The Culture of Islam Changing Aspects of Contemporary Muslim Life
by Lawrence Rosen
University of Chicago Press, 2002
Cloth: 978-0-226-72613-7 | Paper: 978-0-226-72615-1 | Electronic: 978-0-226-72614-4


Having worked for several decades in North Africa, anthropologist Lawrence Rosen is uniquely placed to ask what factors contribute to the continuity and changes characterizing the present-day Muslim world. In The Culture of Islam, he brings his erudition and his experiences to illuminating key aspects of Muslim life and how central tenets of that life are being challenged and culturally refashioned.

Through a series of poignant tales—from the struggle by a group of friends against daily corruption to the contest over a saint's identity, from nostalgia for the departed Jews to Salman Rushdie's vision of doubt in a world of religious certainty—Rosen shows how a dazzling array of potential changes are occurring alongside deeply embedded continuity, a process he compares to a game of chess in which infinite variations of moves can be achieved while fundamental aspects of "the game" have had a remarkably enduring quality. Whether it is the potential fabrication of new forms of Islam by migrants to Europe (creating a new "Euro-Islam," as Rosen calls it), the emphasis put on individuals rather than institutions, or the heartrending problems Muslims may face when their marriages cross national boundaries, each story and each interpretation offers a window into a world of contending concepts and challenged coherence.

The Culture of Islam is both an antidote to simplified versions of Islam circulating today and a consistent story of the continuities that account for much of ordinary Muslim life. It offers, in its human stories and its insights, its own contribution, as the author says, "to the mutual understanding and forgiveness that alone will make true peace possible."


Lawrence Rosen is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University and adjunct professor of law at Columbia University. Named to the first group of MacArthur Award winners, he is the author of six books, including The Justice of Islam: Comparative Perspectives on Islamic Law and Society and Bargaining for Reality: The Construction of Social Relations in a Muslim Community, published by the University of Chicago Press.


“Rosen is an excellent writer. The book's synthetic power resides in its ability to bring together three decades of ethnographic experience. Its clear and detailed style makes it an enjoyable read. Rosen gets credit for raising some of the questions at the heart of Muslim societies. Today, the Arab/Muslim world is undergoing a social, political, and economic paralysis. Rosen has raised some of the central issues in this dilemma where Muslims are struggling to find the convenient road to a better modernity. For this reason, I strongly recommend this book to audiences within and outside academe.”

— Aomar Boum, International Journal of Middle East Studies

"Rosen has already contributed substantially to the study of everyday Islam, and this new title is a welcome alternative to the recent spate of simplified accounts for Americans. The ten essays stand well alone, but together they blend into a thoughtful study of negotiation and ambivalence. . . . All academic libraries should purchase this excellent treatment of the lives and thoughts of a Muslim community."

— Library Journal

"At a time where it has become common place to provide simplistic and often monolithic representations of Islam, Rosen's book provides an important alternative insight into Islam as practiced by Muslims in North Africa."
— Middle East Journal

"[Rosen's] pen is both literary and analytical--which makes the reading a pleasure. . . . The author's personal anecdotes are satisfying and enhance Rosen's successful efforts to enlighten the reader about Moroccan and North African society. Where others would dismiss the region's Muslims as antiquated, racist or extremist, Rosen challenges various hackneyed theories about Islam and swiftly rebuts them."

— Publishers Weekly

“Four cultural themes connect these . . . essays: the centrality of reason and knowledge in Islamic thought and society, webs of social connections and relationships that define the person in North Africa, continuity and discontinuity in social and cultural life and the situations and contexts in which individuals interact with others.”

— Virginia Quarterly

"Scholars who want to enhance their understanding of the cultural schemas and symbolics that engage ordinary people . . . in the making of history in the contemporary Muslim world would do well to read Lawrence Rosen's most recent book. . . . Each of the ten chapter-length essays . . . bespeaks a deep erudition that readers familiar with Rosen's earlier work have come to expect in light of his encyclopedic knowledge of the historical and cultural dynamics of Islamic civilization. . . . Rosen's prose, moreover, is consistently elegant and accessible and the topics addressed both fascinating and far ranging. . . . Rosen's earlier publications on Morocco and the Muslim world as a whole have established him as one of the foremost Western authorities on Islam. This book further substantiates that reputation."
— Michael G. Peletz, MESA Bulletin



Part One: Ambivalent Culture

1. The Circle of Beneficence: Narrating Coherence in a World of Corruption

2. Ambivalence towards Power: Approaches to Authority in Postcolonial Morocco

3. What Is a Tribe, and Why Does It Matter?

4. Constructing Institutions in a Political Culture of Personalism

Part Two: Memory Worlds, Plausible Worlds

5. Contesting Sainthood

6. Memory in Morocco

7. Have the Arabs Changed Their Mind?

Part Three: Shifting Concepts, Discerning Change

8. Marriage Stories: Crossing the Boundaries of Nation, Gender, and Law

9. Euro-Islam

10. Never in Doubt: Salman Rushdie’s Deeper Challenge to Islam