Islam Observed

 

(Clifford Geertz)

 

 

Two Countries, Two Cultures

 

Of all the dimensions of the uncertain revolution now underway in the new states of Asia and Africa, surely the most difficult to grasp is the religious. It is not measurable as, however inexactly, economic change is. It is not, for the most part, illuminated by the instructive explosions that mark political development: purges, assassinations, coups Jem, border wars, riots, and here and there an election. Such proven indices of mutation in the forms of social life as urbanization, the solidification of class loyalties, or the growth of a more complex occupational system are, if not wholly lacking, certainly rarer and a great deal more equivocal in the religious sphere, where old wine goes as easily into new bottles as old bottles contain new wine. It is not only very difficult to discover the ways in which the shapes of religious experience are changing, or if they are changing at all; it is rot even dear what sorts of things one ought to look at in order to find out. The comparative study of religion has always been plagued by this peculiar embarrassment: the elusiveness of its subject matter. The problem is not one of constructing definitions of religion. We have had quite enough of those; their very number is a symptom of our malaise. It is a matter of discovering just what sorts of beliefs and practices support what sorts of faith under what sorts of conditions. Our problem, and it grows worse by the day, is not to define religion but to find it.

 

This may seem an odd thing to say. What is in those thick volumes on totemic myths, initiation rites, witchcraft beliefs, shamanistic performances, and so on, which ethnographers have been compiling with such astonishing industry for over a century? Or in the equally thick and not much more readable works by historians on the development of Judaic law, Confucian philosophy, or Christian theology? Or in the countless sociological studies of such institutions as Indian caste or Islamic sectarianism, Japanese emperor worship or African cattle sacrifice? Do they not contain our subject matter? The answer is, quite simply, no: they contain the record of our search for our subject matter. The search has not been without its successes, and our appointed task is to keep it going and enlarge its successes. But the aim of the systematic study of religion is, or anyway ought to be, not just to describe ideas, acts, and institutions, but to determine just how and in what way particular ideas, acts, and institutions sustain, fail to sustain, or even inhibit religtous faith ˇ that is to say, steadfast attachment to some transtcmporal conception of reality.

 

There is nothing mysterious in this, nor anything doctrinal. It merely means that we must distinguish between a religious attitude toward experience and the sorts of social apparatus which have, over time and space, customarily been associated with supporting such an attitude. When this is done, the comparative study of religion shifts from a kind of advanced curio collecting to a kind of not very advanced science; from a discipline in which one merely records, classifies, and perhaps even generalizes about data deemed, plausibly enough in most cases, to have something to do with religion to one in which one asks close questions of such data, not the least important of which is just what does it have to do with religion. We can scarcely hope to get far with the analysis of religious change ˇ that is to say, what happens to faith when its vehicles alter ˇ if we are unclear as to what in any particular case its vehicles are and how (or even if) in fact they foster it.

 

Whatever the ultimate sources of the faith of a man or group of men may or may not be, it is indisputable that it is sustained in this world by symbolic forms and social arrangements. What a given religion is ˇ its specific content ˇ is embodied in the images and metaphors its adherents use to characterize reality; it makes, as Kenneth Burke once pointed out, a great deal of difference whether you call life a dream, a pilgrimage, a labyrinth, or a carnival. But such a religion's career ˇ its historical courseˇrests in turn upon the institutions which render these images and metaphors available to those who thus employ them. It is really not much easier to conceive of Christianity without Gregory than without Jesus. Or if that remark seems tendentious (which it is not), then Islam without the Ulema than without Muhammad; Hinduism without caste than without the Vedas; Confucianism without the mandarinate than without the Analects; Navaho religion without Beauty Way than without Spider Woman. Religion may be a stone thrown into the 'world; but it must be a palpable stone and someone must throw it.

 

If this is accepted (and if it is not accepted the result is to remove religion not merely from scholarly examination and rational discourse, but from life altogether), then even a cursory glance at the religious situation in the new states collectively or in any one of them separately will reveal the major direction of change: established connections between particular varieties of faith and the cluster of images and institutions which have classically nourished them are for certain people in certain circumstances coming unstuck. In the new states as in the old, the intriguing question for the anthropologist is, "How do men of religious sensibility react when the machinery of faith begins to wear out? What do they do when traditions falter?" 

 

They do of course, all sorts of things. They lose their sensibility. Or they channel it into ideological fervor. Or they adopt an imported creed. Or they turn worriedly in upon themselves. Or they cling even more intensely to the faltering traditions. Or they try to rework those traditions into more effective forms. Or they split themselves in half, living spiritually in the past and physically in the present. Or they try to express their religiousness in secular activities. And a few simply fail to notice their world is moving or, noticing, just collapse.

 

But such general answers are not really very enlightening, not only because they are general but because they glide past that which we most want to know: by what means, what social and cultural processes, are these movements toward skepticism, political enthusiasm, conversion, revivalism, subjectivism, secular piety, reformism, double-minded ness, or whatever, taking place? What new forms of architecture are housing these accumulating changes of heart?

 

In attempting to answer grand questions like this, the anthropologist is always inclined to turn toward the concrete, the particular, the microscopic. We are the miniaturists of the social sciences, painting on Iilliputian canvases with what we take to be delicate strokes. We hope to find in the little what eludes us in the large, to stumble upon general truths while sorting through special cases. At least I hope to, and in that spirit I want to discuss religious change in the two countries in which I have worked at some length, Indonesia and Morocco, They make from some points of view an odd pair: a rarefied somewhat overcivilized tropical Asian country speckled with Dutch culture, and a taut, arid, rather puritanical Mediterranean one varnished with French. But from some other points of viewˇincluding the fact that they are both in some enlarged sense of the word Islamic ˇ they make an instructive comparison. At once very alike and very different, they form a kind of commentary on one another's character.

 

Their most obvious likeness is, as I say, their religious affiliation; but it is also, culturally speaking at least, their most obvious unlikeness. They stand at the eastern and western extremities of the narrow band of classical Islamic civilization which, rising in Arabia, reached out along the midline of the Old World to connect them, and, so located, they have participated in the history of that civilization in quite different ways, to quite different degrees, and with quite different results. They both incline toward Mecca, but, the antipodes of the Muslim world, they bow in opposite directions. As a Muslim country, Morocco is of course the older. The first contact with Islamˇa military one, as the Ummayads made their brief bid for sovereignty over Alexander's "all the inhabited world"ˇcame in the seventh century, only fifty years after the death of Muhammcd; and by the middle of the eighth century a solid, if not exactly indestructible, Muslim foothold had been established. Over the next three centuries it was rendered indestructible, and the great age of Berber Islam, the one which Ibn Khaldun looked back upon with such a modern blend of cultural admiration and sociological despair, began. One after the other, the famous reforming dynasties ˇ Almoravids, Almohads, Merinids ˇ swept out of what the French, with fine colonial candor, used to call le Maroc inutile, the forts and oases of the pre-Sahara, the walled-in rivers and pocket plateaus of the High Atlas, and the wastes of rhe Algerian steppe, into le Maroc inutile the mild and watered Cis-Atlas plains. Building and rebuilding the great cities of MoroccoˇMarrakech, Fez, Rabat, Sal╚, Tetuanˇthey penetrated Muslim Spain, absorbed its culture and, reworking it into their own more strenuous ethos, reproduced a simplified version of it on their side of Gibraltar. The formative period both of Morocco as a nation and of Islam as its creed (roughly 1050 to 1450) consisted of the peculiar process of tribal edges falling in upon an agricultural center and civilizing it. It was the periphery of the country, the harsh and sterile frontiers, that nourished and in fact created the advanced society which developed at its heart.

 

As time went on, the contrast between the artisans, notables, scholars, and shopkeepers assembled within the walls of the great cities and the farmers and pastoralists scattered thinly over the countryside around them naturally widened. The former developed a sedentary society centered on trade and craft, the latter a mobile one centered on herding and tillage. Yet the difference between the two was far from absolute; townsman and countryman did not live in different cultural worlds but, a few withdrawn highland groups perhaps aside, in the same one differently situated.Rural and urban society were variant states of a single system (and there were, in fact, a half-dozen versions of each).


 

 


 

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