Research Areas

Muslim Humanities

The humanities since the nineteenth century have generally been defined as the disciplines that investigate the expressions of the human mind. Expressions of the human mind include language, music, art, literature, theology, and poetry. The Muslim Humanities research area within the Contending Modernities initiative at the University of Notre Dame charts multiple itineraries through the rich intellectual traditions of societies where Muslims have a presence, as majorities or minorities in the past and present.

Muslim Humanities as a field embraces the diversity of shared human intellectual heritage. This body of knowledge carries weight beyond the study of Islam; it has the potential to contribute normatively and constructively across contemporary disciplines. How do pre-modern Muslim discursivities weave into contemporary conversations in the global humanities? The project brings to the fore possible tensions between the particular qualifier “Muslim” and the universalist aspirations of “humanities”—tensions that are perhaps evident in the diverse genealogies of humanities.

What are the overlapping hallmarks that emerge from a comparison between Islamic and Western traditions in the humanities, and which aspects emerge as unique, if any? How do we make the discussion more robust and diverse with reference to the manifold Muslim cultural and historical experiences? The issues that emerge from these kinds of questions form threads that guide us in our exploration of Muslim Humanities.

Read more about our Muslim Humanities program »


Science and the Human Person

Rapid advances in science and technology are raising fundamental questions about human life, flourishing, suffering, and death. When does human life begin and deserve protection? How is deeper knowledge of genetics reshaping our conceptions of the human person? What does it mean to live and die with dignity amid 21st century medical technologies?

These and other ethical questions at the intersection of science and the human person have a global character, encompassing all of humanity. They cut across national, cultural, and religious boundaries. But most efforts to address them have centered on particular communities, such as scientists and physicians, secular bioethicists, and religious experts drawn from the same tradition and often speaking only to one another.

The Science and the Human Person working group advances a global, interreligious and intercultural conversation about science, ethics, and the human future. Its activities will foster collaboration among secular scientific communities and the world’s two largest faith traditions, Islam and Catholicism, along with other secular and religious voices.

This working group is carrying out two connected projects, each linked to a fundamental question.

Engaging Tradition

How can Catholic, Muslim and secular actors and institutions work together constructively to engage the key scientific, technological, and ethical challenges of modernity?

Informing Public Discourse

How can shared perspectives on the human person, developed through dialogue across religious and secular lines, better inform public discourse on the governance of science and technology?

Read more about the Science and the Human Person working group »


Global Migration and the New Cosmopolitanism

The global expansion of migration over the past two generations has ushered in major social and economic changes, as well as profound ethical challenges concerning how citizens are to coexist in pluralistic societies. Now home to millions of migrants as well as long-established locals, the major urban centers in North America and Western Europe are living laboratories in which new models of pluralist citizenship are today being formulated, implemented, and contested.

The challenge of migration and social pluralism is a matter of public ethics and citizen socialization as much as it is economic development and formal political representation. In addition to civic associations and political structures, then, for a citizenry to be tolerant and inclusive requires citizenship practices and an “overlapping consensus” – of some sort – to span religious and social divides.  Secular and religious actors have a pivotal role to play in the construction of the terms for this pluralist citizenship. Devising and socializing a public ethics and practice of citizenship capable of responding to migration and the new pluralism is one of the central political and ethical challenges of our age.

It is against this backdrop that Contending Modernities is conducting a research program on migration, citizen education and socialization in five metropolitan centers in North America and Western Europe.

The program is currently divided into two complementary research initiatives:

Community Organizing, Migration and the New Cosmopolitanism

London is an ideal site to investigate new forms of civic identity, citizenship and civil society. Central to the emerging multicultural cosmopolitanism are people of faith, whose religious identity and commitments—not least their understanding of what constitutes a just and humane society— informs their interaction with one another and with secular actors and institutions. Working in collaboration, and in other cases in competition, Christians, Muslims (as well as Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, and Hindus), civic and business leaders, and political action groups are working to build community, gain representation and shape local and national democracy.

Public Ethics and Citizenship in Plural Societies

Although the challenge of migration and multicultural citizenship is general in today’s world, this project highlights and compares the efforts of Muslim, Catholic, and secular leaders and citizens in five Western cities to respond to the challenge of pluralism and citizenship in societies with significant Muslim and Catholic, as well as secularist, populations.  In so doing, the research examines the implications of migration and the new pluralism for these three ethico-religious traditions, and highlights the lessons of their experience for other countries and ethical traditions.

Read more about the Global Migration & the New Cosmopolitanism program »


Authority, Community, and Identity

Modernity is often associated with the fracture of conventional modes of belonging, whether to tradition, place, family or religion. Yet, the mechanisms of fracture – global flows of ideas, people and goods through communication, commercial, and political networks – have also created new connections. More than simply fracture modernity has also generated new forms of interdependence.

The Authority, Community and Identity Working Groups analyze the multiple forms of belonging that have emerged within the contexts of contending modernities. What happens when the values and loyalties of various ‘communities’ clash? What guides the individual in choosing one set of values over another? And how do the different ‘communities’ exercise authority, which involves persuading even compelling individual compliance?

To these kinds of questions, it is possible to answer from a normative, theoretical perspective, as well as through a social-anthropological inquiry of cultural practices.

This working group combines these lenses by focusing on two significant sites of global flows: sub-Saharan Africa and Indonesia.

Africa Working Group

The Africa Working Group led by Emmanuel Katongole analyzes the many tribes, ethnicities, religions and political affiliations that co-imbricate within the same individual orcommunity. In diverse African contexts, it is often possible for one individual to belong to a Church and, at the same time, preserve some tribal practices of the past. Interreligious marriages also challenge the clear-cut boundaries set between traditions by classical norms. With projects in Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria (and more), the Africa Working Group analyzes the complex challenges presented by issues of gender, family, land, religion, and tradition.

Indonesia Working Group

The Indonesia Working Group led by Mun’im Sirry will document, explore, and analyze the complex relationship between various contending authorities that have and will have shaped the religious life at both micro (family) and macro (community) levels. Once widely known in the media and scholarly discussion as tolerant and moderate, Islam in Indonesia is currently undergoing a dramatic change. This research project thus asks the questions: What makes pluralist coexistence possible in certain Indonesian contexts or families, and not in others?

Read more about the Authority, Community, and Identity working group »