Unveiling many faces of a religion

Islam in the Middle East

February 23, 2007

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor and Prime Minister-in-waiting, is reported to have read voraciously on Islam. His current neighbour in Downing Street is said to have read the Koran three times. But this has not stopped Tony Blair using the word Islam as an appendage to some violent or backward practice: choose from militants, fundamentalists, jihadists, extremists. Even attempts by Western politicians to deliver their message in a way that distances moderate Muslims from extremists appears to efface the distinction such that all Muslims are constituted as outsiders who are real or potential threats. Our political leaders' engagement with Islam has not yet produced a mature understanding of the tradition. There is more work to be done.

A deeper understanding of Islam would be a good place to begin this journey. Islam in the Middle East is aimed at the non-specialist. G. P. Makris is an anthropologist who uses his disciplinary location to reveal the complex and contingent aspects of Islam. In the introduction, he hints at the contribution anthropology can make not only to the study of world religions but also to local and global processes of integration and fragmentation. It is regrettable that this argument is not picked up in the conclusion - indeed, the absence of a proper conclusion is a letdown.

The focus in the early chapters is on the doctrinal: this is accompanied by a series of ethnographic examples that shows how Islam is negotiated "from below". One such example is the injunction by Islamists that all Muslim women must wear the veil. Makris shows how this doctrinal principle is now justified as a bulwark against Western secularism, a quite different rationale from that appropriated by previous generations. Moreover, even though the contemporary meaning is saturated by patriarchal assumptions, some women believe that veiling makes men treat them more equally.

Makris is persuasive in arguing that the Islamic tradition is neither singular nor discrete. Its essence is not revealed in a particular text, and there are significant interpretive differences over time and across political spaces. Despite criticisms of the West as being materialist, Makris claims the financial system in Islamic countries employs the same rationalist and scientific methods employed by banks throughout the world.

And we know from the daily news feeds that Islamist warriors, while they project an image of premodern martial purity, are highly skilled manipulators of the global media. Books such as Islam in the Middle East remind us that academics can play a positive role in challenging the meanings that practitioners ascribe to the world's religions and regions.

Let us hope the book not only appears on university reading lists but that it also finds a way into the briefcases of politicians in London and Washington.

Islam in the Middle East: A Living Tradition. First Edition

Author - G. P. Makris
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 347
Price - £55.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 1 4051 1603 9 and 1602 2

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