Scholarly Reviews

2010 Barbara Heldt Prize Winner

"Ghodsee’s ethnographic study offers a subtle and fascinating analysis of the rise of “orthodox” Islam in the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria, home to one of Europe’s oldest, yet least known Muslim minorities, the Pomaks.  The book examines the growing tension between local Muslim traditions and imported forms of Islam, largely from Saudi Arabia, which claim to represent the “true” faith.   In this particular region, what the world calls Islamic fundamentalism has become attractive to many, although by no means all, Muslims.  Ghodsee argues that the roots of this religious revival lie in the postsocialist collapse of the principal economic base of the region, lead and zinc mining.  The closure of the mines undermined local confidence in the morality of government structures and opened space for the financial influence of Islamic charities. It also created a crisis in socialist-era definitions of masculine and feminine gender identities that provided fertile ground for competing Islamic ideas about family, women, and faith. Informed by extensive research in Bulgarian and European history and sociological and anthropological theory, the book is still thoroughly grounded in Ghodsee’s knowledge of her Pomak informants, each of whom negotiates her or his relationship to Islam in a highly individual fashion.  With its timely topic, insightful analysis and beautifully written, compelling stories, this book deserves to command a wide audience from both inside and outside academia."


"Islamic studies scholars who increasingly focus on a wide range of Muslim societies in both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries will find this volume informative. The author presents her work in an accessible fashion, and the volume will appeal to people with diverse interests."

Tone Bringa, author of Being Muslim the Bosnian Way

"Finally, a thoughtful case study of the influence of Islamic aid organizations among the Muslim minority populations in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Kristen Ghodsee describes the changes that have taken place in the practice of Islam among the Pomaks, the indigenous Slav Muslims of Bulgaria. Her book reads like a detective story of why the Muslims of one particular town turned toward the new orthodox and 'foreign' Islam of mainly Saudi-inspired imams and proselytizing aid workers. A much-needed contribution."

Sonya Michel, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

"Ghodsee's patient ethnography allows her to explore in rich detail the encounter between postcommunist Bulgaria and 'orthodox' Islam. In her hands, the abstract concept of agency takes on compelling specificity, as she shows the women and men of the Rhodope region adapting Muslim beliefs and practices to their own needs, with striking implications for gender relations. This study will prove illuminating not just to area specialists but to all those seeking to understand the nature and appeal of religion in postmodern spaces."

Lara Deeb, University of California, Irvine

"Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe provides a nuanced perspective on social and economic change in postcommunist Bulgaria and a crucial ethnographic lens onto changing religious practices and gender norms among Pomak Bulgarians."

Mary Neuberger, University of Texas, Austin

"Some of the best insights into the Balkan past have emerged from works of anthrpology.  While historians seem to perennially distance themselves from their subjects, anthropologists put us on the ground and in the field.  Far from the dusty archives of Sofia, history is alive in Kristen Ghodsee's Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe.  For Ghodsee takes the reader deep into the Rhodope Mountains to the town of Madan and into the lives of its Bulgarian-speaking Muslim inhabitants.  Ghodsee's study, unencumbered by anthroopological jargon, is a delightful read, colored by vivid descriptions of the town of Madan and its varied inhabitants."

Ina Merdjanova, Sofia University, Bulgaria

"Kristen Ghodsee presents a fascinating account of the painful economic and social changes which profoundly affected the lives of individual people in a particular setting and prompted the spread of new, locally defined commitments to what the author has call "orthodox" Islam."

"Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe offers an insightful analysis of the social and economic factors that propelled the spread of new forms of religious allegiances and gender roles among Pomaks in Bulgaria.  It is an excellent contribution to the study of Islam in postcommunist society."

American Ethnologist

"With the questions it raises about gender, ethnicity, and Islam in postsocialist Eastern Europe, Muslim Lives in Eastern Europe opens up a number of important areas of inquiry in contemporary studies of European Islam. It will be of interest to scholars of religion, gender studies, and postsocialist transition. To villagers whose Christian discourse Tomlinson encountered, the obvious and core force of this biblical passage is that it casts into relief the great decline people have undergone, from that earlier state of perfection to their contemporary fallible and weak conditions. "