Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Akbar S. Ahmed’s Toward Islamic Anthropology

Dr. Akbar S. Ahmed is a well-trained British social anthropologist. Originally from Pakistan, he received his PhD from one of the universities in United Kingdom. He holds many government positions such as Director General, National Center for Rural Development and Director, Center of Social Sciences and Humanities, University Grants Commission, Islamabad, Pakistan. He is also active in writing articles and books in which many of his works were published in renounce journals. Some of his works are, among others, Muslim Society: Readings in Thought and Structure; Religion and Politics in Muslim Society: Order and Conflict in Pakistan; The Social Structure and Organization of Early Muslim Society and Islamic Tribes and European Administrators: Readings in the Colonial Encounter.

In responding to the call of Islamization of Knowledge, Akbar Ahmed has written a book entitled Toward Islamic Anthropology: Definition, Dogma and Directions. In this book, he has discussed extensively the subject of anthropology from Islamic standpoints. This can be considered as a good exploratory study of Islamic anthropology since Akbar has pointed out several main issues discussed in both, Western and Islamic anthropology. Although his discussion on Western anthropology is largely depending on British social anthropology, still it reflects and gives a basic idea of anthropology and this pave the way to Islamization of anthropology.

Rationale for Islamization
Akbar S. Ahmed has pointed out that the very reason for Islamization of anthropology is the attacks done by the orientalist anthropologists toward Muslim societies and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

The orientalists have neither tired nor surrendered. In a book written by Crone and Cook in 1980 entitled Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World, the authors have attacked the very core of Islam. They argued that the prophethood of Islam belonged to Caliph ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sent to preach the coming of Hazrat ‘Umar but decided to appropriate the role for himself. Further, they also compare the Prophet’s age as one of violence and barbarism to theirs of gentleness and peace. In refuting such allegation, Akbar Ahmed asserts that although contemporary Western society are presumed to be a civilized nation, nonetheless it is the members of the so-called civilized nation who have made this century alone plunged the entire world into wars that lasted for years at a cost of millions of lives. On the other hand, when Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) reconquered Mecca, he forgave all those who wished to live in peace. A general amnesty was declared and a part from few criminals, no one was killed. The conquest of Mecca involved the death of less than thirty people in combat. Meanwhile, during the Prophet’s entire military career and campaign, only a bout a thousand men, Muslims and non-Muslims, died (Akbar S. Ahmed, 1986: 52). Akbar Ahmed also expresses his disappointment toward the unprofessional approach adopted by the Western orientalist anthropologists. He writes:

Professor Barth spent most of his professional life writing and lecturing about Muslim groups. I am not objecting to his ideas about those groups. He is perfectly entitled to his views. I do object to the arrogance implied by those views. And my objection raises sadness in me rather than indignation. Sadness because my discipline, anthropology, is belittled. It is reduced to parody and weak shadow of orientalism. Edward Said would be roused to say that this is vintage “Orientalism” (Akbar S. Ahmed, 1986: 54).

It is due to the Western orientalist anthropologists’ attacks that have prompted Akbar Ahmed to develop and construct a new kind of anthropology, which is purely based on Islamic paradigms and worldviews. He writes:

When the authors of Hagarism attack Prophet Muhammad and the very foundation of Islam or, less seriously, Western anthropologists equate entire Muslim societies to the mafia, ought Muslims to bury their heads in the sand and pretend they do not hear these voices? Should they simply reject the Western, or non-Muslim, scholarship by banning its entry into their countries? If so, do they build an intellectual iron curtain around their societies? Or ought they to assess, argue, synthesize and then prepare and reply in terms of an “Islamic Anthropology”? The aim of this paper is to illuminate the above questions (Akbar S. Ahmed, 1986: 55).

It would appear that nowadays that anthropology is a creation of the West. This is not so. If anthropology is a science based on extended participant observation of cultures using the data collected for value-neutral and unbiased analysis employing comparative method, then according to Akbar Ahmed, al-Biruni is indeed an anthropologist of the highest contemporary standards. Or perhaps he deserved the title of the “first anthropologist”. Therefore, almost a thousand year before Malinowski[1] and Geertz[2], al-Biruni was establishing the science of anthropology. For that reason, the scientific study of man and society, Islamic anthropology, is not new. Thus, Akbar Ahmed defines Islamic anthropology loosely as the study of Muslim groups by scholars committed to the universalistic principles of Islam – humanity, knowledge, tolerance – relating micro village tribal studies in particular to the larger historical and ideological frames of Islam. Islam is here understood not as theology but sociology (Akbar S. Ahmed, 1986: 56).

Akbar Ahmed has outlined some methodologies in constructing Islamic anthropology. He firstly delineates that the worldview of the Muslim anthropologists should be based on al-Quran and the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. As he describes that “in the ideal, the Muslim orders his life according to the will of God. In actuality this may not be so. Does he see society as motivated by the desire to perform the will of God or not? If so, the Muslim must strive to bring the actual into accord with the ideal” (Akbar S. Ahmed, 1986: 57). He further suggests that in order to deal with Muslim societies, Muslim anthropologists should utilize a methodological holists framework when analyzing a Muslim social actor. The holists view man as motivated by configurations of economy and society which transcend the individual. This is in line with the Islamic ideal that an individual Muslim belongs in part to his immediate group and in part to the larger ummah. Certain religious injunctions have become the subject of caricature and satire among the Western people. For instance, Muslims are commonly known for their prohibition of eating pork as it is not considered halal or pure. In responding to such issue, Akbar suggests that Muslims have to be eclectic. He contends that through eclecticism, Muslims should choose what Shariati calls as the “right path” (Ali Shariati, 1979: 94). Akbar also disagree with some Muslim and Western anthropologists that there are many Islam[3]. He writes:

There is only one Islam and there can be only one Islam but there are many Muslim societies. We must then not look for numerous “Islams” but we must attempt to place the multitude of Muslim societies within the framework of one universal Islam (Akbar S. Ahmed, 1986: 58).

In the end, Akbar Ahmed has given several recommendations in illuminating his Islamic anthropology. These recommendations are:
1) A simple, lucid sociological account of the life of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) be prepared by a Muslim. The book should address wide audience, both Muslims and non-Muslims, and neither is too academic nor too obscure.
2) One major standard anthropological text book of high standard should be produced and then translated into major languages of the Muslim world. It should be used at the BA level and include sections on each major cultural zone.
3) Anthropological monographs on each major Islamic region are produced for distribution in the Muslim world. Initially, Morocco for Maghrib, Pakistan for South Asia and Indonesia for Southeast Asia as distinct cultural-geographical types may be selected. These monographs should be simple, lucid with attractive photographs and used in colleges and universities.
4) Visits of Muslim anthropologists within Muslim countries should be arranged and encouraged and joint projects initiated.
5) Long-term studies should be conducted comparing the major social categories which would help us better understand and reach conclusions regarding Muslim society and its immediate contemporary problems.
6) Practical and development-oriented social studies should be framed in order to enable us to better plan for Muslim society in the twentieth century.
7) Ethnographic and anthropological content from the writings of the great Muslim writers is extracted and compiled in a discrete set of volumes. In this exercise classic Islamic scholars will have to assist the anthropologist (Akbar S. Ahmed, 1986: 67).

After Akbar Ahmed presented his idea on Islamization of anthropology, some Muslim, as well as non-Muslim, anthropologists have responded to it. They have reviewed and given some evaluations on the work.

Akbar Ahmed starts his book with a chapter on contemporary Anthropology. He defines Anthropology as what the Western anthropologists define it; a systematic study of man. He further argues that Anthropology enables us to understand ourselves through understanding other cultures. However, generally speaking, within the discipline of Anthropology there are two main categories namely social anthropology and cultural anthropology. In this study, however, Akbar Ahmed has confined himself only into social anthropology and neglecting cultural anthropology for the most of time. This is clearly proven when he discusses major theoretical frames in Western Anthropology. According to the author, the main focus of inquiry in Western anthropology, among others, are social structure, kinship and political organization, beliefs, magic and religion, economic and processes of social change. These themes are synonymously associated with social anthropology. By focusing only on social anthropology, the discussion on Western anthropology has lost one dimension since cultural anthropology, undeniably, has a significant place in the contemporary anthropology.

Akbar Ahmed is critical in analyzing major theories in the Western anthropology. Most of Western anthropologists especially social anthropologists i.e. Radcliffe-Brown, assert that a society is something very like an organism. However, it has become clear that this “holistic” approach to understand society cannot be translated into actual research. The author contends that society is not something given in experience; rather it is an intellectual construct or model, built up on the basis of experience. Besides, society is a way of ordering experience, a working and for certain purposes, indispensable hypothesis.

The author also gives considerable consideration when discussing on the orientalist anthropologist. It is due to the orientalist anthropologist’s attacks on the Muslim’s societies and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that have compelled the author to develop Islamic Anthropology. Thus, he defines Islamic anthropology loosely as the study of Muslim groups by scholars committed to the universalistic principles of Islam – humanity, knowledge and tolerance – relating micro village tribal studies in particular to the larger historical and ideological frames of Islam. Islam is here understood not as theology but sociology. Nevertheless, this can be considered as a microscopic definition of Islamic anthropology. Or perhaps this is the best definition for the “Anthropology of Muslim Societies”.

The content part is no different from anthropology of Islam which is applying anthropological methods to the study of Muslim communities. But the unique and loose twist here is that the anthropologist submits to a set of principles that are assumed to be universal but left undefined. The main signifier is a commitment to ‘universalistic principles of Islam’, which the author clearly sees as compatible with humanity, knowledge and tolerance. But from where does Ahmad derive these principles if not from theology, from an interpretation of Quran and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)? Surely there can be principles of humanity, knowledge and tolerance outside Islamic perspective.

Akbar Ahmed tries to present a model on the development of Muslim societies. However, it is very sad that he begins the model with tribal segmentary Islam, which he claims to be associated with early Islam. It is undeniable that the Arab society before the coming of Islam was characterized with tribalism and tribal communities. However, with the advent of Islam, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sent to establish a society, which was not based on tribal relationship, rather religion became the basis of the society. It was known as ummah and it transcended tribal loyalties.

Akbar Ahmed’s call for an Islamic anthropology is problematic since from the beginning. He contends that “this study is speculative and concerns a difficult and complex subject. Its task is made more difficult as it defends a metaphysical position, advances an ideological argument and serves a moral cause” (Akbar S. Ahmed, 1986: 13). In spite of this, Daniel Martin Varisco has rejected this idea. He argues:

Anthropology as a scientific discipline, despite all its faults, is in no sense a defense of any particular metaphysical position especially a religion claiming to be the sole legitimate revelation for humanity. If the Muslim anthropologist finds a discrepancy between his belief and the results of anthropological analysis, he must in Ahmed’s scheme side with his belief. To do otherwise is to admit that his faith is subservient to the mundane human quest for knowledge. To think that he can under all circumstances remain a devout Muslim and at the same time pursue an objective and empirical investigation of Muslim society as an anthropologist is naïve, at best (Daniel Martin Varisco, 2005: 132).

Akbar Ahmed tries to adopt al-Faruqi’s approach in Islamizing Anthropology: critical examination of both Western Anthropology and contributions of Muslim anthropologists. He believes that some of the results of modern Anthropology can be benefited in the discussion, while some of the contributions of Muslim anthropologists are not necessarily Islamic. However, it is clear from the book that Akbar Ahmed is less critical in scrutinizing contributions made by the previous Muslim anthropologists.

The failure of Akbar Ahmed to articulate a distinctive Islamic anthropology does not mean that either Islam or anthropology is deficient. The problem stems from combining two different, yet interrelated, approaches to making sense of the world. Different does not mean opposing. Ahmed is right to point out that anthropology helps us understand ourselves by understanding other societies, but he idealizes the discipline by claiming that it realistically fosters appreciation for the oneness of humanity. The awareness of oneness and the ability to better appreciate others need not depend on ethnographic research. As Varisco concluded in his review of Ahmed’s Islamic anthropology:

The anthropologist provides information through study of human cultures but interpretation of the humanitarian or spiritual implications if such observation transcends academic discipline. The anthropologist always operates within a worldview whether that is secular or religious, conservative or liberal. But worldviews are not easily boxed up in real time. There will always be a point, as Evans-Pritchard knew so well, when anthropology gives way to theology even philosophy. Ahmed’s faith-based anthropology leads to a philosophical point of no return (Daniel Martin Varisco, 2005: 134).

[1] A well-known British social anthropologist.
[2] An eminent American cultural anthropologist.
[3] For further discussion on this issue, refer to Eickelman, D.F. 1981. The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc, El-Zein, A.H.M. 1974. The Sacred Meadows: A Structural Analysis of Religious Symbolism in an East African Town. Illinois: Northwestern University Press and El-Zein, A.H.M. 1977. “Beyond Ideology and Theology: The Search for the Anthropology of Islam”. Annual Reviews of Anthropology, 6: 227-254.

1 comment:

secretmouse said...

I'm trying to get a hold of this book but I can't find it anywhere! :( Muslim Anthropology student here looking for a little understanding =l