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  • Islam as a Discursive Tradition:Talal Asad and His Interlocutors
  • Ovamir Anjum (bio)

In studying contemporary movements and trends in Islam, recent Western scholarship has been asking how to conceptualize Islam itself, for only then can one speak of the issues of the authenticity, continuity, and legitimacy of Islamism—issues that are being fervently debated in contemporary polemics about the Muslim world. The orientalists, the conventional authorities on Islam, have been accused of being essentialist and insensitive to the change, negotiation, development, and diversity that characterizes lived Islam. Some scholars, primarily anthropologists, have responded to the tendency to essentialize by giving up the idea of conceptualizing one "Islam" and instead have focused their inquiry on what they call various "local islams." Others have focused on sociological or political-economic approaches in explaining the modern forms of political and social activism among Muslims to the exclusion of "scriptural" Islam from their analysis.

One early influential model for anthropological studies of world religions was proposed by Robert Redfield, who in 1956 suggested that all world religions can be divided into "great tradition" and "little tradition." The great tradition, he argued, is reflective, orthodox, textual, "consciously cultivated and handed down," while the little tradition is heterodox, peripheral, local, popular, and unreflective.1 The great-and-little-tradition dichotomy arose out of the attempt to understand the social organization of tradition, which was considered inevitable in all complex societies. Anthropology, with its beginnings in the study of the primitive and the exotic, was thought of as being concerned only with the little, local traditions, though many have long challenged both this dichotomy of tradition and the biases that stem from it.2

The first significant anthropological study focusing explicitly on Islam was Clifford Geertz's Islam Observed.3 The influence of Geertz's textual hermeneutic approach was felt heavily both inside the discipline of anthropology and, more important, outside it.4 Impatient with the textual focus of the orientalists who attempted to find a single Islam in scriptures and [End Page 656] texts, he studied Muslim societies to observe Islam as it was actually lived.5 With the increasing sophistication of anthropological inquiries, the difficulty of relating the orientalists' studies of a single, universal Islam to ethnographer's diverse, local observations of Muslim practices was becoming increasingly obvious. Abdul Hamid el-Zein, in a highly insightful survey of the field, pointed out various attempts to conceptualize Islam—most of which maintained the great-and-little-tradition dichotomy. El-Zein began by evaluating the major attempts to conceptualize Islam by that time in the discipline of anthropology, a summary of which is in order. Vincent Crapanzano had looked at the Hamadsha, a Sufi order in Morocco, from a Freudian perspective and characterized religion as a "sublimation and expression of instinctual conflicts," and the ulema (the great tradition) as "formulating this process in a formal, incontestable way."6 A. S. Bujra, in a study of Yemen, viewed Islam as an instrumental ideology, with the elite as its creators and the masses as its consumers. Michael Gilsenan, in his study of Sufi orders in Egypt, viewed Islam from a Weberian perspective as an ideology that rationalized a certain order, with the scripturalist Islam of the ulema as a formal and systematized version of the ideology and Sufi Islam as its complementary charismatic manifestation. Dale Eickelman's study of maraboutism in Morocco adds a historical dimension to a basically Weberian perspective—and emphasizes continuous social change as being the result of perceived dissonance between symbolic ideals and social reality. In a later article, Eickelman suggested that there is a major theoretical need for taking up the "middle ground" between the study of village or tribal Islam and that of universal Islam.7

El-Zein's own contribution was a great act of leveling: all islams, to an anthropologist, were created equal, and anyone who tried to look for any hierarchy or truth-value in various islams was trading in theology, he contended, and not in anthropology. Little traditions were no different from great ones.

The thrust of el-Zein's conversation was with Geertz, and while el-Zein accepts much of Geertz's ideas, he sees that Geertz...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-226X
Print ISSN
1089-201X
Pages
pp. 656-672
Launched on MUSE
2007-12-04
Open Access
No
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