An Account on the Diversity of Islamic Tradition

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An Account on the Diversity of Islamic Tradition

In this essay, I shall attempt to give a critical comparison of two ethnographies that deal with the issue of Islamic learning and religious authority in their distinct local setting. Both the Moroccan qadi in Dale F. Eickelman's book Knowledge and Power in Morocco [1], as well as the Jordanian preacher described by Richard Antoun in his book Muslim Preacher in the Modern World [2] deal with the complicated task of bridging the gap between localised traditions of their own villages and the more standardised traditions of the literate elite, in the context of the 20th century, a time characterised by changes in the political order as well as far-reaching economic and social transformations. The `organisation of traditions'[3] and the education of religious men of learning is the primary focus of my essay. However, this comparison of two ethnographies also alludes to the wider topic of new methods of ethnographic writing in general, as both ethnographies contain biographical elements of lives of particular individuals.

Given this less conventional genre in anthropological writing which Eickelman designates `social biography'[4] and the background of the ongoing debate within Anthropology about questions of power and authority in ethnographic writing, which has been going on since the early 1980's[5], this essay will first present an overview of the current debate before comparing aspects of the two life-histories, as described by Eickelman and Antoun.

Beginning with an outline of the recent discussions about methodological concerns about the common forms of anthropological writing and a broad classification of the two works within this debate, one can say that the `traditional' ethnography, characterised by its attempts at a holistic analysis and a rigid dichotomy between `Us' and `Them' has increasingly been challenged. Critics claim that the distinction between the processes of fieldwork and the writing of ethnographies has often been blurred, and ethnography has been presented as if the results of the first inevitably necessitated the outcome of the second, disguising that ethnographies, though claiming to represent certain cultures, are in fact literary products themselves, dependent on the social, political and historical circumstances in which they are created.[6] This form of authoritative representation of other cultures alludes to structures of superiority and inferiority, reflecting the hegemony of the coloniser over the colonised. In speaking for the other, the anthropologist not only claim to know which parts of a culture are important, worth discussing and characteristic, but he also largely excludes his `subjects' from the possibility of speaking for themselves. Nevertheless, the seemingly objective stance of the anthropologist that allows him to generalise from his own experiences onto the field of an entire society is embedded in a perspective that is set by the author's relation to his home as well as to his host society. One of the problems that stems from this fact is that the ethnographer, unable to completely exclude his personal point of view from his perception, fails to accurately interpret the other culture within its context and is thereby likely to exoticise what seems perfectly familiar in the local setting.

Likewise, critics maintain that holistic descriptions of culture in anthropology, in their attempt to find overarching characteristics, instead produce culture and tradition rather than analysing them. In the search for general rules of social conduct within a given society, the anthropologist is always in danger of seeing homogeneity and fixed boundaries between people in a society, when actually there is no such thing:

"The effort to produce general ethnographic descriptions of people's beliefs or actions risks smoothing over contradictions, conflicts of interest, doubts, and arguments, not to mention changing motivations and historical circumstances."[7]

In tackling the problems of conventional ethnographies, only a few of which are presented here[8], it has been argued that anthropological writing requires a style that is more self- reflective. Instead of exclusively focusing on the presentations of other cultures, the specific instance of the anthropological encounter and the relationship between author and `subject' should be made explicit and incorporated into the process of the writing itself, giving a more prominent voice to the anthropologist and his motives, as well as to the people he studies. In other words, the impersonal and authoritative style should be superseded by the establishment of a narrative presence, taking account of the fluid character of society that resists all efforts of being authoritatively textualised.

As a result of that, the last two decades have witnessed an increased diversification in anthropological writing. Abu-Lughod, for example, attempts to counter stereotyping by concentrating on the narratives of individual members of the society. To elicit claims of authority and objectivity, she makes her own perspective as a native Palestinian explicit, and tackles the muting of local voices, thus far prevalent in anthropological writing, by leaving the women the space to tell their own stories, attempting to capture the "life as lived" [9] among the Awlad Ali. By writing - as she calls it - against culture, she dismisses the common assumptions made on the basis of the term `culture', such as timelessness, coherence and homogeneity, and concentrates instead on how social life within a society does in fact proceed.

Nancy Lindisfarne, engaging in yet another innovation in anthropological literature by writing up her fieldwork in Syria in the form of short-stories, gives similar reasons for her endeavour[10]: with the presentation of the results of her field-research in the form of fiction, she attempts to evade claims of scholarly authority, as well as the `orientalist trap', and to convey a more realistic and lively picture of everyday life. Furthermore, in refraining from writing her account in the established academic language and style, Lindisfarne endeavours to sustain a dialogue between the anthropologist and her `subjects', and to thereby break down the unequal relation between them.[11]

In American anthropology in particular, attempts have been made from the 1980s onward to confront the problem of exoticising the Other in anthropological writing, by employing person-centred ethnographies or life histories, in order to convey the subtlety of individual stories, without seeing them as completely determined by their respective cultural setting.

In his rather controversial ethnography Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan [12] , the life history of a Moroccan tilemaker from Meknes, Crapanzano takes this approach further by asserting that genres of writing are cultural constructs themselves, which means that the subjective realities of life stories can not always be communicated in the (Western) genre of biography. Based on this, Crapanzano does not make the attempt to write up his accounts as a conventional biography, but instead tries to make sense of Tuhami's life story as he himself relates it, neglecting aspects like chronology and logical coherence. At the same, time the presence of the ethnographer is always made explicit, hence putting the telling of the life history into context. In using this sort of approach, Crapanzano aims at bridging the discrepancy between the anthropologist's and his `subject's' perception of reality, which he feels ethnographies have so far failed to communicate:

"The ethnography comes to represent a sort of allegorical anti-world, similar to the anti-worlds of the insane and the child. The ethnographic encounter is lost in timeless description ; the anguished search for comprehension in the theoretical explanation; the particular in the general; the character in the stereotype."[13]

Regardless of the question of whether Crapanzano really evades the problem of the willy-nilly creation of stereotypes and a static and unchanging culture, ` Tuhami ' is in fact an profound innovation, as the author refrains from imposing pre-made categories on the ethnographical account, even so fundamental a distinction as between dream and reality.

In an attempt to classify the two ethnographies that are the focus of this essay, one can state that both Eickelman and Antoun, by making use of idiosyncratic life-histories, seek to make their informants' voices heard. Eickelman in particular explicitly considers the circumstances under which his book was written, giving an in depth account of the reciprocal perception of the qadi and himself.[14] However, both ethnographies seem to remain in many ways on the firm ground of conventional ethnographic writing, as they remain relatively modest in scope and do not stretch the limits of conventional anthropological writing in any great way.

Whereas anthropologists like Abu-Lughod strive to question notions of conformity within a given society, focusing on individual experiences as a way to transcend the cultural setting in which these individuals live, and to take on a perspective that does not explain the actions of individuals solely in terms of their social roles, but gives them a voice treating them as individuals in their own right[15], Eickelman and - even more so - Antoun approach their particular subjects as proponents of a particular social group. Their accounts remain case studies for the analysis of a broader phenomenon, that is religious learning and the organisation of religious traditions. Both anthropologists stress the peculiarities of the singular instance, refraining from presenting them as stereotypical. However, their aim is not to capture `the life as it is lived', but to view them as the particular case of the carrier of a particular social role which is embedded in a wider context, which the authors wish to explore. Between conventional `authoritative' ethnographies and the post-modern idea of writing against culture [16] , Eickelman and Antoun take a midway stance. In explaining his approach Eickelman states : "His [the qadi's ] voice is present throughout the text, but so is mine."[17]

Having discussed some aspects of the idea of writing ethnographies as social biographies or life histories, I shall now explore some similarities and differences between the two ethnographies, concerning the organisation of religious traditions in different settings. Although I think that individual cases sometimes allude to wider social contexts and thus allow more general statements on a moderate scale about these circumstances, in my comparison of the Moroccan qadi and the Jordanian preacher, I will confine myself to comparing them as individual instances and only generalise where this seems unproblematic.

Within the recent debate about the Anthropology of Islam, there has been major dissent concerning the notion of `Little' and `Great' traditions, that were first introduced in the 1940s[18], signifying the discrepancy between the overarching beliefs and rituals of the literate elite throughout the Islamic world, as opposed to the localised, often syncretic practices that widely differ amongst Muslims. Some scholars, including Richard Antoun, view this concept valuable in exploring the accommodation of the high tradition within a local context.[19] Others reject this analytical distinction, asserting a variety of Islams[20] instead of a single monolithic religion and dismiss the notion of `great traditions' as stipulating an essential core of the Islamic religion, which can be transcended from the particular circumstances in which it is practised. Since both Abd ar-Rahman, the Moroccan qadi in the centre of Eickelman's book, and Luqman, the Jordanian preacher described by Antoun, in their functions as judge and preacher are the proponents of Islamic orthodoxy in their respective surroundings, a comparison may also illuminate how far the notion of a normative essence of Islam can be maintained.

To begin with the case of Abd ar-Rahman, a qadi in a medium-sized Moroccan town which is also a centre of pilgrimage, his education in the religious sciences is characterised by a relatively high degree of organisation and the straight-forward path he follows in his educational career. Beginning his education with the memorisation of the Quran in the local mosque-school and subsequently in a nearby tent-school[21], he finally proceeds to study at the renowned Yusufiya-madrasa of Marrakesh. The different stages of Abd ar-Rahman's and his elder brother's career education, show that the idea of `travelling for study', characteristic for Islamic education since the Middle Ages[22], still played quite an important role for religious students in Morocco at the beginning of the 20th century.

Although there seems to be quite a high degree of organisation in religious learning, the networks of local mosque-schools and madrasas all through the country were characterised by a lack of institutionalisation. There were no overarching structures whatsoever, no clearly identifiable body of students or teachers nor did the institutions of higher learning have distinct entry qualifications or exams. Instead, religious learning was embedded in the social environment of the particular institution, as the different forms of patronage and financial support for colleges and their students shows.[23] This lack of institutionalisation is not only evident in the sphere of religious learning, but also in the organisation of the Moroccan Ulama as a whole, who were far less a corporate group than the accumulation of individual alim s, lacking an overarching organisation as well as a collective self-identification.[24]

Eickelman's study also suggests that Islamic knowledge in the Moroccan context is signified by a strong emphasis on mnemonic knowledge, reflecting the alleged unchanging character of the Quranic Revelation. One of the striking features of Abd ar-Rahman's early formation is therefore the separation of understanding (fahm) and exegesis (tafsir), although this altered in Morocco under the influence of modernist thought in the 1920s. Despite its relatively fixed contents however, to interpret this way of learning as being static and uncritical would be misleading.[25]

Although in the particular case, Abd ar-Rahman's education in the religious sciences led to a career as a jurisconsult, by far not all graduates from the madrasa s pursued a career in Islamic law. This alludes to some wider implications of Islamic education and knowledge in the Moroccan context as it presented itself at the beginning of the 20th century. As already mentioned, the colleges hardly ever provided formal certificates for their graduates. Rather, the study at a renowned institution such as the Yusufiya brought with it increased recognition by the social environment and served as a status-marker. Beyond being an institution for the formation of judges or preachers, these colleges helped the establishment of personal networks that could be used in subsequent political or entrepreneurial careers.[26]

Finishing his religious education, Abd ar-Rahman first became assistant qadi in his hometown following the patronage of his elder brother, where he had a number of different duties, including being the imam and holding the Friday sermons. Progressing to be the qadi of the pilgrimage town of Boujad some twenty years later, his duties became more responsible but also more limited in scope, as he was now chiefly engaged with settling disputes concerning marriages, inheritance and land transactions in and around Boujad. However, the case of Abd ar-Rahman likewise shows that the rural notables also made their living as landowners.

According to Eickelman's analysis, the role of the qadi in the context of rural Morocco was twofold, in that it consisted on the one hand of the implementation of Islamic law, but on the other hand had to take into account the local concepts of justice[27], which made an intimate knowledge of the society indispensable. Furthermore, Abd ar-Rahman's perception of the role of the ulama is illuminating since he considers them to be responsible for distinguishing between the accepted Islamic practices and (bid'a), such as the worshipping at local shrines, thereby defending what they regard as Islamic orthodoxy. Abd ar-Rahman's role therefore can be described as that of a cultural broker, mediating the between the rural environment and the wider sphere of society.

Another aspect worth mentioning in Eickelman's account is the relation between the ulama and the centres of political power, a crucial issue in Islamic history up until the present day.[28] In relation to French colonial rule, the Moroccan ulama seems to have taken a non- confrontational stance, sometimes even overtly co-operating with them following the course of their monarch. Only with the escalation of the struggle for independence following the Berber decree in 1930[29], the learned men began to resist the French rule, without ever becoming a revolutionary vanguard as the Iranian ulama was in the struggle against the shah. Always underlying the Moroccan ulama's resistance was a constant weighing of two factors: which means of resistance were reasonable in the situation (aql) and what was required by Islamic law (shra).

Turning now to Luqman, the Jordanian preacher central to Antoun's book, the case shows a distinctly different path to becoming a local representative of Islamic orthodoxy. Being from a landowner's family in a Jordanian village, Luqman attended primary education, which also included the memorisation of the Quran, although mnemonic learning did not play as important a role as in Abd ar-Rahman's education. Disregarding his father's wishes, Luqman subsequently pursued his religious studies under the tutelage of the local preacher. His entire education took place in the setting of his local village with no organisational background whatsoever, rather being driven solely by his private impulse. Furthermore, Luqman's education was a private and individual endeavour, rather than the socially accepted and indeed bolstered offered by the networks of madrasas in Morocco. This meant that he had to work as a teacher to make a living while studying. The lack of institutionalisation of religious life in Jordan is also reflected in the way Luqman installed himself as preacher in his native village, first without any formal designation and solely on the ground of the acknowledgement of his expertise by the villagers. Also, the notion of religious knowledge as a status-marker is largely absent from Luqman's case. Although Islamic knowledge was valued, the vocation of the village preacher was anything but prestigious. Being funded directly by his village rather than by a central institution, the preacher frequently had to demand his payment from the peasants which negatively affected the preacher's status.[30]

The scope of the preacher's duties however went far beyond leading the daily prayers and delivering the Friday sermon: he also served as marriage officer, religious teacher and religious and ethical counsellor, settling disputes and - more remarkably - writing Quranic amulets - a practice regarded as `un-Islamic' in more conservative settings. According to Antoun, the multiple roles played by the preacher display the "organic" character of religious life in the local setting, where it can hardly be separated from other social spheres, such as kinship, economy and politics. It also shows that religious life on the local level was more or less autonomous of influences from the outside. In the light of this, Luqman too sees his role as the village preacher as twofold: "To organise relations of people with the Lord and to organise the relations of people with one another in all matters."[31]

Concerning the relation between the carriers of religious knowledge and politics, Luqman's case seems to suggest the reluctance of the rural educated to actively engage in political matters. In a fashion similar to that of Abd ar-Rahman in the Moroccan case, the preacher sees himself primarily as the guardian of orthopraxy and the agent for the implementation of religious ethics in everyday life. Only when the consensus of society and thereby the basis of Islamic solidarity is seen as being threatened, as in the case of Jordan with the emergence of political parties in the 50s and 60s, did the preacher take a more active stance, dismissing party politics as hypocrisy and a threat to traditional family- and kinship-ties.[32]

In this brief discussion of the two ethnographies, I hope to have pointed out some of the differences and similarities of two particular cases. From the prior discussion about biographies as an alternative mode of ethnographic writing however, I think it becomes clear that neither Abd ar-Rahman nor Luqman must be seen as characteristic proponents of the Moroccan and Jordanian ulama. Unquestionably, the juxtaposition of the two cases shows some similarities, such as the overall absence of political engagement as long as the proper conduct of religious life is not endangered. Besides, in both cases, the learned men seem to play the role of brokers between the rural context and the wider world of the Islamic Ummah. At the same time however, their specific role requires an intimate knowledge of their community, which means that they lack the basic features of what Simmel had called `the stranger', a representative of the wider society in the local context, who does not organically belong to it, but can be "near and far at the same time."[33]

Despite these similarities, the consideration of the two cases more than anything else displays the great variety of religious life throughout the Islamic world. In our concrete case, this becomes particularly clear in the completely different forms of transmitting religious knowledge, the different connotations that are attached to acquiring this knowledge and the differing valuation by the rest of the society.

In the light of this, it becomes increasingly hard to uphold the dichotomy of `little' and `great' traditions. Not only does such a distinction contain the assumption of a normative and unchanging core of Islam[34] but it also seems to stipulate an overarching orthodoxy that - parallel to High-Arabic as the overarching religious language - transcends regional diversities and is never affected by local practices. Although the two cases both display the prevalent emphasis on orthopraxy rather than on orthodoxy that somewhat masks the regional differences, the comparison of two alim s from different rural settings rather suggests the absence of a normative core of Islam and seems to underline al-Zein's proposal of analysing each `Islam' in its specific context, taking into account the interdependencies with other spheres of social life and to examine how meanings are produced for each instance individually.[35]

Briefly summing up, one can state that the two ethnographies give accounts of the unrestricted diversity of social life on different levels. Firstly, by the describing the make up of religious life in specific settings, both works convey a sense of the variety of religious expressions throughout the Islamic world that resist clear-cut classifications.

Furthermore, although both Eickelman's and Antoun's ethnographic writings are still deemed rather conventional, in that they maintain the aims of description and interpretation, they do not present their `main characters' as stereotypical carriers of their specific roles, that is proponents of Islamic knowledge in a rural setting, but rather see them as the result of their particular life-stories and individual circumstances. In the concluding sentence of his book, Antoun states: "To put it another way, all of the above was an accident of biography, social position, and individual inclination."[36]


Abu-Lughod, Lila: Writing Women's Worlds, University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1993

Antoun, Richard: Muslim Preacher in the Modern World, Princeteon. 1989

Burke, Edmund, III: The Moroccan Ulama, 1860-1912: An Introduction. In Scholars, Saints, and Sufis, edited by Nikkie Keddie, pp.93-125. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1972

Eickelman, Dale F.: Knowledge and Power in Morocco: The Education of a TwentiethCentury Notable, Princetion University Press, Princeton, 1985

----- The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach. Third Edition. Prentice Hall, New Jersey. 1998

Christelow, Alan: The Muslim Judge in Algeria and Senegal. In: Comperative Studies in Society and History 24 (1982): p.3-24

Crapanzano, Vincent: Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London. 1980

Clifford, James and George Marcus (eds). Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. 1986

El-Zein, Abdul Hamid: Beyond Ideology and Theology: the Search for the Anthropology of Islam. In Annual Review of Anthropology. 1977

Fischer, Michael M.J.: Iran: From Religious Dispute to Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1980

Langness,L.L. and Geyla Frank: Lives: An Anthropological Approach to Biography. Navato, California: Chandler & Sharp. 1981

Lindisfarne, Nancy: Dancing in Damascus. State University of New York Press. 2000

Makdisi, George: The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1981

Markus, George and Dick Cushman: Ethnographies as Texts. In Annual Review of

Anthropology 11: 25-69. 1982

Mottahadeh, Roy: The Mantle of the Prophet. Simon & Schuster, New York. 1985

Sangren, Steven: Rhetoric and the Authority of Ethnography. Current Anthropology 29:405-

24. 1988

Schulze, Reinhard: Geschichte der Arabischen Welt im 20. Jahrhundert. München. C.H. Beck. 1994

Stocking, Georg jr (ed.): Observers Observed: Essays on Ethnographic Fieldwork. University of Wisconsin Press. 1983


[1] Eickelman (1985)

[2] Antoun (1989)

[3] Ibid. p.13ff

[4] Eickelman (1985:14) Eickelman uses this term rather than `Life Histories', preferred by other authors such as Langness and Frank in their proposal to use biographies as an alternative to the established modes of ethnographic writing. Langness and Frank (1981)

[5] see for example: Marcus and Cushman (1982) and the critique by Sangren (1988)

[6] Clifford and Marcus (1986:6)

[7] Abu Lughod (1993:.9)

[8] For a more detailed account see Clifford and Marcus (1986)and the subsequent critique and discussion.

[9] Abu Lughod: (1993:2)

[10] Lindisfarne (2000)

[11] Ibid. pp.123

[12] Crapanzano (1980)

[13] Crapanzano (1980: 8)

[14] Eickelman (1985:19ff.)

[15] Abu-Lughod (1993: 27)

[16] Ibid.

[17] Eickelman (1985:15)

[18] Eickelman (1998:252)

[19] Antoun (1989: 17ff.)

[20] Al-Zein (1977)

[21] according to Eickelman, these school were a typical for education in rural areas. Eickelman (1985: 68f.)

[22] see for example Makdisi (1981)

[23] Eickelman (1985:84)

[24] Burke (1972:103)

[25] Eickelman (1985: 35)

[26] Eickelman (1985: 105f.)

[27] Eickelman (1985:125)

[28] see e.g. Makdisi: .For an exploration of this relationship for the case of present-day Iran, see the works by Mottahadeh and Fischer, which I have included in the bibliography

[29] The decree ordered the exemption of Berber speaking areas from Islamic jurisdiction and was therefore perceived as a threat to Islam. The importance of the event lie in the fact that the decree violated the tacit consent that French rule was not opposed to Islam.

[30] Antoun (1989: 80f)

[31] Antoun (1989:24)

[32] Ibid. 207

[33] Simmel as cited in Eickelman (1985:67)

[34] Eickelman (1998)

[35] El-Zein (1977:251)

[36] Antoun (1989: 268)

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