but it’s so subtle that they won’t even notice it. But a good rule of thumb is this: if someone’s advice sounds strange, or they don’t have evidence to back it up, you have every right to question it.

Not only that, but you’ll also be dealing with people whose temperaments and expectations and backgrounds are different than yours. You’ll be exposed to a lot of cultures and a lot of different ways of practicing Islam when you become a Muslim. You may hear different opinions regarding certain issues—such as the aforementioned pants-below-the-ankles. So even if things seem black and white, know that the majority of the time there’s a grey area that can be navigated. It takes time to develop this, and to find where you’re comfortable within that grey area.

You’ll have to find a mentor. You can’t become a Muslim in isolation. Islam is a communal religion, and as a new Muslim it’s imperative that you become part of the community. And even more important than that is that you find a mentor.

A mentor doesn’t have to be a sheikh or imam. It can be an everyday Muslim. This person should be someone you can turn to with questions and advice, and if they can’t answer they should be able to point you to someone who can. But the deciding factor is that they should have a good understanding of the faith. How can you tell this? There are a few indicators:

  • Look at their character; is this person well-mannered and respected?
  • They should practice what they preach; does this person pray regularly, avoid bad habits and vices, ect.?
  • Their advice should be practical; is this person teaching you how to implement your faith in your everyday life? Or did they just give you a laundry list of “don’t do”s?
  • Pay attention to their attitude; are they a positive person, or are they always frowning and complaining about the “evils of society”?
  • Do you like them? A mentor should be your friend.

A mentor should be a positive and encouraging presence in your life. This will help you develop not just as a Muslim, but also as a person.

You’ll be a target. Not to be alarmist, but Muslim converts are easy targets for extremist groups. Because of their impressionable nature, Muslim converts are sought out because their minds are pliable. A seed of hate can be planted in the new Muslim’s head, which can easily be watered by anger and violence, and fertilized with twisted ideologies. Fear can be used as a way to pressgang a Muslim convert into accepting extremist ideas.

If someone comes to you with information that seems strange to you, refer it to your mentor or to an imam or sheikh that you trust. Oftentimes, the strategy of an extremist is to cherry-pick hadith or verses from the Qur’an and ignorantly present them as solitary, hard-and-fast truths, without any consideration for context or other evidences related to this issue.

You’ll have to keep learning.  Never stop learning. This is one of the most important things that every Muslim—not just new Muslims—need to grasp. The moment you think you’ve reached your spiritual plateau, a place where you feel like you know enough, is the moment you begin your downward descend. So keep striving to learn.

Well that’s what the internet is for, right?


No no no no no.

When it comes to religious knowledge, the internet is like a minefield in the dark. There are some safe spots, but there’s a danger of getting blown up. On the internet, everyone’s an expert. A forum is not where you find your fatwas (religious rulings). YouTube is not your sheikh. While there are websites that provide good information (listed at the bottom), these should just be a starting point.

When opportunities for learning or guidance come up, take them. This can be in the form of a seminar, a visiting speaker, a weekly halaqa (gathering), and at the very least, Friday Prayer. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said that “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim.” You need to put your effort in to learn, because the truth won’t come to you if you’re just sitting in one place.

But just as it is important to learn, it’s also important to learn correctly. You can’t just power through the volumes of Sahih Bukhari or a book of fiqh (religious jurisprudence) and call yourself an expert and start dishing out religious verdicts to people. If you want to learn hadith, start with Imam An-Nawawi’s 40 Hadith. If you want to learn Qur’an, start with reading through a reliable English translation, such as Abdel Haleem’s. There are some resources at the bottom of this article to help get you started.

Always stay curious, and never be shy to ask questions. If you have a question, know that you’re not the first person to ask it. There are very few questions in Islam that can’t be answered; those that do relate to matters of the unseen, such as “what do angels look like?” or “how does God decree destiny?”. But questions like “what does this verse mean in the Qur’an?” or “why do I have to do this?” will have an answer. So keep your mind open, and never stop learning.

It’s all worth it.

Many things will bring a person to Islam. Perhaps it’s their own research. Maybe it’s the people they know. It may come after a long and painful spiritual journey. But as time goes on and you deepen your understanding of the faith, you really come to know not only yourself, but God as well. You become more aware and respectful of the world you live in. In your times of need and fear, you’ll find God if you seek Him. You’ll struggle and there may be times when things seem hopeless or like the fear or pain will never end. But they always do. After becoming a Muslim, a better world awaits you—both in this life and in the next.

Islam is a journey, not a destination. Its knowledge is an ocean; you can wade safely along its shore, or dive into its endless depths. It’s your comfort and your armour.

Islam is a way of life, and a way of thinking.

Its message is simple: God is One and Muhammad (pbuh) is His Last Messenger.

Its purpose is clear: to teach us how to live a good life by serving God and honouring His creation.

Islam is simple. So keep it that way.

Aaron’s Recommended Websites












At The Drawing Board, we are not only professional writers, researchers and bloggers, we are also historians and religious studies scholars. Over the weekend, Nakita Valerio and Liz Hill had the privilege of presenting some of their research at the University of Alberta’s Annual HCGSA Conference. Conferencing comes with its own unique atmosphere and experience. You get to meet a lot of really interesting people from around the country, many of whom are also presenting their research. For some, this is the first time they get to talk to someone other than their supervisor about their work. And being crammed into a room listening to lecture upon lecture, conversing over coffee-breaks and provided meals, there is a great deal of camaraderie that comes from conferencing.

Liz presented on her research regarding Leprosy and Madness in the late Medieval period in Europe and had the following to say about the conference experience:

Although we all come from our own little, often esoteric, areas of study, we are able to engage with each others’ work and make connections between our own knowledge and others. Sometimes it’s a stretch, but often it’s illuminating! Another benefit of presenting to a group with diverse expertise, is that it makes you re-evaluate your own work from the perspective of a non-specialist. Day to day we tend to discuss our work and interact with others who have similar backgrounds and topics, so it is easy to assume knowledge about strange things. Presenting outside of that group forces you to refine your ideas and how you present them so that they are accessible. Of course in this case we were still presenting to people who mostly shared similar disciplinary backgrounds, but the field of history is very large! I also learned that answering questions is actually the best part of presenting!

Nakita presented a paper she wrote on the de-sacralization of Auschwitz and issued a call for urgent conservation efforts to be made to the camp if there is any hope of some kind of sufficient memorial to remain there. Her thoughts on the experience of conferencing are as follows:

My favourite part was hearing what everyone is working on. Too often, academics are isolated in their work. Sure, we socialize and hang out, but we rarely get to talk about our work with our peers unless they happen to be in the same research area as us. The general theme of the “Sacred” meant that a lot of the subjects spanned completely different temporal-spatial zones of study and were only  loosely connected by the theme. I loved this aspect. I not only had the opportunity to learn a lot about areas of history that I hadn’t really touched before, but I found them all deeply interesting because they dealt with a lot of the theoretical paradigms that I use to do my own work. I would say I also learned a lot about what goes into making a successful conference. Watching two colleagues of ours in particular running around and taking care of all the details was really illuminating. Lastly, this might surprise some people given how much of my personal and social justice time is devoted to women’s advocacy and education initiatives about the status of women in Islam, but I found it to be really refreshing to be able to talk about something I have devoted a lot of time to researching…something that wasn’t about my hijab or life as a minority in Canada. Don’t get me wrong, I love that stuff too, but as one of the conference organizers put it, “you get to talk about what you do and think about, not just how you dress in the morning!” It was a unique chance to vocalize something I am passionate about for the sake of the subject itself, not just it’s relevance to me or what others would like to hear from me based on my particular skill set.




Alhambra-in-GranadaThe Drawing Board is pleased to announce that our very own, Nakita Valerio, has been selected as a recipient for the 2015 State of Kuwait Graduate Student award in Islamic Studies. After an intense competition among applicants, Nakita was announced as a winner on June 15, 2015. The award comes with significant financial assistance which will be used to fund her ethnographic and archival research in Morocco and Egypt for her thesis.

The tentative title of her thesis is: Remembering Al-Yehud Through the Shoah: Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching the Holocaust and Jewishness Among Contemporary Moroccan Muslims

A summary of her research is what follows:

The Holocnakita036aust is a provocative measure of the Muslim memory of Jews. Though it isconsidered the starting point in Critical Memory studies, there is yet to be much scholarship devoted to its memory in the Islamic world. An intimate history of relatively peaceful coexistence between Moroccan Jews and Muslims has been challenged in a comparatively short time by narratives of nationalism and diaspora, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, their economic-trade policy, the rhetoric regarding normalization of Israel, and educational protocols surrounding the constructed memory of Jews in Morocco.  My working research questions are as follows: How is the Holocaust remembered by self-identified Moroccan Muslims? How is this affected by education, politics and self-prescribed ideas about the “Islamic and Jewish religions”? How does this affect overall remembering of Jews in Morocco? These questions are situated in the context of Memory literature and are used to understand how societies reconcile multi-layered cognitive dissonance.

images-for-gt-greek-mythology-backgrounds-powerpoint-greek-mythology-wallpaper-gods-alphabet-salad-recipe-yogurt-goddesses-islands-names-dressingIn the chapter entitled “Myth” in Guide to the Study of Religion, Russell McCutcheon outlines how there have been many definitions surrounding the term myth but that these can more or less be classified under the following two categories: widely shared (but false) beliefs, and fictional stories told to explain common (but mysterious) everyday occurrences. (190) These classifications of myth carry modernist judgments with them, assuming that there is a “reality-as-it-is” which myths are misrepresenting and, as a result of being simply incorrect, are relatively innocuous. However, as McCutcheon aptly points out, myth is much more suspicious than is first perceived and in fact, is in the business of manufacturing realities. It is not simply a fairy tale of old, but rather, a deliberate tool of dominant powers – “a master signifier that authorizes and reproduces a specific worldview.” (192) However, I want push this idea a little further by postulating that mythmaking is actually an innately human act; that there is no realities behind these realities; that mythmaking is not a method by which we interact with the world, but the method. That this results in the production of insular knowledge by which power is gained is provocative for its implications about human nature, whether or not power is the intended consequence of this process. By breaking down the process of mythmaking or storytelling, I will show that people cannot help but mythmake, and that the byproduct of this activity is power, authority and dominance through the dictating of a worldview. What future hypotheses about it must then address are the possible reasons for this power-fueling mechanism. Rather than sounding conspiratorial, I wish to end on an optimistic note by pursuing an avenue that McCutcheon left untouched – the work of Michel Foucault, who argued that economies of significance can lead to the development of the disciplines, on which mythmaking heavily relies, thereby consolidating power and making the mythology invisible and interior to the individual who then self-polices. However pessimistic this sounds, there is, within Foucauldian discourse, the possibility of shifting worldviews derived of competing mythologies. I will explore this possibility by meditating on the Foucauldian concept of freedom.

If we accept McCutcheon’s premise that myth is something ordinary, as a technique or strategy that is a process rather than a static noun, what is gained in our understanding about how and why people make myths? Firstly, myths are neither special nor sacred. Secondly, they are an ordinary rhetorical device freely used to legitimize one’s self image. (200) In a different way, McCutcheon has arrived at the same point as anthropologists Maurice Bloch and Harvey Whitehouse who use cognitive science to see myth or religiosity as ordinary activities of the human imagination and memory, respectively. Myths are a subset of storytelling which is a further subset of both imagination and memory. Neither of these, I would like to point out, are functions unique to mythmaking or religion but rather, in the words of Thomas Lawson in his essay called “Cognition,” “whatever it takes to explain how minds work generally will be sufficient to explain how religious minds work.” (Guide79)

Crafting stories, as it were, is something deeply human. I am not one to make universalizing statements lightly, but it is unlikely that we are able to imagine a way in which we do not automatically tell ourselves stories every minute of the day. Part of this hinges on a very broad definition of what a story is and is also grounded in how the mind functions. In writing the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics and The Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant was one of the most prominent philosophers to point this out. Our faculties of sensibility are mired in space and time, and as such, we perceive things to happen in terms of cause-and-effect or sequentially. It might not be the way the world (or reality-as-it-is) actually works, but we can never have knowledge of this “true” reality. Thus, every reality is a reality-for-me, inherently subjective, finessed by a mind that necessarily operates in linear-temporal-spatial terms. We can have the perception of similarity or ascribe similarity to others, but the knowledge of true sameness is as unknowable as the elusive noumena. A lot of this likely has something to do with the overload of sensory stimuli which our brain is designed to filter down to the most essential points of reference and construct a story about from the first moment of perception. Even before we have formulated thoughts in terms of language, we are already developing a narrative about what is happening around us in order to comprehend it, in all of its diverse magnitude. These stories might vary according to our interpretation of it, but they remain stories all the same. (Guthrie 237) Things come to the fore, other things stay behind. Some memories are imprinted, others are not. Thus, storytelling and, by extension, mythmaking are things we just do. In this way, myth is no longer defined by the contents of its narrative, nor as a genre. As McCutcheon points out, myths are better understood “as a technique or strategy” (199), an “active process” to achieve some end, whether or not that end is fully foreseeable or conscious.[1]

What are myths in the business of doing? What ends are achieved by mythmaking? According to McCutcheon, with whom I am in agreement, myths are in the business of “making particular and contingent worldviews appear ubiquitous and absolute.” (205) Authority, dominance and power are obtained by dictating and maintaining a particular worldview through mythology because mythology implies the creation of knowledge, even if this process of creation is nearly invisible. Where McCutcheon does not go far enough is in theorizing about why striving for power through knowledge happens at all: is there some social, political or ultimately biological reason for this? Is power an evolutionary necessity for humankind? McCutcheon would have benefited greatly by taking his argument to its endpoint, something that could have been facilitated by engaging with the work of Foucault. I appreciate that this is a short essay on myth in general in a rather large volume; however, the implications of knowledge and world creation through mythologizing as a precursor to power are issues widely explored by Foucauldian followers and the conclusions they reach have major implications for how we understand and engage with religion as a concept, if we can at all.

If we accept that power (free from negative or positive connotations but denoting relationality) is derived from mythmaking and, by extension, world-building, there are two questions that are crucial for exploration: how does myth achieve this? And if the generation of power through myth is a necessary activity of humankind, where does freedom lay? If we follow a Foucauldian line of thinking, it would seem obvious that myth achieves power through the diffusion of disciplines throughout a particular society. In “Modes of Religiosity,” Harvey Whitehouse offers a similar process as that described by Foucault in Discipline and Punish but in cognitive science terms. In examining the doctrinal mode of religiosity, methods outlined of frequent repetition, the consolidation of authority in key figures, the tempering of that authority through the consensus of the mass – all reek of panopticonic disciplinary systems at work. In religious rituals specifically (how bodies move through particular places at particular times in carefully contrived ways) are designed to “reduce the chances that [followers] will reflect on the meaning of what they are doing.”(Whitehouse 300) When reflection does spontaneously occur, it is controlled by the doctrinal/disciplinary system that allows innovation only “ to originate from authoritative sources and is accepted/observed by all loyal followers”(301) – arguably those ascribing to, invested in, or indoctrinated by the particular worldview generated by a particular mythology which perpetuates itself as universal.

If, as established, mythmaking is the most natural human activity because of how perception works, then worldviews are continuously being generated by subjective agents. Grouping or collectivity can occur (at least the perception of it where the idea of similar interests prevail) and often does, but ultimately multiple worldviews are simultaneously being generated and contesting one another, each trying to assert its generative power above the others for fear of extinction or, in the jargon of Whitehouse, forgetting and the forfeit of authority. Where convergences occur and are accepted by a group, a collective worldview takes hold. If we follow the line of thinking of Michel de Certeau and understand belief to be transactional or reliant on the beliefs of others to guarantee our beliefs, then worldviews are nothing more than human myths accepted by the group because the group accepts it.(What We Do When We Believe) It would seem that the more people that buy into a belief, the more likely it is to become a collective worldview. However, historically speaking, the most successful campaigns for world-building need only to create the illusion of a community of belief before the believers ascribe to a certain system, thereby fulfilling the prophecy of the illusion. The terms used by Foucault are knowledge (which we can interchange with belief as it carries less ontological or empirical connotations) and power.

Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’ Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice. Thus, ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations. (Discipline and Punish, 27)

The most overt campaigns are recognizable as propaganda; the most effective are subsumed societally like the disciplines described by Foucault.

The question remains: How do we resist? What does freedom look like in a system of intersecting myths, beliefs, and worldviews? In Discipline and Punish, Foucault addresses the issue of cumulative power usurping freedom because of a feed-forward method, that “by being combined and generalized, they attained a level at which the formation of knowledge and the increase in power regularly reinforce one another in a circular process.” While some might call this repression (as the opposite of freedom), Foucault was careful to point out that the real danger of the system is not in being oppressed by the social order but being carefully fabricated in it. To resist this, it is crucial to remember what constitutes freedom for Foucault:

Freedom is an art, not a state, of not being governed quite so much. It is a practice that is never assured by the institutions and laws that intended to serve it… One will know that freedom is alive not when the interests emerging in society are allowed to express themselves, be represented and pursued, not even when dissent and heresy are allowed to manifest themselves, but when contestation, unruliness, intractability are not yet abolished. (Prozorov, 33)

In this way, freedom is not a state to be achieved through resistance; resistance is constitutive of freedom itself. If we return to Whitehouse’s Modes of Religiosity, the role of the imagistic mode is crucial to understanding this “biopower”. Whitehouse argues that high arousal is the antithesis to “autopilot” and induces spontaneous reflection – something carefully controlled by the doctrinal mode. Some might argue that the sustenance of high arousal at levels of high frequency is not possible through the natural brain mechanism of habituation. As Whitehouse ignores the possibility of this construction, naturally, I find it the most provocative. The high frequency, high arousal modes could be the perpetual, purposeful resistance of the imposed will of the doctrinal mode – habituation of which can be avoided by the sufficient use of change. It implies self-awareness and in this self-awareness, the deconstruction of the transactional beliefs by virtue of “lifting the curtain” , so to speak, on the transaction. What is revealed beneath the curtain are more curtains. Reality behind the curtain will never be found. It is in the perpetual lifting that freedom is found. Psychologically speaking, based on Whitehouse’s descriptions of the high arousal modes, it would seem that this level of arousal, experienced at high levels of frequency might look something like psychosis – fitting very well with Foucault’s meditations on the place of madness and divergent sexuality in the societal form.

As this reading analysis has gone far beyond the requirements, I will regrettably end there. As it stands, memory and narrative are the basic facets of human cognition and how we interact with and interpret the world around us. This results in the formation of beliefs and myths that rely on a transactional relationship with others to be self-perpetuating and world-building. Freedom is possible in the Foucauldian sense. What remains to be explored is the process of resistance or change through the senses and the body (Asad) and whether or not resistance is necessary. I am of the (perhaps premature) mindset that fabrication of the individual is not necessarily equal to causing harm, for where harm can be chosen, so too can benefit be chosen.

Referenced and Cited Sources

Bloch, Maurice. “Why Religion is Nothing Special but is Central,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (2008), 2055-2061.

de Certeau, Michel. “What We Do When we Believe.” On Signs. Ed. Marshall Blonsky. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. Pp. 129-202.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books: New York. 1977.

Guthrie, Stewart Elliott. “Projection” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Kant, Immanuel. Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics. James Ellington, trans. Hackett Publishing, 2001.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Particia Kitcher, ed. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers,1998.

Lawson, Thomas. “Cognition” Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

McCutcheon, Russell. “Myth” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Prozorov, Sergei. Foucault, Freedom and Sovereignty. Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 2007.

Whitehouse, Harvey. “Modes of Religiosity: Towards a Cognitive Explanation of the Sociopolitical Dynamics of Religion,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 14 (2002), 293-315.

[1] Much multidisciplinary, academic literature has described memory (the stuff which myths and narratives are made of) as called upon to provide a usable past (Zamora), as inherently contested because of the subjectivity of perception(Confino, Calhoun), as a habit related to societal hierarchies and the maintenance of power (Connerton), and as an instrument (Lowenthal). The relationship between individual, collective memory and narrative construction are so closely intertwined as to be virtually indecipherable. Scholars who argue for understanding narrative as a basic tool of human consciousness include Bruner, White, Scholes and Kellogg, Schafer, and Ricouer. Alasdiar MacIntyre is another source which argues for the omnipresence and importance of narrative in human activity. James Wertsch has famously written: “we are storytelling animals.” (Voices of Collective Remembering, 2002)

world-religionsIn the Guide to the Study of Religion, the fourth chapter entitled “Comparison” by Luther H. Martin emphasizes the theoretical problems that surround the issue of comparison in the study of religions, how these problems have been dealt with by various scholars in multiple disciplinary approaches, and concludes by offering his suggestions for the future of scholarship in the field. While giving the guise of being a mere survey of the evolution of the study of religions in academia through time, the seasoned reader is, by no means, persuaded of his very directed, very rigorous attempt to resuscitate positivism into a methodology of study. In fact, with a few variations based on past mistakes, Martin puts forth a pseudo neo-positivism that claims that a scientific comparison of religion is not only possible, but the only way to study religion(s). The issues with Martin’s reform rests in his misunderstanding of post-modernism which he is quick to dismiss as being apologetic or overprotective of particularism and so descends into a kind of relativism from which no knowledge of value for the scholar can be gleaned (50). In this short analysis, I will show where Martin’s inadequate understanding and generalizations of the postmodern method take hold, particularly illuminating through a meditation on translation from Jonathan Z. Smith. Finally, I will borrow lessons from the study of Social Memory in order to offer the death knell for positivism with an order to not resuscitate (for once and for all) by engaging with the poor assumptions of Martin’s final proposals. What is missing from this text is a clear and concise postmodern-inspired methodology that functions for the scholar of religions as a replacement. While I see this as fundamentally necessary, the space constraints of this paper prevent me from formulating it here and I will have to be satisfied with arguing that point elsewhere. It should also be noted that any passing reference to post-modernity will be offered on a scholar-by-scholar basis as a comprehensive synthesis is not possible in this size of a paper.

Post Modernism Does Not Equal Pandering Relativism

An elementary observation by scholars who have only done cursory readings of postmodernist literature tend to assert that the final outcome of their theoretical understanding is relativism. This is because many postmodernists, especially Foucault, focus on the power of discourses to shape our “realities” (which do not ontologically exist or at least can never be accessed), including our ethical systems, and theoretical and scientific generalizations. However, it might be construed that “such well-meant attempts to preserve the integrity of “others”…has often result[ed] in a reiteration by paraphrase of what others say of themselves…” (50) In other words, Martin claims that by recognizing the differences in how people construct generalizations and categories for comparison, the analysis will be null and descriptive studies will be the result. This could not be further from the truth.

Jonathan Z. Smith is also quoted by Martin and is even cited as being the only scholar of religion to give sustained attention to the issue of comparison (45). Interestingly, Smith himself puts forth a criteria for comparative study that closely resembles what is proposed by postmodernism in general. While I do not claim to apply that label of “postmodernist” to him (something that might horrify), particularly after reading his book Imagining Religion in which he equates the act of comparison to that of conducting “magic” (in the derogatory sense of the term), it should be said, that some of what he argues for fits the methodology employed by some scholars in the postmodernist school of religious studies. A few examples of these scholars will be explored later.

In a lecture entitled “Why Compare Religions?” given at Princeton University in October 2003, Smith states that “the value of comparison [is] as an intrusive activity, one of methodical manipulation” (4). This is not something that can wished away by positivists – it is how things are: scholars manipulate. This is an action consciously built into the so-called scientific method itself. Like the postmodernists, Smith too argues that comparison “requires assuming responsibility for your work and… to make your workings so explicit that they can subsequently be undone”(5)[1]. In this assertion is the assumption that our scholarly analysis is necessarily subjective, personal, and temporal-spatial-culturally contextual which will shift over time among scholars to yield new mental frameworks that offer other methods or scopes of analysis and, subsequently, yield different results and values of results. Smith further goes on to argue that while comparison “entails difference if it is to be at all interesting [ie. of value in the pursuit of knowledge]” (7) and that “comparison requires difference and aims at difference” (9), he is not so quick to destroy the possibility of similarity. The idea is that for there to be difference, there must be some perceived form of similarity, even if on the most general, superficial level. While asserting ontological sameness for postmodernists is inherently problematic, this is not what Smith is doing here. Instead, Smith aptly recognize that there must be some degree of sameness to initiate comparison and that taking responsibility for your work lays in the recognition that “there is nothing ‘given’ or ‘natural’ in those elements selected for comparison, [that] they are the result of the scholar’s mental operations” (11-12). Does this mean that comparisons will be inherently descriptive and devoid of meaning? Absolutely not. As Smith said in this lecture and elsewhere, “religion’ and ‘religions’ [are] conceptual categories created for the scholar’s analytic purposes” (17) and when we compare them, we are necessarily engaging in an act of interpretation from our viewpoint.

Translation: The Only Essentialism is Difference

Smith channels Hans Penner and Donald Davidson in his lecture when he states that “to interpret means to translate,” (14) further noting that “translation recognizes, at the very heart of its enterprise, that nothing is ever quite the same” (Ibid). While this echoes the postmodernist assertions about an inherent incomparability of all things, I want to quote the sentences that followed because they are crucial to understanding how, then, interpretation can still take place. Rather than cower in the prehistoric corner of “the scientific method”, as Martin does, grabbing at his grossly inadequate security blanket of empiricism in the face of what can be overwhelming biological and philosophical plurality, Smith embraces this wholeheartedly and plunges forth into the diverse unknown. He claims, “translation can be congruent, its adequacy can be evaluated, it can be criticized, negotiated, and improved – but it cannot be identical, it cannot be complete, the relative difference cannot (finally) be overcome”(15). This is the centerpiece of postmodernism, which Martin was so quick to dismiss: difference will always be maintained but methodology is what changes and can be studied as elucidating some form of knowledge about either of the units compared, in light of the scholar comparing. Perhaps a quotation from the Preface of Patton and Ray’s anthology A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in Postmodernism would be most helpful in illustrating this point. The authours “reclaim the term ‘magic’ [from Smith] to endorse and extend his claim that comparison is an indeterminate scholarly procedure that is best undertaken as an intellectually creative enterprise, not as a science but as an art – an imaginative and critical act of mediation and redescription in the service of knowledge” (4). It is in the manipulation of difference, “ a playing across the “gap” of differences, for the purpose of gaining intellectual insight” (Ibid). Most provocative are the attempts in this volume to reimagine comparison as a form of “imaginative and ironical juxtaposition…as a way of stripping away illusions of ‘uniqueness’ for each religious situation” (Ibid). This stripping of uniqueness is not in the sense of removing particularism, which cannot be done, but rather some metaphysical understanding of uniqueness that qualifies one religion valuationally in comparison to another. For a succinct understanding of this idea, I will briefly turn to Theodore Adorno whose method of “constellating” (handed down from Benjamin and Giedion) is particularly provocative here, as defined by Martin Jay in meditations on Adorno’s work: “a juxtaposed, rather than integrated cluster of changing elements that resist reduction to a common denominator, essential core or generative first principle” (14-15). The argument that these are the only ways to derive meaning is absurd and begs the question of why people see the unifying or generalizing narrative as being more meaningful in the first place.

Lessons from Social Memory

Adorno is particularly well-loved in the emerging and evolving field of Social Memory – a field practically founded by postmodernists and engaging in historical, anthropological, sociological, psychological and other forms of analysis quite prominently in the Academy. In fact, many of the basic theoretical foundations in the field of social memory will help us to understand how their application in comparative religious studies might be of benefit in the pursuit of ethical knowledge – the last concept something I will explore briefly in the conclusion but which must be left for future debate elsewhere. For these purposes, I want to look at a text by Mario Liverani, Memorandum on the Approach to Historiographic Texts which echoes some of the sentiments of Smith. After establishing an understanding of a text (which could just as easily be applied to other items of analysis that are non-textual) “not as a ‘source of information’ but as information in itself; not as an opening on a reality laying beyond, but as an element which makes up that reality” (179). In this method, the importance is not placed on understanding events or elements that can be said to comprise a religion, “but on how they are narrated” (Ibid). This is further qualified by showing how the type of research that involves the examination of how peoples’ existential feelings and historical events correspond is all but impossible. It should be noted that ‘historical events’ can easily be replaced with ritual, religious belief or some other piece of ‘observable’ data. As Liverani succinctly puts it:

We are not in possession of the historical event, only of some interpretation of it: the views taken by the different actors and witnesses, and the opinions of the historians [or scholars of religion] who reconstruct [them] through those views… the concept of “historical event”, which in all cases implies a choice in interpretation, a way of understanding and presenting (185).[2]

Smith himself affirms this sentiment in his lecture, stating “we cannot compare ‘religions’ as if they were concrete objects. (After all, there are no existent genera)” (17) and despite violence that might be done as a result of comparison, it is definitively a human enterprise and must be carried out – “reflexively refined and critically deployed as a disciplinary tool, it can reveal as much about our practices as scholars as it may about the activities of other folk” (17-18).

The point about violence or harm is important for understanding, something that may have been misunderstood by Martin as well. In terms of radical postmodernist thought, there can be no discourse without potential violence or harm done to the terms studied as it will always necessitate some form of definition foreign to the object. I would argue that if harm can be done in such an instance, this is also the point where resistance can be found.[3]

Conclusions: The Final Death of Positivism?

If postmodern methodology is neither relativistic nor deluded by the idea that you could study anything in religion except an individual’s or group’s memory of its phenomena, and if postmodernism is not so hubristic as to claim an overcoming of inherent, insoluble difference between things compared, then what of positivism? What of Martin’s final prospects for the future of the act of comparison in religious studies? Near the end of his chapter, Martin claims that” formal, theoretically constructed generalizations about religion can finally be filled in or amplified with the data of particular religious traditions” and that such generalizations would also define the data (53). Though he concedes that this data makes a religion inherently unique for its participants, his framework is backwards. A close analysis of the data and its self-definitions juxtaposed against alternate data can yield the highly contextual generalizations, not the other way around. He claims that naturalistic theories “raise once again the Enlightenment proposal of human universals but without the metaphysical/theological assumptions” (55) – a point inherently problematic for postmodernists who, again, beg the question of what benefit there is in resurrecting universals if they have shown time and time again (whether metaphysical in their assumptions or not) to contain the seeds of oppression and misinformation. Far more interesting, is why we, as scholars, continuously feel the need to do so.


Sources Referenced and Cited

Coleman, Simon and John Eade, eds. Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Routledge: London. 2004.

Critchley, Simon. The Ethics of Deconstruction. Blackwell Publishers: India. 1992.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish : The Birth of the Prison. Pantheon Books: New York. 1977.

Hirst, Aggie. “Derrida and Political Resistance: The Radical Potential of Deconstruction” in Globalizations, Vol 12:1, 2015, p 6-24

Liverani, Mario. “Memorandum on the Approach to Historiographic Texts” in Orientalia, Vol 42, 1973, p. 178-94.

Martin, Jay. Adorno. Harvard University Press. 1984.

Martin, Luther H. “Comparison” in Guide to the Study of Religion. Willi Braun and Russell . McCutcheon, eds. Cassell: London. 2000.

Patton, Kimberley and Benjamin Ray, Eds. A Magic Still Dwells: Comparative Religion in the Postmodern Age. University of California Press: Berkeley. 2000.

Smith, Jonathan Z. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. University of Chicago Press. 1982.

Smith, Jonathan Z. “Why Compare Religions?” Princeton University, October 2003. Conference in Honor of John F. Wilson.

[1] Note that the notion of ethical responsibility is considered a fundamental point of Derrida’s deconstructive methodology. For more meditations on this, I recommend Simon Critchley’s The Ethics of Deconstruction:Derrida and Levinas.

[2] An excellent example of the application of these ideas onto the actual study of some religious phenomena while still deriving legitimate meaning can be found in the Introduction of Coleman and Eade’s Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. For an analysis that employs some of these ideas, also see “On Social Memory and Identity Formation in Late Persian Yehud” by Ben Zvi.

[3] For an excellent, very recent analysis of this, please see Hirst, Aggie. “Derrida and Political Resistance: The Radical Potential of Deconstruction” in Globalizations, Vol 12:1, 2015, p 6-24. Hirst argues that resistance in the Neo-Gramscian and Foucauldian traditions “suffer from a common problem in that the forms of resistance they conceptualise are highly susceptible to appropriation by, or reinscription within, prevailing forms of global ordering…[however] inasmuch as deconstruction attempts to interrupt forms of thinking and knowing right up to and including processes of conscious and unconscious subjectification, it can provide valuable means by which the micro-gestures of onto-politics can be resisted at the (fundamentally interrelated) levels of political thought and concrete praxis.” While this is aimed at political activism, a similar argument can be made for activism through scholarship.