ABSTRACT

In studying contemporary movements and trends in Islam, recent Western scholarship has been asking how to conceptualize Islam itself, for only then can one speak of the issues of the authenticity, continuity, and legitimacy of contemporary Islam-issues that are being fervently debated in contemporary polemics about the Muslim world. The orientalists, the conventional authorities on Islam, have been accused of being essentialist and insensitive to the change, negotiation, development, and diversity that characterizes lived Islam. Some scholars, primarily anthropologists, responded to the tendency to essentialize by giving up the idea of conceptualizing one Islam but rather focused their inquiry to what they called various “local Islams.” Other social scientists focused on sociological or political-economic approaches in explaining the modern forms of political and social activism among Muslims, to the exclusion of the “scriptural” Islam from analysis. I will begin my exploration of the issue of analytically representing and studying Islam from within the discipline of anthropology where much debate and scholarship has developed around this problem, although the concerns and conclusions of this study are relevant more generally. Anthropology, with its beginnings in the study of the primitive and the exotic, was thought of as being concerned only with the “little,” local traditions, though many have long challenged both this dichotomy and the biases that stem from it.3 One early influential model for anthropological studies of world religions was proposed by Robert Redfield, who in 1956 suggested that all world religions can be divided into a “great tradition” and a “little tradition.” The “great tradition,” he argued, is reflective, orthodox, textual, “consciously cultivated and handed down,”4 while the “little tradition” is heterodox, peripheral, local, popular, and unreflective. The great-and-little tradition dichotomy arose out of the attempt to understand the social organization of tradition, which was considered inevitable in all complex societies. Impatient with the textual focus of the orientalists who attempted to find a single and static Islam in scriptures and texts, Clifford Geertz was one of the first anthropologists5 to directly address the issue of “lived Islam” in his influential Islam Observed (1968).6 This seminal work spawned decades of studies that sought to conceptualize Islam as an object of study. Abdulhameed El-Zein (1977), in a highly insightful survey of the field evaluated the major attempts by that time to conceptualize Islam in the discipline of anthropology. All of these approaches maintained and tried to explain the great and little tradition dichotomy. Crapanzano (1973), for instance, looked at the Hamadsha, a Sufi order in Morocco, from a Freudian perspective and characterized religion as

a “sublimation and expression of instinctual conflicts,” and the ‘ulama (the great tradition) as “formulating this process in a formal, incontestable way.” Bujra (1971), in a study of Yemen, viewed Islam as an instrumental ideology, with the elite as its creators and the masses as its consumers. Gilsenan (1973), in his study of Sufi orders in Egypt, viewed Islam from a Weberian perspective as an ideology that rationalized a certain order, with the scripturalist Islam of the ‘ulama as a formal and systematized version of the ideology and Sufi Islam as its complementary charismatic manifestation. Eickelman’s (1976) study of maraboutism in Morocco adds a historical dimension to a basically Weberian perspective-and emphasizes continuous social change as being the result of perceived dissonance between symbolic ideals and social reality.7 In a later article (1984), Eickelman suggested that there is a major theoretical need for taking up the “middle ground” between the study of village or tribal Islam and that of universal Islam.8 El-Zein’s own contribution was an act of great leveling: all islams, to an anthropologist, were created equal, and anyone who tried to look for any hierarchy or truth-value in various “Islams” was trading in theology, he contended, and not in anthropology (or social science). The little traditions were no different from or less orthodox than the great ones. El-Zein insightfully recognized the challenge of the anthropologist taking a phenomenological, or symbolic, approach, which is that she or he inevitably “… focuses on the daily lived experience of the local Islam and leaves the study of theological interpretation to the Islamists. Therefore, he [the anthropologist] faces the problem of grasping meanings which are fluid and indeterminant [sic]. He must [artificially] stabilize these meanings in order to understand them and communicate them to others.”9 Thus, El-Zein takes an anthropologists’ task to be the study of immediate experiences. However, it seems that he sought to study Islam in all the wrong places: in the fluid imaginations of the worshippers and believers. And if this indeed is the task, then no wonder it is rather difficult to accomplish, and perhaps impossible to report. No wonder that his conclusion was rather dismal: an anthropology (or any social science, for that matter) of Islam is simply not possible, because Islam cannot be located as an analytical object. A possibility that El-Zein does not consider is that the anthropology of Islam could be searched for elsewhere. Since even the most uninhibited religious experience is rarely free of constraints and structures put in place by a past, i.e., a tradition, understanding that tradition, which guides and defines or articulates that religious experience, could be a more fruitful endeavor. In fact, El-Zein’s suggestion that the idea of a single Islam must be abandoned smacks of a deceptively similar problem in the case of totemism. Robert Launay in a recent study points out that anthropologists have mistakenly considered Islam analogous to “totemism”—an amalgam of unrelated traits that tended to occur separately more often than together. As the anthropologists increasingly realized that totemism was “really an artifact of academic discourse rather than of the exotic cultures the anthropologists purported to describe,”10

some tended to apply the same logic to Islam. But Islam, obviously, is no totemism, Launay observes, chiefly because “[r]eal people all over the world freely identify themselves as Muslims; few, I daresay call themselves ‘totemists.’” Admittedly, self-identification of subjects is not sufficient to prove a label’s usefulness. But, as Launay points out, the unity of a single Islam is a consciously theological aspect of what Muslims believe, despite the fact that Muslims are at least as aware of the diversity of interpretation and practice of Islam as Western anthropologists. Launay contends that “[f]or anthropologists to assert the existence of multiple Islams is, in essence, to make a theological claim, one most Muslims would not only deny but, they rightfully argue, anthropologists have no business making.”11 He concludes that “Islam is obviously not a ‘product’ of any specific local community, but rather a global entity in itself,” and comes to the same problem statement as the one taken up in this study: “[t]he problem for anthropologists [or, for any social scientist, indeed,] is to find a framework in which to analyze the relationship between this single, global entity, Islam, and the multiple entities that are the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims in specific communities at specific moments in history.”12 It is at this point in their analysis of this tension that not only Launay but many modern scholars of Islam and Muslim societies come to recognize the usefulness of the conceptual framework proposed by Talal Asad, who has suggested that the diversity in various local manifestations of Islam be organized through the concept of a “discursive tradition.”13