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Katharina Mühlbeyer (2011 - 2015)

Contemporary Islamic Advice Literature from Saudi Arabia

Contemporary Islamic Advice Literature from Saudi Arabia

Investigating a Moral Movement – Self-Improvement Books and the Ideal Muslim

Using the example of contemporary religious publications from Saudi Arabia, my research project aims at analysing conceptions of ideal Muslim conduct of life and Islamic notions of self-improvement. The publications I seek to explore could best be described as oscillating between moral treatises, spiritual advice literature and self-help books that educate and instruct their readers about Islamic principles and Islam’s outlook on life. I therefore analyse a variety of advice books that have been issued since the 1980s by various Saudi authors — scholars, preachers and laypersons alike — and that address a wider audience of readers in and outside Saudi Arabia with the aim of shaping their lifestyle and behaviour as pious Muslims. Although Islamic literature is a globalised genre that has been flourishing in and outside the Muslim world at least since the last 30 years, the books and authors from Saudi Arabia are of special interest to my project due to the strong presence of various Saudi actors in the global Islamic publishing scene, Saudi missionary activities and the kingdom’s self perception as Islamic state par excellence – an image that radiates far beyond its borders into the Muslim and non-Muslim world.

Entangled Literatures? Islam, the West and Travelling Traditions of Self-Help

Thus, whereas Muslim advice literature on the one hand shows a strong Islamic character, upholds Islamic values and offers a practical approach to ethical and moral questions of everyday life, such as proper male and female behaviour, family life and child education from an Islamic perspective, we can find on the other hand an increasing number of Islamic books that also show parallels to the Western genre of self-help and dealwith topics like happiness, success, stress or depression. These books mix ideas of personal development based on individual progress and achievement, popular psychology (i.e. positive thinking) and effective self- and time management with Islamic principles of virtuous behaviour, self-purification and the refinement of character (Arab: adab, tazkiyat an-nafs, tahzib al-ahlaq and similar concepts). One popular example of this recent trend of Muslim self-help is the book “Don't be sad” (Arab.: La tahzan) by the Saudi Islamic scholar Aid Al-Qarni – one of the most famous Islamic books in and outside the Muslim world and an Islamic adaptation of lifestyle guru Dale Carnegie’s book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living”. Hence, in my PhD project I study this relatively new but widely unexplored trend of popular Islamic advice literature, focusing on the various encounters and entanglements between ‘Western’ and ‘Muslim’ concepts of self-improvement.

Pious Hearts and Minds – the Management of Emotions and the Embodiment of Feeling Rules

Categories like emotions and the body play a central role in self-help books and the normative literature of individual achievement in general. In Muslim conceptions of self-improvement, spiritual and personal development can be linked both to the governance of emotions and to bodily practices such as anger control through praying, disciplining one’s desires through proper dress,sex segregation or an exact emulation of the ideal model of prophet Muhammad and all his exemplary deeds and sayings. Hence my project also seeks to elucidate the categories of body and emotion and their role in the construction of a pious Muslim subject as reflected in the texts. I therefore see the advice genre as a social and cultural practice by means of which the learning and embodiment of emotions, feeling rules and knowledge about emotions can be studied.

First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Gudrun Krämer

Second Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Ulrike Freitag

Third Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Margrit Pernau