Megan Brankley Abbas

Assistant Professor, SUNY Geneseo

As a doctoral candidate in the Department of History, Megan studies the modern Islamic world, with a focus on Muslim South and Southeast Asia. Her interests include Islamic intellectual history, Islam and secularism, and trans-national scholarly networks. Her research also engages with methodological questions regarding the academic study of religion, especially Islam.

Megan’s dissertation, entitled “Knowing Islam: The Entangled History of Western Academia and Modern Islamic Thought,” challenges the implicit scholarly consensus that Islamic education occurs primarily in Muslim madrasas or other religious schools. In contrast, Megan argues that the Western university has emerged as a significant site for Muslim education and the production of Islamic religious authority over the course of the last century – a development that has far-reaching repercussions for Muslim communities across the globe as well as for the future of Islamic studies as an academic discipline. In order to understand this new manifestation of Islamic education and its consequences, the dissertation traces two generations of Indonesian Muslim scholars who received their higher Islamic education in Western universities and then returned to Indonesia to become prominent Muslim professors, politicians, and activists. Through their intellectual and political endeavors, they sought to make Western academic and Islamic epistemologies commensurable. She argues that these transgressive Indonesian scholars disrupted established modes of authority within both the Indonesian public sphere and Western academia. In Indonesia, the rise of Western-educated Islamic thinkers led to the institutionalization of new interpretations of Islam in the national bureaucracy but also produced hostile resistance from Muslim opponents who derided academic credentials as inauthentic at best and harbingers of neo-colonialism at worst. For Western universities, the increasing presence of Muslim activists challenged but never entirely replaced norms of academic objectivity. Ultimately, her project interrogates the contested and evolving boundary between Western academic vs. Muslim religious knowledge and academic vs. Islamic authority. She concludes that, despite persistent efforts to police the border between the two, academic and religious ways of knowing Islam have become intimately intertwined in the post-colonial world.

In order to approach this transnational intellectual history, Megan's dissertation draws on a diverse range of archives, including the Indonesian National Archives in Jakarta, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation Archives, records from McGill University and the University of Chicago, and several personal collections. She has supplemented her archival research with extensive use of Indonesian-language Islamic books and magazines as well as interviews with key individuals connected to the project.

Megan graduated with highest honors in History from Williams College in 2008. As an undergraduate, she spent a year (2006-2007) living and studying in Indonesia. She earned her M.A. (with distinction) in History from Princeton University in 2011 and held a Graduate Research Award Fellowship from the Center for the Study of Religion in 2012-13 and 2013-14.

At Princeton, Megan has taught courses on the Islamic world in both the History and Religion departments. Through her work as a Graduate Writing Fellow (2011-2014) and as a Senior Thesis Group Leader (2012-2013) in the Princeton Writing Program, she has also developed a deep interest in writing pedagogy. As a result, she currently holds a Quin Morton Teaching Fellowship through which she teaches a freshman writing seminar entitled "Reason and Religion."

Dissertation Title:

"Knowing Islam: The Entangled History of Western Academia and Modern Islamic Thought"

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