John C. Young research by Jeannie Corbitt ’16 explores a timely Islamic topic

Jeannie Corbitt ’16 epitomizes the intellectual curiosity that is the hallmark of Centre College students chosen as John C. Young (JCY) Scholars, the competitive Centre program designed to serve strong, highly motivated senior students.

JCY scholars are provided the resources they need to engage in independent study, research or artistic work in their major discipline or in an interdisciplinary area of their choosing. Corbitt had already taken several classes related to Islam and was keen to find a research project where she could utilize some of that expertise.

To that end, she spent much of the last year doing an in-depth analysis of the anomalous Muslim group El-Tawhid Juma Circle, including spending eight weeks with its members last summer. Her research is fascinating and timely.

“El-Tawhid Juma Circle is a community of very liberal Muslims located in Toronto, Canada,” Corbitt says. “My time with them last summer was spent getting to know the group — attending their various gatherings and worship services, conducting interviews, and also just hanging out. I was interested in this group in particular because of the stance they have taken on gender and sexuality.”

Juma Circle was founded in 2008 by a gay couple, El-Farouk Khaki and his husband Troy Jackson, along with their friend Dr. Laury Silvers. Their website professes “women and men to be equal agents of Allah in all aspects of ritual practice regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”

“So this group is gender equal and LGBTQ affirming,” Corbitt explains. “This means the Juma Circle is making profound departures from mainstream Islam, not only because most Muslim communities around the world condemn homosexuality and think of men and women as unequal in many regards, but because the Juma Circle’s convictions are manifest in practices that are themselves departures from the mainstream; women leading prayer, non-gendered entrances, circular seating at gatherings as opposed to a front/back or left/right gender division.”

Corbitt’s faculty mentor, Assistant Professor of Religion Matthew Pierce, expands on her scholarly exploration into the reasons this group and others like it choose to depart from the mainstream in their interpretation of scripture.

“In the history of religion, we often point out how religious communities change over time,” Pierce says. “People change their minds. Jeannie was intrigued by the very complicated questions surrounding that process of changing one’s mind on an ethical or religious issue.

“Within the discipline of religious studies, scholars often point to political, economic and other sociological reasons to explain why people change their minds on religious issues,” he continues. “Even when an individual, for example, claims to believe something on the basis of a scriptural text, there are always a multiplicity of readings and interpretations to choose from. So why does a person choose one interpretation over another? And why do they change their minds at times?”

Corbitt was dissatisfied with some of the ways that scholars frequently treat these questions, and the tendency among scholars of religion to reduce people’s choices to external motivating factors, or to emphasize the social benefits achieved by adopting one interpretation of a text over another.

“The real issue I was tackling in my research was the fact that the reductionist strands of religious studies actually help cultivate that problematic understanding of liberal Islam in the West,” she explains, “because those strands look at and understand religious decisions as cultural products shaped by self-interested social, political and economic motivations.

“I wanted to see if we could study the decisions of the Juma Circle as if they were something, if not wholly distinct from, certainly not wholly determined by forces of cultural context,” she continues. “I focused on listening to the stories and experiences of the members in interviews and analyzing how certain religious factors, most specifically the Qur’an, played a role in the formation of their faith convictions.”

In the end, she concluded that the Qur’an has played a profound role in shaping of the stances on gender and sexuality of Juma Circle members.

“I, of course, don’t argue that context has played no role; I simply see in the lives and approaches to the Qur’an of Juma Circle members something significantly more complex than mere projection of a desired interpretation onto the text,” Corbitt says. “My exploration focuses on the fact that, in their approaches to the Qur’an, this group demonstrates a desire to counter self-interested bias that is rooted in a powerful urge to know God’s will.”

Corbitt feels this is an important distinction.

“During this time in which Muslims are often stereotyped and misunderstood, it matters that non-Muslims recognize that the inspiring efforts of Juma Circle members to offer support, community and empowerment to the marginalized are being undertaken because of this group’s religion — not in spite of it,” Corbitt says.

“I think this forces non-Muslims to confront and question our assumptions about Islam, which is the important first step to creating a society where respect, community and friendship fully and deeply cross the boundaries of religious difference,” she continues. “It matters that we consider groups that we are not a part of in a way that legitimizes and takes seriously their experiences.”

Pierce sees Corbitt’s research coming at an opportune moment in history.

“In the wake of a horrible tragedy like the recent shooting in Orlando, it’s important to remember that there is no monolithic Muslim stance on sexuality, and many Muslim communities have strongly come out in solidarity with those who were killed,” he points out. “Many people are unaware that there are LGBTQ Muslim communities where a spectrum of sexuality is embraced and celebrated.

“Jeannie’s research challenges popular and scholarly perceptions on a number of levels,” Pierce continues, “and it was a great pleasure to be able to work with her on it.”

by Cindy Long
June 23, 2016