Michael M.J. Fischer and Mehdi Abedi, Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition (Wisconsin, 1990).

In the older literature on the Middle East and the Muslim world, Islam almost invariably appeared as a religion of fanaticism: austere in its outlook, menacing in its proselytizing tendencies, intellectually impoverished, antagonistic toward reason and monolithic in its structure. Above all it was described as essentially different from Western rationalism, capitalism and democracy.

Debating Muslims, the work of two Rice University anthropologists, uses recent scholarship on Muslim societies which draws on the insights of feminism, Marxism, post-structuralism and post-modernism to deconstruct some cherished Orientalist notions and to restore to the native his or her suppressed voice. Fischer and Abedi reject the older categories of analysis, usually construed in sterile oppositions — faith and reason, backward and developed, traditional and modern. They employ instead an historically informed sociology that enables us to comprehend Islam as a religion with variable levels of meaning and interpretation. The voices that emerge from the world of Islam are multifarious, and speak to us with different urgency and intent. If Islam seems remote, the authors make it more intimate by conveying the verbal world of Muslim scholars, clerics, teachers, students and shopkeepers. As Abedi, himself an Iranian Shi‘i, says, “The lived-in world of contemporary experience” brings to life “the worlds of scholarship familiar from texts.”

An image of concentric circles come to mind in describing Debating Muslims. Islam is the backdrop to all seven chapters, but it is Islam in Iran, with its predominant Shi‘i population, that especially interests Fischer and Abedi. Iran, Islam and Shi‘ism coexist in a state of tension in the diverse essays that comprise Debating Muslims. Other, smaller circles are represented by Baha‘ism (a worldwide faith originating in Iran), Zoroastrianism (the pre-Islamic religion of Iran), the varying traditions of Qur’anic exegesis and the contemporary Islamist ideology of Khomeini and his followers.

Another set of concentric circles locates Shi‘ism not in relation to other faiths or ideologies, but territorially. Chapter 1 is set in Yazd, where Abedi was born and became socialized to Shi‘ism. The scene shifts, in chapter 5, to Houston, where Abedi now lives and which is home to a large Iranian community. The tone is personal and familiar and the mode of narration is autobiographical — “a relatively novel genre” in Islamic and Iranian literature. The effect is to suggest that Muslims struggle with their faith like everyone else, and are no more bounded by dogmatism or obscurantism than people of other faiths. Islam is, moreover, a transnational faith, even though the annual pilgrimage to Mecca underlines the importance of “place” to Muslims.

Chapters 2 and 3 acquaint us with forms of Islamic argumentation, showing how the Iranian revolution of 1979 can be read through texts, while chapter 6 shows how revolutionary posters too can be read as “texts.” Islam may appear to the West as universally prescriptive, constrained by no greater distinction than that between the Sunnis and the Shi‘a, but dialectical disputation is internal to Islamic methods of textual interpretation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in what the authors describe as “Khomeini’s dialogic use of the Hadith game.” Khomeini had to legitimize the Islamic revolution, justify the new constitution and the special political role of clerics, and explain his own elevation from supreme faqih (jurisconsult in Islamic law) to head of state. To do this he provided fresh readings of the Qur’an, hadiths and Islamic revelation. His arguments, though, provided as much ammunition against his positions as they did support for them. He had to acknowledge that individually none of the hadiths could support him in his endeavors; only collectively could they be said to display the “logically obvious intent of Islam.” Hadiths, the authors state, provide “access to ideological, sectarian, social and political history,” a history that one must approach, as they do, “dialectically (i.e., aware of the range of counter-arguments in a given historical period), hermeneutically (i.e., aware of the allusions and contexts, nuances and changes in word usage), and dialogically (i.e., aware of the political others against whom assertions are made).”

The “cultural spaces” which interest the authors are “hybridized,” not distinct or otherwise bounded. The chapter on the Baha‘is of Yazd is an exploration of the “intercultural dialogue” between Shi‘ism, Baha‘ism and Zoroastrianism. Once the largest Iranian refuge of Zoroastrianism, Yazd is also the seat of the Isma‘ili imam and of the leader of the Shaykhis, and now one of the most conservative of Muslim cities. Though Islam would appear to dominate the religious and cultural landscape, much of the contemporary debate about Islamic government, social reform and the “purification of Islamic terminology of literalist and excessively other-worldly meaning” is, according to Fischer, a continuation of the traditional arguments developed in the nineteenth century by Ismai‘lis, Sufis, Babis and others. Islam exerts its own pressures — for instance compelling Zoroastrianism and Judaism “to elaborate a single and central prophet.” Likewise the Baha‘is still speak the language of Islam, “of prophets, hierarchical authority, dreams, signs and wonders,” and their quest for martyrdom appears to Fischer as a “dated rhetoric,” of little use in counteracting the genocidal atrocities of Iran’s Islamic regimes. Ambivalence characterizes the relations between these different faiths.

We hear, in Debating Muslims, the voices of people who are marginalized: a black Muslim woman in the US, a Baha‘i in Yazd and an anti-Khomeini activist in Houston. All engage in dialogue with Islam, as do the authors themselves. These participants highlight the “areas of blindness both in Western complacencies and in Islamic and patriarchal fundamentalisms,” and thereby seek to “counter the arrest of interpretation by fundamentalists” and “makers of state ideologies.” “The fear of ‘difference’” is an anxiety found in not only Muslim fundamentalists, but in “American cultural conservatives” as well. It is to the later audience, which generally exists in a state of blissful ignorance about the Muslim world, that the authors’s “deconstructive and reconstructive poetics” is equally directed. It is unlikely, though, that their use of Foucault, Derrida, Bakhtin, Gadamer, Levinas and others will endear them to “American cultural conservatives,” much less enlighten them. The frequently turgid and occasionally obscurantist prose is likely to irritate other readers as well. Nonetheless, there is abiding merit in Debating Muslims, which introduces some sorely needed sophistication to the scholarship on Islam (Iranian Shi‘ism in particular), and shows how anthropology can fruitfully intersect with other kinds of discourses and advance in new directions.

How to cite this article:

Vinay Lal "Fischer and Abedi, Debating Muslims," Middle East Report 177 (July/August 1992).

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