This week’s readings each address and explore the analytical tools necessarily to adequately account for the formation of religious subjectivity and “modes of agency” (Mahmood 2005, 17). Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival of the Feminist Subject, complimented by her 2001 essay, “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of ‘Ṣalāt,’” emerges out of the author’s fieldwork among the women of the mosque movement in Cairo, Egypt. Her dual interests—the analysis of the concepts of the self, moral agency, and politics that under gird the movement and the scrutiny of normative assumptions regarding the self and agency in secular liberal politics and feminist theory—provide Mahmood with a rich starting place from which to develop a nuanced analytical framework for approaching the study of agency within particular ‘discursive traditions.’ Mahmood’s subsequent analysis of the women’s mosque movement, based on her careful attention to the socio-historically located internal logic of the movement itself, emphasizes the cultivation of religious subjects through embodied, habituated activity. In response, Amira Mittermaier’s essay, “Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities Beyond the Trope of Self-cultivation,” also emerging from ethnographic work in Egypt (this time among a Sufi community) expands Mahmood’s study by arguing that, while valuable, the paradigm of self-cultivation in the study of Islam is insufficient in so far as it fails to adequately account for an “ethics of passion,” wherein the religious subject is understood as also being acted upon by the multiple Others—including the Divine, those who are visible (family, religious, and social networks), and the invisible (for example, angels or the dead)—who constitute the subject’s relational community (Mittermaier, 260). Both authors contribute to our unfolding classroom conversation in significant ways, particularly on topics such as the ethnography of religion beyond the mosque (synagogue, church, temple, etc.); the significance of ritual beyond symbolic meaning-making; accounting for the Divine agent in ethnographic study; and politics and the ethnographic project.
Mahmood introduces her work with an insightful and transparent assessment of her own motivations and aspirations in taking up the topic of feminist subjectivity as it relates to and is/is not manifest in the Islamic Revival. She writes of her dissatisfaction with the ability of “progressive leftist” politics to account for and comprehend the “aspirations of so many around the Muslim world” and her questioning of the “. . . conviction, however well-intentioned, that other forms of human flourishing and life worlds are necessarily inferior to the solutions we have devised under the banner of ‘secular-left’ politics” (Mahmood 2005, xxiii). As a result, Mahmood explicitly denies her own political and theoretical commitments as an appropriate analytical framework for her project—indeed, much of her work may be read as a deconstruction of her own theoretical commitments—and, instead, seeks out tools that allow her to more adequately account for the life-worlds of the women she studied over a two year period in Cairo.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the opening chapter of Politics and Piety situates Mahmood’s work within an ongoing conversation among feminist theorists addressing the question of how “issues of historical and cultural specificity inform both the analytics and politics of the feminist project” (Mahmood 2005, 1). This question is of particular import in Mahmood’s own work, given the ways in which the women’s mosque movement challenges liberal feminist concepts of agency as grounded in “the political and moral autonomy of the subject” (Mahmood 2005, 7); as premised on a universal desire for freedom, especially freedom from male domination (Mahmood 2005, 10); and as functional within a binary of resistance and subordination. Paradoxically, at least within the liberal feminist framework, the women’s mosque movement both develops as a result of female actors operating in a field and mode previously dominated by men and upholds traditional, patriarchal norms for the formation of women as religious subjects. Given this apparent contradiction, Mahmood argues, instead, for a socially and historically embedded understanding of agency. She writes, “. . . the meaning and sense of agency cannot be fixed in advance, but must emerge through an analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being, responsibility, and effectivity” (Mahmood 2005, 14–15). Consequently, Mahmood’s study of self and agency in the women’s mosque movement attends closely to social norms as the “necessary ground through which the subject is realized and comes to enact her agency” (Mahmood 2005, 19), especially as these norms both constitute and are constituted by the subject. Turning to Aristotle, as mediated through Foucault, Mahmood further develops the type of theoretical frame necessary to account for the pedagogies of self-cultivation she witnessed in the women’s mosque movement. In particular, Mahmood argues that an understanding of the formation of the ethical subject through embodied, behavioural practices best fits the emphasis in the women’s mosque movement on the cultivation of pious selves—an emphasis that places particular importance on “. . . outward markers of religiosity—ritual practices, styles of comporting oneself, dress, and so on” (Mahmood 2005, 31).
Having detailed her analytical frame, Mahmood then turns to its demonstration by, first, situating the women’s mosque movement historically (chs. 2) and, second, through the ethnography proper (chs. 3–5), which focuses on the use of Islamic pedagogical materials, ritual practices, and paradoxes of subjectivity among the women who attend lessons at the mosques. While space prohibits a detailed exploration of each of these chapters, a brief example may offer an illustration of how Mahmood’s analytics provide explanatory power for the practices and goals of the mosque movement: the cultivation of religious desire through the ritual practice of Ṣalāt.
Mahmood argues that, because the women of the mosque movement understood piety as a state of “’being close to God:’ a manner of being and acting that suffused all of one’s acts, both religious and worldly in character” (Mahmood 2005, 122; see also, Mahmood 2001, 830), the observance of Ṣalāt operated as more than a ritual obligation, but as a site of self-formation. Hence, “ritual (i.e., conventional, formal action) is understood as the space par excellence of making their desires act spontaneously in accord with pious Islamic conventions” (Mahmood 2001, 833)—a process illustrated by Mona’s admonition to a young, Muslim woman concerning the interrelated nature of mundane daily behaviour, or “pragmatic action” (Mahmood 2001, 833), and the ritualized practice of Ṣalāt (Mahmood 2005, 124–126). What is significant is the way that the women conceive of the formation of religious subjects as an intentional activity (i.e., an act requiring and demonstrating agency), the goal of which might be realized through the habituation of bodily practices (such as ritual prayer) and mundane, pragmatic action (such as choosing not to engage a quarrel with one’s sibling). A similar such practice, as noted by Mahmood, is the wearing of the veil, viewed as both an act of submission and as a means of cultivating the feminine and valued quality of shyness (2005, 158). Veiling, then, demonstrates “. . . the role the body plays in the making of the self, one in which the outward behavior of the body constitutes both the potentiality and the means through which interiority is realized” (Mahmood 2005, 159). Such activity, rooted as it is in the teaching of the Quran, the ḥadīth, and Islamic pedagogical materials, demonstrates that attending “carefully to the specific logic of the discourse of piety” reveals a “logic that inheres not in the intentionality of the actors [contra liberal feminist theory], but in the relationships that are articulated between worlds, concepts, and practices that constitute a particular discursive tradition” (Mahmood 2005, 17).
Mittermaier’s essay complements Mahmood’s focus on self-cultivation by nuancing the analysis of agency and the religious subject, arguing that habituation as a model “offers us little for engaging with a different axis of religiosity, one that valorizes being acted upon, one most vividly expressed in stories of dreams, visions, apparitions, spirit possession, prophecy, revelation, the miraculous, and, more broadly, stories that involve elements of surprise and awe” (Mittermaier, 250). Mittermaier explores the notion of being ‘acted upon’ as an important aspect of religious subjectivity through her ethnographic work among a Sufi community in Egypt that focuses on encounter with the Prophet and the divine vis-à-vis dreams. A serious consideration of the role of dreams in the life-worlds of community members highlights the importance of taking into account the ways in which “the otherworldly” is understood to act upon and constitute the religious subject, an aspect of religious experience that may be lost if the researchers focus centres primarily upon pedagogies of self-cultivation (Mittermaier, 249). Indeed, Mittermaier highlights an aspect of Mahmood’s analysis that is conspicuously missing, that is, careful attention to the role assigned to the Divine in the formation of human subjects. This is especially intriguing, given that Mahmood notes early in her work that the women’s mosque movement is located within “a discursive tradition that regards subordination to a transcendent will . . . as its coveted goal” (2005, 2–3). However, as Mittermaier notes, Mahmood’s focus on habituation limits her analysis to “. . . one direction—that extending from the [subject]—but it has little to say about the other direction, the being acted upon” (253). Mittermaier’s work, as a result, helpfully expands Mahmood’s project of attending to the internal logic of a discursive tradition for explorations of self and agency by highlighting the necessity of including those Others, such as the Divine or the dead (i.e., those who are considered agents by those studied), in the relational network that forms the nexus in which religious subjects are formed and come to act.
The ethnographic work of both Mahmood and Mittermaier provides a fruitful ground for expanding and continuing several conversations that have been engaged in our classroom experiences thus far. First, Mahmood’s analysis of ritual as a place of self-formation recalls one of our early readings, Seeman’s article, “Otherwise than Meaning,” which explored the place of ritual in suffering. Seeman’s article, and Mahmood’s work, both suggest that the study of ritual must be expanded beyond analyses of symbolic meaning-making. How does Mahmood’s analysis add to the study of ritual as an aspect of religious experience and in what ways is her accounting adequate/inadequate? Second, in light of class discussions over the past few weeks, it becomes obvious in reading Mahmood that all of her examples and stories emerge from within the walls of the mosque. How might Mahmood’s conclusions have differed had she balanced her time within the mosque with a broader account of her subjects’ life-worlds both within their place of worship and in their daily lives? (Notably, even Mahmood’s examples regarding participants’ marriages are told to her in conversations at the mosque). Third, Mahmood and Mittermaier each account for the Divine agent in different ways, what are the benefits of each model? How might Mittermaier’s model, in which the divine Other is accepted as real in so much as this Other is real for the participants, compare with Luhrmann’s study on prayer—especially, given their common study of what may be explained as psychological phenomenon? And, finally, given that Mahmood’s project has dual goals (that of ethnographic accounting of self and agency in the women’s mosque movement, coupled with a sustained argument with and against the concepts and assumptions of liberal-secular politics and feminist theory, one that challenges political interventionist policy), we might also explore the relationship between politics and the ethnographic project.