[OPE-L] Politics of Piety:The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject Saba Mahmood

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Dec 31 2004 - 12:21:24 EST

        Politics of Piety:
The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

Saba Mahmood

Paper | 2004 | $17.95 / 11.95 | ISBN: 0-691-08695-8
Cloth | 2004 | $55.00 / 35.95 | ISBN: 0-691-08694-X
264 pp. | 6 x 9

Shopping Cart | Endorsements | Table of Contents
Chapter 1 [in PDF format]

Politics of Piety is a groundbreaking analysis of Islamist cultural
politics through the ethnography of a thriving, grassroots women's
piety movement in the mosques of Cairo, Egypt. Unlike those organized
Islamist activities that seek to seize or transform the state, this
is a moral reform movement whose orthodox practices are commonly
viewed as inconsequential to Egypt's political landscape. Saba
Mahmood's compelling exposition of these practices challenges this
assumption by showing how the ethical and the political are indelibly
linked within the context of such movements.

Not only is this book a sensitive ethnography of a critical but
largely ignored dimension of the Islamic revival, it is also an
unflinching critique of the secular-liberal principles by which some
people hold such movements to account. The book addresses three
central questions: How do movements of moral reform help us rethink
the normative liberal account of politics? How does the adherence of
women to the patriarchal norms at the core of such movements
parochialize key assumptions within feminist theory about freedom,
agency, authority, and the human subject? How does a consideration of
debates about embodied religious rituals among Islamists and their
secular critics help us understand the conceptual relationship
between bodily form and political imaginaries? Politics of Piety is
essential reading for anyone interested in issues at the nexus of
ethics and politics, embodiment and gender, and liberalism and

Saba Mahmood is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University
of California, Berkeley.


"This very timely book opens doors into spaces of Islamic piety that
shatter the stereotypes which dominate thinking in the West. Mahmood
carefully unpacks the distortions that common modes of liberalism and
feminism impose on the Muslim world. She combines richness of
description with theoretical sophistication to provide insight into
the struggle of some Muslim women to live their faith, often in the
face of not only Western liberal influences but also Arab nationalism
and political Islamism. The reader is forced to face dilemmas that
cannot be easily resolved. This is social science at its most
illuminating.."--Charles Taylor, Board of Trustees Professor of Law
and Philosophy, Northwestern University, author of Sources of the
Self: The Making of the Modern Identity

"This brilliant study of women in the contemporary mosque movement in
Egypt is a provocative challenge to secular feminists and a testament
to what anthropology can still offer--through its insistence on
serious listening to other worlds--to critical social theory. No
feminist theorist or anthropologist of modernity will be able to
think the same way about liberalism, agency, or religion after
reading this book. I hope that Mahmood's incisive analysis of the
Islamic movement will also finally put an end to the banalities that
currently masquerade as knowledge about this meaningful social
movement."--Lila Abu-Lughod, Professor of Anthropology, Columbia
University, author of Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a
Bedouin Society

More endorsements

Table of Contents:

CHAPTER 1: The Subject of Freedom 1
CHAPTER 2: Topography of the Piety Movement 40
CHAPTER 3: Pedagogies of Persuasion 79
CHAPTER 4: Positive Ethics and Ritual Conventions 118
CHAPTER 5: Agency, Gender, and Embodiment 153

New Democracy Forum
Islam and the Challenge of Democracy
Weapons of Mass Confusion: A security strategy doomed to failure
City Poems: Ten weeks with the East Harlem Poetry Project
A Wrong Thing: Short fiction by A. L. Kennedy
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Questioning Liberalism, Too

A response to "Islam and the Challenge of Democracy"

Saba Mahmood

8Khaled Abou El Fadl's essay is an erudite attempt to explore those
principles and values within Islamic political and legal traditions
that could be made compatible with ideas of liberal democracy. Abou
El Fadl joins a growing number of scholars who have been writing on
this theme in the last three decades-some of these writers are
located in the Muslim world and others in Europe and the United
States. These thinkers represent a wide spectrum of political
perspectives: some of them are supporters of the reformist trend
within the Islamist movement (such as Tariq al-Bishri in Egypt, the
Tunisian scholar Rashid al-Ghannouchi, who lives in exile in France,
and Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran), and others espouse a more
straightforward secular-liberal line (such as Said Ashmawi in Egypt,
Nurcholish Madjid in Indonesia, and Aziza al-Hibri in the United
States). The increased attention that the Western media has recently
given to these explorations is an indication of the hope that
"liberal Islam" has been invested with, following the events of
September 11, a potential resource for "saving Islam" from its more
militant and fundamentalist interpreters.

What's curious to me is that in these explorations by Muslim scholars
Islam bears the burden of proving its compatibility with liberal
ideals, and the line of question is almost never reversed. We do not
ask, for example, what would it mean to take the resources of the
Islamic tradition and question many of the liberal political
categories and principles for the contradictions and problems they
embody? Or, how would one rethink these problems by bringing the
resources of Islamic political history to bear upon them? For
instance, many of the aforementioned authors, including Khaled Abou
El Fadl, urge that liberal conceptions of individual autonomy, human
rights, and individual freedom be incorporated into Islam. Thus Abou
El Fadl argues in his essay that the "Qur'anic celebration and
sanctification of human diversity" should be made the ground for
incorporating what appears to be a liberal conception of tolerance:
"an ethic that respects dissent and honors the right to adhere to
different religious or non-religious convictions." It is striking
that the normative claims of liberal conceptions such as tolerance
are taken at face value, and no attention is paid to the
contradictions, struggles, and problems that these ideals actually
embody. As scholars of liberalism have shown, the historical
trajectory of a concept like tolerance encompasses violent struggles
that dispossessed peoples have had to wage to be considered
legitimate members of liberal societies-not to mention the ongoing
battles about what it means "to tolerate" someone or something, who
does the tolerating and who is tolerated, under what circumstances,
and toward what end. Given this fraught history, is it not worth
pausing to reflect whether other traditions, such as Islam, might
have their own resources for imagining such an "ethic that respects
dissent and honors the right to adhere to different religious or
non-religious convictions?"

There were different conceptions of religious and communal
coexistence, for example, that informed the social and political life
of the diverse communities that lived under the Ottoman Empire and
even under Mughal rule in South Asia. These conceptions were not
organized around the problem of majority and minority populations. In
the Ottoman system, for instance, non-Muslim communities were
vertically integrated into a hierarchical ruling structure, but had
their own independent legal systems. This mutual accommodation
enabled different social groups living under a shared political
structure to practice distinct ways of life; life-worlds were the
preconditions for the individual's existence, rather than the objects
of individual interests as they are conceived within liberal
democratic thought. The system did not make non-Muslims the social or
legal equals of Muslims, but it did grant them a certain autonomy to
practice and develop their traditions in a manner that is almost
inconceivable under the present system of nation-states. The reason I
bring up this different understanding of coexistence is not because I
believe in its moral superiority, or consider it to be an example
from the Islamic tradition that could be made commensurable with a
liberal understanding of tolerance. Rather I want to use this history
to ask what I think is a far more interesting set of questions, such
as: how does this history make us rethink the politics of tolerance
and pluralism beyond the confines of individualism to include the
rights of plural social groupings? Or, for that matter, to ask
whether the liberal meaning of tolerance is the best or the most
desirable one; what does this understanding preclude, under what
kinds of presuppositions, and for whom?

I believe the reason these kinds of questions are seldom pursued is
because of the hegemony that liberalism commands as a political ideal
for many contemporary Muslim intellectuals, a hegemony that reflects
the enormous disparity in power between the Anglo-European countries
and what constitutes the "Muslim world" today. Indeed, the idea that
the liberal political system is the best arrangement for all human
societies, regardless of their diverse histories and conceptual and
material resources, is rarely questioned these days. One would think
that proponents of "pluralism and diversity" in the world, like Abou
El Fadl, would want to explore some of the contrasting ways that
questions of difference have been imagined and politically instituted
within different non-liberal traditions.

It should also be pointed out that Khaled Abou El Fadl's essay is
largely a philosophical exercise, one that does not take into account
the practical impediments to the institutionalization of democracy in
the Muslim world. Had he been concerned with practical issues, he
would have had to deal with complicated questions such as why some of
the worst violations of democracy in the name of Islam have been
perpetrated by states (such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Pakistan)
which have been propped up by liberal democracies like the United
States-support without which these states would not have survived in
their present form. A more practical engagement would also have had
to deal with the fact that the problems of religious and ethnic
strife, or the abrogation of democratic freedoms, do not simply
reflect the "undemocratic" tendencies within Islam, but characterize
most secular regimes in the Third World today. As many scholars have
recently taught us, these problems are not unrelated to the liberal
forms of government implemented by colonial and postcolonial states.
I do not fault Abou El Fadl for his philosophical inquiry. But what I
do find problematic is his failure to subject to critical scrutiny
our liberal notions of justice, autonomy, tolerance, individual
rights and so on, from the standpoint of the Islamic traditions he so
clearly holds dear. Rather than ask the question of how Muslims can
become better liberals, I believe it is far more pressing to ask how
the world is (or can be) lived differently-confronted as we are with
a historically unprecedented homogenizing force of modernity that
will brook no arguments for an alternative vision.<

Saba Mahmood teaches at the University of Chicago. Her work focuses
on issues of secularism, gender, and modernity within the context of
Islamist movements in the Middle East and South Asia.

Click here to return to the New Democracy Forum, "Islam and the
Challenge of Democracy" with Khaled Abou El Fadl and respondents.

Originally published in the April/May 2003 issue of Boston Review
Copyright Boston Review, 1993-2003. All rights reserved. Please do
not reproduce without permission.

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