Daily Archives: November 2, 2006


The anthropologist Clifford Gertz has left us. He’s another of my main guys etched prominently in my own investigations on the heels of Richard Halliburton (a popularizer, read as a twelve year old,) and later Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, Joseph Campbell, Claude Levi-Straus, Ruth Simpson, Jack Goody, and many others.

One of the key baseline points of cultural anthropology is its synthesis of neutral categories at the same time  the very biases that impinge on the construction of neutrality are carefully factored. I don’t know why today, but this is the reflection that arises when I think of Gertz and the anthropology I favor and am deeply influenced by.

Gertz: Know what he [the anthropologist] thinks a savage is and you have the key to his work. You know what he thinks he himself is and, knowing what he thinks he himself is, you know in general what sort of thing he is going to say about whatever tribe he happens to be studying. All ethnography is part philosophy, and a good deal of the rest is confession. (Interpretation of Cultures)

Geertz wrote a series of articles on Islam over the years for the New York Review of Books. They are timely precisely because he articulates, long before and against the reduction of Islam now fashionable in popular lay interpretations, the extremely rich weave of Islam and its cultural-historical development.

from his review of Hodgson’s The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1: The Classical Age of Islam, December 11, 1975, NYR:

So Hodgson’s book ends with the end-of-Islam, exce t for its legacy of moral aestheticism. He foresees an Islamle s Islamicate that can coexist, in the modern “technicalistic” world, with the religionless Christianity so popular “in so vieux jeu circles” when Hodgson was writing, and so vieux jeu now in those same circles, which now are fascinated by popular beliefs and festal celebrations. Perhaps such a view is the final outcome of trying to inflate Sufism into a comprehensive interpretative category with neither well-drawn edges nor a well-located center. The diversity of Islamic religious viewpoints remains; Qaddhafi’s desert camp fundamentalism and Sadat’s Cairene eclecticism do as much to divide as connect them. And, though it is not much more attractive to me than it is to Hodgson, the great power of Shariah legalism persists. So too does the diversity of institutions and cultural traditions within Islamdom: the Berbers and Malaysians both regard their sharply different social systems as properly Islamic.

One might be in a better position to understand and evaluate such phenomena if one’s idea of what Islam is and has always been were closer to Wittgenstein’s notion of a “family resemblance.” We think we see striking resemblances between different generations of a family but, as Wittgenstein pointed out, we may find that there is no one feature common to them; the resemblance may come from many different features “overlapping and crisscrossing.” This sort of approach seems more promising than one that sees the history of Islam, as Hodgson’s does, as an extended struggle of a gentle pietism to escape from an arid legalism. A picture of the Islamic venture derived from “overlaps” and “crosscrosses” would be less ordered and less continuous, a matter of oblique connections and glancing contrasts, and general conclusions would be harder to come by. But it could leave us with a history less orchestrated than Hodgson’s, and more immediate.

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