Too Much Islam?

Too Much Islam?

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

The neighborhood of Eminönü in Istanbul, with Süleymaniye Mosque in the background. Source: Author's own photo.

In 2010, Samuli Schielke, an anthropologist working at Zentrum Morderner Orient in Berlin, wrote a paper concerning the anthropological study of Muslim societies that contained the following provocative assertion:

“There is too much Islam in the anthropology of Islam.”

According to Schielke, our studies of Muslim societies—anthropological or not—have often privileged the role of Islam so much that other facets of life become obscured. Indeed, when we premise our studies with titles such as “Muslims in …” or “The role of Islam in …,” we may inadvertently prioritize piety and tradition in our analytical foci—everything becomes all about Islam. The corollary to this is that we become less attuned to the ambiguities and contradictions that almost certainly come with the everyday practice of a perfectionist ethical ideal, in this case the practice of Islam. In doing so, we risk losing sight of the varied and idiosyncratic ways in which Islam can inform and mediate the everyday lives of Muslims.

An important premise to understand Schielke’s critique is to envision everyday life as an amalgamation of different but not separate “worlds.” For a Muslim, the world of Islam, with all its attendant normative ideals, will definitely constitute a part of his or her everyday life. Yet, one should be hard-pressed to say that Islam has an absolute monopoly on his or her subjective experience of the everyday. As Schielke observes in an Egyptian village, “the same people who repent their sins and think about the Afterlife also debate the previous evening’s football match, tell jokes, feel tired and glance at the opposite sex, even with religious stickers decorating the walls and the voice of the Qur’ân in the background.”

Ultimately, Islam is a lived tradition. This means that while Islam does contain a set of normative prescriptions about the ideal way to live, these norms have to be acted out in the context of everyday life, with its mishmash of multifarious, and at times, competing, demands and impulses. The majority of Muslims—like most of humankind—therefore cannot fulfill all the perfectionist ideals of their religion all the time. The result is that Islam-as-envisioned and Islam-as-lived will almost always be different, with the extent of this difference varying across individuals and communities.

This situating of Islam within the framework of everyday life builds upon Talad Asad’s famous characterization of Islam as a “discursive tradition”—a conceptual framework that locates in Islam both the coherence implied in tradition as well as the contestability implied by discourse. By considering the practice of Islam within the vicissitudes of the quotidian, the discursive nature of Islam is expanded: Islamic norms become mediated not only by the debates regarding the correct form of practice, but also the complex interplay of the individual emotions, communal dynamics and societal structures that govern everyday life.

In doing so, the practice of Islam becomes defined not what it is, but by the various interactions surrounding it. This therefore avoids what Shielke thinks is another problem associated with the anthropology of Islam—a preoccupation of trying to define what Islam is. For him, the definition of Islam is not a critical concern. Instead, as he writes, “if we want to understand what it means to live a Muslim life, then we need a grounded and nuanced understanding of what it means to live a life—more urgently than we need a sophisticated theory about what Islam is.”

In any case, while Schielke’s critique is directed within academic circles, his argument does have relevance for all of us. After all, the political salience of Islam is today at an all-time high due to the political turbulence in certain Muslim-majority countries, as well as the specter of Islamic extremism. Hence, even the most ardent hermit today will probably still hear about events and phenomena involving some aspect of Islam, whether real or imagined. As we observe these events then, we become no different from an anthropologist; our gaze onto a society or culture different from our own will be beset by the same vulnerabilities and biases that even specialists fall prey to.

Unfortunately, the cacophony about Islam and Muslims in our contemporary media is evidence that most of us have fallen prey to the very impulse that Schielke is critiquing: the need to reify something—a concept, a religion, a culture, or a community—and imbue it with explanatory value. Islam becomes the singular cause of this event, the principal vehicle of that social movement, and the dominant force in a certain someone’s world-view. In such a case, Schielke’s assertion can perhaps be expanded: there is too much Islam in public discourse about Islam.

The debate over the link between the Islamic State and Islam is perhaps reflective of our collective obsession with Islam. Some of us cannot stop pathologizing Islam, while others are fixated on defending it. In the context of the rise of the Islamic State, everyone now seems to have something to say about Islam—what it is, and what it should be.

Of course, I am not trying to imply that no one has the right to discuss what Islam is, or that Islam should be reduced to mere socio-political and economic processes. As a lived tradition, Islam definitely exerts an influence on how Muslims conduct their lives and is itself constitutive of what Muslims think of it. Nevertheless, just as how Shielke reminds us that Islam as a personal religion is part of the continuum of forces that surround the everyday life of a Muslim, Islam as a world religion should be seen as embedded within the constellation of processes and structures that condition and create our contemporary world.

Speaking of Islam as a lived tradition thus requires recognition of both its internal diversity and its contingency on entities external to itself. The next time you come across a piece of news related to the Middle East or any other Muslim-majority countries and societies then, hold back on “Islam” a little bit. There probably is more to them than just the reified behemoth we call “Islam.”

At the same time, even if Islam is involved in that piece of news, remember that Islam as it is lived—or any social phenomenon for that matter—never simply is; rather, it is always in the process of becoming.


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