What Does it Mean to Believe?

A portrait of Zaid Adhami. Dark hair, beard, glasses, wearing an orange button down shirt and black pants and sitting on an orange couch. A white wall is behind him and he looks straight at the camera, hands clasped in front of him.

Professor Zaid Adhami

Can faith and doubt coexist? If not, where does that leave American Muslims, for instance, who question many religious doctrines despite their commitment to religious tradition? To answer these questions and others, religion professor Zaid Adhami is combining ethnographic research on the Muslim community in Boston with the study of religious texts and contemporary theory on religion.

“Many Muslims in the U.S. are experiencing a growing disillusionment with organized religion and fundamental disagreements over what is authentic and orthodox,” Adhami says. “For a group also living within a political climate of Islamophobia, the question at the root of this complicated landscape is: What does it mean to believe?”

At first glance, Adhami says, “Belief appears to be pretty straightforward. But is belief ultimately about a conviction in the truth of doctrinal claims, or is it a moral, devotional and experiential commitment?”

He tells the story of a man he met while conducting ethnographic research. The man’s struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder led him to experience psychosomatic pain every time he prayed, but daily prayers are obligatory. “This led him to question the relationship between personal experience, scripture and tradition, asking ‘What do I do with the fact that my experience is in conflict with what is demanded of me?’” Adhami says. “This man’s story stands in for so many people who are trying to navigate the tension between authoritative discourse—communal teachings that define Islamic norms—and their own life experiences.”

Such tensions are particularly pervasive when it comes to gender norms. “Gender is one of the most hotly disputed issues in American debates about organized religion, and Muslims are no different in that regard,” Adhami says. “The way people are navigating the tension between authoritative doctrine and personal experience challenges the common assumption that religious communities uncritically accept a monolithic body of religious teachings. Religious life is far more complicated than that.”

Adhami’s research is the basis of a book he’s developing and informs his new spring-semester course, Islam and the West, which explores the presumed clash of cultures and asks what has given rise to the standard representations of Islam in Europe and America. “One can’t understand the American Muslim experience and the kind of anxiety and tension around issues of religious belief without also asking how one can be Muslim in a world where Islam is associated with irrationality and violence,” he says. “The problem of doubt emerges as a product of this presumed tension between Islam and modernity.”

In both the class and his research, Adhami says, his task is to frame the project of reconciling faith and doubt within political and historical backdrops. “This may lead to a better understanding of the current crisis of faith in the Muslim community,” he says.