Book Review : Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed : Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, The University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Clifford GeertzRésumé : L'ouvrage de Clifford Geertz, Observer l’islam. Changements religieux au Maroc et en Indonésie, a eu, après sa publication en 1967, un impact théorique profond sur les ethnologues de l'époque. L'auteur y étudie les modalités de pratique de l’Islam en se concentrant sur les changements religieux de deux pays : l’Indonésie et le Maroc, et en faisant le lien avec l’évolution de leurs institutions sociales et politiques. Le modèle général auquel parvient Geertz représente, un grand progrès pour l’anthropologie religieuse.

In 1967, the well-known anthropologist Clifford Geertz was commissioned by the Terry Foundation to deliver a series of lectures at Yale University, later to be published in book form. This study reports the evolutions in the practice of Islam, within two distant and contrasting local cultures, Indonesia and Morrocco. Geertz’s purpose was to understand and compare the life-styles linked to traditional Islam in both countries, and the shifts they underwent after Independence.

Geertz uses a distinctive approach since he went beyond Levi Strauss’ widely accepted structuralism, in an original application of Weberian methodology. The latter consists in an interpretative social science which deeply influenced his theoretical assumptions. Geertz starts from the premise that culture is an inherited conception of life expressed in symbols, “[…]by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and their attitudes toward life” 1. As religion is an inherent part of culture, modalities of religious faith are also characterized by these all but undetectable patterns of symbols. Through such symbols, religion creates a lifestyle, that is to say, a human being's way of life. A single shift in Indonesian or Moroccan society, could thus change the pattern of symbols there and thus change the practice of religion which will then itself generate a new way of living and thinking.

Consequently, Geertz studies the symbols of Indonesian and Moroccan culture, to detect the traces of religion. For this purpose, he uses two different kinds of materials. He first conducted field work in Indonesia, more precisely on the island of Java, as well as in Morocco, where he resided for six years, living in the Souk of Sefrou. Afterwards, he selected several precise local spots in order to better understand the symbols, which led him on to a global interpretation. This first type of procedure is a good illustration of Geertz’s theory which advocates a focus on local anthropological data in oreder to reach a global interpretation. In addition, Geertz’s work is based on historical accounts that he uses to understand the shifts in traditional practices of Islam.

Geertz finally formulates a specific thesis, consisting in a description of the symbols which embody the practice of Islam in both countries. Thus, according to the anthropologist, Sunan Kalidjaga, a Hindu-Buddhist holy man rapidly converted to Islam without ever having read the Koran, represents the “classical” paradigm of Islam in Indonesia. Indeed, the conversion of the holy man was the result of his practice of meditation, which is a symbol of Indonesian culture. We better understand why Geertz chooses him as a symbol whose interpretation will enable us to discover what “Indonesian Islam” really looks like. Concerning Morocco, Geertz chooses a fgure called Al Youssi to embody traditional Islam. This farmer, touched by Baraka ( holy blessing), had the power “to fight like a king”. We know that Baraka originally characterized the Bedouin Islam from the mountains of Morocco. Thus this holy man represents the classical style of Islam in Morocco: a form of maraboutism which not only long characterized the rural Bedouin’s practice of Islam, but also that proper to the urban Arabs.

The publication of this book had the effect of a revolution in Geertz’ time. Indeed, Geertz's thesis implied that the practice of Islam and the symbols linked to the latter were homogeneous in any given country. This disproves several functionalist theories, especially Gellner’s analysis that the practices of Islam differed between the Bedouins and the Arabs in Morocco.2 Indeed, if Geertz accepted the fact that the practices of Islam differed superficially in this country, he however was to demonstrate that they were deeply rooted in the same pattern of symbols.

This theory, applied in another context, might strike us as puzzling nowadays. Is Geertz’s theory still relevant if we position ourselves in a country where the culture is split between two religions? In Lebanon, where the population is split into eighteen religious communities, is there an homogenous pattern of latent symbols which characterized these religions? We know that Geertz wrote his book in the 1960’s, a period characterized by the accession to Independence of many muslim countries. Was Geertz influenced by this period of 'National self-determination', to the point of postulating that only one pattern of symbols or one single culture necessarily matches with each single country?

Moreover, a few functionalist scholars doubt that anthropologists a global, overarching thesis, applicable to a whole culture, can be interpratively elaborated by any Anthropologist, on the basis of just one local symbol. It may indeed seem quite surprising to us today to observe that, in Geertz's view, one single individual - in the case of Indonesia, Kalidjaga - is posited as being the paradigm or the metaphor of the practice of Islam in Indonesia.

Geertz’s interpretative theory is perhaps controversial. It is thus admittedly bold, but worthwhile. If culture is inherent in our lives, behaviors and ways of thinking, it is hardly tangible. Scholars need a precise and deep interpretation of its symbols to bring it to light. And this is only possible when they select symbols and analyze them singly, individually, through long and patient field work, one at a time.

1 Clifford Geertz, Religion as a Cultural System. In The Interpretation of Cultures. p. 87-125. New York: Basic Books, P 89


2 Ernest Gellner, Les saints de l'Atlas, traduit de l'anglais par Paul Coatelen éditions Bouchène, Paris, 2003