In general the ethnographic and theoretical treatment of marriage in the Muslim Middle East is extremely uneven, making comparative study of a wide range of topics very difficult. However, as Eickelman (1989) has made a systematic and excellent critique of this corpus of materials, his survey does not need to be repeated here. Rather, in this chapter, I want only to set the scene for the ethnographic inquiry which follows by suggesting that the institution of marriage, with its central place in Middle Eastern societies, must be approached from both structural and interpretive perspectives and that the relation between these perspectives must be addressed in the analysis.
The starting point is a central problem in anthropology: the choice of terms that can be used to analyse different cultures and bring them into a frame in which they can be both explained and compared with each other. The futility of attempting universal definitions is now widely accepted; it is not so much that terms like ‘family’ or ‘religion’ can have only a loose analytical value as ‘polythetic classes’ but that they do not translate any significant categories in many cultures, they have no ‘meaning’ and distort or disregard indigenous categories that do.