Muslim identity stays veiled
CONVENTIONAL anthropological fieldwork, common sense and academic adventure divorced from the contemporary trends in anthropological research are the mix in this book, but without rigorous data on the "whole" of Muslim identity. Conveying its message in bits and pieces, it is neither an insider's view nor an outsider's interpretation of Muslim "boundaries" and "identity."
The author has presented a reasonably good account of the social structure of Muslim society and the organisation of work within it. But he has not been able to link his data on the organisation of work to culture and identity.
The book fails to uncover and demonstrate the more encompassing reality of Muslim identity despite the high social and economic heterogeneity among the Muslims of Aligarh. The author shows that the rhetoric of Islamic unity is usually compromised, but one is unable to understand, given the data presentation, the basis of his conclusion that "there is a common sense of being a Muslim."
It is ironic to see a work such as this in a field that is rich with stalwart contributors such as Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi-Strauss. Rigorous examination of ethnographic details, using qualitative anthropological techniques, was necessary to find linkages between the sacred and profane of Muslim "identity" and its "boundaries." Conventional surveys, which rely on structured interview schedules and quantified data, are not very useful.
As the author is more interested in jumping to conclusions, he does not differentiate between formation of identity and its demonstration. Neither "boundary" nor "identity" is defined anywhere in the book. Both terms require elaborate discussion to make the concept of Muslim identity meaningful.
Amit Kumar Sharma is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.