Anthropology of Islam

Saba Mahmood and Jean-Michel Landry

in Anthropology

ISBN: 9780199766567
Published online April 2017 | | DOI:
Anthropology of Islam

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The emergence of Islam as an object of anthropological inquiry results from a series of shifts internal to the discipline. Until the late 1960s, anthropologists had centered their attention on the so-called “primitive religions” surviving in remote areas. Through the scientific study of archaic religious forms, Victorian scholars sought to reveal the origins of faith. Functionalist anthropologists largely dropped this quest for origins, but they insisted that primitive and localized religions teach us about the nature of religious sentiments. Meanwhile, the research on Islam was carried out by Orientalists. Even in the anthropological writings of those studying societies shaped by Islamic beliefs, Islam is framed as an element of context, rather than as an object of inquiry. The situation changed following the publication of Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed (Geertz 1968, cited under Theoretical Essays) and Ernest Gellner’s Saints of the Atlas, (Gellner 1969, cited under Mysticism and Syncretism) which signal the emergence of the anthropology of Islam as a distinct field of research. Yet in spite of this development, Geertz, Gellner, and their pupils never quite challenged the scientific division of labor that assigned to anthropology the task of studying localized religious forms. Rather, they mapped this division onto Islam itself: unlike Orientalists interested in the “scriptural Islam” of the urban elite, they suggested anthropologists focus on the “popular Islam” embraced by small-scale, rural societies. Scholars working within this framework have produced a wealth of ethnographic studies on syncretism, Sufism, mysticism, and other manifestation of religiosity deemed hostile to the urban Islamic orthodoxy. But soon thereafter, following the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Writing Culture (1986), edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, anthropology came under severe criticism for having produced essentialist and ahistorical cultural descriptions used by colonial powers to reshape non-Western traditions in accordance with their modernist imperial project. Within the field of anthropological scholarship on Islam, these debates were also influenced by Talal Asad’s critical intervention (“The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam”; Asad 1986, cited under Theoretical Essays), questioning the value of separating scriptural Islam from popular Islam, as well as the old division of labor between Orientalists and anthropologists. In many respects, this intervention provided the groundwork to what Bowen 2012 (cited under General Overviews) called the “new anthropology of Islam,” emerging in the early 2000s. Drawing on the various efforts to capture the complexity and diversity of Islamic societies, these recent studies have opened up new sets of questions about law, authority, politics, ethics, and secularism—and pushed them well beyond the limits of the discipline.

Article.  9033 words. 

Subjects: Anthropology ; Human Evolution ; Medical Anthropology ; Physical Anthropology ; Social and Cultural Anthropology

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