Why Sociologists of Religion Need Theological Training

By Elisabeth Becker

“Sister, are you lost?” “Sister, are you lost?”  

I only realize after he repeats himself loudly that this slender, barefoot man is speaking to me. He stands outside of the main prayer room at the East London Mosque, peering inquisitively at the floor beneath me, my embroidered pink headscarf and modest attire. I have come to the East London Mosque as an ethnographer, seeking to understand how European Muslims respond to stigma. Yet I quickly find myself studying not just social interactions, but the Qur’an; increasingly attending lectures on the Sunnah (sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad); and participating in the religious duties of Muslims—from fasting to prayers. 

The sociological study of religion has tended to divorce itself from the theological underpinnings of religious communities. In its quest for impartiality and positivist truth, the capacity to understand religious meaning systems has largely gotten lost. Theology underlies action-driving values in religious communities, as theological interpretations both motivate and constrain social action. I herein reflect on how theological engagement is not only fruitful, but necessary for the rigorous sociological study of religious communities, leading the reader through my own experiences in European mosques. 

Sociological work on Islam has become largely dominated by discourses surrounding Muslims, rather than Muslim reflections on dominant discourses. Social science research on mosques, for example, has almost exclusively focused on conflict over religious spaces as reflected upon from the outside—whether by the media, in neighborhoods with mosque projects, or the overarching political processes of deciding if/where/how to build mosques. Few have engaged Islam as an everyday lived sphere informed by theological interpretations rather than (solely) potent political sphere, such as Anthropologist John Bowen and British Social/Political Theorist Tariq Modood. Anthropological ethnographies of Islam tend to explore ritual practice in isolation from political circumstance, rather than seeking to understand insider experience in all of its diversity as located within global sociopolitical circumstances. My own research seeks to mediate between these extremes—recognizing Muslim communities as theologically-informed agents in not only political, but sociocultural, struggles over self, stigma and place.

Engaging with theology entails a certain openness of the sociological researcher, not only to new experiences but also to alternative cultural paradigms. As culture is not simply learned but embodied, difficult to get inside or see outside of, this resulted for me in both awkwardness and fallacy. I felt discomfort at first, entering mosques. I found myself flailing in prayer rooms and Qur’an reading classes. I never learned how to properly pin a hijab, despite lessons from women old and young, in person and (when that failed) on Youtube. I met the above-cited middle-aged man immediately upon arriving at the East London Mosque, on a rainy February afternoon, who blurted out: “Sister, are you lost?” He neither met my eyes nor looked away, as he ushered me with a lowered gaze to an administrator seated behind a pane of glass, tapping his open pen. The administrator in turn pointed me towards the women’s building for my own comfort, unsure of how to place me in this place to which I clearly did not belong. Later, I realized that my still-askew hijab had revealed me, along with a hole in my left sock, my peering into the men’s prayer room with curious eyes and the tall boots I held in unsteady, manicured hands. 

I was and was not lost at the onset of my research. I certainly did not “find myself” in the mosque as some of my proselytizing interlocutors so explicitly hoped (we watched many tearful Youtube videos of Jewish women converting to Islam that same February in London, in the living rooms of London social housing, surrounded by calligraphy and saris that mixed with scents of curry, both carried by the wind). Yet I found myself understanding these mosque communities as I invested both my time and self into their overlapping social and theological worlds. Only by opening myself to the cultural structures of the community was I able to open a closed space into a viable place of research. I took seriously the values of the community by learning them, which led to my subjects taking me seriously as a sociologist. I engaged with everyday religious practices (prayer, fasting, alms giving) and learning (the Qur’an). I practiced the differences of the “ta” and “th”-sounding Arabic letters on my tongue before bed; and I knelt beside believers, counting rosaries with the honest hope to feel a fleeting peace bestowed by ritual. I opened and I flailed, I quivered and I failed, held hands and embraces, kissed new widows and newborns, and found multiple layers of meaning within these mosques. Through years of my own sort of devotion, to this project, of opening myself to these spaces and at the same time exposing the agency of their populaces, I gained a semi-fluency in the cultural structures of the mosques and their specific theologies of Islam. I did this through an honest appreciation of theology as a partner in my research, not a crutch but a means to close the gaps between myself and the lives that I sought to understand.

While theological knowledge requires rigorous training in specific religious traditions, often outside of the individual researcher’s own tradition (as in my case), the ethics underlying social interaction in religious communities cannot be understood without this foundation. The reality of life within the mosques that I studied revealed responses to stigma centered on theological interpretations prizing purity. Without theological knowledge, I would have overlooked the motivations behind purity-focused actions on both the individual and communal level. Without theological knowledge, I would have witnessed, but not understood, how religious knowledge translates into daily decisions that affect large-scale processes of integration in Europe.

 The future of sociology is one in which sociologists must take seriously not only the worldviews of the people we study, but ourselves accumulate this knowledge. It is a future in which we should not allow the gaps to widen between those whom we study and ourselves, but rather bridge these gaps through shared knowledge. The study of religion in sociology necessities this shift, in particular. Thus, theology as a discipline should be understood not as a humanistic discourse divorced from the social world, but rather as an interpretive tool for sociologists who seek to analyze the worlds of believers. In striving, as a social science, for objectivity, we tend to lose the subjectivities of our subjects. By learning these subjectivities to the best of our abilities, we can achieve far deeper knowledge of social reality. 

Elisabeth Becker is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Yale University.  

Originally published 1st June 2017.

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