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Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe

1 Comment 🕔04.Aug 2016

At one of the Norwegian Anthropological Association’s annual conferences in the 1990s, the late Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik W. Barth famously quipped that during his ethnographic research for the now classic text Political Leadership Among Swat Pathans (1959), he had paid little attention to the mosques and prayer houses of Pakistan’s Swat Valley because he found the activities in that sphere so utterly dull and boring. Today’s anthropologists for the most part live in different times and with different professional sensibilities. What the late Susan Sontag insightfully referred to as the rhetorical trope of the “anthropologist as hero” was really a product of the age of colonial expansion and exploration and is no longer with us. The colonial “other” has, in post-coloniality, become an irreducible part of European societies, and the very idea that the sphere of the “religious”— let alone the sphere of women—does not and should not matter to anthropologists now seem patently absurd.

There is by now an extensive anthropological literature on Muslim women’s piety, in many cases inspired by the analytical framework developed by Talal Asad and his erstwhile student Saba Mahmood in Formations of the Secular (Asad 2003) and Politics of Piety (Mahmood 2005). Anthropological scholars who have made important contributions to the genre include Mayanthi Fernando, Nadia Fadil, and Lara Deeb. Jeanette S. Jouili’s Pious Practice and Secular Constraints is profoundly inspired by what one may refer to as an “Asadian-Mahmoodian” framework of analyzing pious Muslim women in the revivalist movement, yet also departs from this framework of analysis on some crucial points. Jouli’s fine and detailed ethnography of Muslim women in this by all means heterogeneous movement in Germany and France well illustrates the potential as well as the limitations of the genre.

Jouli’s female informants and interlocutors were recruited from Islamic centers in the North Parisian suburb or banlieue of St. Denis and in the city of Cologne in Germany. These are, as Jouili herself points out, centers that have attracted mainly Muslims of Maghrebi, East African, and convert background in the French case; Turkish, convert and Middle Eastern background in the German case. By and large, the Muslim women in question appear highly educated in both secular and religious disciplines and often quite inclined towards various forms of religious activism and proselytization (da‘wa), concerned with what, to borrow Charles Taylor’s language, they deem to be “Islamically authentic” and what this might entail in terms of acquired knowledge and ritual skills. Though Jouili does not spend much time on this, they are closely aligned with the Islamic revivalist movements that emerged in wider Western Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, as well as Muslim intellectuals affiliated with this movement (often referred to as an “Islam of The Middle Way”), such as Tariq Ramadan, Hassan Iquioussen, Larbi Kechat, Dhaou Meskine and Hichème el-Arafa. In fact, one of the Islamic centers most central in Jouili’s study, the St. Denis Center of Studies and Research on Islam (CERSI), is the brainchild of el-Arafa. For those familiar with the scholarly literature on French Islam, it would be recommended to read Jouili’s monograph alongside John R. Bowen’s 2010 Can Islam Be French?, which offers a more extensive and systematic (but also more male- and leadership-centered) treatment of the contextualized Islamic normative framework developed in the past decades at centers like these. There is, as Bowen and others have long pointed out, not only a national but also a transnational context to all of this: though not always consistent and coherent , what has become known as the “Islam of the Middle Way” has clear affinities with the moderate Islamist wasatiyya (“centrist”) trend in the contemporary Islamic landscape of the Middle East, ably analyzed by Michelle Browers (2009). This “Islam Of The Middle Way,” as Jouili argues, excludes both scholars and positions deemed to be “too liberal” or “too extremist” and emphasizes the ability to address specific questions relating to what being Muslim means in a predominantly non-Muslim, liberal and secular European context. Jouili contends that the Islamic centers she has studied in addition to providing a “home away from home” for many of her female interlocutors have been “pivotal for the formation of a European and diasporic type of revival Islam, and for forging networks and elaborating new modes of pious sociability” (48). A central part of the activities at these centers is knowledge dissemination through education (tarbiyya), which is seen as intrinsically related to da‘wa or “moral guidance that seeks to encourage Muslims to follow Islamic prescriptions” (ibid.). Most of the women that Jouili encounters in these Islamic circles have all gone through a process of religious re-awakening apparently often triggered by a sense of being “othered” in the societal contexts in which they find themselves, and some sort of identity crisis leading to a turn to the revivalist Islamic framework of understanding. This framework is, as a matter of course, one which distances them as religious beings from the supposedly unthinking “traditional” Islam of their parental generation. Jouili usefully leans on the anthropologist Webb Keane’s analysis of objectification in describing the formal religious education and the “authenticated” religious knowledge her female interlocutors acquire through it as “more reflexive, intellectual and rational” (36). The extent to which Jouili’s French Muslim informants refer to Islamic knowledge through invocation of the term la science or “science” rather than savoir or “knowledge” is striking in this context, also in its subtle discursive opposition to the hegemonic French laic-secularist educational framework in which terms such as “science” and “Islam” can hardly be mentioned in the same sentence. In any event, this is a point at which Jouili’s analysis parts ways from those advanced by Asad and Mahmood, who have been profoundly skeptical about the claims that there is anything novel or quintessentially modern about objectification of knowledge. Jouili is also to be commended for underlining that the “practices of self-cultivation” in which her female interlocutors engage are “considerably less linear, less completed,” “less unequivocal and self-evident” (15) than the impression one could get from Mahmood’s work on women’s piety in Cairo, Egypt in the early 2000s. For, as some of Jouili’s interlocutors point out, getting up before dusk to perform the early morning fajr prayer, not to mention finding time to perform the prescribed five daily prayers , is easier said than done if you happen to have small children and a demanding work life outside the home. To sustain such self-cultivation requires, one would imagine, narratives not only about non-Muslim others, but also about the proverbial “enemy within” which comes in the form of friends and family who have “abandoned all commitment to Islam in order to endorse a fully secular lifestyle.” (49). This is especially so when one cannot as an analyst, “presume that these ‘regimes’ succeed in becoming all-encompassing in an individual’s life, nor that they circumscribe stable or static formations,” as Jouili rightly notes (56). But here is the rub: Jouili has written a fine ethnography based on detailed and in-depth participant observation at Islamic centers in St. Denis and in Cologne,and conducted in depth, qualitative interviewing of Muslim women attending classes and courses at these centers. However, in the absence of much empirical detail beyond these women’s own narratives about how they negotiate the very real challenges of living what they see as a virtuous and pious life in an often and increasingly hostile liberal and secular societal environment in other domains (home, workplaces et cetera), this reviewer is once more struck by the limitations of this particular genre of ethnographic studies of pious Muslim women in revivalist movements. We should by now have learned – though this is an underexplored aspect in much of the available literature on the phenomenon – that these women, by virtue of their social and class background and education, bring certain modes of understanding and practicing Islam, that are in many respects strikingly similar to the very forms of modern objectification of knowledge that social science scholars represent. But this ethnographic genre seems by now to have reached a bit of an analytical and methodological impasse, and it remains an open question whether anything novel or original can be said about the lives of pious Muslim women after a decade of feminist anthropological scholarship on the phenomenon.

Reviewed by Sindre Bangstad, University of Oslo

Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe
by Jeanette S. Jouili
Stanford University Press
Paperback / 272 pages / 2015
ISBN: 9780804794664


Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003).

Barth, Fredrik W. Political Leadership Among Swat Pathans. London: (LSE Monographs on Social Anthropology, 1959).

Bowen, John R. Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010).

Browers, Michelle L. Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation. (New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

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


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