Changing Vocabularies

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UCLA historian Nile Green likes to talk about “religious entrepreneurs”, “religious suppliers” and “terrains of exchange”, when the rest of us speak of charismatic leaders, emerging sects and clashes of civilizations. What, exactly, is going on? Just some abstract, academic relabeling exercise?

Unlikely. Because Professor Green is hardly your standard ivory-tower type of historian, wilfully removed from life in the field. Instead, this self-described “historical anthropologist” is an inveterate traveler who consistently adopts the practices of a cultural anthropologist to illuminate his historical understanding.

“I’m interested in trying to apply the totality of anthropology: that everything is interconnected and can’t be taken separately. This is naturally associated with the classical kind of fieldwork model of choosing a small village or some localized area that you can master, in order to see how everything is wrapped up together there: ideology, belief, ritual, daily work, marriage, kinship, and so forth.

“As my research developed over the years, I’ve attempted to make use of the real-life intellectual lessons I’ve gained from interacting with people: staying in a town for months at a time or making repeated visits, forming relationships with people and observing how things work in the present so as to try to understand core principles of social life, human life.

“Religion in the world, religion in the social world, became my speciality. I’ve long been focused on trying to flesh out these core principles or processes and evaluate how they change over time, whether they repeat themselves or can be seen to be happening in different ways over time – this is all linked to my central motivation of trying to apply the lessons of the present to the past.”

A different sort of historian, then, surely. But what’s all this talk of “religious economies”? What’s that all about?

“I didn’t invent the notion of religious economy, but what I’m trying to do with the model is to effectively say, For me – as a social historian and social scientist – religion belongs, and is developed, and has its life, in this world. Religion is developed, exchanged, reshaped and reinvented through interactions between different people. I’m trying to map who creates religion, and who “consumes”, or practices religion. There’s a dynamic between a production side and a consumption side, to use the analytical vocabulary of the religious economy model.”

The model of religious economy, Professor Green maintains, often presents the user with a richer, more descriptive vocabulary to gauge the diversity of religious experiences that might well elude a non-expert observer. This is, he maintains, particularly relevant when it comes to regarding Islam (his area of specialization) through traditional Western eyes.

“In the West, we’re more familiar with, and have lived through, Christian history and Jewish history in various degrees. We have that richer vocabulary of description of, say, Orthodox Jews and Reformist Jews. Similarly for Christianity, we all know very well that there are Baptists and Methodists.

“We understand and appreciate all of that variety. But with Islam, it’s a different situation.  Perhaps we have an idea of Sunnis and Shi’ites, and some people might have heard of others called Sufis. But that’s a pretty narrow range for upwards of a billion or more people.”

Well, that all sounds pretty reasonable: increased knowledge of the cultural values of other societies is clearly a good thing and will undoubtedly lead to greater tolerance and understanding of other ways of life.  But still, why such a determination to be constantly invoking economic language to describe the inner workings of self-described spiritual groups? Won’t that be unsettling to many?

Quite likely.  But then, as Professor Green plainly states, that’s part of the whole point.

“One of the things I expressly say is that this whole vocabulary functions as an anti-rhetoric, because I want to shake people out of thinking, This is an imam, this is a Sufi, this is a Muslim; and I know what they do. I want to create this kind of anti-rhetoric that makes people start afresh.

“It’s a conscious way of moving beyond this idea that we already know what imams are and we know what it is that they do.  And it creates a level playing field for many readers who are trying to go that one step deeper with the study of Islam. Perhaps they now have some familiarity with terms like ‘imam’, ‘Shi’ite’, ‘Sunni’, ‘Sufi’ or ‘sheikh’. I want to say that, in a sense, you can forget all of that. All of these people are religious suppliers: that’s what’s important.”

And not just important for those strictly focused on the history of Islam, it should be added: it’s important for anyone determined to better appreciate how different belief systems have interacted, and continue to interact in the real world.  

In a recent book, for example, Professor Green examines how the extensive interaction with Christian missionaries strongly influenced how Islam was exported to places like the United States and Japan.  

In order to really understand what’s happening around us, then, a good first step might be to change our vocabulary.

Howard Burton, howard@ideasroadshow.com

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