Sociology and Anthropology

Toward Islamic Anthropology: Islamic Anthropology

A. The Problem of Definition

It 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) deserves the title of father of anthropology (I have explored this in "Al Biruni: the First Anthropologist" 1984). 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 (a1 Biruni 1984; Said 1979; Said & Zahid 1981). 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 (1965). So, almost a thousand years before Malinowski and Geertz, al Biruni was establishing the science of anthropology. Therefore, the study of society by Muslims, 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, tolerance - 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 God. In actuality this may not be so. Does he see society as motivated by the desire to perform the will of God 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" (Barth 1966:4).

The "holists", on the other hand, view man as motivated by configurations of economy and society which 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 which are 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.

For the Muslim, rules of marriage, inheritance and an entire code - covering the most intimate details of human behavior - are laid down explicitly. The organization of society and the behavior of its members are predetermined. For Muslims, therefore, the dilemmas of this world are reduced. Man's mission is to reconcile society with the instructions of God. Debates between one or another school of thought thus become merely academic exercises.

Life, God has repeated, has not been created in jest. It is a struggle to better humanity, to improve the moral quality of our brief span on earth. The struggle to do so - the jihad - must be maintained.

The Muslim remains part of the ummah, the community. A too blatant expression of individual ambitious desire will provoke disapproval from the community. Which is not to say individuals do not break rules or behave in an entirely non-Muslim manner. But we are concerned with Muslim groups and not individuals. This social ethos is in contrast to the West where man is an individual first and last. Politics, business and even private life in the West are an expression of this individuality. It is this contrast which sometimes makes it difficult for the two civilizations to see eye to eye on certain key issues.

How do Muslims tackle the subject of anthropology of Islam as Muslims - as believers. Ali Shariati has attempted an answer: "Religion is, therefore, a road or a path, leading from clay to God and conveying man from vileness, stagnation and ignorance, from the lowly life of clay and satanic character, towards exaltation, motion, vision, the life of the spirit and divine character. If it succeeds in doing so, then it is religion in truth. But if it does not, then either you have chosen the wrong path, or you are making wrong use of the right path." (Shariati 1979: 94).

Anthropology, I am arguing, can assist in illuminating "the right path". But the primary problem before us is not the balancing of options but finding out what they are.

The two myths pertaining to the Muslim social world which continue to provide material to attack Muslims are the status of women (their lack of rights, their suppression and, connected to this, polygamy in the society) and the continuing tyranny, anarchy, and despotism of Muslim politics (the paperback version of Wittfogel's Oriental Despotism displays a picture of a mosque on its cover, 1981). We have seen how anthropologists often reflect the second in their depiction of Muslim political life. The first point is less well advertised, as the literature has been largely by male anthropologists who have had little access to Muslim women.

Minor religious injunctions or customs are exaggerated and ridicule Islam. For instance, Muslims are prohibited from eating pork as it is not considered halal or pure. Many other animals are also considered impure or haram. This is one of the features best known about Muslim by non-Muslims. A minor social injunction has become a major theological issue (pig taboo among Muslims was the theme of an academic controversy in Current Anthropology recently). The prohibition is a subject of caricature and satire. It has become one of the symbols dividing the Western (pork eating) and Muslim (non pork-eating) world.

What methodological position would Islamic anthropology adopt to tackle these issues? One answer - and perhaps the easiest way out -is to be eclectic. But eclecticism is self-defeating, not because there is only one direction in which it is heuristically useful to move, but so many. We must choose - what Shariati calls - "the right path".

There has been a suggestion by Muslim anthropologists that there is not one Islam but many Islams (el-Zein 1974, 1977), a suggestion taken up by Western anthropologists (Eickelman 1981). I disagree with this position. There is only one Islam, and there can be only one Islam, but there are many Muslim societies. We must then not look for numerous "Islams" but we must attempt to place the multitude of Muslim societies within the framework of one universal Islam.

In a paper written a few years ago, I had argued that the romantic view of the tribesman created as a result of the colonial encounter was false (Ahmed 1978). The view did not take into account the real hardships the tribesmen faced in militarily challenging the Imperial power. To the Pukhtuns in the Tribal Areas, for instance, there was no romance in fighting the British. Barbed wires and bombed civilian populations do not win friends. For the Pukhtuns the encounter remained an unceasing struggle for religion and freedom.

The debate between those examining tribal or nomad groups "romantically" versus those who see them realistically persists in modern anthropology. The Bedouins of Saudi Arabia provide a contemporary example. Lancaster, an Englishman, sees the Bedouins as "the noble savage", embodying the virtues of the desert (1980,1981) in contrast to the American anthropologist Cole (1975) - one of the few Western anthropologists allowed to do fieldwork in Saudi Arabia. Muslim intellectuals do not necessarily harbor romantic views of tribesmen. To them Islam - and Islamic culture - lie in the city (Ajami 1981: 103-4). The "romantic" image obfuscates the real problems of the tribesmen. The tribesman cannot ignore or reject the twentieth century; he cannot will away the state he is part of.

To understand better, segmentary tribal social structure and organization with reference to the Pukhtun, I had suggested a taxonomic exercise (Ahmed 1976, 1980a). Pukhtun society may be divided into two discrete categories. Each category is symbolized by a key concept, nang (honour) in one and qalang (rents and taxes) in the other case. Nang and qalang are the major conative and affective symbols in society. Nang society, based largely in the Tribal Areas, is acephalous, egalitarian, and placed in low production zones. Qalang society is ranked, literate and dependent on large irrigated estates. Qalang creates superior and subordinate social roles. Nang and qalang are categories which are useful when looking at Muslim groups elsewhere (Ahmed and Hart 1983).

In a recent study I have suggested we examine not the macro level of society - dynasties, armies, finances - nor the typical anthropological village but an intermediate level -the district (Ahmed 1982 b, 1983). On this level three key and distinct categories of society interact: the representatives of central government (whether army or civil), traditional leaders (based on land or genealogy) and religious leaders (usually the mullahs). For this purpose we may construct the Islamic district paradigm (Islam here is understood in a sociological not theological sense). In particular, roles such as that of the mullah, one of the least understood and least studied must be carefully researched. We have two distinct images of the mullah. One derives from the Western prototype, the "Mad Mullah", from Swat to Sudan. The image of the fanatic was fostered by the British as the mullahs stood against them when other groups in society had quietly acquiesced. The other image is that of saintly figures incapable of wrong, as suggested by Muslim writers. The truth is somewhere in between.' It is at this district level of society where we may predict and foretell the shape of things to come in Muslim society. The Islamic district paradigm will help us
do so.

A perception such as that of the Orientalist anthropologist re-opens a fundamental question regarding anthropology. Is one function of anthropology to serve as a bridge between different cultural systems helping us to understand others and thereby ourselves? If so, such perceptions as that of Barth, may not be the best material for the bridge. Some third-world anthropologists would argue that it is already too late for any bridge building exercises (see Asad 1973). However scientific the analysis, human beings are sensitive to cultural arrogance disguised as scientific jargon.

The anthropologist in some ways is an ambassador of his world to the village he is visiting. He not only interprets the native group to his world but his own world to them. If he is not conscious of his relationship he may create problems for future social scientists in that area or working with his group. The question raises a related issue. Is good anthropology -from the point of view of the native, at least - sympathetic anthropology? Not necessarily. Anthropologists must record society as it is not as it should be. But I think it is imperative that anthropology be fair. Not only the warts on the face of society need to be emphasized. It is for this reason we may today read The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (Evans-Pritchard 1973) and find it a fair account although it was written by a colonial officer a generation ago. Some understanding of the virtues of a people especially as anthropologists see them, along with a scientific analysis, are important to the discipline.(1)

It is worth noting that anthropology as a discipline is yet to grow in the Muslim world. Muslim anthropologists of stature are few and far between. The two outstanding examples are Nur Yalman of Turkey and Imtiaz Ahmed of India. Nur is almost unique in that his topic of study was a Buddhist village in Sri Lanka. He is unique in that for once in the contemporary world Islam was observing and not being observed. Imtiaz Ahmed, an Indian Muslim examines his own people. He reflects the major sociological problems confronting Indian Muslims, in particular the continuing interaction with the larger Hindu cultural system. His work discusses the growth of caste among Muslims.(2)

The Muslim intellectual confronting the world today is sometimes moved to despair. He is ill-equipped to face it. His vulnerability diminishes him in his own eyes. He wanders between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. His wounds are largely self-inflicted. At the root of his intellectual malaise lies his incapacity to come to terms with Islam in the twentieth century.

The aim of anthropology remains to move from the specific to the general, to draw universal conclusions from specific situations. If so, is "Islamic anthropology" only for Islam or Muslims? No. The lessons we may learn will be methodologically valid for other world religious systems specifically and Third World cultural systems generally.

B. Muslim Societies

Let me briefly attempt a taxonomy of Muslim society - providing models with associated characteristics - based on historical sequences and social structure and organization. The taxonomy of Muslim society will illustrate the variety of structures and therefore the complexity of the problem. The models generally provide a chronological sequence corresponding with broad periods in Muslim history. But the categories are neither complete nor incontrovertible. The taxonomy is merely a starting point for a sociological discussion of Islamic anthropology.

The first, primordial model, one which is associated with early Islam and continues until today, is "tribal segmentary Islam". This category may include the Bedouin, the Berber, and the Pukhtun. These tribes are spread from one end of North Africa to North West Pakistan but the model is recognizable and in many ways similar. A sense of tribal identity and an understanding of the tribal code are highly developed and the world is seen in relationship to one's place on the genealogical charter. It was perhaps on account of his awareness of this form of social organization that the Prophet (SAAS) in his well known hadith warned that there were no genealogies in Islam. Islam then, transcends tribal loyalties.

The second category provides a model which may be called the "Ottoman" or the "cantonment" model of Islam and this contrasts sharply with the previous model. Chronologically, this model evolved during the zenith of Islamic history. The Ottomans had hit upon a solution which rather neatly solved the tribal problem. They selected administrators from one part of their empire and gave them charges in distant parts. Loyalties with tribal kin or land were therefore eliminated. The administrator served only the empire. To some extent the other great empires of Islam, such as the Safawis and the Mughals, also adopted the 'Uthmanli (Ottoman) model.

More lasting than the 'Uthmanli model were "the Great-River Islamic civilizations". These civilizations, along the Indus, the Tigris and the Nile produced societies and dynasties with characteristic splendor, palaces, standing armies, and vast bureaucracies. Their rise and decline sometimes coincided with Islamic empires mentioned above, sometimes not. One aspect of these civilizations has been termed "Oriental Despotism" (Wittfogel1957). With the slow process of decay, Islamic societies fell prey to expanding Western powers eager for colonies and markets.

The fourth category (covering the last two centuries) may be termed "Islam under Western imperialism". The West conquered and colonized the Muslims. In this phase a determined attempt was made by the West to portray Islam as stagnant and decadent. Along with discrediting or smashing the centers of Islam, other more interesting attempts were made to create alternative societies.

The most famous examples of these were the canal colonies of the Punjab in the late last century. A model province was ordered for South Asia. Virgin land was provided to settlers but the village scheme reflected the South Asian caste and structure. The choudhry - or lambardar - headed the village. Beneath him were members of the dominant bardari or qom (tribe or lineage). At the bottom of the ladder were the kammis – the occupational groups - the barbers and carpenters. The mullah, the religious functionary, who symbolizes Islamic function in village society, was deliberately included among the kammis as a sign of humiliation. It was made explicit that Muslim rule was over. The mullah, the man who led the Muslim prayers in the mosque, was clearly subordinated to the choudhry or the lambardar of the village who was appointed by the British. Perhaps the harshness was due to British incapacity to deal with other altogether different category of mullahs, those among tribal groups who led revolts throughout the empire. The British dismissed the leaders of Islamic revolts against them as mere fanatics. The "Mad Mullah" was a handy imperial label to explain away Muslim leaders from Sudan to Swat. Until today the Mullah has not entirely shaken off his association with the kammis of the village (for instance in the revenue records such as the jamabandi). In this phase of history the mullah had become a metaphor for Islam, his place in the village hierarchy a reflection of his destiny and that of his religion.

"Re-emergent Islam" is the fifth and contemporary model of Islam. Re-emergent Islam in the contemporary Muslim world is perhaps best symbolized by Pakistan both in its moments of glory and its moments of pain. The very creation of Pakistan itself was a living symbol of a renascent Islam and its power to mobilize followers. The name of its capital further symbolizes its self-conscious destiny, Islamabad - the abode of Islam. The defeat, humiliation, and physical breaking of Pakistan in 1971 was symptomatic of the counter pressures that were generated by means of this form of force and vitality by the enemies of Islamic endeavor. It is in this phase that the immediate past is sometimes renegotiated and sometimes rejected. For instance, Lyallpur, one of the major towns of the Punjab, named after the British Governor Lyall - who was referred to earlier - has been renamed Faisalabad after the popular king Faisal of Arabia.

But perhaps Iran has surpassed Pakistan as a living symbol of Islam. However, it is too early to comment on the situation in Iran. The 1970s were - and it is predicted the 1980s will be - decades of "re-emergent Islam". This model is as dynamic and as exciting with possibilities as it is unpredictable.

But Muslim social history is not all defeat and conquest, and societies not all dynasties and tribes. Muslim society is also characterized by towns and trade (which accounts for the spread of Islam in the distant parts of Southeast Asia) and the presence of vigorous minority groups living in Thailand, China, Russia, and India.

It is no coincidence that in the Western world Islam remains weak. There are only small Islamic groups in Western Europe, North and South America, Australia and South Africa. Islam remains confined in the main to Asia and Africa.

Over the last centuries the world of Islam has rarely been tranquil. Internally it has constantly challenged and renewed itself. Religious leaders have emerged in the heart of Arabia, such as Muhammad ibn 'Abd a1 Wahab and Sidi a1 Hasan Lyusi in Morocco. Apart from these leaders who strove to reform the Muslims from within were those whose first task was to challenge the enemies of Islam. Through the ages Muslim leaders have emerged to challenge and engage those forces hostile to Islam. In the last century in South Asia, Sayyid Ahmad Barelwi, in what is now Pakistan and Hajj Shari7a Allah in Bengal, emerged to conduct jihad. Later in the century the Mahdi emerged in Sudan, the Sanusi in Cyrenaica, and the Akhund in Swat to organize Muslims according to Islam and fight to maintain their religious and cultural boundaries against imperial forces.

Today Muslim society is again moving. Tribes and peasant groups in the Muslim world today are changing and will continue to change rapidly. Weber has underlined the role of the Protestant ethic in the success story of modern capitalism. Work, for its own sake, thrift, and austerity have combined to lay the foundations of capitalist society. But in parts of the Muslim world, the discovery of oil has brought new and untold riches abruptly. Wealth has been generated by forces that are not internal to the structure of society. Society is being changed as a result of economic changes which remain external. Unless anthropologists, first, analyze the social situation and, second, the leaders of society utilize this knowledge, the tensions can be severe. Here, too, anthropological studies can assist in our understanding of the processes of change.

C. Society During the Time of the Prophet (SAAS)

When Muslim leaders talk about creating a perfect contemporary Muslim society, what do they mean? To assist us in building this society we may refer to the original ideal Muslim society at the time of the Prophet. But have we a clear understanding or even picture of that model? Do we know the various inter-connected parts of the structure of that society? We must clearly - and through sociological models - know about the household, the rites de passage, the genealogical charters related to questions of exogamy and endogamy, the role of elders, and the general code of behavior permeating society.

There are some speculatory anthropological papers on the subject (Aswad 1979, Eickelman 1967, Lagace 1957, Wold 1951). But we need a thorough study. It is fundamental to those talking of creating a contemporary Muslim society on the basis of an early Islamic model to first create a model of the original. To the best of my knowledge no such task has been attempted.(3) Related to the question of writing on early Islam is the life of the Prophet himself (SAAS).

The life of the Prophet (SAAS) needs to be produced in simple and clear terms for the contemporary generation of Muslims. As his life and example remain the primary paradigm of Islamic behavior, the exercise is vital to an understanding of Islam-both for Muslims and non-Muslims. His social roles - father, husband, friend and so on - illuminate some key principles of Islamic social behavior. How these roles relate to fathers, husbands, and friends in our world needs to be discussed and elaborated.

The traditional Islamic scholar needs to shift the personality of the Prophet (SAAS) to where it belongs - the forefront of the Islamic argument. We need to know more of him as a social person; his humility (his doubts to Hazrat Khadijah - RAA - when he received the first revelations); his humor (rebuking his closest companion Abu Bakr – RAA - who had lost his temper and was beating a man for letting a camel stray during a pilgrimage, with a smile, "Look at this pilgrim"); his humanity (forgiving Hind, who in her hatred of him ate the liver of his uncle Harnzah, the lion of Allah); his gentleness (he could not contain his tears when he told the children and wife of Ja'far ibn Abu Talib of his death); his love of children (the Madinah boy with whom he joked - and comforted, when the boy's pet nightingale died); and his kindness to animals (posting a man to guard the puppies of a bitch who had given birth on the way to the conquest of Makkah). These examples speak of a man of extraordinary perception,
goodness and gentleness.

A biography written by Muslims for Muslims is needed. And in spite of the need for such a biography those worthy of the subject are few and far between; of these a1 Faruqi's translation of Haykal(1976) and Lings, (1983) may be mentioned. A notable - if somewhat apologetic - attempt was made a century ago by Sayyid Amir Ali. Muhammad Zafarullah Khan's biography of the Prophet - 1980 - presents problems for those Muslims who hold the author's sect as outside the pale of Islam.

Some Muslim biographers have rarely risen over simple hagiography. For our purposes what is needed is sociology not hagiography. On the other hand, the standard Western biographies - and some of the material is based on extensive research -are for the most part a generation old or older, and reflect some of the traditional animosity to their subject (Andrae 1936, Archer 1924, Bell 1926, Gibb 1980, Muir 1858-61, Rodinson 1980 and Watt 1953, 1956, 1978). Watt's biographies still remain the standard Western work on the subject. There are a few "modem" biographies, such as Rodinson (1980) which relies on psychological analysis.' Recent Western scholarship appears undecided on how to treat the life of the Prophet.

1. Not only are some members of the First World-anthropologists and others-guilty of lack of sympathy for the Third World. The colonial mentality was never a monopoly of the West. The kala sahib - black sahib - one feature of Empire in South Asia, still lives. A good example of a Third World writer living in and writing for the First World is V.S. Naipaul. His characteristic features - sharp powers of observation and brilliant skill at description combined with cynicism and contempt for his subject- are displayed to the full in his new book on Muslim society (1981). His method is what I would call "First World contemporary colonial", that is, fly into the local Intercontinental hotel, pick up a taxi and drive around for a few hours or days picking up trivia before moving to the next place.

In the course of his interviews, he uses the most objectionable methods such as lying- as to Ayatullah Shirazi in Iran (Naipaul 1981: 49-53) - and repeating private conversations confided by his hosts whether Indian housewives or petty officials in Pakistan. To him these people, whose lives are sunk in personal and public chaos and irreversible poverty, appear to do little more than, hawk, fart, nose-pick, deceive (themselves), and despair. Despair – the word sounding like a death-knell - is repeated in his work. His people are caricatures of a caricature.

This is Naipaul's world view of the Third World. Muslims are no exception. Yet nowhere have I read an expression of personal gratitude for people who are with such limited resources so generously hospitable to him; no word of sympathy for their aspirations and struggle; no suggestion of hope for their goals. The "First World contemporary colonial" visits these people with a set objective in mind: he is extracting a new book from their lives. He cannot be distracted by humanity and its suffering (For a rebuttal of Naipaul by a Muslim scholar see Khurshid Ahmad 19821.

2. The name of Muhammad Maaroof (Professor and Chairman, Department of Anthropology, Cheyney State University, Cheyney, PA) author of "Elements For an Islamic Anthropology" in I.R. al Faruqi and A.O. Naseef, eds., Social and Natural Sciences: The Islamic Perspective (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1981, pp.116-139) should be mentioned -Ed.

3. This is an exercise I hope to conduct in the near future The Social Structure and Organization of Early Muslim Society (Ahmed forthcoming).

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