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  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: March 2011

3 - Islam and Popular Religion



Contemporary anthropologists continually inform us – as if this had not been recognized by an earlier generation of scholars – that Islam, like shamanism, is not some monolithic entity with a unitary ‘essence’, but rather a cultural tradition that takes diverse forms, according to various social and historical contexts. As Dale Eickelman wrote, the main challenge for the study of Islam in its local contexts ‘is to describe and analyse how the universalistic principles of Islam have been realised in various social and historical contexts without representing Islam as a seamless essence on the one hand, or as a plastic congeries of beliefs and practices on the other’ (1982, 1–2). This is not, of course, how many Muslims view Islam. The well-known Islamic scholar, Seyyid Hossein Nasr, for example, suggests that Islam ‘is at once a religion, and a civilisation and social order based upon the revealed principles of the religion. It is an archetypal reality, residing eternally in the Divine Intellect’. And he goes on to emphasize the integrity and unity of the Islamic tradition (1981, 1–2). The view that Islam is to be defined essentially as a religious ‘tradition’ is also confirmed by Talal Asad, who writes, ‘Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artefacts, customs and morals. It is a tradition’ (1986, 14).

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