Sociology and Anthropology

Toward Islamic Anthropology: The Orientalist Anthropologist

Edward Said's Orientalism is a powerful indictment of the subject and its practitioners. He states explicitly the prejudices and tendentious arguments of the Orientalists. It is also altogether too passionate and angry an argument. Because of the power and passion, the more down-to-earth simpler weaknesses of Orientalist scholarship are left out. For instance, rather than accusing Bernard Lewis of mental exhaustion, moral bankruptcy etc., I would have, as an anthropologist, pointed out some of the conceptual weaknesses in his study. His categories of tribe and peasant in society are seriously at fault (Lewis 1966). The one is often employed for the other. This to an anthropologist is not a minor slip.

My quarrel is with some of the technical terms used by Lewis in describing social structure and organisation in Arabia. "Arab society," he writes, "on the eve of Islam consisted of kings, feudalism, vassals, peasants, and tribes" (ibid:25). "Feudalism", "vassals", and "peasants" are the vocabulary of medieval Europe. I seriously doubt if the concept of feudalism is applicable within the highly developed tribal structure in Arabia (before or after Islam). In any case the two would find it difficult to co-exist ("Kings" and "feudalism" and segmentary tribal groups are at different ends of the social spectrum). Feudalism, as we know, is a discrete social category with associated characteristics. It is the wrong time, place, and people for such concepts. Lewis, a few pages later contradicts himself when he – correctly this time -talks of the domination of "Bedouin tribalism" (ibid:29).

Even today Orientalists in a hangover from a past age continue to offend Muslims by the use of "Mohammedanism" for Muslims (see the title of Gibb 1980, and of Grunebaum 1951). Such perception affects those who look to the Orientalists for guidance.

The Oxford dictionary still uses the word "Mohammedanism" in spite of its obvious odium for Muslims. Of the numerous derogatory references to Muslims in Orientalist literature, let me pick a few at random to illustrate the point.(1) In the last chapter, "Assessment", of the standard biography of the Prophet in the West, the author discusses Adolf Hitler's "creative imagination" and "neurotic" character (Watt 1978:239). He relates these to the "neurosis" of his followers. This is immediately followed by a discussion of the creative imagination of the Prophet: the point being made to a Western audience - the book was first published just 16 years after the Second World War and hysteria about the Germans still remained - is as explicit as it is crude.'(2) Another social scientist (Patai 1969) sets out to demonstrate why and how Muslim society responds to the fuehrer-type leader (the Hitler motif is, once again, introduced).

The Orientalists have neither tired nor relented. In a new work, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, the authors, Crone and Cook, attack the very core of lslaml (1980). It is the traditional Onentalist attack on the authenticity of prophethood with a more sophisticated and academic approach.

Claiming to have discovered original contemporary documents Crone and Cook put forward a thesis that the Prophethood of Islam belonged to Caliph 'Umar a1 Faruq (d.24AW644AC). They argue that the Prophet Muhammad (SAAS) was sent to preach the coming of Hazrat Umar but decided to appropriate the role for himself. The authors further challenge the historicity of the hijrah and its date 622 (Crone and Cook - 1980:9). Academic neutrality is abandoned in their dislike for Islam. In a discussion of comparative intellectual trends in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity the authors conclude: "The only obverse to the gravitas of Muslims is the giggling of their womenfolk" (ibid:147). The authors are themselves on record as suggesting the book will cause offense to Muslims: "This is a book written by infidels for infidels" (ibid:8). They do not wish for academic dialogue.

For Muslims it is easy to dismiss the book as nonsense.(3) I disagree. With its academic pretensions (written by Professors of London University and published by Cambridge University Press) Islamic scholars would do well to prepare a reply. If not, their silence will be taken as an incapacity to prepare a suitable answer.

The Orientalists compare the Prophet's age as one of "violence" and "barbarism" to theirs of "gentleness" and "peace"! Montgomery Watt - suggesting the death of Kab ibn a1 Ashraf, an enemy of Islam, was instigated by the Prophet - observes, "In the gentler… age in which we live men look askance at such conduct, particularly in a religious leader" (Watt 1978: 128- 9). He compares his own age with that of the Prophet's and concludes that "in Muhammad's age and country such behavior was quite normal" (ibid.).

What, Watt is saying, can we expect from people who had no "common decency" (ibid:173)? "We" as Edward Said has alerted the West, "are rational and virtuous and they -the people of the Orient - are irrational and depraved."

Taking this cue from Orientalists, certain anthropologists have employed the "Peace and War" distinction to classify "primitive" tribes and "civilized" nations (Sahlins 1968).'(4) Tribesmen are constantly killing each other or engaging in "War". Civilized nations, on the other hand, live in "Peace". The comparison never fails to amuse me. It is made by members of the civilized nations who in this century alone have plunged the entire world into wars that lasted for years at a toll of millions of lives. We are still paying for those years of global madness. The scale, organization - and savagery - of the two World Wars has never been matched before in human history. And today we may be drifting to a Third War -a nuclear one this time - again fought by the advanced and civilized nations of the world.

Is the Orientalist really serious about the gentleness of our age? How do we explain the millions "gently" killed by Stalin, Hitler, Mao and Pol Pot. Hitler is accused of having exterminated between five and six million Jews alone in the most savage and unprecedented manner, an event which has permanently scarred the consciousness of modem man. This from a "gentle" age characterised by "common decency". In contrast let me cite the example of "primitive" people at war.

When the Prophet (SAAS) finally reconquered Makkah – after suffering extreme personal humiliation from the city - he forgave all those who wished to live in peace. A general amnesty was declared and apart from a few criminals, no one was killed. The conquest of Makkah - a turning point in the history of Islam -involved the death of less than 30 people in combat (and during the march on the city the Prophet's humanity was undiminished and displayed itself when he ordered the protection of a bitch who had given birth to new puppies). During the Prophet's entire career and campaigns, only about a thousand men - Muslims and non-Muslims - died. A cheap price for one of the world's greatest revolutions. Be that as it may, the myth of anarchy and instability among Muslim groups persisted and persists.

Perhaps it was the Victorian emphasis on order and stability that was reflected in the perception of Muslim tribal groups. These tribal groups were seen as intrinsically turbulent and unstable "ordered anarchies". Violence was seen as characteristic of society. I agree with Professor Abdullah Laroui, the Moroccan historian, that the colonial cliche describing hill tribes - "a scattering of tribes killing each other" -was the aim not the cause of colonialism (1977). Nonetheless the "anarchic" perception of tribal society is a legacy which persists in contemporary anthropology: "North Arabian Bedouin culture turned in large part upon the notion that violence lay at the center of political life. Men tended to think of themselves, their possessions, and their relationships in terms of this violence" (Meeker 1979:19). And "the Cyrenaican Bedouin often perceive the entire domain of political experience as a wild world of brutality and savagery" (ibid. :207). Similarly, Fredrik Barth examining the Swat Pukhtuns found them ceaselessly and insatiably engaged in "attacking", "seizing", and "killing" each other (Barth 1972).

And the end is not yet in sight. The Orientalist scholars - Arberry, Gibb, Lewis, Von Gunebaum, Watt - have provided the academic base for most of anthropology. Also Richard Tapper's work leans heavily on that of the Orientalists such as Lambton (Tapper 1979).

Younger anthropologists, who write with elegance (Meeker 1979) and sympathy (Eickelman 1981)'(5) of their groups, nonetheless have not been able to entirely free themselves of the Oriental heritage.(6) For Meeker, who uses Musil's material extensively, the world of the Bedouin remains anarchic (see quotations from his work above). Eickelman's comprehensive summary of Middle East anthropology relies heavily on Orientalist sources too (Eickelman 1981). Eickelman acknowledges this fact by calling his chapter - without, I am sure, being fully aware of its implication - on the Orientalists, "Intellectual Predecessors". Both cite Doughty, whose hatred of Islam bordered on the pathological, with high regard.

Women studies - or more correctly - studies by Western women of Muslim women - are no exception to the traditional Orientalist image of Muslim society. A recent study of Muslim women in Delhi is called Frogs in a Well (Jeffrey 1980). I am sure no women - Muslim or otherwise – would take kindly to the imagery of the metaphor. It reflects the ethnocentric arrogance of the scholar. (For other studies of Muslim women see Beck, Fernea, and Keddie.)

Even some of the work of the great Western scholars has recently been analysed as prejudiced against Islam. Bryan Turner's book Weber and Islam (1974) clearly pointed out Weber's personal prejudices which led him to certain conclusions regarding Islam, and in particular the person of the Prophet (SAAS).

It is little wonder that Professor Fazlur Rahman, himself once under attack from more right-wing Islamic scholars in Pakistan, doubts the impartiality of Western scholarship on Islam (Rahman 1982). Let me turn to a technical discussion in the discipline.

Fredrik Barth has been accused by me of reductionism in his portrayal of the Swat Pukhtuns (Ahmed 1976). Barth, responding to the criticism, revisited Swat. The visit did little to change his ideas (Barth 1981, Vol II).(7) He provides us with a lengthy example - "new" ethnography – purporting to explain his thesis. The driver of the bus he was on refused to give way to another van on the Nowshera bridge, an old pre-Independence one-lane railway bridge (ibid.:131-2, 163). Both held their ground and the situation, made tense by the arrival of a train, was diffused after considerable delay. Barth sees "deep structures" in the incident.

This then, is serious anthropology explaining human behavior among Pukhtuns.

If I were to cite examples of bad drivers or more accurately – bad mannered drivers - from England or the USA, would they support a more general thesis on Western society? I think not. The example is thus parody not science - and what does the construction of a new dual carriageway recently at Nowshera do to Barth's thesis?

For Pehrson and Barth the harsh desert fieldwork conditions (the former died in the field) among the Baluch were made worse by their perception of the Baluch as an unpleasant people. Baluch etiquette reflected "hollowness", and Baluch "intimate life" was one of "deceit" (Barth in Pehrson 1966: vii). They found the Baluch "suspicious" - a word which occurs frequently in the book (Pehrson 1966).

For Hobbes the condition of man "is a condition of war, of everyone against everyone". Barth's perception of Muslim society is Hobbesian: Muslim life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". The Hobbesian view of life is not unnaturally reflected in the work of Mrs. Fredrik Barth - who was one of Professor Barth's students.

Mrs. Barth on the basis of interviewing females -in this case the poor women of Cairo - concludes that Muslim women are exceedingly "suspicious". She also finds they spend their time in back-biting, intriguing, and squabbling (Wikan 1977). In Cairo we are presented with a female mirror-image of the belligerent Pukhtun, who is forever "attacking", "seizing", and "killing". Man is merely the expression of the methodological individualist.

Are we being presented empirically observed social reality or simply the perception of a husband-wife team imposing their theoretical models at random on the Muslim world? On the basis of Barth's Swat material I would be justified in assuming the latter. I would be interested to hear the comments of independent native critics on the work of the Barths elsewhere in the Muslim world.(8)

Professor Barth spent most of his professional life writing and lecturing about Muslim groups. I am not objecting to his ideas about those groups. He is perfectly entitled to his views. I do object to the arrogance implied by those views. And my objection raises sadness in me rather than indignation. Sadness because my discipline - anthropology - is belittled. It is reduced to a parody and weak shadow of Orientalism. Edward Said would be roused to say that this is vintage "Orientalism".

Surely Barth does not wish to suggest that all Swat Pukhtuns do with their time is "attack" and "kill". This is one aspect of their lives. Unfortunately his data convey this impression. Even the hujra, the guest house, the social center of hospitality, guests, folk-song etc. is for Barth reduced simply to another political instrument and part of political strategy. It is the traditional Orientalist view of tribal Muslim groups forever absorbed in "war", their society forever "anarchic".

Frederik Bailey, following Barth, goes one step further. To him Pukhtun society resembles the Mafia (Bailey 1970). An entire Code (the Pukhtunwali), and entire body of culture, folklore and literature of a highly developed tribal society which has perpetuated itself for at least five centuries is reduced to a modem Western urban gangster civilization. When I pointed these facts out, some of my Western critics were quick to suggest I was outraged by adverse images of the Pukhtuns. I, it was suggested, was from the area and therefore extra-sensitive about perception of its people.(9) But it was as an anthropologist, that I was appalled at the poor methodology involved in arriving at such judgments. Some of the colonial officers and Orientalists appear more balanced and fair when commenting on "primitive" and "savage" groups.

Serious doubts have been raised on the few occasions Muslim anthropologists have critically analyzed Western anthropologists on their home ground. Tala1 Asad (1975) made telling criticism of Abner Cohen's work among Arab villages in Israel (Cohen 1965). Unfortunately, the criticism of "native" anthropologists is sometimes easily misunderstood. When I suggested we refer to the holistic Islamic framework (Islam as culture and politics) when examining Muslim tribal groups (Ahmed 1976), I was criticized for attacking Western anthropologists and colonialism (Anderson 1981). My work was seen as an Islamic challenge.

But not all non-Muslim writing is offensively critical. The work of other younger anthropologists is enhanced by sympathy for the people they write of, for example, Fischer's recent study of Iran, its religion and religious leaders (1980) (10) and Singer's of the Pukhtuns (1982). The methodological direction indicated by the work of these anthropologists may break the impasse imposed on the discipline by Orientalism. Interestingly, the two main broad divisions in anthropology discussed above appear to be divided by the Atlantic: Fischer, the American professor at Harvard is a cultural anthropologist and Singer, the Oxford anthropologist, is a social anthropologist.

One cannot escape the conclusion arrived at by Edward Said that anthropologists to be included in the list of Orientalists are defined as "anyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient" (Said 1978:2).

When the authors of Hagarism attack the Prophet (SAAS) and the very foundation of Islam or - less seriously - Western anthropologists equate entire Muslim societies to the Mafia, ought Muslims to bury their heads in the sand and pretend they do not hear these voices? Should they simply reject Western - or non-Muslim - scholarship by banning its entry into their countries?

If so, do they build an intellectual iron curtain around their societies? Or ought they to assess, argue, synthesize and then prepare and reply in terms of an "Islamic Anthropology". One aim of this paper is to illuminate the above questions.


1. For a recent - and exceedingly sharp - attack on Islam see Laffin, 1981.
2. For a direct comparison of Hitler and Ayatullah Khomeini see Carpozi 1979.
3. In fact this was precisely the answer I was given by the Central Education Secretary of the Government of Pakistan when I discussed the book with him. Modem Muslim intellectuals, too, appear to have lost patience with the West (Ahmed 1976, Gauhar 1978).
4. "In its broadest terms the contrast between tribe and civilization 1s between War and Peace. .. lacking these institutional means and guarantees, tribesmen live in a condition of War, and War limits the scale, complexity, and all round richness of their culture, and accounts for some of their more 'curious' customs". (Sahlins 1968:5).
5. Eickelman, in a gesture of affection for a departed colleague, dedicates his book to the Egyptian anthropologist Abdul Hamid el-Zein.
6. For a recent historical study still not entirely free of Orientalism, see Hodgson (1974).
7. It is neither possible nor appropriate to enter into a theoretical debate here. I shall do so in a separate paper (Ahmed forthcoming "The Reconsideration of Swat Pathans: A Reply to Fredrik Barth").
8. By discovering a third sex; the male transsexual prostitute (the khanith), in Oman, Wikan sparked off an academic controversy within anthropology (in MAN throughout its 1978 issues) and I am told by colleagues a different, less academic, controversy in Oman.
9. R. Tapper review of Ahmed (1980) in Asian Affairs, London, October 1981.
10. Fischer dedicated his book "to the warm courageous and complex people of Iran" -at a time when the crisis of the hostages  in America was at its height and so was, consequently, anti- Iranian feeling.

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