Researchers and Resources:

Short Commentaries on Listening to Emic and Etic Voices

Thom Wolf, PhD
Professor, Global Studies 
University Institute, New Delhi

Thom Wolf, PhD, is professor, global studies, University Institute, New Delhi;  and adjunct professor, global leadership, Andrews University, USA (; Dr Thom is a life member, Indian Sociological Society, a sustaining fellow, Society for Applied Anthropology;

Since a 1987 conference on Lantao Island at the mouth of the Pearl River in Hong Kong that focused on the London ceding of Hong Kong to Beijing, the shape of life in the 21st century has been part of my thinking, research and writing. To me, both Huntington (1996]2011) and Senghaas (2002) boded pointedly to the 21st century’s clash of civilizations and the clash within civilizations. And both grapple with what I reference as the crucial question of the 21st century: what is the best way to live life on this planet?  

Conrad Kottak’s emic|etic voices have, for some time, helped me, in his words, to “identify, assess”, and work toward “solv[ing] contemporary problems” (Kottak 2017). Three researchers have recently introduced me to a range of voices within and without cultures, and across history: Jared Rubin, Ahmet Kuru, and Daniel Philpott. 


Jared RubinRulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West got Rich and the Middle East Did Not (Cambridge 2017), is clear: “This book has implications for what promises to be one of the most enduring stories of the 21st century: the role of Islam in politics and economics (21). Rubin pursues the theme of “legitimation in Islam and Christianity” (49).

 His contention is that Muslim Middle East (49-58, 227, 228) and Christian Western Europe (52-54, 62-70, 227), “particularly Protestant Europe” (140-141, 228-229), followed “divergent paths” of legitimations (48-49). The West pursued “correct elements” for economic prosperity; the Rest “lagged behind” because of following “incorrect elements” (200). “In other words, differences in legitimizing arrangements in early Christianity and Islam had long-run, path-dependent effects on eventual economic outcomes” (141, italics by author).” The three different constants are: the legitimizers from the “unique birth circumstances” created by Jesus and Muhammad, the divergent path-dependent capacities of Christianity and Islam to legitimize rule, and the resultant legitimate societies and economies. Four case studies are given: Two “success” regions – Protestant England and Netherlands (149-168); and two  “stagnation” regions – Catholic Spain and the Ottoman Empire (169-200). 

Rubin posits five helps to turn Islamic political rule towards economic success (202). And he records that the frank emic reformer voices of Indian Muhammad Iqbal, Turk Felicitas Opwis, and Iranian Ali Shari’ati long for “an Islamic Protestantism” (145-148).

Ammet KuruIslam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison (Cambridge 2019) gives an unsurpassed summary of the merchant philosophers of the 690-150 ce Pax Islamia, noting that 72.5% of that era’s “Islamic scholars…worked in commerce and/or industry”, covering Abu Hanifa, and Shaybani, as well as Jahiz, Dimashqu, and Ibn Sina (80-84). 

Etic Ernest Renan (1883) and emic Ibn Khaldun (1377) are drawn on to discuss the “remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars both in the religious and in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs” (84-87). 

Such are the rich hinterlands of Kuru. His particular focus, however, is on three contemporary problems – violence, authoritarianism, and underdevelopment – “which have constituted a vicious circle in the Muslim world (230).” 

Daniel PhilpottReligious Freedom in Islam: The Fate of a Universal Human Right in the Muslim World Today (Oxford 2019) eventually concludes that “[i]f Islam is capable of religious freedom…it also remains the case that Islam contains a dearth of religious freedom (233).” Philpott sees “seven seeds of freedom” that might be nurtured to grow a better garden of religious freedom (177-205), and offers five recommendations for realizing religious freedom globally in Islam (228-241). Based from New Delhi from 2001 to 2015 and researching emic government, intellectual, community, and family voices in South Asia, Central and West Asia, and Gulf States, I have found their hope-temperatures not as high as Philpott’s. 

The on-the-ground situations are rather stark (45-176). And while Philpott notes that “Muslims may persuade non-Muslims to convert to Islam” he fails to clarify what locals in sessions have emphasized to me across the Muslim world: Non-Muslims are not permitted to persuade Muslims to convert out of Islam. 

Nevertheless, RFII is an intellectually prodding and empathetic documentation that “on average, Muslim-majority states are considerably less religiously free than both Christian-majority states and the rest of the world… [and] that the largest category of unfree Muslim-majority states is religiously repressive, governed by a political theology of Islam (233).” 


Has anyone found a better model of the global emic|etic dialogue between generations and between differing worldviews than Joshua Mitchell, Georgetown University with his Muslim and American students in Qatar? Mitchell, Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age (Chicago 2013) is without peer as teacher exemplar. 

For discerning the mind of the Islamic State (DASH, ISSIS), I have found two emic resources I am still processing: German awardee of the Goethe Award and the Georg Büchner Prize, Martin Mosebach, The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs (Walden 2019); and on Netflix, Black Crows (TV series, Arabic with English subtitles, 30 Episodes 2017). It will be a haunting, almost horrid, but emic-voiced assignment for any class syllabus you can work it into.

When Saudi Arabian satellite broadcaster MBC (the largest private broadcaster in North Africa and the Middle East) “launched a nightly television series called Black Crows during the holy month of Ramadan, depicting daily life under ISIS in the Syrian city of Raqqa, …the show’s actors and crew… received death threats from ISSIS (” Details can be garnered from MBC program director, Ali Jaber, on US NPR and the Arab press website Sabq.

In short, Black Crows (30 episodes) – a portrayal of the lives of male and female recruits, undercover spies, child snipers, slaves, and leaders in an ISSIS cell – is a cultural immersion experience without parallel. 

European author Mosebach records interviews of family and community members of the 21 kneeling, orange-clad Copt men videoed and beheaded on a Libyan beach, 15 February 2015. The 21 is a documentation of divergent framings by emic participants of the clashes both between and within civilizations. 

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