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Silvia Ilonka Wolf: "Commemorating and Thinking with Clifford Geertz in Rabat: the comparative study of Islam in Morocco and Indonesia fifty years after 'Islam Observed'"

Univeristy of Chicago Press

Univeristy of Chicago Press

On 27 and 28 October 2018, fifty years after the publication of Clifford Geertz’s “Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia”, a group of international scholars gathered in Rabat to explore the relevance of the Geertzian approach for contemporary research on Moroccan and Indonesian society. This international workshop took place at the Netherlands Institute Morocco (NIMAR) and was a joint collaboration between NIMAR and LUCIS (Leiden University Center for the Study of Islam and Society). Bringing together researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds, the workshop conveners Léon Buskens, Nico Kaptein, Adriaan Bedner and Bart Barendregt initiated a two-day platform for a fruitful exchange with a comparative edge. A major theme which weaved together the diverse presentations as a red thread was social and religious change in Morocco and Indonesia, accompanied by the question: “what happens to faith when its vehicles alter?” This question, posed by Geertz himself half a century ago in “Islam Observed”, still proves to be a significant point of inquiry for the study of Islam in these two countries and beyond.

In the welcoming speech NIMAR’s director Léon Buskens presented an interesting historical overview of Islamic studies in the Netherlands and of the historical relations between the Netherlands and Morocco. Dutch orientalist scholarship appears to have frequently overlapped with trade and diplomacy in Morocco long before Dutch colonialism took hold in Indonesia. Buskens also reminded the audience that discussions on religion and Islam are more than an academic endeavor: they are also relevant for contemporary society. Moreover, these questions are not just important for Morocco and Indonesia, but for the Netherlands as well. Thus, NIMAR hopes to bring about more exchanges and scholarly alliances between all these three countries.

Keynote speaker Wim van den Doel brought the audience’s attention to another influential academician who studied Islam in Indonesia half a century before Geertz: the Dutch colonial scholar Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. Snouck Hurgronje made an important contribution to a development in Islamic Studies; i.e. the shift from studying religion merely through texts to observing Islam in everyday life. Van den Doel posited that, if Geertz is to be commemorated as a key figure in the study of Islam, so should the work of Snouck Hurgronje not be forgotten by contemporary scholars of Muslim societies, particularly those who study Islam in Indonesia.

Nico Kaptein provided a critical account on Geertz’s work by identifying some of its omissions and shortcomings. From the perspective of a historian, Geertz’s way of examining Islam in Indonesia by using a mythical figure that lived centuries earlier (i.e. Sunan Kalidjaga) as a metaphor, seems ahistorical and even strange. Not only did Geertz generalize (although generalization is a common characteristic of anthropological research as Bart Barendregt pointed out) and did he have a disregard for textual analysis, he also refrained from addressing the political dimensions of Islam. This is all the more remarkable, as mentioned by Kaptein, because during Geertz’s fieldwork in Indonesia political Islam manifested frequently in the form of the Darul Islam movement. Kaptein concluded that the prominent role of Islam in Indonesian politics in recent decades has proved that Geertz underestimated Islam’s political potential. This apolitical way of viewing religion was not uncommon for scholars at the time, when the ‘secularisation thesis’ was still in full swing.

Another critical analysis that sheds light on what Geertz did not (or did not want) to observe came from Zakaria Rani the next day. Rani argued that in examining Islam in Morocco Geertz had ignored the violent aspects of charisma in the Moroccan dynasties and thereby failed to see the political repercussions caused by the symbolics of power. In his insightful presentation Rani also paid attention to the role of gender and women in contemporary Moroccan Sufi brotherhoods, another aspect that is rarely found in the scholarly literature.

Coming from a comparative literature and culture studies background, Mustapha Ait Kharouach shared his analysis of “Islam Observed” from the perspective of art and poetics. He argued that Geertz’s description of two culturally different societies reveals an ‘aesthetics of being’ and can help us to understand the role that culture plays in creating the aesthetics of communities. Two other afternoon sessions both dealt with topics regarding Islam in Morocco more specifically. Fatimaezzahra Abid spoke about the still marginal position of Moroccan female Islamic scholars who are advocating for an interpretation of Islam that is non-patriarchal and that does not delegate women’s participation in society to the domestic sphere. Rebecca Ruf showed how the way that Islam is perceived in Morocco today, and certain aspects of how it is practiced, are influenced by French colonial policies and the French administration’s approach to religion and religiosity.

The remaining four presentations all focused on recent developments of Islam in Southeast Asia, notably in Indonesia and Malaysia. Martin Slama addressed the question of “what happens to faith when its vehicles alter” by looking at digital media, in particular social media, as one of the new vehicles through which Islam is conveyed in Indonesia today. He also reflected on the various categories used by Geertz to classify Indonesian Muslims into different streams, such as ‘reformist’, ‘modernist’, ‘fundamentalist’, as well as the use of similar categories that are widely used in contemporary studies of Islam. Through the example of his ethnographic research of a Muslim women’s study group in Yogyakarta, Slama argued that labelling Islamic figures, communities or movements by such categories can be quite misleading in this day and age.

Another important contribution on Islam in Indonesia was given by Adriaan Bedner, who used Geertzian concepts to explain the causes and developments of opposite trends in present-day Indonesia, i.e. female emancipation on the one hand and LGBT-suppression on the other hand. Looking at it from the legal perspective, he showed how the Indonesian state has become more involved in theological argumentation and, contrary to previous times, is now omnipresent in people’s daily lives.

Bart Barendregt shared his case study of neighboring country Malaysia by presenting a “thick description” of the nasheed song “You Came to Me”, a duet between the Malaysian pop star Siti Nurhaliza and the Iranian Azeri nasheed singer Sami Yusuf. His analysis showed how Islamic music, and the broader trend of post-Islamic chic, is now an important arena for the public discussion of gender values and moral behavior of superstars in Malaysia, in particular of female singers. Also connected to the topic of entertainment and pious pop singers in Southeast Asia, I (Silvia Wolf) applied Geertz’s theoretical framework of religion as a model of and a model for reality to Indonesian charity concerts. In addition, I used my case study to re-evaluate the “force” and “scope” of contemporary Islam in Indonesia, fifty years after Geertz employed those terms in comparing Indonesia and Morocco.

On Sunday afternoon the workshop participants concluded their exchange with a collective evaluation of the event, followed by a brainstorming about potential future collaborations. Attendants agreed that a comparative study of the Geertzian kind, i.e. comparing Morocco and Indonesia (or other societies) as two distinct Muslim societies is a productive project that needs continuation. Fifty years after its publication, Geertz’s comparative work remains quite unique in that not much other comparative research of this kind has been carried out. It is thus hoped that today’s scholars will step into Geertz’s footsteps and bring the antipodes of the Muslim world into dialogue with one another.

It was mentioned that attention should also be paid to how this dialogue is already taking place, especially in unexpected situations. For instance, the increasing amount of Indonesian and Malaysian students in Morocco is one of the topics that need scrutiny. Another concern that came up was how to get more scholars from the respective countries, i.e. Morocco and Indonesia, involved in the collaborative research that the organizers intend to bring about. Such collaborations would also prove useful with regard to the comparative aspect, as it would stimulate thinking about one’s own society through a new lens (e.g. looking at Morocco through an Indonesian lens or vice versa).

In conclusion, taking up Geertz’s “Islam Observed” as a theme proved stimulating for the discussion on Islam in Morocco and Indonesia today. It appeared that some concepts and ways of looking developed by Geertz haven’t lost their relevance despite the profound changes that have occurred in these societies in the past fifty years. The participants of this workshop collectively concluded that, most especially, “Geertz is a great guy to think with”. In other words, “Islam Observed” and other works by Geertz are highly suitable as a starting point from which various topics can be explored.

At the same time, the presenters who offered a more critical perspective on Geertz’s work remind us that, besides building on this legendary scholarship of the past, it is also important to look at what Geertz did not see. The same thing can be argued about the work of Snouck Hurgronje. As Dietrich Jung points out in his article “Islam as a Problem”: Dutch Religious Politics in the East Indies”, Snouck Hurgronje’s conviction that modernity and Islam are incompatible has been proven wrong. Jung writes that these normative ideas were rooted in the secularisation thesis and nineteenth century ideas about the evolutionary development of societies. Contrary to what Snouck Hurgronje believed, Islam continued to play an important role in Indonesia and particularly in the national resistance movement of the Indies population (Jung 2010, see also Michael Laffan, 2003). Also in contemporary Indonesian society (as in other Muslim societies) Islam has merged with modern ways of being such as the use of digital media, mass-mediated popular culture and consumption patterns as well as with democratic politics. Therefore, it is always good to remember that both Geertz and Snouck Hurgronje were ‘men of their time’ (as Jung argues about Snouck); they were embedded in certain streams of thought, and, in Snouck Hurgronje’s case, even implicated in colonial visions and policies. I agree with Jung that their (partially) failed predictions can stimulate us, contemporary scholars, to reflect on our own (often unconscious) values and assumptions. Nonetheless, their innovative approaches to studying religion and culture, along with their on-the-ground insightful research, is equally stimulating for every researcher who wants to study Islam as it manifests today in the daily lives of ordinary people.



Jung, Dietrich (2010). “Islam as a Problem”: Dutch Religious Politics in the East Indies”.

Review of Religious Research, Vol. 51, No. 3 (March 2010), 288-301.