Having worked for several decades in North Africa, anthropologist Lawrence Rosen is uniquely placed to ask what factors contribute to the continuity and changes characterizing the present-day Muslim world. In The Culture of Islam, he brings his erudition and his experiences to illuminating key aspects of Muslim life and how central tenets of that life are being challenged and culturally refashioned.
Through a series of poignant tales—from the struggle by a group of friends against daily corruption to the contest over a saint's identity, from nostalgia for the departed Jews to Salman Rushdie's vision of doubt in a world of religious certainty—Rosen shows how a dazzling array of potential changes are occurring alongside deeply embedded continuity, a process he compares to a game of chess in which infinite variations of moves can be achieved while fundamental aspects of "the game" have had a remarkably enduring quality. Whether it is the potential fabrication of new forms of Islam by migrants to Europe (creating a new "Euro-Islam," as Rosen calls it), the emphasis put on individuals rather than institutions, or the heartrending problems Muslims may face when their marriages cross national boundaries, each story and each interpretation offers a window into a world of contending concepts and challenged coherence.
The Culture of Islam is both an antidote to simplified versions of Islam circulating today and a consistent story of the continuities that account for much of ordinary Muslim life. It offers, in its human stories and its insights, its own contribution, as the author says, "to the mutual understanding and forgiveness that alone will maketrue peace possible."
Rosen, a professor of anthropology at Princeton and of law at Columbia and one of the first recipients of a MacArthur "genius" grant, offers a series of layered essays on North African culture. The book calls on both his own anecdotes from years of travel and research in North Africa, as well as his anthropological background. His pen is both literary and analytical - which makes the reading a pleasure, but sometimes difficult to follow. The essays, rather than building toward a single thesis, are largely unrelated to each other. Although its title suggests that the subject is Islamic culture, the book is more about the people of Morocco. For instance, Rosen is very persuasive in his arguments that ambivalence, corruption, and tribalism play a strong role in Moroccan society. However, he does not explain why conclusions about Moroccan Muslims can be extrapolated to constitute a universal "Culture of Islam." Yet the book has many strengths; an essay entitled "Marriage Stories," for example, shows how Muslim women can and do use legal reforms to empower themselves. The author's personal anecdotes (especially one about how a young bride's resistance to entering the car of her groom's family is not reluctance so much as a bargaining chip) are satisfying and enhance Rosen's successful efforts to enlighten the reader about Moroccan and North African society. Where others would dismiss the region's Muslims as antiquated, racist or extremist, Rosen challenges various hackneyed theories about Islam and swiftly rebuts them. (Dec.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.