Faith, Fear, and Ritual in the Euphoric Pursuit of Freedom. by Taha Firdous Shah

A lady making duʿā (prayers) after performing ṣalāt at the shrine of Sheikh Hamzah Makhdoom in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir (Photo by Yawar Nazir)

This week’s readings extend to an ethnographic exploration to comment on the conventionalities of rituals and the moral order. Borrowing the words of Clifford Geertz, where he defines ‘man’ as an ‘animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’, the readings revolve around finding a greater meaning to the rituals in different religious communities, both in individual and collective dimensions (Geertz, 1977:5; Seeman, 2015:743).

In her thought-provoking essay titled “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of ṣalāt”, Saba Mahmood offers a profound engagement with the discourse surrounding the diverse interpretations of the Muslim act of prayer (ṣalāt) within the context of the contemporary Women’s Piety Movement in Cairo, Egypt. Mahmood’s analysis departs from the idea that common gestures and behaviors are necessarily aligned with shared objectives. She investigates the interplay between specific structures of self and authority concerning differential relationships, particularly rituals. Her aim is to demonstrate the intricate and diverse connections between these concepts, contingent upon the discursive and practical circumstances of authority and varying conceptions of personhood.

Within the context of ṣalāt, Mahmood learned women utilize self-expression as a technique to comprehend the body as a developing ‘means for realizing the pious self’ (828). The act of praying five times a day, according to her interlocutors, is an act of ‘pedagogy’. This continuous performance of an ‘act’ to gain closeness makes me think back to our discussion from Tanya Luhrmann’s work on making God real by gaining closeness to Him through practice and performance. The argument that we worship to believe appears analogous to these women’s inclination to view prayer as a method for cultivating closeness to God.

From Mona Hilmi’s interpretation of prayer to create humans capable of “enlightened criticism” to Hajja Samia’s prescription of fear as a necessary condition of piety to reach God, it is evident that ritual behaviours are motivated by the personal desire to find meaning in worship. I agree with Mahmood that the body and its behaviors are the theaters where ideological scripts are enacted, and ‘different’ readings can be assigned (839). What interested me more in the reading was to look at how fear comes to be constituted as a motive or modality for pious conduct. It struck me why invoking fear is essential to acting with virtue. Why do our daily activities of not lying or doing any wrongdoing stem from this ‘fear’ of God’s wrath, and can we think of it positively, as Hajja Samia believes?

Mahmood’s engagement with thinking about induced weeping was interesting. While we mainly resort to crying on our prayer mats to seek forgiveness or ease our sufferings, we see that the women in the mosque were mandated to think of this act as a sense of being overwhelmed with God’s greatness and enacted with the action of pleasing Him. To some theologians, the former act is idolatrous (shirk) (843). With the process of acquiring different resources to cultivate ethical and moral abilities, I invite all of us to think, just as Mahmood prompts us: How can we reimagine freedom when we can no longer assume a clear separation between a person’s genuine desires and societal norms? How do we think, in the cases Mahmood mentions, that freedom is contextual rather than universal to practices?

In a similar vein, Don Seeman’s piece on “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against Culture” explores the manifestation of another form of ritualistic agency.  He analyzes the materials as mediums of cultural symbol, which inform the moral experience around which different Ethiopian groups negotiate over the limits of ‘culture’ and the elusive moral freedom. In the examined context, the consumption of buna functions as a sociocultural mechanism to facilitate familial harmony and promote women’s solidarity. However, showing resistance to such a culture acts as freedom of defiance from certain cultural elements that seem intolerant to some.

Seeman asserts that buna avoidance creates a “culture of no culture” to highlight how cultural discourse can be claimed, altered, and disputed in different religious, social, and institutional contexts (743). His advice is that buna practice and avoidance must be understood against an intersubjective horizon of emotionally fraught relationships with kin or neighbors, economic pressures, and the shifting embodied experience of gender and sexuality (743–44). As Mahmood argues for diversity in the language of understanding cultures, Seeman emphasizes accepting differences in the meanings of freedom vis-à-vis rituals. With this, I invite all of us to think about how we determine the extent of freedom within the context of habitus, cultural background, and customary actions, particularly when these are intertwined with rituals.

7 Replies to “Faith, Fear, and Ritual in the Euphoric Pursuit of Freedom. by Taha Firdous Shah”

  1. Evgeniia Muzychenko

    Thank you, Taha, for your insightful engagement with the week’s pieces. I find it helpful how both Mahmood and Seeman examine, as you put it, “varying conceptions of personhood.” In her study of the women’s mosque movement in Cairo, Mahmood makes a persuasive case for a nuanced understanding of Bourdieu’s habitus. Mahmood distinguishes between the pedagogical effects of habitus and the pedagogy of ‘self-directed action’ (838). While the habitus framework assumes the “unconscious imbibing” of virtues, the economy of self-discipline leaves room for discerning individual agency among the structural constraints of habitus. Seeman aligns with Mahmood in the view that an individual experience plays a part in the formation of one’s moral dispositions; moreover, individual emotions do not always fit within a particular cultural/religious framework, as Seeman shows, analyzing R. Mordecai Joseph’s ‘antinomian’ treatment of Torah: “The need to evaluate every emotional experience or desire for its proper balance means that spontaneity or “haste” are necessarily devalued […] Haste and confusion are the result of lust or of other strong emotions, which cause a person to act – or even indulge a given sentiment – without sufficient vetting for God’s will” (268).

    • Yaa Baker

      The concept of freedom in the midst of ritual stood out to me as well. In Seeman’s 2015 piece, I really felt that. As I was learning about the buna I even felt myself getting dizzy at times as I read, the author explains different perspectives on the ritual and the substance itself. My physical reaction to the just goes to show how well Seeman can articulate his points not only factually but through literary finesse. Two things in particular stood out to me. The first is a liberating perspective on buna which comments on how buna ritual offers the freedom to talk about traumas and bond on intimate levels with one’s peers, specifically women with each other. The second is a contradicting perspective of the first. It is how buna is actually not liberating due to its addictive qualities and how that inhibits people from the freedom to participate in or at least painlessly participate in observing the Sabbath. What I noticed that you extrapolated from the text is how not participating in the practice or doing so in a restricted amount is in itself an act of agency. Seeman does give examples of people doing this. It is just a perspective that I did not cling to so I am grateful to you for highlighting it.

      Overall, I really liked your writing and how you incorporated all of the readings. You even linked them together which I find particularly impressive. Well done, I truly enjoyed reading your work.

  2. Brittany Lynn Fiscus-van Rossum

    Taha, thanks for these great reflections and questions. I’m excited to discuss some of these insights in class!

    I too am interested in exploring the concept that freedom is a “contextual, rather than universal, practice” (Mahmood 845). In her conclusion, Mahmood notes that “the desire for freedom from social conventions is not an innate desire but assumes a particular anthropology of the subject” (845). Mahmood wants to trouble the assumption that “freedom” is universally expressed in the assertion of will against cultural norms, and that the self and agency can also be realized and formed by conventional practices too. When observing ritual practices, compliance to the conventional does not form every subject in the same way. There is complexity behind choices of participation that go beyond simple “meanings” of the ritual itself. So, notions of agency, freedom, and the formation of self are not only found in resistance but also in contexts of conforming to social conventions.

    Mahmood challenges drawing too straightforward conclusions in the analysis of rituals and their meanings. Don Seeman’s article “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals Against Culture” also challenges observers to consider the nuances present in the resisting of conventions too. In Seeman’s research in Israel belonging, agency, and “freedom” are found both in and outside of cultural practices and their constraints. In the culturally significant practice of buna consumption, neither participation nor abstention (nor something in between) signified one simple thing, but instead involved “a complicated picture involving troubled family dynamics and resistance to cultural constraints” (Seeman 735).

    I see in both of these articles a challenge to observers of rituals to consider the “complex web” of factors that determine the practices in which people participate as well as the different notions of freedom and agency in those choices.

    I look forward to talking in more depth tomorrow! -Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

  3. Mufdil Tuhri

    Hi Thaha, Thank you very much for your insightful reflection on this week’s reading. I truly appreciate reflections that emphasize the concept of freedom. It seems to me that Seeman and Mahmood’s ideas revolve around how culture influences individuals and how individuals strive to overcome cultural barriers to attain their freedom. I find Mahmood’s exploration of individual autonomy within ritual practices particularly enlightening. In my opinion, this underscores the idea that individuals can realize their freedom even when engaging in certain religious rituals. As Mahmood explains, individuals have the capacity to internalize moral values through conscious and intentional religious practices (838-839). This concept extends beyond “liberal” notions of freedom that perceive individuals as merely being free from religious orthodoxy. For Mahmood, freedom does not necessarily mean liberation from a set of orthodox beliefs or religious practices, as worship and rituals are not always indicative of oppression or a lack of freedom.
    This perspective seems to illustrate that tension between individuals and the social world that surrounds them is inevitable. In this context, I believe that Seeman provide valuable insights for ethnographers, encouraging them to be aware of the diverse forms of individual freedom influenced by external factors such as culture, politics, and religion, as well as internal factors like emotions and ethical standards (744-755). Regarding religious practices, it is crucial to recognize that individuals continue to reconcile and reinterpret conventional elements of their religious tradition such as sacred texts based on their subjective experiences, including ethical considerations, emotions, and other moral norms.

  4. Prakash Raju

    In her essay “rehearsed spontaneity and the conventionality of ritual: disciplines of salāt,” Saba Mahamood critically engages with ritual binary. She argues that prayer ritual is not either conventional or socially prescribed, rather links ritual to embodiment, emotions and individual autonomy. She uses two contrasting views on ritual practice, on the one hand Turner’s idea on channelling an individual’s emotions, on the other Tambiah’s understanding of ritual as conventional behaviour which gives no space for emotions. Mahamood in her ethnographical work on women’s piety movement in Cario discusses about the pedagogy of ritual prayer, and the women she engaged with don’t just re-create such binaries of ritual rather they embody the prayer ritual by moulding their intension, emotions, and desires in relation with orthodox standards of Islamic piety.
    I’m curious to know more about how Mahamood divides the ‘self and the ‘body’. In terms of pedagogical training, does the body always remain as a medium creating a pious self?
    Don Seeman in his intriguing essay, “Coffee and the moral order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against Culture” discusses about how important buna drinking is for Ethiopian Jews, however, for the Ethiopian Pentecostals is not the same because it is often associated with demonic possessions. Seeman argues about ‘shifting forms of agency and desires’, this made me think about whether bodily desires become central to buna drinking or avoiding buna.

  5. Laura Montoya Cifuentes

    Thank you, Taha for your insights on this week’s readings.

    I particularly appreciate the reflections on freedom and agency in both Mahmood and Seeman’s work. Both authors point out the several complexities entailed in the interplay between cultural dispositions and individuals’ agency. In particular, it stood out to me Mahmood’s assertions on the pedagogical process required to cultivate virtues or vices. Those observations derived from women’s engagement with pious practices challenge and respond to established questions and critiques of Bourdieu’s habitus. Besides, Mahmoods definition of pious practices that serve both as means and ends add to the discussion on how culture does provide unconscious elements for individuals, but they manage to resignify and transform them as a response to new cultural developments. In this case, the women’s mosque movement committed to the practice and constant reflection on those practices, responding to what they perceived as secularizing cultural patterns. Freedom, then, becomes contextual.

    As Seeman also claims, freedom is a human category of experience that, when described, depends on particular cultural and religious frameworks. (745) From his work, it stood out to me the various ways in which bun consumption resulted at the center of intergenerational, ethnic, and religious/theological beliefs and decisions. Likewise, it is worth addressing the possible implications of “freedom and agency of ethnographers” since both Mahmood and Seeman affirm that it takes time, sharper attention skills, and rephrasing of questions to perceive the cultural-individual significances around prayer, emotions in ritual, and bun consumption. Both social practices could be easily misread and misinterpreted. In that regard, I find Seeman’s question very appealing: “Should we be surprised that the elegant cultural and theological templates traced by anthropologists often fail to encompass the messy contrarieties with which people actually think about and act in the social world?” (742)

  6. Peter Cariaga

    Thank you for your thoughtful and well-written post, Taha. Your prompt reminds me of the idea of a “beautiful constraint” from social science and business literature. A constraint here is a set of factors or circumstances that delimit one’s options to act. What makes a constraint “beautiful” is that it opens up possibilities for creativity within those bounds, and the results sometimes exceed the bounds.

    In the papers this week, ritual acts as a kind of constraint. For Mahmood, ritual (salat in particular) is the constraint within which ethical formation happens (i.e., the kind of person becomes before God). For Seeman, buna (and “chafing” against it; 2015, 744) is the delimiting site where persons negotiate both freedom and participation in culture. For Rabbi Mordecai Joseph (and Seeman), ritual (‘abodah) is a constraining activity in that it moderates a person’s behavior, allowing that person to be formed in accord with the end (telos) of the commandments (2003, 272-73). In all these instances, the constraints provide the potential (if not conditions) for generative activity.

    With the understanding of ritual as (beautiful) constraint, my response to your prompt is that freedom is delimited by culture, custom, and even habitus (which is why some of Seeman’s participants opt out of buna, and thus one set of constraints). Within the constraints of the ritual, however, there is great freedom, insofar as freedom involves seeking formative ends within the ritual, such as forming an ethical self before God. Freedom in this sense is not simply to do what we want—it’s the capacity to create something beautiful with the materials at hand.

    (Note: I’m not in the Moral Agency Under Constraint seminar that several others of you are in, so I may be using “constraint” differently from the rest of you.)


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