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KEY QUESTIONS

A NEW ANTHROPOLOGY OF ISLAM
By John R. Bowen,
Cambridge, Rs 395

After 9/11, the West has tried to reach out to Muslims and constructively understand Islam. A New Anthropology of Islam is the latest addition to the series of books that are part of this attempt. John R. Bowen uses social anthropology to study Islam as it is practised in different countries and cultures. He writes objectively and takes up the fundamentals of Islam that distinguish it from other revealed religions, and builds a platform for further discussion about how Muslims have adapted in different parts of the world. However, any reader interested in Islam would feel that Bowen should have devoted more space to revelations and other significant fundamentals before moving on.

Bowen divides the book into chapters with titles that address the core aspects of Islam. He talks about how the believer learns the religious text in madrasas, or understands the subtleties of prayer and its formal procedures. He examines social, cultural and political matters and their relationship vis a vis the community’s adjustments. Some pertinent questions like the importance of clothes in European countries, or the question of charging interests may appeal to the general reader. Others, such as sacrifice in Islam and the religion’s links with Judaism and Christianity, may also be of interest. However, the space afforded to these was not required; Bowen’s version, at times, seems to be out of sync with the book. For example, he writes about healing rituals and cites a case study of Mayotte, an island off Madagascar; but this shows that he has failed to distinguish between religion and local rituals. He also fails to distinguish between jinns in Islam and spirits in the usual sense.

However, with his examples of the interplay between spiritual forces and their place in human society, he has established how Islam has transformed social boundaries. His discussion on questions of migration and his examination of the anthropological aspect of Muslims’ adaptation to the changing world scenario is an important part. In the chapter on Sufi tradition, Bowen tries to show how local ideas have shaped Islamic practice. Such discussions may not interest a practising Muslim, but others — academic readers, for example — may find them informative. Bowen’s integration of these to his case studies do not seem imposed, and appeal to the readers. The assimilation of his study of the effect of religion on its followers with the topical discussion of Muslims’ adaptations to change is another important aspect of the book.

Although he includes European and African nations in his study, Bowen neglects the Indian subcontinent. There are also some errors in his understanding of the religion. For example, he links Sufism to the practice of visiting shrines in different parts of Asia. He says that “so effective was the meld that Muslims could worship at these shrines together with people whom today we would call ‘Hindus’.” His words need clarification: Muslims do not “worship” at shrines; some go there, but merely to seek the blessings of the saints. Even that is not permitted in Islam. Moreover, “Hindus” have not been given the appellation today, but have been called so since time immemorial.

The book can be of use to scholars interested in the changes in Islamic practices and to people who are interested in the religion itself. These issues could be explored by academics to understand the place of religion amidst social setups. It would also have benefitted followers of the religion, but the manner in which Bowen takes up these issues is almost elementary.

The book may not enlighten a practising Muslim or even one who knows the basic principles of the religion. Nothing strikingly new seems to have emerged from Bowen’s study.