Anthropological Quarterly 75.4 (2002) 823-827
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Mullahs on the Mainframe is an ethnography in the old style and well worth reading for how it triangulates surveys, history, biography, interviews, and participant-observation on some very current issues from ethnographic responsibility to what it means to be 'traditionalist' in the modern world. It describes a community previously known only through clichés and global comparisons, focusing on that community's traditions and the social and cultural devices that maintain remarkable continuities. It is the first ethnography of a Muslim community to provide a comprehensive account of its rituals—organized around life cycles and annual cycles—and, within the social limits of that community, to provide an outline of its beliefs, which have been the main analytical and methodological issues that have deterred external scrutiny. Its subtext is a story, revealed in pieces rather than made thematic in the style of reflexive ethnography, of working around boundaries in an over-exposed world. And it provides enough data incidental to its own thesis that traditionalists may eagerly and selectively embrace the techniques of modernity to reinforce tradition that it can potentially serve as grist for other mills.
The mullahs in question are an anomaly in conventional wisdom about the Muslim world, but not in that world's actual conventions. They are part of a hierarchy, [End Page 823] terminating in an 'apex cleric,' to use Blank's concept, who for their community virtually supplants revelation as a source of authoritative religious guidance. The community is Ismaili, a Shia sect known to western observers largely through the figure of the Aga Khan and the study of the medieval assassins that launched Bernard Lewis's career. Typically, they are represented in global depictions of Islam, which still privilege the majority Sunni as the unmarked point of comparison, as "fringe," "sectarian," "secretive," "minority," and for some dubious, rather like Mormons to the Christian "mainstream" represented by Baptists. Bohras might actually agree with these depictions on a superficial level: they consciously stand apart from the Sunni majority, both globally and around them in Mumbai (Bombay), the main site of this study; they dissimulate as a matter of doctrine and with an elaborate scheme that separates and stratifies levels of inner devotion from external practice; they are in fact few in number, and some of their sources of spiritual authority are beyond the Sunni pale.
But not outside the practical structures of Islam. Modern ethnography has accumulated a picture of local practice and belief in Muslim communities from Africa, South and Southeast Asia, to some extent in Europe and North America, and even in the Middle East that restore them to the anthropology of religion from idealizations in religious studies. The latter came to depict Islam in terms of canonical Sunnism as a non-hierarchical, scriptural religion in which the believer stands in a relationship to God in worship and social morality mediated solely by revelation and the Prophet Muhammad. This moot relegates to the fringes not only the rich sectarian diversity within Islam but also the Sufi traditions that are its principal spiritual leaven and, more importantly, even the constant renewal and weaving of tradition into the social life and cultural reflexivity of the times, of any times. In this sense, the "periphery," an exceedingly problematic concept in a world community numbering over a billion adherents, illuminates the "center" in a very special way.
Ethnographies of and in Muslim communities over the past quarter century have consistently documented embedded patron-client relations throughout the range of Islamic expression: master-disciple, teacher-pupil, role model-seeker, the idealization of Muhammed as a source of emulation, routinization of which is canonical particularly for the Shia, but pervasive also in the Sunni "mainstream" of preachers and teachers who form the backbones of tradition and are its exemplars. If anthropologists were to start from these concerns, rather than from canonical Islamic studies, Islam might instead have...