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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Book Review: Between Muslims: Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan

Between Muslims: Religious Difference in Iraqi Kurdistan is an ethnography written by Andrew Bush. It is based on three years of ethnographic and archival research in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Pulling from this research, the book argues that many Muslims choose to turn away from piety, but in doing so, they do not turn away from Islam in general nor from other pious Muslims. Instead, they find other ways of orienting themselves to Islam. It is these different orientations that the author explores through the lens of ordinary life and experiences. Ultimately, Between Muslims is an approachable and thorough account of the experiences of Iraqi Kurds that speaks to important issues in the study of Islam and the Middle East.

The book includes an introduction, five core content chapters, and an epilogue addressed to readers. The introduction begins with Bush laying out his three central claims of the book. He argues that many Muslims turn away from piety but remain Muslim and that one way to explore their relationship with Islam is through their relationships. He then provides a brief background and context for his work. He first explains what he means by turning away from piety and different orientations to Islam. From there, he describes how his book will contribute to larger discussions by exploring a different kind of religious orientation and how religious orientation is present in everyday life. Following this, Bush discusses his choice of using ordinary relationships. He then discusses Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish people, and Islamic traditions to provide context for his work. The introduction provides a thorough background for the book and addresses various counterarguments. In doing so, the introduction gives readers an understanding of where the book is grounded theoretically and how it will contribute to current scholarship in meaningful ways.

From there, Bush moves into his five core content chapters. Each of the content chapters is divided between ethnographic accounts focused on individual interlocutors and analysis of poetry and religious discourse. Chapter One is focused on Pexshan, an older Kurdish woman. In this chapter, Bush explores Pexshan’s orientation to Islam while discussing Talal Asad’s notion of Islam as a “discursive tradition.” He does this by examining her relationship with Islamic texts and piety through relationships with others and her experience during Ramadan. The chapter transitions to the next by introducing poetry as a valuable tool for exploring orientations to Islam.

In Chapter Two, Bush turns to focus on poetry, specifically Kurdish poetry. The chapter provides a historical overview of Kurdish poetry and focuses on the relationship between the lover and beloved that is often present in poems. Here Bush focuses on the beloved and how they were often depicted as kafirs or nonbelievers in early nineteenth-century poetry. Bush then goes on to explain how poetry has changed in Kurdistan alongside political circumstances. This chapter provides essential historical context as well as an interesting comparison between differences among different religions and differences among Muslims.

Chapter three shifts back to focusing on one of Bush’s interlocutors, Newzad, and connects this to the previous chapter by building on the discussion of religious difference. He builds on this by looking at how ordinary relationships are impacted by religious differences among Muslims as well as between Muslims and Christians. Bush does this by exploring Newzad’s ordinary relationships with his wife and brother-in-law. In this chapter, Bush also highlights poetry and refers back to the concept of the beloved. He does so as Newzad himself explores poetry to make sense of his own experience with piety and religious difference.

In Chapter Four, Bush discusses Islamic political parties and Islamism in Kurdistan by focusing on Mela Krekar. In particular, Bush examines sermons and interviews with Krekar to show how he calls his followers to focus on their ordinary relationships as they turn towards Islamism. Bush also focuses on Krekar’s focus on Islam in the family, which transitions to his next chapter. In the final content chapter of the book, Bush explores turning away from piety within the context of the family. This chapter explores what happens when different orientations of Islam are present in one household. In particular, it focuses on the experiences of the father, Shadman, who is not pious, while the rest of his family is. This chapter contributes to the overall book by providing a view of how one non-pious Muslim navigates ordinary relationships every day with Muslims who orient themselves differently to Islam. Finally, in the book’s epilogue, Bush addresses the reader directly. He implores readers to explore their own everyday experiences and ordinary relationships to find connections between themselves and the interlocutors in the book.

Overall, the strength of this book lies in the way it approaches important topics in an accessible manner. For example, the book explores Muslims who actively turn away from piety. In doing so, this book addresses an often-overlooked group of Muslims, those that are non-pious. It provides interesting insight into religion without focusing on devout and pious practitioners. This exploration allows this book to make important contributions to the study of piety and religion by moving beyond religious people as only pious people.

Another strength is the way it examines the experience of these Muslims through ordinary encounters and daily life. This provides a unique lens to explore religious experience and again moves beyond the typical exploration of religion through typical religious practices. It also makes the book relatable and relational with the readers, which seems to be something Andrew Bush is attempting to do, as he discusses in the epilogue. The use of both encounters with interlocutors and poetry as evidence is another strength of the book. It allows readers to understand the claims Bush makes through two different mediums. It also makes the book more approachable because readers can relate to and understand it through interlocutors or poetry. Further, it contributes to the growing field of scholarship that explores the relationship between poetry, religion, and piety.

Lastly, an additional strength of this book is how it contributes to the literature on Iraqi Kurdistan. Much of the current literature on Iraqi Kurdistan focuses on politics and nationalism and neglects the individual experience, particularly the individual experience with religion. In contrast, this book adds to this by looking at ordinary Iraqi Kurds’ lives and focusing on religion instead of politics.

The book has some things that could be improved. One weakness is that although Bush provides some background throughout the book and it is very approachable, readers are likely unable to fully understand the book without some background knowledge. Another weakness that Bush does briefly address is that there are very few voices highlighted in the book, which may limit the conclusions that can be drawn. Lastly, Bush uses the lens of ordinary relationships to make his argument, but the book does not fully explain the theorization of the concept of ordinary relationships. This can make it hard for readers to fully understand why this is a helpful lens and why Bush chose it.

Despite these weaknesses, this book is an excellent choice for various audiences. People interested in ethnography, the Middle East, religion, piety, and poetry find this book engaging and informative. Overall, the book provides essential insight into Islam and particular different non-pious orientations to Islam in a very approachable and engaging way.