In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology of Islam

  • Introduction
  • Theoretical Essays
  • General Overviews
  • Mysticism and Syncretism
  • Islamic Law
  • Islam in the West
  • Gender Relationships
  • Kinship, Tribal Affiliation, and Social Organization
  • Islam, Politics, and the State
  • Islam and Secularism
  • Acts of Piety and Practices of Learning

Anthropology Anthropology of Islam
Saba Mahmood, Jean-Michel Landry
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0175


The emergence of Islam as an object of anthropological inquiry results from a series of shifts internal to the discipline. Until the late 1960s, anthropologists had centered their attention on the so-called “primitive religions” surviving in remote areas. Through the scientific study of archaic religious forms, Victorian scholars sought to reveal the origins of faith. Functionalist anthropologists largely dropped this quest for origins, but they insisted that primitive and localized religions teach us about the nature of religious sentiments. Meanwhile, the research on Islam was carried out by Orientalists. Even in the anthropological writings of those studying societies shaped by Islamic beliefs, Islam is framed as an element of context, rather than as an object of inquiry. The situation changed following the publication of Clifford Geertz’s Islam Observed (Geertz 1968, cited under Theoretical Essays) and Ernest Gellner’s Saints of the Atlas, (Gellner 1969, cited under Mysticism and Syncretism) which signal the emergence of the anthropology of Islam as a distinct field of research. Yet in spite of this development, Geertz, Gellner, and their pupils never quite challenged the scientific division of labor that assigned to anthropology the task of studying localized religious forms. Rather, they mapped this division onto Islam itself: unlike Orientalists interested in the “scriptural Islam” of the urban elite, they suggested anthropologists focus on the “popular Islam” embraced by small-scale, rural societies. Scholars working within this framework have produced a wealth of ethnographic studies on syncretism, Sufism, mysticism, and other manifestation of religiosity deemed hostile to the urban Islamic orthodoxy. But soon thereafter, following the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Writing Culture (1986), edited by James Clifford and George Marcus, anthropology came under severe criticism for having produced essentialist and ahistorical cultural descriptions used by colonial powers to reshape non-Western traditions in accordance with their modernist imperial project. Within the field of anthropological scholarship on Islam, these debates were also influenced by Talal Asad’s critical intervention (“The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam”; Asad 1986, cited under Theoretical Essays), questioning the value of separating scriptural Islam from popular Islam, as well as the old division of labor between Orientalists and anthropologists. In many respects, this intervention provided the groundwork to what Bowen 2012 (cited under General Overviews) called the “new anthropology of Islam,” emerging in the early 2000s. Drawing on the various efforts to capture the complexity and diversity of Islamic societies, these recent studies have opened up new sets of questions about law, authority, politics, ethics, and secularism—and pushed them well beyond the limits of the discipline.

Theoretical Essays

While anthropologists started researching Islamic societies in the late 1940s, Geertz 1968 was the first to articulate the potential and promises of an anthropological approach to Islam. Arguing that religious life must be studied comparatively, he juxtaposed Indonesian and Moroccan Islamic experiences, but also portrayed “scripturalism” and “mysticism” as two distinct (if not opposed) forms of faith. The theoretical contributions of Gellner 1981 and Gilsenan 1982 reaffirmed this dichotomy between a version of Islam grounded in textual knowledge and mystical forms of faith informed by local beliefs. El-Zein 1977 famously rejected this approach, suggesting instead that anthropologists reckon with the fact that the world is made of multiple “Islams.” These efforts to distinguish various versions of Islam were the target of Asad 1986, a game-changing intervention. Asad argued that although Islamic practices and concepts are heterogeneous, they all aspire to cohere with the founding texts of Islam. Therefore, he added, anthropologists interested in Islam cannot afford to ignore these texts, nor can they overlook the ways in which they inform practices described as “Islamic.”

  • Asad, T. 1986. The idea of an anthropology of Islam. Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown Univ.

    Islamic traditions are heterogeneous, argues Asad, but they are in coherence with the founding texts of Islam. Anthropologists interested in Islam must therefore pay close attention to the ways in which such coherence is achieved and sustained. Doing so entails bringing into focus the debates, forms of argumentation, and relations of orthodoxy underlying Islamic practices.

  • Eickelman, D. 1982. The study of Islam in local contexts. Contributions to Asian Studies 27:1–16.

    Rather than approaching Islam with dichotomies (e.g., high culture versus folk religion), Eickelman suggests we explore the “middle ground” between the universalistic elements of Islam and the practices observed in local contexts. This helps us understand how universal norms are communicated locally, but also how local practices affect Islam’s universal discourse.

  • Fadil, N., and M. Fernando. 2015. Rediscovering the “everyday” Muslim: Notes on an anthropological divide. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5.2: 59–88.

    DOI: 10.14318/hau5.2.005

    Fadil and Fernando examine the current trend of anthropological research invested in “everyday Islam.” They argue that by envisioning the “everyday” mostly as a site where Muslims express their ambivalence and reticence toward Islamic norms, scholars run the risk of naturalizing a conception of human life that excludes other forms of life, such as those cultivated by orthodox Muslims.

  • Geertz, C. 1968. Islam observed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    In comparing the religious dynamics of Morocco and Indonesia, Geertz sets the stage for decades of anthropological research on Islam. Against Orientalists, he argues that Islamic dogmas are always experienced through the prism of local culture. Understanding Islam therefore involves comparing different experiences of it (e.g., Moroccan versus Indonesian Islam; mystic versus scripturalist Islam).

  • Gellner, E. 1981. Muslim society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Islam has progressed, Gellner argues, through a continuous oscillation between two opposite “styles of faith”: the scripturalist Islam of cities and the folk Islam of the countryside. Such oscillation has allowed Islam to adapt to various circumstances. Modernity, however, has tilted the balance in favor of scripturalist Islam, at the expenses of the Sufis and other practitioners of folk Islam.

  • Gilsenan, M. 1982. Recognizing Islam: Religion and society in the modern Arab world. New York: Pantheon.

    The studies included in this collection speak against the assumption that religion necessarily prevails over the other social, political, and economic factors that affect Muslim societies. Drawing on different field sites, Gilsenan highlights the historical processes and social forces that shape the various (and sometimes contradictory) ways in which Islam is conceived and practiced today.

  • Osella, F., and B. Soares, eds. 2009. Special issue: Islam, politics, anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 15, Suppl. 1.

    The contributors to this special issue all share a concern with what the editors call the “piety turn” in the anthropological study of Islam. Against what they diagnose as a tendency to conceive Islamic religiosity as totalizing, they draw attention to the struggles, ambivalence, incoherence, and everyday failures that characterize the ways of “being Muslim” in the post-9/11 context.

  • Tapper, R. 1995. “Islamic anthropology” and the “anthropology of Islam.” Anthropological Quarterly 68:185–193.

    DOI: 10.2307/3318074

    How does the anthropology of Islam relate to Islam-inspired anthropological research? Can non-Muslims study Islam? If so, what is the nature of their knowledge? Tapper addresses these questions by exploring the potential, principles, and problems of “Islamic Anthropology,” a form of scholarship based on methods drawn from the teachings of Islam.

  • Varisco, D. 2005. Islam obscured: The rhetoric of anthropological representation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781403973429

    Something went wrong, Varisco argues, with the textual representation of Islam as a religion: rather than illuminating key elements of this cross-cultural faith, classic anthropological studies in fact obscure our understanding of it. In an effort to accurately diagnose the problem, this book critically scrutinizes four chief contributions to this anthropological field of inquiry.

  • el-Zein, A. H. 1977. Beyond ideology and theology: The search for the anthropology of Islam. Annual Review of Anthropology 6:227–254.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Islamic beliefs, institutions and practices are so varied, argues el-Zein, that delimiting the contours of Islam is an impossible task. To avoid adjudicating what counts as Islam and what does not (a theological enterprise), el-Zein urges anthropologists to pluralize the notion of Islam, and to approach the multiple “local Islams” as equal and relatively independent from one another.

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