Skip to main content

Integrity and Commitment in the Anthropology of Islam

  • 1290 Accesses

Part of the Muslims in Global Societies Series book series (MGSS,volume 6)


Clarke focuses on a of very important methodological challenges and dilemmas that doing ethnography in Islamic contexts often presents anthropologists with. In particular he explores how conducting work on Islamic legal culture in Beirut led him perilously close to crossing boundaries that were considered as being inviolable for many of his informants. These boundaries are associated with religio-political differences between Sufis and reformers, and Sunnis and Shi’a, as well as modern liberals and people of faith. While Clarke initially sought to pursue an open fieldwork strategy in which he interacted with people in a variety of contexts and backgrounds, ultimately he was forced to narrow down the spaces in which he worked and the practices he jointly embarked upon with his informants


  • Participant Observation
  • Religious Commitment
  • Religious Authority
  • Chittagong Hill Tract
  • Southern Suburb

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-94-007-4267-3_10
  • Chapter length: 19 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
USD   119.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-94-007-4267-3
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   159.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)


  1. 1.

    For recent discussions see e.g. Varisco (2005) and Marranci (2008).

  2. 2.

    E.g. Lukens-Bull (1999: 5), Robbins (2003: 194), Varisco (2005: 146–47).

  3. 3.

    That is, one could argue we would do better to realise that an abstract ‘Islam’ cannot be studied anthropologically (i.e. ethnographically), only actually existing Muslims can (see e.g. Varisco 2005: 47, 143, passim). My own personal feeling is that to reduce the complex lives of over a billion people to one defining commitment (being Muslim) seems a more real and violent essentialisation than to take an ideal as one’s anthropological object. Far from everything that Muslims say and do has anything much to do with Islam, pious claims to the contrary notwithstanding. To think in terms of ‘Muslim societies’, another possible empiricist manoeuvre, seems problematic on similar grounds: ‘Muslim society’ is in itself an ideal and not an empirical category.

  4. 4.

    Cf. Lukens-Bull (1999: 10).

  5. 5.

    This claim would bear further argument. Such concerns, while shared in the contexts I am describing, might in a broader frame look more particular. See, for instance, McIntosh’s contrast of (in her terms) Giriama and Swahili ideologies in coastal Kenya, where the latter depend on the sorts of notions of moral personhood I am dealing with here, for which McIntosh claims ‘Abrahamic’ roots (2009: 25, 149–50, 183–90). Exclusive belief-commitment may also be less central a concern within traditions with a differently inflected focus on ‘techniques of the self’. See, for instance, Laidlaw’s (2002) use of Jainism to explore the possibility of an anthropology of ethics less myopically intent on legalistic notions of moral conduct.

  6. 6.

    Lukens-Bull (2007) provides some useful comparative cases from elsewhere within the discipline.

  7. 7.

    This was for 3 months in 2007 and 6 months in 2008. The field sites for 2007–2008 are described in more detail below. I also carried out fieldwork in Lebanon in 2003–2004 (about 12 months in total including two spent continuously visiting from neighbouring Damascus), on which see Clarke (2009).

  8. 8.

    Of course, this is a particular perspective. Many, perhaps now even most, anthropologists of Islam are themselves, in different senses and in different ways, Muslims, for whom this particular issue would be very differently posed. But that is not to say that it would not be posed. I return to this question below.

  9. 9.

    My focus on commitment might be seen as reductive: not all Muslims are committed Muslims. No doubt I am influenced by my principal subjects, religious specialists who have chosen Islam as a vocation and a profession and who, I must emphasise, see themselves as an embattled minority. I should stress that I do not hold that the anthropology of Islam should be confined to such studies. But I am also influenced by debates over the nature of the contemporary anthropological vocation. One influential way of coping with the challenge of constructing ‘ethnography in/of the contemporary world system’ (Marcus 1995) has been to see ‘the field’ as less a geographical expression than a political one, and anthropological knowledge as ‘a form of situated intervention … a way of pursuing specific political aims while simultaneously seeking lines of common political purpose with allies who stand elsewhere’ (Gupta and Ferguson 1997: 35, 38–39). That sets a daunting standard for entry into parts of the world like the Middle East, which have seen rather too much intervention of late and a virtuoso understanding of whose political complexities might be better seen as a goal rather than precondition of fieldwork. The contemporary anthropological vocation does have to be re-imagined within the current landscape of connectivity, and such commitments are one way of exploring that. But, as I will argue here, ethnographic commitments can and do extend beyond mundane politics and maintaining anthropological integrity is a more complex and challenging matter than just taking sides.

  10. 10.

    For another defence of Gilsenan see Lukens-Bull (1999: 5).

  11. 11.

    Somewhat diminished, it should be said, by the participation of the largely Christian following of General Michel Aoun in the March 8 alliance, offsetting the Christian Lebanese Forces’ membership of March 14.

  12. 12.

    As opposed to the appeals courts, that is, which sit in much grander courtrooms. For more on my ethnography of Lebanon’s sharia courts see Clarke (2012).

  13. 13.

    Again, these courts are restricted to the sphere of family law. Christian courts provide a parallel function for Lebanon’s numerous Christian communities. There is no civil marriage law, and one cannot marry, divorce, or perform any other family legal procedure without going through one of these religious tribunals. They reproduce religious identity automatically, and are thus a focus for critique on the part of civil society activists, who see such institutions as underpinning Lebanon’s communitarian legal and political system and thus, they would argue, its periodic sectarian tensions.

  14. 14.

    ‘Hypocrisy’, it should be noted, has particular, deeply negative connotations within Islamic discourse. In the context of the master discourse of the Quran, it refers to the wavering loyalty of some of the early converts to Islam, ‘the hypocrites’ (al-munāfiqīn), on whom Muhammad could not rely during crucial episodes in the formative history of the Islamic community. These might thus be better thought of as ‘dissenters’ or even ‘apostates’ (Brockett 1993). But in the context of my conversations in Lebanon, it had the familiar meaning expressed by the Quranic verse (3: 167), ‘they say with their mouths what is not in their hearts’. On the question of its applicability to non-Muslims participating in Muslim prayer, see also Lukens-Bull (2007: 185).

  15. 15.

    I.e. it was not here assumed that I would also be repeating the verbal phrases exactly. To forestall a sectarian reading, this is not a specifically ‘Shi‘i’ discourse. Such interfaith settings are attended by Sunni as well as Shi‘i clerics. And the problem of my attending the Friday sermon and this solution was also one I encountered in Sunni settings. Nevertheless, it is true to say that I found myself less often the object of da‘wa – being ‘called’ to Islam – in Shi‘i contexts than Sunni ones, although I have no ready explanation for that.

  16. 16.

    For example, into the extent to which Fadlallah’s own highly rationalised brand of religiosity penetrated into everyday lay practice: that is, the ways in which such modernism could be ‘enchanted’ (Deeb 2006).

  17. 17.

    One to record one’s good deeds, the other the bad.

  18. 18.

    And here there was an expectation that I also at least attempt to learn the requisite verbal components.

  19. 19.

    I did also wash before attending the sermon and prayers at Fadlallah’s mosque, although this was not explicitly demanded of me.

  20. 20.

    Named, in the wider tradition, Munkar and Nakir.

  21. 21.

    A comprehensive account of the issues of sincerity at stake here would also touch on the Islamic notion of right intention (niyya), vital to the proper fulfilment of Islamic religious obligations (see e.g. McIntosh 2009: 136–42).

  22. 22.

    I had no desire to find myself effectively posing as a Muslim when I was not one, which seems to be the situation Lukens-Bull got himself into. When he asks (2007: 177), ‘Was this ethical?’, the answer must surely be no. However, material to my argument here, it was, by his own, refreshingly frank account, his professional ethical commitment to participant observation that brought him to that pass rather than bad faith (ibid.: 176, 182). I must stress that I certainly do not want to claim to be holier than thou, or rather holier than him, in this respect. My own efforts at best ethnographic practice in this domain proved unsustainable (see below), and might not themselves withstand the most determined forensic scrutiny. Rather, I seek to find some theoretical capital to be gained from this mess.

  23. 23.

    It was, I think, his having been embarrassed at mistaking me – having been deceived, if not with that purpose, by my conduct and demeanour – that was at the root of his discomfort, rather than a determination that participation in Muslim devotion by a non-Muslim was in and of itself reprehensible. The Egyptian shaykh, however, was keen to impress on me that such a path was itself a dangerous one in spiritual terms.

  24. 24.

    Although one imagines that the same applies to Buddhist discourse, for instance, as well.

  25. 25.

    Cf. Lukens-Bull(2007: 186). In this respect, I think Robbins (2003: 192–94) exaggerates the relative anthropological ease of studying Islam over Christianity (Lukens-Bull [2007: 186] puts it the other way round), although he may be influenced by a North American context where Islam is less and fundamentalist Christianity more ubiquitous than in Europe, say. With regard to Christian fundamentalism in the US, Harding’s work engages directly with the issues we are concerned with here (1991, 2000: xi–xii, 34–60). For a thoughtful exploration of the challenges for an anthropologist who did convert (to Islam) in the field, see Young (1996: 131–39).

  26. 26.

    See e.g. Eickelman (1992), Eickelman and Anderson (1999), and Horvatich (1994).

  27. 27.

    See e.g. Ruel (1992). For the classic exposition of this argument regarding Islam see Smith (1957: 28), and for critique of it see e.g. Asad (1986: 15) and Varisco (2005: 9–10). Lukens-Bull (2007: 183) seems more sympathetic to this line of thinking.

  28. 28.

    On the latter see e.g. El-Zein (1974: xxi, 167 ff).

  29. 29.

    E.g. Appadurai (1991), Faubion and Marcus (2009), Gupta and Ferguson (1997), Marcus (1995), Rabinow et al. (2008).

  30. 30.

    See also Lukens-Bull (2007: 183–85).

  31. 31.

    To put the relatively trivial concerns of anthropology aside for a moment, for Muslims explaining the genealogy of Islamic commitments at such nodes of this global flattening and policing of moral discourse as airport security checks can be a much more real problem.

  32. 32.

    Asad for one has challenged this (2003: 16–17).

  33. 33.

    Anthropologists are committed to the recognition of their informants’ commitments. But they are not, surely – and this is where the problematic nature of ‘participant observation’ of practices of commitment really bites – thereby bound to commit to those various and potentially conflicting commitments themselves.


  • Appadurai, Arjun. 1991. Global ethnoscapes: Notes and queries for a transnational anthropology. In Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present, ed. Richard Fox, 191–210. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Asad, Talal. 1986. The idea of an anthropology of Islam. Occasional paper. Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University.

    Google Scholar 

  • Asad, Talal. 2003. Formations of the secular: Christianity, Islam, modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brockett, Adrian. 1993. Munafikun. In: Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 7, 561–562. Leiden: Brill.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clarke, Morgan. 2009. Islam and new kinship: Reproductive technology and the shariah in Lebanon. New York: Berghahn Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Clarke, Morgan. 2010. Neo-calligraphy: Religious authority and media technology in contemporary Shiite Islam. Comparative Studies in Society and History 52: 351–383.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Clarke, Morgan. 2012. The judge as tragic hero: Judicial ethics in Lebanon’s shari‘a courts. American Ethnologist 39: 101–116.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Clifford, James. 1997. Spatial practices: Fieldwork, travel, and the disciplining of anthropology. In Anthropological locations: Boundaries and grounds of a field science, ed. Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, 185–222. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Deeb, Lara. 2006. An enchanted modern: Gender and public piety in Shi‘i Lebanon. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Eickelman, Dale. 1981. A search for the anthropology of Islam: Abdul Hamid el-Zein. International Journal of Middle East Studies 13: 361–365.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Eickelman, Dale. 1992. Mass higher education and the religious imagination in contemporary Arab societies. American Ethnologist 19: 643–655.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Eickelman, Dale, and Jon Anderson. 1999. Redefining Muslim publics. In New media in the Muslim world: The emerging public sphere, ed. Dale Eickelman and Jon Anderson, 1–18. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ewing, Katherine. 1994. Dreams from a saint: Anthropological atheism and the temptation to believe. American Anthropologist 96: 571–583.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Faubion, James, and George Marcus (eds.). 2009. Fieldwork is not what it used to be: Learning anthropology’s method in a time of transition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gilsenan, Michael. 1982. Recognizing Islam. London: I.B. Tauris.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gupta, Akhil, and James Ferguson. 1997. Discipline and practice: ‘the field’ as site, method, and location in anthropology. In Anthropological locations: Boundaries and grounds of a field science, ed. Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, 1–46. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harding, Susan. 1991. Representing fundamentalism: The problem of the repugnant cultural other. Social Research 58: 373–393.

    Google Scholar 

  • Harding, Susan. 2000. The book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist language and politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Henkel, Heiko. 2005. ‘Between belief and unbelief lies the performance of salat’: Meaning and efficacy of a Muslim ritual. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 11: 487–507.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Horvatich, Patricia. 1994. Ways of knowing Islam. American Ethnologist 21: 811–826.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Laidlaw, James. 2002. For an anthropology of ethics and freedom. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 8: 311–332.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Lambek, Michael. 1993. Knowledge and practice in Mayotte: Local discourses of Islam, sorcery, and spirit possession. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1973. Tristes tropiques (trans. John and Doreen Weightman). London: Jonathan Cape.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lukens-Bull, Ronald. 1999. Between text and practice: Considerations in the anthropological study of Islam. Marburg Journal of Religion 4(2): 10–20.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lukens-Bull, Ronald. 2007. Lost in a sea of subjectivity: The subject position of the researcher in the anthropology of Islam. Contemporary Islam 1: 173–192.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Marcus, George. 1995. Ethnography in/of the world system: The emergence of multi-sited ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology 24: 95–117.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Marranci, Gabriele. 2008. The anthropology of Islam. Oxford: Berg.

    Google Scholar 

  • McIntosh, Janet. 2009. The edge of Islam: Power, personhood, and ethno-religious boundaries on the Kenya coast. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mir-Hosseini, Ziba. 1993. Marriage on trial: A study of Islamic family law. London: I.B. Tauris.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rabinow, Paul, George Marcus, James Faubion, and Tobias Rees. 2008. Designs for an anthropology of the contemporary. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Robbins, Joel. 2003. What is a Christian? Notes toward an anthropology of Christianity. Religion 33: 191–199.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Ruel, Malcolm. 1992. Christians as believers. In Religious organization and religious experience, ed. J. Davis, 9–31. London: Academic.

    Google Scholar 

  • Smith, William Cantwell. 1957. Islam in modern history. New York: New American Library.

    Google Scholar 

  • Varisco, Daniel. 2005. Islam obscured: The rhetoric of anthropological representations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Young, William. 1996. The Rashaayda Bedouin: Arab pastoralists of Eastern Sudan. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zaman, Muhammad. 2002. The ulama in contemporary Islam: Custodians of change. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • El-Zein, Abdul Hamid. 1974. The sacred meadows: A structural analysis of religious symbolism in an East African town. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • El-Zein, Abdul Hamid. 1977. Beyond ideology and theology: The search for the anthropology of Islam. Annual Review of Anthropology 6: 227–254.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

Download references


I would like to thank all those who helped me so much in my researches in Lebanon. I am also grateful to the editors and organisers of the conference at SOAS that was the genesis of this paper, as well as my fellow contributors, and to Judith Scheele in particular for her helpful comments on draft versions.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Morgan Clarke .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2012 Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Clarke, M. (2012). Integrity and Commitment in the Anthropology of Islam. In: Marsden, M., Retsikas, K. (eds) Articulating Islam: Anthropological Approaches to Muslim Worlds. Muslims in Global Societies Series, vol 6. Springer, Dordrecht.

Download citation