Is interdisciplinarity easier for scholars of South Asian studies? On the 5th Coffee Break Conference

Last week in Rome the 5th Coffee Break Conference took place. During his introductory speech Andrew Ollett asked why was such a project, with an explicit emphasis on a interdisciplinary approach, born exactly among scholars and students of South Asian studies.

His (tentative? ironic?) answer was that it was not a coincidence, since for South Asianists interdisciplinarity is not something they need to look for, it is already a given for them —since in the same department live scholars of history, feminist studies, cinema, philology… From the point of view of Islamic studies, Marco Lauri agreed that transdisciplinarity is not bread and butter in Islamic departments. Why so? Perhaps because Islam defined itself since its beginning against the other Abrahamic religions. This led Islamic believers (and consequently also Islamic scholars) to enforce a stricter definition of Islam, one that would not allow for anthropology, religious studies, etc.

Had you asked me, I would have said that most of us work on South Asia just because the Coffee Break Project was born out of the pleasure to work together of a group of friends. Hence the question: Are we here because we work on South Asia? Or is South Asia just the reason why we met? The question is open to readers —even if they work interdisciplinarly outside the Coffee Break Project.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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4 thoughts on “Is interdisciplinarity easier for scholars of South Asian studies? On the 5th Coffee Break Conference

  1. I pop out just to clarify that I would never say that “Islam” can be reduced to something that “defines itself against other Abrahamic religions”. While this unquestionably happened and still happens, it is maybe more something that “Western” scholars of Islam tend emphasise, possibly exactly because a lot of them have a personal background in those very other Abrahamic religions (more precisely, a subset thereof).
    What I think I meant is that there is, both among Muslims and among scholars, a trend (by no means universal, but fairly significant) that stresses “Islamic exceptionalism”, namely, a way to see Islam as a largely special thing that requires special scholarly tools. This, in my very modest opinion, may helpful in some cases but more often hinders understanding of most things Islamic. While such a tendency can be easily understood among Muslims (and is, of course, not without parallels among Christians and Jews) it is harder to join it with the supposed “neutrality” of scholarly work. Honestly, it is probably not easy for me, as a Christian among other things, to be “neutral” while studying Islam (other factors are there, by the way). But then, I am not sure you can be “neutral” while studying a culture you don’t belong to anyway. The safest way is probably to be constantly aware of your biases.
    In general, historically, there is the fact that the Islamic conquests and their incredibly lasting and important legacy may be seen as an exceptionally “unlikely” event. For many Westerners, Islam was a unique historiographical problem, that needed to be understood with “special” tools.

    For instance, I am not sure that there is such a thing as “Islamic” philosophy, although I have used this term myself and I probably will again. I mean, it was, to a large extent, “Greek” (Aristotelian) philosophy in Arabic (or sometimes, Hebrew, or Persian, or Turkish, or Malay … ) written by Muslims (who obviously had their concerns, in which their Islamic background and beliefs were of course very significant) but not specifically Islamic (to the point that Christian and Jewish thought could consider it a reliable gateway to Aristotle and Plato).
    I could go on, but that gives an idea.

    By the way, all this exceptionalism seems hopefully slowly on the way out. The new generations of Islamicists, if this word even means something anymore, are increasingly willing to use different frameworks (I hope this includes myself, but my training has been, in some regards, noticeably dated).

  2. I also would add that Anthropology, for one, very much exists alongside Islamic Studies. Gender studies are, perhaps not suprisingly, pretty much a thing among us. However, in my limited experience all this is still seen as somewhat “apart” from the basic (largely literary-philological) approach. Again, this is changing and unlikely to last.

    • Marco, thanks for the clarification. Just a small point by me and a pointer:
      —I do not think that neutrality would be automatically achieved by people belonging to the culture they are studying (as your comment may lead one to think, since you say that you probably cannot be neutral since you do not belong to the culture you are studying). Being aware of one’s biases would be very much needed in that case, too.
      —Perhaps you can have a look at Patrick’s comment here:

      • I’d reply to Patrick at length on the other discussion but I confess I am too tired now and I am afraid I will have little time to do so in the next days. I just note that I am probably the one who is in smaller circles. As said, my training is the one that is probably somewhat dated, and Italy is by no means not at the forefront of worldwide Islamic Studies at this moment.
        I fully agree with Elisa on the point of studying cultures you belong to. Indeed, in all likelyhood if you study “your” culture (whatever it may mean) you are even more likely to have biases, and maybe less likely to be aware of them. In short, there is probably no such a thing as “neutrality” in humanities.