I have said it before and I said it again, “I do not study Islam, I study Muslims and what they do as religion.” And the combination of jet lag, falling asleep much too early, and my thoughts about this have me awake as the call to prayers waft up 18 floors and through my hotel window.   It is 5:30 in the morning in KL and I just have to get this all written down. So breaking out my Life Drive and portable keyboard (my one pound answer to lugging a laptop with me), I sat down to address this issue.

Last night I said it, “I study Muslims, not Islam.” And once again it left my interlocutor confused. I was at dinner during conference on Islamic education that was being paid for from soup to nuts, or from hotel rooms to printing materials to meals (and that was soup to nuts) by the government of Malaysia as part of a special project of the Prime Minister — understanding all those dynamics will be for another post.

I was talking to two people: one an older gentleman and one a younger man, the older gentlemen seemed to get what I was syaing before he received a phone call and was pulled out of our conversation. The young man seemed confused and even shocked, and maybe even mildly offended.

He said,”how can you possibly understand Muslims without studying Islam.” And his is a good question and you can’t, in one sense. Early ethnographers about Islam in Southeast Asia such as the late Clifford Geertz learned all they needed to know about Islam from their informants and really did not try to place local practice into the context of the global Muslim community or this overarching religion called Islam. As my young interlocutor continued, “we all share the very same core beliefs” And indeed they do.

But, I pose a very tricky question to my students when I teach my Comparative Muslim Cultures course — how can we best understand the relationship between various local islams, that is local practices and understandings and universal Islam — whatever that might be. This is an important question to make American students wrestle with because they come into my course with the idea that Islam is some how a totalizing monolith and of course the nature of the unwavering totality is largely defined by the American media and the current “War on Terror”. 

I make them deal with how very diverse sets of practices can all be part of the same religion. Specifically they have to wrestle with the Javanese Horse Trance ritual, in which dancers are placed into a trance by shaman who gets his power from meditating at the grave of a medieval Islam saint. In trance, they enact the events that befalls those that befell those that fought the expansion of the Islamic kingdom of Mataram who became possessed by the spirits of their own horses and ran around crazy. They eat rose petals, tear open coconuts with their teeth, roll on class, dance on fire, pierce their cheeks with pins and they do not get hurt. The message to the villagers is clear — embrace Islam and be protected; reject Islam and go insane.

In addition to that local practice they have to deal with other Sufi practices such as ziarah and the keeping of spirit familiars and the the Whirling Dervishes. Add to all of that Al-Qaeda and Muslim Radicals and topped is off with the Nation of Islam. If I am feeling particularly snarky, I might even ask them to deal with the use of Islamic symbols in certain Masonic orders. Of course for most undergraduate this is an exercise is realizing just how complex the world wide Muslim community really is.

For me however, this is critical and central theoretical issue. One that I first tired to deal with in my article Between Text and Practice (1999) by reviewing different approaches to the study of Islam and of world religions in general. The fact that my students frequently get stuck at Redfield says to me that I have not yet successfully worked all of this out. I am using Tabsir as a first stab at expanding my thoughts on this, but don’t be surprised to see this in print later.

Let’s return to the Muslims not Islam idea. This idea was not really my own. Several years ago, I was the moderator for Islam-L. I posted a call for papers for a panel for the American Anthropological Association but because my ideas were so embryonic, I posted a 6 page seed paper along with the call. The paper was called, “The Problem with Prayer: Ethical and Methodological Implications in the Anthropological Study of Islam.” Well, you might have thought I let off a stink bomb. And while some reactions were very negative, one very thoughtful response suggested that I do not actually study Islam but Muslims. Further he argued that Muslims are too often concerned with what Islam should be that they do not look at what it is, that is what Muslim actually do. (The short paper, this interchange, and many more of my reflections on my subject position vis-a-vis Islam are discussed in a paper in the 2nd issue of Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life.)

I really took to this idea. I changed the title of my main Islam course from Comparative Islamic Cultures to Comparative Muslim Cultures. It really solve many many problems for me. First, it solve the problem of being told by Arab Muslims that various Indonesian practices are not really Islam. It allows me to say that I don’t care if what such and such Muslim does is counted as Islam by another Muslim or even by God himself. Those are issues I leave to theologians. Of course the debates themselves are interesting — another form of Muslim behavior and culture — but as for the outcome, I have no stake and refuse to take one.

It also solves a problem that I have yet to face but that colleagues of mine say that the face regularly in their classrooms. That is theological debates in their classes between Muslims of different persuasions arguing over what is the real definition of Islam. Apparently this is such a problem in the courses on Islam at the School of Oriental and African Studies that it appeared as one of the key interview questions during a recent hire process. My response was that I would allow a certain amount of the debate to proceed so that all students could see the issues involved but in the end would cut it of because we would be interested in Muslims not Islam. And this raised a few eyebrows.

OK, so what do I mean, Muslims not Islam. Well, as I have already suggested what Islam is and what it should be is subject to considerable debate and contestation in the Muslim community not only worldwide but even in various local settings. For me to make a pronouncement about what is Islam is to act as a theologian. Even examining the Javanese horse ritual or the Shriners as different expressions of the Islamic symbol set suggested a theological position of allow everything and anything, that is, if what I am doing research and teaching about Islam. But since I take the position that what I do is study Muslims, it means no much thing. I look at the beliefs and practices of those who submit themselves to God (the literal meaning of Islam) and look at the different expressions that submission takes. At a minimum, if they say they are Muslims, then I take them as such.

Of course, this does not cover the Shriners. They do not say they are Muslims. And I do not think they are either. A more complicated group are the Druze who seem to self identify as both Muslim and non-Muslim depending on the context. Of course, for the Druze it is very clear that their history is a splinter group form Islam that takes their founder as the Mahdi and even as another prophet after Muhammad, which places them firmly outside of what most Muslims would define as the Muslim community. But if we push the boundaries of what I study include not only Muslims but what people in general do with the symbols and ideas of and about Islam,then not only do the Druze and the Shriners comfortably fit within my scope of study, but also does a Christian Theme Park whose parent organization had a serious agenda of setting Christians against Muslims.

I hope to develop these ideas further. But now the sun has fully risen in Kuala Lumpur, breakfast is being served and day three of my conference begins.