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The sociology of Islam covers a diverse set of religious and cultural groups and histories. With a global population estimated at more than 1.6 billion as of 2009, Muslims constituted the world’s second largest religious tradition (after Christianity). Nearly a quarter of all Muslims live outside majority-Muslim countries, including tens of millions throughout eastern and western Europe. Practices and orientations within Islam vary considerably from the mystical-experiential emphasis of Sufis to the austere discipline of Salafists to various shades of mainstream Shi’a and Sunni Islam around the world.
As with other major traditions, aspects of Islam may be said to be secularized in everyday life, making it reasonable to speak of Islamic cultures and secular Muslims without necessarily signifying religious commitment. Indeed, some scholars prefer to describe the field as the “sociology of Muslims” to emphasize lived experiences rather than to suggest pure, unchanging theological ideals disconnected from social practice. However, sociologists are likewise increasingly sensitive to problems of uncritically applying concepts from the Western Christian context to Islam without reflecting first on their relevance. For instance, anthropologist Talal Asad traces the historical contingency of basic categories like “religion” and “secular” and insists that cultural and historical context be taken into account in order to interpret how such concepts might apply to Islam.
In recent years the role of politics in Islam has been examined widely. By both popular and academic observers, it is sometimes said that Islam is intrinsically political in ways that, for instance, Christianity is not. Close historical studies tend to explode this notion as inaccurate. Fazlur Rahman noted that as early as the Umayyad dynasty (661 to 750 Ce) political leaders had lost religious prestige and important religious innovations were taking place outside the political structure. Moreover, as far back as 1258 CE, the rule of the caliphs, the traditional title used by leaders of several Islamic dynasties based in modern Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey, seldom extended to all the major Muslim population centers. Hence neither the religious credibility of political leaders nor the political integration of those following Islam could be taken for granted starting at an early date in Muslim history.
Since the 1970s a major development in Islam has been a large-scale piety movement known as the ”calling” to Islam (da’wa). It is perhaps best understood as a cross-national religious revival and cultural movement. It has been intertwined with, yet is distinct from, the rise of Islamist political parties and social organizing in many Muslim-majority countries. While in fact a diverse set of political (and apolitical) orientations have emerged in connection with the revival, most visible to Western observers were so-called fundamentalist movements that drew criticism for their severe and sometimes violent policies, which their advocates claimed were sanctioned by authoritative texts of Islam. The most sweeping political movements peaked in the late 1970s and 1980s as displeasure registered with corrupt or ineffective secular governments in countries ranging from Algeria and Egypt to Sudan and Pakistan. In most cases the Islamists failed to win or maintain power, with the notable exception of Iran’s 1979 revolution. Others have chronicled the moderate or progressive politics which has emerged alongside or in reaction to the radical groups including Asef Bayat, who has championed the term “post-Islamist” to describe a trend of moderation following a period of radicalism and idealism.
- Asad, T. (1993) Genealogies of Religion. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.
- Ernst, C. (2003) Following Muhammad. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.
- Rahman, F. (1998) Islam, 2nd edn. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.