Living Islam: Muslim Religious Experience in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, by Magnus Marsden. Cambridge UK and New York: Cambridge University Press. 2006. xvi + 263 pages. Maps. Bibl. Index. $75 cloth; $29.99 paper.
This book very attractively elucidates everyday moral arguments and verbal aesthetics characteristic of rural Islam in highland Asia. Its unusual setting is the remote mountainous region of Chitral, the northernmost district of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Its major topic concerns intellectual debates and reflections about moral proprieties, expressed mainly by young men in a large village community of northern Chitral. Listening to their conversations - to community gossip, family biographies, poetical recitations, and sometimes earnestly debated metaphysical reflections - Marsden adumbrates the discursive principles and idioms by which Chitralis judge and justify their personal conduct. He shows that puritanical demands of reformist Islam - primarily proselytized by Pashtun missionaries - are carefully deliberated and challenged by Chitrali youth, who tend to draw on a more relaxed Central Asian Islamic culture, sanctioned by local traditions of refined poetic expression and musical performance.
In view of Marsden's recent fleldwork - coinciding with the rise and fall of the Taliban government in adjacent Afghanistan, and with Sunni Islamist coalitions ever active throughout the North-West Frontier Province - it is understandable that currently troubled definitions of Islamic morality and public conduct take center stage. This topical agenda was even urged on the ethnographer by his Chitrali friends, who ought to be well satisfied with its sympathetic and sensitive depictions of their moral opinions and dilemmas. Yet this polemical stance (sometimes didactically pitched against the unfairly presumed prejudices of an occidental readership) may have occasionally occluded equally pertinent considerations of regional history. For example, similar contests between puritanical and humanistic or Sufi-inspired ideologies of Islam have recurred in Chitral since at least the middle of the 20th century (typically entangled with peasant class resentments politically directed against its landowning nobility) when this former princely state was dissolved and gradually absorbed into the new nation of Pakistan.
Comparing Marsden's account with John Staley's evocative memories of this transitional era,1 one discerns that many of the intense moral debates and anxieties expressed here are legacies of longstanding inter-generational dialogues. These have arguably reflected shifting status aspirations and disappointed economic expectations as much as avowed religious convictions. Several of Marsden's highly articulate and reflective informants would appear to be scions of formerly privileged status groups, ideationally affiliated with the cultural legacy of the old princely state, whose elders once patronized the indulgent poetical and musical traditions that are justly celebrated here. …