Research

My research focuses on culture, art, and religion in the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa over the past 200 years. Authority, knowledge, education, and gender are key themes in my examination of the processes of reform and modernisation that have transformed much of the world in this timespan. My work highlights how Islam, its traditions, and its institutions have been reinvented to fit within - or even advance - reform projects, a phenomenon that continues through to the present day. To do this research, I combine approaches from area studies, history, and digital humanities, including the close reading of texts. 

My research to date has fallen under the following themes:

See here for information about the research networks that I coordinate:

 


Islamic Authority: Men, Women, and Religious Leadership

 

The question of who has the right to speak on behalf of Islam is a topic of great importance, especially given the massive expansion in claims to such authority over the past 90 years.  
 
I am a world-leading expert on female Islamic authority, a topic I researched as a Fulbright Fellow in Damascus, Syria and a Clarendon Scholar at St Antony’s College, Oxford.  My article “Social and Religious Change in Damascus" is the first to discuss female Islamic authority in Syria, and one of the first on this topic in any context. It won the 2007 British Society for Middle Eastern Studies graduate article prize. A French translation was commissioned in 2012 and it will be republished in the Routledge multi-volume set Islam and Society in 2018. The religious leader I profiled, Huda al-Habash, was later the subject of the film The Light in Her Eyes. 
 
The 22-chapter volume I co-edited with Masooda Bano was the first to bring together analysis of female Islamic leadership in geographically and ideologically-diverse communities worldwide. It argues that the acceptance of female leadership inmosques and madrassas is a significant change from historical practice, signalling the mainstream acceptance of some form of female Islamic authority in many places. The eminent Professor Francis Robinson described it as 

one of those rare books which opens up a whole new subject; it is a landmark in the field. The issue of women’s religious scholarship is presented to us in rich and wide-ranging scholarship. The articles are invariably respectfulof historical and social context; nuance tends to be embraced rather than ignored. Moreover, the whole work is extremely well-planned, so as to make its main arguments readily accessible. Much work must have gone into its editing. The outcome is essential reading for all those interested both in issues of authority in the contemporary Muslim world and in the new spaces opening up for Muslim women (JRAS 23:1).

My historical research in this area sheds new light on the emergence of a new type of leader in the early twentieth century, the 'new religious intellectual', whose education had primarily been in non-religious schools. The success of Hasan al-Banna's Muslim Brotherhood in interwar Egypt facilitated the emergence of new religious intellectuals from across the ideological spectrum, the most famous of which is Osama bin Laden of al-Qaeda.

Further accolades include an invited keynote address at the three-day Imams in Western Europe conference in Rome, election as President of the US-based Syrian Studies Association, election to the Councils of the British Society of Middle Eastern Studies and the University Council on Modern Languages, and invitations to serve as external examiner at King’s College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

 

RELATED FELLOWSHIPS AND PRIZES

-- BRISMES Graduate Article Prize in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, 2007
-- Fulbright Fellowship, Damascus, Syria, 2004-2005, Project title: Women, Modernity and Sufism: Islamic Discourse and Social Tensions in Syria

RELATED PUBLICATIONS

Edited Volume

-- Women, Leadership and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority, co-edited with Masooda Bano (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

Articles in Peer-Reviewed Journals

--"Blurring boundaries: Aesthetics, performance, and the transformation of Islamic leadership," Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal, published electronically on 25 August 2015.
-- "Sur le chemin de Damas: Enquête sur l'authorité des femmes prêcheurs dans les mosquées en Syrie," Travail, genre et sociétés, 27 (2012), 73-89.
-- "Social and Religious Change in Damascus: One Case of Female Islamic Religious Authority," British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 35.1 (2008), 37-57.

Chapters

-- "Islamic Authority and the Study of Female Religious Leaders," single-authored introduction to Women, Leadership and Mosques: Change in Contemporary Islamic Authority (Leiden: Brill, 2012).

Encyclopaedia Entries

-- "Religious authority of women", The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and women, (2013).
-- “Islam,” Encyclopedia of Women in Today’s World (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Pub., 2011).

RELATED CONFERENCE AND PANEL ORGANIZATION

Organizer of a panel at the BRAIS Annual Conference:
---- 2014: Strategies of Authority, Legitimation, and Power in Islam
Organizer of the following panels at the BRISMES Annual Conference:
---- 2013 (co-organised): Religion and Leadership: Strategies of Authority, Legitimation and Power
---- 2011: Islamists, Politics, and the 'Arab Spring': What Role for Religion in Contemporary Arab Politics?
Organizer of a 3-year thematic conversation held at the MESA Annual Meeting:
---- 2013: Islamic Authority and the State, Medieval and Modern
---- 2012: Spaces, Networks, Institutions: Men, Women, and Islamic Authority in the Twentieth Century
---- 2011: Mapping Change in Islamic Authority: Shifting Cultures of Knowledge, Learning, and Practice,
Organizer of the following panel at the MESA Annual Meeting:
---- 2010: Change, Continuity, and the Modernization of Religious Authority in Syria and Egypt
Lead organizer for international conference Women, Leaderships, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority, St Antony’s College, Oxford, October 2009.

RELATED PRESENTATIONS

Related Keynote Address

-- “Authority in Islam: Men, Women, and Religious Leadership in Europe” as a keynote speaker at a three-day conference, Imams in Western Europe: Authority, Training, and Institutional Challenges, LUISS Guido Carli University and John Cabot University, Rome, Italy, November 2014

Related Invited Workshop Presentations

-- “Islamic authority and the study of religious, cultural, and political dynamics” at a workshop sponsored by the multi-year project Making Islam work in the Netherlands. Islamic authority and Islamic law in the Netherlands among ordinary Muslims: Recent trends and developments, VU University Amsterdam and Leiden University, October 2015 (invited)
-- “Efendi aesthetics, the blurring of boundaries, and the emergence of new religious intellectuals” as an invited participant at a day-long workshop, Aesthetics of religious leadership, VU University Amsterdam, September 2012

Related Invited Seminar Papers

-- “Female Islamic Authority in the Middle East and beyond,” Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies Seminar, University of Exeter, October 2014
-- “Religious Authority for Muslim Women? Historical and Contemporary Dynamics of a Significant Phenomenon,” International Gender Studies Centre Seminar, University of Oxford, June 2011

Related Invited Professional Presentations

-- “Preaching, Speaking, Leading: Preliminary Thoughts about Female Islamic Leadership in Britain” as an invited presenter at a training seminar for an audience of 'expert women', Encouraging Muslim Women Into Higher Education Through Partnerships and Collaborative Pathways, Higher Education Academy Islamic Studies Network Project, February 2011
-- “Female Islamic Leadership in Context” as an invited guest presenter at a seminar for an audience of 'expert women', Women as Scholars and Leaders: Theological Debates in Islam, University of Birmingham (UK), June 2010

Related Papers Given at Subject-Driven Conferences/Workshops

-- “Zaynab al-Ghazali and the re-emergence of female Islamic authority in 1930s Egypt,” at the Women, Authority and Leadership in Christianity and Islam conference, University of Roehampton, September 2012
-- "Female Leadership and Activism in Conservative Islamic Communities: An Islamic Form of Feminism?" Engaging Islam Fall Institute, UMass Boston, September 2007

Related Papers Given at Major Disciplinary Conferences

-- “Blurring boundaries: Aesthetics and the radical reform in Islamic leadership in Egypt from the 1930s,” BRAIS Annual Conference, Edinburgh, April 2014
-- “Female Islamic Religious Authority in Contemporary Damascus,” BRISMES Postgraduate Conference, Oxford, July 2007

RELATED SERVICE

-- Coordinator, mailing list for academics interested in female Islamic leadership
-- Advisory Board member, The Light in Her Eyes, documentary film on Syrian mosque instructor Houda al-Habash

FURTHER VOLUME INFORMATION

Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority investigates the diverse range of female religious leadership present in contemporary Muslim communities in South, East and Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and North America. Its chapters discuss the emergence of female Islamic authority, the limitations placed upon it, and its wider impact, as well as the physical and virtual spaces used by women to establish and consolidate their authority. It highlights how the acceptance of female leadership in mosques and madrassas is a significant change from much historical practice, signaling the mainstream acceptance of some form of female Islamic authority in many places.

In addition to 20 chapters exploring specific examples of female leadership, the volume includes an introduction that lays out main themes in the study of Islamic authority (male or female), three section introductions that bring out thematic links between chapters, and a conclusion presenting a case study of a major Pakistani madrasa. It is invaluable as a reference text, as it is the first to bring together analysis of female Islamic leadership in geographically and ideologically-diverse Muslim communities worldwide.

For more information, see here. There is also a series of essays related to the volume on openDemocracy, the first of which is linked here.

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Religion, Culture, and Nation in Modern Egypt

My forthcoming book, Islamic Knowledge and the Making of Modern Egypt, transforms understanding of the role of Islam in modern Egypt. It establishes a 130-year history for the conflicts over the role of Islam in the Egyptian public sphere that led to the failure of the 2011 Egyptian revolution. It argues that, to understand the tensions surrounding political Islam that divide contemporary Egypt, it is necessary to look back further than the Islamic revival that began during the 1970s. Instead, we must examine the 'culture war' that erupted in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the activities of early twentieth-century nationalists and the pre-colonial reformers of the 1860s and 1870s. By doing this, the book presents a more convincing explanation for the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most-influential Muslim mass revivalist movement of the twentieth century. In peer review, it was described as an “innovative and strong monograph ... offering a new interpretation of Egypt’s modern history with respect to the roles of Islam and Arabic.”

This book is a significant extension of my doctoral dissertation on Cairo's Dar al-'Ulum teacher training school. Dar al-'Ulum is understudied and often misunderstood despite its centrality to the reform of Egyptian education and language. The school, founded in 1872 to train teachers with strong Arabic skills, occupied an unusual in-between position within Egyptian education because it enabled top students from religious schools to obtain a diploma from a government-run civil school. In 1946 it became a faculty of Cairo University specializing in Arabic and Islam.

This study not only updates the institutional history of the school, but also uses it as a prism through which to view the modernisation of Egyptian society and culture, providing insight into the continuing importance of past heritage -- specifically Arabic and Islam -- in Egypt during a period of European-inspired modernisation. It explores how its graduates -- such as Hasan Tawfiq al-'Adl, Hifni Nasif, 'Ali al-Jarim, Tantawi Jawhari, Taki al-Din al-Nabhani of Hizb al-Tahrir, and Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood -- used the hybrid civil-religious cultural capital provided by the school to cross sociocultural boundaries and shape the development of Egyptian culture, language, and religion with lasting significance. The full abstract is below.

The significance of my work on Dar al-‘Ulum led to an invitation to write the related entry for the third edition of the premier reference work in Islamic Studies, Encyclopaedia of Islam. 

RELATED FELLOWSHIPS

Fellowships Supporting Graduate Studies

-- Clarendon Fund Bursary, 2005 - 2008, scholarship and stipend covering fee-paying years of graduate studies at Oxford
-- Overseas Research Student Fellowship, 2006 - 2008, scholarship (fee reduction) to University of Oxford

Grants Supporting Fieldwork

-- British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) Research Student Award, 2008 - 2009
-- Colin Matthew Fund, Travel Award for Historical Research, 2008 - 2009
-- Oriental Studies Faculty Research Grant, Near and Middle Eastern Studies, 2008 - 2009

RELATED PUBLICATIONS

Book

Islamic knowledge and the making of modern Egypt, under contract, to be published by Cambridge University Press in 2018.

Dissertation

-- From Turban to Tarboush? Dar al-‘Ulum and Social, Linguistic, and Religious Change in Early Twentieth Century Egypt
Supervisor: Walter Armbrust
Examiners (at various stages): Eugene Rogan, James McDougall, Gudrun Krämer, Michael Willis

Encyclopaedia Entries

-- “Dar al-‘ulum”, Encyclopaedia of Islam, 3rd edition, (2012).

Chapters

-- “Training Teachers How to Teach: Transnational Exchange the the Introduction of Social-Scientifi Pedagogy in 1890s Egypt,” in The Long 1890s in Egypt: Colonial Quiescence, Subterranean Resistance?, Marilyn Booth and Antony Gorman, eds., (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2014).

RELATED CONFERENCE ORGANIZATION

Organizer of the following panels at the MESA Annual Meeting:
---- 2013 (co-organised): Across the Maghrib-Mashriq Divide: The Language of Anti-Colonial Resistance in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, 1908-1939
---- 2012: Looking Beyond National Borders and Cultural Boundaries: Transnational Connections and the Reform of Islamic Education, 1820-1950
---- 2011: New Ideas, Institutions, and Adaptations: The Politics of Education Reform after the Nahda in Syria, Egypt, and Algeria
---- 2010: Change, Continuity, and the Modernization of Religious Authority in Twentieth-Century Syria and Egypt with Hilary Kalmbach (Oxford), Aaron Rock-Singer (Princeton), Nadia Oweidat (Oxford), and Thomas Pierret (Princeton); chair/discussant David Commins (Dickinson)
---- 2009: Writing and Contesting History in Egypt and Syria in the Late-Nineteenth and Early-Twentieth Centuries with Hilary Kalmbach (Oxford), Hussein Omar (Oxford), and Leonard Wood (Harvard); chair Charles D. Smith (Arizona), discussant Yoav Di-Capua (UT Austin)

RELATED PRESENTATIONS

Related Invited Workshop Presentations

-- “Islam, Culture, and the Egyptian Project of Modernity” at the workshop War, Revolt and Rupture: The Historical Sociology of the Current Crisis in the Middle East sponsored by the British International Studies Association Historical Sociology Group, Queen Mary University London, September 2015.

Related Invited Seminar Papers

-- “Arabic language academies and the production of transnational imaginaries,” Middle Eastern History Seminar, University of Cambridge, March 2014
-- “Blurring boundaries in interwar Egypt: The roots of radical reform in Islamic leadership,” History Department Work in Progress Seminar, University of Sussex, November 2013
-- “Religious Knowledge and Cultural Politics in Egypt,” Islam and Nation seminar series, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, October 2013
-- “Religious, Civil, Hybrid: Islam and Education Reform in Cairo, 1863-1950,” Special Seminar Education Reform in Asia and North Africa, University of Manchester, March 2013
-- "Cairo's Dar al-'Ulum and the modernization of Islamic education," Islamic Studies Research Seminar, University of Birmingham, November 2012
-- “Beyond Egypt's borders: The transnational impact of reforms in Islamic education, 1870-1952,” Near and Middle East History Seminar, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, October 2012
-- “Emotion versus Analysis: Contrasting Descriptions of the “Battle” to Wear the Tarboush at Dar al-‘Ulum”, Oriental Institute (Islamic World) Research In Progress Seminar, University of Oxford, December 2010
-- “Education Reform and the Emergence of Modern Islamic Authority: Dar al-'Ulum, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir,” Religious History Seminar, University of Oxford, May 2010
-- “A Modern Islamic Education? Dar al-‘Ulum and Changing Authority of Knowledge in Early Twentieth Century Egypt”, Oriental Institute (Islamic World) Research in Progress Seminar, University of Oxford, June 2009

Related Papers Given at Subject-Driven Conferences/Workshops

-- “Changing Ideas about Teacher Training: Importing Social Scientific Approaches into 1890s Egypt,” Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Workshop on The Long 1890s in Egypt: Colonial Quiescence, Subterranean Resistance, University of Edinburgh, May 2011
-- "Changing Pedagogies: Dar al-‘Ulum and the Impact of Social Scientific Thought", Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies Workshop on Historical and Critical Perspectives on the Social Sciences in Egypt, 1882-1952, Cambridge, April 2008

Related Papers Given at Major Disciplinary Conferences

-- "Islam and the State in Egypt: An Institution-Centered Approach," MESA Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C, November 2017 (on programme)
-- “From Turban to Tarboush: Dress and the Construction of Egyptian National Identity in the Interwar Period,” MESA Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., November 2014
-- “Resisting Colonialism through Language Reform: Arabic Language Academies in Egypt and Beyond, from 1908,” MESA Annual Meeting, New Orleans, October 2013
-- “The Transnational Reach of Cairo's Dar al-'Ulum, 1890-1950,” MESA Annual Meeting, Denver, November 2012
-- “Being ‘Modern’ and Religious: Hybridity, Authenticity and Cairo’s Dar al-‘Ulum,” MESA Annual Meeting, Washington, D.C., December 2011
-- "Education, Social and Cultural Capital, and the Transformation of Modern Islamic Leadership: Challenging Scholarly Assumptions," BRISMES Conference, Exeter, June 2011
-- “Hybridized Education and the Emergence of Modern Islamic Authority: Dar al-‘Ulum, the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb al-Tahrir,“ MESA Annual Meeting, San Diego, November 2010
-- “History as a Hobby in Interwar Egypt: Memoirs, Modernity and Muhammad ‘Abd al-Jawad’s Yearbook, Taqwim Dar al-‘Ulum,” MESA Annual Meeting, Boston, November 2009

EXTENDED DISSERTATION ABSTRACT

This dissertation uses the Dar al-'Ulum teacher-training school and its graduates as a prism through which to view sociocultural change in Egypt, 1900-1950. Founded in 1872 as part of Khedive Isma'il’s efforts to expand the Egyptian government’s civil-school system, the school trained top students from religious schools such as al-Azhar to be schoolteachers with strong Arabic skills. It became a faculty of Cairo University in 1946.

The dissertation as a whole presents a new vision of how modernisation and colonialisation affected colonised societies. It demonstrates that a major engine driving sociocultural change in interwar Egypt was the agency exercised by individuals who crossed boundaries and consciously mixed elements of local tradition and European-inspired modernity.

Dar al-'Ulum is best seen as a hybrid institution that not only bridged but also mixed elements of civil and religious education. Throughout its seventy-four years as a higher school, its curriculum combined the Arabic and Islamic disciplines that formed the core of religious tradition with basic instruction in the non-religious subjects – such as mathematics, science, geography, and history – taught in the European-influenced civil-school system.

The school represents a new type of religious education, as it taught religious subjects using the ocularcentric, concept-driven pedagogies of civil schools. It was an early contributor to the functionalisation of Islam, or the use of religious knowledge further specific sociocultural, religious, or political goals.

Dar al-'Ulum presented opportunities and challenges to its graduates. The mixed range of cultural capital it provided enabled graduates to cross and straddle sociocultural boundaries, such as the one drawn between the efendiyya and the 'ulama', which presented top students in religious schools with a chance at becoming an efendi professional.

The school and its graduates have often been incorrectly described as overly conservative, in part due to their in-between status. While the graduates generally maintained a strong connection with Egypt’s Arabic and Islamic traditions, their commitment to adapting these traditions to meet the needs of a rapidly modernising Egypt was equally strong. Graduates combining the authenticity gained from local Arabic and Islamic knowledge with the cachet of European-influenced practices to modernise Arabic or Islam include Hasan Tawfiq al-'Adl, Hifni Nasif, 'Ali al-Jarim, Tantawi Jawhari, Muhammad Madi Abu al-'Aza'im, Taki al-Din al-Nabhani, as well as Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This work is based on examination of institutional records, alumni association and professional journals, historical reference works, newspaper coverage, and publications of key alumni, all primarily in Arabic and gathered during fieldwork trips to Cairo and major research libraries and archives in the United States.

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Cultural History of Islamic Art

My current research approaches the question of how cultural traditions evolve and change from another angle.  It focuses on how traditional arts and crafts of the MENA region have been practiced, historically and up to the present day.  I am interested in how what is and is not considered authentic changes in the face of outside pressures such as colonialism and the neoliberal tourist economy.  I am particularly interested in the role played by Islamic geometry in art and architecture.  I am currently working on a cultural history of zillij, the tile mosaics for which Morocco is famous, and how they have influenced the built environment around the world through to the present day. 

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