Clifford Geertz: Islam Observed Again
The dynamic global growth of Islam as a major world religion shows few signs of abeyance. Muslims have been around for the better part of fourteen centuries, although trained ethnographers have been observing them for less than a century. To the extent anthropologists are interested in the globalization of religious communities, as well as in those small and more manageable locales where ethnography must be done, it is not surprising that the academic moniker of an “anthropology of Islam” has evolved. There is, of course, an important difference between studying people who happen to be Muslim and consciously formulating arguments about Islam as a religious system. The latter has been dominated by historians and philologists who study Islamic texts. As Edward Said’s brash branding of “Orientalism” indicates, many of the Western scholars who studied Islam brought with them the baggage of ethnocentric and racist biases. But Said, who doles out praise rather rarely, also suggests that there have been a few exceptions, notably in “the anthropology of Clifford Geertz, whose interest in Islam is discrete and concrete enough to be animated by the specific societies and problems he studies and not by the rituals, preconceptions, and doctrines of Orientalism.”2 If at least one anthropologist could escape the manacles of Orientalist discourse, the idea of an anthropology of Islam is certainly worth exploring.
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