Wed 26 Aug 2009
In 2005 I published Islam Obscured, a critical assessment of four books widely read as “the” anthropology of Islam. The books I examined were by Clifford Geertz, Ernest Gellner, Fatima Mernissi and Akbar Ahmed. Having wielded an iconclastic hammer over the first four chapters, I concluded the book with a brief question-and-answer survey of the ways in which “Islam” has and should be studied by anthropologists who value the role of ethnographic fieldwork. At the time, the publisher failed to send the book out for review, although some review copies finally went out over a year ago. There are many, many books out there on “Islam,” but my text was, to not mire myself in humility, somewhat unique. It faulted these texts for not using ethnographic data but rather essentializing their own views of what Islam should be.
I recently received a lengthy review by Ken Lizzio, whose research was on Sufi texts, in The Journal of North African Studies (14:309-316, June, 2009). Having written my book in large part for non-anthropologists, I was quite interested in how a specialist in Near Eastern Studies would react to it. The thrust of the reviewer strikes me as quite positive, especially when he states: “As Varisco proceeds to fell some of the giants in the anthropological forest, he does so with an axe sharpened with impeccable logic and refreshing intellectual honesty” (p. 310). The reviewer agrees with me that both Geertz and Gellner both fail to apply data from fieldwork to their assertions. So far, so good.
But it is somewhat unnerving, at times almost laughable, to find the pigeon hole in which I am stuffed in the course of the article. First, I am not chair of Anthropology at Hunter College, as the author assumes, but Hofstra University. (I recognize both school names start with “H,” but at least the author could have upgraded me to Harvard University.) More importantly, the main misunderstanding is the following observation: “Now Varisco does not just dismiss texts of Muslims. He also dismisses Orientalist scholarship” (p. 311), softened somewhat by the caveat that “Thus, to say that all Muslim texts are invalid or that all Orientalists were guilty of essentialising is just another sweeping generalization Varisco himself is concerned to avoid” (p. 312). Indeed, I am concerned to avoid such an absurd position. I actually devote an entire section to the issue of “How should anthropologists study the great tradition of theology,” which is of course all about texts. There I state quite explicitly: “The anthropologist is not likely to study Islamic theology in order to determine its spiritual truth, but it is almost nonsensical that an ethnographer would attempt to study Muslims without knowing seminal texts like the Quran, hadith collections and relevant legal texts” (Islam Obscured, p. 151). To assume that I have an “exclusive emphasis on fieldwork, wholesale rejection of religious texts and Orientalist scholarship” (p. 309), as announced in the abstract, is really misguided. The author might have noted that my own work is very much concerned with texts and I draw attention to those anthropologists who successfully integrate their ethnography with textual analysis.
The author observes that I state at the start of my book that I am “not interested in truth claims of Muslims, preferring to defer verification to the theologians” (p. 312). He appears not to have much respect for “theologians,” a term I use in the abstract for those Muslim scholars who are well versed and trained in their religious studies. Then he quickly adds his own caveat, “Not so fast, for isn’t every anthropological representation a form of adjudication?” This is elaborated with “Verification can’t be fobbed or avoided; it is part and parcel of the ethnographic enterprise. Most importantly, is it not the project of the social sciences to distinguish the true from the false?”
Indeed, let’s slow this down a bit. There is a rhetorical sleight of hand here that begs to be revealed, although I do not wish to aggrandize the mystical metaphor, and repealed. First of all, I follow the lead of a distinguished Muslim anthropologist, Abdel Hamid El Zein. My book is not concerned with the truth claims of Islam, for (as I observe) only Muslims actually observe Islam. Only Muslims can and should determine the “truth” of their faith. Rather, the whole point is to examine the “rhetoric of representing Islam as a religion through the lens of anthropological or sociological narratives” (p. 2). Let’s be clear here: I am not writing an ethnography of “Islam” or about a particular Muslim society but rather engaging in critique of the rhetoric used in these four widely-read books. It is not a matter of avoiding “verification” and certainly the social sciences are not equipped to distinguish “the true from the false” in a religious or spiritual or even transcendental sense but only to ascertain the validity of claims that can be verified in the material world or in accordance with rational observations. Certainly it is not an anthropological question to ask if Islam is the true religion. This is not fobbing; it is recognizing the limitations of certain kinds of study. Explanation of how religious acts fit into a wider cultural system is not “adjudication,” the point being to make sense of what people do and not to act like a missionary and change their ways.
Regarding my wholesale rejection of Orientalist scholarship, I am bemused. Perhaps the critics of my Reading Orientalism, where I criticize the essentialized demonization of “Orientalism” by Edward Said, should be softened up by reading this review before engaging my more recent book. As I note in reference to the comments of Michael Gilsenan, there was a time in the 1960s when Islam was more or less disciplinarily entrenched in Oriental Studies, in part because so few anthropologists had the language skills to tackle Islamic texts (p. 15). The reviewer seems to have confused my critique of prejudicial Orientalist rhetoric, as in the case of William Muir on Muhammad’s wives, with the enterprise as a whole. He must have missed the following statement in that discussion: “To be sure Western scholarship has aided and abetted the colonial enterprise on the whole, but this is hardly sufficient cause to ignore the vast academic service provided in historical, literary, and grammatical analyses, or the utilitarian value of translations of basic ”Oriental” texts.” (p. 88). I suspect he also missed the irony in the concluding statement: “Perhaps the postmodern de-mything of Orientalism is more mythical than is admitted in the heat of politically correct polemics” (p. 89).
The crux of the disagreement appears in a paragraph that seems to dismiss my perspective as not sufficiently and transcendentally Sufi in scope. Here is the paragraph: “Behind Varisco’s rejection of texts, emphasis on local variation, and willingness to defer to theologians lies an epistemological (dare I say ethnocentric?) assumption at the very heart of anthropology: that all religious engagements are merely man-made inventions. Varisco is all too ready to defer to theologians because, I suspect, he believes religion, whatever its form, refers to nothing really real (again paraphrasing Geertz); ergo, leave it to the theologians to discourse within their narrow hermeneutic circle” (p. 313). Had I begun my work with Marx’s maxim that God is made by man and not man by God, I would understand such an assumption. But the reviewer’s stated fascination with “transpersonal psychology” blinds his judgment, and indeed it does appear that I am being judged as another one of those atheist academics who does not recognize “the validity of spiritual states of consciousness” (p. 315). Here is a glaring conflation of my intention as an author, whose personal beliefs the reviewer cannot possibly know, with the reviewer’s sweeping condemnation of the entire discipline I work in.
The point of my book is not to engage the question of truth claims, nor to focus on Sufism, but to point out ways in which I think the representation of “Islam” has furthered a number of untruths and half-truths. My own personal view of spirituality, which I do not find relevant to such a task, is not the issue here. I am neither praising Islam nor denigrating it. The reviewer confuses my critique of Geertz’s view of religion with my own personal belief system. “For anthropologists like Geertz, however,” I argue (p. 41), “religion is not approachable as a viable statement of truth.” Any reader of my chapter on Geertz should reach the conclusion that I do not approach “religion” the way Geertz does. I, in fact, am quite critical of Geertz’s theory of religion, the whole argument of which is missed by the reviewer when he claims that I “neglect” theory. “What is lacking in Geertz’s well-meaning definitions of culture and religion is how to turn the symbols, as represented by the anthropologists, back on the society where they have practical currency.” I conclude (pp. 45-46).
Let’s be clear here, as I argue most forcibly in my critique of the “Islamic anthropology” of Akbar Ahmed, that I do indeed view anthropology as a secular vocation which does not assume a priori the validity of any sacred text nor that religious experience needs to be explained rationally outside the realm of our senses. When I write as an anthropologist, I see absolutely no problem in viewing religion and all cultural acts as man-made, but I categorically reject the notion that anything human should be dismissed as “merely.” I would not be surprised to be challenged by a devout Muslim on this point, but it is rather silly to be lectured that the anthropology of religion should follow the nebulous post-Jungian mishmash euphemistically called “transpersonal psychology.” The author is apparently unaware of the long interchange between anthropological theory and various psychological theoretical frames. Indeed, some anthropologists have been so enamored of the mystical or transcendent practices they study that they have all but converted. Mysticism is a fine topic, but it is hardly the most important aspect of the range of activities we define as religious in an anthropological sense, nor is it the primary reference in the general concept of Islam as a historic faith.
At times the reviewer’s logic is dangerous and not just silly. “If there is only an array of little ‘islams,’ then there can be no Islam to obscure. In a world of ‘little islams’ the anthropologist is adrift in a post-modern quicksand where anything one encounters ‘on the ground’ is just another variation of an imagined ‘Islam,’” (p. 313) he asserts, following this with the inference that I would place al-Qaeda as an equally valid expression of Islam as the mystic Rumi. This completely misses the point of the discussion; in this he is in good company, but still full of misunderstanding. The original argument of El Zein, which I respect and elaborate in my discussion, is not a denial of Islam, but a nuanced call for the best way to study an ideal that has consequences in the real world (I will leave it to the reviewer to decide if what Muslims actually do is really real or not). For El Zein, and I totally agree, the notion of “Islam” is only worthwhile to the anthropologist when it is in reference to the wider cultural system in which it is a part. His point here holds for any religion, which is not some independent transcendental object, but a vital part of human lived experience. The anthropologist is only adrift when dealing with an essentialized notion of Islam, the ideal of what Islam should be or what people want it to be. Indeed, it is true that both Osama Bin Laden and Jalaladin Rumi represent actual variations of Islam in this world, regardless of whether one likes one of these individuals more than the other or thinks one speaks truth and the other does not. From an anthropological view, based on ethnographic observation, both are ways in which Islam has been realized in the world; this is what I study as an anthropologist, even though I am quite comfortable wearing the hat of a historian of texts at the same time.
As for being accused of having a disciplinary blind spot, I stand by my statement: “I do not need or even desire an anthropological definition of Islam, especially an essentialized model that inevitably fudges the observable variations in Muslim behavior and thinking” (p. 161). Anthropology is concerned with how Islam is lived in this world; it is only concerned with the transcendental in terms of its practitioners. The anthropologist as an individual may choose to pursue the issue and seek a transcendental experience, but that is an individual matter and not part of the method or theory of the discipline. I hate to disappoint the reviewer, but anthropology is not about “our original search for ‘the true, the good, and the beautiful,’” (p. 315) but rather about human action whether good or bad, beautiful or ugly. This search for “the true” may be a worthy personal goal, but it has little to do with academic study in the social sciences.
Speaking of theory, I am dumbfounded that the reviewer believes “What is notoriously absent in Varisco’s book is any discussion of theory” (p. 314). The whole point of the book is too lay out the theoretical, as well as the methodological, faults of the texts critiqued. In each case I dissect the theoretical assumptions and building blocks of the authors. Nor do I hole up in an academic ivory tower counting data. “Ethnography, no more than any other study in the social sciences, cannot be neutralized from the unpleasant realities of human culture at the start of the twenty-first century” (p. 158). Indeed, I am not interested in providing a specific theoretical approach to Islam within the discipline (and there are quite a few to choose from), but rather focusing on the importance of ethnographic fieldwork and analysis. Anyone with the requisite language skills can read the texts in a library, and these texts do indeed transcend time and space, but the main contribution of anthropology is collecting data through participant observation. I have done and continue to do both. And I challenge the reviewer to find a discipline that has engaged in more soul-searching self-critique than anthropology over the last four decades.
My final comment perhaps says it all. Commenting on the reluctance of some scholars of Islam to address their own fear of the politics of religious intolerance, I noted, somewhat facetiously, “It is a lot easier to write about saints and sufis than to come to terms with Hamas suicide bombers” (159). Whether or not the sufis “have known all along what they were doing,” (p. 315) as the reviewer asks, I think the reviewer in this case does not know what he is doing. But I wish him a blessed barzakh.
For an excerpt from the introduction to my book, click here.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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