Sunday, May 9, 2010

Book Review: Islam Observed

Islam Observed
Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia

A lucky find at a local used bookstore provided a slim, but interesting, book to read as a break from Braudel. Geertz is a prominent anthropologist whose work has influenced the study of culture across disciplines, I read some essays by him in political science classes for instance. This particular book is one of his earlier ones and is based upon ethnographic research in Indonesia and Morocco. In it, Geertz is seeking to observe how religions respond to deep changes within society, the study of a single religion in two such very different countries always this comparison to be successfully made.

To develop his argument, Geertz quickly goes over the religious history in both countries as well as traditional myths about an early religious figure in each society who also comes from a period of great change. He also describes a more recent political figure that had special significance for each state's religious life, in Morocco Muhammed V and in Indonesia Sukarno. These sections contain a wealth of fascinating information and are a good example of using comparisons to learn about culture and development. He also develops descriptions of how religious views are structured in each state, despite both being Islamic the historical experiences of each have resulted in an Islam that emphasizes very different ways of being religious and very different qualities as being admirable in religious figures.

In the more theoretical portions, Geertz describes religion as being a "symbolic screen" through which experience is interpreted. Religion serves as a paradigm, it is not the result of experiences but exists prior to them and allows them to be interpreted in everyday life. In several places he describes religion as filling in the gaps in common sense, we cannot make sense of everything we experience solely through the lens of our own experiences of how the world works so we need a broader interpretive framework.

He describes this as a fusion of common sense with the ethos of religion which makes religion part of the common sense that governs everyday interactions. He distinguishes two qualities that he sees as describing how religion alters a religious person's world view. One of these is force, which is how thoroughly it becomes infused in a person's life and how central it is to a person's identity. The second is scope, which is the range of activities where religion is seen as seen as being more or less relevant. In the two countries Geertz considers, he describes Morocco as having a greater force but less scope of religious life. Religious considerations are more intense but regard fewer aspects of everyday life than in Indonesia where almost everything has at least some small tinge of religious significance.

An area of particular interest to me is Geertz's discussion of the reaction of religious thinking to newer influences. In particular, he describes the tensions that modern life is having on religiosity in these countries. In his view, it is not reducing the role of religion in people's lives or making them doubt their own belief systems but it is instead causing them to doubt their own piety. This is caused by an increasing divergence between the world of experiences which has been influenced so much by modernization and the world as represented through their belief systems, where before each reinforced the other, now there is a divergence that needs to be reconciled.

Responses to this have varied, the one I find most interesting is scripturalism which is a return to the text of the Koran and represents a rejection not only of secular thinking but also of the religious traditions of the past. This is where the book's age actually becomes a strength. It dates from 1968, a period where the Arab-Israeli tensions were mostly between states rather than non-state groups and before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and obviously now our own, which has had a definite impact on studying Islam. Even where it is not the primary subject, I have read little on the religion that was written more recently that does not seem to have at least some influence from these events. Geertz's description of scripturalism of religion as an ideologization of it, as well as his discussions about the influence of modernity on the religious, certainly is informative of these trends that are so important today. But this is a reading of these trends after the fact, when this was written this was simply a possibility. From reading this I feel I have gained a valuable perspective on trends I know have led to radicalization that I could not have gained from reading more recent works on the subject where the direction these trends have reached today are known.

While the the book is worth reading for what it says about religion in general, or the comparative history of Indonesia and Morocco, or about comparative anthropology (or the comparative methods of cultural studies generally), I would most strongly recommend this book as a very concise way to learn about trends within Islam as they were understood before later historical developments. This is a perspective that I found surprisingly illuminating and given the work's brevity, just over 100 pages of text, would highly recommend it as a purchase for anyone that stumbles across it in a used book store (not sure I could justify paying for a new copy of a 40 year old book however, especially since Geertz has written several newer books, at least one that deals with his time in Indonesia and Morocco, though I'm unsure if the subject matter is quite the same).

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