Contemporary Islam

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 75–83

The meta-theory of piety: reflections on the work of Saba Mahmood


    • Department of Southeast Asian Studies and the Asia Research InstituteNational University of Singapore

DOI: 10.1007/s11562-007-0030-y

Cite this article as:
Bautista, J. Cont Islam (2008) 2: 75. doi:10.1007/s11562-007-0030-y


This paper discusses the extent to which Saba Mahmood’s ideas about Muslim women and agency are relevant for works beyond her ethnographic speciality. The first part will reflect upon her arguments about Muslim female piety within the larger context of progressive politics in the USA and the Middle East. The second part will describe the implications of Mahmood’s work towards the production of alternative discourses—that is, works inspired by and produced from outside the overarching influence of a Euro-American intellectual tradition.


Saba MahmoodMuslim womenDocilityPietyAlternative discourseEmbodied agency

What I seek to do in this article is to engage with the meta-theoretical implications of Saba Mahmood’s work. I am not referring exclusively to her book The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005), though I will be drawing a great deal from the ideas presented in therein. I shall be concerned with Mahmood’s corpus of works that discuss concepts such as agency, docility and freedom. Mahmood’s work is as much as a comment about the epistemological conditions under which Muslim women are understood as it is an ethnographic portrait of their life-worlds. In this sense, her work is a platform upon which I hope to comment upon the meta-theoretical implications of research on the subject of piety, of which at least some of the papers in this volume are concerned.

I start the discussion by reflecting upon the ways in which Mahmood’s work communicates with the wider milieu of the war on/of terror. The power of her scholarship comes in the form of an indictment of a discursive environment in which normative assumptions about Muslim female docility, complicity, resistance or freedom find naturalised and, in the end, invalid, currency. Implied in this discussion are Mahmood’s observations about the convergence between secular feminism and the politics of Empire deployed by the neo-conservative agenda. It is on this topic that Mahmood’s research on the role of women in the mosque movement in Egypt intersects with her assessment of a certain genre of contemporary Muslim female literature in the USA.

The second part of the discussion aims to channel the methodological implications of Mahmood’s work on scholarship outside of her ethnographic speciality. Her work can be said to have re-inscribed the heuristic priorities of Asian scholarship towards ‘the body’ and towards ‘rituals of piety’ that underscore people’s values and dispositions. In so doing, Mahmood has invited us to rethink the concept of agency itself as one that needs to be ‘kept open’ and freed from deterministic binaries of resistance/subordination. Mahmood argues that the embodied agency of pious Muslim females denotes their capacity to craft moral values by virtue of enacting corresponding bodily techniques. In discussing this notion of embodied agency, I inquire into the metatheoretical implications of this work for ethnography in general. Specifically, I ask how do works like that of Mahmood’s encourage the development of alternative discourse as well as of organic scholarship outside the West.

The universality of desire

In Politics of Piety, Mahmood describes the motivations, desires, commitments and aspirations of women who participate in mosque movements in Egypt. Her subjects are women who regularly meet to discuss, learn and teach each other Islamic doctrine, thereby manifesting the increased opportunities available to women in the historically male-centred domain of Islamic pedagogy. Mahmood provides rich ethnographic detail about particular women in these movements – drawing insights from their own rationalisations about the vicissitudes, dilemmas and struggles that Muslim women everywhere, not just in Egypt, face. We shall return to Mahmood’s ethnography later in this essay. It is important at this juncture to examine the discursive field of progressive politics to which Mahmood’s ethnography speaks, or rather, “speaks back”.

The skewed understanding of female mosque movements is as significant a subject of Mahmood’s analysis as is that of the women who participate in them. For her, prevalent presumptions about Muslim women manifest a scepticism or even hostility with which religious traditions are viewed in the West. Mahmood’s work is particularly significant for example, in the context of the politically charged 9/11 milieu – one in which the discussions about Islam’s ‘mis/treatment’ of women occupies a place high on the public agenda. This milieu is characterised by the acceptability in which certain questions about Islam can be publicly aired: why would women participate in Islamist movements when, or so it is supposed, it manifests a grand patriarchal plan to subordinate women and is, in that respect, against their welfare and interests? Why would rational, intelligent and articulate women agree to be associated with interests or habits that would supposedly entrench them into forms of submissive participation? Why would ‘modern’ enlightened women choose to veil themselves? Shouldn’t Muslim women desire to free themselves from such practices, seeking instead a state in which their lives are not contingent upon the dictates of fundamentalist religion and cultural authority?

To begin with, Mahmood does not so much offer direct answers to these questions as much as provide a critique of the specific discursive and political conditions in which such questions gain legitimacy. For the subject of Mahmood’s work is not just Egyptian women, but the universalisation of a secular conception of desire that contains within it parochial (and decidedly Western) assumptions about female subjectivity. She believes that the experience of Muslim women in general is measured against the powerful trope of the autonomous individual, free from the constraints of culture or traditional religious authority, and emancipated from the patriarchal forms of subjugation of which Islam is inherently characteristic. When women fall short of liberal expectations of freedom, they are thought to be victims of a resurgent fundamentalism defined by a propensity towards the subjugation of their interests, if not outright violence towards them. But what if women are not victims, but willing participants in such forms of “subjugation”? How does this liberal model of freedom and desire account for the complicity in participating in or even running Islamist movements?

An increasingly popular “take” on the issue would suggest that the continued participation of women in mosque movements is indicative of a false consciousness which can only be addressed by the antidote of secular politics and democratisation. The supposition that Muslim women should desire to oppose Islamic revivalism, or at least choose not to be complicit in it, is both a product and a symptom of a world in which ideas about docility and emancipation are bound indelibly to liberal conceptions of feminine agency. These unenlightened Muslim women who subject themselves to forms of patriarchal domination must, so this telos goes, be refashioned and awakened to the vicissitudes of their oppression by bringing them into ‘modernity’ or through giving them a thoroughly liberal (read; Western) education.

This is not simply a case of a clash of (discursive) civilisations in which real communication between the West and the “Muslim world” is precluded by an insurmountable cultural relativism. Mahmood argues that Muslim women themselves, particularly those who become popular in the West, are complicit in fortifying the tropes of progressive politics. Mahmood had recently painted a portrait of this situation in a lecture entitled “Secular feminism and Politics of Empire: Islam and the War on Terror”, which she delivered in Singapore in mid 2007. She argued that Muslim women themselves had provided the material by which liberal notions of freedom and docility become naturalised as ideal. Muslim women authors in the USA deploy and propagate the trope of Islam as inherently patriarchal and, in so being, oppressive towards women. Consistently making the best seller lists in Europe and America, the genre of ‘the Muslim Woman Speaks out’ is popular because they are seen as legitimate indictments on everything that is ‘bad’ about Islam. What gives these works of literature their persuasive force is the ‘authenticity’ of their source, written as they are by women who are passing judgement on Islam from the perspective of those who have lived through its worst face – a face consistent with Islamophobic rhetoric of the war on terror. In effect, the Muslim voices that are championed in the West are those which reproduce and even amplify the Islamophobic presumptions of its audience, offering very little encouragement towards a more nuanced understanding of female agency outside the telos of progressive politics. The authenticity of these female voices effectively becomes complicit to the Euro-American discourse deployed against terror and “Islamic fundamentalism”.

Even the liberal feminist concern for their “Muslim sisters” is deeply informed by the civilisational rhetoric in which the encounter between Islam and the West is being framed in the post 9/11 world. Inspired by those Muslim female voices which implicitly promote the liberal model of secularist politics, prominent feminists in the USA have found reason to relate to a neo-conservative agenda, together constituting what Mahmood called “a communitas of shared aversion to Islam’s religious symbols and misogyny to which they give expression”. This understanding of feminine Muslim “docility” finds expression even among prominent feminist critics in the USA who reduce the diversity of Islamic politics to variations of a single, sinister patriarchal plot. Implied in this rhetoric is the notion that ‘freedom’ necessarily means an absolute and complete resistance to Islamic revivalism, manifested in the Women’s mosque movement, to which any rational woman regardless of ethnicity or religion should resist. What Mahmood seeks to do is problematise the universality of this normative presumption by exposing and critiquing an intellectual terrain which dichotomises simply along the lines of resistance and subordination – a dyad that Mahmood identifies as indicative of a telos of progressive liberal politics.

On the surface, one might get the impression that Mahmood’s interrogation of naturalised discourse is simply a poststructuralist approach applied to female piety. Indeed, Mahmood is explicit about the value of post-structuralist inspired feminism, one characterised by its critique of Enlightenment rational thought that excludes the emotional, the bodily and the inter-subjective. These critiques do not go far enough, however, because they fail to question the very terms – the discourse – in which these exclusions are made. Even the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, who had been self-reflexive enough to acknowledge the need for a discussion of the discursive field of power, fails to problematise her own use of “resistance” as a normatively emancipatory sentiment. What they fail to realise, in other words, is that the notion of “desire” itself must be dis-entangled from a liberal politics in which emancipation is normative to agency. In Politics of Piety, Mahmood argues persuasively against this by suggesting that there are different forms of ‘desire’ which we can only begin to fathom if we confront the discursive milieu in which only one version ‘desire’ – the liberal democratic one – is conceived as universal. In order to understand the nuances of Islamic female forms of subjectivity, Mahmood argues, we must engage in a realignment of our understandings of desire and ‘agency’ itself. In other words, notions of ‘desire’ and ‘agency’ prevalent in the social sciences must themselves be emancipated from the determinism of progressive politics. How does Mahmood propose this to be achieved?

Embodied agency

The answer to this question is demonstrated in Mahmood’s ethnography itself, and is particularly obvious in her discussion of the relationship between veiling and shyness. Through her ethnography, Mahmood is “speaking back” to liberal assumptions that women are inherently predisposed to seek emancipation from Islamic revivalism, or at least to the suggestion that they ought to. In response to these assumptions, Mahmood does not take the position of an anthropologist representing the intentionality and motivations of her subjects, as though the task of ethnography were merely one of translation. In her analysis of how Muslim women themselves understand veiling and shyness, Mahmood is interested in bringing to light “forms of submission internal to different constructions of freedom”. How is the body involved in this process? What does this have to do with the understanding of piety and its relationship to forms of female agency?

The women Mahmood lived and studied with in Egypt showed her that veiling was not simply a form of submission to patriarchal structures. It was not even a merely a symbolic gesture of marking and reiterating one’s Islamic identity in the face of secularisation. Mahmood goes beyond utilitarian, functionalist or symbolic explanations of veiling in suggesting that it is not merely resultant from natural feelings of shyness or modesty. Veiling, rather, is a practice that is in itself constitutive of a disposition of shyness. To veil oneself is a conscious act of self-cultivation in which the body is an instrument utilised towards piety. In other words, one’s body is both the potential for as well as means through which forms of interiority (such as, but not limited to, shyness) is realised and cultivated.

What Mahmood is demonstrating here is that veiling manifests female embodied capacities. It is important, she argues, to contextualise Muslim women’s ‘docility’ upon, firstly, their capacity to acquire ‘skills’ for moral subjectivities and, secondly, upon the historical and cultural milieu in which they operate. Mahmood illustrates the instrumentality of the body by depicting a pianist undergoing the process of apprenticeship towards mastery. The pianist’s participation in the rigors of training – one that involves an acknowledgement of his subordination to his mentor – can be seen as a kind of submission. This submission, however, does not (and indeed should not) necessitate a surrendering of the apprentice’s freedom to her teacher. Rather, a pianist submits herself to a process in which her struggle, sacrifice and exertion of her bodily skills is conducted upon the prospect eventual achievement and self-fulfilment. In this way, agency is understood as a subject’s capacity for action that, at least in the case of Muslim women in the mosque movement, finds expression under specific conditions of subordination. It is in this way, as Mahmood argues in an earlier article, that women in Mosque movements are “virtuosos of piety.”

From a methodological perspective, what is most prevalent about Mahmood’s work is the assertion that the frameworks of gender equality to which some liberal feminists ascribe are simply inadequate in approximating the depth and breadth of the lives of Muslim women. Her concept of embodied agency as a learned capacity, nevertheless, has a traceable intellectual lineage. While she does not claim to provide a grand theory of agency that is applicable for the entire spectrum of Muslim life-worlds, she follows Talal Asad in crafting a concept of agency that is suitable for specific institutional and semantic networks. Her initial motivation is to expand upon the understanding of subjectivity espoused by Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. But since her understanding of agency is that it is constitutive of human action, it is a concept that bears some affinity with habitus as espoused by Pierre Bourdieu as well as (and in my view closer to) to Marcel Mauss. The significance of Mauss’ work, particularly in his seminal essay “Techniques of the Body” (1934), is that it focused attention away from merely symbolic meanings of human action, towards ‘the body’ as both a repository for, and instrument of, skills, practical reason and aptitudes. Mauss elucidates a concept of ‘habitus’ that captures more concretely than Bourdieu the pedagogical aspects of bodily action in being focused on ‘the techniques and work of collective and individual practical reason rather than, in the ordinary way, merely the soul and its repetitive forces’. In other words, the anthropological understanding of the body’s agency should focus on the techniques of the body as goal-oriented, reasoned, and calculative decision making.

Mahmood’s notion of agency, moreover, resonates with Mauss own definition of the anthropological subject as a conscious agent, aware of their modes of self-fashioning. They are, as Mauss suggests, “people with a sense of the adaptation of their well-coordinated movements to a goal, who are practiced, who ‘know what they are up to’”. It is interesting that anthropologists who engage with Mauss, notably Asad, also use the pianist metaphor that Mahmood employs: “Mauss wanted to talk as it were about the way a professional pianist’s practiced hands remember and play the music being performed, not about how the symbolizing mind ‘clothes a natural bodily tendency’ with cultural meaning.” (Asad 1997:47)

Mahmood’s work, then, is remarkable for its refashioning a universalised notion of agency prevalent in the social sciences. This is a refashioning that is driven by a dissatisfaction with the ways in which existing models for conceptualising “desire” in the West manifest a lack of reflection upon the wider political milieu in which such concepts are embedded. The argument she makes is that no concept, whether in the academic or public sphere, has a causal, deterministic relationship to the reality it claims to denote. In saying this, Mahmood is not championing a blind form of cultural relativism when it comes to the heuristic concepts deployed by scholars. Rather, the significance of her work is in acknowledging the specific fields of power in which our subjects circulate and form.

That Mahmood’s has cast considerable influence on ethnographic research on Muslim women is demonstrated by the papers in this volume. As the papers in this volume point out, the ‘woman question’ has been one of the more crucial topics for those who study Islamization projects around the world. Research on the nature and role of women in Islam have focused on bodily aspects of piety – from discussions on dress, to issues of family law and jurisprudence. The utilitarian or functionalist analysis of Islamic piety, however, has also remained embedded in many works. For example, Anwar (2001) suggests that sartorial modesty of women serves to ensure against moral decadence as well as the harassment of women in public spaces. In many respects, such scholarship reproduces the conventional ideas of female agency that Mahmood herself seeks to transcend. They are embedded in a discourse of gender ideology that carries forward the assumptions of Islam as the natural, internalised order that conditions moods and motivations of piety. While more works have attempted to explain Muslim female piety from within such gender ideology, there is less by way of theorising about how Muslim women themselves responses to such discourses.

This lack is what motivated Tong and Turner (this volume) to conceptualise Malaysian Muslim women’s motivations as motivated by the kind of practical, conscious agency that Mahmood detailed. The responses from the pious women in their research shows that what are apparently uniform religious acts, are in fact “…motivated by diverse calculations, justifications and values; [which are] are neither irrational, nor coerced behaviour, nor do they necessarily contradict the women’s identity, rights, and self-worth.” Their discussion echoes Mahmood’s call for a notion embodied agency that reverses the telos of veiling as an expression or performance of shyness. Rather, veiling is constitutive of piety, not the other way around. Malay women perceive donning the veil, “as a self-determined cultivation of virtuous selves; an expression of obedience to God, religious leaders and husbands; and a way of acquiring spiritual rewards.” (my emphasis). The results in Malaysia, I suspect, manifest Mahmood’s own observations in Egypt – that far from curbing Muslim women’s’ freedom, their participation in Islamic movements facilitates their participation in the socio-political affairs of the societies in which they live.

There may well be those who would doubt the widespread applicability of Mahmood’s ideas, drawn as they are from the Egyptian ‘sample’ alone. Nevertheless, one can hardly underestimate the impact of Mahmood’s ideas about agency, particularly since it communicates with discourses that extend beyond the scope of her own ethnographic speciality. There needs to be a caveat here, however. It is not far-fetched to assume, I gather, that Mahmood herself did not intend her work to be taken as an overarching model that scholars everywhere can apply to studying Muslim females. There is a sense of irony, therefore, in the notion that Mahmood’s influence can be felt in works on Muslim Asian females. The critical aspect of Mahmood’s work is that a nuanced understanding of Muslim women comes not from making generalisations about ‘agency’ but from tracing the specific life-worlds of those we as scholars study. In other words, they key is not meta-theory, but ethnography. This is not to say, however, that Mahmood’s work does not have some wider applicability. In the next section, I discuss the notion that her work is valuable in a methodological sense as an encouragement towards the production of alternative discourse.

Alternative discourse

While Mahmood presents important considerations in the specific sense of understanding Muslim women, as demonstrated by some of the papers in this volume, I would suggest that her notion of embodied agency has wider implications for the formation of alternative, organic discourse in general. Inasmuch as she suggests that the concept of agency should be liberated from progressive politics, it may also be said Mahmood’s scholarship encourages scholars from the non-West to liberate themselves from endemic forms of academic dependency. There have been a host of social scientists, for example, who have identified the problems of developing a scholarly tradition from within the Asian region (for example Sinha 2003, Alatas 2006). A fairly common suggestion of such works is that Asian social science – at least as it is conceived of on a scale of global currency – is hardly ever conceived from within autochthonous foundations mainly because of an inability to raise concepts that do not, in some way, derive the from intellectual and empirical traditions of Euro-America. Associated with this is a trend of neglect of local literary and philosophical traditions as sources of overarching metatheoretical insight. In many respects, this is a legacy of a body of intellectual production that is conceptualised upon the spectre of colonialism, both in its agenda and in the mentalities in which it was produced. One of the prominent features of such forms of academic dependency is the often uncritical imitation of Western social science models for which non-Western life-worlds provide merely counterfactuals, if not empirical validation.

To be sure, many works have been produced which aim specifically at identifying the impediments that beset the development of organic scholarship in social sciences. However, works that prescribe exactly how alternative discourses and frameworks can be fostered, or even what such alternative discourses might look like are the exception rather than the norm. As Alatas (2006) observes,

There is hardly any original metatheoretical or theoretical analysis emerging from the Third World. While a significant amount of empirical work is generated in the Third World, much of this takes its cues for research agenda, theoretical perspectives and methods from research in the West. Dependence on ideas is the general condition of knowledge in the Third World. Although scholarly communities have tirelessly pointed out ethnocentric biases in the Western social sciences, the emergence of autonomous and alternative theoretical traditions are yet to be seen. (p. 64)

How would such alternative discourse be conceptualised? How can we produce work that counteracts Eurocentric tendencies typical of knowledge produced in and about the “third world”? What alternative forms of discourse seek to foster is expansion of intellectual horizons in displacing and decentring the epistemological primacy of one intellectual tradition over another. At this stage, only one indigenised body of social theory takes pre-eminence in the social sciences, that of the West.

The call for alternative discourse does not refer to a kind of nativist analysis which rejects Western thought outright. Alternative discourse, rather, is one in which European thought is not discarded but, as Dipesh Charkrabarty has famously described, provincialised:

Provincializing Europe both begins and ends by acknowledging the indispensability of European political thought to representations of non-European political modernity, and yet struggles with the problems of representations that this indispensability invariably creates. (Chakrabarty 2000: 22)

I agree with Alatas (2006) that alternative discourse is “that which is relevant to its surroundings – is creative, non-imitative and original, non-essentialist, counter-Eurocentric, autonomous from the state and autonomous from other national or transnational groupings.” (2006: 83). What I find most significant and encouraging about Mahmood’s notion of agency and embodied practice is not that it completely invalidates Western-derived epistemology, but that it sufficiently embeds Islamic thinking as a source of metatheoretical insight. In spite of her acknowledgement of the likes of Foucault and Bourdieu, and even a commitment to deeper Aristotelian notion of habitus, Mahmood insists that localised forms of agency and submission are captured more effectively in Ibn Khaldun’s notion of malaka. Drawing from Lapidus’ conception of Ibn Khaldun, Mahmood identifies malaka as “a necessary part of acquiring excellence in a range of practical crafts…[the highest degree of which] is manifest in the practice of faith” (2001, p. 216). While malaka is not a concept that Mahmood had encountered in Egypt, her use of it is significant as a demonstration of a provincialised epistemology of social science in the way that both Chakrabarty and Alatas describe. While it is still relatively early to determine overall the impact of her work upon the development of non Eurocentric scholarship, Mahmood’s work is valuable as a lucid example of how the non-West as itself can be source of intellectual insight, particularly in the description local forms of piety and religiosity.

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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2007