Geertzs Islam Observed

Geertz's book is subtitled Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia and thus focuses almost totally on those two countries. The four chapters which comprise Geertz's short book were initially a series of lectures, the Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion and Science which were given at Yale University in 1967.320 The author's intention was to provide a theoretical substratum which would allow a comparative examination of religion and an analysis of Islam in Morocco and Indo-nesia.321 In his chosen method, the author showed that he was well aware of the scholarly problems and dangers of extrapolating from the particular to the general, and of reading what he poetically calls 'the contours of a whole civilization' from micro-systems to be found in a small village or town.322 He justified his approach by highlighting the need for understanding and knowledge: it was licit for the scholar and anthropologist to see whether the understanding born of the study of a microsystem, the village or small town, might contribute to understanding the macrosystem, the whole civilisation of which that micro-system was a tiny cog.323

Geertz's principal theme was religious change in the two countries where he did much anthropological research, Indonesia (1952-4, 1957-8) and Morocco (1964, 1965-6).324 He admits that they make an odd pair for comparison at first sight, but he insists on the usefulness of the comparison: they have much in common while being very different in other respects, Each thus constitutes a useful form of 'commentary' on the other,325 a mirror wherein are reflected those differences and similarities. Geertz reminds us that, while 'both incline towards Mecca . they bow in opposite directions'.326 The author goes on to contrast the tribal ethos of Morocco with the peasant society of Indonesia. The latter, for him, was most obvious in Java.327 He draws attention to the highly syncretic and heterodox nature of Indonesian Islam, an Islam not always underpinned by a Qur'anic ethos. Unlike many countries in the early spread of Islam, the archipelago encountered the religion as a result of trade rather than the usual conquest paradigm.328 The middle, peasant and mercantile classes developed, in different ways and styles, an Islamic syncretism which contained elements of gnosticism, folklore and animistic beliefs and practices.329 Geertz underlines in a striking and succinct way the gap which he believes has always existed between popular and theological Islam. He insists that this was becoming more and more obvious in both the Morocco and Indonesia of which he wrote when he presented his analysis of their 'Islams' in 1968.330

How was this gap to be bridged? The problem was the same; the approach was radically different. Geertz perceived, on the one hand, a centuries-old attempt to enforce a pure and rigid uniformity in Morocco, an attempt which was by no means always successful; on the other hand, he saw an Indonesian Islam whose mainstays were pragmatism, inclusivism and compromise.331

The author identifies what he calls 'Classical Styles' of religion in both Moroccan and Indonesian Islam. Both are marked by, or infused with, mystical elements.332 Each style is epitomised by very different spiritual leaders who, nonetheless, share a common mysticism.333 The 'Islams' developed by their respective peoples had, however, very different characteristics, the Indonesian reflecting introversion, patience and selflessness, the Moroccan being more extroverted, assertive and individualistic.334

Geertz reflects, too, on what he characterises as 'The Scripturalist Interlude'. He concentrates on three factors which have had a profound impact on the histories of both Morocco and Indonesia: Western imperialism, the rise of a legalistic, 'scriptural' Islam, and finally the struggle for, and rise of, the independent nation state.335 (All three, we may note, are of increasing significance in these, the early years of the twenty-first century.) In a prescient concluding chapter, Geertz identifies the scripturalist tendency as the main factor in both Morocco and Indonesia in producing what he calls 'the ideologization of religion'.336

Geertz's short book was an important volume of comparative anthropology in its day and, in its stark analysis, still has something to teach those who study the anthropology of his two central foci, Indonesia and Morocco. His work has not been without its critics, however. 'All was not a matter of quietistic conversion ... as implied in Geertz's Islam Observed', states Robert W. Hefner.337 The latter, citing Marshall Hodgson, notes the 'too casual' nature of some of Geertz's work:

Among other things, as Marshall Hodgson has observed, he applied so narrow and 'modernist' a perspective on Islam that he ended up identifying many of the practices and beliefs of Indonesian Muslims as 'Hindu-Buddhist' rather than as subaltern streams in Southeast Asian Islam.338

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