- Islamic Studies
- Southeast Asian Studies
- Indian Ocean History
My work focuses on the religious, cultural, and intellectual history of Islam; with a primary focus on the maritime Muslim world stretching from the Red Sea across the Indian Ocean and through the Indonesian Archipelago to the South China Sea. My current book project explores the complex processes through which Islam took root in diverse societies across Southeast Asia, and how in turn this region came to form an integral part of an expanding maritime Muslim world. It tells stories of the movement of diverse peoples, carrying their goods, cultures, and beliefs on shipboard, thereby shaping dynamics of Islamization and vernacularization that have come to define much of the Muslim world as we know it today. The narrative weaves together strands of diverse and sometimes distant origins, involving complex interactions with societies of the Middle East, South Asia, China, and Europe. These long term and shifting engagements with developments well beyond the region were important factors informing the specific ways in which Islam arrived and took root in Southeast Asia - where local communities then actively adopted and adapted select aspects of various traditions in forming their own understandings and experiences of Islam. This work draws on a wide range of sources from archaeology, art history, and Arabic epigraphy to vernacular-language manuscripts and European colonial archives. I am currently also collaborating with a team of seismologists, geologists, and archaeologists on a project tracing the long-term impact of natural disaster and climate change on early Muslim settlement patterns in the region that will contribute a further important environmental perspective to our understandings of this complex history. These diverse materials are brought together to trace narratives of Islamization and vernacularization from the earliest Muslim traders active in the region to the establishment of coastal sultanates, the conversion of local populations of the interior, the development of Islamicate vernacular literary and cultural traditions, the expansion of ulama networks, the formation of state and social institutions, and evolving forms of aesthetic and performative expression.
From my background in Islamic Studies I have also expanded my research and publications over the years to include work on modern and contemporary dynamics of religion and development across diverse religious traditions in Asia. My work in Aceh since the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami has led me to new explorations of the social, cultural, political, and economic effects of disasters and humanitarian responses. In this I have a particular interest in the ways in which conceptions of religion and the structures of religious institutions both inform and respond to the often dramatic social transformations of such contexts.