I am an anthropologist of Islam whose principal area of study is the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, and its historical and contemporary connection to the Indian Ocean World, particularly Arabia. My work is primarily driven by the fundamental anthropological question of how humans constitute and are constituted by social relations. I pursue this question through a study of Islam considering that religion is not only an ongoing product of shifting social relation but is also one of the most powerful and enduring modes of, and means for human relation-making. My research and teaching leverage historical and anthropological approaches to interrogate how Muslims reconfigure their religious tradition in light of changing social dynamics and how they use religious resources to imagine and materialize different social relations.
My initial entry into thinking methodologically about religion and relation-making began with a study of Muslim networks that link Southeast Asia and the Middle East, particularly the role of Ḥaḍramī scholars in fostering those trans-regional connections and facilitating knowledge transmission. I look at how such connections have continued to reconfigure Islam as understood and practiced in the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago. My work demonstrates how mobile Ḥaḍramī actors traversed complex cultural fields, cultivated different kinds of relations, built channels for the transmission and dissemination of Islamic teachings, and through that process, gained recognition as religious authorities. This research culminated in my first academic monograph, What is Religious Authority? Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia (Princeton University Press, 2021). Combining insights from [post-]structuralist Marxism, actor-network theory, and the work of the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the book destabilizes conventional understanding of religious authority. Instead of seeing religious authority as emanating from the charismatic aura of a single leader, the book demonstrates that authority is constituted through the persistent labor of assembling a durable social relation made up of volatile networks. The book arrived at this conclusion by presenting the labor of Ḥaḍramī scholars in assembling communities and articulating for them specific and competing visions of the sunna, that is, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, from the eighteenth century to the present. In the book I show how different Muslim leaders have tried to reconstruct the Prophetic past using various means to delimit the sunna in response to distinct sociological challenges they confronted in their own localities and historical moments. I argue that the sunna is a product of what I call articulatory labor, i.e., culturally- and historically- situated project of (1) imagining, recovering, and reconstructing a vanished Prophetic past informed by present needs and challenges, and (2) representing and conveying that past to others as models for present action.
I am now working on my second book project, tentatively titled Spatial Religion: Islamic Geography beyond Center and Periphery. This project extends my study of religion and relation-making to the question of spatiality, geography, and (im)mobility. Spatial Religion traces the history of two contemporary forms of devotional mobility that link Indonesia and the Ḥaḍramawt valley of Yemen, two regions commonly considered as “peripheral” in the study of Islam. The first is the ongoing pilgrimage of Ḥaḍramīs and other Arabs to Indonesia. The second is the rising popularity of the Ḥaḍramawt as a pilgrimage destination for Indonesians. Both phenomena link the two regions through an interconnected religious geography. This religious geography is long in the making. In the nineteenth century, Ḥaḍramī scholars perceived Southeast Asia as a morally-suspect worldly destination with corrupting influences on one’s religious rectitude. Similarly, Indonesians used to consider the Ḥaḍramawt as religiously irrelevant. The religious geography that now links Indonesia and the Ḥaḍramawt is, therefore, quite a recent historical achievement. To comprehend this development, my research explores the transoceanic dialogues and debates as well as the labors and infrastructures that create and sustain this religious geography. It moves away from conventional studies of pilgrimage that privilege ritual analysis to attend to the various mechanisms and processes that produce pilgrimage and other forms of devotional mobility. Combining textual-historical approach with ethnography, this project explores how a religious geography is not just imagined, conceived, and contested discursively, but is also acted through encounters, embodied interactions, and sensory experience.