Islam Obscured: The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representations

reviews extracted from

A Great Theoretical Treatise

By Ronald Lukens Bull (University of North Florida)

Varisco’s Islam Obscured is an excellent review and theoretical analysis of the “anthropology of Islam.” It is also written with an acerbic wit and a poetic control of the English language rarely found in academic writing. Organized around four key texts, it is not limited to them.

It is not really a book about Islam or even about Muslims. It is a book about Anthropologists who try to study Islam (or as Varisco insists correctly is more appropriate — study Muslims). It is a must read for those who want to think about the theory and method of studying Islam/Muslims from an Anthropological perspective.

This book will be best received by highly motivated and thoughtful readers. Those who are just wanting to learn “something about Islam” will be bored. Those who want to think about issues of representation and the nitty-gritty of how anthropology really works will be fascinated.

Ron Lukens-Bull, PhD Associate Professor of Anthropology
University of North Florida


Better ideas than writing, May 28, 2007

By L. F Sherman “(Wiscasset, ME United States)

After noting how rare and superficial many recognized works on anthropology of Muslim societies really are, Varisco provides cogent critiques of some of the best known examples from Geertz, Gellner, Mernissi, and Ahmed.

For lack of more recent and in depth alternatives many works by these authors have been far over generalized as broad explanations of the Islamic world which has so many variations and local realities. Geertz’s work on Morocco and Indonesia (Java) is a favorite read reflecting all these problems. Geertz also “reified” and labeled variations of Javanese Islam that simplify and create by labeling – this has been sometimes used by others rather crudely. The works themselves are often based on limited depth field work combined with reading and more superficial exposure to other cases.

The reality for Muslims is often far from that perceived by anthropologists. Times change, methods can mislead particularly when trying to have broader “units” for analysis that family and tribe. (Dealing with Islam adds another hidden source of error from subconscious perceptions of a Christian background.) More basic description and research is clearly needed before better mid level analysis can be more reliable. Recent works on “discourse” of defining Islam by Muslims themselves in Indonesia; on Sufi specifics in Morocco; and on civic culture in Indonesia will help.

Varisco’s critique is more in depth and in the context of Anthropology as a discipline. Theory is as important as method for him. Further, the notes and few more recent and/or less known depth case studies introduce some hope for progress.

The ideas and observations are important and it is written for Anthropologists but the lessons and language would best have been positioned to be more accessible to other intelligent readers.