John Bowen

Bowen_interviewTilman Lanz talks with John Bowen about his new book, A New Anthropology of Islampublished by Cambridge University Press.


Tilman Lanz: The title of your latest book is A New Anthropology of Islam. Can you explain to us how, specifically, anthropology can contribute to a better understanding of Islam? What anthropological approaches to the study of Islam do you consider particularly helpful?

John Bowen: I identify the key analytic moves in the book, but they revolve around taking seriously the idea that Islam is best seen as a set of interpretive resources and practices. From Islam’s resources of texts, ideas, and methods comes the sense that all Muslims participate in a long-term and worldwide tradition. From Islam’s practices of worshipping, judging, and struggling comes the capacity to adapt, challenge, and diversify. So far, so good, but specific to what I am calling the ‘new anthropology’ is the insistence that analysis starts from individuals’ efforts to grapple with those resources and shape those practices in meaningful ways. We start, then, semiotically: with socially embedded practices of interpretation, which start chains of semiotic uptake that ramify throughout and across societies. Indeed, I choose to begin the first chapter with the trope of the isnâd, the chain of authentication, for its deep semiotic quality around which Muslims have constructed competing claims of historical legitimacy: in politics, prayer, and purification.

Interpretations, of textual traditions accessed through legitimating chains, realized as social practices: these components of an anthropological analysis of Islam allow us to engage in two complementary analytical strategies. The first is ‘focusing inward’, where we try to deepen our understanding of motives, understandings, and emotions surrounding specific practices, usually with a great deal of attention to individual testimonies and histories. What does it mean for a woman or man to follow the command to ‘submit’ that is contained within the very term islâm? Can one strengthen a sense of agency and power through submission in prayer?

But at the same time, we follow a second strategy, one of ‘opening outward’ to the social significance of and conditions for religious practices and affiliations. Often we do so across social settings, to broaden our understanding of why ideas and practices take this form here, and that form there. What features of the social environment – religious movements, political pressures, new forms of communication – lead more individuals to seek meaning through submission in prayer? How do urban and rural settings in, say, Egypt present different possibilities and constraints, and how do comparable settings differ in, say, Lebanon or Indonesia?

This sense of ‘anthropology’ is broad enough to include much of what historians, sociologists, and religious scholars currently do, when they keep in their analytical lenses both the contingent and contextual nature of interpretation and action, and the importance to Muslims of living and imagining within an Islamic world that transcends particular times and places. And, indeed, I bring in their work alongside of that carried out by card-carrying anthropologists. In particular, the new anthropology of Islam has placed an increased emphasis on religious texts and ideas, but as situated in space and time. Far from ignoring scripture, anthropology approaches it in a way parallel to the way Muslims do, through particular acts of interpreting texts, whether by a Pakistani farmer, an Egyptian engineer, or a French Muslim theologian.

Your work on Islam and Muslim communities has been conducted, among other places, in European contexts, especially in France. What is the future of a Euro-Islam as it is propagated by some within and beyond the European Union? Is this a viable way to reconcile Islamic with European values? Is there even a need for such reconciliation?

In fact, I have worked in Indonesia for much longer than in Europe. But re: your question, my books on France and current work on Britain argue that there are many different pathways for Muslim leaders to creatively adapt Islam to conditions of life in various European countries: the results are going to be very different in France, Britain, or Italy. The results have to be seen as Islam, not ‘Euro-Islam’, because Islam looks different across Muslim societies as well.

How can A New Anthropology of Islam inform our understanding of the present events in much of the Islamic world, especially in North Africa and the Middle East?

I argue that people interpret and draw on the Islamic tradition in diverse ways, including regarding the shape of society and the state. The category of ‘Islamist’ unduly flattens this diversity: Muslims have put into practice many different ways of Islamizing a society. Too many current commentators interpret the recent developments in Tunisia or Egypt as the rejection of Islamism, rather than as a dialectic of different formulations of religion and democracy, which will take some time to lead to stable patterns of combination.CES Conference 2013 Amsterdam, photo: Robert Tjalondo

In your book, you emphasize that the realities of Muslim lives are often determined and shaped by very specific, local factors beyond or beneath larger public debates about Islam. Would you say that anthropology is particularly well-equipped to make this important point, and how do you approach this issue in your book?

Yes, and I approach the question by looking in some depth at particular cases. For example, British Shariah councils, non-legal bodies that give advice and dissolve marriages at women’s request, developed along lines that began in India in the 1920s, and that fit with British ways of governing religious communities, but would be very difficult to imagine in France; in addition, the Maghrebin communities that predominate in France had no such traditions.

A New Anthropology of Islam begins with a critical assessment of the rather stereotypical distinction between Muslim cultural practices and Islam as a textual religion. What is the relationship between culture and religion in the Muslim context? Could you, perhaps, give us some examples of how this relationship is articulated, in various ways, by Muslims in their daily lives?

Muslims draw on their religious tradition to make sense of cultural traditions and changing social realities. For example, the injunction to sacrifice is realized in Morocco as a family killing of a sheep, but because this is hard to do in urban France, Muslims leaders suggest donating money or buying a sheep for a Moroccan family, or sacrificing in another way. The Moroccan practices reinforce patterns of patriarchy, whereas in Indonesia a woman may be the one who leads the sacrifice.

A New Anthropology of Islam deals, in many parts, with transnational and diasporic aspects of Islam today. Can you explain to us a bit how you see Islam changing in the present and future due to its exposure to the complexities of globalization, migration, and dissemination of Western as well as Islamic values throughout the world?

 One major challenge to Islamic legal thinking and practicing has been the shared and growing demands to give equal resources and opportunities to women, and the responses have been rapid, including, in some countries, equal access to marital property and equal access to divorce.

In your book, you explain in detail how Islamic legal procedures are to a larger or lesser extent integrated into various different European legal domains such as France or Britain. How successfully has this embedding been handled in, say, the cases of France and Britain from the perspective of Muslim immigrants?

The issues that arise are very specific, and include the resolution of disputes over mahar (the gift given or promised from the groom to the bride), the execution of civil as well as religious marriages, and the provision of Islamic divorces to women. In Britain, a network of Shariah councils provides religious divorces, and because these acts have no civil-law effect, there are few or no conflicts with the civil courts; the bodies do not exist in France. Encouraging Muslims to carry out civil marriages is another matter; by some accounts Islam-only marriages are on the rise. Britain is slowly seeking ways to encourage more civil marriages; France, typically, has a statute requiring a civil marriage before a religious one, but it has no effect.

It is, in principle, possible to come to an understanding of Islam from a faith-based or from a scholarly, secular perspective. In my own studies, I have often found it difficult to both understand and also portray acts, rituals, and beliefs that are rooted in Islamic faith from a scientific, non-faith-based perspective. Has this problem ever occurred to you in your own work, and how have you dealt with it?

I try to let people I work with explain what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Fair enough, but surely these people are responding to larger undercurrents of how Islam is represented in, say, various European societies, and these representations of Islam are often characterized by non-Muslim perceptions of Islam as a whole or of specific Muslim groups. How do you, in presenting your research, deal with the sometimes significant differences, tensions, or ambiguities between how Muslims practice their faith at the local and at the meta-level and how these practices are represented in public discourse by non-Muslims?

In France, a current example of those problems concerns the idea that Muslims overplay the importance of ‘halal’, which leads them to view the world in a rigid way, and thus they become even less likely to integrate into French society. And yet, objective indicators of integration, such as school achievement, active job searching, and intermarriage, do not reflect such a ‘halalization’.

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