How To Do No Harm: Reflections on Ethics and Methods in Shii Studies (panel)

Fouad Gehad Marei's picture
September 13, 2023
Subject Fields: 
Area Studies, Islamic History / Studies, Middle East History / Studies, Religious Studies and Theology, Research and Methodology
How To Do No Harm: Reflections on Ethics and Methods in Shii Studies

a discussion with Prof. Karen Ruffle (University of Toronto)
and Prof. Alison Scott-Baumann (SOAS, London)

organized by Fouad Gehad Marei (Lund University) and
Minoo Mirshahvalad (Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII)

at the Deutscher Orientalistentag (DOT). Berlin, Germany



When: Tuesday, 13 September 2022 at 09:30–11:00 and 11:30–13:00
Where: Free University of Berlin (Habelschwerdter Allee 45, 14195 Berlin) . Room: “Rabat” (K25/11)

Description of roundtable:

In this two-part roundtable, we examine some of the ethical and methodological issues pertaining to the scholarly study of Shiism and arising from the intellectual trajectories of Shii Studies as a specialized subfield. The roundtable brings together a group of scholars with an interest in the study of Shii Islam, Shii political groups and piety movements, Shii religious scholarship and scholarly networks, armed resistance groups, and Shiism in the diaspora. We present insights based on our experiences as scholars and academicians working in, on, and from diverse sociopolitical and geographical contexts, including Germany, Iraq, Iran, Italy, Lebanon, Syria, and the United Kingdom. While we focus on ethics and methods in Shii Studies, we draw on and engage with questions relevant to other disciplinary fields, including Islamic Studies, Middle Eastern and Area Studies, sociology, anthropology, and political science.


We organize our interventions around a set of guiding questions categorized in four themes:

Part I – Shii Studies

  1. Why Shii Studies? What motivates the separation of Islamic and Shii Studies and the emergence of the specialization field of Shii Studies? What are the methodological and intellectual gains and challenges that result from the specialized study of Shiism? And, in what ways can processes of sectarianization and the specialization of Shii Studies impact one another, and to what effect?
  2. Shii Studies and the scrutinizing gaze: How can scholars navigate the politicization and securitization of Islamic and Shii studies in Western and Middle Eastern scholarly circles? How can scholars circumvent social stigmas and the political and legal designations of Shii religious groups, congregations and movements as, for example, ’terrorist’, ‘extremist’, 'homophobic’, ‘anti-Semitic’? What challenges do these designations pose for researchers and research subjects? And, (how) should scholars of Shiism engage with governmental and nongovernmental policy research?


Part II – Ethics and methods

  1. Ethics and methods in social and ethnographic research: How can scholars of Shii Studies conduct longue durée ethnographic research methodically and how can they account for it? Should they disclose their identities/intentions as researchers and seek permissions when researching congregations to which they ‘belong’ or which they also frequent for non-research (social, devotional, personal) purposes?
  2. Ethics and methods in digital research: How can social researchers ensure methodological rigor while also accounting for contextual nuances when conducting online, digital and distance research? And, how can we distinguish between open-source and public material when conducting digital and social media research?

The roundtable discussion will be moderated by Karen Ruffle, Professor of History of Religions at the University of Toronto, and Alison Scott-Baumann, Professor of Society and Belief at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Karen Ruffle specializes in the study of South Asian Shiʿism and is the convenor of the Working Group Sensing Shiʿism, which brings together scholars engaged in ethnographic, theoretical, and empirical research on material culture, the sensorium, and ritual practice. Alison Scott-Baumann has conducted research on Islam and Islamic studies in British higher education. Her work has addressed the impact of the U.K. Government’s counter-terrorism strategy, PREVENT, on Islamic Studies and representations of Islam on campus. She has been consulted by the U.K. government and co-authored the Siddiqui Report (2007) and the Review of Imam Training reports in 2008–2010.


An interest in the specialized study of Shiism gained momentum in the 1980s following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the emergence of Shii Islamist movements with a strong presence in the Middle East and activist agendas spanning the globe. This interest motivated academicians, foreign policy researchers and practitioners, and security study specialists, eventually giving rise to an interdisciplinary subfield now commonly referred to as Shii Studies. This nascent field gained new relevance in the twenty-first century as Shii Muslims became increasingly visible among Middle Eastern diasporas in Europe, North America and Australia. This corresponded to mass migrations and forced displacements resulting from violent conflict and economic inopportunity in countries of the Middle East with significant Shii populations since the 1980s as well as sectarianized violence targeting Shiis regionwide since the 2000s.

Scholars and policy researchers have often (over) emphasized Shii Islamists’ enmity to Israel and opposition to U.S.-led global politics of hegemony as part of a political worldview that has been interwoven in activist interpretations of Shii hagiography, eschatology and ritual cultures since the mid-twentieth century. Moreover, as Shii Muslims born in the global North ‘come of age’ and diasporic Shiis organize the affairs of their communities independently of the more established, Sunni diasporic Muslim organizations, Shiis have found themselves subjected to the scrutinizing gaze of academic researchers and policymakers as well as the disenfranchising policing practices of state and society in the global North.




Roundtable participants:

Part I – Shii Studies

Chair: Fouad Gehad Marei (Lund University)
Discussant: Karen Ruffle (University of Toronto)

  • Edith Szanto (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, University of Alabama)
    • “Fabricating Shiism”: Analyzing Shii Studies in Light of the Work of Russell McCutcheon
  • Zeina Kamal Taha (PhD candidate, American University of Beirut)
    • Shii Studies in Ayatollah Ali Khamenai’s Discourse
  • Peyman Eshaghi (PhD Candidate, BGSMCS, Freie Universität Berlin) and Jabbar Rahmani (Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Institute for Social and Cultural Studies, Tehran)
    • Considering the Past via the Present: Chances and Challenges of Historical Studies of Shii Rituals
  • Minoo Mishahvalad (Research Fellow, Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII, Palermo)
    • How Ethical Can One Study Oneself?


Part II – Ethics and methods

Chair: Minoo Mirshahvalad (Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII)
Discussant: Alison Scott-Baumann (SOAS, University of London)

  • Fouad Gehad Marei (Research Fellow, Lund University)
    • Reflections on Ethics and Methods in Digital and Ethnographic Research
  • Jean-Michel Landry (Professor of Anthropology, Carleton University)
    • Suspicious Subjects: The Ethics and Politics of Ethnographic Trust in Shii Contexts
  • Hutan Hejazi (Assistant Professor of Social Science, Universidad Europea de Madrid)
    • Towards an Ethnography of the Oppressed: On How to Do Fieldwork with Your Enemies, and Why
  • Oliver Scharbrodt (Professor of Islamic Studies, Lund University)
    • Spatial Methodology in the Study of Diasporic Religions: The Example of Transnational Twelver Shia Islam in Europe


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