York anthropologist explores Muslim diversity in new book

For more than 1,400 years Muslims have held multiple and diverging views about their religious tradition. Yet especially since Sept. 11, 2001, Muslims are commonly portrayed as homogeneous and dogmatic.

In his new book, Diversity and Pluralism in Islam: Historical and Contemporary Discourses amongst Muslims, York anthropologist Zulfikar Hirji challenges that view. The 253-page volume published by I.B. Tauris and launched at Harvard University this fall features essays by world-class scholars that explore Islam and Muslim societies and cultures from a range of perspectives.

The book arose from a seminar series on Muslim pluralism hosted at the London-based Institute of Ismaili Studies in 2002 and 2003 in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, explains Hirji in his editor’s note. “Since that moment, words and images concerning Islam and the histories, beliefs and practices of Muslims have proliferated globally.” This complex portrait of Islam “challenges the notions that Muslims everywhere are the same or should be the same,” wrote Hirji. Like the seminar series, the book aims not to present the social fact that Muslims are diverse, he added, but to examine how Muslims frame their own diversity over time and in different contexts.

As a social historian as well as an anthropologist in York’s Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, Hirji is interested in how Muslim societies express their sense of community. He has contributed the first of eight essays in Diversity and Pluralism in Islam, “Debating Islam from Within: Muslim Constructions of the Internal Other”.

Hirji co-authored and co-edited The Ismailis: An Illustrated History (2008), a comprehensive account of Ismaili history and intellectual achievements, set in the wider contexts of Islamic and world history. He has co-edited Places of Worship and Devotion in Muslim Societies, expected out soon. He has also recently completed a 25-minute film on Tehreema Mitha (see YFile May 7, 2009), a classical and contemporary dancer from Pakistan, and is working with the Textile Museum of Canada on an exhibition of Muslim material culture and heritage in Africa to open in May.

Right: Zulfikar Hirji

At York, he teaches senior undergraduate and graduate courses on Islam and Muslim societies, visual anthropology and the anthropology of the senses.