Gilsenans Recognizing Islam

Gilsenan's classic and immensely readable Recognizing Islam was the product of much 'material drawn from personal experience of Islam' and an attempt 'to recreate the surprise of the moment when my work really began, that moment when realization collided with illusion in South Arabia'.25® His themes range classically and widely from 'the formation and transformation of power and authority within Muslim societies' through an assessment of the 'ulama' to 'the sense of a world turned inside out'.259

Many of the principal topoi of the anthropology of religion are here: learned custodians of authority,260 theodicy,261 miracle-working262 and the relationship of the latter to 'worldly power'263 as well as the secret and the pure,264 the cultural and political articulation of religion,265 sacred space,266 the mystical dimension of religion,267 and semiotics.26® In an Afterword, Gilsenan describes his book as 'a kind of excavation and a wandering'.269 This should not lead us in any way to suppose that he has written a superficial book. On the contrary, despite its lightness of touch and anecdotal style, the whole volume richly deserves the plaudits showered upon it: 'Rarely has a Western orientalist so convincingly seized the subtle interrelationships between people, their perceptions of themselves and their neighbours, or the ways these are changing in our day ... this is a profound and original book.'270

Gilsenan writes from a well of deep anthropological experience and knowledge of Islam, and, though he does not disparage the 'trained innocence' of one such as Jonathan Raban, the travel writer271 (particularly with reference to the latter's well-written and intriguing Arabia Through the Looking Glass272), Gilsenan stresses that such experience and knowledge as he himself has are clearly foundational for a really deep understanding of Islamic religion, societies and cultures.273 Jonathan Raban, early in his book, characterises 'British Arabism' as 'an old romantic love affair in which a faint glimmer of the perverse is never far from the surface'.274 His is akin to an amateur Arabist approach which is innocent of formal anthropology: it works well only to a superficial degree. Gilsenan's volume shows what is possible with the reverse approach.

A brief comparison of Gilsenan's volume with Fiona Bowie's Anthropology of Religion: An Introduction275 is useful. Like Gilsenan's, this is designed to be an 'introductory' work, but it is written from a far less specific perspective. Bowie 'combines discussion of the origin and development of ideas and debates within the anthropology of religion with a look at where the subject is going today - the interests and preoccupations of current practitioners'.276

In an initial chapter on 'Theories and Controversies', it is wisely acknowledged 'that there is no one anthropological approach to the study of religion'.277 However, Bowie, while recognising the potential pitfalls and weaknesses of the method, cites with approval the definition of the anthropologist's role given by one of the giants of twentieth-century anthropology, E. E. Evans Pritchard (1902-73), whose name is ineluctably associated with his studies of the Nuer tribe of the South Sudan278 and the Azande tribe of that area and the Eastern Congo:279

What I have said does not imply that the anthropologist has to have a religion of his own, and I think we should be clear on this point at the outset. He is not concerned qua anthropologist, with the truth or falsity of religious thought. As I understand the matter, there is no possibility of his knowing whether the spiritual beings of primitive religions or of any others have any existence or not, and since that is the case he cannot take the question into consideration. The beliefs are for him sociological facts, not theological facts, and his sole concern is with their relation to each other and to other social facts. His problems are scientific, not metaphysical or ontological. The method he employs is that now often called the phenomenological one - a comparative study of beliefs and rites, such as god, sacrament, and sacrifice, to determine their meaning and social significance.280

Bowie goes on to look at 'The Body as Symbol'281 religious identity and the whole arena of ritual purity,282 'Sex, Gender and the Sacred'283 with some particular reference to the role of women,284 the cultural and environmental aspects of religion,285 theories of ritual, ritual violence and rites of passage,286 Shamanism287 and witchcraft.288

Bowie's book illustrates the broad boundaries of contemporary anthropological study. If we compare it with Gilsenan's, we note a different series of emphases at work in both. Gilsenan has a specific focus, while Bowie paints a very broad canvas.

Gilsenan has a particular interest in power and authority and the custodians of each; Bowie has a particular interest in the role of women. This is not to say, however, that each scholar ignores the other aspect. And we may note that both are interested in purity and cultic purity, though Bowie includes Mary Douglas's classic Purity and Danger289 in her bibliography whereas Gilsenan does not. The latter covers neither Shamanism nor witchcraft, though Gilsenan does devote an entire chapter to 'Miracles and Worldly Power'.290 Both Gilsenan and Bowie, like numerous anthropologists before them, are intrigued by the boundaries and overlap between magic and religion.

Bowie notes that both Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) made a distinction between magic and religion:291

A religious act aims at something beyond itself. Its object is not performance of the rite. A mortuary ritual, for instance, is intended to release the soul and prevent it from returning to haunt the living. In magic, the end is the efficacious action itself. Both magic and religion, however, serve the same psychological function, the alleviation of anxiety in the face of life's uncertainties.292

Bowie, believes, nonetheless, that Malinowski's distinction may have been a little simplistic in the sense that, in reality, it may be less easy to distinguish between magic and religion. She asks whether a rain dance, for example, should be categorised as 'an efficacious magical act' or the invoking of a divinity to act for the interceder.293 She notes perceptively that most acts of magic 'involve the action of an intermediary power between the performer of the rite and its intended result',294 and cites the words of consecration in the Roman Catholic Mass as capable of being seen as 'an end in themselves'.295

Gilsenan prefers to concentrate on the word 'miracle' rather than 'magic'. For him, the religion of Islam speaks the language of miracles - indeed, is infused by, and built upon, the miraculous in a very fundamental sense with the divine miracle of the Qur'an to mankind.296 Here, for the Muslim, the miraculous language of the Divine is mediated to humanity in an inimitable text. And, for the sufl, the language of miracles may be further articulated on earth through the mysterious and mystical powers and actions of a sufl saint or shaykh.297

In a superbly lyrical but apposite vein Gilsenan characterises miracles as 'the vital proofs, the sudden transfixing moments in which the "ever-present" reveals its otherwise veiled purposes in life, re-establishing the sense of the vividness of the Divine and the power of holy men as well as offering an assuring and triumphant experience of blessing'.298 He devotes a whole chapter in Recognizing Islam to what he terms 'The Operations of Grace'.299 Miracles validate the truth of a saint's sanctity and authority and, as an obvious challenge to an established order, may be perceived as dangerous.300 And there is a vital intermediary role to be played by the eponymous wall (Friend, i.e. of Allah) from the sufl order: it is he who is the sole channel of baraka (blessing) from God.301 Baraka is the bridge between the ephemeral temporal world of humanity and the spiritual sacred world of the Divine.302 It comes as no surprise, then, that the earthly custodian of this bridge may, on occasion, achieve some considerable temporal power, allowing an ambitious shaykh to function as an efficient and deadly opposition to a ruling bey:303 'The sheikh can vividly demonstrate the other, "underlying" reality by being even more forceful than the lord', using his miraculous powers against that lord.304 Gilsenan neatly concludes that, while baraka may indeed be 'a vital part of the religious bricolage [Claude Levi-Strauss's term] of the poor', it can also 'be the language of domination'.305

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