All Islam is Vernacular Islam

I happened to come across this announcement for a Mellon Visiting Postdoctoral Fellowship at Vanderbilt, carrying the title “When the Fringe Dwarfs the Center: Vernacular Islam beyond the Arab World.” It looks like a fantastic opportunity, but it highlights a continuing problem in both academic and popular discussions of Islam.

That problem is the perceived asymmetry between “central” and “fringe” Islam. The Mellon program is to be commended for encouraging us to remember that about 80% of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs. But even in making this point, it commits the standard mistake of opposing the Great Tradition of Arab Islam with the Little Traditions found in Istanbul, Tashkent, Lahore, Bamako, Dakar, Mogadishu, Dhaka, and Jakarta (to say nothing of Manchester, Marseilles, or Minneapolis). The term “vernacular” probably stems from a linguistic perspective, referring to those who speak a “vernacular” language, i.e., something other than Arabic. But as written in the program description, it reflects more than just that, implying a kind of purity or refinement of one particular form of Islam. It also implies a position for that form of Islam: at the center or core, versus the edges or fringes or peripheries.

One way to clarify my objection is to ask what is the opposite of vernacular Islam? What is it called? Who practices it? What does it entail? If you find yourself uncomfortable answering that question—and nearly everyone who has thought hard about Islam will—then you should also be uncomfortable with the very idea of a fringe.

So, say it together with me: All Islam is vernacular Islam. All of it. Wahhabis and Salafis in the Arab Middle East are just as much products of particular historical moments and sociopolitical contexts as are other Sunni Muslims who don’t happen to speak a form of Arabic as their native language (to say nothing of Ibadis, Ismailis, Alevis, etc.). The same imperative to gaze outward from the Arab Middle East must be complemented with a hard gaze inward among scholars of Islam in the Arab Middle East. Perhaps that is what the program leaders mean when they write

as most Muslims live in the “fringes,” we need to problematize the notions of center and periphery, the relationship of the symbolic core to its ever-expanding outlying majority, and the latter’s creative adaptations of Islam.

But even this implies that it is the fringes where we look for the “creative adaptations of Islam,” not the center. So long as scholars continue to write as if the Islam of the Arab Middle East is somehow unproblematic, they will continue to perpetuate the myth of a non-vernacular Islam.