Book Review: Politics of Piety / Saba Mahmood

Mahmood, S. (2012). Politics of piety: the islamic revival and the feminist subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 

This thought-provoking yet complicated book is a groundbreaking analysis of the complex relationship between religious practices and beliefs of (some) Muslim women and modern secular liberal discourses on feminism and other issues. The ethnography, published in 2004 by the cultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood, takes place in Cairo, Egypt which scrutinizes the feminine pietistic movements in Egypt in 1995 which could be inscribed into what is called “Islamic revival” or the mosque movement, to be more specific. Throughout her ethnography, Mahmood comes to realize a completely different understanding of piety and devotion. To her surprise, the women taking part in the movement present a complex relationship between religion and feminist thinking because they participate in the mentioned movement within the patriarchal systems that they are in; instead of fighting against it. Hence, by investigating such complex ideas and relationships, she brings new understandings to various topics such as ethics, agency, embodiment, and identity. Thus, the book has won the 2005 Victoria Shuck Award by bringing out such new perspectives and understandings on many taken-for-granted notions within the liberal discourse. In this review, I will present the contents of the book, chapter by chapter, and finally, ask the question of what makes this ethnography special and why I believe that this book is worthy of winning awards. 

The book consists of five chapters. In the first chapter, called The Subject of Freedom, questions how women’s involvement in Islamist movements, such as the “Islamic revival”, receives controversial reactions, as some people question whether women in such movements are merely taking part in structures of patriarchy. The second chapter, Topography of the Piety Movement, provides descriptions of the sites and the women that visit them. It also presents further information about what the Mosque Movement aims for. In the third chapter, named Pedagogies of Persuasion, Mahmood digs into the women’s mosque lessons to understand how they see authority in the traditional materials that were used. In the fourth chapter, called Positive Ethics and Ritual Conventions, the author examines how the external and the internal self are related and how the external action shapes the internal self. And in the final chapter, named Agency, Gender, and Embodiment, Mahmood concludes that Judith Butler’s famous concept of performativity does not describe the mosque movement. Now, I will be further touching upon the contents of each chapter.  

In the opening chapter, before going into the details of her ethnography, Mahmood states that unlike the historically male-centered aspect of mosques, women’s mosque movement stands as being the first time in Egypt that women hold public meetings in mosques to teach each other about their religious doctrine. She also criticizes the assumption of feminist scholarship that women that take part in such movements are resisting the patriarchal system they are in. Then she goes into a very complex analysis of agency and ethics. Borrowing ideas from Foucault and Butler, she proposes that what may appear as passivity and docility from a progressivist point of view, may actually be a form of agency that can only be understood from within the discourses and structures of subordination that create the conditions of its enactment (p.14-15). I believe that this chapter is perhaps the most significant chapter which sums Mahmood’s ideas and reveals what her ethnography stands for.  

Having laid the foundations of her thinking in the first chapter, in the following chapter Mahmood describes her three sites. The first one is the Umar mosque complex which is located in an upper-middle-income neighborhood of Cairo. The second one is the Ayesha complex in which the Da’yat (female proselytizers) come from working-class backgrounds with limited education. The third one is the Nafisa mosque which commands the largest female attendance in any mosque in Cairo. So, the vast differences observed in these three mosques illustrate the diverse character of women’s mosque movement which consists of people from various age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds with differing rhetorical styles and modes of argumentation. Throughout the sermons and lectures in these mosques, Mahmood realizes that the participants of the movement advocate religious obligations and rituals that relate to worldly issues to live in accord with the Islamic adage “all life is worship” (p.47). So, the goal of the mosque movement is to introduce and discuss a common set of shared norms of standards by which the followers are to judge and fit according to their own conduct in various worldly situations ranging from employment to other various social activities.  

After describing her sites and giving further information about the movement and the women that take part in it, in chapter three, the author investigates what methods the women follow in drawing instructions for their lives. Mahmood touches upon Islamic discursive traditions and the role of texts that women discuss in their circles. After providing numerous ethnographic examples, the author states that the women do not just impart knowledge from what is written in classical texts but rather debate and argue about the Quranic principles and how such texts should be navigated. By further investigation, Mahmood concludes by presenting a sophisticated relationship between agency and the Islamic discursive tradition. She states that the Islamic discursive tradition is a method of engaging and familiarizing one’s self with texts that shape how followers live; so, the texts do not simply define how Muslims should live their lives. In other words, the women’s lessons in the movement reveal that it would be misleading to search for truths within the texts because truths are fashioned through engagements with the texts. So, this creates room for agency within the limits of tradition. 

The final two chapters make a drastic turn to discussions of ethics, virtues, and piety. Mahmood explains how the external actions play a role in shaping the internal self by giving various examples she has encountered during her fieldwork. In one case, the women of the mosque movement argue whether it is appropriate to force one’s self to insincerely weep during prayer, as weeping in prayers were considered a very pious act in the Islamic tradition. In another case, women discuss whether it is acceptable for a woman to veil regardless of pious intentions. Mahmood sees such discussions as pointing to the Aristotelian concept of habitus that was inscribed in such rituals. For the women of the mosque movement, ritual is both an ethical means and ends. Because rituals, for them, meant to please God by shaping one’s self. Mahmood effectively summarizes her point by saying that “… the mosque participants did not regard authorized models of behavior as an external social imposition that constrained the individual. Rather, they viewed socially prescribed forms of conduct as the potentialities, the ‘scaffolding,’ if you will, through which the self is realized. It is precisely this self-willed obedience to religiously prescribed social conventions—what is often criticized as blind and uncritical emulation—that elicits the critique that such movements only serve to reproduce the existing patriarchal order and to prevent women from distinguishing their ‘own desires and aspirations’ from those that are ‘socially dictated’” (p.148). Therefore, Mahmood believes that people exhibit agency precisely because they cultivate their ethics. It is through this complicated analysis of ethics and agency that Mahmood evaluates Butler’s famous notion of performativity and sees that the notion fails to describe the mosque movement. As an example, Mahmood presents different ways the women of the mosque movement are taught to deal with their secular (and not pious) husbands. So, she argues that such examples serve as other modalities of agency in which ‘subordination’ way of looking at agency fails to suffice.  

To conclude this review, I would like to point to why I believe this outstanding ethnography of Saba Mahmood indeed deserves getting an award. In brief, I have two reasons. The first reason is about the content of the book which provides a rich description and analysis of how ‘agency’ has different modalities that may contradict with liberal understandings of freedom today. And Mahmood’s thought-provoking arguments are not only limited to ‘agency’ but involve other concepts such as ethics, embodiment, and piety. Throughout her work, I was able to gain new insights about how ethical norms are scaffoldings that help an agent in shaping the self through self-work. The second reason is regarding the context and time the book was published in. Published after the 9/11 incident, which, in the West, led to the marginalization of Muslims and to accusing Islam of subordinating women, the book has done a great job in questioning the painted picture of Muslim women in liberal discourses. By doing so, Mahmood, as an anthropologist, has influenced many others, like myself, in cultivating a sympathy for the discipline of anthropology.  

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