The Introduction identifies the paradox at the heart of the book: that many Muslims turn away from the pursuit of piety while continuing to engage pious Muslims and continuing to regard themselves as Muslims. It describes the sociopolitical context of ethnographic fieldwork in Iraqi Kurdistan, including the general contours of Kurdish nationalism, Islamist movements, and Iraq following the US-led invasion of 2003. It also provides an overview of the institution of the hucre (madrasa) in Kurdistan. Finally, this chapter introduces the author of book, an American anthropologist known as a Christian in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The definitive texts of Islamic tradition are the Quran and the hadith. Chapter 1 examines how those texts appear in the experience of a woman who encounters them through explicit pedagogies of instruction and events of public audition. This chapter also addresses the practices of prayer and fasting that form a primary nexus through which Kurdish Muslims relate to Islamic traditions as well as major events from early Islamic history that are a routine matter of contest in everyday conversations about Islam. It argues that the notion of Islam as a "discursive tradition" is expansive enough to accommodate accounts of Muslims who turn away from piety. In the search for a mode of description for this woman's relationship to Islamic traditions, the chapter closes with the evocation of poetry as a language for describing paradoxical orientations to Islamic traditions.
Chapter 2 investigates major themes from the texts of Sorani Kurdish poetry between the early nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. It foregrounds the relationship between the Muslim poet as "lover" and the figure of the beloved who is commonly a kafir—either a Muslim apostate, Christian, Jew, or Zoroastrian. The chapter tracks the changes in the imagination of gender in the relation between lover and beloved and examines how those changes relate to political developments such as British colonialism, the increasing incursion of foreign non-Muslims, and Kurdish nationalism. It argues that while a Muslim poet's attraction to kufir or non-Islamic traditions was integral to the Sufi vision of Muslim piety in classical Kurdish poetry, in the early twentieth century the figure of the kafir is more widely condemned, as it is associated with colonizers or traitors to the national cause.
Chapter 3 shows how Sufi ideas about the relation between lover and beloved are transformed when absorbed by ordinary relationships beyond distinctly Sufi contexts. It reports conversations with a Kurdish Muslim man who engaged Kurdish poetry and the Quran and thought about figures of early Islamic history in his everyday life. It shows how ordinary relationships absorb and transform the broad discourses of religious difference between Muslims and Christians and between Sunni and Shi'i Muslims. It examines the tensions that appear around the idea of "companionate marriage" as promoted by Iraqi state reforms. Finally, it introduces the fragments of discourse from Islamist movements that appear in ordinary relationships of a Kurdish Muslim man who contemplates the intertwining of love, marriage, friendship, and local politics.
Chapter 4 explores the project of transforming ordinary relationships as it was proposed by a prominent leader of an Islamist movement in Kurdistan: Necmedîn Ferec Ehmed, known as Mela Krêkar. By examining his sermons and interviews available as digital files on the internet, the chapter demonstrates how his call for radical transformation was an effort to purge ordinary relationships of the influences of non-Muslim imperialism, modern states, and political parties—including divisions between public and private space. If the study of Islamist movements in the Middle East has commonly assumed that the goal of those movements is to capture and transform state institutions, Mela Krêkar's project shows how transformative ordinary relations can be.
Chapter 5 investigates the relationships between a father who turns away from piety and his more pious family members. This kind of religious difference sets the stage for potential conflicts. Yet if the study of religious difference has commonly taken public acts of violence as its point of departure, this chapter asks how pleasure and enjoyment can be understood to facilitate ordinary relationships when different orientations to Islamic traditions meet in a single household. The chapter argues that beyond explicit claims, sometimes silent gestures or modes of description are important for sustaining relationships. Thus, the problem of how to describe a Muslim's relation to Islamic traditions is a problem not only that anthropologists face but also that Kurdish Muslims engage in everyday life.
If the ethnography of Muslim societies is commonly addressed to readers who are imagined as independently reasoning, autonomous, secular, and liberal, then the Epilogue articulates the effort in this book to address slightly different readers. The reader addressed by this book may have or even celebrate many of those features. But the reader of this book may also foreground other features of themselves. Readers may be as relational, as religious, or as orthogonally related to ideas of secularism and liberalism as are the Kurdish Muslims whom the book describes. The Epilogue explores this mode of addressing the audience of ethnography.