After the high profile attacks in London and Madrid, it seems like European media, policy makers, and scholars alike have been very interested in the Muslims in their midst. The best book to deal with this topic is undoubtedly is Gabriele Marranci’s Jihad Beyond Islam (Berg). The title and the publisher’s blurb may lead one to assume that is a book primarily about Jihad. The publisher’s blurb states,

“Jihad” is a highly charged word. Often mistranslated as “Holy War,” it has become synonymous with terrorism. Current political events have entirely failed to take account of the subtlety and complexity of jihad. Like many concepts with a long history, different cultural ideas have influenced the religious aspects of jihad. As a result its original meaning has been adapted, modified and destabilized–never more than at the present time. How does jihad manifest itself in Muslims’ everyday lives? What impact has 9/11 and its backlash had on it? By observing the current crisis of identity among ordinary Muslims, this timely book explores why, and in what circumstances Muslims speak of jihad. Marranci offers us a nuanced and sophisticated anthropological understanding of Muslims’ lives beyond the predictable cliché”

But it is the “Beyond Islam” part of the title that really indicates the beauty of this book. At first glance, one might think the “Beyond” of the title will take the reader to non-Islamic forms of “Jihad” ala Benjamin Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld. Fortunately, instead the book explores more interesting dimensions. Marranci looks at British Muslims from immigrant families who have favorable sentiments towards “jihadist” agendas. In his analysis, Marranci shows that his respondents’ religiosity does not go far to explain their jihadist sentiments. He adds to the equation their cultural backgrounds and their immigrant status. In this regard, Marranci takes on the standard problem of the anthropology of Islam, namely what is the relationship between “universal” Islam and local expressions of Islam.

Marranci’s work goes one step further, and this is the real contribution of the book. In addition to religion, culture, and social status as immigrants, Marranci considers personal sentiment. The subjects of this book are presented as real people with a rich complexity of factors motivating their opinions and actions. Anthropologists have long argued that our work should consider the agency of individuals, but Beyond Islam really is the first book that I have read that really demonstrates how this works in the relationship between religion, culture, and personality. This is a particularly fresh approach int eh anthropology of Islam. Further, in understanding favorable opinions toward “jihad” in its narrow sense, Marranci shows that personality may be the factor that makes the difference. It reminds me of The Kite Runner, in which Khaled Hosseini shows through the character of Assef that the Taliban may have been driven as much by thuggishness as by religion. Long before Assef was religious in the Taliban model, he was a bully, a thug, and a child-rapist, things that remained unchanged in his high ranking position in the Taliban. Without reducing anthropology to psychoanalysis, Marranci include personality into the total equation.

I used this book in a summer coursed entitled “Comparative Muslim Cultures.” The students found it very readable and understandable. Few of the students had any background in anthropology or the study of Islam. This book is accessible to the lay reader and really should be must-read material for policy makers.

Ron Lukens-Bull