Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2015

Katherine Ewing

Professor of Religion, Columbia University

Jahiliyya: Mapping Secular Spaces through an Islamic Notion of Time and Place

Just as many Americans in the early twentieth century feared that Catholics could never be fully American because of their loyalty to the Pope in Rome, some in Europe and North America today fear that Muslims will never fully integrate because they consider the West jahiliyya: a place like pre-Islamic Arabia, where ignorance, idolatry, lawnessness, and excess prevailed. Most Muslims would vigorously object to this conclusion and to the interpretation of jahiliyya on which it is based. In this paper, I focus on competing interpretations of jahiliyya and what specific uses of the concept suggest about Muslim subjectivity and its relationship to time and space. Tracing the use of jahiliyya can reveal Muslims’ sense of self and otherness, contours of social status, and markers of difference and belonging, providing some of the ontological and epistemological foundations of identity for Muslims.

Katherine Pratt Ewing is professor of religion and director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Sexuality at Columbia University.  She is also professor emerita of cultural anthropology and religion at Duke University. She has carried out ethnographic fieldwork in Pakistan, Turkey, and India, and among Muslims in Germany, The Netherlands, and the United States. Her research has focused on debates among Muslims about the proper practice of Islam in the modern world, the place of Muslims within the German national imaginary, and sexualities, gender, and the body in South Asia. She is working on a series of papers that examine how Muslims are reworking concepts such as “culture,” “Jahiliyya (state of ignorance),” and “honor” as they negotiate identity, belonging, and the practice of Islam in diasporic settings. 

Recent articles include “Naming our sexualities: Secular Constraints, Muslim Freedoms” (Focaal 2011) and “From German Bus Stop to Academy Award Nomination: The Honor Killing as Simulacrum” (2013). She is currently writing a book on the politics of sex change surgery within India’s middle class. Her previous books include Arguing Sainthood: Modernity, Psychoanalysis and Islam (1997), Stolen Honor: Stigmatizing Muslim Men in Berlin (2008), and the edited volumes Shariat and Ambiguity in South Asian Islam (1988) and Being and Belonging: Muslim Communities in the US since 9/11 (2008).