The Review|AMNEWS Newsletter,
Middle East Women's Studies Review, 09-01-1996
The goal of Islamic Society in Practice, by Carolyn
Fluehr-Lobban, is the refutation of the many misconceptions which Westerners
have about the Muslim world. This well-written book
focuses upon the human dimension of Muslim culture and
traditions by showing us Islam as it is lived and practiced in everyday life. In
an effort to fight the simplification and romanticization of the Islamic world
to which we are subjected in file U.S., Fluehr-Lobban shows us not only the
ideologies of religion and law, but the realities of the tensions and debates
among Muslims themselves. This is an excellent
introductory text, for students and non-academics alike, as it presents the
diversity of the Muslim world in a clear,
Chapter 2 is an introduction to the basic tenets of Islam.
Fluehr- Lobban discusses the five pillars of the Faith, not only as ideals but
also as they are practiced in real life; mention is made of folk traditions, the
zar, sufism, and beliefs in jinn. There is also a very brief history of Islam,
which becomes a bit confusing. While the battle over the succession to the
caliphate in 656 CE is well known to historians and scholars of the Middle East,
I would have preferred a more thorough exploration of the reasons for this war
and its aftermath, and somewhat more discussion of the individuals involved. In
addition, I was struck by the use of the masculine pronoun in reference to
Allah, as it has been my understanding that the Deity is considered neither male
nor female, and is not referred to by gender in Islam.
Chapter 3 is one of the more enjoyable chapters of the book, as its subject-- the basic values which underlie social practices in Muslim societies -- has great resonance with me. The overriding importance of generosity, coupled with the puzzling (to an American) absence of verbal expressions of thanks, is illustrated with delightful anecdotes that reminded me of my own fieldwork experiences. Fluehr-Lobban also speaks of the power of the word, both written and spoken, and of oral abilities. This was forcefully brought home to me in Aswan, where during my first months there, my verbal limitations were obvious. I spent many an evening in roomsful of people amusing themselves and each other with stories, jokes, and witty badinage; I learned through painful experience the lessons which Fluehr-Lobban teaches so easily here.
The author approaches the subjects of family, community, and gender relationships with an anthropological focus, defining patrilineality and matrilineality, endogamy and exogamy, fictive kinship, arranged marriage, the mahr, and the extended family with reference to typical everyday Middle Eastern life. The cohesiveness of the family group, the security which people feel as members of family and the concomitant duties to which they are obligated in return, are subjects to which the author returns in other chapters. This difference between the way that familial rights and obligations are defined in the Middle East and the way that they are defined in America is an important aspect of our differing world views, so Fluehr-Lobban suggests, and result in kinds of social relationships which Americans find surprising. In fact, it was only after several months into my own fieldwork that I finally began to understand that my actions, both good and had, would reflect more seriously upon my village family than they would upon myself. The importance of the collective, of honor, and of the honor of the group are concepts which are also foreign to many Americans, raised as we are with the ideology of individualism and self-sufficiency. When I began to realize that these latter qualities are not often considered virtues in a Middle Eastern village, my whole attitude towards the way I conducted my research changed. Since one of the aims of this book is to help Americans better understand the worldview of those who live in the Middle East, it is gratifying to see Fluehr- Lobban present tiffs fundamental aspect so thoroughly and so clearly.
While Chapter 4 is concerned with communal identity at the micro level, involving the extended family and the community, Chapter 5 is focused upon communal identity at the macro level: "the way that one's identity is constructed in relation to others who are defined as outsiders to one's immediate social group but nevertheless are co-citizens in contemporary nation-states. and others defined as foreigners the sorting out of religion, ethnicity and nation..." (p. 84). It begins with a history of the Crusades and European colonialism from a Muslim point of view, enabling the reader to explore these staples of Western propaganda from an alternative position. In addition, there is good information on the various minority groups living in the Middle East -- non-Arab Muslims such as Kurds and Nubians, as well as Christians and Jews -- a reminder about the diversity of the area. Her discussion of the Nubians (pp. 93-95), however, needs a small corrective: although Cairenes may refer to Nubians as Saeedis, the Nubians themselves, as well as the members of the other ethnic groups in southern Egypt (Sudanese, the Bishareen, and the Saeediyeen themselves), make distinctions between their various ethnicities. These distinctions are based, not so much upon skin color, as they may be in the north, but upon language and culture.
In this chapter, as well as elsewhere throughout the book, Fluehr- Lobban conscientiously points to instances in which Western stereotypes about differences between Western and Islamic cultures are based upon false information about the Muslim world, and instances where other stereotypes are based upon incorrect assumptions about our differences. She corrects these misconceptions with charm and forbearance. An example of the former is the Western concern with the roles and statuses of Muslim women. The author conducts several full and well-reasoned discussions concerning women's roles in the Muddle East, placing these discussions in various chapters having to do with Islamic family law; culture change; gender relationships within the family and the community; debates concerning women's personal freedom; and women's roles in Islamic revival movements. An example of the second kind of stereotype has to do with the demonization of the religion of Islam itself, which Fluehr-Lobban attempts to defuse by educating the reader about the manner in which Islam is practiced by ordinary people, periodically reminding us that Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all of the same heritage.
She also mentions some of the stereotypes that Muslims
have about Westerners, including the fact that "whiskey
drinking is thought to be common for Western men ... while Western women may be
considered to be of looser morals" (p. 111). Fluehr-Lobban offers
definitions of Arab identity, of "Semitic" and the meaning of
"race" in the Middle East, leading to a discussion of slavery, past
and present. Her inclusion of the attitudes of Middle Easterners towards
African-Americans implicitly informs the reader that large numbers of Blacks --
American and otherwise -- travel to Muslim countries
The last chapter is a very effective corrective to the attempts by many Westerners to simplify the Middle East. Fluehr-Lobban makes it very clear that Muslim societies are not monolithic, and in fact there have been tensions both within and between the various countries in this area throughout history. She provides examples of the kinds of debates that Muslims are having with each other, including the ongoing tensions between the members of Eurocentric upper classes and those of lower classes who identify more with their native culture, and between contemporary Islamist activists and official, government-appointed 'Ulama'. While women are responding positively to the current wave of Islamist activity, they are also demanding to be heard as opponents to the harsh interpretations of Islam that would limit their personal freedoms. The deepest and most serious fissure within contemporary Islamic society, according to Fluehr-Lobban, is the one between Western ideas of secular democracy and Islamist religious agendas: "The ideas are mutually exclusive, ideologically and practically, and success of one of these viewpoints means the defeat of the other." (p.161). Increasingly, tiffs debate has begun to focus upon human rights, where there are questions concerning the status of women and the proper governance of non-Muslims in a Muslim state, and upon the right to dissent within an Islamic context.
Islamic Society in Practice is an eloquent, thought-provoking antidote to the American media's attempts to reduce the complexity of the Muslim world to 30-second sound bytes. Fluehr-Lobban proffers insights which are the results of an open mind and long-term field experience. She addresses the misconceptions which many Westerners have about the Middle East, not only with fact and historical content, but also with anecdotal material about her own experiences there, an unbeatable combination. She provides a great deal of information in an accessible manner, making this book a very good choice for an introductory class in Peoples of the Middle East and/or Cultural Anthropology.