Sociology and Anthropology

Islam Obscured: The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation

Daniel Martin Varisco’s Islam Obscured: The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation provides a very sound and well-informed literary critique of Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed (1968), Ernest Gellner’s Muslim Society (1981), Fatima Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil (1975), and Akbar Ahmed’s Discovering Islam (1988). The author, an experienced ethnographer of Middle Eastern societies, examines the treatments and representations of Islam in these seminal texts. After presenting his topic and background in the introduction, he demonstrates how these four authors obscured, misrepresented, and elided the everyday lives of Muslims. In the epilogue, Varisco gleans some important lessons for the study of Islam from his entertaining and witty exploration of these social science texts. 

In the book’s introduction, the author briefly discusses the intellectual history of anthropology and ethnographic studies of Muslims. He notes that the discipline of anthropology has encountered numerous problems, including its recognition of Victorian traveler’s reports, Spencerian “evolutionism,” and the postcolonial critique of Eurocentric textual representations of non-western others. Addressing the current state of anthropological theory, Varisco mentions the blurring of boundaries between established disciplines as well as the particularly American problem over whether to maintain the four-field approach of holistically studying human beings.

In keeping with this Eurocentric slant toward “primitives,” he observes that there were very few ethnographic studies of Muslims, except Evans-Pritchard’s 1940s work on Cyrenaican Bedouins and those by others following his example, until ethnographers began to produce Robert Redfield influenced community  tudies.Yetmany of these latter studies were done by researchers who, with little proficiency inArabic, wrote from a distance and thus barely penetrated the surface of Islam in local Muslims’ lives. Varisco describes the main thread of ethnographic studies of Muslims, from Evans-Pritchard to Gellner, Geertz, and his students I. M. Lewis and Michael Gilsenen, as concentrating on Islamic mysticism: “Once again, it seems as though anthropology came to Islam via the exotic, as though the mundane was too obvious, perhaps too boring, to require explanation” (p. 17).

Chapter 1, “CliffordGeertz: IslamObservedAgain,” argues that Geertz’s seminal text on Islam, contrary to its claims, is “neither scientific nor ethnographic” (p. 29) due to its profound lack of any analysis of primary texts, contextual depth, and cultural thickness. Moreover, Varisco asserts that the ethnographic data is peculiarly absent: “What we get is Geertz’s read; the only natives in sight are those viewed generically through the lens of the absent ethnographer’s own highly crafted rhetoric. Flesh-and-blood Muslims are obscured, visible only through cleverly contrived representation and esssentialized types” (p. 29). Varisco proceeds to locate the epistemological bases of Geertz’s misunderstanding of Islam in his reliance upon Weber’s model of ideal types and his own “symbol”-ridden definition of religion, which displaces society, economics, and politics. Moreover, the author states that Geertz’s representation of Islam emphasizes his “models for” conception of religion as a cultural subsystem. In closing this chapter, Varisco returns to the critical issue of the absence of Muslims being observed and spoken to in their local contexts in this book, a matter that is central to any significant contribution of anthropology.


Daniel Martin Varisco, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. 226 pages.

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