Henley, Alex

I am a Marie Curie Fellow in Oxford’s Faculty of Theology and Religion, working on genealogies of religious leadership in the modern Middle East, especially the rise of Grand Muftis in Jordan and Palestine. I also coordinate a research network on ‘Categories of Religion and the Secular in Islam’ as a resource for scholars applying Critical Religion approaches in Islamic Studies. Before coming to Oxford, I held fellowships at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

Alex Henley
Alex Henley

My PhD thesis at the University of Manchester traced the construction of a cross-confessional religious elite in twentieth-century Lebanon, and explored their roles in contesting sectarian identity production during the 1975-90 civil war. This work was supported by grants from the UK’s Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW) and the Council for British Research on the Levant (CBRL), with research affiliations at the American University of Beirut and Notre Dame University, Lebanon. I hold degrees in Theology and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Durham. I tweet about religion and politics in the Middle East as @admhenley.

Official religion; religious leadership; Islamic institutions; sectarianism; Lebanon; Jordan; Palestine

My interest in Critical Religion developed out of a frustration with the use of the category ‘religion’ in discussions of sectarianism in Lebanon. There have been efforts across every discipline to pin down the content, meaning, significance and origins of sectarianism. When talk of religion is thrown into this mix – and it inevitably is, even if in the form of claims that sectarianism has nothing to do with religion – it seems only to muddy the waters further. Introduced as a common-sense category capable of helping us sketch the boundaries of a definition of sectarianism, I have found religion to lend no such simple clarity precisely because its boundaries are not fixed, but variously operationalised and contested by those on both sides of the perceived religious-secular divide.

As well as contributing to conceptual confusion, the religious-secular binary overlaps with and reinforces the other great essentialising distinction in Middle Eastern historiography: ‘sectarian’ vs. ‘national’. At the root of both binaries is the modernist opposition of the rational and irrational. This cluster of associated binaries produces a characterisation of ‘religious leaders’ as essentially polarised, irrational and at odds with the unifying modern national project. Whereas Middle Eastern Studies has seen a revision of the ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’ paradigm in many areas of social and political life, the pervasive category of religion has made ‘religious leadership’ particularly resistant to such revision of the ‘traditional’ label.
My doctoral thesis made the case for a re-categorisation of the institutions called ‘religious’ in Lebanon. I argued in particular that the Sunni Mufti and Maronite Patriarch are best understood within the framework of a national clerical elite that cuts across confessional cleavages. Through an analysis of their discourse during the 1975-90 civil war – in which Mufti and Patriarch stood on opposite sides – I showed them as firmly grounded in a common language of the nation-state. They were involved in a constant struggle, but not with each other, rather with those within their own communities – including other ‘religious’ actors – who pursued uncivil agendas.

Such is the prominence of origin narratives of Lebanese religious leaderships – used both for and against them – that I incorporated into my thesis a genealogy of the present formation of religious leadership. My research suggests that each leadership underwent considerable structural change as a result of the new episteme of the colonial state. Largely imported notions of ‘religion’, ‘religions’ and the ‘religious’, along with the creation of a ‘secular’ public sphere, led to the generation of ‘religious leadership’ as a cross-confessional category.

In short, Critical Religion helped me identify a major category error in Lebanese studies. ‘Religious leaders’ are the products, not the predecessors, of the modern state. As I move on to research official Islamic institutions elsewhere in the Middle East, I continue to ask how ‘religion’ has been constructed in relation to the ‘secular’ state, how this affects public spaces and restructures practical knowledges and powers, and how these categories have (mis)guided social-scientific research.

Special issue: “The ‘Sectarianisation Thesis’ Reconsidered: Local drivers of sectarian boundary-making in Middle Eastern states”, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, co-edited with Ceren Lord, forthcoming.
“Religious Authority and Sectarianism in Lebanon”, in Beyond Sunni and Shia: Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, ed. F. Wehrey (Hurst, 2017).
“Religious nationalism in the official culture of multi-confessional Lebanon”, in The Struggle to Define a Nation: Rethinking Religious Nationalism in the Contemporary Islamic World, ed. M. Demechelis & P. Maggiolini (Gorgias Press, Modern Muslim World series, 2017).
“Between Sect and State in Lebanon: Religious Leaders at the Interface”, Journal of Islamic and Muslim Studies 1/1 (2016) pp.1-11, special inaugural issue on sectarianism.
“Remaking the mosaic: Religious leaders and secular borders in the colonial Levant“, Religion and Society: Advances in Research 6 (2015) pp.155-168, special issue on “Religion and Borderlands”.
“Politics of a Church at War: Maronite Catholicism in the Lebanese Civil War”, Mediterranean Politics 13/3 (2008) pp.353-369.