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An Interview with Paul L. Heck, Author of “Political Theology and Islam”

Paul L. Heck is professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University and founding director of the Study of Religions Across Civilizations (SORAC) project. He is author of Skepticism in Classical Islam: Moments of Confusion (2013) and Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism (2009). The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, Political Theology and Islam: From the Birth of Empire to the Modern State (November 2023). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

When did you first get the idea to write this book?

After 9/11. (I’m a bit behind schedule!) The attacks caused a lot of confusion about religion, and I wanted to show that all politics makes transcendent claims, even secular politics, so theology is needed to help clear the air, but theology is not the way we study politics in the university, so I hope the book offers perspective in that regard.

Certainly, these are unprecedented times in the United States, Europe, and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era?

A lot of people—even beyond university circles—have wanted a fuller picture of how politics in Islam works overall. This book treats that question from Islam’s beginnings to the current moment. Those who read the book from start to finish will really know how to talk about politics in Islam. Read it all, and you’ll get the equivalent of a PhD!

Paul L. Heck

How did you research this book?

There was a lot of intersection between my academic study of Islam and my decades-long engagement with Muslim communities across the globe. This engagement with Muslims gave me a sharper understanding of how to read the historical sources. The past is always with us, as they say.

What did you learn while writing it?

The extent to which ethics shapes society. It’s common to think that power determines politics—and the laws that those in power make and enforce. Writing this book impressed on me the ways in which our internal compass—our ethics as enhanced by traditions of wisdom—offers people a parallel sovereignty by which to be good and struggle for goodness—beyond what power and the law might dictate.

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

It’s a lot longer than I expected. I planned to write a shorter monograph, more of a primer on politics in Islam. The finished work could have included a lot more examples to illustrate my argument. I’ll leave it to others to develop—or challenge—my insights and arguments.

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?

My students, both undergrads and grads—both in the US and in the MENA region. I’m always thinking about ways to make compelling ideas more accessible to them.

What is your writing schedule like?

It’s pretty erratic. I think too much. However, when I have a deadline, I can write nearly non-stop, but that doesn’t mean I’m producing a lot. I do a lot of rewriting.

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?

Trust your instincts. It’s important to look to the work of other scholars in and beyond your field, but instincts should never be dismissed, especially when they’re grounded in experiences beyond the university. Be bold, I say.

Who would you like to read your book and why?

I’d like scholars of politics beyond Islamic Studies to read it. I’m hoping it’ll help bring Islam more fully into university conversations on how politics works. As for non-academics, I hope both Muslims and non-Muslims read it and use it as a lens to think about what they’re doing in the world together.

What book or project are you working on next?

The current project is on the history of emotions in Islam. Still a long way to go!

I’m also currently teaching an undergrad course on atheism at Georgetown, and it’s become clear to me how much we need a fuller understanding of atheism. So, after emotions, it’ll be atheism.

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