SOAS University of London

SOAS South Asia Institute

Call for Papers: MUSA Workshop – Negotiating Technologies

Date: 14 October 2016Time: 9:00 AM

Finishes: 15 October 2016Time: All Day

Venue: Trinity College, University of Cambridge Room: TBC

Type of Event: Workshop

 Call for Papers

This workshop will look at the multiple facets of technology among Muslims in South Asia. Technologies contribute to reshaping our material environment as well as our sense of self and the way we relate to others. While scholars have often examined the role of political, cultural, and religious changes in the way Muslims defined themselves as Muslims, they have paid less attention to the impact of technological change on ‘Muslim societies’ and identities. This workshop aims to look at the different ways in which South Asian Muslims (broadly defined) have used, produced and ‘negotiated’ technologies in their daily lives and how these technologies shape their environment, their sense of self and their interactions with the wider world. Moreover, it aims to take into account the recent developments in the field of science and technology studies which have had an impact across social sciences. One may think for instance of the works on ‘everyday technology’ as well as Latour’s contested discussion on modernity, based on the distinction between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘human’ and ‘non-human’. By facilitating a conversation among researchers of different disciplinary backgrounds on how South Asian Muslims negotiated technologies, we hope to offer fresh perspectives on the study of Muslim societies as well as contribute to cultural studies and to the field of science and technology studies.

If the question of science, technology and Islam is often at the heart of the debate on Islam and ‘modernity’, or Islam and ‘the West’, the purpose of this workshop is not to reinforce these binaries but rather to open up the discussion in order to examine the multiple aspects of technology and its relations with groups and individuals who define themselves as Muslim. Hence, the term ‘technology’ is used here in the large sense of the word to include not only ‘modern’ applications of science for industrial, commercial or social purposes (for instance, digital and electronic technologies) but also, more largely speaking, any form of knowledge dealing with the mechanical arts and applied science as well as the application of such knowledge for practical purposes.

The workshop will be held at Trinity College, University of Cambridge (UK) on 14 & 15 October 2016. The papers selected for the workshop will be assessed for a research publication, to be produced by the Muslim South Asia Research Forum (SOAS) in collaboration with CEIAS (Centre for South Asian Studies, CNRS-EHESS, Paris) and the Centre of South Asia Studies (University of Cambridge).

Topics to be discussed include, but are not limited to:

1. Muslims & the Media: New Platforms, New Ideas, New Hierarchies?

Technological innovations in communications and the media change the way we interact with each other, impacting what we say, who we say it to, and how we say it. They shape what constitutes the ‘public’ and the public sphere by facilitating exchanges and population movements across regions and national states, contributing to a sense of togetherness and in some cases, reinforcing a ‘pan-Islamic’ imagination. How do new forms of transmission, connection and communication redefine sources of religious authority, and drive towards a more horizontal diffusion of knowledge? How do these media influence the interpretation and representation of Islam in South Asia (see for example, Robinson 1993, on the arrival of the printing press in India and the rise of a ‘scriptural’ and ‘protestant’ Islam)? Taking this further, can we argue that the public space created by the 'new media' fosters a new geography of the ‘ummah’, with new centres, new margins, new imaginings (Eickelman & Anderson 1999)?

In analysing these questions, how can we adequately take into consideration the users and mediators of technologies? Salvatore and Eickelman’s (2004) notion of ‘public Islam’ emphasises how new platforms for self-expression and the circulation of ideas have opened up spaces for discussion and dissent vis-à-vis ‘traditional’ representations or authorities, and led to the emergence of new actors speaking about what it means to be a ‘good’ Muslim. To illustrate,

Hartung (2013) describes the ‘intellectuals’ as a new social group in contrast to the traditional ulama in early 19th century India. Their emergence may be linked with the arrival of the printing press and associated mass audiences. In contemporary societies, groups such as the Taliban also enter the fray, using new media to contribute to the debate over what constitutes ‘true’ Islam.

Other important issues include that of unequal access to technologies: for example, low literacy levels, the ‘digital divide’ in contemporary Muslim societies, and differences of access on the basis of class or gender. Finally, new media also generate their own hierarchies of power, raising questions such as who mediates the discourse on the new media, what is being censored and by whom (consider for instance the fatwas against new media and the persecution of bloggers in Bangladesh).

2. Shaping Everyday Practices: ‘Everyday Technologies’, Gender & Muslim Identity

Technologies inform our daily practices, they mediate our relations to our environment, to other people and to objects. As a result, they contribute to the way we fashion ourselves as individuals and as members of society. Instead of adopting a state-centric approach, which regards technology as a tool of conquest, exploitation and control in colonial and postcolonial states, new scholarly works invite us to examine the ways in which ‘mundane’ technologies are consumed and re-appropriated as ‘local goods’, how these technologies come to assume specific significance in local settings, and how they reshape individuals’ daily lives, their ‘bodily’ practices as well as their aspirations, imaginations and sense of self (Arnold and De Wald, 2012).

Drawing inspiration from these new approaches, we can ask: how do technologies impact the ways in which Muslim individuals define themselves as Muslims? How, for instance, do they practice their faith on a daily basis? To what extent do new technologies affect existing religious practices (e.g. prayer, predication) or lead to the emergence of new practices? In what ways do these technologies shape individuals’ environment and redefine their horizons? To understand the impact of ‘everyday technologies’ on Muslims’ sense of self as Muslims, one further needs to take into account the gender-differentiated effects of technologies. How has technological change influenced the redefinition of masculine and feminine roles among Muslims? To what extent do new technologies (such as in-vitro fertilisation) challenge Islamic beliefs and practices and affect notions of family and kinship (Inhorn 2012, Clarke 2011)? In what measure do they provide new platforms for those who challenge heteronormative frameworks among Muslims? Bearing in mind the fact that access to technology is often genderdifferentiated, one may further ask to what extent have technologies opened up new opportunities (e.g. entrepreneurship, work at home, online networks) or, conversely, new forms of coercion.

3. The Debate on Modernity: Making ‘Modern’ Muslims

The debate on Muslims and modernity in South Asia has mostly revolved around Muslim responses to colonialism. Many scholars have used the categories ‘traditionalists’ and ‘modernists’ to put forward the diversity of these responses, which touch upon private matters as well as the public sphere, politics and religion. The attitude towards ‘modern’ science and technology appears, at first sight, as an important factor to demarcate those who embraced ‘Western-style’ modernity from those who turned away from it. For instance, ‘modernists’ who, like Syed Ahmad Khan, were keen to establish privileged relations with colonial rulers, often stressed the compatibility between Islam and ‘modern’ science and technology. In doing so, they challenged the idea that Islam as a religion or Muslims as a religious or cultural group were inherently ‘anti-modern’. Yet, as several scholars have shown, resistance to colonial rule did not necessarily entail a rejection of ‘Western’ technologies. In fact, as Robinson and Metcalf have shown, reformist movements often adopted technological innovations to pursue their own goals, outside the realm of colonial rule. How can we then conceive the relationship of such religious reform movements to technological innovation beyond the usual categories of traditionalist, reformist and modernist?

Moreover, the idea of modernity need not be associated with a ‘Western’ legacy. Drawing influence from Eisendstadt’s notion of ‘multiple modernities’, many scholars have questioned the Eurocentric framework that the idea of a uniform ‘modernity’ entails. To deepen the understanding of the relationship between Muslims - as individuals and as members of a ‘community’ - and what constitutes modernity, one has to consider the different meanings attributed to modernity over time. Some, like Sanjay Subrahmanyam have argued that modernity, far from being a European product, arises from cross-cultural, cross-regional interactions. In this context, we can ask: in what ways did South Asian Muslims contribute to shaping ‘alternative modernities’ (Gaonkar, 2001)? How have South Asian Muslims proposed ‘their own modernity’, to use Partha Chatterjee's terms? What has been considered 'modern'?

What has constituted accepted forms of modernity? What are the influences, besides colonialism, that have shaped South Asian Muslims’ ideas of modernity? In addition, the distinction between culture and nature, that is, between human and non-human, lies at the foundation of the Western concept of modernity (Latour 1993, Descola 2013). While the relation of various communities to their environment has been examined, this question has not been linked with Islam and being Muslim. How has the connection between nature and culture been conceptualized by South Asian Muslims and how has it affected their relationship with technological change? Finally, modern nation-states have often stressed technological innovation and industrial development as a way to ‘progress’, including in South Asia – think, for instance, of the Nehruvian ‘developmental state’ (Visvanathan 1987, Khilnani 1999). How, then, have South Asian Muslims taken part in such state-led projects? Science and technology have been broadly analysed as instruments of colonial control and as tools used by nationalists to imagine and build the nation (Arnold 2000). How has technology been used to promote certain ideas of the state and the nation among South Asia’s Muslims? What has been the role of Muslim scientists, engineers in these processes? How has public sector scientific education, such as that promoted by engineering colleges, forged Muslim ideas of the nation-state?

4. South Asian Muslims & the History of Science & Techniques

The narrative locating the birth of modern science in the European ‘scientific revolution’ of the 16th and 17th centuries has long been challenged. Many, like Joseph Needham on China or Seyyed Hossein Nasr on the Muslim world, have highlighted that other parts of the world were, at particular times in history, more advanced technologically than Western Europe. To disprove Western claims of superiority, the role of Muslims in the preservation of Greek knowledge or in mathematical and technological innovation – think of the astrolabe – is often contrasted to the situation in medieval Europe. Such visions, framed in civilisational terms, led to the famous ‘Needham Question’, now largely deemed irrelevant: why did the scientific revolution not take place in China? While noting that such a question has never really been asked about South Asia, let us also consider more recent approaches, which moved away from ascertaining civilizational claims on technological and scientific inventions to focus on networks and circulations (see for instance Raj 2006). Precisely because it always involves networks and circulations of people and goods, knowledge production is the result of multiple encounters and cannot be reduced to a single person, group or culture. How can we position South Asian Muslims in such networks of scientific and technological production and exchanges? How have South Asian Muslims – whether erudite or illiterate, princely counsels or craftsmen – taken part in knowledge production, not as isolated inventors, but as persons both inscribed in a social setting and yet connected much beyond it?

We also welcome decolonial perspectives on this theme. How can studying both every day and authoritative histories of science and technology in Muslim South Asia contribute to global theory-making? Or, considering the fact that knowledge under colonialism was unequal but was not unidirectional, have these indigenous histories already been formative to global thought, but without attribution?

Submission Guidelines

We request contributions from PhD students in advanced stages of their research (within 1 year of final submission and at least 6 months after completion of field-work, if applicable) and early career scholars (within 5 years post PhD).

Please submit your abstracts to by 15 JULY, 2016 by 12:00am (GMT). Abstracts should be no more than 300 words and should include up to 5 keywords. Please also state your name and current institutional affiliation. In addition, please provide an updated CV.

All files should be in word document format and entitled ‘YOUR NAME - Abstract’ and ‘YOUR NAME - CV’.

Organiser: MUSA, Muslim South Asia Research Forum

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