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Everyday Islam: Commentary by Charles Hirschkind

This post is associated with the Curated Collection "Everyday Islam."

The essays and interviews I have been invited to comment upon here are far too rich and diverse for me to do even minimal justice to in the short space available. Given these constraints, I want to focus my discussion on one theme addressed from a variety of standpoints across the interviews; namely, the idea of everyday life as a site of anthropological analysis. Drawing on some of the disparate remarks made by the authors included in this collection, I want to think about how this analytical space is elaborated within studies of Islamic societies, the range of questions that it helps to illuminate, and the contrasting approaches against which it is posed. Let me emphasize, my aim is not to identify a common perspective from within the heterogeneity of views expressed, but rather to highlight the force of a certain analytical stance registered variably across the conversation, and to say something about its prominence within anthropological scholarship on Islam today.

For many anthropologists, a concern for everyday life defines and distinguishes the anthropological enterprise. That this is self-evident is signaled in Ken George’s short reply to the interviewer’s question about the importance of studying “local iterations of religion”: “Where else would one begin?” My question here, however, is not about anthropology in general but about what has been called the anthropology of Islam. Specifically, what conceptual labor does the notion of everyday life perform in regard to studies within this field, and what characterizes the purview it makes available?

It is interesting to note how much the elaboration of everyday life as an analytical site in these works bears witness to the ongoing significance of Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism for scholarship on Islam and the Middle East. The tradition of Orientalism identified by Said viewed Middle Eastern societies as exhaustively determined by calcified religious norms grounded upon a set of immutable texts. One sees the force of his critique of this tradition in the comments assembled here, and particularly, in the conceptual dichotomies through which the authors describe their frameworks of analysis. Thus, instead of norms, ambiguities should be explored; as opposed to texts and textual knowledge, practices; instead of forms of religious attachment, the place of skepticism and doubt demand our attention; a focus on global patterns should give way to an emphasis on local variations (and, for one author, in opposition to a Western knowledge, what is needed is a knowledge only accessible to non-Westerners). The space of the everyday, in other words, is articulated in critical opposition to an image of life in the Middle East as centered around religion, tied to text-based norms, configured by a trans-local tradition—an image that for Said epitomized Orientalist scholarship. Defined in the manner, this space bears a strong affinity to what has conventionally been called the secular; namely, a domain of ambiguity, contingency, skepticism, and pragmatic concern, one relatively immune to the powers of religious discipline and normativity. Let me repeat here that my claim is not that this is a single viewpoint shared by all of the authors represented here. Rather, I am attempting to delineate a contemporary current within anthropological scholarship on the Middle East, different features of which can be found in the texts and interviews gathered in this collection.

My argument so far has been to point to the way the notion of everyday life, as developed in the contemporary analysis of Middle Eastern societies, has tended to reflect and valorize the normative standpoint of secular modernity. This problem, I am suggesting, owes to the binary operation through which this analytical site is elaborated, as a domain of ambiguities more than norms, practices rather than texts, as skepticism rather than piety, as subject to local determinations rather than global ones, and so on. It seems to me that latter categories are equally important to grasping what is meant by everyday lives as are the former, and indeed, that the two are profoundly interdependent. Thus, it is only in relation to a life structured around certain norms that experiences of ambiguity, confusion, and contradiction acquire a determinate meaning and place within that form of life. Skepticism and doubt, in this sense, are not the opposite of religious piety but one of the challenges religious people regularly encounter. How they respond, practically and morally, to this challenge tells us much about the contours of life within that religious tradition, including what it means to abandon or stray from it. Texts and practices, for that matter, are not opposed. Islamic textual forms, for example, are integral to many practices, whether as verses uttered in the course of performing daily activities, or exhortatory literature read on the subway. Does this imply that Islam, or religion, is the master lens through which life in the Middle East should be viewed? Not at all. It does suggest, however, that if one is interested in understanding the place of Islamic traditions within the everyday life of Muslims in contemporary Middle Eastern societies, such a binary analytical frame will not be helpful.