Reckoning with God
By some recollections, the Arab Spring was characterized by God’s presence. “God is with us,” chanted some as they protested in the streets. “God is great,” proclaimed others as blood was shed. Remembered differently, the events of 2010-11 could only be the product of God’s absence. Where was God when an impoverished Tunisian street vendor, overcome by the injustices of his life, set himself on fire? Which images of God were backgrounded when Egyptians united in their demand for “bread, freedom, justice?” It would seem that, in presence as much as absence, God was a force to contend with during the Arab Spring. Islamist movements, populist uprisings, entrenched regimes, rebellious youth, desperate breadwinners, and secular intellectuals were among those who found themselves– in some form or fashion– reckoning with God in these tumultuous times.
On June 30 and July 1, a group of established and early-career scholars met at the Orient-Institut Beirut (OIB) to explore the aftermath of this human reckoning with the divine, asking how we as scholars might reckon with these exchanges in our own analyses. At this closed workshop, entitled Reckoning with God: Divine-Human Relations after the Arab Spring, participants and registered guests read and offered constructive feedback on pre-circulated works-in-progress.
Papers explored how divine-human relations materialize across settings and religious traditions. On the first day, one panel provided a historical perspective on how God is called upon in moments of crisis. Micah A. Hughes looked at how intellectuals responded to “crises of faith” characterizing the Ottoman Empire’s transition to a modern Turkish Republic. Alireza Doostdar examined how attitudes of hope and despair have marked different periods of contemporary Iranian history. Another panel traced the ways in which the Hereafter operates in the here and now. Emanuel Schäublin considered how Palestinian Muslims living under Israeli occupation engage God as a divine bookkeeper and provider. Hanna Berg analyzed how Syrian refugees in Jordan balance the temporalities of a precarious present and an afterlife to come.
On the workshop’s second day, the first panel centered narratives in which believers reflected on losing or finding God. I outlined how migrant Muslim women in Dubai develop intimate relationships with the divine. Khadija Embaby illustrated the disillusionment Islamist youth experienced in post-revolutionary Egypt. The next panel highlighted how God mediates between humans in their encounters. Maike Neufend delved into how embodied experiences of the divine are communicated to others. Aaron F. Eldridge examined the how shared Islamic and Orthodox Christian practices and sensibilities thrive in Lebanon’s monastic spaces. The workshop’s final panel foregrounded relations between humans and the divine. Kamala Russell offered a sociolinguistic account of how Muslims in southern Oman orient themselves in relation to the dunya in their social interactions. Roxana-Maria Arãş detailed how practitioners debate what it means to be Orthodox Christian during Lebanon’s contemporary crisis.
Complementing these rich exchanges was a public keynote lecture delivered by Yasmin Moll, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. In her talk, Moll reflected upon the theoretical, methodological, and political stakes inherent to producing a “Godly ethnography.” Interrogating the recent imperative to “take God seriously” in social scientific scholarship, Moll explored the limits and possibilities of doing so by examining the works of Muslim scholars writing in the 1980s within an Islamization of knowledge paradigm. Moll’s talk offered an incisive critique of epistemological decolonization projects claiming to challenge the secular, liberal foundation of the social sciences, suggesting alternative ways that political liberation might be realized.
By undertaking a comparative analysis of God-talk and divine-human relations across the contemporary Middle East, our conversations throughout the workshop bridged between disparate settings and ultimately built a more encompassing framework for understanding religion and society today.
Joud Alkorani is an Assistant Professor of Islam Studies at Radboud University in the Netherlands. An anthropologist with a background in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, Joud completed her PhD at the University of Toronto and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Orient-Institut Beirut in 2022, during which she organized this workshop. Her research explores how changing political, economic, and sociohistorical conditions transform Muslims’ beliefs and practices. In particular, she is interested in the forms Muslim piety takes after the Islamic Revival and the Arab Spring.