Michael Gilsenan

David B. Kriser Professor in the Humanities; Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and Anthropology
D.Phil. 1967 (social anthropology), Dip.Anth. 1964, B.A. 1963 (Arabic), Oxford.

Office Address: Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 50 Washington Square South New York, NY 10012
Phone: (212) 998-8875
Fax: (212) 995-4689

Areas of Research/Interest
Anthropology and sociology of Islam; history and anthropology, narrative theory; anthropology of power and violence; urban studies; cultural representation.

External Affiliations
Middle Eastern Studies Association, European Association of Social Anthropologists, Association of Social Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association.

Emeritus Fellow, Magdalen College, Oxford; Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, 1979-1980; Conseil de Direction, European Science Union Project of Islam and the Individual, 1990-1994; Conseil de Direction, Centre d'Etudes et de Recherches sur le Moyen-Orient Contemporain (CERMOC), Beirut/Amman, 1992-present; Advisory Board, International Institute for the Study of Islam in the modern world, Leiden, Holland.

Having previously worked in Egypt and Lebanon on the sociology of religion and violence respectively, I have now moved my attention to aspects of the diaspora of Arab families from the Hadhramaut (south Yemen) into South East Asia over the past one hundred years. I spent the year 1999-2000 in the region working mostly in Jakarta, Surabaya and East Java and in Singapore. This preliminary year enabled me to get an initial sense of the social, political, economic and cultural role of families in very different settings. Through extensive interviews and developing networks I started to build some sense of the various trajectories of the families under different colonial and post colonial states. The reproduction of the families, not only but not least in terms of properties, wills and family trusts has taken a lot of my attention, as have business and other records where those are available. In September 2001 I joined the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) in Leiden as a Visiting Professor for four months to read in the Dutch libraries, consult colleagues who work in southeast Asia, and go to museums with collections of photos, textiles and so forth from Indonesia. Friends and colleagues were enormously helpful and I benefited from the presence of Indonesian doctoral students who were generous with the findings of their own research. Then, in January 2002, I moved to London for two months to work in the British Library in the archives on the East Aden Protectorates. In March I went to Singapore for five months to interview members of families of Arab descent, many of whom I had met in 2000, and to work on the papers they kindly made available. I also made regular trips to Penang, Johore, and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to meet other family members and to follow up introductions. The topic actually circles round to the way in which I began to study Arab societies as a student. My choice of Middle Eastern Studies for a B.A. was inspired by a pre-college year on Voluntary Service Overseas teaching in what was then Aden and the Protectorates (now part of Yemen). But after my first degree I realized that I most wanted to study the everyday lives of Arabs in contemporary society, so I switched to anthropology. Two years (1964-66) spent in Cairo working on the Sufi Brotherhoods were the basis for my doctorate. This experience was the basis of a continuing interest in the anthropology of Islam and of religion in general. After three years in America I went to do two further years of fieldwork, this time in north Lebanon studying the 'feudal' system of the great landowners of the region. This project made me realize how essential it is to relate local issues to wider questions of development of the state.

My current research is the most complex that I have undertaken, and it will be interesting to see what happens. The material is very rich, far too rich, and I shall obviously need to focus carefully on particular topics, perhaps in a series of shorter studies of different aspects of the diaspora at different junctures. As questions of region, area, history and anthropology become ever more pressing such research seems even more daunting but also potentially rewarding.


  •  ‘Possessed of Documents: Hybrid Laws and Translated Texts in the Hadhrami Diaspora’, in Dupret, B. et al. (eds) Ethnographies of Islam: Ritual Performances and Everyday Practices, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012, pp.181-193. 2012.
  • ‘Translating Colonial Fortunes: Dilemmas of Inheritance in Muslim and English Laws across a Nineteenth Century Diaspora’. In Comparative Studies in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, pp.355-371. 2011.
  • Review and Introduction to Catalogue of the Holdings on the Hadhrami Diaspora in the National Library of Singapore (the catalogue is 300 pp. in length and incorporates documents from new collections of papers). 2010.
  • Topics and Queries for a History of Arab Families and Inheritance in Southeast Asia: Some Preliminary Thoughts’ in Eric Tagliacozzo (ed.) Southeast Asia and the Middle East: Islam, Movement, and the Longue Duree’, Stanford UP/Nat.Univ.of SG Press, pp.199-234. 2009.
  • Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in a Lebanese Society. London: I. B. Tauris Press. 1996
  • Recognizing Islam: An Anthropologist's Introduction. London: Croom Helm; New York: Pantheon Press. March 1983.
  • Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt: An Essay in the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press.1973.

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