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Sources of Authority and Authenticity in American Shar’ia Law

  • Author(s): Benson, Kristina
  • Advisor(s): Hale, Sondra
  • et al.
Abstract

In this project, I use anthropological, sociological, and ethnographic methodologies to interrogate the production of religious knowledge and concepts surrounding authority and authenticity for U.S. Muslims in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. First, I ask who exercises interpretive authority over religious texts to produce religious knowledge for the community. Second, I ask how Muslim Americans determine that religious knowledge is authoritative. Finally, I examine the extent to which there are tensions between American and Islamic values (however understood), and ask how these tensions are resolved .

My research, drawn from internet-based ethnography and open-ended interviews, reveals inter alia that U.S. Muslims identify Islamic law as crucial to larger processes of decision-making as well as to the rhythm of their daily lives. While authority for U.S. Muslims primarily resides in self-authorized, individual interpretations of religious texts, certain members of the community are viewed as valuable resources for guiding the framework of interpretive efforts. The purpose of these interpretive efforts is oriented towards developing a personal relationship with God, experiencing a connection to the broader Muslim community, and living in harmony with key Islamic values like modesty and charity. Religious ideology, therefore, factors heavily into expressions of Muslim identity, particularly for U.S. Muslim women, who often strive to embody Islamicate values through a mix of sartorial and behavioral choices.

At present, while there has been scholarly research on Muslims in the U.S., there is little scholarly work on the development of Islam itself in the U.S. The substance and content of U.S. Shar’ia law, as well as its sources of authority and drivers of authenticity, are largely unknown. Therefore, in a time when there is widespread anxiety about Shari’a law in the United States among non-Muslims, my project has applied significance to bodies of knowledge related to sociology, Islamic jurisprudence, and American studies; it also makes important contributions to anthropological and sociological theoretical frameworks regarding how the production of authoritative knowledge is influenced by the ubiquity of social media and on-line religious knowledge production.

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