- Between Muslims: Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan by J. Andrew Bush
A complaint raised to a waiter over the volume of a television in a restaurant. A sympathetic ear lent to a lovelorn friend. A passing word of advice from a father to a daughter as she leaves the house. Moments such as these do not typically come to mind in relation to such lofty scholarly pursuits as "the study of religion" or "the anthropology of Islam." Quotidian encounters and concerns lack the venerability of institutions and orthodoxies, whether religious or academic. Indeed, such everyday anecdotes may not even be recalled by the persons who experience them. Yet, as J. Andrew Bush powerfully illustrates in Between Muslims: Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan, these unremarkable occasions offer indispensable insight into the textures and entailments of Islam, especially for Muslims who do not fully abide by the expectations of piety that both reformers and scholars idealize.
Between Muslims is by no means the first ethnography to foregrounds questions of "everyday Islam" and "ordinary ethics," but the exceptional diligence, empathy, and poetic sensibility—and more on this below—that Bush summons to his task are uncommon. A more sensitive ethnographer is difficult to imagine, and his depth of engagement with and knowledge of Iraqi Kurdistan is staggering. Bush draws on over fifteen years of intermittent research, primarily in the city of Silêmenî (Sulaymaniyah), as well as his magisterial command of classical Sorani Kurdish poetry. His account is both wide-ranging and fine-grained. Three of the book's five chapters are portraits of the daily lives of specific Silêmanî residents. Another functions as a productive counterpoint to his overarching argument by detailing the perspectives and arguments of Mela Krêkar, a prominent Kurdish Muslim theologian of a Salafi persuasion who resides in Norway. Finally, the second chapter condenses Bush's encyclopaedic knowledge of Kurdish poetry, in particular the "Pillar Poets" of the nineteenth century and their nationalist heirs in the early twentieth century.
Bush's touch is so delicate that the reader might be forgiven for failing to appreciate the considerable conceptual interventions that he makes. By my estimation, Between Muslims contributes novel arguments in relation to at least three recent debates. Most panoramically, Bush pioneers a startling yet intuitive new approach to the study of religious difference. The preponderance of recent research on religious difference focuses on interreligious relations and hierarchies, typically with an eye to dilemmas of political liberalism: questions of representation, (in)tolerance, and exclusion. While Bush is deeply versed in these debates, his interest lies elsewhere, in the rich but neglected field of [End Page 490] differences "between Muslims" with contrasting orientations toward piety. He is especially concerned with Muslim Kurds who "turn away" (p. 3) from Islam without rejecting it completely. The forms of quotidian difference that such Muslims assert and navigate are not necessarily matters of political dispute or social cleavage. They exist among friends and within families. Yet they make a difference nonetheless, precisely because all Muslims, pious and otherwise, "relate to Islamic traditions by relating to others" (p. 172).
In order to convey these consequential, everyday differences between Muslims, Bush treads a welcome path between two increasingly polarized positions within the anthropology of Islam: a focus on the imperatives of the "discursive tradition(s)" of Islam inspired by Talal Asad's influential oeuvre, on one hand, and a renewed emphasis on "everyday" practices that ostensibly evince a plurality beyond the confines of the discursive tradition and the modes of piety it authorizes, on the other. My abiding conviction is that most work in this latter vein misconstrues Asad's arguments, and thereby tosses the proverbial infant out with the bathwater. Bush does not. As the chapter focused on his friend and interlocutor Pexshan shows, even the quotidian process of "turning away" from piety presupposes a thorough engagement with Islamic traditions: "Asad's concept of the discursive tradition remains a useful starting point for the description of the ethical lives of Iraqi Kurdish Muslims who turn...