RECOGNIZING ISLAM: Religion and Society in the Modern Arab World by Michael Gilsenan

RECOGNIZING ISLAM: Religion and Society in the Modern Arab World

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The British anthropologist-author of Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt (1974) attempts to expand his field studies into a general view of the social role of Islam--but the most accessible, interesting, and persuasive chapters are still the close-ups: of Egypt's Sufi orders, mystical fellowships often frowned upon by the Islamic orthodoxy, and the religious leadership in semi-feudal Northern Lebanon. Here, Gilsenan demonstrates how saints and sheikhs help structure a hostile world and offer solace to their followers, people on the urban or rural fringes of changing societies. These religious leaders, either part of the local elite or dependent on it, do not challenge the status quo, Gilsenan demonstrates. Economic development in Southern Lebanon, he also shows, has undermined the role of Shi'ite religious sheikhs whose influence rested on land ownership. Does Islam never successfully challenge prevailing social arrangements? Gilsenan discusses historical instances where it may have--colonial North Africa, secularized modern Turkey, 19th-century Iran--but these sections, based on secondary sources, are too abstract and generalized to be compelling. Only as regards Sadat's Egypt does the question get its due. Neither the apocalyptic visions of Muslim fundamentalists nor the private religion of the middle classes, Gilsenan argues, will succeed in improving the life of the people where nationalism has failed. Otherwise, Gilsenan does not achieve his aim of describing what ordinary people believe; nor does what he modestly presents as ""a kind of excavation and a wandering"" really compensate for his failure to develop a coherent scholarly argument. Some appealing observations and provocative insights, nonetheless, for the persevering. Those with a general interest in Islam's socio-political role will find Edward Mortimer's Faith and Power (p. 783) far more rewarding.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon