The Anthropology of Islam

By Gabriele Marranci | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
From Studying Islam to Studying Muslims

BETWEEN REGIONALISM AND ORIENTALISM

Religion has fascinated sociologists and anthropologists since the beginning of their disciplines. However, they focused mainly on the so-called 'primitive cultures'. Indeed, a casual meeting with indigenous people in Mexico, while travelling for the sake of his health, initiated Tylor to anthropology, and led him to advocate a scientific and systematic study of 'primitive people' (Tylor 1881). In Primitive Culture (1871), he adopted a unilinear evolutionary theory of societies. Tylor suggested that societies, through the evolutionary process, pass through three progressive stages, animism, polytheism and monotheism. Durkheim, one of the fathers of modern sociology and anthropology, had a stronger impact on how future generations of anthropologists and sociologists would understand religion and its functions within societies. In his seminal work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1915), Durkheim introduced his influential distinction between the 'sacred' and the 'profane'. Again, his data focused in particular on Australian Aboriginal people, whom he considered one of the simplest forms of society in existence. Consequently, Durkheim thought that the study of their society could shed light on the origin and formation of the idea of the 'sacred' among more complex societies, such as his own.

Nevertheless, the first anthropologists often developed their analysis from data that they did not collect, and in many cases, were provided by missionaries. Malinowski, who systematically introduced participant observation and fieldwork, can be considered the first modern anthropologist to rely on a planned methodology. Polish, but living in England and teaching at the London School of Economics, Malinowski was in Australia when the First World War began. Forced to decide between internment in Australia and a fieldwork-exile, he left Australia for the Trobriand Islands (Papua New Guinea). The result of his fieldwork was an ethnographic study, Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), an evergreen that any undergraduate studying anthropology will meet, though the publication of his private diaries in 1967 cast shadows over the real attitude of the author towards his informants. More genuine, perhaps, have been the emphases on participant observation of Franz Boas. Interested in totemic systems, like Durkheim, but paying particular attention to the social psychology of the individual, Boas conducted fieldwork among the Inuit of Canada, and studied their cultural differences. Culture,

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