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Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject

[Cover of Saba Mahmood, [Cover of Saba Mahmood, "Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject."]

Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Much of the implicit political background—the staging-point—of Saba Mahmood’s highly acclaimed ethnography of the women’s mosque movement in Egypt, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject, is laid out in the brief preface to the book. In a couple of pages, Mahmood discusses the sense of embattlement and alienation experienced by an entire generation of men and women on the secular left all over the Middle East in the face of the rising tide of neo-colonial and Islamist politics and policies of the 1970s and 1980s. The story is a familiar one to anyone with some knowledge of the region’s recent history: US-backed military dictatorships and proxy wars; state-authorized Islamization of the media, education, and the judiciary; the export of Wahabism via communities of returning Gulf workers and direct Saudi funding of Islamic schools and charitable societies; and rampant privatization of the state sector, including, significantly, education.

Mahmood’s point of reference to this history is Pakistan—the country of her birth—but of course Egypt (the location of her 1995-1997 field-work and subject of the book) is an equally salient example of the devastation wreaked on the secular left by a military regime in the full throes of IMF- and USAID-driven structural adjustment and Cold War realignment. The Sadat regime actively supported the creation of Islamist cadres in university student government and professional associations. In Egypt, the universities and syndicates were key sites of confrontation between secular left and religious right. Harassment and intimidation (by Islamist groups in concert with state security forces) and violent campus clashes were rife throughout this transitional period. Many of the young activists of the socialist and reformed communist movements were imprisoned or driven into exile abroad. Many—including Muslim reformists—stayed on to fight dictatorship, sectarianism, and neo-liberalism from within the university, labor unions, and professional associations. This history of bitter conflict, persecution, and struggle is nowhere present in the Politics of Piety, despite the curious fact that the very term da’wa on which the entire book hinges is, in an important sense, central to it. I will return to this point in a moment.

In the Politics of Piety, Mahmood’s immediate concern as a US-based postcolonial feminist disillusioned, like so many of her generation, by the apparent failure of secular left politics and the increasing mass appeal of “Islamic forms of sociability” in the region is to address the vexing question of “why…such a large number of women across the Muslim world actively support a movement that seems inimical to their own ‘interests and agendas,’ especially at a historical moment when these women appear to have more emancipatory possibilities available to them.” Unlike contemporary Muslim feminists who appropriate and reinterpret scripture and exegetical traditions to challenge many forms of legal and social discrimination against women, the women of the mosque movement avoid politics altogether and focus on cultivating an embodied practice of personal piety that seems to bow to the patriarchal logic of fundamentalist Islam. The movement is centered on all-women, informal teaching and discussion circles located in mosques across Cairo in both poor and affluent neighborhoods. Mahmood situates the movement as a reaction to growing dissatisfaction with Egypt’s increasing secularization and “westernization.” The material she presents is rich and fascinating. She briefly traces the intellectual history of the movement and its role in relation to the state, but most of the book is devoted to exploring the classroom discussions of a selected group of women (both students and teachers/preachers) across a range of ages and social classes in their attempts to shape an authentically pious self.

The book is thus both an anthropology of the women’s mosque movement in Cairo in the mid-nineties and an elaborate philosophical critique of secular concepts of agency in a post-9/11 arena where “Islam” is increasingly manufactured by liberal western elites as the antithesis of “reason,” “enlightenment,” and human emancipation, and where “feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses.” The ethnography is framed by a major political statement about the role of academic research in the world at large, and the meaning of resistance to regimes of oppression. My main interest here is the latter, and it is on the politics of the Politics of Piety that the rest of this review will focus.

Mahmood’s startling answer to the feminist dilemma raised by the mosque movement is to sever the idea of women’s agency from “resistance to relations of domination, and the concomitant naturalization of freedom as a social ideal,” or more broadly speaking, from “the goals of progressive politics.” (In other words, there is no inherent reason why women must resist their oppression, since agency can be fully articulated in an embodied ethical practice that transcends western liberal distinctions of public and private). She does this by proposing the practice of da’wa in women’s circles in Cairo as an example of “lifeworlds” that altogether escape the antinomies of liberal thought, including feminist ones. 

Clearly, the post-9/11 political environment in the United States is the immediate impetus for this project; an environment in which, from the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan onwards, neo-conservative rhetoric about the need to save Muslim women from the depredations of Islamic fundamentalism has been one of the major driving forces behind colonial wars abroad and virulent Islamophobic campaigns at home. Needless to say, this is a commendable impulse, and yet by framing her argument in this way, Mahmood sets up an antinomy of her own that erases a broad range of complex historical struggles and alliances. She obliges the reader to choose between a western liberal feminism that has always been more or less associated with imperial interventions, and a recent Islamic piety movement that, according to Mahmood herself, is uninterested in challenging, indeed supports, patriarchal forms of oppression.

But are these really the only positions available to progressive leftists, as she implies? Why, one asks, is feminism here exclusively associated with liberalism, when a vibrant socialist and internationalist feminist tradition that actively struggled against imperialism, fundamentalism and state discrimination has existed in Egypt and elsewhere in the region since at least the 1950s?[1] And why is the contemporary da'wa movement presented as an uncontested and normative feature of Egyptian women's lifeworlds, when feminists of Egypt (of three different denominations—Muslim, Christian, and Atheist) are today locked in an increasingly bitter struggle with an American-backed "Islamizing" regime on the one hand and a broad range of state-sanctioned Salafi activists on the other? Mahmood sidesteps this range of positions, producing instead what Timothy Brennan has called a "politics of being" that celebrates supposedly inherited forms of difference at the expense of dissident "communities of belief." 

Mahmood’s fascinating deconstruction of western liberal formulations of agency in relation to mosque movement women’s practices of embodiment (in chapter five, “Agency, Gender and Embodiment”) sits uneasily with her critique in chapter one (“The Subject of Freedom”) of a “politically prescriptive” feminist practice. The term da’wa (“call, invitation, appeal, or summons”), as Mahmood explains in chapter two (“Topography of the Piety Movement”), already includes within itself an unequivocal notion of agency, through the idea of the active solicitation of others; hence, it would be counterintuitive to think of da’iyāt (female preachers) and their students as simply passive victims of masculine ideology.

Mahmood is entirely correct in her valuation of mosque movement women as active social agents. What I miss in her analysis of both the concept and the movement, however, is a notion of da’wa as an explicit modality of politics and power that is not only directed inward to a physical embodiment of the spiritual self, but outwards, at a network of other bodies.[3] Mahmood translates this form of solicitation as a “pedagogy of persuasion,” but it can equally be understood as a form of “conversion,” particularly when one thinks in terms of the movement’s broader strategic goals as opposed to its tactics. Indeed, it is the absence of this broader viewpoint—a critical reading of the entire range of the piety movement’s institutional and pedagogic activities (“establishing neighborhood mosques, social welfare organizations, Islamic educational institutions, and printing presses, as well as urging fellow Muslims toward greater religious responsibility, either through preaching or personal conversation”)—that allows Mahmood to define the women’s piety movement as a purely ethical and entirely positive project of personal cultivation and to ignore its function as a politically prescriptive project in its own right.[4]

There is a certain tension here, however. On the one hand, the movement is certainly part of the broader privatization and neo-liberalization of Egypt in the wake of the first waves of structural adjustment of the 1970s. The women’s mosque movement simply cannot be seen in isolation from the rise, in the 1990s, of a multi-million dollar Islamic media industry (best personified perhaps by the charismatic young preacher ‘Amr Khalid) that deliberately took the politics out of Islam and preached an ethics of personal cultivation quite similar to the one Mahmood describes in her book to the country’s new private-sector elites, particularly its women. On the other hand, its broad appeal to embattled and impoverished middle and working class women has actively facilitated the steady shrinking of the space in which Egyptian women have historically struggled to achieve full citizenship and equality under the law, whether at home, in the workplace, or on the street. We are neither “born” into feminism nor into religious fundamentalism, but grow into these positions through a whole range of commitments and struggles, learning experiences, and “pedagogies of persuasion” that are often in direct conflict with each other. In this sense, then, da’wa is not the “natural” expression of an ontological form of Egyptian women’s agency grounded in “sentiments…and sensibilities” that are finally untranslatable in terms of progressive “western” ideals, but an active political movement that explicitly strives to convert—or expel—the other.

This, at least, is how both men and women—progressive leftists like Mahmood herself—in Egypt understand the movement’s role within the larger Islamic revival sweeping the country. My point here is that once da’wa is placed within the context of a larger and bitterly contested field of power in contemporary Egyptian society, Mahmood’s argument for scholarly neutrality in the name of a postmodern cultural relativism becomes quite problematic, for it obscures an ongoing political struggle and forecloses the possibility of active commitments and solidarities; of “taking sides,” so to speak. In an increasingly conservative and conformist US academic environment, the implications of this argument are especially troubling.

In the book’s epilogue, Mahmood closes with a poignant reiteration of her opening position: “This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope that in this embattled and imperious climate…analysis as a mode of conversation, rather than mastery, can yield a vision of coexistence that does not require making other lifeworlds extinct or provisional.” I would like to suggest that if we were to shift the terms of this conversation from the United States to Egypt, the “lifeworld” in actual danger of becoming “extinct or provisional” is that of feminism itself—dissident, secular, and anti-colonial. I daresay such an outcome would not be entirely uncongenial to the (neo)liberal crusaders against whose imperial pretensions Mahmood has written her book. However, it would certainly be another great tragedy for Egypt and the region as a whole.


[1] The Women’s Conference of the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (The Afro-Asian Federation for Women) was founded in 1957, and six of its international meetings were convened in Egypt: in 1961, 1975, 1995, 1998, 2000, and 2001. In 1991, the Cairo office of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association was shut down by government decree due to the Association’s unequivocal and widely publicized condemnation of the first Gulf War, and its funds handed over to an Islamic women’s group. Today there are a host of feminist organizations that sponsor research and do legal and social advocacy work on behalf of women and that are tolerated by the regime in varying degrees.
[2] Timothy Brennan, Wars of Position: The Cultural Politics of Left and Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).
[3] Mahmood’s brief discussion of da’wa’s historical meaning in relation to the principle of al-amr bil ma’rūf wal-nahi ‘an al-munkar (“to command others in the doing of good or right, and the forbidding of evil or wrong”) urgently raises the question of power but leaves its political implications unexplored.
[4] Mahmood avoids this problem by acknowledging it as the effect of a discredited secular epistemology. Her critique of secularism is a major axis of the book and a huge subject in its own right. I refer the reader to Stathis Gourgouris’ salient critique of her conflation of “secularism” with “the secular” in “Detranscendentalizing the Secular,” Public Culture 20(3) (2008): 437-435. 

5 comments for "Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject"


It is refreshing to read this well-informed review of Mahmood's book. In my opinion, Mahmood's works have been celebrated to a great extent in American universities. It has been difficult to voice disagreements with Mahmood who is seen as "the authority" on the question of women, religiosity and liberalism. Selim's critique of the book provides insights and allows for a different approach to understanding the history, and implications, of women's movements in a place like Egypt.

Hayat wrote on October 13, 2010 at 01:27 PM

Powerful piece, Samah. It's got a great buzz going through my circles.

Lisa wrote on October 16, 2010 at 05:39 PM

Thank you!

line wrote on November 09, 2010 at 06:48 AM

“Luther, without question, overcame servitude through devotion but only by substituting servitude through conviction. He shattered the faith in authority by restoring the authority of faith. He transformed the priests into laymen by turning laymen into priests. He liberated man from external religiosity by making religiosity the innermost essence of man. He liberated the body from its chains because he fettered the heart with chains.”

- Marx, from Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Maurice wrote on March 12, 2012 at 04:22 AM

This is an excellent piece and an insightful historical contextualization of the Islamist far right celebrated by Mahmood - and endorsed by some of the most prominent political theorists in English speaking academia.

Minnie wrote on April 09, 2012 at 10:49 PM

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