Riyadiya Mosque, Lamu

The essential problem in the study of Islam is precisely that: essentialist reduction of a diverse religious tradition across cultures into an ideal essence. In a provocative article published three decades ago, Muslim anthropologist Abdul Hamid el-Zein wondered in print “if a single true Islam exists at all.” (1) This was not an attempt to dismiss the faith of Islam, but a challenge to scholars who blithely assume the existential ‘truth’ of concepts. “But what if…” asked el-Zein, analysis of Islam “were to begin from the assumption that ‘Islam,’ ‘economy,’ ‘history,’ ‘religion’ and so on do not exist as things or entities with meaning inherent in them, but rather as articulations of structural relations, and are the outcome of these relations and not simply a set of positive terms from which we start our studies?” (2) If so, he reasoned, it would do no good to start with a textbook version of the five pillars, a famous scholar such as Ibn Khaldun, or a Western sociologist like Max Weber, because all this is what Islam is supposed to be. For el-Zein, true to his anthropological roots, it was important to start with the “native’s model of Islam” as it is articulated in a given social context. This is not because the native is “right,” a nonsensical term for non-theologian el-Zein, but in order to see how Muslims adapt what analysts call “religion” to everyday life.

It is worth revisiting el-Zein’s argument, not only because it tends to be ignored or misunderstood, but as an important reminder of what it means to study Islam ethnographically. Advocating a “phenomenological” approach at the time, el-Zein believed that underlying the diverse “contents” of cultures was an embedded “logic” in the very nature of culture. Thus, there is a sense in which both the anthropologist and the native, although from different cultures content-wise, share “a logic which is beyond their conscious control.” (3) Unfortunately, el-Zein did not elaborate in this brief review of several texts about Islam what this logic entails; he passed away soon after the article was published. His critics, however, ignore el-Zein’s practical application of this theoretical frame in his excellent 1974 ethnography, The Sacred Meadows, on Lamu. The logic he was talking about refers to the structured relation of symbols in the narratives and speech of Muslims he observed and queried. Religious symbols, like Muhammad, Adam and Eve or the Quran, are not approached as “entities nor fixed essences” but rather serve as “vehicles for the expression and articulation of changing values in varying contexts.” (4) In the context of Lamu, for example, he analyzes the ways in which masters and slaves, decidedly different social categories, appropriate the symbol of the Prophet Muhammad as light (nur) to articulate opposing worldviews. Influenced, but not blindly so, by the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss and interpretive anthropology of Clifford Geertz, el-Zein was seeking a way to go beyond the surface functions to a deep structure of the religious ideology.

Theoretical precision here is somewhat of a moot point, for el-Zein’s main argument is that “Islam as an expression of this logic can exist only as a facet within a fluid yet coherent system; it cannot be viewed as an available entity for cultural systems to select and put to various uses.” (5) Of course it had been viewed this way by scholars of multiple disciplines, which is one of the reasons he was critical of previous studies. El-Zein was indeed arguing that the notion of Islam “without referring it to the facets of a system of which it is part, does not exist.” The notion did exist in the minds of many writers and certainly among theologians, but as an essentialized and pregiven definition it would be “extremely limited in anthropological analysis.” Thus, when he states at the conclusion of his review that Islam does not exist as “a fixed and autonomous form referring to positive content which can be reduced to universal and unchanging characteristics,” it is hard to imagine why any scholar other than an apologist for Islam or ardent antagonist of Islam would find cause to disagree.
Ethnographic research revolves around localized “islams,” as el-Zein would put it, diverse cultural contexts in which Muslims live out something both the natives and the anthropologist invariably refer to as “Islam.” The Yemeni tribesmen I lived with did not conceive of their faith as one of the numerous ways in which Islam was practiced; as far as they were concerned they were practicing true Islam or at least something very close to it. This is no different from the fundamentalist Baptist community I knew as a child; the church members believed they were practicing true Christianity, not just being members of one mid-twentieth century sect among many. At ground level there is a sense that the religion practiced is the right one or that it can be corrected to be so. Specific practices might change, beliefs may be dropped or added, but faith at the bottom is only meaningful if it can be lived meaningfully as more than a local phenomenon. Thus what the anthropologist defines as just another islam is invariably seen by the practitioner as an attempt to do Islam. The issue is not whether this Islam exists; if there were no concept there would be no meaningful distinction to being Muslim. Theologians have no trouble with an idealized Islam, but should ethnographers among Muslims operate with this conceptualized Islam as a given, as something meaningful in itself, apart from its local appropriation?

The importance of el-Zein’s reorientation of anthropological concern with Islam stands out against the tendency to treat Islam as visibly practiced in the Middle East to be the Islam, as though the fact that more than three quarters of Muslims live outside the region is not relevant. Similarly, those who view Islam, however misunderstood, as a threat need it to be a homogenous target, a straw religion easily denounced and demonized. It is not hard to find such a fallacy fetish among rightwing Christians, who go so far as to equate Islam as a conspiracy of Satanic dimensions. While bigots are rarely convinced by rational arguments, serious scholarship should try to evolve beyond the stasis of prejudice. This does not always happen. Consider the post-911 article by Bernard Lewis in The New Yorker on “The Revolt of Islam.” (6) While not overtly condemning Islam, a reader might reasonably conclude from the information in the article that Islam is not only in revolt but is in many unpleasant ways rather revolting at the present time. “The Muslim peoples,” states the historian, “like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but, unlike some others, they are keenly aware of it.” (7) This is the reason, Lewis assures us, that the anti-American war talk of Osama Bin Laden and the actions of Muslim terrorists resonate in the world of Islam. But Lewis misses the point here by assuming Americans only treat “history” as water under the bridge, especially the violent history of religious wars between Christians that plagued Europe for centuries. Bin Laden may cave-dream of a return to seventh-century Muslim unity, but the “history” that impels his rhetoric is surely recent placement of American troops in Saudi Arabia, America’s political seduction of self-serving Arab leaders and continued United States support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Not given to citing postmodern critique of the very establishment he represents, Lewis assumes the Muslim world has not even managed to embrace modernity. Yet, Bin Laden was not born a nomad and is unimaginable without stinger missiles and video sermons.

Islam is not in revolt except as a foil for those who prefer to look at individual acts as mere pieces of a Leviathanesque essence. Palestinians revolt, desperately coating an Islamic veneer over political acts for confessional comfort. Taliban revolt, as anthropologist David Edwards documents in his historical reconstruction of Afghanistan history through ethnographic interviews. (8) Individual Muslim women revolt by taking off the veil, or in some cases, by actually putting on the veil. What ethnography can offer is precisely what abstract pronouncements like the West against the East or us vs. them scenarios of Bernard Lewis are lacking. Thus, the buildup of ethnographic knowledge about how Islam is currently practiced in widely varying contexts can only be for the good in getting beyond the ongoing politics of blame.

Adapted from Daniel Martin Varisco, Islam Obscured: The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation (New York: Palgrave, 2005), pp. 146-150.

1 Abdul Hamid el-Zein, Beyond Ideology and Theology: The Search for the Anthropology of Islam, Annual Review of Anthropology 6:227), 1977.
2 El-Zein (1977:251).
3 El-Zein (1977:252).
4 El-Zein, The Sacred Meadows. ( Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974) p. xx.
5 El-Zein (1977:252).
6 Bernard Lewis, The Revolt of Islam. The New Yorker 77(36):50-63, November 19., 2001. Lewis apparently likes the sound of the phrase, since he has recycled it in articles and book sections over many years.
7 Lewis (2001:51).
8 David Edwards, Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).