If you are unfamiliar with the “Religion for Breakfast” YouTube channel, please give it a look and subscribe. It’s one of my favorite channels. Andrew Mark Henry does a wonderful job of making complex topics on religion accessible. In the video below, he touches on the general difference between religious studies & theology.
You can watch the video here:
He touches on a few points I’d like to expand on a little. What stand outs to me in this video is what types of questions various types of scholars try to answer. What types of sources do they rely on? What assumptions do they make about those sources?
Religious Studies & Theology as Unique Disciplines
As separate areas of study, religious studies and theology are often conflated. Henry gives an example of questions surrounding Buddhism. A Buddhist monk may explore why life is suffering according to the Buddha, while a religious studies scholar will explore what was it about the life of the Buddha that made suffering such a prominent part of his religious thought?
Expanding on this, let’s look at a few examples from Islamic studies versus Islamic Theology. A Muslim theologian would ask “Why do we reject idolatry?” then substantiate this from primary texts. A religious studies scholar specialized in Islam would say “What in 7th century Arabia gave rise to Muhammad rejecting idolatry?”
Note that the Muslim theologian is not primarily concerned with historical questions, but textual ones; the religious studies scholar the opposite. For the former, history is not a primary cause for theology/belief, revelation is. Each field is based on unique assumptions. The Muslim theologian assumes the veracity of Islamic texts as a foregone conclusion. The truth values inherent in Islamic sacred texts are considered revered if not inviolable. The religious studies scholar does not care. True or not, the truth value of Islamic texts has no bearing on the questions he’s asking.
Does the Same Apply to Law and Jurists?
Similar can be said for Muslim jurists and Islamic studies scholars. The jurist says “What is the ruling on drinking coffee? What texts apply here?” He will then actively attempt to apply the substantive principles and philosophical underpinnings of Islamic primary texts to the issue. He is engaged in legal analysis of a current problem, not documenting the historicity of a previous issue. Essentially, the jurist is trying to answer a theological question: What does God want the believer to do in this situation?
For the Islamic studies scholar, he is answering a particular set of questions with their own assumptions. For example, “Why did Kadizadeli jurists in the Ottoman period hold coffee to be prohibited? Why did other jurists dissent? What influenced these decisions other than just religious texts?” It’s a historical question. A historical question about a legal or theological issue, but a historical issue nonetheless.
The theologian/jurist asks, “What did God and His Messenger say and why?”
The religious studies scholar says, “What did Muslims say and why?”
Similar Questions, Different Answers
These questions seem to be the same, but they are not. Understanding the difference between the two is to understand not just the subjects studied, but their sources, hermeneutic principles, and the critical apparatuses used to draw conclusions in each field.
I highlight this because the religious studies approach has, for many lay Muslims, become so prominent in popular media (including social media and blogs) that this approach is not only used to answer questions of the past, but to infer questions of the present and future. While this approach may be useful in determining a chain of precedent in Islamic theology / law, it is not in and of itself theology or law. It does not confer on its reader what they should or should not do in their context, it simply records for them someone else’s context.
For Muslim theologians and jurists, to engage in solving problems of law and theology through historical accounts is a very problematic approach. It assumes sources equal to or competing with God’s speech. It places the standard of what is good, true, correct, and appropriate outside of God’s speech, and in the actions of his creation; finite creatures who themselves were trying to approximate “what God wants from” them in any instance. This is an expansive topic, but one we won’t go into at this time.
So when a religious studies / Islamic studies scholar states “Scholars in 16th century Mughal India allowed X” they are not making a statement on the appropriateness of X for 21 century America, nor should they be. Just as these fields are often confused, so is the applicability of the conclusions drawn from them.
Overextending conclusions in either field does an injustice to both.