Ethnographies of Islam

Ethnographies of Islam: Ritual Performances and Everyday Practices

Baudouin Dupret
Thomas Pierret
Paulo G. Pinto
Kathryn Spellman-Poots
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Ethnographies of Islam
    Book Description:

    Explores the impact of the ethnographic method on the representation of Islam in anthropology.This comparative approach to the various uses of the ethnographic method in research about Islam in anthropology and other social sciences is particularly relevant in the current climate. Political discourses and stereotypical media portrayals of Islam as a monolithic civilisation have prevented the emergence of cultural pluralism and individual freedom. Such discourses are countered by the contributors who show the diversity and plurality of Muslim societies and promote a reflection on how the ethnographic method allows the description, representation and analysis of the social and cultural complexity of Muslim societies in the discourse of anthropology.Key Features: shows the benefit of using ethnography as a method to engage with and relate to specific empirical realitiesincludes case studies on rituals and symbols in Syria, Tunisia, Damascus, Algeria, Britain, Pakistan, Brazil and Lebanoncovers practices such as veiling, students' religious practices, charitable activities, law, and scholarship in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Yemen

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-4551-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)
    Baudouin Dupret, Thomas Pierret, Paulo Pinto and Kathryn Spellman-Poots

    In the past three decades, the social sciences in general, and anthropology in particular, have developed an ambiguous relationship with their descriptive traditions, as epistemic relativism and self-defeating critique have led scholars to reflexive deadlocks and fruitless glossing over issues. Instead of attempting to describe the social world as it unfolds when empirically observed, researchers often lose the actual object of interest and propose new narratives in its place that are devoid of the contextual and praxiological specificities of any actual situation. This holds especially true where religious phenomena are concerned. This is probably due to a theorising attitude, what...

  4. Part One: Performing Rituals
    • Chapter 1 Black Magic, Divination and Remedial Reproductive Agency in Northern Pakistan
      (pp. 11-20)
      Emma Varley

      Anthropologists are increasingly and critically attentive to the symbolic, ideological and political dimensions of women’s observance and ritual practice of Islam throughout Muslim contexts.² However, few researchers focus on the eclectic modalities inherent to Muslim women’s formal engagements with occult practices in Pakistan, notwithstanding growing research on sorcery in the South Asian Muslim diaspora.³ In particular, the available literature demonstrates a lack of attention to the impacts of sorcery on women’s sense of physical wellbeing, or to the cosmological mechanisms women employ to protect themselves from harm. In response, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork (2004–5) in Gilgit Town, the...

    • Chapter 2 Preparing for the Hajj in Contemporary Tunisia: Between Religious and Administrative Ritual
      (pp. 21-30)
      Katia Boissevain

      In Tunisia, as in other Muslim-majority nations and communities, the pilgrimage to Mecca involves a number of national and family rituals, before and after the actual event. In this article, although I shall be writing about the Hajj, I intend to limit description and discussion to a ritual sequence, referred to in Tunisia as the qar‘a, a term meaning “draw”, a selective procedure of pilgrims which is carefully managed by the State.¹ This ritual context becomes the locus of negotiation between an individual and a collective religious manifestation and the State’s religious and administrative duties.²

      The Hajj requires the mobilisation...

    • Chapter 3 “There Used To Be Terrible Disbelief”: Mourning and Social Change in Northern Syria
      (pp. 31-39)
      Katharina Lange

      This chapter addresses changing burial and mourning practices in villages of northern Syria. Locally, these transformations are articulated mainly in terms of changing understandings of religious prescriptions. However, analysing religious discourse is not sufficient to comprehend the changes – changing social relations and economics must be taken into consideration as well. Through a close ethnographic description of actions, practices and discourse related to mourning and burial, this article shows how “Islamic” frameworks are invoked to make sense of changing social practice, and how, in turn, concepts of mourning labelled as Islamic are enacted in everyday life. It will also demonstrate how...

    • Chapter 4 Manifestations of Ashura Among Young British Shi‘is
      (pp. 40-49)
      Kathryn Spellman-Poots

      This chapter demonstrates how the ethnographic research method provides a vantage point to describe the ways in which embedded conceptions and practices of the Shi‘i faith are actively being questioned and reoriented by young Shi‘is in British society.¹ Concentrating particularly on the prototypical Shi‘i tradition, Ashura, this chapter describes some ways that young Shi‘is are reworking religious practices through public performances and embodied experiences in British society. Looking specifically at the annual Ashura procession through Hyde Park and the Imam Hussein Blood Donation Campaign demonstrates how these performative spaces are used by the younger generations to negotiate, challenge and communicate...

    • Chapter 5 The Ma‘ruf: An Ethnography of Ritual (South Algeria)
      (pp. 50-61)
      Yazid Ben Hounet

      This chapter focuses on a ritual I frequently observed during my fieldwork in Algeria (the western part of the Saharan Atlas): the ma‘ruf.¹ This Arabic word is commonly translated as “well known”, and is used in the Saharan Atlas, as in other Arabic-speaking societies, to refer to a thing or a person “well known” – that is, “famous”, “distinguished”. However, it is also used locally in order to define a ritual often performed by the inhabitants of the western part of the Saharan Atlas, and to some extent, of many rural regions in North Africa. The ma‘ruf, as I observed it,²...

    • Chapter 6 The Sufi Ritual of the Darb al-shish and the Ethnography of Religious Experience
      (pp. 62-70)
      Paulo G. Pinto

      Anthropologists have already recognised the central role of religious experience in both the construction of symbolic meanings and values, and their ritual inscription as part of the subjectivity and corporality of the faithful.¹ However, there is still very little ethnographic understanding of the processes that make experience such a powerful tool for the constitution of social subjects. In order to address the possibilities and challenges created by an ethnographic approach to experience, I will focus the analysis on the processes of construction and communication of religious experiences in the Sufi ritual of the darb al-shish. The ethnographic data analysed here...

    • Chapter 7 Preaching for Converts: Knowledge and Power in the Sunni Community in Rio de Janeiro
      (pp. 71-79)
      Gisele Fonseca Chagas

      This chapter focuses on how power relations are constructed and legitimised in the various contexts in which religious knowledge is transmitted and circulated among members of the Sunni Muslim community in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Textual, ritual and practical religious knowledge are continuously mobilised by the local religious leaders as both disciplinary devices and instances of legitimisation of their authority. These forms of knowledge are differently appropriated and inscribed in the social practices of members of the Muslim community of Rio de Janeiro according to their ethnicity, gender and social class, thus creating distinct understandings and practices of Islam.


    • Chapter 8 Worshipping the Martyr President: The Darih of Rafiq Hariri in Beirut
      (pp. 80-92)
      Ward Vloeberghs

      The tomb (darih) of Rafiq Hariri (Rafiq al-Hariri) is one of two elements that make up the mausoleum of the late Lebanese tycoon-turned-politician.¹ Every year, the site draws bus-loads of visitors from inside and outside Lebanon. In spite of its touristic popularity, the burial site and the practices surrounding it have received very little scholarly attention.

      Throughout the descriptive analysis below I shall present the location and development of the tomb followed by the salient characteristics of the cult attached to it. I explore the darih as a shrine defined by Eickelman as “more than just a building”. In fact,...

    • Chapter 9 Staging the Authority of the Ulama: The Celebration of the Mawlid in Urban Syria
      (pp. 93-102)
      Thomas Pierret

      The ulama are a particularly uncommon topic for ethnography. As the paragons of textual culture in classical Muslim societies, they have more often than not been studied through their writings and sermons, that is, through their discourse. This chapter focuses on other kinds of practices and more particularly on the annual celebration of Muhammad’s birthday (Mawlid) in early twenty-first century Damascus, Syria.¹ Academic literature on the celebration of Muslim prophets and saints has been mostly concerned with popular pilgrimages which, like in Egypt, frequently involve what puritans describe as “un-Islamic” practices (mixing of sexes, dance, and even alcohol consumption and...

  5. Part Two: Contextualising Interactions
    • Chapter 10 The Salafi and the Others: An Ethnography of Intracommunal Relations in French Islam
      (pp. 105-114)
      Cédric Baylocq and Akila Drici-Bechikh

      Salafism is a religious and/or political phenomenon that only recently emerged in Europe, at the beginning of the 1990s.¹ Etymologically, al-salafiyya (Salafism) designates the Companions of the Prophet, the righteous forefathers who should be imitated because they were in close contact with the perfect Muslim model (that is, the Prophet Muhammad himself). By imitating them, contemporary Salafis claim to be in search of a “pure Islam”,² contrary to any other Muslim group (firqa) that does not strictly follow this path. However, we argue that even though it is important to know the doctrinal aspects of such a (non-homogeneous) movement, its...

    • Chapter 11 Describing Religious Practices among University Students: A Case Study from the University of Jordan, Amman
      (pp. 115-123)
      Daniele Cantini

      Literature on the contemporary dimensions of Islamic movements in the Middle East has been growing steadily over the past decades. Anthropology has played its role in this process, especially in very recent years with a number of studies on piety movements, on ethical self-discipline, and on questions of identity and gender. What I believe is largely missing, however, are ethnographic accounts of how Muslims in the Middle East concretely embody and enact their religious belonging in everyday life. This is therefore the aim of this chapter, in which I will try to show how Jordanian university students represent themselves and...

    • Chapter 12 Referring to Islam in Mutual Teasing: Notes on an Encounter between Two Tanzanian Revivalists
      (pp. 124-134)
      Sigurd D’hondt

      In this chapter, I examine how two Kiswahili-speaking adolescents negotiate a Muslim identity (or at least, one particular version of such an identity) within the hustle and bustle of a single tape-recorded episode of spontaneous everyday interaction. The setting is utterly mundane: a street corner in one of the many suburbs of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s commercial capital. Around the time the episode was recorded, two of the three protagonists overtly sympathised with revivalist Islam. On repeated occasions, they explicitly (and eagerly) identified themselves as mujahidina. According to Nurudini, the participant who recorded the incident, it represents the Kiswahili equivalent...

    • Chapter 13 Salafis as Shaykhs: Othering the Pious in Cairo
      (pp. 135-143)
      Aymon Kreil

      In the shadow of the Islamic awakening at the end of the 1970s, partly as a result of the trauma of the 1967 war and the Sadat regime’s deliberate use of religious references for the purpose of legitimising itself, individual signs of religiosity – for instance beards, galabiyyas,¹ the use of religious formulations in language, and the veiling of women – became familiar in the public sphere.² This phenomenon could also be seen in the media, as preachers and intellectuals claiming religious and moral wisdom were broadcast and became very popular among Egyptians. Through the internet and satellite channels, these figures have...

    • Chapter 14 Ethics of Care, Politics of Solidarity: Islamic Charitable Organisations in Turkey
      (pp. 144-152)
      Hilal Alkan-Zeybek

      Within the social sciences, giving to the poor is analysed primarily through its impact on receivers. Research questions in this area are usually limited to a few variants: how effective is a certain kind of giving for the alleviation of poverty?¹ How does it construct the poor?² Or how does it affect the class structure in society?³ Yet, any kind of giving requires the involvement of at least two actors and, as a process, it has effects on both sides. Those who, in a specific moment, occupy the position of the giver are also shaped and transformed by the act...

    • Chapter 15 Making Shari‘a Alive: Court Practice under an Ethnographic Lens
      (pp. 153-161)
      Susanne Dahlgren

      In this chapter, I present a court case litigated in one of the family sections of the Aden Magistrates’ Court, situated in the southern part of the Republic of Yemen. I will argue that while in current Yemeni legal debates opponents have labelled the 1974 Family Law as “deviating from the shari‘a”, legal practice needs to be taken into consideration to see how shari‘a was actually practised during the course of that law (1974–92). My aim is also to demonstrate that by applying the ethnographic method in a study of court practice, something new can be discovered in the...

    • Chapter 16 Referring to Islam as a Practice: Audiences, Relevancies and Language Games within the Egyptian Parliament
      (pp. 162-169)
      Enrique Klaus and Baudouin Dupret

      In this chapter, we address the question of referring to Islam as a social practice, not in abstract terms, from an overhanging viewpoint, but as it is embedded in members’ routine activities. Hence, the relevance of ethnography in our undertaking, for referring-to-Islam is a situated accomplishment that must be described in context and in action. What it contextually means and “does” to refer to Islam can only be elucidated through a close description of people’s orientation to, and reification of, categories as they emerge from their actual encounter with social matters.

      The context we are dealing with is the Egyptian...

    • Chapter 17 Contesting Public Images of ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud (1910–78): Who is an Authentic Scholar?
      (pp. 170-178)
      Hatsuki Aishima

      In recent decades, professional boundaries between Islamic studies and socio-cultural anthropology have blurred, as anthropologists have started to produce insightful work on scholarly cultures of Islam, illuminating the diverse manners in which canonical texts are acquired, produced and performed in a given socio-historical context.¹ Such ethnographies from Muslim societies have shed light on the profane life of sacred texts, analysing the everyday contexts in which ordinary Muslims skilfully employ the words from the Qur’an and hadiths (accounts of Prophet Muhammad) quoted by religious authorities for their purposes.² At the same time, field research has become a common approach in Islamic...

  6. Part Three: The Ethnography of History
    • Chapter 18 Possessed of Documents: Hybrid Laws and Translated Texts in the Hadhrami Diaspora
      (pp. 181-192)
      Michael Gilsenan

      In a complex Muslim inheritance case in the Singapore High Court in 2004, contesting siblings disputed the validity of a particular gift of property by their late father that favoured one group over the other.¹ The defence attempted to have a fatwa by the Mufti of Egypt introduced into evidence. The plaintiffs objected. Sustaining the objection, the judge ruled that the “purported opinion (just about a page and a half in length)” was inadmissible because its “maker” was not present to give oral testimony and be cross-examined. Moreover, he remarked that the fatwa was “more in the form of a...

  7. About the Contributors
    (pp. 193-195)
  8. Index
    (pp. 196-202)