Making connections: Rosen sees changes in Muslim culture up close

By Eric Quiñones

Princeton NJ -- Since his initial journey to Morocco in 1966, Princeton anthropologist Lawrence Rosen has cultivated relationships and collected memories that provide insight into the tenets of Islamic life. His experiences and observations are chronicled in his recently published collection of essays, "The Culture of Islam: Changing Aspects of Contemporary Muslim Life."

Lawrence Rosen
Rosen recently spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin about his book and his views on Islamic society, a topic that continues to generate great interest from scholars, journalists and the public as they seek better understanding of the relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds. The book is based upon his 37 years of research into Islamic culture, which has focused mainly on Morocco and also has included fieldwork in Tunisia and Malaysia.

Rosen, the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Anthropology, joined the Princeton faculty in 1977. He also is an adjunct professor of law at Columbia University Law School. Rosen, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and a law degree from the University of Chicago, was among the first winners of the MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" in 1981.

In addition to "The Culture of Islam," which was published last December by the University of Chicago Press, Rosen has written four books about Islamic society and law. He also has worked as a lawyer on American Indian issues and teaches a course on the rights of indigenous peoples.

As an anthropologist and a lawyer, how is your approach to studying the culture of Islam different than that of a professor of history or religion?

I have an enormous respect for the historians in the Middle East. I pick their brains and their material all the time. But there's a big difference between those approaches and the way in which an anthropologist will go about things. I'm particularly intrigued with the ways in which Muslims from the Arab world conceive of their experience, how it's manifested in a wide range of different domains-- in language and religion, in politics and law, in economics and family life. It's those connections that form an often rather ambiguous whole. One of the reasons I keep finding Muslim cultures so intriguing is that as I constantly move into other domains and see these connections, it always comes back to really interesting and difficult questions of anthropology, philosophy and the human sciences generally.

How does this idea of "connections" differ in the Western and Muslim worlds?

Here's an example. I think in the Arab world there's a somewhat different concept of time than what we work with in the West. For us, time reveals the truth about people. Take a bunch of photographs showing different moments in a person's life history and spread them out on a table. Ask a Westerner to tell the story of this person and they'll tell the story chronologically, because for us time reveals the truth of persons.

Take those same pictures to most Arabs. They have a perfectly clear notion of chronological time-- they invented the water clock. But they'll start talking about how you see that person with this group of individuals over there, and with that other group of individuals over here. They may be all out of order chronologically because for them what reveals the truth of persons is the contexts of his or her relationships, which you can freely negotiate as you would a price in the Arab marketplace.

This metaphor of bargaining in the marketplace is a really descriptive and theoretical approach to the way in which Arabs negotiate their relationships, which constitute what's true in the world for them. All of this affects the way in which negotiations go on politically in the Middle East and affects the way one has to engage people in the Middle East.

How do you view the current relationship between the Western and Muslim worlds?

It was intriguing that in his State of the Union address, George Bush gave only one sentence about the Israel-Palestine situation. He said that Israel should have security and Palestine should have democracy-- and then he went on. But he's not engaged in that.

It may be a hornet's nest but, unless you are attached, you are viewed as contributing to chaos and uncertainty. That, in no insignificant part, is what contributes to the opinion of the United States presently in the Middle East. We look like we might do anything to anybody. When you see anthropologically how this pattern of negotiating relationships is replicated in religion, law, economics, politics, culture and family-- and they're all interchangeable and moving-- then you can see why from their perspective the United States isn't "playing the game."

Is that why many in the Muslim world view America as an arrogant nation?

An unpredictable nation.

   "The Culture of Islam: Changing Aspects of Contemporary Muslim Life"
To borrow from your book title, what do you view as the most compelling changes in contemporary Muslim life?

There's an essay in the book in which I had this problem: How do you tell fundamental cultural changes while they're still happening? I envy my historian colleagues-- 300 years later, they know how it came out. I'm stuck in the middle and I don't know which way it's going to go.

For example, I think that I've watched the introduction of a concept of probability into Arab thought. People now trace causation not just to other persons, but to economic and other "impersonal" forces. They are beginning to think in terms of probabilities and not just certainties. It's not coming from the West-- it's an independent development. In the past, if you asked where a person is from and who he's connected to, you knew everything-- including what was in his mind. But people move around so much now, they aren't as connected. The information they can operate with about people is in disorder as they migrate, as people are uncertain, as people are less incorporated.

I would strongly suspect that many people who are attracted to extremely violent, even self-sacrificing, acts in the Middle East are people feeling this disconnection from social indebtedness in the world. They find in al Qaeda or similar organizations connectedness of an almost familial sort. One has to understand it in that Arab context of negotiated relationships, which is very different from the way an American might feel disconnected in some fashion.

What projects are you working on now?

One is a book that will probably be called "Drawn from Memory," about the intellectual lives of four ordinary Arabs whom I have known for 35 years.

Another is a project called "An Anthropologist Among the Tigers." I love talking to alumni about campus life as an anthropologist. There are all sorts of intriguing things that most people have not quite noticed. For instance, there is a sort of "incest taboo" in many dormitories. There are even terms for it-- "hallcest," for example. There's a whole series about these kinds of things about campus life that I will at some point try to write up. Eventually, I also would like to give a course on the social anthropology of university life.


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