Every Indian knows whether he or she is a Muslim or not. But what it probably means to be one, in which contexts one chooses to identify oneself that way and whether being Muslim is one's sole religious identity remain very open questions. These questions constitute the core of my PhD project on Muslim belonging in contemporary Lucknow, and they are introduced in today's post.

Apart from this introductory post on my topic, there are:
A post on my conceptual framework
Another post on my methodological approach
Finally a post on why I chose Lucknow as a fieldsite

What puzzles me ever since I did my research among Muslim peace activists in Gujarat (and probably since long before, but that's another story) is how discursive attempts to delimit the substantive content, contextual relevance or exclusive status of Muslimness are taken up, digested, and at times resisted by individual Muslims. The ambivalences and ambiguities that shape Muslims' relations to other Muslims and to the numinous arguably depend on both discursive resources and personal experiences - but the latter rarely attract as much attention as the former. I thus not only want to understand how these two levels interact, but more specifically how processes of navigation and digestation of discourses work, in which social fields they take place and which various shapes they might take on the level of individual biographies.

Pitted against the rich backdrop of (among other things) Indo-Islamic traditions, ethnicizing language, caste-bound craftsmanship (such as the Chikan embroidery featured in this post's picture to the right) and developmental initiatives, my project therefore seeks to contribute to current debates about (religious) belonging by explicitly asking how meso-level discourses on Muslimness interact with micro-level experiences thereof - and by emphasizing the latter over the former.

Accordingly, I simultaneously explore two sets of questions. A first set regards the discursive interventions as such. How do selected Islamic FBOs of various sectarian affiliation, Muslim caste-based business or artisan associations and Muslim-run developmental NGOs formulate Muslimness? How does the increasing use of ethnicizing language and idioms of development influence their politics of belonging? And to what extent are their interventions articulated from - or targeted at - specific positions in the shifting grids of social structure, such as caste, class or gender?

A second set of questions concerns pattern of personal reactions to these discursive strategies in diachronic, biographic perspective. How do different Muslims experience commonness, practice reciprocities and feel affinities towards Muslim communities and towards aspects of the numinous? How do individual ambivalences and ambiguities influence the intersection of religio-communal belonging with civic, caste, class or gender identity? And how do personal dynamics in turn transform discourses about Muslimness?

Behind these questions lies, finally, a wider academic project. In India, I feel, social scientists long overlooked the individual. That I focus on the same is thus a kind of strategic counter-strategy to mainstream research.1 Mine is explicitly an endeavour of "writing against culture"2, or more precisely against "groupism"3. With a case study of both normative prescriptions and personal experiences of belonging, I thus intend to complement existing meso-level research on religious identity with a decisive focus on micro-level diversity. More on my theoretical justifications for this agenda, on how I hope to grasp such individual diversity, and on why Lucknow is the right place to do so follows in later posts...

  • 1. On the question of how this "overlooking the individual" came about, I could probably write at least another blog post (and I probably will, at some point). It is true that slowly but gradually scholars begin to acknowledge individual diversity - but still mostly in their prefaces and rarely in their methodology chapters (which makes for a crucial difference, I would argue). Notwithstanding, of course, exceptional counter-examples such as Mines, M. (1994). Public faces, private voices. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
  • 2. Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R.G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.
  • 3. Brubaker, R. (2004). Ethnicity without groups. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press.