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Literacy, religious renaissance and the ‘morality system’

Safari ya roho akhera, ‘the journey of the soul into the afterlife’, was published in 1999 by Said Amour Al-Habsy in Oman -- image from Becker's 2009 paper.
Safari ya roho akhera, ‘the journey of the soul into the afterlife’, was published in 1999 by Said Amour Al-Habsy in Oman — image from Becker’s 2009 paper.

This is a cross-post from ethics.CRASSH.

Felicitas Becker on Islamic reformism and Sufi traditionalism in Tanzania

I’ve just read two fascinating papers by Felicitas Becker on moral conflict in East Africa. Both papers describe the relationship between Islamist reformers and Sufi-influenced traditionalists in rural Tanzania. Broadly speaking, the Islamists are young, have international connections (though these are limited), and their leaders claim legitimacy as a result of their scriptural scholarship. The traditionalists are drawn from the older generations and derive their authority from their descent from founders of local mosques, or from their place in a chain of transmission of oral knowledge. Most local people, Becker notes, consider themselves Muslims, but observe the debates between the two groups without feeling the need to declare themselves partisans of either side.

One of the papers, ‘Islamic Reform and Historical Change in the Care of the Dead’ (2009) focuses on disagreements between the two parties around funerary practices, which take on great importance in this context. Traditionalists have elaborate funerals in which prayers and the Quran are recited over the funeral procession and the deceased is read instructions on how to meet the angels after the burial is complete. To the elders who represent this tradition, these measures show that they are more punctilious in caring for the dead than their nomadic forebears who, before the adoption of Islamic usages, would abandon settlements along with the corpses of the dead. To the reformists, the intercessions on behalf of, and interaction with, the deceased are accretions that are not justified by Quran or Hadith and must therefore be relinquished.

The other paper, ‘Rural Islamism during the “War on Terror”‘ (2006) considers a wider range of disagreements over practice, and also addresses the question of how far the reformers, who are nicknamed by other ‘Al Qaeda’, are in fact part of a coherent ‘international terror’ movement. Becker’s admirably nuanced conclusion, if I understand it correctly, is that although they are politically activist in theory, and in a way that could potentially lead to violent conflict, the political plank of their programme finds no traction with local concerns and is therefore barely a live part of their practice, while the international connections are tenuous. Meanwhile, the other aspect of their programme, the claim that scriptural scholarship is the sole source of religious legitimacy has found great support among the population, and even grudging assent among those who find themselves on the opposite side of debates about specific practices. This aspect of Becker’s material makes it interesting in terms of the CRASSH Speaking Ethically Across Borders Project.


The ‘morality system’ and literacy

In the 2006 paper, Becker notes:

…the opinions expounded by Ansaar [the reformists/Islamists] consistently tend towards the imposition of stricter rules. They are more concerned than others about the loss of ritual purity through contact with the opposite sex; they support a ban on alcohol and have suggested that smoking, too, is haram, religiously prohibited. … They have also introduced new forms of veiling to Rwangwa, have changed standards for halal (religiously correct) slaughter and have questioned the acceptability of established ways of dealing with witchcraft. (Becker 2006: 594)


This made me think about the relation of literacy and forms of ethics. Much recent anthropological work on ethics has taken on a distinction from philosophy between virtue ethics and what Bernard Williams calls the ‘morality system’. The morality system is about judgment of acts against legalistic codes of behaviour, lists of obligations and taboos, and it leads to a concern with the refinement of rules for particular circumstances, and with moral dilemmas. Virtue ethics is about the judgment of character against models of excellence, and leads to a concern with the identification of exemplars, and with pedagogical techniques that lead to the cultivation of particular virtues (including what Foucault calls ‘techniques of the self’).

A lot of anthropological work on Islamic reformists has emphasised the way in which their reforms are connected to virtue ethical programmes of character development, but I wonder if there’s a general relationship between reformist movements that base legitimacy on scriptural sources and the importance of the ‘morality system’. Character-based ethics requires a good deal of interpretation in order to work out how an exemplar would act in the current situation (see Humphrey 1997 on this). Virtues that are partly or mainly about embodied dispositions are apt to be expressed in imagistic forms that underdetermine their expression (Carrithers 1990). Is it difficult to combine this interpretative flexibility and the autonomy it implies with an insistence on submission to scripture as a sole source of authority?

In Becker’s Tanzanian case study, the traditionalist elders apply this kind of reasoning to the conduct of funerals. The reformists argue from scripture that,

The Prophet, peace be upon him, prohibits the corpse [to be sung to], that is to say, when we get up to go to the graveyard to bury someone, we are required to be quiet and to ponder that our fellow Muslim has died and we will die too. Therefore we must be quiet. And the Prophet says don’t follow the hearse with any sort of noise, let people be quiet and reflect. (Becker 2006: 592)

The Sufis’ riposte is that:

In the days of the prophet, the graves were situated very close to the houses of the liv- ing. But our graves are far from our villages. Moreover, our faith is not as strong as that of the first Muslims. Were we to go to the graveyard in silence, our thoughts might start to wander and some might start to discuss, say, football on the way to the grave! So our elders decided we had better recite the shahada on the way to the grave, to keep our minds focused.

This could, I think, be interpreted as a more character-based approach to ethics. Though the traditionalists accept the idea that scripture, and not established custom, is the proper arbiter of practice, they maintain enough autonomy from it to interpret it in the light of specific local and personal conditions. Perhaps this shows that they are more concerned with emulating the underlying character expressed by the Prophet’s actions, something that can never be entirely captured in words, because it is always contextual, rather than reproducing the actions, which can be more precisely described in the text, themselves.

It’s difficult to reach a conclusion on this question on the basis of this material alone, but perhaps a comparative approach would turn up a regular association between text-based revival movements (i.e. renaissances — Goody 2009), and a shift away from a concern with character and towards a concern with moral rules. Or the shift might be away from a complex character approach, with multiple, perhaps mutually incompatible, virtues or exemplars available to the moral subject, towards a simpler character approach which focuses all effort on the single virtue of perfect submission to the authority of the text.

Any thoughts?


Main texts

Becker, F., 2006. Rural Islamism during the “war on terror”: A Tanzanian case study. African Affairs, 105(421), pp.583–603.

Becker, F., 2011. Islamic Reform and Historical Change in the Care of the Dead: Conflicts Over Funerary Practice Among Tanzanian Muslims. Africa, 79(03), pp.416–434.


Further reading

Carrithers, M., 1990. Jainism and Buddhism as enduring historical streams. JASO (Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford), 21(2), pp.141–163.

Faubion, J.D., 2001. Toward an Anthropology of Ethics: Foucault and the Pedagogies of Autopoiesis. Representations, (74), pp.83–104. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/rep.2001.74.1.83.

Foucault, M., 1990. The history of sexuality volume 3: the care of the self, London: Penguin.

Goody, J., 2009. Renaissances, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Humphrey, C. 1997. Exemplars and rules: aspects of the discourse of moralities in Mongolia. In Howell, S. (ed). The ethnography of moralities. London: Routledge.

Laidlaw, J., 2002. For An Anthropology Of Ethics And Freedom. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 8(2), pp.311–332.

Williams, B.A.O., 1985. Ethics and the limits of philosophy, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

New blog: ethics.CRASSH

ethics blog
ethics.crassh blog: interdisciplinary studies in ethics

I’ve launched a new website as part of my current project at CRASSH. It’s called ethics.CRASSH and at the moment it’s covering the Speaking Ethically Across Borders Project, which has been running as a reading group this year. Several of the participants have already posted commentaries on the texts we’ve been reading. If things go well, I hope this will develop as a more general resource for interdisciplinary studies of ethics in Cambridge and beyond.

If you are interested in writing something for the blog, please let me know.

Kwame Anthony Appiah on Cosmopolitanism

Here’s another video on cosmopolitanism, this one by Kwame Appiah, who has written on the topic:

Kwame Anthony Appiah in Examined Life – YouTube.

Stuart Hall on rootless cosmopolitanism

Stuart Hall
Stuart Hall

Here’s an interesting interview with Stuart Hall, in which he speaks about cosmopolitanism and rootedness — relevant to the previous post:


Pnina Werbner interviewing — I’ve transcribed the most relevant bit below.


PW: Can you be a cosmopolitan if you don’t have to commitments to a place or people or maybe even culture? Is it possible to be a cosmopolitan without this rootedness somewhere?

SH: Well I would have said not, and I think I’m afraid of the word because it sort of suggests that. It sort of invokes a kind of cultureless, rootedless image of a person who’s free-floating sampling all the cultures, like my global entrepreneur in the first-class waiting room of some airport is a good idea – they love a bit of Japanese cooking, Indian cooking here, French cuisine there. They sample all of them but none comes from a attachment to a particular way of handling food et cetera. That doesn’t mean you need to eat that way all the time but you sort of know what it is like to be attached. I think that without that the old Marxist jibe ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ has some substance to it.

I think in many ways, this is where we encounter an interesting interface with one aspect of liberalism which exactly thinks we can only really calculate what individuals are like when we free them from all their attachments: no religion, no culture nothing, free floating atoms contracting with other free floating atoms, and I think this is exactly one of the limitations of liberalism. It has never understood culture, not [that] it has never sunk itself into culture, it has never *understood* culture. This idea of the atomised individual has of course played it’s role. The notion of the rule of law depends on a certain abstraction from cultures and particularities, so it does have it’s value, but it’s never understood that it’s always underpinned by its own culture. There’s no liberal democracy that doesn’t have roots in a particular community….

So, I believe in that locatedness, in position, attachment, but I believe that those are rarely singular. I don’t think they overlap, that the attachment to community is the same as the attachment to culture, and I think that all of that has to be aware of its limits.

Rooted Cosmopolitanism

Diogenes the Cynic, a citizen of the world, in a painting by John William Waterhouse

Tuesday saw the first of a series of reading groups that I’m organizing at CRASSH on the subject of ethical conversations across borders. There will be four sessions this term, each dealing with a different theme, taking in readings from anthropology, sociology, philosophy and history.

The first session, on rooted cosmopolitanisms, was based on texts by philosopher Martha Nussbaum and sociologist Bryan Turner.

Cosmopolitanism is perhaps most frequently used to describe the flows of people and goods between geographically remote regions. Following this usage, a ‘cosmopolitan’ is someone who moves with facility between different regions or cultures. However, the term cosmopolitan is also used with an ethical force. In this sense, it is the idea that ethical considerations ought not be limited by geographical boundaries. An ethical cosmopolitan claims that all persons are equally significant moral beings, no matter where they are located or where they have come from. On this view, any ethical attachment for members of one’s own ethnic group or nation or religion is exercised at the expense of others.

This is a position that Nussbaum has defended before. However, in the paper we discussed in the reading group, ‘Toward a globally sensitive patriotism‘ (paywall), she argues that although the classical conception of cosmopolitanism, which appeals to reason alone, is right and desirable, it is in incapable of motivating people and cannot therefore be the basis of an effective politics. What local, particularistic accounts can provide, which cosmopolitanism, she says, cannot, is a rich background of historical events, experiences of landscapes and particular personalities that can play effectively on the emotions.

Nussbaum distinguishes between two forms of love of country. One form, which she calls patriotism, is focused on leading the subject to think beyond the self to the good of something greater. Though it entails particularistic attachments that can come at the cost of global obligations, Nussbaum believes that patriotism is compatible with cosmopolitanism and that through its repertoire of local, historically rich narratives it is capable of evoking altruistic feelings that can be extended beyond the nation. She gives several examples of patriotic rhetoric that she believes achieves this goal of harnessing the horse of visceral attachment to the particular to the carriage of tolerance and compassion. These include speeches by Martin Luther King and Gandhi, among others.

The other form of love of country Nussbaum calls nationalism, this is based on exclusion of others, and works with shame and disgust. Nationalism in this sense is incompatible with cosmopolitanism.

Turner’s paper, ‘Cosmopolitan Virtue‘ (paywall) addresses the problem of human rights. Human rights are problematic for a number of reasons, including that their advocates can provide no grounds on which the obligations that must correspond to rights (i.e. the obligation not to encroach on rights, the obligation to redress the denial of rights, and so on) might be based. Turner aims to rescue rights by proposing a cosmopolitan virtue which would form the basis of such obligations.

Like Nussbaum, Turner thinks that a reason-only approach would prove ineffective, writing, ‘The idea of global citizenship is probably too abstract and vague to carry conviction and commitment’ (p. 49). The solution he proposes harks back to an idea of citizenship that predates the modern nation-state: ‘…citizenship was originally a product of Renaissance humanism, in which the ascending order of the state and the horizontal ordering of citizenship contrasted with the descending theme of the Church and its hierarchical order of institutionalized grace… This tradition of citizenship became linked to the norms of civility, civilization and civil society.’ Becoming a citizen in this sense was a matter of cultivating virtues, a matter of education or formation. The virtues were universal ones, but they were learnt in a particular form and in relation to specific political institutions and traditions. This is the kind of cosmopolitan virtue that Turner thinks can provide the obligation that is missing from human rights theory, a virtue that is based in specific attachments and can therefore command people’s emotions, but which is aimed at universal goods and avoids exclusion. The virtues he has in mind emerge as conditions of political debate and trade, but extend from politeness to care for the other.

Turner also makes a number of other interesting points, in particular in relation to the universality of the rejection of suffering (a questionable idea, I think), and about the relation between cosmopolitanism and irony, but I won’t go into those here.

In terms of the question of ethical conversations across borders, I think the most interesting aspects of these papers are:

1. The combination of empirical and rationalist approaches. Both Nussbaum and Turner are committed to a universalist ethics that they see as being based on reason, but argue that for practical reasons this must be combined with contingent ethical forms that are necessarily local and historical. One can imagine other thinkers arriving in the same place from the opposite direction: a commitment to an empirical approach to ethics based on actual custom and precedent, a commitment that needs to be laid aside in international contexts in favour of a first-principles approach because there is an insufficient body of shared custom among parties who transact at that level.

2. Their arguments raise the question of the spatial relationship of global ethics and local ethics. Is the cosmopolitan to conceive of global ethics (i) as being beyond space, something that applies at all times and in all places where moral persons happen to be, (ii) as being related to the planet earth as a place, just as local ethics are related to local places, or (iii) in relation to cosmopolitan spaces such as international cities, pilgrimage sites, universities and so on, where citizens of a number of different local polities meet and rub along together? Neither author really answers this question, though Turner does talk about the importance of cosmopolitan cities in the development of cosmopolitan virtue, especially in relation to the ironic detachment from one’s own tradition that he sees as essential to cosmopolitanism. Perhaps the aim of Nussbaum’s patriotism is to lead from (i) to (ii)? Perhaps that would depend on the emergence of prominent participatory political institutions at the global level. Will the increasing importance of international cities lead from (i) to (iii), or from (iii) to (ii)? This issue — the location of the global — is relevant to any scheme that attempts to connect local and universal ethical considerations.



  • Nussbaum, M. 2011. Patriotism and cosmopolitanism. In The Cosmopolitanism Reader (eds) D. Held & G. W. Brown, 155–178. Polity.
  • Nussbaum, M. 2008. Toward a globally sensitive patriotism. Daedalus137, 78–93.
  • Turner, B. 2002. Cosmopolitan Virtue, Globalization and Patriotism. Theory, Culture & Society19, 45–63.


Alastair Macintyre on the moral/instrumental division of the modern world

Alasdair MacIntyre
Alasdair MacIntyre (Photo Credit: Sean O’Connor)

I am reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), and I’ve just come across a passage that is related to my recent argument about the problems of the use of the concept of neoliberalism in anthropology.

Part of my argument was that academic advocates of neoliberalism and academic critics of it share a view of the world, for all their apparent disagreement, in which all action is either moral or instrumental. I argued that this was part of a long argument in western thought that took the division for granted and in which the problematic was what the proper balance between the two spheres of life should be, and that neither position can adequately comprehend forms of moral life in which effective instrumentality is considered to have intrinsic ethical value.

MacIntyre’s book historicizes this very distinction, attributing its emergence to the attempt of Enlightenment thinkers to justify morality, and looks at historical forms of virtue in which the good and the effective were unified. MacIntyre’s target is not, of course, ‘neoliberalism-ism’, but a theory of morality he describes as emotivism. He argues that emotivism dominates moral thought in the contemporary world.

Emotivism, according to Macintyre, is premised on the division of the social world into,

 …a realm of the organizational in which ends are taken to be given and are not available for rational scrutiny and a realm of the personal in which judgment and debate about values are central factors, but in which no rational social resolution of issues is available…

…debates are often staged in terms of a supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism, each appearing in a variety of doctrinal forms. On the one side there appear the self-defined protagonists of individual liberty, on the other the self-defined protagonists of planning and regulation, of the goods which are available through bureaucratic organization. But in fact what is crucial is that on which the contending parties agree, namely that there are only two alternative modes of social life open to us, one in which the free and arbitrary choices of individuals are sovereign and one in which the bureaucracy is sovereign, precisely so it may limit the free and arbitrary choices if individuals. (p. 34f)

“Neoliberal is henceforth dead to me”

Thanks to Theo Kyriakides (@Theo_Kyriakides), who was present at the GDAT debate on neoliberalism for alerting me to a post by Kathleen Fitzpatrick of Pomona College. She writes,

I have come to despise the term “neoliberal,” to the extent that I’d really like to see it stricken from academic vocabularies everywhere. It’s less that I have a problem with the actual critique that the term is meant to levy than with the utterly sloppy and nearly always casually derisive way in which the term is of late being thrown about. 1 “Neoliberal” is hardly ever used these days to point to instances of the elevation of market values above all others — it’s used to tar anything that has anything to do with any market realities whatsoever.

Read the rest here: “Neoliberal” | Planned Obsolescence.

In a later post, she says:

like “bourgeois” or “reactionary” or any number of other such terms, I have too often of late heard “neoliberal” deployed as an insult by people on the left against other people on the left. It’s the classic circular firing squad of ideological purity, and it makes me nuts.

CRASSH Project: Speaking Ethically Across Borders

I am currently a research fellow at CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities, at Cambridge University.

One of the things I’m working on is an interdisciplinary project on ‘Speaking Ethically Across Borders’. Right now I’m planning a reading group on the topic for next term. The outline is below, together with some sample readings. If anyone has any suggestions for good readings on this theme, from any discipline, please let me know by email or in the comments below. Thanks!

Incidentally, this is related to my last post: the conversations I am interested in for this project could be seen as self-conscious attempts to overcome potential conversations at cross-purposes.

Speaking ethically across borders

A conversation between Western Christendom and the Mongol Empire:
Pope Innocent IV sends a mission to Central Asia, carrying one of a series of letters that were exchanged between the pontiffs and the Mongol khans in the thirteenth century. (Source: Wikipedia)


Cross-cultural conversations at cross-purposes

Part of my argument in the recent neoliberalism debate was that,

evidence of discontent about any aspect, be it ever so narrow, of what have been identified as neoliberal transformations is taken, without further justification, as a rejection of all of the phenomena that have been so identified

My point was that just because lots of people in different countries are critics of, say, structural adjustment programmes, we cannot leap to the conclusion that they share the same conception of the state and civil society and all agree on the proper balance of power and resources between the two; their motivations and assumptions might be quite different in each case.

This is a formal problem of cross-cultural description or comparison: the conversation at cross-purposes. We recognize something familiar in other people’s statements, and rush to fill in the rest from our own common-sense ideas, which may be quite different. My favourite example of this is one that operates in both directions — a reciprocal conversation at cross-purposes. (more…)

GDAT 2012: Debating “neoliberalism”

GDAT 2012 panel and chair, 1 December
Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, University of Manchester, 1 December 2012. (L-R) James Laidlaw, Soumhya Venkatesan, Keir Martin, Jonathan Mair, Thomas Hylland Eriksen

On Saturday I had the pleasure of taking part in GDAT, an annual debate on anthropological theory hosted by Manchester University. GDAT, the Group for Debates in Anthropological Theory, was started in the late 80s by Tim Ingold, and has been organized and chaired more recently by Soumhya Venkatesan. This was the third GDAT I have attended and I think it’s a brilliant institution. People come from all over the country, and the discussion is always highly engaged and critical in the best sense.

This year’s motion was: The concept of neoliberalism has become an obstacle to the anthropological understanding of the twenty-first century. James Laidlaw was proposing, I seconded, and Thomas Hylland Eriksen and Keir Martin opposed.