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Clifford Geertz, Islam. Lo sviluppo religioso in Marocco e in Indonesia.

Clifford Geertz, Islam. Lo sviluppo religioso in Marocco e in Indonesia (Islam Observed, Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia). Milan: Raffaello Cortina, 2008.

First published in Italian in 1973 by Morcelliana, Clifford Geertz’s well-known collection of lectures he gave at Yale University in 1967, is now available in a new Italian edition by Raffaello Cortina. Although 40 years have passed since the first US edition was released and much has changed within Islam, Geertz’s intuition about which direction Muslim societies might take is still relevant. His work is especially important because unlike most social scientists of his generation, who focused almost exclusively on economic and political developments in post-colonial societies, the San Francisco-born anthropologist paid close attention at how religion was responding to modernity. He did so by turning his attention to countries like Morocco and Indonesia, ostensibly part of the same Islamic civilisation, but which over the centuries developed two profoundly distinct “styles” of religion. In fact Geertz was not so much interested in a full blown study of Islam but drawn more to a comparative approach to religion in order to uncover “just what sorts of beliefs and practices support what sorts of faith under what sorts of conditions. Our problem, and it grows worse by the day, is not to define religion but to find it.” From this perspective, in confronting the modernity brought about by colonial forces Muslims did not so much change the content of their faith than the way in which they believed it.

 

This process ended up generating a crisis characterised by a widening gap between faith and its capacity to explain reality. Faced with this, many in Morocco and Indonesia turned to scripturalism in a great ideological leap backward into the past with the religion’s foundational texts operating as an antidote to the trials of modernity. Thus, from Geertz’s perspective, Islam and more generally religion are not going to disappear from the world, because of any meaninglessness as symbolic systems, unsuited to account for our experience, now more plausibly explained by science. They are here to stay. Yet even if Geertz’s analysis is still sound insofar as it helps interpret some tendencies within contemporary Islam, his approach ends up placing faith and science in opposition to one another in relation to all religious phenomena, and in doing so fails to fully apprehend the totality of the human experience.

 

Whatever one may think of Geertz’s approach the publisher is to be commended, despite some translation errors in particular of Arabic terms, for offering Italian readers a classic in anthropology, one that has not lost any of its appeal even after 40 years.

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