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Integrity and Commitment in the Anthropology of Islam

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

Abstract

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

Keywords

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

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Notes

  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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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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. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-4267-3_10

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