Selected Longer Reviews

Being Muslim the Bosnian Way: identity and community in a central Bosnian village

By Bringa, Tone

Princeton University Press, Princeton and London, 1995, 281 pages,
Price: 13.99 Pound Sterling
Shelf mark: 949.742

Since the popular view of anthropology is that it investigates the behaviour of primitive tribal peoples, many must think that only an anthropologist could explain what has happened in Bosnia during the past four years. British newspapers have been full of punditry about "warring tribes"; one distinguished military historian even announced, half-way through the Bosnian war, that he had found the key to the conflict when reading a book about Stone Age Indians in the Amazonian jungle. The truth is that the war in Bosnia was caused, like any other modern war, by politicians with telephones on their desks and armies at their command. Bosnian society was not tribal at all (not even in the technical sense in which northern Albania and Montenegro could be described as "tribal" until this century). Nor was the way of life of Bosnian peasants so very different from that of other parts of rural southern Europe: southern Italy, say, or northern Portugal. Just two things unusual, in comparison with other southern European countries: its kaleidoscopic intermingling of three religious-ethnic communities, and the fact that one of those communities was Muslim. Perhaps those two factors help to explain the paralysis of Western understanding. Mental laziness on the part of Western commentators converted the communities into "tribes"; and some residual prejudice may have inclined them to think that a partly Muslim country must be, ipso facto, more "primitive".

The only possible excuse for this style of fantasy-commentary is that, until now, there was almost nothing available in English that described the texture of ordinary life in rural Bosnia and the nature of Muslim identity there. William Lockwood’s European Moslems, written more than twenty years ago, was the only serious study by a Western social anthropologist; but it concentrated on socio-economic relations, and said curiously little about Islam. Now, at long last, there is a book which captures both the quiddity of Bosnian village life and the peculiar nature of Muslimhood in that part of Europe. It is difficult to imagine these two tasks being better performed than they are in Tone Bringa’s Being Muslim the Bosnian Way. For fifteen months in 1987, Bringa, a young Norwegian anthropologist, lived in a mixed Muslim-Catholic (but predominantly Muslim) village in central Bosnia. She had got permission to do this by telling the authorities in Sarajevo that she wanted to study "women and modernization"; only when she had won the trust of the villagers did she tell them that her main interest was "Muslim customs". The result is a book containing a wealth of information not only about Muslim religious practices, but also about the social structures of village life, about women and, indeed, about modernization too.

Living as a kind of adoptive daughter in a Muslim household, Bringa learned about Bosnian Islam from a distinctly female perspective. Some key elements of Muslim life ( circumcision, for example) are excluded by their maleness from this book. Instead, we learn about the bula, a figure on whom very little has been written in the West: this is the women whose duties include giving religious instruction and washing female corpses for burial. A bula will also preside at a zenski tehvid, a religious and social ceremony of prayers for the dead attended by women and held in an ordinary house. The connections between women, the household and Muslim religious identity form the main substance of this book. Bringa gives special attention to marriage and its socio-religious implications. Even when the marriage is contracted through the strange device of "fictive elopement", she suggests, the union is never simply between two individuals: it is a bond between households and families, who are joined in a web of social and ritual practices.

Hence the resistance to "mixed marriages" in such traditional communities. While Muslims can enjoy close friendship and neighbourliness with Catholics, the observance of small differences (in dress, household etiquette and so on) between the two groups is something that helps to constitute the sense of identity of each. Reluctance to engage in mixed marriage, therefore, is not a sign of some irreducible element of prejudice or "ethnic hatred"; it reflects the difficulty of combining two different types of social identity in a single household. In the cities, where modern conditions have worn away those social and familial contexts, mixed marriages are common and quite unproblematical.

One other type of modernization discussed in this book also deserves special attention: the pressure from the educated and city-based Islamic authorities against those aspects of rural Muslim life which they regard as unorthodox. Divining, faith-healing, the use of amulets, prayers at the tombs of Sufi saints and other practices derived from the dervish orders: all these meet with official disapproval, in classic illustration of what the late Ernest Gellner called the eternal conflict between High Islam and Folk Islam. What this means is that the newspaper pundits who write about "warring tribes" are no less wrong when they warn of the danger of "fundamentalism" sweeping through the Bosnian Muslim population. The strict neo-orthodoxy of any Arab-trained "fundamentalists", if they ever took charge of official Islam in Bosnia, would immediately set them at odds with the majority of those village Muslims who still practise their faith. That, perhaps, is not the least important of the lessons which this lucid and marvellously informative book can teach us.

Noel Malcolm

This review originally appeared in The Times Literary Supplement on 28 June 1996

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