Posted by: Dawud Israel | November 7, 2009

Book Review: Anthropology of Islam

Bismillah, alhamdulillah, wa salat wa salam ala rasulullah

I just finished this book and its one of my first goes at reading Islam from the social science perspectives. I’ve only glanced at a few books sparingly but I went through this one in its entirety.

A few things I learned that I shall share:

-It is disappointing there exists very little research on Muslims as far as anthropology and sociology are concerned, even now, despite 9/11 there seems to be less work being done than their should be. ‘Zone’s of theorizing’ exist in discussing Islam- the study of anthropological Islam being tainted and biased by ideological and political interests in theory-making.

-Marranci focuses inexhaustibly on the question as to exactly what a Muslim is? This at first seemed an easy question to me, but I realized why this is such a difficult topic- since shahadah isn’t enough to shape identity, there has to be a “Muslimness,” he finally arrives at a definition I feel compromises a little bit: it is to “feel Muslim” and the Muslim experience (key focus being the emotional experience) is likened to a map (of discourses)  for a territory analogy- loose,changing and approximate(consider how Qadianis or non-heterosexual Muslims or alcoholic Muslims will never answer ‘no’ to the question of “Are you Muslim?”). There are a number of questions regarding the schizophrenic nature of being Muslim in the West- juggling multicultural, religious influences with personal ambition- and unfortunately, this aspect of our social life has been characterized by writers as more pathological, perhaps to avoid the fact it is a product of pluralism? Also, there is the struggle with essentialist ideas of Islam and Muslims- reductionist thinking making Muslims into ‘ideal types’ which usually, don’t exist, anywhere. I find this difficulty to grasp Muslims and Islam intriguing because their is an intensity of the Muslim experience and it is very hard for academics to take it apart and get intimate with it, whether they are Muslim or not, because it is such a vast experience. It encourages me to think about the richness and unique aspects of our experience and how it has shaped me.

-Marranci discusses a number of ethnographic experiences in studying Muslims and how it has become difficult for anthropologists to see how Muslims live their daily lives and explore Muslim behavior, because of Muslim fear in the wake of 9/11. Nonetheless, its encouraging to read about how there exist interviews and studies on many aspects of Muslim life- from village life, to living in the West, to the experience of Muslim women, in shelters, non-heterosexual Muslims, to mosque conflicts. I would like to mention when Marranci attended a talk in North Ireland by a Sufi speaker. In the weeks following the talk, the Sufi would continue to teach her and others via dreams. Another writer, K.P. Ewing mentioned a similar experience after having baraka transfered to her by a Sufi shaykh. Both of these anthropologist were non-Muslim, yet had this unique experience, which shows us what Islam can tell us about ourselves as human beings, the most rudimentary aspects of the human condition, the soul and the human psyche.

-A discussion on the ummah was probably necessary. Its interesting how Marranci keeps coming back to a mental definition for much of what is described- “feel to be Muslim” and how ummah is more of a mental construct uniting Muslims, despite the contradictions of racism and sectarian strife. Personally, I think this contradiction is characteristic of Muslims- we tolerate contradictions and pardon our shortcomings for greater solidarity with each other and being associated with the glory of Islam- one can just recall the story of the Muslim ruler who launched a war because a Muslim woman’s honor was violated, he believing only he had the right to oppress his population. Marranci somewhat accounts for this aspect by mentioning though there are no charismatic leaders for the entire ummah- charisma and”special-ness” (think baraka) is dispersed throughout the ummah (perhaps as a sort of bonding force?).

-Gender and Islam is a topic I was expecting would be discussed, but it was great to see some ignored criticism- how western feministic models will just replace patriarchy, being no better and strip away the Islam of Muslim women. Its very true how Westerners view Muslim women as mysterious, exotic and/or erotic objects of the Other- even among converted Muslims, or even born and raised Muslims, there is this attitude of the veil being both oppressive and yet seductive. In light of this fact, it was refreshing also to see a discussion on masculinity in Islam- although it wasn’t too developed, it was a start considering there isn’t much written on this topic.

I would recommend this book and I would also recommend readers to visit the author’s blog and website.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa anta astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. Where did you get this book from? In my anthro class all we learn about is apes and African tribes–though there’s nothing wrong with that!

  2. Had to inter-library loan request it through the library. Your university library may have a copy- just check!

    Wa salam aleikum

  3. Looking to do baya on sufi sheikhs hands.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: