The Edge of Islam

Power, Personhood, and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast

The Edge of Islam

Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: Published: July 2009

Author: Janet McIntosh

African Studies, Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Religious Studies

In this theoretically rich exploration of ethnic and religious tensions, Janet McIntosh demonstrates how the relationship between two ethnic groups in the bustling Kenyan town of Malindi is reflected in and shaped by the different ways the two groups relate to Islam. While Swahili and Giriama peoples are historically interdependent, today Giriama find themselves literally and metaphorically on the margins, peering in at a Swahili life of greater social and economic privilege. Giriama are frustrated to find their ethnic identity disparaged and their versions of Islam sometimes rejected by Swahili.

The Edge of Islam explores themes as wide-ranging as spirit possession, divination, healing rituals, madness, symbolic pollution, ideologies of money, linguistic code-switching, and syncretism and its alternatives. McIntosh shows how the differing versions of Islam practiced by Swahili and Giriama, and their differing understandings of personhood, have figured in the growing divisions between the two groups. Her ethnographic analysis helps to explain why Giriama view Islam, a supposedly universal religion, as belonging more deeply to certain ethnic groups than to others; why Giriama use Islam in their rituals despite the fact that so many do not consider the religion their own; and how Giriama appropriations of Islam subtly reinforce a distance between the religion and themselves. The Edge of Islam advances understanding of ethnic essentialism, religious plurality, spirit possession, local conceptions of personhood, and the many meanings of “Islam” across cultures.


“. . . The Edge of Islam provides a vivid case study that helps to understand the powers of ethnicity and socioeconomic inequality in the shaping of religious practice.” — Marloes Janson, American Ethnologist

The Edge of Islam offers rare appreciation of the ways Islam, as a faith and practice, coheres across deeply fraught ethnic boundaries that inform the daily lives of Swahili and Giriama communities. . . . The Edge of Islam deftly navigates questions of Islamic authority, including distinctions between scripturalism and bodily practice, virtuous inwardness and pragmatic communalism, rationalism and madness.”
— Flagg Miller, American Anthropologist

“[A] profound ethnographic analysis of the difficulties related to ethno-religious coexistence. . . .” — Felix J. Phiri, Culture and Religion

“This is a very good book, which I would strongly recommend, offering an effective and constructive critique of existing scholarship and a sobering insight into tensions which are very real and current" — Justin Willis, Journal of Islamic Studies

"[A book with] rich and wide-ranging ethnographic knowledge [and] sophisticated theoretical ambitions. . . provocative and analytically rigorous." — Simon Hawkins, Journal of Religion in Africa

"[A] highly welcome contribution. This innovative and invigorating book provides invaluable insights to the highly complex interplay between religion and ethnicity." — Terje Østebø, African Studies Quarterly

"[A]n exhilarating ethnography. . . [which] reconfigures our understanding of Islam on the Swahili coast.” — Kate Kingsford, African Affairs

"The 2010 winner of the Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion was The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood, and Ethno-religious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast . . . a sophisticated and highly accessible analysis [that] infuses fresh insight into such well-worn concepts as hegemony, ideology, syncretism and personhood, while at the same time rethinks questions relating to conversion, possession, and the margins of Islam. . . . Commented one member of the jury, McIntosh was the most subtle and engaging study of the entanglements of categories of ethnic and religious identifications that I've read. . . . Clifford Geertz would have approved of this choice for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it is written in such elegant but straightforward prose." — Sue Kenyon, Anthropology News

“[A] sophisticated discussion of theories of spirit possession, identity, ethnicity, hegemony and ideology. . . . The book is beautifully written in a precise, clear and engaging style, and is of importance for anthropologists and political scientists as well as for students of religion.” — Kevin Ward, Leeds African Studies Bulletin

“[M]ethodologically innovative, provocative, and timely. . . . [E]nables an analytical reconsideration of African religions beyond the shopworn notion of syncretism. [This] work will contribute meaningfully to a critical reshaping of our understanding of Islam’s capacity (or lack thereof) to accommodate pluralism and fluidity in different regional, social, and political contexts."
— Michelle Moyd, Africa Today

“It is extremely hard to do justice to this remarkable book, which is filled with excellent analysis and narratives.” — Cynthia Brantley, African Studies Review

“Janet McIntosh's The Edge of Islam is one of the very best ethnographies of East Africa to emerge in the past ten years. . . . [T]hought-provoking, interesting, and original.” — James Smith, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“McIntosh’s account has a sharpness of focus and forcefulness of approach that is an improvement over much that has been published on religion andvalues in this area. . . . [T]his is a book well worth reading. . . . [An] excellent study, a valuable contribution to our understanding of the East African coast.” — T. O. Beidelman, Anthropos

“Very original…very skillful…likely to inspire many other anthropologists working on religion, [and] a ‘must read’ for anthropologists of religion in Africa.” — Ramon Sarro, Islamic Africa

The Edge of Islam is an in-depth and nicely written ethnography about Giriama and Swahili ethnic groups and their identification with Islam. It is rare to find a study like this conducted in one site, over a rather long period of time by a researcher who understands the languages of the different ethnic groups and socialises more or less to an equal extent with informants from both groups. . . .  She successfully analyses how social divisions are created between two ethnic groups. This is a great book to read for anybody who is interested in the East African Coast, in the Swahili and Giriama ethnic groups, in the anthropology of Islam and religion in general but also for scholars interested in linguistic anthropology." — Sandra Staudacher, Allegra Lab

"The Edge of Islam is a well researched anthropological book. It has a wealth of information on the relationship between the Giriama and Swahili ethnic groups of Malindi. This book provides important ground information for our understanding of underlying issues affecting the political, social and economic development of not only Malindi but the entire Kenyan Coast."  — A.M.Karugu, Journal of Third World Studies

"In all, this is a penetrating investigation into processes of social division that...has a compelling urgency. The elaboration of connections between personhood, on the one hand, and group boundaries, on the other, makes for a telling contribution with implications that reach far beyond the Kenyan coast." — Tom Boylston, Religion in Society

The Edge of Islam is a very significant contribution to the anthropology of religion and ethnicity in an area of East Africa that is quite under-represented in the literature, given how enormously important Swahili society is to all of East African, and global, history. The literature on ethnicity is desperate for a work like this.” — Brad Weiss, author of Street Dreams and Hip Hop Barbershops: Global Fantasy in Urban Tanzania

“A fascinating account of the rewards and costs of Muslim identity for a multiethnic African community. The Edge of Islam will be of great use in Ethnic Studies, Linguistic Anthropology, Islamic Studies, African Studies, and Religious Studies, especially insofar as it challenges top-heavy studies of Muslim reform with insights into ritual performance, personhood, and language. With attention to the shifting stakes of modern religious affiliation, Janet McIntosh provides a fresh account of the power of ethnicity and economic inequality to shape religious practice.” — Flagg Miller, Religious Studies, University of California, Davis

“An impeccable study. It is work of the highest order, a meticulous analysis, and a mine of insights and information that will serve generations to come.” — David Parkin, University of Oxford


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Janet McIntosh is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Note on Language xiii

Introduction. The Edge of Islam 1

1. Origin Stories: The Rise of Ethnic Boundaries on the Coast 45

2. Blood Money in Motion: Profit, Personhood, and the Jini Narratives 89

3. Toxic Bodies and Intentional Minds: Hegemony and Ideology in Giriama Conversion Experiences 127

4. Rethinking Syncretism: Religious Pluralism and Code Choice in a Context of Ethnoreligious Tension 177

5. Divination and Madness: The Powers and Dangers of Arabic 221

Epilogue 257

Notes 263

Bibliography 289

Index 313
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Winner, 2010 Clifford Geertz Prize in the Anthropology of Religion, presented by the Society for the Anthropology of Religion section of the AAA

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4509-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4496-4
Publicity material