Sociology and Anthropology

Toward Islamic Anthropology

t would appear from the previous section that anthropology is, if not a child, a creation of the West and more specifically Western imperialism. This is not so. The work of Ibn Khaldun is reflected-with theoretical frame and supporting data-in that of some of the most influential contemporary Western theorists including Karl Marx, Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, and Ernest Gellner. Weber’s typology of leadership, Pareto’s circulation of elites, and Gellner’s pendulum swing theory of Muslim society betray the influence of Ibn Khaldun. It is indeed a tragedy that the science of sociology or anthropology did not develop after Ibn Khaldun. And Ibn Khaldun was not alone. There were al Biruni, Ibn Battuta, and al Mas’udi, to name a few.

Of these, perhaps al Biruni (973-1048) A.C. deserves the title of father of anthropology (see “A1 Biruni: the First Anthropologist.” If anthropology is a science based on extended participant observation of (other) cultures using the data collected, for value-neutral, dispassionate analysis employing the comparative method, then al Biruni is indeed an anthropologist of the highest contemporary standards. His work on (Hindu) India-Kitab al Hind-remains one of the most important source books for South Asia. The most perceptive of contemporary Hindu scholars, including mavericks like Nirad Chaudhari, quote him approvingly. So, almost a thousand years before Malinmki and Geertz, al Biruni was establishing the science of anthropology.

Therefore the study of society by Muslims developing Islamic sociology or anthropology is not a new or Western science.

We may define Islamic anthropology loosely as the study of Muslim groups by scholars committed .to the universalistic principles of Islam, humanity, knowledge, and respectful tolerance, and relating micro village tribal studies in particular - to the larger historical and ideological frames of Islam. Islam is here understood not as theology but sociology. The definition thus does not preclude non-Muslims.

Certain conceptual points must first be clarified. What is the world view of the Muslim anthropologist? In the ideal the Muslim orders his life according to the will of Allah. In actuality this may not be so. Does he see society as motivated by the desire to perform the will of Allah or not? If so, the Muslim must strive to bring the actual into accord with the ideal.

Let us pose these questions in the context of the two major – sometimes overlapping - theoretical positions in the Western social sciences. These divisions are between the “methodological individualists” and the “methodological holists.” Briefly, the individualists examine man in society as an actor maximizing and optimizing. Social interaction is seen as a series of transactions in which “value gained and lost” is recorded in individual “ledgers.” The “holists” on-the other hand, view man as motivated by configurations of economy and society that transcend the individual. These divisions are not rigid and are made more complex by the different schools of anthropology.

Such debates must be directed to scientific inquiry in order to discover the dynamics of society. For society is dynamic and studies of social phenomena not directed towards clarifying it are reduced to academic exercises.

Which framework is applicable when analyzing a Muslim social actor? Does he behave as an individualist recording units of value gained and lost in a personal ledger? Or does he respond to social configurations of which he is part? With Muslims, we may suggest the latter.

Islam teaches us to deal with the major concern of human beings, which is to relate to our environment. And our relationships with people – individuals and groups - are the main features of our environment. Islam, then is a social religion. The implications for the Muslim are clear. He is part of the ummah, the community, to which he gives loyalty and which provides him with social identity. In the ideal, he belongs in part to his immediate group, in part to the larger ummah.

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