The Arabian Peninsula, which was the birthplace of Islam, has historically and culturally been defined by the religion. The region’s ethnoreligious landscape was diverse in terms of communities, affiliations, and beliefs, but centered around the core principles of Islam. In turn, this defined social and daily life in their norms as well as entirely interconnecting religion, culture, and politics for centuries to this day. Based on Marranci’s anecdotal dialogue in the first pages of his book, it is argued that Islam is inherently a cognitive process, formed by many maps with different variations to form the complexity of the Islamic religion, interpretation, and expression. This is the basis of his contribution to the anthropology of Islam, highlighting that the religion is best seen as a set of interpretive resources and practices based on texts and methodologies that Muslims view as holy and participate in centuries-old traditions that are similar across cultures and regions.
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I partially agree with this perspective on the general approach to Islamic anthropology. Islam is one of the few religions historically which fully defines all aspects of life for its followers and is intimately interconnected with socio-political and ethnic events and practices. Muslims participate in a global tradition, and their worshipping practices, along with historic struggles, also provide the capacity to adapt and diversify. Social practices for Muslims are interpretations of textual traditions such as the Quran, which are legitimized and put into practice by organized religion. However, the question arises of how individuals, from an anthropological perspective, view, and grapple with the Islamic resources and practices in a meaningful way. In order to progress to a socially embedded tradition, practices have to undergo a semiotic uptake across societies, in a way, being “authenticated” by Muslims individually. This allowed for Muslims to construct the quality, unification, and legitimacy around Islamic practices in politics and prayer.
Marranci in the introduction of his book, states the challenges of studying the anthropology of Islam, particularly from an unbiased and epidemiological perspective. This is due to what he indicates a lack of proper research, with much anthropological religious research on Islam being highly debatable or portrayed through a colonial viewpoint on regions of the Middle East and Africa. Marranci makes a valid point, and the historical context of anthropological research has been euro- centered, as its Northern neighbors have consistently colonized the MENA regions throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. However, in a modern globalized world, the science of anthropology has evolved to include history, sociology, and religious studies that allows anthropological research to maintain both contingent and contextual aspects of analysis and interpretation. Therefore, the anthropological study of Islam must consider socio-historic elements, the importance of religious traditions to Muslims, and an emphasis on religious texts and ideologies in proper contexts. In a way, anthropology of Islam approaches the religion parallel to the way many Muslims do, through a series of interpretations and analysis of traditions.
Marranci provides a framework of four distinct approaches to the anthropological study of Islam, which will be discussed next. The first framework is the focus on subjective experience, which focuses on taking in interpretations given by others as well as any personal experiences one might have. This may have some benefits of understanding the subjective interpretations of Muslims in their religion, the so called “Islamic thought” that Marranci refers to which form the various schools and traditions. However, in the modern context, this is a highly critical and biased approach. Due to the politicization and radicalization of certain Islamic groups and traditions, the concept of Islamophobia has emerged, a unifying concept which produces a range of stereotypes and wrongful accusations against Islam as being violent extremists, oppressive of women, or culturally backward as an example. Shryock notes in his book that Islam has become an object of fear due to its association with terrorism. Nevertheless, both terrorism and Islamophobia are polemical in nature, and neither group to whom they can apply, accept such definitions. Referring back to the anthropological framework, it becomes increasingly difficult to study Islam as such through subjective experience since perceptions have been so heavily influenced by the socio-political and emotionally-hysterical paradigms forming stereotypes, connections, and models that do not emphasize an accurate representation or thoughts of particular groups.
A second framework to the anthropological study of Islam is a focus on historical development, seeking to study the origins of the religion and its ancient oral and written traditions. I have a mixed opinion on this since the historic-cultural aspects of Islam are so complex and controversial. Despite deep divisions stemming from the political-religious conflicts between Shiites and Sunni Muslims, the differences between various schools of through in terms of prayer and traditions are marginal. However, a subjective inward experience would not indicate so as each group values its uniqueness, and without an in-depth knowledge of Islamic history and culture, the differences and inconsistencies may become overwhelming. Since Islamic thought and tradition is so deeply inherent in historical events, anthropologists are forced into the challenges of identifying various forms and traditions of the religion as well as who decides which are correct. Furthermore, the rise of fundamentalist Islam which borders with extremism, suggests deviations in Islamic beliefs far from traditionalist perspectives and provides very literal interpretations of history, prophecies, and religious texts.
Another approach is to focus on differences and similarities, particularly in the context of various historical interpretations discussed earlier. The anthropological analysis does inherently need to examine these differences and their impact on Muslims, the cultures, and religious articulations. Marranci notes that the differentiation among Muslim beliefs is the foundation of forming the Muslim identity. This transcends into personal identity from an anthropological standpoint by how individuals identify as Muslim, through feelings, symbolic references, or forms of expression. I mostly agree with this approach as Muslims highly value their cultural and individual identities, defined through traditions and practices unique to each form of Islam. To some, it may be symbolic, while others view it as an expression of deep faith. However, it does raise questions for anthropological studies of Muslim communities as to how the seemingly unified religion able to manage sectarianism and theological disputes. Marranci notably highlights that many scholars use the term “Muslim community” due to the sense of belonging that is commonplace among Muslims, but anthropological evidence suggests there are divisions and emotions related to such beliefs and identity that may challenge the unifying concept of Islam.
The final framework, which I find most applicable and pertinent in anthropological studies of Islam, is the focus on practice such as doctrines and rituals. This is the focus on key texts, traditions, family teachings, and cultural practices that highly define Islamic practice. However, as Marranci rightly notices, that academic and popular discourse on Islam anthropology focuses highly on essentialism, falling into the fallacy of the “Muslim mind.” Marranci suggests in his book that emotions and feelings of being a Muslim are the key definitions to the individual’s Muslim identity rather than the doctrines which guide beliefs and identification with the religion. That is a problematic aspect to reconcile because of the high impact of Islamic traditions on Muslim beliefs and behavior. While, as noted, there are disparate heritages and experiences, the process remains similar. Personally, I do not believe it to be a fallacy from an anthropological study. In turn, it raises the question previously discussed on how to balance the concept of individual identity and societal identity when it comes to the analysis of Islam as both are interconnected.
Examining these potential approaches, it is evident that the practical study of Islam anthropology is highly complex. Essentialism has been the primary methodology of observation, with fieldwork meant to mitigate the potential fallacies somewhat but has specific difficulties as well. Marranci notes that the modern era has allowed for the rise of globalization and technological tools to conduct “fieldwork” research. The era of the Internet provides for the research and scholarly anthropological community to not be dominated by one voice of a researcher but numerous perspectives. I believe this allows for the rise of a new era of anthropological research, one discussed earlier that considers several interpretations, both inward and outward examination. Emotions and identity are valuable when placed in proper contexts similar to that of history and culture, to paint a larger anthropological picture of the ancient religion.