Precis: Mahmood, Politics of Piety, and Mittermaier, “Dreams from Elsewhere” – Chelsea Mak

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.

5 Replies to “Precis: Mahmood, Politics of Piety, and Mittermaier, “Dreams from Elsewhere” – Chelsea Mak”

  1. Chelsea, Thank you for your Precis. You clearly summarize the book and articles, as well as offer us thought provoking questions for class discussion. Reading Politics of Piety was an interesting experience. Seeing that I hope to do an ethnography on women in the Middle East, Mahmood definitely raised several important concepts and points that I should think about prior to beginning my research.
    There is an assumption (as Mahmood mentions) among secular liberalist & feminists to see women in religious movements as being oppressed. And Throughout the book Mahmood As you mention in your Precis, “she argues for a socially and historically embedded understanding of agency”, challenges these assumptions about religious movements and discusses whether or not it is always appropriate to use Western ideas when studying Muslim women. One quotation stood out to me on p. 39 where she writes, ” If there is a normative political position that underlies this book, it is to urge that we embark upon an inquiry in which we do not assume that the political positions we uphold will necessarily be vindicated, or provide the ground for our theoretical analysis…” (39) I believe that Mahmood’s challenging of such assumptions humanizes the women in the movement, which I found valuable and important for the current political context as well. Her position builds on our class discussion regarding the ethics of ethnography and thinking about what is at stake for the individuals we are studying. That being said, I often felt that in arguing against concepts of liberal and secular politics, Mahmood missed out on expanding her analysis of the practices of the movements or including more of the narratives of the women. Furthermore, since Mahmood was studying a particular movement at a particular time and place, I wonder if her methods and argument for a specific understanding of agency would produce the same conclusions in another movement within a different context.

  2. Chelsea, thank you for a wonderful, well-written precis. I am particularly interested in Mahmood’s theoretical project as it stands at the same intersection that inform my own work, namely between feminist theory and anthropology of religion. When I read this book in undergrad I was mostly focused on Mahmood’s take on agency and how it can be understood outside the realm of liberal politics. Now I see her project as a much bigger work that seeks to unsettle a number of different paradigms which inform both feminist and religious studies, such as the binaries of modernity/tradition, politics/ethics, resistance/compliance, etc. I find it a useful way to approach studying women’s experiences and desires in religious traditions which fall outside typical feminist politics. On the one hand, it speaks to one of the themes in our class this semester in that we are learning to think about what is at stake for our interlocutors and to “follow their lead” in crafting a theoretical model. Mahmood writes in a footnote that she studied with a Shaikh for a year on issues of Islamic law and religious practice. She also makes a compelling point that the terms people use must be valued as a way they reveal how their world is constructed and is constitutive of different forms of personhood, knowledge and experience rather than other terms for ones the anthropologist lives within. She speaks directly to our concern about the issue of theology or textual traditions as part of the anthropologists purview when she “insist[s], however, that an appeal to understand the coherence of a discursive tradition is neither to justify that tradition, nor to argue for some irreducible essentialism or cultural relativism. It is, instead, to take a necessary step towards explaining the force that a discourse commands” (17)

    On the other hand, I found Mahmood’s ethnographic work to be more of a case study for her theory than its guiding force. Since she doesn’t make the process explicit, I wonder if her critical view of liberal, feminist paradigms developed before, during or after her fieldwork? Did her ethnographic work lead to her theoretical conclusions or function to simply support them?

    Another question I had was about the relationship between politics and ethics. She notes that these women’s groups are not apolitical. They shape civic and public sensibilities which are part of the political sphere. However, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood is apparent in some of her key subject’s stories in a way that I think compel us to think about just how those “sensibilities” manifest and why. I found Mahmood’s efforts to place the piety movement in the larger political and social shift occurring to be a crucial part of the story for her interlocutors.

    Mittermaier’s article was an interesting critique of Mahmood’s theory of self-cultivation in her injunction to spread out agency to the divine as well as other people and forces beyond the discursive. This reminded me of Bruno Latour’s notion of an Actor Network in which many different forces can be agentive, including objects in people’s environments. To extend this to divine intervention is something we have been discussing in class and I think this article is an example of a way to talk about how to do this in a careful and corrective way.

  3. Chelsea,

    Thank you for your precis! You highlight a lot of what Mahmood brings to the table, and there’s a lot there to appreciate. Mahmood raises a critique we have discussed ourselves over the course of our class–how we can understand experiences without “‘misattributing to them forms of consciousness or politics that are not part of their experience'” (Mahmood 8, quoting Abu-Lughod). I can mostly only echo what you and other commenters have already said about the value of this approach, and the importance of her interrogation of agency.

    But I also share with several of the responses here a concern for some of what is missed. I find Mahmood’s raising of questions more persuasive than her answers. Her suggestions about ethical formation are interesting, deeply theoretically engaged, and a mess. It’s a fascinating mess, but I will admit that I haven’t yet fully disentangled fully what it means per se. But in addition to Mittermaier’s suggestion that any notion of the divine is left out of Mahmood’s formulation, I have an additional point of discomfort with the models she develops, even in those places where I admit some of the theorizing remains a bit murky to me.

    Mahmood is essentially calling for a dismissal of etic categories of analysis in understanding agency. We must understand agency as operating in fields of emic discursive traditions. Only by understanding those emic categories can we understand those experiences of agency. The attempt to understand others’ experience occurs from trying to get inside the other.

    But Mahmood reaches this conclusion via a completely etic anthropological/philosophical discourse. She creates a Western theory of agency in order to explore agency. This theory of agency is more open to the models of agency she encountered in her mosques, but it is open to them on the basis of its own prior theorizing. What if Mahmood were to have conducted an ethnography of women’s shelters in Brooklyn, focusing on their progressive female staff? Their vision of agency may have actually been something extremely similar to the positions Mahmood is critiquing here. Does this mean that Mahmood has to reject her own methodological frame in favor of the local set of categories?

    This is one of the danger of theorizing so explicitly and in this particular way in an ethnographic monograph, I think: you set yourself up as simultaneously believing something is always true, and then saying “but it’s only as true as the ethnographic informants say it is!” Well, no, if you’re proposing it as theory, you’re making an implicit claim that it’s the correct way to interpret a phenomenon. This is a truth claim. Agency means *this.* It doesn’t mean *this.*

    So don’t all anthropologists do this? I don’t think so. I think of Premawardhana and “Faith in Flux.” This is a book that attempts Mahmood’s same project–to understand the experiences of people on their own terms. And it, too, ends up using western theoretical frames–phenomenology, and notions of polyontological mobility. But it uses these concepts as things that emerge from the emic experience. The emic and etic concepts are in a state of dialogue. It is an ambiguous thing to claim, but in Mahmood’s work it feels like the etic theory monologues and the emic pieces fall in line.

    I think part of this is due to an implicit difference in their approach to a core question: how do we understand others’ experiences?

    Mahmood’s is an attempt to understand from within, by dismissing etic categories for emic ones. Because of this, it feels inconsistent when she uses an etic theoretical frame.

    Premawardhana’s work does not take quite so stark a stance. His effort, via his engagement with questions of relation, seems to implicitly operate from a position of thinking the understanding of experience occurs by some kind of process of collapse and intermingling. This means that the etic conceptual framework can legitimately engage with local understandings, without violating the basic premise of the ethnographic project.

    This is an abrupt ending, but I’ll just say that highlighting these problems and their origins is one reason why I think it’s valuable for ethnographers to consider the means by which they imagine the experience of the other is able to be understood.

  4. Chelsea, thank you for providing such a comprehensive and lucid précis.
    I appreciate that Mahmood takes the time to explore the intersections of religion, politics, ritual, selfhood, and agency. The only other work we’ve engaged that comes close to such breadth and depth is Don’s One People, One Blood. To that end, Tala raises what I think is a good question and that is of “repeatability” of Mahmood’s method in different area. I believe you, Chelsea, raised the same question regarding Birgit Meyer’s Sensational Movies. Based on the descriptions of salat offered in the “Rehearsed Spontaneity,” – “(1) an intention to dedicate the prayer to God, (2) a prescribed sequence of gestures and words, (3) a physical condition of purity, and (4) proper attire. While fulfilling these four conditions renders prayer acceptable (maqbol),” I am inclined to think that her method may be relatable within the same religion (Islam) in different regions, but not necessarily across religions. As I think about Christianity, particularly in the United States, something as common as prayer takes on many forms even though there is a model provided in the New Testament by Jesus. In fact, the sacraments of Baptism and Communion in the Protestant church are practiced so liberally that one would be hard pressed to find two, for example, Baptist churches who conduct the ritual the same way.

  5. Thank you Chelsea for your precis! I enjoyed reading Mehmood’s work particularly because of its setting in a post-colonial context. “Secular” or “westernised” approaches have dominated Indian political and academic spheres too and communities not adhereing to secular values were put in the “waiting room of History”. Mehmood attempts to explore the limits of such value systems in understanding agencey in an Isalmic context and pushes for use of emic analytical categories but utlimately, as Jackson also points out, turns back to etic frameworks; probably as an attempt of making them intelligeble. That said, I would like to discuss if it is possible to use emic categories without bringing them in conversation with the etic and dominantones and yet making them intelligble.

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