“Islam” as epistemic field: imperial entanglements and Orientalism in the German-speaking world since 1870

Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Kirchweg 33, 14129 Berlin
Nils Riecken (Research Group „Trajectories of Lives,” Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin) and Larissa Schmid (Freie Universität Berlin)
11.10.2018 - 12.10.2018
Nils Riecken

“Islam” is at the center of current societal and academic debates in Germany. These eminently political debates revolve around issues such as the status and rights of refugees, of migrant workers, of women and headscarves, and the question whether “Islam” and “Muslims” belong to a politically and historically constituted entity called “Germany.” They also invoke and put on stage claims about the “Enlightenment,” “secularization” and the historical progress of Christianity and Judaism. Such claims are often contrasted with claims about the inability of Islam to achieve an “Enlightenment,” ”secularization,” or a “Reformation,” that is, to become a full part of the “modern secular” world. Publications and statements about “Islam” that reproduce such historical-political-ethical claims seem to be multiplying daily. “Islam,” so it seems, has become one of the major “problems” in debates about the present and future of German society.

The idea that “Islam” itself poses a major political “problem” for German politics has important historical precedents: at the turn of the twentieth century German publics discussed the “Islamic question” (“die Islamfrage”) and “Islamic policy” (“Islampolitik”) regarding policies in German colonies. “Islam” constituted a “problem” to be analyzed as the influential scholar of Islam (“Islamwissenschaftler”) Carl Heinrich Becker wrote in the first issue of the then newly established journal “Der Islam” (1910). Moreover, “Islam” was invoked in German war propaganda during the first and the second world war. Imperial Germany had not only been concerned with Protestantism and Catholicism in the “culture war” (“Kulturkampf”), but also with Islam, as Rebekka Habermas has pointed out (2014: 252). “Islam” is, one could argue, another unmarked center of what is called German history. What was at stake in those debates was not only the shifting imaginations of “Islam” as an “Other” of “the West” within a setting of empires. But, at the same time and within this imperial setting, another crucial stake was the problem of “religion” as a modern concept in relation to the secular modern and, therefore, the political dimension of the contingent forms of instituting and grounding a political formation. The foundational problem-space of scholarly disciplines concerned with “Islam” emerged in during the era of German imperialism and must therefore be situated within this history of German imperialism—a history that connects both the “foreign” territories and “German” territories. A critical question pertains to how the legacies of these historical constructions of “Islam” as an epistemic field within an imperial setting have shaped later and contemporary German debates about “Islam.”

Regarding academic debates, however, there is a dearth of works concerned with a “history of knowledge” of “Islam” as a historically constituted field in German-speaking settings that can address these historical, epistemological, and political dimensions within a single analytic framework.

The conference of the Research Field “Trajectories of Lives” at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin, seeks to take up and develop the perspective of a history of knowledge to use it to re-describe “Islam” as an epistemic field.

The conference thus pursues two aims:

First, the conference is to further develop a postcolonial perspective on the production of “Islam” as an epistemic field in German-speaking settings since 1870. In our view, imperial entanglements are constitutive for this field. Our interest lies therefore in examining the history of these entanglements and their afterlives up to the present. We thus understand articulations of “Islam” – e.g. in “area studies,” as an object of intervention by the state, in public debates among Muslims and non-Muslims – as moments of a local, but globally entangled history of knowledge production. We ask about the historical connections between these articulations and their relation to certain observed problems or political goals.

Second, the conference asks about the emergence of the epistemic field “Islam” to provide an important methodological contribution existing interdisciplinary research in this field. In focusing on the epistemologies and the politics that have produced the epistemic field “Islam,” the conference aims at countering the tenacious view of Islam as an “area” sui generis. Heuristically, with Timothy Mitchell (2004) we use a consciously broad concept of “area” – i.e., not only in the geographic, but also in the history-of-knowledge sense of a context that constitutes a certain object of knowledge. As areas of knowledge and power, “Islam,” “Orient,” and “Orientalism” cannot be understood in isolation, but only in relation to areas of knowledge and thereby as part of the production of knowledge about historically constituted areas such as “politics,” “economics,” “religion,” “Christianity,” “overseas,” “the non-European,” “history,” “the secular,” etc. in an imperially structured environment. This metaphorical use of “area” methodologically opens up a history-of-knowledge perspective that productively interlocks the dimensions of social history, global intellectual history, and the history of concepts, to develop an optic that allows us to follow research questions across disciplinary limits.

Possible fields of inquiry are (but not exclusively):

1) Islam as a historical concept
2) Islam, Orientalism, and area studies
3) Islam, „race,“ and gender
4) Islam as („world-)religion,“ liberalism, and the secular

The publication of the results of the conference is planned.

Paper abstracts (max. 500 words) should be sent to Nils Riecken (Nils.Riecken@zmo.de) by 30 May 2018.

Applicants will be informed about our decision until 16 June 2018.

There is (limited) funding available for travel and accommodation for the selected participants.



“Islam” as epistemic field: imperial entanglements and Orientalism in the German-speaking world since 1870, 11.10.2018 – 12.10.2018 Berlin, in: H-Soz-Kult, 14.03.2018, <www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-36712>.