The faithful dispersed

Islam, Globalisation and Postmodernity
January 27, 1995

A relatively young, freshly dynamic movement is inevitably accompanied by trauma, conflict, antagonism and pain. This is as applicable to a great world religion, Islam, as to an academic discipline, anthropology. In this book, "Islamic anthropology" at last is coming of age. The globalisation of Islam is one of the most important features of the modern age and affects us all. Akbar Ahmed and Hastings Donnan have compiled a volume that gives essential insights into the complex marriage between Islam, state and society in an age of instant communications. Issues of race, prejudice, gender, space, fundamentalism and migration are all skilfully presented to give a new and enlightened perspective on Islam in the post-modern age.

Almost by definition, however, a collection of essays by different authors with their own idiosyncratic views on Islam is going to make for a patchwork quilt and the reader will be in need of common threads and patterns to lend the work some coherence. The overt themes of the book are Islam, globalisation and post-modernity; the implicit themes are anthropology, gender, race, urbanisation and relativism -- but only when you get stuck into the book do these relevant and interesting issues come to light. To my mind this is a pity, since I am sure many readers will be fascinated by the implicit themes but might be put off by the title: not everyone is attracted by the term "post-modernity", many simply accept that we are in an exciting and fluid intellectual age in which relativism and irrationalism are in conflict with old and established structures. On the other hand, everyone is (or should be) interested in understanding the role of Islam in contemporary society, East and West.

The 12 contributors are all specialists in Islam and from their different research backgrounds are able to cast a wide net over the Islamic world. Although several of the contributions emerge from a non-anthropological intellectual background it is anthropology that takes centre-stage with field experience giving muscle to the generalisations that most of the authors are drawn to make. The reader is thus enabled to move from intense localised experience to the global picture. Martin Stokes on the Turkish arabesk, Gustave Thaiss on the Hosay festival in Trinidad, Judith Nagata on Islamic identity in Malaysia, Richard Antoun on Jordanian migration and Pnina Werbner on an Islamic disaspora of the British Pakistani community, all extrapolate from their fieldwork experience to great effect.

The other essays by Fred Halliday on Islamic fundamentalism, Abubaker Bagader on Islamic movements and "revivalism", Anita Weiss and Helen Watson on Muslim women and the veil, and Thomas Gerholm on the post-modern debate between Akbar Ahmed and Ziauddin Sardar, are more sweeping but none the less collectively present a cohesive mosaic created from real grassroots knowledge.

The editors attempt, they write in their introduction, to "contextualise local versions of Islam within global structures". Sometimes they lose sight of the global dimension. Global politics, society and Islam is what the book is about but a general reader would have to work hard to find that out. As for the student and academic specialist, the book will clearly be added to such works as Ahmed's Postmodernism and Islam, and Ernest Gellner's Postmodernism, Reason and Religion. Yet it has wider appeal. It is both more accessible and more significant than these books. The overall standard is consistently high. There is a flow from essay to essay, which should not be undervalued when it is all too easy to cobble together disparate essays under one heading. But it is a pity that the "West" is mostly represented by the United Kingdom (four of the essays), the only exceptions being Antoun's use of Germany and Texas as part of the Jordanian diaspora and Watson's use of France in discussing the veil; generally there is a shortage of material about the United States.

Andre Singer is adjunct professor of anthropology, University of Southern California.

Islam, Globalisation and Postmodernity

Author - Akbar S. Ahmed and Hastings Donnan
ISBN - 0 415 09366 X and 09367 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00 and £12.99
Pages - 240pp

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