Thesis Review: Ethical Constellations of Muslim Food Practice in Mumbai

All-night Ramzaan Food Market, Muhammad Ali Road

Photographs by Shaheed Tayob

I’m delighted to post this exciting PhD thesis review, which nicely complements the recently posted review of the book Food, Faith and Gender in South-east Asia. If you have written a recent thesis in the Anthropology of Food or would like to review one, you can contact me directly: Katharina Graf (kg38@soas.ac.uk).

Islam as Lived Tradition: Ethical Constellations of Muslim Food Practice in Mumbai. Shaheed Tayob. PhD Thesis in Cultural Anthropology, Utrecht University, Utrecht (Netherlands). 2017.

Rachel Brown (Centre for Studies in Religion and Society, University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada)

Shaheed Tayob’s thesis, Islam as Lived Tradition, uses the case study of Muslim food practice in Mumbai to show how examining Islam as a lived tradition, and Muslims as living actors and co-creators of Islam, offers a helpful methodological and theoretical contribution to the Anthropology of Islam. He argues, in line with many studies of lived Islam, that when one looks outside of the traditional locations of Muslim practice, the mosque, madrasa, etcetera, one is presented with a picture of Islam that highlights the importance of debate, difference and change within the tradition. A prevailing theme throughout the thesis is the centrality of niyat (intention) over ideal or perfect forms of piety. Focussing on niyat allows Tayob to bring the Anthropology of Islam into conversation with the Anthropology of ethics and shows how when looking on the ground the picture of what constitutes Muslim practice or identity is not as clean cut or well defined as it may seem in popular conceptions of Islam. What is especially helpful from a Religious Studies perspective, is the contribution that Tayob’s thesis makes to the study of Lived Islam in the subcontinent, and the diversity of practice and identity that it highlights therein. As a contribution to the literature on Muslim food practice, it effectively reveals how the study of Muslim food must go beyond simple explorations of the halal market and definitions of halal, and that many everyday practices can come under the umbrella of Muslim food.

Tayob’s study gives excellent ethnographic grounding to Shabab Ahmed’s (2016) position in his work What is Islam?, that Islam cannot be separated from the discursive tradition, or as Ahmed says, “the Pre-Text, Text of Con-Text of Revelation,” in which it is grounded, but also that any definition or understanding of Islam must leave room for interpretation, debate and consequent diversity of practice (2016, 544). Like Ahmed, Tayob shows how the many conceptualizations of Islam and Muslims, whether in the Anthropology of Islam, or elsewhere, have all “failed to convey the fullness of the reality of what it is that has actually been (and is) going on in historical societies of Muslims living as Muslims” (Ahmed 2016, 542). Tayob’s dissertation gives rich ethnographic detail to the fullness of the reality of “Muslims living as Muslims” in Mumbai, a reality made visible through various food practices. He shows how his informants in Mumbai, and in line with Ahmed’s work, “produce Islam through their everyday practices” (23) while still in conversation with the discursive formation of Islam.

From the smell of freshly processed chicken, to the taste of mutton bhuna (fried mutton), to the sights of Muslim business fronts that dot the cityscape, to the feel of the streetscapes during Ramadan, over the course of five substantive chapters Tayob walks the reader through his study with impressive ethnographic detail. Like any good ethnographer, he transports his reader to the streets of Mumbai by telling good stories. His ability to paint the picture of the sights, smells, and related emotions, is so impressive that one may even find themselves responding viscerally to some of the stories he tells. For example, in chapter five, as Tayob tells the story of the sacrifice of Kurkure, an Eid goat, my stomach turned, I felt tears come to my eyes, and I had to almost look away from the page as I thought about the difficulty for Aziz (one of Tayob’s informants, and the owner and care taker of Kurkure) in that moment. In any ethnography, this kind of descriptive detail is important, in an ethnography on food, it’s essential. As I have argued elsewhere, food has the ability to act as transtemporal and translocative symbol; it can transport people across boundaries of time and place (Brown 2017), and Tayob’s study shows how even reading about these food practices can transport the reader as well. When trying to present the lived nature of Islam, this ability to bring the individual experience into clear, almost tangible sight (and taste and smell), is especially important. The reader can feel the complicated emotions and feelings that arise from and around the moments of working through how one fulfils expectations or “obligations,” while also navigating other aspects of one’s life and practice. Throughout the thesis he argues, following Wittgenstein, “that an anthropology of Islam should not be concerned with the habitation of norms or their failure. Rather we may observe the ways in which different practitioners engage in ethical reflections and judgment through which to make up the rules as they go along” (39-40).

In chapters two, three and four, Tayob shows how individual actors engage in these ethical reflections and navigate the systems and institutions in which Muslim food practices tend to come into stark relief. That is, he explores the topic of halal certification and halal consumption broadly (chapter two) and through a case study of an inner-city butcher (chapter three), as well as issues and questions around Muslim business ethics as they are made evident in two different restaurants in the city (chapter four). In all of these chapters he shows that while the discursive tradition is important to the ethical practice of Islam for many Muslims in Mumbai, there is also a great deal of creativity, flexibility, innovation and reformulation of Muslim practice and identity in these spaces. Through these chapters ethical, religious, practical and market-driven considerations are in constant conversation as Tayob’s informants live out Islam in their everyday lives. Furthermore, in these chapters, and in chapter six where he discusses the vast and varied practices of Ramadan, he shows how a focus on Islam as piety could preclude many of his informants and the spaces within which they operate, from being important sites of consideration within the Anthropology of Islam. Once one reads these chapters it becomes clear that that would be a tragic missed opportunity, and that these sites and the people operative within them offer a rich contribution to the Anthropology of Islam.

Young Mumbai resident cradles baby goat that he will care for until the following years’ sacrifice

In my reading, chapter five is the most impressive of the bunch and it offers the reader an exquisite case study of Tayob’s effort to bring the Anthropology of Islam into conversation with the Anthropology of ethics and to show how viewing Islam as a lived tradition offers essential nuance to the stories of Islam that we have access to, and produce, within the academy. This chapter is where you get a real feel for the ways Muslim practices are constructed through simple everyday interactions and rituals. Tayob focusses on the sacrifice for the Eid ul-Adha (the feast of sacrifice) and shows how this particular practice is much more complex than the rules and expectations outlined for it within the Islamic discursive tradition. Michel Desjardins and Aldea Mulhern (2015) write on religious sacrifice and the Eid ul-Adha and suggest “that ‘sacrifice’ should not be treated independently of the broader ritual context to which it belongs” (12). Tayob’s chapter five does an effective job of situating the sacrifice in its broader ritual and everyday context. He does this by drawing “attention to the way in which market practices of purchasing goats, the practice of raising and caring for goats, and the custom of charging young children with responsibility for the goats are all important for practicing sacrifice as a productive act through which particular ethical values of life are produced” (129). That is, he focusses on moments and spaces before, between and after the actual ritual sacrifice to show how this particular practice is fashioned as, labelled as, and in turn is constructive of, Islamic practice. The only element of the broader ritual context that is missing from this chapter is the related food preparation (usually done by women) after the slaughter. 

In fact, what surprised me most by Tayob’s study of food as a means of presenting Islam as a lived tradition was the fact that there was very little about the lived Islam of women in Mumbai. Food as an element of lived tradition (outside of the institutional contexts) tends to be the realm of women and yet many studies focus on the male experience and in public spaces (restaurants, stores, streets, mosques) more than private home spaces. I would love to see an expansion of Tayob’s study, looking at the lived Islam that is found in the homes, and in the kitchens of Muslim women in Mumbai. As I have reflected on in my own work, I understand that this research would probably have to be undertaken by a woman because of gender norms and expectations within some Muslim cultures and communities. These gender expectations could explain why Tayob’s study centres men’s experiences, and I think Tayob’s excellent work might have been nuanced a bit further by some reflection on the limitations of this positionality and the influence of gender on the dynamics he explores, especially for a topic related to food and lived religion. Religious Studies scholar Michel Desjardins (2012) suggests that by exploring religious food practice we locate the missing voices of women from much of religious studies and I would argue, from much of the study of Lived Islam. Lived Religion scholar Meredith McGuire (2008) similarly posits that “when we allow that food preparation and eating can be highly meaningful spiritual practices, we can have a different appreciation of women’s religious roles” (McGuire, Lived Religion, 106). By continuing to look at lived Islam within more male dominated spaces such as restaurants, businesses, halal certification processes and boards, the Eid sacrifice, etcetera, we miss the opportunity to highlight the missing voices of women in the construction of Lived Islam. What is wonderful about Tayob’s thesis is that it sets the groundwork for this kind of study by showing the importance of looking at everyday Muslim life and practice outside of the normal institutional contexts. This opens the door for other scholars to push his contribution even further into the homes and kitchens of Muslims throughout the world to emphasize, as Tayob does throughout his thesis, the importance of approaching Islam as a lived tradition.

References

Ahmed, Shabab. What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

Brown, Rachel. “Bread Beyond Borders: Food as a Lens into Tweed’s Theory of Religion.”Bulletin for the Study of Religion, vol. 46, no. 2 (2017): 9-18.

Desjardins, Michel. “Religious Studies that Really Schmecks: Introducing Food to the Academic Study of Religion.” In Failure and Nerve in the Study of Religion, edited by William Arnal, Willi Braun and Russell McCutcheon, 147-156. London: Equinox, 2012.

Desjardins, Michel, and Aldea Mulhern. “Living Sacrifice: Rethinking Abrahamic Religious Sacrifice using Field Narratives of Eid ul-Adha.” In Not Sparing the Child: Human Sacrifice in the Ancient World and Beyond, edited by Vita Daphna Arbel, Paul C. Burns, J. R. C. Cousland, Richard Menkis, and Dietmar Neufeld, 190-212. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015.

McGuire, Meredith B. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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