Between Muslims
Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan
J. Andrew Bush




Islamic Traditions, Ordinary Relationships, and a Paradox

CONSIDER THESE THREE CLAIMS: NOTHING CAN BE TAKEN FOR granted about how Muslims relate to Islamic traditions. Many Muslims aspire to be the best Muslims they can be, and they seek to live out Islam in the best way they can. Yet many forgo the effort to become pious Muslims. In doing so, they do not cease to be Muslims. Some may suppose that these Muslims are therefore secular rather than religious. But that opposition fails to describe their religious orientations. Descriptions of the relationships they share with other Muslims, however, reveal the dynamism of their orientations to Islam.

These claims set out the paradox that this book seeks to describe in the lives of Muslims who turn away from piety yet remain within Islam, but the book does not seek to resolve or explain away the paradox. Description here means to examine the ways that the paradox comes to thrive, to discover the conditions that allow it to come about, and to forge—or borrow—a language for talking about it. In this sense, even though these three claims rely on evidence and a form of analytical reasoning, they are just a beginning.

The claims result from three years of ethnographic and archival research I conducted in the Kurdistan region of Iraq between 2004 and 2013. The research took shape through a project of further archival research, writing, and rewriting that has expanded across another six years. The following chapters present evidence by connecting small details of everyday life in Kurdistan to the large questions of Islam and secularism that connect Kurdistan to the region and the world. The evidence alternates between ethnographic accounts of the everyday lives of Muslims who turn away from pious striving and analytical accounts of the discourses of Sufism and Islamism in Kurdistan.

While many conventions of anthropological writing suggest that ethnography should begin with anecdotal evidence that presents a puzzle to be solved, this Introduction takes a different path. It describes the methods that guided my fieldwork and my writing, and it introduces both the broader context in which the evidence of my fieldwork appeared and the “me” to whom that evidence appeared. Its goal is to cultivate a sense of curiosity and even uncertainty about what might count as evidence for these claims. The chapters that follow examine how Iraqi Kurdish Muslims themselves account for the role of claims, descriptions, evidence, and experience in their relations to Islamic traditions. In the Epilogue, I return to the question of how claims relate to lived experience.


First, I must clarify a few things about the claims presented earlier. What does it mean that a Muslim forgoes the effort to become a pious Muslim? Islam provides a wide range of disciplines, practices, and institutions by which Muslims can bring virtue to their souls and their lives. Most famously in the anthropology of Islam, these include an ongoing engagement with the founding texts of the Islamic tradition, the Quran and the hadith—the speech events attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Many Muslims regard the Quran as flawless and eternal and the hadith as companion texts that are authoritative insofar as they have been accurately preserved. Those texts prescribe practices such as prayer and fasting as two of the pillars on which to build a Muslim life in a community of Muslims. Building such a life requires ongoing striving. Even if Muslims do not arrive at perfection, the aspiration to move ever closer to the model of the Prophet’s life is widespread.1 This aspiration is a kernel from which grow many different ways of life and many kinds of piety. The terms “pious Muslims” or “proper Muslims” thus describe those who express one from a wide range of aspirations to be a “good Muslim.”

Of course, not all Muslims share that aspiration. Many do not pray or fast as required. They do not seek to inculcate the texts into their hearts and lives and do not describe their moral lives as an effort to resemble the Prophet. They forgo piety, pass it up, or turn away from it.

There are at least three ways to describe that turning, which correspond to different (if not always discrete) orientations toward Islam. One is that they regret it and wish that they could strive more diligently. This orientation could appear in expressions such as, “I know I should pray, I would like to pray, but I cannot manage.” I heard similar expressions from a young man who was plagued with intellectual doubts about his faith in 2008. Although he intensely felt the inability to pray, he still considered it a temporary state that he sought to overcome. An expression of that type is the beginning of repentance: it acknowledges that this is the way to become a good person and keeps the goal before one’s eyes and the path beneath one’s feet.2

A second way to describe a turn away from piety is to suggest that the practice is only contingently, or superficially, related to the true goal of piety. This could appear in expressions such as, “True prayer is that one always be conscious of divinity; ritual prayer is just a formality.” It could also appear when Muslims do not fast during Ramadan but insist that they want to cultivate a virtuous attitude toward the suffering of the poor (which is often described as one goal of fasting) in the rest of their life. I heard a similar expression during an interview with a poet who described his own practice of fasting: sometimes when there are only a few minutes left before the end of the fast, he decides to drink a cup of tea. According to many Muslim scholars in Kurdistan, that would mean that the entire day of fasting was invalidated and he would have to make it up later in the year. Yet the poet did not plan to make it up. He saw himself as fulfilling the higher purpose of ritual activity and did not expect to endure God’s wrath for his choice. That kind of orientation is the beginning of reform: it takes the goal provided by the Islamic tradition as given and seeks to transform the path to get there.

Those two orientations are quite different, but they are both examples of a pietistic orientation to Islam. Such orientations have been the subject of most studies of Islam in anthropology, religion, and history. Those studies demonstrate that piety is not a single thing but a moral aspiration that varies in different contexts. The scholarly focus on pietistic orientations is salutary since they are crucial components of ethical life for all Muslims.

However, this book is concerned with a third kind of orientation to explain why one may not seek to pray, fast, or absorb the Quran. “I have never had the feeling that ‘right now, I should go pray.’” This expression belongs to one of my interlocutors in Kurdistan whose life I explore at length in Chapter 5. It is typical of an orientation to Islamic traditions that has received too little attention. It acknowledges that Islam provides a goal and a path for moral striving, but it does not explicitly take up that goal or path. It does not deny that Islam requires prayer but simply admits to habitually not praying.3 The expression takes up the paradoxical posture of turning away from the path to piety laid out in Islamic traditions but without departing from Islam altogether. These expressions belong to Muslims who do not definitively claim to be non-Muslims—either atheists or adherents of another path such as Christianity or Zoroastrianism. They may insist that they have still have faith (îman), or they may be ambivalent about faith, but they are not ambivalent about turning away from piety. They are Muslims, but they do not aspire to the path of moral reform that they consider Islam to lay out for them. In this condition, to simply acknowledge that they remain Muslim does not describe much about their ethical orientation to Islam or to other Muslims.

I use the term “orientation” throughout the book to accommodate the multifarious and dynamic dimensions of how individual Muslims relate to Islamic traditions. Discussions of belief, faith, practice, participation, and identity often have to fight against the tendency to think of those concepts as static or binary. (Thus, one is or is not a Muslim, one has or does not have faith, one believes or one doubts, or one practices or does not practice.) Rather than argue against those binaries, I use “orientation” to describe how individuals relate to a tradition by referring to some of these concepts and by putting those concepts in motion in their everyday lives in relation to others. Thus, “turning away from piety” is a distinctive orientation to Islam that cannot be reduced to propositional claims about an individual’s faith, belief, or practice.

From a certain normative view of Islam, found in a range of texts reaching across centuries of historical change in Kurdistan, including speculative theology, law, and epistolary correspondence of religious scholars, such an orientation can be considered an abandonment of Islam altogether. By turning away from the forms of moral striving that Islamic traditions offer, Muslims turn away from Islam itself and even from the effort to become good people. Some of those texts make dramatic prescriptions for addressing such Muslims: they should know that they stand in danger of being executed for apostasy; they should not be allowed to contract marriages or inherit from relatives; if they die in that state, they should not be buried in a Muslim cemetery; above all, perhaps, they should know that they are preparing themselves for the fire after death and squandering their chance at paradise. I heard such views on a daily basis in Kurdistan.

Yet this view does not determine the course of social life, for alongside it stands another normative view that Muslims who turn away from piety should be invited to return. They should be shown kindness, mercy, and patience in the hope that they discover an aspiration to become pious. This view can also summon an impressive array of texts, including the Quran, hadith, and texts in law and poetry, to support itself.4 Even more important for the purposes of this study, it also has the authority of being embodied in a set of relations in which being a proper Muslim means demonstrating kindness to not-so-proper Muslims. I witnessed this on a daily basis in Kurdistan, where pious Muslims engaged other, not especially pious, Muslims in a spirit of kindness and generosity.

Thus, at least two norms compete with one another within Islam concerning how one should respond to Muslims who turn away from piety.5 As a number of scholars have pointed out, Islam is not only a single normative view of the world, life, ethics, or the cosmos (even if some regard it that way). It is rather a field of debate, competition, ongoing struggle, contestation, and experimentation. What Islam looks like in the life of a Muslim who turns away from piety cannot be known in advance by reference to any text, doctrine, or even the precedent of practice. Rather than a given, one’s relationship to those texts, and to Islam writ large, is an open question to which Muslims respond in many different contexts.

The competition of norms takes place within the big picture of public debate about Islam, as well as in the relationships that make up everyday life. The three orientations described previously often intersect one another in the lives of friends, family, neighbors, and the intimacy of strangers that crops up in public space. While some families are renowned for their piety, most pious families have a few members who break the mold. Conversely, in families where religion may seem to be absent, there are often some who become devout. In the encounters at school, teashops, corner stores, bakeries, cafés, and other public spaces through which Iraqi Kurds pass on a daily basis, they meet Muslims of different orientations. These meetings also make up a kind of relationship. “Relationship” is a broad, inclusive term as it appears in this book. It indicates a broad field on which different religious orientations—and different norms in approaching those orientations—are played out in diverse ways. In relationships between Muslims, religious orientations are sometimes the object of explicit verbal debate and disagreement, but they are also frequently worked out at the level of affective dispositions, subtle gestures, implications, and unstated assumptions.6

Many studies of Islam approach the work of moral striving by examining the range of what Muslims call “Islamic” practices. This approach opens up a field of practice that is rich with debate, contradiction, and paradox. Scholars have asked how practices that may appear to some as un-Islamic or non-Islamic become an integral part of an Islamic tradition. Topics such as spirit possession, which many observers consider self-evidently “un-Islamic,” have been fruitful sites to inquire how it is that practices of citation and disputation subject a broad range of practices to the authority of Islamic traditions.7 However, to date there are no book-length studies of Muslims who do not reject their Muslim identity or whose Muslim identity is not stripped from them but do not try to describe their ethical lives as pious.8 This book explores that religious orientation as it appears in the lives of Kurdish Muslims in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

This religious orientation is above all dynamic. Muslims who turn away from piety may nonetheless find themselves attracted to the lives or practices of pious Muslims—either prominent figures such as poets and saints or ordinary people such as kin and neighbors. Furthermore, this orientation is dynamic because many Muslims who turn away from piety do so after many years of pious commitment, and many Muslims who give up on piety at one stage in life may return to it later. Yet to insist that turning away from piety is only an exception within a broadly consistent pattern of Muslim piety or that the teleology of Muslim ethics ensures that Muslims remain oriented to piety as the inevitable end to a dramatic story is to ignore the paradox sketched out here: Without rejecting Islam, many Muslims do turn away from piety and sustain relations with other (pious) Muslims while doing so.

The religious orientation of Muslims who turn away from piety is internal to Islamic traditions in the sense that it cannot simply be attributed solely to non-Islamic influences. But it is not therefore separable from non-Islamic influences. Since its inception, Islam has been deeply engaged with other religious traditions, including Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. More recently, “secularism” emerged as a new approach to governing religious difference. Secularism emerged from Europe alongside the formation of the modern state and in the midst of a colonial effort to govern populations beyond Europe. It now sets the predominant normative framework for thinking about politics anywhere.

This leads to the terms of the second claim mentioned earlier. Some may find it easy to describe those who turn away from piety as secular and attribute their attitude to the rise of secularism. The problem is not that this description is wrong. The term “secular” has been absorbed in the common vocabulary of all the languages that converge in this book: English, Kurdish, Persian, and Arabic. Kurdish borrows the Arabic neologism ’almaniyya, which is used in different ways in ordinary conversation. It can refer to a political party in which the secular parties may (or may not) be opposed to the Islamist parties; to a high order of political theory in which the state seeks to confine religion to private life and exclude religion from the public life of politics; to another kind of political theory in which the state seeks to give equal voice to all religions in public space; and to a person who is not pious or is even an atheist.9

Yet describing those who turn away from piety as secular is not precise, accurate, or informative. It is not precise because it confuses historical conditions and personal dispositions rather than interrogates the linkage between them. It is not accurate because many Muslims practice piety in private life and remain firmly committed to a secular ethos in public debate. And it is not informative if it is taken at face value and not grounded in an account of the world in which it makes sense.10

This book provides an account of how that religious orientation appears in everyday life, when broad histories of religious discourse converge or diverge in ordinary relationships. It seeks to describe the world in which this religious orientation makes sense. Having a single Kurdish concept or key term might have made the work much easier (at least at first). If it were possible to make this book an elucidation of a fully formed or emergent concept, the analytical task might be more straightforward. But Kurdish offers a shifting set of terms whose denotation and connotation can differ dramatically, referring to different things and evoking different sensibilities.

One example is the term bêdîn. This word combines a negating prefix bê- with the complex term dîn—which can denote religion, Islam, a moral path, and/or Judgment Day. A literal English translation of bêdîn is “nonreligious” or “irreligious.” But usage of the term varies widely in Kurdish. It can be used with the connotation of condemnation, for example, of someone who appears to behave toward others in a consistently vicious way, without any moral sensibility at all. It can also be used much more lightly to describe someone who does not practice religion (interestingly, either Islam, Christianity, or other religions). It could describe a self-declared atheist who claims to reject religion altogether, who is also called a mulhîd. Or it can describe someone who claims to be religious in speech but behaves differently—a hypocrite or munafîq. As if these variations were not enough, the term appears in poetic discourse as the condition of lovestruck poets whose passion for their beloved has so consumed them that their commitment to dîn has been completely plundered or looted. Thus, bêdîn is flexible, appearing sometimes as an insult, sometimes as a disavowal, sometimes as a simple descriptor, sometimes as literary hyperbole. As this book is not specifically about hypocrites, atheists, or insults—although it touches on each—it is also not specifically about being bêdîn. To fulfill the descriptive task of this book, one cannot simply identify a local term and have its subject immediately clarified.

The book seeks to describe a religious orientation for which there is no readymade name or category of thought. The kind of religious orientation it seeks to describe is not a process of change or a consequence of a historical event or social movement. It is not visible in a pattern of rituals or defined in a collection of texts. It is not a theological category, nor is it an object of state governance. In comparison to those subjects, the religious orientation described here is an analytically unstable subject. The phrase “turning away from piety” is not a stable object but a placeholder in English for a dynamic, distinctive orientation to Islamic traditions.

Even if this religious orientation is unstable, it is not unreal. It simply requires a different approach, a different manner of description, a different way of coming to understand what precisely it is. This book approaches religious orientation from the perspective of ordinary relations. Its approach is to write from ordinary relations to demonstrate how Kurdish Muslims themselves encounter different orientations to piety in Islamic traditions. But what are ordinary relations? And how does one write from them?


1. For an extended account of “aspiration” in Muslim ethical life, see Naveeda Khan, Muslim Becoming, especially 21–54, 203–207.

2. Indeed, such moments of reflexivity about an inability to pray may occur not only within a life span but also within the few minutes of a prayer itself, as practitioners gain or lose concentration. See Haeri, “Private Performance of Salat Prayers.”

3. According to Marion Katz, most medieval Muslim scholars recognized that prayer was an obligation for all Muslims and regarded this as an immutable article of faith. At the same time, they recognized that many Muslims did not conduct their prayers. While publicly denying the fact that it was an article of faith could solicit condemnation, simple indifference toward the performance of the prayer was a commonly accepted fact. See Katz, Prayer in Islamic Thought and Practice, 162–172.

4. See Katz, 162–172; and Friedmann, Tolerance and Coercion in Islam, 121–159.

5. Some may insist that these two norms are not entirely irreconcilable. Others may insist that there are other established modes of responding to Muslims who turn away from piety. Yet others may point out that one may combine elements from each to find a distinctive path between them. All of these points underline the argument in this paragraph that the presence of multiple norms requires debate, contestation, and interpretation.

6. In this sense, “religion” is like “secularism.” Both are traditions of debate and contestation that equip humans with inclinations or tendencies to not merely make a claim in a debate but also to respond to the speech of others with pleasure, disgust, anger, or anxiety. On the relation between thought and affect generally, see Connolly, Neuropolitics; on secularism, see Connolly, Why I Am Not a Secularist; Asad, Formations of the Secular; and Hirschkind, “Is There a Secular Body?”

7. On spirit possession, see especially Boddy, Wombs and Alien Spirits; and Bowen, Muslims Through Discourse.

8. See Schielke, “Being Good in Ramadan.” For an account the different phenomena of “ex-Muslims,” see Cottee, The Apostates.

9. See Bush, “The Politics of Poetry,” 197–203.

10. Gregory Starrett stated this point clearly: “Secularism is ultimately a normative concept, and we make a mistake if we treat it as an analytical one. . . . The use of ‘the secular’ as an analytical concept retains only the ability to minimize the complexity of real lives, to obscure our understanding of contemporary history . . . and to mislead us into thinking that we might someday experience the luxury of escaping from our interpretive rivals.” See Starrett, “The Varieties of Secular Experience,” 648, 649.