Religion is not Archeology (by Daniel Martin Varisco, March 2015)

Middle East Muddle

Unless you are hibernating without a cellphone or internet in Siberia, you have heard a lot about ISIS, a.k.a. the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and its “IS”-related acronyms, in the news for the past year, even on Anthropology News.  People who thought the caliphate was something created for the Disney movie Aladdin have been confronted with bearded zealots brandishing kalashnikovs and waving black flags, chopping off heads for Youtube, burning a man in a cage, throwing gays to their death from a roof, raping women, and just about every horrific medieval act a sadistic horror movie might film for your neighborhood screen.  Only these scenarios are happening in real time to real people and generating real questions about the religion these individuals practice.   So what is the religion of a self-proclaimed caliph who is called al-Baghdadi or the Western convert rapper turned executioner Jihadi John.  Are they Muslims?  Are they really Muslims?  Is their Islam the trueIslam?

The ongoing debate over the semantic conundrum “Is ISIS Islamic?” or even “Is ISIS very Islamic?” brings up a wider point for reflection.  To the extent we isolate a concept like religion from the cultural context in which it is practiced and through which it has evolved, we fail to understand something about human behavior as such.  We humans and our primate ancestors are social animals; we have no choice but to get along with each other on some level, which gets more and more difficult the larger our numbers and groupings become.  Thus, it should not be a surprise, as both history and anthropology have shown in detail, that every social group, every society, every tribe, every people, every nation must have rules of behavior.  The glue that is essential for all groups at any level is what we often call morality, the rules and ideals of what is right or wrong, proper or improper.  No human society has ever been encountered, except in fiction, that does not have a moral order; our ape cousins share this essential glue, even if it does not seem to many people to have as much adhesive power.  If you think only humans are moral, listen to what Frans de Waal has to say before you read on.

Leonard Woolley, Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Leonard Woolley, Photo Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Almost half a century ago the historian Marshall Hodgson proposed separating the religious faith of Islam with all its doctrinal trappings from the mundane cultural context in which it is practiced, the latter being the “Islamicate.”  This neologism, useful as it can be, never really caught on, but it points to the essential problem of having to decide what exactly should be considered religious.  The danger in such a dichotomy is that the religious faith is reduced to its textual tradition and ritual practices, while anything that looks political or cultural is something else.  This is first and foremost a semantic danger, the downside of inventing a term like religion that can fit a wide variety of social moral systems but has been filtered through the major surviving monotheisms.  Our intellectual father Edward Tylor recognized this in expanding the notion of religion to fit issues of belief and ritual that did not fit the prevailing view of either the dominant Christian view or enlightenment rational emphasis of his day.  Yet, the notion that what we label religion could be so integral to the overall social system that it cannot adequately be separated out haunts us to this day.

Let me propose a telling metaphor to help us begin to dig our way out of this whole problem.  Religion is not archaeology.  When we study something we call we religion, it is not the same as excavating a site and looking for the first settlement.  We should baulk at the belief that we can dig our way back through layers of recoverable textual interpretation and arrive at something that can be labeled authentic.  When it comes to religion, all history is fill.  No magical time machine will allow us to go back and talk to Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, St. Anselm, Al-Ghazali, Jonathan Edwards, the Mad Mullah or even Joseph Smith.  Even if we did have such an opportunity to do retro-ethnography, we would only be able to have a sense of what they said and did.  We can never reach a point at which the real, authentic or pure religion is found. The only real Islam, for example, is what someone thinks is real, because that sense of what we call religion is woven into the fabric of living a life.

To the extent that ISIS or the proudly fundamentalist Baptist church I grew up in claims it is going back to the practices of the time of Muhammad or Jesus, we need to apply the right dating technique.  Such claims are surface finds, usually made without a sound understanding of the limited knowledge we do have of the past and just as often challenged and refuted by other individuals in the same so-called religion.  The only thing real about anything we call a religion is what is being said and done in a specific social, cultural, political and economic context.  Just as there is extraordinary diversity of all these interrelated variables, there is no ultimate truth apart from what is ultimately in the minds of the person claiming truth.  So the next time someone tells you this is what a group like ISIS is, don’t throw up your hands in despair at their inhumane terrorism, don’t throw in the towel of our academic tool chest, and do take up the trowel to dig through the fill as fill.

Daniel Martin Varisco is President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies.  He is Research Professor of Social Science at Qatar U.  Since 1978 he has conducted ethnographic and historical research in Yemen, Egypt and Qatar.  His latest book is Reading Orientalism: Said and the Unsaid (U of Washington Press, 2007).  He currently serves as editor of Contemporary Islam and Editor-in-Chief of CyberOrient (

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