J. Andrew Bush, Between Muslims: Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Andrew Bush (AB): I love the way this question displaces the author as master and asks how other forces made me write a book. I write within an ethnographic tradition of researchers who are transformed, transfigured, and replaced through research and the relationships that remake researchers. So I hope that it is my interlocutors who made me write the book—at the very least, they remade the “me” who wrote the book. They shared lives with me that unsettle the common sense in popular and scholarly discourse about the relationship between Islam and piety. A lot of ethnographic work in the past fifteen years has sought to understand how contemporary Muslims carry out projects of piety in their everyday lives in relation to a range of other social and material factors. But an unintended side effect has sometimes been to write off those who do not take up the path to piety as self-evidently “secular” or “secularized.” Over many years of fieldwork (beginning in 2004, culminating in 2008-9), I came to know many Kurdish Muslims who spurned both the path to piety and the vision of an autonomous self that is characteristic of secular thought. I wanted to describe that ethical sensibility without explaining it away. I wanted to write a book that made some of the paradoxes of that ethical life palpable and relatable for readers, without forcing it into the familiar historical narratives of secularization or of nationalist movements—which often frame research in Muslim ethics or Iraqi Kurdistan, respectively.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

AB: Within the anthropology of Islam, the book examines the space that Islamic traditions make for those who do not take up the pious path of diligent commitment, but neither become self-avowed atheists or apostates. It also looks at the space those Muslims make for themselves on the margins of Islamic traditions, especially in the wake of the revivalist movements that have sought to make Islam a “whole way of life” in a very modern sense, in Kurdistan as in other places. More broadly, it asks how particular ethical orientations emerge in the course of interacting with others in everyday life. So rather than responses to interview questions about their abstract views of revivalists, the book studies how Muslims respond to those tendencies when they appear in the actions of concrete others—in the family and also in public spaces. And here it is not only a question of how public discourse shapes intimate life, but also a question of how fragments of public discourse are reshaped when they are absorbed into the rhythms and relations that make up everyday life.

The book also touches on questions on gender, sexuality, and kinship at every turn. It is sometimes “about” gender as an analytic category, but it more often includes gender as a part of everything it addresses: from the subtle dynamics of the brother-sister relation to that of the father-daughter relation in everyday life, from the effort to gender the poetic voice in the early twentieth century to the effort to radically reshape gender relations in the wake of British colonialism. It is a fragmented way of taking up questions of gender that tracks a variety of instabilities in how Kurdish Muslims learn to be fathers, mothers, daughters, husbands, or poets.

Finally, the book addresses poetry. It asks what people do with poetry and what that reveals about what people do with religion, kinship, and sexuality. But more importantly, it takes poetry as an analytical framework for ethnography, looking at poetry’s way of holding together paradoxes—which Kurdish poetry shares with other Sufi poetic traditions—not merely as something to be understood in the language of claims and propositions, but as also as a mode of expression that is itself expository or descriptive of a way of living.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AB: Even for a first book, I suppose the final draft inevitably feels like a departure from all the previous drafts, so I will answer the question in those terms. Some of the last literature I was reading was the recent burst of scholarship about Christians in Iraq and Kurdistan. I only interacted with a few Iraqi Christians during my fieldwork, and it was only in the late stages of research that I began thinking about the new English scholarship alongside the accounts I heard from Kurdish Muslims. The book problematizes the relationship between the historical actors of Christians in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the figuration of Christians in Kurdish ghazal poetry, suggesting that different ways of understanding that relation reflect differing ways of relating to Islamic traditions across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some really exciting work in Iraqi studies in the past few years helped me to think about these issues in the last stages of writing, and I am looking forward to more of it.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

AB: I love teaching and I tried to write a teachable book that includes necessary introductory material for non-experts and touches on many of the topics one would include in an Introduction to Islam or the Anthropology of Islam. It is also a write-able book, in the sense that it contains layers within itself, unfinished connections, and begs to be set alongside other works in writing assignments. For example, I take up some of the definitive texts in the anthropology of Islam and its articulation as also necessarily an anthropology of secularism, so the book fits neatly into that kind of undergraduate course. But it can also be taken up in a broader comparative study of religion and anthropology, such as courses in the ethnography of texts, religion and everyday life, or religion and gender.

Thinking of an audience of students, I also thought about all the diversity that the category of “students” entails. So I asked, what does it mean to write an introductory-level book that is just as challenging and novel for Muslims students already familiar with many aspects of Islamic tradition, as it is for students who know little of those traditions? Related to this, I think, the book itself envisions conversation as its goal. Rather than a “grasp” of ideas, or a theory that might be applied elsewhere, the book grapples for a way forward in conversations where religious difference appears tangled up with moment that might be awkward, difficult, violent, joyful, secretive, or surprising. I hope it is the kind of book students continue talking about outside of class: not just a book about ordinary life, but a book that speaks to ordinary life.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AB: I am finishing a long stint of fieldwork and remote research for a project I call A History of Husbands in Islamic Law. It began with extended observations of a Fatwa Council in Kurdistan in 2014, where among the questioners were husbands and wives who were uncertain about the validity of their marriage after the husband had evoked his right to divorce in some capacity. I then went back in 2019 to take up a study of the classical texts in Islamic law, as they are studied by jurists-in-training in contemporary Kurdistan, the history of fatwas in Kurdistan as they are collected and printed in a few important volumes, as well as a course in Iraqi personal status law, observations of court proceedings and interviews with lawyers, judges, and others active in the civil legal tradition. Across all of these forums of legal action, I want to understand how giving, withholding, retracting, using, regretting, regulating, and adjudicating the right to divorce have shaped men as husbands. Instead of stable subjects who rely on the law to support their “interests” (themselves not always self-evident), it seems that Muslim men often find themselves caught up by the law, confronting moments of uncertainty and trying to navigate legal procedures and competing senses of manhood, fatherhood, and masculinity that they find layered within and across legal forums.

J: This first book revolves around poetry in some ways, and your second book appears to revolve around law. Is there a connecting thread there, or is it a new departure? 

AB: There is an empirical link insofar as the fact that, at least until well into the twentieth century in Iraqi Kurdistan, the caretakers of poetry and law were the same people, trained in the same Islamic educational institutions. But more provocatively, maybe, there are analytical and methodological links: the only genre of speech I can think of that would match poetry’s capacity to make or remake a world by speaking is law. Law and poetry both empower people to speak the world into being, to make and break worlds in utterance. And both law and poetry thrive on a dialogue of the written and oral word, which is a crucial research methodology for me across both projects. For the first book I studied poetic texts under the tutorship of master poets and readers of poetry, in order to then track how those texts are taken up and transformed in conversations in daily life; for this new project I have been studying legal texts in similar way, tracking how fragments of text circulate across time and transform different contexts by that circulation.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 16-18) 

A Kurdish Exception?

During my research and writing, I encountered many voices insisting that there is nothing surprising about the fact that many Kurdish Muslims might turn away from piety. When the emphasis falls on the modifier Kurdish, it implies that Kurds are exceptional, uniquely unlike other Muslims. Two very different lines of reasoning could be at work in this idea.

The first appears most obviously in the writings of Orientalist observers—travelers, missionaries, and military personnel. But I also heard similar versions in and beyond Kurdistan, including from Kurdish nationalist intellectuals. This line of reasoning relies on ideas of racial or ethnic difference and broadly associates Islam with Arabs. According to this logic, the historical origin of Islam among Arab tribes has meant that fidelity to Kurdish identity is incompatible with fidelity to Islamic traditions. Thus, some question whether Kurds’ acceptance of Islam was ever actually sincere or complete. Others suppose that even if Kurds did convert in large numbers, they nonetheless retained fidelity to some pre-Islamic traditions. This idea is often attached to the notion of ethnically or racially distinct “culture,” in which it is minorities, tribes, and ancient peoples that have culture. By implication, contemporary urban Arabs, Turks, or Persians are less influenced by culture and have more direct access to religion. This line of reasoning is often at work in the English phrase “Kurdish Islam,” which suggests that Islam is a broad, universal noun modified by a local, particular, ethnic adjective.

In most versions, this idea relies on the notion that a human being’s capacity for commitment to Islamic traditions is determined or qualified by the person’s racial or ethnic identity. It therefore often harbors subtle—or not so subtle—forms of racism. Furthermore, this idea implies that those who consider themselves fully Kurdish and fully Muslim live in some sort of illusion or self-deception. But as the following discussion begins to show, there is no question that Kurdish Muslims have been deeply engaged with Islamic traditions for centuries. And the forms of their engagement are not unique or isolated but interwoven with the ways that Arab, Turkish, and Persian Muslims have engaged Islam.

To avoid that line of reasoning, instead of the phrase “Kurdish Islam,” I speak of “Islamic traditions in Kurdistan” to describe a wide range of debates about what counts as Islamic. These debates have happened in, around, and about the region called Kurdistan (itself historically shifting) and have happened in, in conversation with, and about Kurdish language. Within this framework, it is no less puzzling when an Iraqi Kurdish Muslim turns away from piety than it is when other Muslims do.

A second line of reasoning that attributes an exceptional status to Kurdish Muslims is much more thoughtful and relies on observations of general political trends that connect Kurds to the wider region. According to this view, the marginalization of Kurds following the establishment of the four major nation-states (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey) in the twentieth century has created fertile ground for leftist political movements. Because leftist political thought often values scepticism toward religion, it is unsurprising that many leftist Kurds have turned away from piety. This view has recently been magnified by the global interest in the female guerrillas in Iraq and Syria who fought the “Islamic State” and other Islamist militias beginning in 2012. By depicting leftist, feminist revolutionaries as an antidote to Islamist militants, global media have often also regarded Kurdish leftists as an antidote to Islamic traditions more generally. Leftist thought is widely perceived to have had a negative impact on piety in Iraqi Kurdistan. But two points are important to bear in mind.

First, Iraqi Kurdistan has a political history distinct from that of other regions of Kurdistan. Thus, the female guerrillas have predominantly come from Syria and Turkey, where leftist movements have evolved dynamically throughout much of the twentieth century. But during my fieldwork up to 2013, the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds were much more concerned with the political possibilities (and impossibilities) of the local parties (PUK and KDP) in charge of the KRG than with leftist revolutionaries in Syria and Turkey. Even though leftist ideas have moved across the borders of nation-states with Kurdish movements, political dynamics of Iraqi Kurdistan should not be confused with (or equated with) the political dynamics of Kurdish movements in Turkey, Syria, or Iran.

Second, the goal of this book is not to establish a singular cause for a diverse and variegated orientation to Islam but to explore the affiliations and associations of that orientation in the contentious present. My research has not shown a one-to-one correspondence between leftist politics and the turn away from piety. Many Kurdish communists retained a commitment to the pursuit of Islamic piety, and many who turn away from piety do not evince sympathy for communist-inspired critiques of Islam. But more important, my research shows that those who turn away from piety have been disappointed or exasperated in some way with Islamist political movements in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus, if Islamist movements have turned many toward piety, they have also had a significant impact in the lives of Kurdish Muslims who turn away from piety. So rather than ask whether leftist movements prompted a turn away from piety, this book asks about the contemporary relations between Islamist movements and those who turn away from piety.