review: Mullahs on the Mainframe

Mullahs on the MainframeTo some extent, my reviewing the book Mullahs on the Mainframe (Jonah Blank, University of Chicago Press) is narcissistic. Not in the sense of vanity, but rather the more general sense of overt self-contemplation. The book is a cultural anthropology study of my own religious comunity, the Dawoodi Bohra muslims (one of the Ismaili branches of the Shi'a sect). Yet, Jonah (who signed my copy) has managed to use his observations about my community as a springboard for a broader investigation of modernity as it relates to Islam, and he leverages it into a fairly powerful repudiation of many stereotypes that not only impede relations between East and West, but often actively undermine them. As such, I read this book on two levels, the superficial level of curiosity about how my own familiar community looks from an outsider's perspective, and the more profound level of global socio-politics. It is a testament to Jonah's credentials that I was able to "forget" I am Bohra, or even Muslim, and appreciate his analysis on its own merits independent of my own affiliations.

The book begins with an extensive overview of the history of Islam, detailing the specific doctrinal schisms that led to the Bohras as a separate group. The discussion of the early Shi'a and Sunni split is probably of highest interest to most readers, naturally, but Jonah does an impressive job of conveying the epic quality of the office of the Dai ul-Mutlaq, which has governed the community's religious affairs for the past 1000 years. After the historical introduction, the book begins the ethnography, with chapters devoted to Bohra rituals of life, major events and observances, domestic life (with special emphasis on the status of women), and more. Naturally it is impossible for an outsider to fully characterize the complex and fine-grained details of daily life. The second part of the book is the analysis, devoted to the religious influences and institutions within the community. Again, there are many details left out, and Jonah of course focuses attention on some things that seem important to him but with which an insider would disagree. But the overall picture is coherent and illuminating and even informative to members like myself. I learned a few things about my own community from this book.

The book's website has a fairly long excerpt that directly addresses the deeper implications and benefits of studying a community such as mine, that has fully embraced the modern world, yet also strongly comitted to its cultural and religious heritage. Jonah discusses Edward Said's thesis that study of the East amounts to "cultural imperialism" and rejects it, arguing that (as his study of the Bohra community demonstrates) "what is needed is more cultural outreach rather than less. The best way to defeat ignorance is through knowledge, imperfect as such a search may be."

All of this leads to the inevitable question by non-Muslims - what is "real" Islam have to say on modernity? There have been numerous examples of pundits and bloggers and columnists whoose opinions on Islam range from leery to outright hostile. Jonah makes a strong case with empirical evidence to support his assertion that "Islam is far too varied and complex to have a single, authoritative position on the topic of modernity." :

For every hidebound Taliban zealot who condemns television or female education as bid�a (innovation), there are tens of thousands of other Muslims who do not. By what standard is he more "Islamic" than they? An excellent case could be made that it is the literalists themselves who are outside the mainstream of contemporary Islam.
A thorough discussion of Islam and modernity would fill several bookshelves. I have raised the topic merely to indicate a few premises underlying this study, in brief:

- Western perceptions of Islam in general, and Islamic fundamentalism in particular, are based upon the views of a small, unrepresentative sampling of Muslim attitudes and beliefs.
- Even these self-styled spokesmen of Islamic traditionalism are often less categorically hostile to modernist ideas than is generally recognized.
- There are tremendous numbers of wholly orthodox Muslims, both individuals and entire communities, living their lives in strict accordance with a traditionalist interpretation of the faith, yet displaying few (if any) of the anti-Western, antisecular, antimodern attitudes commonly associated with this level of Islamic devotion.

Jonah is careful to avoid making extreme generalizations. The truth that Islam is complex applies both ways - just as the extremists cannot be said to represent all of Islam, neither of course can the moderates. But Jonah instead uses his data on the Bohra community to make a more direct but in some ways far more critical point: that the distinction between Islam and the West is not a clear boundary:

It is my hope that the portrait of the Bohra community presented in this study will help dispel some commonly held misperceptions about fundamentalist Islam. I do not argue that traditional Muslim values are identical (or even particularly similar) to those of modern Western society�merely that they can be compatible with so-called modern Western values. I would argue that the values Western triumphalists like to claim as their own (respect for human and civil rights, pursuit of social justice, equality of sexes, promotion of liberal education, aptitude for technology) are hardly limited to the West. And "modernity" (whatever its definition may be), is something far broader than a taste for sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.
Are the Bohras themselves an anomaly among Muslims? Whether or not they are representative of Islam's future, the Daudi Bohras shatter stereotypes about traditionalist Islam today. As a community of up to one million devout Shi�a whose faith is every bit as fundamental to them as it is for Afghans, Saudis, or Iranians, they present an example that must be taken seriously. While adhering faithfully to traditional Islamic norms, the Bohras eagerly accept most aspects of modernity, strongly support the concept of a pluralist civil society, boast a deeply engrained heritage of friendly engagement with members of other communities, and have a history of apolitical quietism stretching back nearly a thousand years.

Not all traditionalist Muslims are like the Daudi Bohras�but not all are so very different.

I am a muslim, and I consider myself to be a Westerner also. My entire life has been a struggle to balance the competing priorities of these aspects of my identity and I have (in my opinion) largely succeeded.

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