The Culture of Islam: Changing Aspects of Contemporary Muslim Life
by Lawrence Rosen
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 230 pp. $24 ($17, paper).
Reviewed by Timothy R. Furnish
Georgia Perimeter College
Middle East Quarterly
Drawing upon his experiences as an anthropologist in Morocco, Rosen analyzes several facets of modern Muslim society. The elusive thesis of his essays collected here would seem to be that all politics in the Middle East is personal. Power may grow out of the barrel of a gun but is only deemed legitimate when the leader takes into account the primacy of social relationships, especially tribal units.
The chapter on tribes might have been worthwhile reading for U.S. military commanders heading to Iraq in 2003, in that Rosen rejects the idea that tribes are but a stage in political evolution and contends that they can coexist within other types of political systems. While one might find reason for optimism for democracy in Iraq from his view that Middle Eastern rulers are "more like paramount chieftainships than like states" because they "get their power from below—from other chiefs," Rosen also argues that "each leader is by definition legitimate if he succeeds in … grasp[ing] the reins of power." Might, in other words, does make right.
In this vein, Rosen holds that Daniel Pipes was wrong to assert in his 1983 book, In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power that Islamic expectations for good governance are set so high that no Muslim government is ever truly legitimate. Instead, Rosen sticks to his assertion, acquired in Morocco, that simply seizing power legitimates a ruler.
Rosen's interests take some essays in the direction of strictly cultural issues, such as Moroccans' view of corruption and mixed marriages (a chapter better suited to a legal textbook). Other of his chapters look more broadly at current issues, such as his views on the continuing relevance of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses for having allowed a kernel of doubt to nose its way under the smugly righteous ideological tents of ulema and mullahs. Rosen's optimism about a kinder, gentler Islam developing in Europe seems anachronistic after the 2004 Madrid explosions, the ritualistic murder of Theo Van Gogh, and the 2005 London attacks. His contention that "deep cultural change is not going on" in the Islamic world remains to be seen, but it stands out for counter-intuitive boldness. Overall, while The Culture of Islam contains thought-provoking nuggets, finding them amidst the opaque dust of anthropological verbiage makes it often more trouble than it is worth.
 New York: Basic Books, 1983, p. 55-63.
Related Topics: Islam | Timothy R. Furnish | Fall 2005 MEQ
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