In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sociology and Anthropology

  • Introduction
  • History of the Anthropological Study of Islam
  • Introductory Works and Textbooks
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • The Anthropological Study of Islam: Theory
  • The Anthropological Study of Islam: Methodology
  • History of Islam
  • Muslim Critiques of Anthropology
  • Fundamentalism
  • Literature
  • Media
  • Ritual Celebrations
  • Sufism and Spirit Possession
  • Terrorism

Islamic Studies Sociology and Anthropology
Daniel Martin Varisco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0078


Anthropology, as a formal discipline, began in the late 19th century with an emphasis on the cultures of indigenous peoples, especially in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Before then, there were numerous travel accounts that contained ethnographic information on Muslims, most notably the continually published work of Edward Lane on his observations in Egypt and Richard Burton's surreptitious visit to Mecca. The hallmark of modern anthropology since the 1920s has been the methodology of participant observation in fieldwork, using the language of the people studied. Most of the early ethnographic studies in the Middle East focused on tribalism rather than Islam, including the influential work of E. E. Evans-Pritchard on the Sanusi order of Cyrenaica, Libya. Although ethnographic studies of Muslim peoples began to appear in the 1960s, most provided little information on the role of Islam. The majority of ethnographic studies on Muslims have been in the Middle East, North Africa, and Indonesia, but interest has increasingly focused on Muslims in Europe and America. In addition to ethnographies, anthropologists and sociologists have also written on historical aspects of Islam and the issues facing contemporary Muslims worldwide. The generally recognized foundational text for a specific anthropology of Islam is Clifford Geertz's widely read Islam Observed (see The Anthropolgical Study of Islam: Theory). The most prominent anthropologist contributing to anthropological theory in the study of Islam in the early 21st century is Talal Asad. In addition, as Muslims are now beginning to use the Internet in large numbers, ethnographers are beginning to pay attention to the impact of cyberspace on representations of Islam and on Muslim youth.

History of the Anthropological Study of Islam

There is no detailed history of the anthropological study of Islam. Eickelman 2001 provides a summary of the intellectual predecessors to modern ethnographic study of Muslims. Historically, there were numerous travel accounts with information on Islam, most notably the classic study of Egypt by Edward Lane (Lane 1836). The Finnish scholar Edward Westermarck (Westermarck 1916) collected information on Moroccan Muslim folklore, including a major study on the Islamic notion of Baraka. In 1951, the American anthropologist Eric Wolf published an essay on the social origins of Islam in Mecca (Wolf 1951), although he had not done ethnographic research in the region. Both anthropologists and sociologists have examined the impact of Max Weber's views on Islam, most notably Turner 1974, followed by Huff and Schluchter 1999 and Salvatore 2007. Turner 1994 examines the impact of Orientalism and postmodern theory on the study of Islam.

  • Coon, Carlton S. Caravan: The Story of the Middle East. New York: Henry Holt, 1951.

    Dated introduction to the Middle East, using the concept of the cultural mosaic.

  • Eickelman, Dale F. The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

    In Chapter 2, “Intellectual Predecessors: East and West,” Eickelman discusses precursors to modern anthropology and their influence on later work.

  • Huff, Toby E., and Wolfgang Schluchter, eds. Max Weber and Islam. Edison, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999.

    Includes eleven articles and a bibliography on the impact of Weber on the study of Islam.

  • Lane, Edward. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. Vol. 1. London: Charles Knight, 1836.

    Classic travel account on Islam in Egypt, revised in 1860 and reprinted many times since. Available online from TIMEA.

  • Salvatore, Armando. “Beyond Orientalism? Max Weber and the Displacements of ‘Essentialism’ in the Study of Islam.” In Defining Islam: A Reader. Edited by Andrew Rippin, 148–172. London: Equinox, 2007.

    In this article, originally published in 1996, Salvatore situates anthropological and sociological studies of Islam in the approaches of other disciplines.

  • Turner, Bryan S. Weber and Islam: A Critical Study. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

    Classic sociological analysis of the views of Weber on the study of Islam.

  • Turner, Bryan S. Orientalism, Postmodernism, and Globalism. London: Routledge, 1994.

    An analysis of the impact of Orientalism (including the work of Weber and von Grunebaum) and postmodern theory on the sociological study of Islam.

  • Westermarck, Edward. The Moorish Conception of Holiness (Baraka). Helsinki, Finland: Akademiska Bokhandeln, 1916.

    A detailed study of the folklore on notions of holiness in Morocco.

  • Wolf, Eric. “The Social Organization of Mecca and the Origins of Islam.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 7 (1951): 329–356.

    A functionalist interpretation of the origins of Islam.

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