Note: The following is an excerpt from Gabriele Marranci’s latest book, The Anthropology of Islam (Oxford: Berg, 2008), which is well worth reading for insights on previous ethnographic study of Islam and guidelines for current research.

Books and ‘how-to’ guides about anthropological fieldwork are increasing in number within publishers’ catalogues. Among this large production, it is unusual to find even even chapters addressing the experience of conducting fieldwork among Muslim societies and communities. In the few cases in which some examples have been provided, they describe and discuss what I call ‘exotic’ fieldwork. Even less available is material containing reflections on the impact and issues that an anthropologist may face in conducting fieldwork within Muslim communities, in the west and in Islamic countries, during this endless ‘war on terror’. In this chapter, I have tried to start a reflection and discussion on what it means to conduct fieldwork among Muslims today. In doing so, I have provided examples from the experience of some anthropologists as well as my own. I have suggested that at the centre of a contemporary anthropology of Islam should be the human being even before the Muslim. This is vital if we wish to overcome a certain Orientalism and suppression of self-represented identities, as we can observe in classic works, from Geertz to Rabinow and Gellner.

To focus on Muslims as human beings is to acknowledge the role that emotions and feelings have on the informant’s discourse of islam as well as the power that the surrounding environment has in its definition. In other words, successful fieldwork is based not only on knowledge of islam as religion, but also the capacity of the fieldworker to develop emotional empathy with his or her studied community. This process, as I have emphasized in this chapter, requires trust. Anthropologists of Islam should be very aware that the power relationship within the field is more complex than can be expected in other contexts; particularly if the fieldwork is conducted int he west. Informants are very conscious of the political tension existing today and the possibility of exploitation from the mass media. The strong surveillance, profiling and culture of suspicion that is affecting the majority of Muslim communities living int he west of Islamic countries means that informants are very careful to whom they provide access to the community. It is not so uncommon, as I have experienced, that real intelligence gathering may be conducted (through the Internet, collecting the fieldworker’s previous writing, political affiliations, collaboration with the mass media and son on.)

However, a clear and ethical approach, which transparently not only informs the studied community of the research and project, but also makes them part of it ans its implications, can form a strong relationship and help to develop the needed trust. As we have seen, the actions of the anthropologists are evaluated within the political context. Yet the emotional context has its domain as well. The development of empathy and emotional participation in the life of the studied Muslim community can overcome the most difficult situations within fieldwork.

From Gabriele Marranci, The Anthropology of Islam (Oxford: Berg, 2008), pp. 85-86.