Practicing Islam

Knowledge, Experience, and Social Navigation in Kyrgyzstan

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David Montgomery
Central Eurasia in Context
  • Pittsburgh, PA: 
    University of Pittsburgh Press
    , November
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


David W. Montgomery provides a methodological and theoretical alternative to understanding difference in the spaces of everyday life through the lenses of culture and religion in his new work, Practicing Islam: Knowledge, Experience, and Social Navigation in Kyrgyzstan. By using what Fredrik Barth has set forth as an anthropology of knowledge (Current Anthropology, 2002), Montgomery argues that knowledge, rather than culture or religion, is more important for understanding social navigation. He, furthermore, claims that this focus on knowledge allows for a better understanding of the biases of the ethnographic and policy frames that inform the field “where people's lives are constricted by seen and unseen realities, relationships of varying closeness, and potentialities inherent to their ability and environment, and manifested in what they come to know" (153). Montgomery attempts to demonstrate throughout the text that the anthropology of knowledge is capable of being attuned to both the policy and ethnographic frames that are needed to sufficiently capture the social navigation of individuals in their everyday lives.

 In Barth’s tri-partite definition of knowledge, as followed by Montgomery, knowledge is composed of three interlinked parts: social organization, corpus, and medium. The parts are interdependent and inform the way in which difference can be understood. Before diving into the three parts of knowledge, Montgomery builds his analysis from the process in which people attain knowledge, practice. Practice, or simply what people do and how they learn what to do, are the building blocks upon which the Montgomery assembles his anthropology of knowledge.

Chapter 1 establishes the foundation of the anthropology of knowledge in learning. Learning is not a static process but a dynamic practice that does not just take place in madrassas, Islamic schools, or the home. This dynamic practice of learning involves three different ways of learning: directed passive, direct participatory, and indirect participatory. Indirect participatory learning takes place through “observing and mimicking without directed instruction” (28). For example, a son watching and mimicking his father perform prayer would be an example of indirect participatory—if he was given no direction. In practicing the movements of prayer, the child is learning. By expanding the process by which someone learns, Montgomery is also expanding what is considered knowledge. Montgomery also introduces the environmental factors, such as the differences between mountain and valley villages, the historical forces, and conceptions of ethnicity that shape and restrict the way people come to know.

Chapter 2 presents the multiple forces shaping social organization as part of the three threads that compose knowledge. Social organization in Kyrgyzstan is particularly informed by ethnicity, social structures, and the environment. The actions of individuals within these social organizations largely take place in the everyday, which Montgomery defines as the "combination of what can be based on what has already been and what can be realized as defined by the range of realistic possibilities for each person" (77). Within this space of the everyday, it is through doing that social organization is learned, negotiated, and restricted. This practice is then made meaningful through its relationship to the corpus of knowledge.

Chapter 3 explicates what Montgomery envisions as the corpus of knowledge, or “the totality of what people know” (79). This corpus of knowledge is divided into historical, professional, educational, and religious frames that are both restricted by the social organization presented in chapter 2, but also allow for variance. For example, within the religious frame of Kyrgyzstan—following the fall of the Soviet Union—three frames emerge that illuminate difference: “general revival; inward-looking traditionalism; and outward-looking orthodoxy” (90). This does not reduce individual choices to large frameworks, but helps explain why someone from the mountains of Kyrgyzstan may be more likely to pull their understanding of Islam from an “inward-looking traditionalism.”

Both the social organization and corpus of knowledge are continually negotiated and transformed, and transforming the medium of knowledge presented in Chapter 4. The medium of knowledge is additionally critical because different forms—oral, textual, and practice—shape the way individuals understand legitimacy and authority. Both the written and oral, however, are not at the “soul of understanding” (128). Instead, Montgomery argues that ritual is the place where action and knowledge coalesce to deal with the ambivalence of life, and make meaning that can be lived in the space of the everyday. Here, he returns to the necessity of practice via ritual in making meaning; ritual is a fundamental way of knowing.

Chapter 5 sets forth the stakes in applying an anthropology of knowledge to understanding the everyday life of Central Asian Muslims. By appealing to the anthropology of knowledge as set forth in Chapters 2, 3, and 4, Montgomery hopes to overcome the observational biases of the political and ethnographic approaches to analyzing the contemporary situation in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan. The policy frame often makes broad generalizations about the harshness of life in Kyrgyzstan and divides Muslims into those imagined as a threat, traditional, or modern. The ethnographic frame “too often fails to synthesize the influence of the policy frame” (139). The ethnographic and policy frames are a part of the Western corpus of knowledge, and by using the anthropology of knowledge and a theory of the rough ground, Montgomery believes the biases of each will be revealed, as well as the way in which each frame impacts the everyday lives of those being studied.

Montgomery’s work is an excellent example of an anthropology of knowledge. He brings to our attention the continued necessity of bringing multiple frames together in the “rough ground” of everyday life. His solution to the perceived issue of difference is to shift our gaze from religion and culture to knowledge, which I think is helpful in creating an alternative to continuing to use the frames of religion and culture. His system promises to be productive for those looking for a different way of studying Muslim majority locations. However, at times, I wanted more stories as told by those living in Kyrgyzstan. In building an anthropology of knowledge that can engage with both the ethnographic and political frames, the particularities became buried in stories often already digested.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James M. Edmonds is a Ph.D. student at Arizona State University in religious studies working on contemporary Indonesian Islamic movements.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David W. Montgomery is Director of program development for CEDAR—Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion. He is the coauthor of Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World and editor of Negotiating Well-being in Central Asia.



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