Muslims, literally those who submit to God’s will, are the community of more than 1.3 billion practitioners of one of the world’s major and fastest growing religions, Islam. Although Islam began in the Middle East in the Arabian Peninsula, the largest populations of Muslims today live in Central, South, and Southeast Asia in countries such as India (with more than 100 million Muslims) and Indonesia (with more than 160 million Muslims). Islam also is expanding in Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Despite their diversity, Muslims share a belief in one God who sent messages to humankind through His prophets, the last of whom was Muhammad. Anthropologists have contributed to the study of Muslim communities around the world through research on topics such as economic strategies, sectarian and ethnic divisions, and gender relations.
The prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca, a prosperous Arabian town, in 570 AD. At 40 years of age, while meditating in a cave near Mecca, Muhammad received revelations from God and began reciting these to the people of Mecca. The words comprise the Quran, Islam’s holy book and the last, final, perfect revelation from God, according to Muslims. The Quran mentions many people also found in both the Old Testament and New Testament, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus. Following persecution by some Meccans, Muhammad and his followers migrated to Medina, where they formed a community of faith, the umma. The Hijra, or emigration to Medina, in 622 marks the first year in the lunar Islamic calendar. The Muslim community returned to Mecca in triumph in 630, gaining many more adherents. During the early years after Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam spread rapidly through North Africa and north and eastward in Asia to many groups in addition to the Arabs.
The orthodox majority of Muslims, comprising 90% of the total, are known as Sunnis (from the word sunna, Arabic for “customary conduct,” referring to the practices Muhammad observed). The Shia, whose origin comes from disputes over appropriate leadership after Muhammad, comprise a minority of approximately 10 to 15%; however, they control the state in Iran and are the majority in Iraq. Shiism has been divided into numerous sects since the eighth century. Most are known as Imamis or Twelvers because they accept 12 imams or leaders, from the 1st, Ali, to the 12th, who is believed to have hidden himself away only to return later to restore justice prior to the end of the world. Others include the Ismailis (Seveners) and the Zaydis, both of whom recognize imams who are not accepted by the Imamis.
Anthropological Studies of Muslims
During the last half of the 20th century, anthropologists conducted research on many diverse Muslim communities. Because of an emphasis on economic lifestyle and subsistence pattern, the ethnographic literature often divides people into three types: pastoralists, village agriculturalists, and urbanites. Although animal husbandry, agriculture, and commerce are interdependent and have formed an integrated system for thousands of years in Asia and Africa, and people frequently change from one lifestyle to another, ethnographies tend to treat each type in isolation. Nomadic pastoralists, comprising approximately 1% of the Middle East’s population, were studied disproportionately by anthropologists, especially before the 1970s.
Studies of pastoralists describe two patterns of animal herding: vertical or transhumant (with seasonal movement up and down mountains) and horizontal (with movement following water and other resources). The internal integration of kinship and politics also was a major theme in anthropological writing, as was the conflictual relationship between pastoralist tribes and state organization. In many anthropological monographs about pastoralists, people are described as following their own customs and having little familiarity with normative Islam.
Dry farming and irrigation agriculture have ancient origins in Asia and Africa. Many village studies emphasized traditional land tenure systems and the mechanisms through which access to land and water was regulated. Recent studies have also accounted for the historical and economic transformation of villages, the changing nature of elites, and the expansion of government influence. Anthropologists have written less about city life than about pastoralism or village agriculture. Studies of urban neighborhoods focus on ethnicity, social class, and culture change.
As U.S. foreign policy increasingly focused on the Muslim world during the 1980s and 1990s, some anthropologists sought to include broader policy implications in their analyses in addition to the particularistic studies of tribe, ethnic group, and village that dominated the ethnographic literature. M. Nazif Shahrani and Robert Canfield’s edited volume, Revolutions and Rebellions in Afghanistan, brought together articles by a variety of experts who conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, demonstrating both the commonalities and differences of disparate groups’ responses to governmental change there.
Formal studies by various researchers have been complemented by personal accounts of fieldwork experiences. In Guests of the Sheik, not only did Elizabeth Fernea describe her interaction with the women of an Iraqi village, but she also accompanied them on a pilgrimage to important Shia sites and provided a unique description of the reenactment of Husayn’s martyrdom on the 10th of Muharram. In addition, as part of the development of postmodern ethnography and experiments with writing, various forms of dialogue and emotional encounters with Muslim informants have become important to the general literature in anthropology. Paul Rabinow’s frank description of his Moroccan fieldwork detailed his interpersonal difficulties and frustrations in one such account.
The influence of feminism in the United States and Europe during the 1970s sparked interest in studies of gender, women’s roles, and women’s status in the Muslim world. Early studies emphasized the separation of men’s and women’s lives, the former in the public realm and the latter in the private realm. Notions of honor and shame also were linked to men and women, respectively. In addition to the examination of women’s lives, some ethnographers paid greater attention to children because socialization was another avenue for examining gender identity and roles. Later studies examined influence and agency exercised by women within their own com-munities and over men. Multiple ideologies and discourses allow women, as well as men, to be poets and warriors.
- Fernea, E. (1965). Guests of the sheik. Garden City, NY: Doubleday/Anchor.
- Rabinow, P. (1977). Reflections on fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Shahrani, M. N., & Canfield, R. (Eds.). (1984). Revolutions and rebellions in Afghanistan: Anthropological perspectives. Berkeley: University of California Institute of International Studies.