Special Issue "Religious Transformation in the Middle East - Spirituality, Religious Doubt, and Non Religion"

A special issue of Religions (ISSN 2077-1444). This special issue belongs to the section "Religions and Theologies".

Deadline for manuscript submissions: closed (1 December 2020) | Viewed by 18090

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Special Issue Editor

Prof. Dr. Karin van Nieuwkerk
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Guest Editor
Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies, Radboud University, 6525 XZ Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Special Issue Information

Dear Colleagues,

At present there seems to be a renewed upsurge of protests against political authorities in the Arab world, reminding us of the wave of protests and revolutions of almost a decade ago.

Whereas the effects of the previous wave of revolutionary moments have been assessed for their (lack of) political impact, less is known about the religious transformation that since took place. Most attention has been dedicated to radical Islam, political Islam, Salafism, jihad, or its constructed counterpart, the political project of ‘moderate Islam’. A trend that has received less attention is the way that contesting political authorities during and after the Arab upsurges has also affected religious authorities due to the various ways religion and politics are intertwined in different Arab countries.

Popular lay preachers, such as `Amr Khalid, have become less attractive to the young generation of the revolutions and their aftermath. There appears to be a crisis in religious authority, not only because of its fragmentation but also as a result of the liberating effect of contesting all kinds of authorities, including political, religious, and patriarchal authorities. Also, the wide spread of social media as a source of information enables believers to actively question received ideas and search for alternative forms of religiosity and spirituality. Young people have started to question religion in its hegemonic and political forms, looking for various alternatives inside and outside religion.

Not only Sufism appears to be more attractive to young people, but also New Age spirituality and Buddhism can count on a rising popularity. This takes the form of spiritual religiosity and syncretic alternative communities, including musical subcultures.  An increasing number of women also take off hijab. Whereas removing hijab can be a sign of religious doubts and questioning, it can also represent a search for a more inward-oriented piety instead of the outward-oriented forms of the 1990s.

As the Arab Barometer has made visible, the number of people in the Middle East identifying as "not religious" has risen from 8% in 2013 to 13% in 2018. According to this source, the rise is the greatest for the age category under 30 years, among whom 18% identify as not religious. The ‘nones’ seem to have become more visible and audible in social media, with a growth of channels and Facebook groups openly discussing agnosticism and atheism. This upsurge of doubts and questioning has not gone unnoticed among religious authorities and state actors, unleashing intense debate on how to counter this trend of non-religiosity and spiritual crises.

This Special Issue looks to compose a cross section of current work in social science, religious studies, and related fields on Islam/religion and non-religion in the Arab World. It aims at collecting case studies that offer carefully contextualized explorations, grounded in theoretically informed analyses.

Possible themes and topics of interest include the following:

  • New spiritual trends among younger generations in the Arab World, including Sufism, New Age, Asian religions;
  • New religious expressions and spiritual subcultures via social media and pop culture;
  • Expressions of religious doubts and nonbelieving;
  • Discourses by religious authorities and state actors on religious doubts, agnosticism. and non-believing.

Submissions on other, related, themes and topics are also welcome.

A panel on the same topic will be organized at the MESA annual meeting (10-13 October, Washington). For more information about MESA, registration, and deadlines (abstract by February 15 and working paper  September 15) can be found at their website  https://mesana.org/annual-meeting/current-meeting.

Please send any questions, including ideas for possible papers, and willingness to join MESA to [email protected]

Prof. Dr. Karin van Nieuwkerk
Guest Editor

Manuscript Submission Information

Manuscripts should be submitted online at www.mdpi.com by registering and logging in to this website. Once you are registered, click here to go to the submission form. Manuscripts can be submitted until the deadline. All submissions that pass pre-check are peer-reviewed. Accepted papers will be published continuously in the journal (as soon as accepted) and will be listed together on the special issue website. Research articles, review articles as well as short communications are invited. For planned papers, a title and short abstract (about 100 words) can be sent to the Editorial Office for announcement on this website.

Submitted manuscripts should not have been published previously, nor be under consideration for publication elsewhere (except conference proceedings papers). All manuscripts are thoroughly refereed through a double-blind peer-review process. A guide for authors and other relevant information for submission of manuscripts is available on the Instructions for Authors page. Religions is an international peer-reviewed open access monthly journal published by MDPI.

Please visit the Instructions for Authors page before submitting a manuscript. The Article Processing Charge (APC) for publication in this open access journal is 1400 CHF (Swiss Francs). Submitted papers should be well formatted and use good English. Authors may use MDPI's English editing service prior to publication or during author revisions.

Published Papers (8 papers)

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Editorial

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Editorial
Introduction: ‘Religious Transformation in the Middle East: Spirituality, Religious Doubt, and Non-Religion in the Middle East’
Religions 2021, 12(6), 426; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12060426 - 09 Jun 2021
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Abstract
The political impact—or rather the lack thereof—following the revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East has been well documented [...] Full article
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Research

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Article
The Ideology Factor and Individual Disengagements from the Muslim Brotherhood
Religions 2021, 12(3), 198; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030198 - 17 Mar 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 1738
Abstract
Since 2011, there has been a growing wave of individuals leaving Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and many of them have opted for documented publicity by writing autobiographies narrating their whole journey. This article explores the ideological components of the disengagement process on the basis [...] Read more.
Since 2011, there has been a growing wave of individuals leaving Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and many of them have opted for documented publicity by writing autobiographies narrating their whole journey. This article explores the ideological components of the disengagement process on the basis of a frame analysis of these writings. It seeks to understand how individuals acted against some of the meanings central to the Brotherhood’s ideological character and influence. They construct sets of meanings negating or renegotiating those long fixated, sanctified and ineluctable parts of the group’s ideology. The process of meaning making is situated within the Arab Spring where the Brotherhood’s dominant ideology also suffered from ruptures, incongruence or dissonance. For example, many exiters realized that the group’s ideology is not ‘evolutionary’ enough to align with a ‘revolutionary’ moment in Egypt’s history, and it thus failed to provide them with a sense of meaning regarding the dramatically changing world around them. The disillusionment goes beyond a battle of textually-situated meanings between the Brotherhood and its disgruntled members during the process of their departure from it. It appertains to a context of new resources and opportunities made available to exiters to resist, challenge, and even falsify the dominant ideology without incurring heavy losses or harsh penalties often meted out by the group against its ‘dissidents’. The agency of exiters, i.e., their capacity to act against the group’s ideology or manifest their rebellion against its elements, is also enabled by the state’s relative tolerance towards the exiters, a degree of social assimilation inside Egypt, internal ideological and organizational divisions inside the Brotherhood and geographical re-spatialization. Full article
Article
Muslimness on Demand: Critical Voices of Islam in Egypt
Religions 2021, 12(3), 152; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12030152 - 26 Feb 2021
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Abstract
Academic research on Islam in Egypt often focuses on the entanglement of religion and politics, mostly analysed with regard to public spaces. This article seeks to nuance the focus on pious activism and the idea that Islam is dominating everyday life in Egypt [...] Read more.
Academic research on Islam in Egypt often focuses on the entanglement of religion and politics, mostly analysed with regard to public spaces. This article seeks to nuance the focus on pious activism and the idea that Islam is dominating everyday life in Egypt by taking individuals’ intimate non-religious perspectives into consideration. This research on individual pieties, on being religious and doing being religious, especially opened up the worlds of individuals who are different. Drawing on fieldwork with young Alexandrians this article considers the subtle voices that are currently becoming increasingly louder, which hint at tendencies away from mainstream Islam and express alternative options and different versions of belief. These silent, and often silenced, voices are heard only under exceptional circumstances, because they often coincide with criticism of present social and political conditions. Criticism that mixes religious, social, and political content is almost impossible to express publicly in Egypt. By focusing on these narratives, this article tries to understand the relationship between criticism of Islam and processes of individualization. In addition, it seeks to analyse these narratives in order to explore the dynamic character of the self in the realm of religiosities and non-religiosities. Full article
Article
Arab Non-believers and Freethinkers on YouTube: Re-Negotiating Intellectual and Social Boundaries
Religions 2021, 12(2), 106; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020106 - 05 Feb 2021
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 1888
Abstract
This article uses the increasing visibility of Arab non-believers in the virtual public sphere as an opportunity to re-examine the key issues and dividing lines between believers, sceptics, and non-believers in Arab societies. It analyzes the currently four most popular Arabic-language YouTube channels [...] Read more.
This article uses the increasing visibility of Arab non-believers in the virtual public sphere as an opportunity to re-examine the key issues and dividing lines between believers, sceptics, and non-believers in Arab societies. It analyzes the currently four most popular Arabic-language YouTube channels created by freethinkers, nonbelievers, and atheists and points out commonalities and differences in style, content, and message. The article argues that the sense of a lively and growing virtual community has raised the confidence of non-believers (lā-dīnīyūn) and atheists in the Arab world and made them more daring in their self-portrayal and in their demands on society. As the examples show, YouTube allows them to circumvent the hostility they face in society and in the mainstream media and to connect with an audience that numbers in the tens of thousands of people from all over the Arab world and the diaspora. The article argues that freethinking and non-belief imply an attempt to re-negotiate social and religious boundaries within Arab societies and could—in the long run—have an impact on legal and constitutional questions as well, such as family law and the prerogatives of religious authorities. Full article
Article
Laughing about Religious Authority—But Not Too Loud
Religions 2021, 12(2), 73; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020073 - 24 Jan 2021
Cited by 1 | Viewed by 2888
Abstract
In Facebook groups of young Moroccan non-believers, cartoons, memes, and jokes that mock religion are widely shared. By phrasing the messages in a humorous way, it is possible to express experiences and viewpoints that are more difficult to communicate in direct speech. Studying [...] Read more.
In Facebook groups of young Moroccan non-believers, cartoons, memes, and jokes that mock religion are widely shared. By phrasing the messages in a humorous way, it is possible to express experiences and viewpoints that are more difficult to communicate in direct speech. Studying these forms of humor can reveal several themes, frames, and tropes that are important to many former Muslims, such as criticizing the legal restrictions of non-belief and countering stereotypes about non-believers. This leads to the following question: To what extent is humor being employed as an (online) tool for young Moroccan non-believers to challenge the religious status quo? To answer this question, the article analyzes numerous examples of religious-related humor during the COVID-19 pandemic and Ramadan. Hereby, it becomes clear that many jokes remain a limited and covert dissent strategy, as they are only shared among fellow non-believers. Yet, this article argues that jokes are an important method of differentiation, self-expression, and in-group identification that can build a fruitful ground for future activism. Full article
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Article
After Hajj: Muslim Pilgrims Refashioning Themselves
Religions 2021, 12(1), 36; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12010036 - 07 Jan 2021
Cited by 4 | Viewed by 3572
Abstract
The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) is one of the five pillars of Islam and a duty which Muslims must perform—once in a lifetime—if they are physically and financially able to do so. In Morocco, from where thousands of pilgrims travel to Mecca [...] Read more.
The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) is one of the five pillars of Islam and a duty which Muslims must perform—once in a lifetime—if they are physically and financially able to do so. In Morocco, from where thousands of pilgrims travel to Mecca every year, the Hajj often represents the culmination of years of preparation and planning, both spiritual and logistical. Pilgrims often describe their journey to Mecca as a transformative experience. Upon successfully completing the pilgrimage and returning home, pilgrims must negotiate their new status—and the expectations that come with it—within the mundane and complex reality of everyday life. There are many ambivalences and tensions to be dealt with, including managing the community expectations of piety and moral behavior. On a personal level, pilgrims struggle between staying on the right path, faithful to their pilgrimage experience, and straying from that path as a result of human imperfection and the inability to sustain the ideals inspired by pilgrimage. By ethnographically studying the everyday lives of Moroccans after their return from Mecca, this article seeks to answer the questions: how do pilgrims encounter a variety of competing expectations and demands following their pilgrimage and how are their efforts received by members of their community? How do they shape their social and religious behavior as returned pilgrims? How do they deal with the tensions between the ideals of Hajj and the realities of daily life? In short, this article scrutinizes the religious, social and personal ramifications for pilgrims after the completion of Hajj and return to their community. My research illustrates that pilgrimage contributes to a process of self-formation among pilgrims, with religious and non-religious dimensions, which continues long after Hajj is over and which operates within, and interacts with, specific social contexts. Full article
Article
Moral Ambivalence, Religious Doubt and Non-Belief among Ex-Hijabi Women in Turkey
Religions 2021, 12(1), 33; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12010033 - 06 Jan 2021
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 1638
Abstract
This article investigates religious transformations in contemporary Turkey through the case of women’s unveiling. Drawing on 10 in-depth interviews with university-educated urban women who have recently stopped wearing the veil, the article examines their experiences and their motivations for unveiling. It asks to [...] Read more.
This article investigates religious transformations in contemporary Turkey through the case of women’s unveiling. Drawing on 10 in-depth interviews with university-educated urban women who have recently stopped wearing the veil, the article examines their experiences and their motivations for unveiling. It asks to what extent and in what ways Muslim women’s decisions to unveil are a reaction against the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) shift towards electoral authoritarianism and Islamic conservatism. Some practicing Muslims, particularly youth, have withdrawn their support from the government because of its political authoritarianism and its abandonment of Islamic ideals relating to justice. Since the 2013 Gezi Park protests, the AKP has come under critical scrutiny, both economically (e.g., increasing youth unemployment rates, widening income inequality, the shrinking middle class, clientelism) and sociopolitically (e.g., gendered social welfare policies, pro-natalist campaigns, the discourse on creating a pious generation). However, although the current political atmosphere plays a significant role in women’s unveiling, the article also discusses women’s personal and theological motives. The article elaborates on how ex-hijabi women contest both Islamist politics and Islamic orthodoxy regarding female religiosity and how these women reinterpret dominant gender norms. Full article
Article
‘Uncovering the Self’: Religious Doubts, Spirituality and Unveiling in Egypt
Religions 2021, 12(1), 20; https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12010020 - 28 Dec 2020
Cited by 2 | Viewed by 2119
Abstract
Since the 1980s, discourse on religious piety has taken many different forms, from mosque lessons by lay preachers—such as `Amr Khalid—to religious TV programmes and leisure activities. Within this widespread religious culture and cultivation of forms of visible piety, wearing the veil became [...] Read more.
Since the 1980s, discourse on religious piety has taken many different forms, from mosque lessons by lay preachers—such as `Amr Khalid—to religious TV programmes and leisure activities. Within this widespread religious culture and cultivation of forms of visible piety, wearing the veil became an almost uncontested norm for women. As Saba Mahmood demonstrated, the veil became a crucial way to express and cultivate a ‘pious self’. Yet especially since the 2011 revolution and its aftermath, many young Egyptians started to question political, religious and patriarchal authorities. Amongst others, this took on open or hidden forms of non-believing, as well as a search for new forms of spirituality. Based on fieldwork and interviews, this contribution looks into the motives and experiences of women who decided to cast off the veil. In view of the hegemonic piety discourse, this is a huge issue, which is met by fierce reactions and accusations of immorality and non-belief. Whereas for some women this decision is an expression of religious doubt or a turn to a non-religious worldview, for others it is a way to contest the current piety discourse in a search for a more personal and spiritual connection with God. While the relationship with religion among my interlocutors might differ, they share a common attempt to uncover their ‘authentic selves’. By unveiling, they express their wish to define their own space and ideas regarding religion, gender and their bodies. Full article
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