Saturday, June 27, 2009

Is "Folk Islam" the Correct Terminology?

From the Summer 2009 edition of the Zwemer Journal for Muslim Studies, pgs. 15-16:

"Beware of worn-out interpretive stereotypes, such as "folk Islam." Christians in Muslim lands are in the habit of using the term "folk Islam" for any belief or practice that varies from Islamic doctrine, often termed "normative Islam" or "orthodox Islam." Folk Islam has become a catchall term used for practices such as divination, jinn cults, healing and exorcism, pilgrimages to holy places, and hanging a blue bead to protect against the evil eye.

When you view the lives of ordinary Muslims as folksy, deviant, or inconsistent with "normative Islam," you attribute a kind of ontological status to the Islam of Qur'an and Sunna. Do really want to be perceived by the people as having imbibed the Islam of the 'ulamā [scholars], who tend to belittle the ignorant ways of their people? Why should you join them in such judgments? Neither as Christians nor as ethnographers is it our business to decide what the true Islam is.

In your church do you sit on pews? Do you pass an offering plate during worship? Do you bury the dead in a casket? Do you think of "winning them one by one" as divinely ordained? Does one form of worship or singing bless you more than others? The scriptural basis for such beliefs and preferences is doubtful; therefore, if we were to apply to ourselves the same standard often applied to Muslims, many of us would be labeled "folk Christians." Ask yourself how such a label feels before applying it to Muslims.

It is best to avoid the term Folk Islam and speak instead of the "Muslim culture and life ways" of a specific people, time and place. If you are interested in the spirits Muslims believe in, then "the spiritual world of Arab Muslims in Cairo" is a good rubric.

Anthropologists now see the framework of "great tradition" and "little tradition" which was once used to distinguish between "orthodox" and "folk" Islam as an impediment to good ethnographic interpretation. There is a problem also with the assumption that the spirit beliefs of Muslims are survivals of a native "animistic" or "tribal" culture. Sometimes this kind of indigenization of Islam in local forms is demonstrable, but one must be careful, because historical evidence for Islam's assimilation of local spiritual practices may be lacking. What is more, comparative evidence may suggest that Muslims in geographically diverse places share the same or similar ideas and practices, in which case it is unlikely that the source is local animism. ("Animism" may not always the best word either; "spirit beliefs" is more generic and safer.)

Along with anthropologists, Christians should be careful about this kind of religious profiling. We follow Jesus, who loved and honored simple people. He listened carefully to the beliefs of the Samaritans (never calling them "folk Jews") but was often at odds with the theologically adept Pharisees (the 'ulamā of the Jews). Christianity shares at least one conviction with anthropology, that it is unwise to take sides with the powerful, when doing so would preclude trusting relationships with the people."

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