A unique contribution of Geertz, in terms of religious perspective, is his focus on how religions function in people’s lives. In this article I will focus precisely on how Geertz understands religious symbols to be a link of belief & ethos, that mutually confirms one another and makes ethos justifiable. I will also relate the use of religious symbols to Scripturalism, as a counter-tradition against maraboutism and illuminationism. Geertz shows how religion helps the society and culture function as a whole. Furthermore, from Geertz’s perspective, religion can be seen as a process, in face of changing patterns of belief and ethos.
Geertz describes the heart of religious perspective as:
“the conviction that values one holds are grounded in the inherent structure of reality, that between the way one ought to live and the way things really are there is an unbreakable inner connection.” (Geertz, 1968, 97)
The unbreakable inner connection that Geertz refers to, is achieved by means of sacred religious symbols. What sacred symbols do for people (who maintain the symbols as sacred) is firstly to “formulate an image of the world’s construction” (97) and secondly they provide a “program for human conduct” (97). The two aspects of sacred symbols mutually confirm one another. The sacred symbols are “mere reflexes” (97) of one another and make the way people do things justifiable. Such sacred symbols:
“render the world view believable and the ethos justifiable and they do it by involving each in support of the other” (97)
The framework to perceive reality is believable in response to the ethos it has been formed from. The ethos is justifiable because the world view or framework is considered true.
One can see that in response to the above description, one of Geertz’s unique strengths (as a consequence from the study of religion) is delineating religious patterns. The belief system acts as a symbolic sacred framework through which the truth of reality is understood. The sacred symbol of belief also provides a guide for action and conduct in everyday life.
Geertz relates the sacred symbol, to the Indonesian and Moroccan Islamic cultures. In doing so Geertz reveals religious patterns and social process in both of these cultures. According to Geertz, Indonesian illuminationism portrays a reality that is “an aesthetic hierarchy culminating in a void, and projects a style of life celebrating mental poise” (98).
In contrast, Gertz portrays Moroccan maraboutism with a conception of reality as “a field of spiritual energies nucleating in persons of individual men, and it projects a lifestyle of moral passion” (98).
According to the study by Anthony F. Wallace on The Prophetic Personality, in a situation of cultural crisis, a prophet will arise to lead the human community into a revitalization movement culminating in social and religious progress. Geertz’s model of Moroccan maraboutism portrays Lyusi as the prophetic hero who arises and promotes progress in face of crisis, by means of confrontation, “strong-man politics” and the pious “virtue of a saint” (33).
In contrast, Indonesian illuminationism portrays a prophetic hero, who would be considered unmanly in Morocco. Kalidaga is the Indonesian prophet who resolves the cultural crisis of Indonesia by means of stillness. Geertz’s unique strength in the study of religion surfaces in the above examples. He shows that religion does work; that religion is a process that creates change, progress and growth, that religion modifies, to try to help make society work. In relation to the Indonesian and Moroccan culture, the sacred symbol of the prophet changed, because those types of forces were necessary to bring about progress in their specific cultures, even though both cultures were Islamic. Geertz shows a concrete example of how sacred symbol, even though changing, links religious belief (ie. the image of the prophet) to ethos (the type of action a people deem justifiable in order to achieve progress and resolution of cultural crisis).
Another of Geertz’s unique contributions to the study of religion is, understanding of religion as a pattern, an unconscious process of selection and absorption and re-working. Geertz contrasts two quite different civilizations, the Moroccan and Indonesian in terms of a micro-level of study, by means of his own experiential research. He then uses what is found in the micro-level study and applies it to the macro-level for an overall view of the process and patterns of religion–in terms of the analysis of culture and how religion grows out of and ultimately beyond that culture (94). A religious pattern according to Geertz, is a dialectic or religion transcending culture (and common sense) and vice versa. Thus, Geertz leads one to understand religion and ethos (common sense action) in terms of one another.
The Scripturalist interlude is an example of a changing pattern at work in both the Indonesian and Moroccan civilizations.
The three forces whose impact is found (during the Scripturalist interlude) in both civiliztions are “the establishment of Western domination, the increasing influence of scholastic doctrinal…scriptural Islam, and the crystallization of the activist nation-state. These three processes of cultural, social change together have changed the “old-order” Indonesia and Morocco. ‘A step backward often emerges before a leap itself is taken’ ” (69). Both civiliztions have responded to social changes by stepping back into a re-discovery of the Scripture. Scripturalism surfaces as the adaptive change of religion in response to the impact of social change. Sacred symbols once again link the new frameworks of belief and ethos. Through the altered social situation sacred symbols have transformed from:
“religious symbols of imagistic revelations of the Divine, evidences of God, to ideological assertions of the Divine’s importance, badges of piety …” (61)
This process has been common to both the Indonesian and Moroccan culture, as has been the “loss of spiritual self-confidence” (62)
As a result the attractiveness of the religions of Kalidaga and Lyusi is still present, but the certitude these traditions used to produce is not present, since social conditions have changed over time. The Islamic Scripturalist Interlude has been an attempt to re-establish the “original” religious beliefs, while simultaneously being progressive and modern (63).
The Indonesian general scripturalist movement has been mostly associated with the word santri (religious student). In Morocco it has centered around the same type of figure called a taleb. The movements were not highly organized. What became of these movements, or shift back to ‘orthodox belief’ created the new ethos of pilgrimage to Mecca, the Muslim boarding school, and the internal market system (67). These three newly adapted ways of human action became sacred symbols, linking belief to action or ethos. The Scripturalist interlude was the Islamic attempt to adapt religion in order to solve a situation of social response to:
“the industrial revolution, Western intrusion and domination, the decline of the aristocractic principle of government, and the triumph of radical nationalism” (57).
The classical religious styles, illuminationism and maraboutism, no longer have the definition they once had. Geertz shows, through his description of the Scripturalist interlude, the changing pattern of religion, as an interplay with a changing culture.
The result is described by Geertz as “radical fundamentalism and determined modernism” (69). Islam then becomes a “justification for modernity without itself actually becoming modern” (69). The new figures of spirituality surface, during the scripturalist interlude, as President Sukarno and the Sultan Muhammed V. (instead of Kalidjaga and Lyusi of classical times).
Once again, we can see the emerging pattern of the prophet leader who tries to establish order out of a cultural crisis and change. Sukarno promotes nationalism, humanitarianism, Democracy, Social Justice and Belief in God (85). Mohammed V seemed to be of genuine piety and became a popular hero, leading an independent Morocco (80). The Scripturalist Interlude reinforces Geertz’s religious perspective of religion as process.
In conclusion I have discussed a few of Geertz’s strengths in relation to the study of religion. Geertz combines phenomenology, with social historical, and anthropological approaches to the study of religion. Unique is his micro-level method of anthropological field research, applied to a macro-level understanding of the emerging patterns of religion.
Geertz has shown how religious symbols link belief with ethos and how Scripturalism has acted to further the process of religious and social change in Morocco and Indonesia. The emerging process of changing religious patterns in mutual confirmation with social change, readily coalesce with the function of religion (within any civilization) as progressive, even though passing through a series of vicissitudes.
Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed, 1968, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.