The "Anthropology of Islam" in a Muslim Community
This book is about Islam in a single neighborhood of a relatively large town in the West African country of Côte d'Ivoire. As a description of a small community in a corner of the globe remote from North America and Western Europe, it is typical of the work that anthropologists tend to undertake. Admittedly, the ethnography of small communities—communities non-anthropologists might even be tempted to label "insignificant"—might seem a curious approach to the study of a phenomenon of such global spread and significance as Islam. Yet it is the premise of this book that analysis of the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims in the neighborhood of Koko constitutes a reasonable, valid, and significant way of contributing to the understanding of the religion of Islam. Of course, that premise underlies, not only this work, but the whole of the burgeoning field of the "anthropology of Islam."
The "anthropology of Islam," as a deliberately constituted field of academic inquiry, has only emerged within roughly the past twenty years. Its birth was heralded in 1968 by the publication of Clifford Geertz's book Islam Observed. Of course, anthropologists had not previously ignored Muslim societies, much less the importance of religion in those societies. E. E. Evans-Pritchard's study of the Sanusi of Libya (1949) and Geertz's monograph of religion in a Javanese town (1960) are among the most prominent, although hardly isolated, examples of prior anthropological interest in Islam. Yet even the titles of these two books—The Sanusi of Cyrenaica and The Religion of Java— are revealing. Both titles end with the
name of a specific locale, yet neither refers to Islam by name, but only obliquely: the Sanusi, a Sufi order, are ipso facto Islamic; and the majority of Javanese do claim, in one way or another, to be Muslim.
As their titles indicate, such works fall within a well-established monographic tradition. Anthropologists were expected to study specific "cultures" or "societies" situated in some precise, and usually exotic, corner of the globe. "Religion" in one form or another was conceived to be an essential component of such a culture or society. If some or all of the members of this culture happened to be Muslim, it was likely that the anthropologist would have something to say about Islam in that particular locality. Indeed, such a discussion might be essential to any comprehensive description. Thus, for example, Horace Miner's The Primitive City of Timbuctoo (1953) devotes an entire chapter to Islam, sandwiched between chapters on "Elementary Economics" and "Genii and Witches." A monograph might even focus quite specifically on the religion of a particular culture, as Geertz's 1960 book does on that of Java, or, more precisely, of the town of Pare, alias "Modjokuto." Geertz had to concern himself with Islam in it because it was, to one extent or another, "the religion of Java."
In short, until relatively recently, anthropologists did not set out to study Islam per se, but rather the religion of some particular culture, society, or locality. To a certain extent, there were informal biases against studying Islam, and even Muslim societies. In the first place, the "anthropology of religion" had, since its origins in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the writings of Spencer, Tylor, Frazer, and Durkheim, been concerned first and foremost with "primitive" religions, or, as they are now more euphemistically labeled, "traditional," "nonliterate," or "nonscriptural" religions. The nature of religious texts posed another problem for anthropologists who might choose to study Muslim societies, particularly outside the Arabic-speaking world. Anthropologists were usually too busy acquiring minimal competence in the local vernacular to have time to learn clas-
sical Arabic, the language in which Islamic texts are written. The study of these texts, and consequently of Islam, was by and large left to "Orientalists," whose expertise lay precisely in their exegesis.
Such reticence about studying Muslims and, a fortiori, Islam, notably in parts of the world such as sub-Saharan Africa where both anthropologists and Muslims might be found in relative abundance, was not, as we have seen, an absolute barrier to the production of books, chapters, and articles by anthropologists dealing with Islam and things Islamic. Nevertheless, it was only with the publication of Geertz's Islam Observed that Islam in and of itself became an explicit object of anthropological study. The central problem raised by the book, and indeed by the "anthropology of Islam" as an academic discourse, is the diversity of religious beliefs and practices in the Islamic world. Geertz approaches this problem by contrasting two national Islamic traditions—Indonesian and Moroccan—at the symbolic antipodes of the Muslim world. This explicitly comparative perspective also characterizes subsequent books such as Ernest Gellner's Muslim Society (1981) and Michael Gilsenan's Recognizing Islam (1982), as well as various theoretical articles surveying the field of the "anthropology of Islam" (e.g., Zein 1977, Asad 1985). As one might expect among anthropologists—a fractious lot, overall—there is not a great deal of obvious consensus among these various authors about how exactly one ought to go about the business of developing an "anthropology of Islam." Yet their very real theoretical differences have obscured the extent to which they are all engaged in a common enterprise and grappling with a common set of questions that had not previously troubled the community of anthropologists, even those who studied Muslim societies and who wrote in one way or another about religion.
Perhaps the most fundamental assumption these authors share is the conviction that the "anthropology of Islam" is, in itself, a meaningful enterprise. This assumption is not entirely self-evident; it presumes the reality of "Islam." These writers postulate that "Islam" is more than simply a label for
a variety of phenomena that have little, if anything, intrinsically in common—in other words, that the concept of "Islam" is not, epistemologically speaking, analogous to, say, the concept of "totemism." In the nineteenth century, and for part of the twentieth, there was widespread academic consensus that certain kinds of beliefs and practices constituted "totemism," and that examples of "totemism," if not "totemic religion," could be found in Australia, Polynesia, North America, and Africa among other places. In retrospect, it is clear that "totemism" was really an invention of anthropologists, an amalgam of unrelated traits that tended to occur separately more often than together. It was an artifact of academic discourse rather than of the exotic cultures the anthropologists purported to describe. Obviously Islam, unlike "totemism," is not an invention of Western academics. Real people all over the world freely identify themselves as Muslims; few, I daresay call themselves "totemists." Even so, such self-identification does not in itself justify the analytical usefulness of the label. People have also identified themselves as "members of the Aryan race," a fact that would hardly in and of itself justify an "anthropology of Aryans."
Admittedly, anthropologists have not, by and large, challenged the reality of Islam, as they have challenged the reality of "totemism" and of "the Aryan race." But, until recently, Islam was simply taken for granted, precisely because it was not itself an object of study. For example, Islam could be conceptualized as a reality initially external to the culture an anthropologist was studying, as in Joseph Greenberg's monograph on The Influence of Islam on a Sudanese Religion (1946). Seen in this way, Islam would appear to be an externally constituted set of beliefs interacting with some other, internally constituted, set of beliefs to produce a syncretic synthesis. It was the task of the "Islamicist" to describe Islam, and the task of the anthropologist to describe its "influence" at the "periphery" of the Muslim world, if not its local peculiarities within the Muslim "core."
Paradoxically, it is only with the emergence of an "anthropology of Islam" that anthropologists have no longer been
able to take "Islam" for granted. The problem that has emerged is, how can the very diverse—if not diverging—religious beliefs and practices of Muslims be comprehended within a single idea of "Islam"? Perhaps the most obvious solution to the question would be to posit the existence of, not one, but multiple "Islams." Anthropologists sometimes seem to lend credence to this idea by using national or ethnic qualifiers to write about local Islamic beliefs and practices, implying by their use of terms that there exist both an "Indonesian Islam" and a "Moroccan Islam," a "Dyula Islam" and a "Hausa Islam." Such a formulation is theologically unacceptable to most Muslims, who assert that there is, and can only be, one Islam. This assertion is by no means a sign of naïveté. Muslims are as aware as Western academics of the diversity of beliefs and practices within their own religion. In the first place, the idea of a single and unitary Islam can nevertheless leave conceptual room for variability, exemplified for example by the notion of the four Sunni madhhab , or "schools" of jurisprudence. In the second place, Muslims may hold that particular groups and individuals, whether in error or through malice, label as "Islamic" certain beliefs and practices that are inconsistent with the one true Islam. Of course, Muslims disagree about what is or is not acceptable, about what is or is not Islamic, but this very disagreement assumes the existence of a single true Islam. For 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.
In any case, the empirical diversity of the religious beliefs and practices of Muslims is not only of significance to anthropologists. Aside from Muslims themselves—who, after all, are most directly concerned—this diversity has not escaped the notice of historians, Islamicists, and other academics interested in one way or another in Muslims around the world. However, anthropologists, precisely because their discipline is rooted in the ethnography of small-scale local communities, tend to approach the problem of diversity somewhat
differently from other scholars. Typically, anthropologists are inclined to interpret the phenomena they study as quasiorganic products of the particular, if not peculiar, features of a specific locality. Seen in this light, the "religion" of a community may be analyzed as an integral component of its overall "culture," or as a reflection of its underlying network of social relationships. When the religion in question is a socalled "traditional," nonscriptural religion, such an "organic" approach to its analysis seems less self-evidently problematic. However, Islam is obviously not a "product" of any specific local community, but rather a global entity in itself. The problem for anthropologists 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.
Certainly the easiest, but perhaps the least satisfactory, way to resolve this tension between the local and global aspects of Islam as practiced is to posit a neat theoretical dichotomy between a universal Islam on one hand and local culture or society on the other. Seen in this light, local practices would in fact constitute some sort of syncretic synthesis between an organically constituted "pre-Islamic" culture and a coherent, unitary, and preestablished Islamic faith. Alternatively, one might attempt to distinguish between constant and variable components of Islamic belief and practice in different communities. Constant features would constitute the essential "core" of Islam, whereas variable features could be explained in terms of local social and cultural peculiarities.
The "anthropology of Islam" has emerged out of a common refusal to accept such solutions, however acrimoniously its practitioners may debate one another on other grounds. In the first place, Islam does not exist apart from the specific beliefs and practices of diverse individuals in particular communities at precise moments in historical time. This undoubtedly seemed less self-evident to earlier anthropologists who studied Muslims on the "periphery" of the Islamic world, notably in sub-Saharan Africa. However, as anthropologists
turned increasingly to the study of Islam in its putative Middle Eastern "core," the range and nature of variability simply refused to melt away. In short, there was simply no place on earth where one could observe "pure" Islamic practice divorced from local "syncretic" accretions or deviations of one form or another. It was equally clear that, despite tremendous variability, Islam as practiced could not be reduced to a virtually infinite series of purely local idiosyncrasies. Practices initially judged "atypical" of Islam, and consequently deemed to be products of local culture or society, often turned out on closer inspection to have a far broader distribution within the Muslim world than initially imagined.
From this dilemma, the "anthropology of Islam" has carved itself out a specific theoretical space, between the particularities of the specific local communities anthropologists study intensively and the global features of a universalizing religious discourse, Islam. Explicitly comparative studies, such as those of Geertz, Gellner, and Gilsenan, represent one way of mapping out this space. However, even such explicitly comparative works are ultimately based on ethnographic fieldwork in specific locations, and so monographic studies of Islam in specific communities are now, virtually of necessity, part of an essentially comparative enterprise, an enterprise that seeks to reconcile, analytically rather than theologically, the one universal Islam with the multiplicity of religious ideas and practices in the Muslim world.
In any case, this multiplicity is not a feature of Islam that emerges only through the comparison of one local community with another. On the contrary, Muslims—not only clerics, but ordinary believers—are often acutely aware of alternative ideas and practices among other Muslims, either within their own communities or outside. This was precisely the case in Koko, the neighborhood that constitutes the subject of this book. It was not simply that individual Muslims were conscious of other ways of thinking or acting. More precisely, individuals defined their own religious practices with explicit reference to the religious practices of others. In the first place, Muslims, a minority in the region, contrasted
Islam to the religion of their "pagan" neighbors. More recently, within the context of the colony, and later independent nation, of Côte d'Ivoire, Christianity, the religion of the former French rulers, and nowadays of a sizable number of Africans, also furnishes an explicit point of reference. By and large, these contrasts with other, non-Muslim religions tend to be made complacently enough. For committed Muslims, differences between their own religion and the religions of others constitute a series of grounds for asserting the superiority of Islam over its immediate rivals.
However, the variability of religious ideas and practices in Koko was by no means limited to the contrast between Islam on the one hand and "paganism" and Christianity on the other. Rather, the beliefs of Muslims were just as often, and perhaps more saliently, contrasted with those of other Muslims. In the first instance, the practices of Muslims nowadays were contrasted with those of the past. Muslims in Koko were acutely aware that the practice of Islam in their neighborhood had changed in fundamental respects within the past fifty years. Certain quite specific features had been abandoned, and others had been adopted. It was universally acknowledged, at least in public discourse, that these changes were for the better. Thus the contrast between the present practice of Islam and its past practice—but only in certain, highly specific respects—was ultimately reassuring, much as was the contrast between Islam and other religions practiced in town.
There existed yet a third, and more troubling, sort of contrast, the contrast between discrepant notions about whether specific ideas and practices are or are not fully consistent with Islam. The changes that had occurred some fifty years ago were the product of just such a controversy, but since then other terrains of disagreement have taken their place. Muslims may rest assured about the superiority of Islam over other religions; they may have no doubts that they know better than to repeat the religious errors of their ancestors (or perhaps only of the ancestors of their next-door neighbors). However, Muslims can never be quite so assured that their own conception of Islam is correct, and that challenging
views are in error. Koko was—and remains—a terrain where discrepant conceptions of Islam confronted one another in competition for the allegiance of the Muslim community. Muslims in Koko must ultimately decide to commit themselves to one point of view or another. Such challenges do not, by any means, always take the form of militant confrontation, of factional strife. Nonetheless, the existence of alternatives remains present in the consciousness of Muslims, even if these alternatives are largely identified as the practices of "other" Muslims in "other" communities, for in any case some of these "other" communities can generally be found on the other side of town.
What I wish to suggest is that, at one level at least, the multiplicity of religious beliefs and practices emerges only in the context of salient oppositions: Islam is opposed to non-Muslim religions; the religious errors of the past to the practices of the present; one's own conceptions of what is or is not proper Muslim practice to the conceptions of others who explicitly disagree, or who may, more quietly, seem to doubt. In a sense, multiple conceptions of Islam are defined, not so much by consensus among their adherents, as by the cleavages that distinguish them from other recognized and rejected alternatives. Muslims, I would suggest, are acutely conscious of the differences between their beliefs and practices and the beliefs and practices of others, Muslim or not, past or present—perhaps even real or imagined.
In other words, the empirical variability of Islam is not simply an analytical problem for anthropologists, historians, or other academics concerned with comparing Islamic beliefs and practices in different places and/or times. Most Muslims, I strongly suspect, are aware of the existence of different conceptions of Islam from the ones they hold, of alternative ideas and practices that also lay claim to the name of Islam, but that are, to some degree, if not radically, inconsistent with their own. At the center of these conceptions are questions about what it means to "be Muslim"—in other words, about what ideas and, especially, what practices are acceptable, desirable, or obligatory, or else objectionable, if not prohibited. Conceptions of Islam, as opposed to one another in
specific places and times, revolve around disagreements over the status of specific practices, about the ways in which Muslims ought to act and the religious significance of different forms of action.
It might seem reasonable to assimilate these different conceptions of Islam to so many different "interpretations" of Islam. After all, Islam is not only a scriptural religion but, compared with other scriptural religions, a highly textual one. Answers to these questions are to be found in the texts; indeed, that is the very purpose of many, if not most, of these texts. However, like all texts, they are not free of ambiguities, and so they can be read in different ways. Western scholars (and probably many non-Western scholars) are inclined to explain different doctrines and practices in terms of different "readings" of the texts. However, this is not at all how Muslims in Koko explain such differences or, more critically, conceive of their own beliefs and practices in the light of potentially contradictory ones. For example, the standard textbook of Maliki fiqh , the Risala of Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani (1968:173), states that the minimum marriage portion must be one-fourth of a dinar. The Muslims of Koko and surrounding communities are aware of and respect this stipulation, so that one of the prestations involved in any marriage transaction is the robon dinari , the fourth of a dinar. The problem is that dinars have never been used in the region as a unit of currency. This is not in itself insurmountable, as long as some standard equivalent—in gold, cowrie shells, colonial or post-colonial currency—is socially recognized. Indeed, when I was inquiring in the field about marriage practices in 1973, I easily found such standardized equivalents. However, while it was certainly not the case that each particular village had its own unique equivalent, it became obvious that such equivalents were subject to local variation. The point is that these specific equivalences, and the fact that they might in fact vary, were never conceived as specific "interpretations" of the general rule. Indeed, to speak of an "interpretation" in the first place is to recognize, at least tacitly, that the text in question is ambivalent, that it can in fact be "read" in different ways,
even if only one of these readings is deemed to be "correct." On the contrary, informants asserted that the rule was perfectly straightforward: a valid marriage had to include the payment of one-fourth of a dinar. Individual informants not only stated that this was the case in their own community, and in every other Muslim community in the area, but even went so far as to assert that the standard equivalents were everywhere the same. In other words, it was flatly denied on principle that the text might be "interpreted" in more than one way.
There are a number of objections that might be raised to this example. The first is that the issue of the robon dinari is a trivial one. It is, however, extremely dangerous for outside observers to make a priori assumptions about which particular issues are or are not trivial. The very fact that equivalents did exist in every community suggests, on the contrary, that Muslims in these communities took great pains to observe this particular stricture as scrupulously and conscientiously as possible. A more powerful objection would be that informants were not always answering in perfectly good faith. Despite high rates of endogamy, not only within villages but also within descent groups, marriages between members of different villages certainly occur nowadays, as they did in the past. Those discrepancies in rates of equivalence that did not escape my notice must, from time to time, have come to the attention of local Muslims. To assert that the rule could be applied one and only one way was a convenient legal fiction, rather than a statement of fact. Even if this is the case, the fact that a legal fiction is necessary to protect the notion that texts can have one and only one interpretation is itself significant. This is apparent in the way in which Muslims spoke about openly recognized differences of opinion. Such differences included outright doctrinal controversy, for example in disputes between the majority of the Muslims of Koko and adherents of the so-called "Wahhabi" movement. On the other hand, Muslims who share the same overall doctrinal perspective may yet disagree about whether certain acts in specific contexts remain religious obligations, or
whether their performance is in fact an ostentatious pretense of piety. In all such cases, when it was clear that there were different opinions about specific issues, not to mention radically different conceptions of Islam as a religion, no one ever suggested to me that there might be two interpretations of specific texts, much less of "Islam" as a whole. On the contrary, different viewpoints were always characterized as "ignorance." Disagreement never implied the logical, possibility of an alternate (if misguided) "reading" of the same texts, but rather the notion that one party to the dispute (one's opponent) possessed an incomplete knowledge of otherwise unambiguous rules.
The fact that Muslims in Koko may contrast their own conceptions of Islam to those of others in terms of "knowledge" versus "ignorance" might seem to suggest that such conceptions are doctrinally coherent systems of Muslim religious thought, systems that may be more or less perfectly known by the individuals who subscribe to them. Seen in this light, the aim of the investigator—anthropologist, historian, Islamicist, or whatever—would be to reveal, as fully as possible, the component elements of such a system and their interrelationship. The most obvious way to undertake such an enterprise would be to focus on the teachings and writings of those individual adherents of any conceptions acknowledged as the most "knowledgeable"—prominent 'ulama' and Sufi shaykhs , for example. Such a strategy is more typical of Islamicists than of anthropologists, for whom such teachings and writings constitute only one element (albeit frequently, though not inevitably, an extremely important element) of broader systems of meaning. Unlike the discourse of the "knowledgeable," such systems are not consciously articulated by their followers, just as the rules of grammar may be totally unknown to the native speaker of a language. The role of the anthropologist, if one accepts the premises of such a semiological approach, is to uncover the hidden logic behind such systems of meaning.
Those who assume that the key to the system is to be found in the discourse of the most "knowledgeable" assume, at least implicitly, that specific conceptions of Islam are not
fully comprehended by the mass of believers, but only by those few who are able to articulate them. Conversely, semiologically minded anthropologists imply that all adherents comprehend the underlying system of meanings at one level, but that only academics such as themselves—generally outsiders—are capable of articulating it. Both perspectives, however, posit the existence of an internally consistent, logically coherent system of meaning, whether in the form of statements of doctrine or of shared, if tacit, understandings. I hardly wish to suggest that neither doctrine nor tacit understandings are relevant to the understanding of various conceptions of Islam, but I would definitely call into question the assumption that such conceptions necessarily entail a fully developed internal consistency. To the extent that such conceptions are most consciously articulated with respect to one another, Muslims, not only the learned but also ordinary believers, are able to express the salient points of difference between Islam as they understand and practice it and alternative practices or ideas. On the other hand, there may be considerable variability among ideas and practices within a single conception of Islam, and not only between differing conceptions. In other words, from the point of view of an outside observer, beliefs and practices within one single conception of Islam may appear inconsistent, if not contradictory. The anthropologist, after all, constructs a representation of a given conception of Islam out of a welter of individual statements, actions, and events observed and recorded in the field. The extent to which this representation reflects an underlying coherence is as much a testament to the anthropologist's ingenuity and his or her commitment to identifying such a scheme as it does the "nature" of that conception of Islam.
If the quest for coherence is, taken too far, illusory, how, then can one talk about, much less characterize, a specific "conception" of Islam? This book is an attempt to answer this question, taking as its center the conception of Islam held by the majority of Muslims in Koko in the 1970s and 1980s. The first part of the book is concerned with the ways in which different conceptions of Islam have emerged and confronted
one another in the community of Koko. These chapters attempt to situate conceptions in history, and consequently center on the themes of change as well as on controversy. However, I am not going to present a historical overview of Islam in Koko in conventional chronological order, with different chapters focusing on different periods of time. Rather, I wish to explore the themes of change and of confrontation between different conceptions of Islam from a variety of vantage points, which constitute the organizing themes of different chapters: for example, the sources of scholarly authority, or the centrality of different kinds of ritual. The second part of the book focuses on ideas and practices within a single conception of religion at a single moment in time. From the vantage point of an external observer, these ideas and practices are characterized by certain inconsistencies. For example, most Muslims in Koko state that it is highly meritorious to belong to a Sufi order, and yet, to the apparent despair of Koko's few Sufis, very few bother to join. In principle, the authority of local scholars is based on how much they know compared to their colleagues, yet it is next to impossible to formulate any clear system for ranking scholars in terms of who knows more than whom. Unlike those points of contention that serve to demarcate one conception of Islam from another, such inconsistencies, such points of ambiguity, are not of great concern to local Muslims. Rather, they appear inconsistent and ambiguous only to the extent that one attempts to fit a variety of observed statements and events into a single coherent, consistent system.