The Anthropology of Islam


Finally my second book, The Anthropology of Islam, will be available at the end of this month. I wish to share with you a short excerpt from the beginning of the Introduction. This is an Elenchos (from the ancient Greek ’έλεγχος) which refers to question–answer dialogue that aims to clarify a topic through deconstructing other arguments; in this case, how‘Islam’ may be understood within the field of anthropology:

 

 

ELENCHOS

STUDENT: What is Islam?

ANTHROPOLOGIST: Lots of things, of course.

STU: Yeah, but I mean, is Islam its holy books or what Muslims do?

ANT: Neither, I suppose.

STU: Well, it should be one or the other for sure!

ANT: Why should it be so?

STU: I think that the Qur’an and hadiths, and the other texts, tell Muslims how to be Muslims and this guides their actions.

ANT: OK, we can try an experiment. Get that copy of the Qur’an on my desk. So, tell me what this is.

STU: A book; a holy book, at least for Muslims.

ANT: What makes it holy?

STU: The fact that Muslims consider it so.

ANT: OK, but if you were a Muslim why would you have insisted that this particular book is the holiest?

STU: That’s simple Doc! Because, I would believe the book to be God’s words.

ANT: You see, Islam is not just what is written in its books.

STU: Why not? I don’t follow you.

ANT: Well, it’s very simple. You just said that this book, the Qur’an, is holy because at least one Muslim believes that God revealed it. Now you can agree with me that Muslims, each of them, have to perform cognitive operations to form a cognitive map of what for them is Islam. There is no Islam without mind.

STU: Certainly, you need Muslims to have Islam. Yet I still think that what is written in the sources of Islam shapes how Muslims are. Though there are some cultural differences, I am not sure about your point. I think that something called Islam actually exists.

ANT: OK, we will proceed point by point. Not only do we have different cultures among Muslims but also different interpretations. Which is the most basic element that you need to form interpretations?

STU: First, you need to know at least the language in which the text has been transmitted or trust a translation; but there are also other elements, like personal views and social conditions that surely influence one’s interpretation.

ANT: You are discussing a second order of elements. I asked about the basic element without which we cannot have interpretations, or any other mental process, since interpretations are complex mental processes.

STU: Well… the most basic is that you should be able to think. To have mental processes, like thoughts, we need a mind.

ANT: Yes, because for the ‘thing’ we call Islam to exist, we need a mind that can conceive of it, making it part of a mental process.

STU: Why refer to Islam as ‘the thing’ now?

ANT: You have just agreed that Islam exists because of the mental processes allowing some people to make sense of certain texts and practices. Are mental processes ‘real’ things?

STU: Well, I would say that they are exactly that, processes. We make sense of what is around us through mental processes.

ANT: Exactly, we, as human beings, through mental processes form what we can call maps.

STU: I can see that. So you are saying that Islam is just a map.

ANT: Well, more than one, for sure. It’s like one of those maps formed by many other different small maps, which, when put together, represent a vast territory.

STU: And, as you have reminded us many times, the map is not the territory.

ANT: But in this case, we can only know the map, since the territory consists of an endless ensemble of mental processes.

STU: At this point, I do not see the difference between a Muslim and non-Muslim forming mental processes about Islam. What makes them different?

ANT: Nothing, indeed, if we speak of the cognitive processes involved. You know, I have the impression that the most important thing that has been forgotten while studying Muslims is the otherwise obvious fact that they are human beings like me and you.

STU: But, I mean, doesn’t the fact that they believe in Islam make their mind different? Sometimes, in some articles, I come across the expression ‘Muslim mind’.

ANT: Some scholars, and unfortunately some anthropologists among them, have even suggested that a Muslim mind can exist. But how can a mind, which means cognitive processes allowed through neurological activities, be Muslim? Think if we extend this reasoning to other adjectives: Christian minds, Conservative minds, Jewish minds, Scientology minds, Jedi minds and Flying Spaghetti Monster minds.2

STU: So, what makes a person a Muslim? I thought that the fact that a person believes in the Qur’an and the sunna and in the shahāda, the profession of faith, makes a person a Muslim.

ANT: You are suggesting that it is the person’s act of believing that makes him a Muslim. Let me see ….do you believe that Juan Carlos I is the king of Spain?

STU: Yes, Doc.

ANT: Are you Spanish?

STU: Of course not. You know I’m Scottish!

ANT: Why are you Scottish and not Spanish, though you believe that Juan Carlos I is the king of Spain?

STU: First, I was not born in Spain, I do not have Spanish parents and, by the way, I do not feel Spanish at all. I am not emotionally attached to the idea of being Spanish. Like during the World Cup, if Scotland is not playing, I can support another team, but when Scotland is playing, I am excited and feel something . . . a particular attachment that tells me that I’m Scottish.

ANT: Indeed, what matters here is that you feel to be Scottish.

STU: Are you suggesting that Muslims are Muslims because they consider themselves Muslim?

ANT: Does it sound so strange?

STU: Well, if you are right it means that the most important aspect is neither what the Islamic texts read, nor what Muslims believe, nor how they act, but rather whether or not they believe themselves to be Muslims, and here emotions play a very important role, as in my case of feeling to be Scottish.

ANT: Yes, this is correct. We need to restart our research, as anthropologists, from that ‘feeling to be’, in this case, Muslim.

Gabriele

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21 thoughts on “The Anthropology of Islam

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  2. I wonder how relevant this might be to my proposed Autoethnographic Muslims Studies (AMS), crudely a autobiographical exploration of identity which draws heavily on discourses from the social sciences and Islamic Studies.

    I know some people talk about ‘autoethnography’ as simply a way of including your own role in research, but Ellis locates the exploration of emotions as central to the approach, which makes it an ideal approach for considering issues of identity.

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  5. Salam…

    I am very much enthusiastic reading the extract. Thank you for sharing. Unfortunately Amazon doesn’t ship to Malaysia. So, I’m hoping that you can bring some copies of it when travelling to Singapore. All the best doc…

  6. ANT: You are suggesting that it is the person’s act of believing that makes him a Muslim. Let me see ….do you believe that Juan Carlos I is the king of Spain?

    STU: Yes, Doc.

    ANT: Are you Spanish?

    STU: Of course not. You know I’m Scottish!

    ANT: Why are you Scottish and not Spanish, though you believe that Juan Carlos I is the king of Spain?

    STU: First, I was not born in Spain, I do not have Spanish parents and, by the way, I do not feel Spanish at all. I am not emotionally attached to the idea of being Spanish. Like during the World Cup, if Scotland is not playing, I can support another team, but when Scotland is playing, I am excited and feel something . . . a particular attachment that tells me that I’m Scottish.

    ANT: Indeed, what matters here is that you feel to be Scottish.

    This argument is flawed. First of all, believing the Carlos I is the king of Spain is not a criterion for being Spanish. Whereas believing in Allah, Muhammad, the Qur’an, etc. are criteria for being Muslim.

    This student’s “feeling Scottish” wouldn’t mean much if he wasn’t of Scottish nationality or ancestry. If I were to feel that I was Scottish, yet had no ties to Scotland in terms of nationality or ancestry, would that still be Scottish?

  7. Dear Rasheed,

    thanks for your comments and criticism.
    However, I think that you are guilty of what Bateson called a ‘mistake of logical type': you are confusing the category of the example. You say:

    First of all, believing the Carlos I is the king of Spain is not a criterion for being Spanish. Whereas believing in Allah, Muhammad, the Qur’an, etc. are criteria for being Muslim.

    Actually believing that Carlos I is the king of Spain is a necessary criterion for being Spanish. I can show this in a simple way: in order to become Spanish you have to accept and believe that he is the King, since you have to take an oath (like in the case of the UK). Yet to recognise that Carlos I is the king of Spain does not make you Spanish. The same is the case of being Muslim: If a person recognises that Allah is God ad Muhammed is His messenger, this does not make him or her Muslim, as in the example above, you have to ‘say’ an oath, publicly or privately, which Muslims call shahada. So where is the difference? Certainly there is a theological difference but not a logical one.

    Second, you have said

    This student’s “feeling Scottish” wouldn’t mean much if he wasn’t of Scottish nationality or ancestry. If I were to feel that I was Scottish, yet had no ties to Scotland in terms of nationality or ancestry, would would I still be Scottish?

    The answer is certainly yes. Indeed you still confuse here two categories, the personal and the social. Socially, some people would deny that, since you do not have Scottish links, you are Scottish or at least a real one. However, from an identity, personal aspect, what does really matter to you is what you ‘feel to be’ and if you feel to be ‘Scottish’, the fact that others deny it would not change you own strong identification. The deniers will be, from your viewpoint, wrong in not recognising your own Scottishness.

    Let me extend these two examples (which are just examples, in the book I discuss the topic in great detail) to the case of Islam (or any other religion). If a person is gay but he feels to be Muslim, though this of course contradicts theological orthodox aspects of Islam, he is, from the viewpoint of personal identity , Muslim, despite that some other Muslims (who feel to be Muslim as well) would deny his ‘Muslimness’. Yet the fact that one can deny another individual’s personal identity, it does not mean that the identity in itself does not exist. For this reason, as Mamdani says, to speak of good Muslims and bad Muslims does not make sense. At least within anthropology.

    I hope that this may clarify the point.

    take care
    Gabriele

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  9. Hi Doc,

    Thanks for explaining what you meant by all that. I still have a couple of reservations with your examples though. Please bear with me.

    I can show this in a simple way: in order to become Spanish you have to accept and believe that he is the King, since you have to take an oath (like in the case of the UK).

    I take it this “oath” to become a Spanish or British national/citizen is similar to the pledge of allegiance a foreigner takes when becoming a Canadian citizen. If that’s the case, it’s not really analogous to the shahadah a person takes to become Muslim. It would be more in line with bai’ah, which some of the Muslims took with Prophet Muhammad (e.g., the 1st & 2nd pledges of ‘Aqabah). The pledge didn’t make these Muslims Muslim, their shahadahs did. Those pledges were obligated on them given the situation, however—if I’m not mistaken.

    Another thing is that if you were to apply for Canadian citizenship, you’d need to take that pledge to become Canadian, whereas being born here, I did not and do not have to take it. I’m Canadian by virtue of the fact that I was born in this country. So the criteria may change from case to case.

    Regarding this division between personal identity and social identity, I guess I see your point there. But for me at least, I would think that a person’s perception of his personal identity should be in line with reality, e.g., it wouldn’t mean very much to me if a person “felt” he was a Muslim, but violated all or some of the major criteria for being one, regardless if he took his shahadah or not; that person, in reality, would still be a “disbeliever”.

  10. ANT: There is no Islam without mind.

    STU: Certainly, you need Muslims to have Islam.

    No. Inanimate objects as well as animate objects (eg: plants, animals) are Muslim according to Islamic belief because they all submit involuntarily to the will of Allah (swt). The difference between Muslims as you define us (i.e., human Muslims) vs. all Muslims is that we humans have the ability to follow Islam or not as we choose; the latter do not. So the first sentence is not correct; there can be Islam without mind from our perspective; the second sentence is correct only if you widen the definition of what (and who) constitutes a Muslim.

  11. Dear JDsg,

    Of course, for theological aspects of Islam, objects submit to Allah, but since objects do not have conciousness, they cannot express Islam. If the universe were only based on unconsciousness, there would not be other Islam that the one in the mind of Allah. So, There is no Islam without mind, at least you need one: the mind of God.

    As far as the second point is concerned, I have suggested that from an anthropological point of view (and not from a theological one) Muslim is the person that feel to be so. (by the way, even theologically some schools affirm exactly the same)

    thanks for reading my blog and for your comment :-)
    Gabriele

  12. Dear Rasheed, I think Shankara, the 7th century philosopher would agree whole heartedly with your well reasoned approach. Sadly, the above responses to your logical arguement is to be expected, since most Moslems have little or no choice when it comes to questioning their religious identity and recieved beliefs. However, may I take this opportunity to quote you something I heard long ago which best sums up my position in all this, “To believe in God is divine, but to believe in your beliefs is madness.” I look forward to reading your book. Many thanks, Jadd

  13. Kia Ora (good day in Maori),

    My class and I read your article about the controversy in Scotland over the puppy. It reached the land of the long white cloud several days ago but there has been no further coverage since so it was fortuitous that a fellow student found your article.

    We had an interesting discussion about it – the consensus being , that as an elected representative of his local community and given the history therein, perhaps his remarks to the police board were ill judged and out of place.

    After all, muslims who know the trilogy would surely be aware that guard and herding dogs are quite permissable in Islam.

    So why did Clr. Asif even raise the point in the first place?

    Vainglory – ego – powerplay? Only he knows and if he has personally put out a press release explaining his reasons, we have not seen it down under.

    No matter what the circumstances really, Councillor Asif put the police in the awful position of being between the devil and the deep blue sea. He set the scene and the press, as usual, had a field day. Easy prey!

    We think that the apology was well meant, but the fact remains that the police were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Catch 22 . And this is what really upsets people. Quite a paradox. There are no winners in scenarios like this, everyone loses.

    When one plays with fire one may well get burnt and we would suggest the electorate should vote for someone who is fully cognisant of their religion and would not use a political position to manipulate, misuse or misrepresent their supporters to try and prove a point which does not even exist.

    I think sometimes there are those who try to bemuse and befuddle muslims and non muslims so much that in the end they only hurt their own, no matter what their belief.

    We are still reeling over the incident two and half years ago when our Labour muslim MP appeared on television to support the stoning of an adulterous woman in Iran.

    NZ was rocked on its heels (moreso than during our infrequent earthquakes) and as you can imagine the interest in Islam and Sharia law escalated.

    At the moment apart from the usual dissatisfaction with the incumbent Labour govt. this incident has done just as much damage to the party as it has to Islam, altho’ our muslim MP assures those of us who inhabit Godzone, that death by stoning is only applicable in Islamic countries.

    We do not have capital punishment and were the first country in the world to give women the vote, and there we were, a century later, voting in blind ignorance for a muslim MP who does not support universal human rights.

    Many Kiwis were very angered, if not furious that he had chosen to disclose this after the election – as were his fellow party members. They felt that somehow, they had been cheated and betrayed altho’ it is difficult to find a word that would exactly express the feeling, because it was completely our misunderstanding .

    The issue had never been raised whilst he was electioneering. Not in non moslem circles anyway so we were not purposely misled, but to us it came across as lying by omission. We now realise that he would not have gained the muslim vote if he did not publically follow his creed . He was also between the devil and the deep blue sea. But a lot of trust was lost in this mainly Christian country.

    Our fault for being ignorant – yes, but now we are more informed. Our elections are every three years and now there will not only not be any muslim MPs, there will not be a Labour government come September.

    Labour now lies at 25% support and the National (Tory)party at nearly 60% – partly because one muslim with some political power aired his beliefs on a television programme (in family viewing hours no less when children were listening). This was their introduction to Islam as unfortunately the programme was transmitted live at a very popular viewing time on national television.

    He singlehandedly decimated the one political party in N.Z. that were the first to accept a muslim for political office by shooting himself, his fellow muslims and the only party in NZ who welcomed muslim immigration, in the foot. The road to hell is paved with good intentions but sometimes silence is golden, is is not?

    What problems multiculturism seems to bring to this world but this was the first time it had ever reared its ugly head in N.Z. Bit of a slap in the face for those who believed he had run for office to advance our nation rather than cleave to his personal agenda.

    Most Maori and Pacific Islanders are strong supporters of the Labour party which has been in power for nine years and even they have turned their backs.

    Such a long posting to try and explain why sometimes sellotape is very useful. Or failing that Velcro, buttons,staples or just a plain old metal zip. Engage brain before speaking one’s mind in public forums.

    Kia Kaha (stand strong).

    Wahine.

  14. whats interesting is, it does not matter how Anthropologist explain anything, what is true will remain true, anthropologist are simply like the lawyers, if you are a good one, you can defeat them, if you are not, better just see what they see, of course, whats more interesting is Islam is all about believing in the Unseen…a pre-condition to benefit from the Koran, thats how the Koran starts….and thats how the entire human race has been divided into 2 primary category, a group that believes in the unseen, a group that does not…unfortunately anthropologist along with all the antithesis category falls in the 2nd category. whats more interesting is that Allah has been talking about these categories through not only Koran but through all the Books, so this is not something un-expected and has been cautioned from long before. and here is an interesting phenomenon to consider – lets say a man dies without believing, and his friends die being a believer, well, we dont know what happens to any of them after death, but now, lets say if there is really a judgment day, and really a haven and hell, imagine the situation of the unbeliever. I dont see any harm spending about 50-60 years of believing and receving a reward, if i do not, and if there is nothing out there after my death, well, i dont see anything that i have lost…..but if there is something, Grabriele dude! you and all your brothers are in deep trouble man. And according to Koran, that very day of judgement when you are shown the magnitude of the torment, you will simply say this “i beg for a 2nd chance to go back to my earlier life and worship you….but of course you will not be given a 2nd chance”….sorry dude, there is no such thing as “better luck next time”….well, i hope to read your book and see if i can also try to be a good debater like you or a good lawyer. Nice job btw, but you should start meeting some other people who are really good debaters in Islam, i wish the hypothetical student you have in your books were someone like Dr Zakir Nayek and then you would probably meet your real match…..till then….take care….May Allah show you the right path someday before your death!

    • Dear Muhammad,
      thank you for the extended comment. However, I think that you have some confused ideas about anthropologists in general. It seems that you link ‘anthropology’ with ‘atheism’, and of course this is not the case. There are many anthropologists that have a religious belief. I suppose that you have misunderstood what my book is about because it seems that you have not read is and based your comments on the title :-)
      Best wishes
      Gabriele

  15. by the way, the reason i encountered your website is because i was thinking of a subject called “Islamic Anthropology” since 2006…it would be something exactly an anti-matter like phenomenon of what probably have on your book…i just ordered a kindle edition of your book, i will purchase yours as soon as it gets converted to a kindle version. I think you wrote it excellently! Try pushing the publishers for a kindle edition to make it a bit cheaper for most of us. thanks

  16. Muslim: Why you Hindu worship stone idols, who cant listen to you?
    Hindu: Why you muslim worship stone made house (The Ka’aba)?

    Being an orthodox Sunni Muslim believer, I would say very good question from Hindu, but will I stop practicing Islam? No dear, because Islam is all about Submission. Submission to Allah S.W.T. and it was, is and will always be interpreted by The glorious Quran, not _someone_ or _something_ alien to it.

    Similarly, by looking some abstract art, you can interpret any meaning out of it, but its the Artist, who will define what his work really meant.

    You will need millions/billions reason not to believe in Allah S.W.T., but zero reason to believe that yes Indeed Its Allah S.W.T. who is the creator of all.

    @Muhammad Mizanur Rashid Shuvra: brother Ma Sha Allah, very well defined point you’ve made, may Allah S.W.T. bless you here and after.

  17. Dear Prof. Marranchi,

    Reading all the comments above I have lots of questions to ask anthropoligists. I must say that I know nothing about anthropology. Did not have a chance to study it. So, apologies in advance if my question is strange. Recently I attended a seminar given by Dr. Gilsenan by mere chance and became very interested in this descipline. Could you answer the following question:

    Why your book is called “The anthropology of Islam”? Do you think that what people perceive, think, imagine etc. represents what the Islam is? I think anthropology studies what people have in their minds. But Islam is not what people have in their minds. Islam is the most natural and purest way of life. I repeat, it is the Way of Life that should be followed in order to live a life which is the most natural for a human. If a human gets something wrong from Islam (for example, anthropology studies superstitions people have about Sufi leaders), this does NOT mean that the target of this misperception should be Islam, i.e. the study of Islam. The target of the study should be a human in this case. Therefore, anthropology should use terms correctly, I assume.

  18. Pingback: An Islam lost in transition? Emotions, piousness and lack of intellectual genealogy | Islam, Muslims, and an Anthropologist

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