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The Brink

The Roots and Ruptures of Contemporary Islamic Piety

We are pleased to welcome six contributors to discuss the state of many contemporary questions in Islamic studies.

When Vincent Lloyd approached me in the January 2021 about organizing a roundtable on an issue of significant debate within the field of Islamic Studies, my mind went immediately to the conversations produced by the work of Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Charles Hirschkind. As a graduate student doing coursework in the early 2010s, I had learned a great deal both from Asad’s argument for understanding Islam as a discursive tradition, as well as from the theoretical sophistication and nuance evident in Mahmood and Hirschkind’s ethnographies of Islamic piety in Egypt. Yet, I also emerged from this experience with persistent questions as to the completeness of the historical narrative on which this scholarship pivoted, as well as to the implicit assumption that contemporary projects of Islamic piety proceeded largely independently of the ideological and material contexts that surrounded them.

As I turned to writing the introduction to my forthcoming book, In the Shade of the Sunna: Salafi Piety in the 20th Century Middle East (University of California Press, forthcoming 2022), I once again immersed myself in these questions. This process –which included extended conversations with a fellow contributor to this roundtable, Emilio Spadola –pushed me to think through the two major trends that had dominated the study of Islam over the past four decades. The first of these trends –reflected most prominently in the work of Timothy Mitchell, Brinkley Messick and Gregory Starrett –foregrounded ruptures within Muslim intellectual, social and cultural life.[1] Working within this approach, both historians and anthropologists showed the ways in which the political, economic and social forces associated with modernity reshaped Muslim-majority societies, as well as how the spread of mass and small media amplified this shift.[2] 

It is the second approach to the study of Modern Islam, however, that has become axiomatic. First articulated in Asad’s landmark 1986 article, “The Idea of the Anthropology of Islam,” this anthropologist’s conceptualization of multiple Islamic discursive traditions provided the analytical space for tracing continuity, rather than merely rupture, in Islamic forms of reasoning and debate.[3] In Asad’s 2003 Formations of the Secular, he further argued for the persistence of an Islamic ethical tradition that centered on embodied practice.[4] Building on Asad’s theoretical interventions, Mahmood, Hirschkind and Hussein Ali Agrama have all emphasized the continued integrity and primacy of a distinctly Islamic discursive tradition of ethics to contemporary piety movements.[5]

The contributors to this roundtable reveal that the vibrancy of this debate has persisted. In her entry, Marion Katz will broaden our understanding of piety within the pre-modern Islamic tradition beyond Asad’s “emphasis on Islamic law and piety as means of ethical cultivation, on ritual as a means to the embodied habituation of moral dispositions, and on pedagogy and moral correction (nasīḥa, “advice,” and ḥisba, “forbidding the wrong”) as social technologies of moral formation.” Katz argues that while Asad’s model is consonant with aspects of the work of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the latter wrote from a position of dissent towards the dominant discipline of fiqh.  Like Katz, Aria Nakissa focuses on questions of pious practice, launching a call to move beyond an understanding of “Practice Theory” derived from Aristotle (and embraced by Hirschkind and Mahmood) in considering relationship between attributes and practices. In particular, Nakissa calls for engagement with the insights of Cognitive Science to understand the relationship between individual moral formation and social communities.

While Katz and Nakissa provide the theoretical and historical means to broaden our understanding of piety, Sohaira Siddiqui and Emilio Spadola offer constructive critiques of Asad’s “discursive traditions” approach. Siddiqui situates Asad’s conceptualization of an Islamic discursive tradition within a longer set of anthropological debates over the relationship between genealogy and tradition. In doing so, she challenges scholars to read questions of continuity and rupture with greater nuance and to take seriously the ruptures produced by colonial rule. By complement, Spadola’s entry argues that we must “thematiz[e] how Muslims as Muslims mediate, mark or stage foreignness in but not of specific lived contexts, [and] how such mediations precondition but in no way secure claims to authority.” In particular, Spadola turns our attention to the ways in which Muslims globally must continually “mediate the foreign” through dress, grooming, and the daily practice of daʿwa.

Finally, Kirsten Wesselhoeft and I both explore the roots of contemporary Islamic movements’ understandings of piety. Wesselhoeft, who carried out extensive ethnographic research among Muslim communities in greater Paris, argues for the importance of both the affective and the discursive in exploring how French Muslims inherit an Islamic past that is deeply shaped by experiences of colonialism and subsequent immigration. Echoing Nakissa’s call to a focus on the social, yet from a different vantage point, she probes the ways in which engagement with an Islamic tradition depends on an embrace, rather than a bypassing, of an experience of significant rupture. Finally, my discussion of the roots and structuring dynamics of the Salafi beard, particularly its linkage between ethics and visibility, argues that this understanding constitutes a significant break with the pre-modern Islamic tradition, whether that of early Islamic history or that of the legal schools (madhāhib). Put differently, partial continuity in legal positions masks significant changes in reasoning. Accordingly, I argue that Salafi understandings of piety are best understood within the communicative expectations of modernity, and that this transformation raises the question of the role the discursive tradition approach can play in the study of such movements and practices.

I wish to conclude by thanking all of the contributors to this roundtable, who have given so much of themselves and their ideas in the midst of a global pandemic. At a time when it would have been quite easy to take on fewer obligations, each of them made the choice to add to their to-do list. I hope that the end results of this roundtable will vindicate this decision.

[1] Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992); Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988); and Gregory Starrett, Putting Islam to Work: Education, Politics and Religious Transformation in Egypt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998). 

[2] See Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); and Dale Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson, New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2003).

[3] Talal Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam” (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, 1986). This article was later republished as Talal Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” Qui Parle, 17:2 (2009), 1-30.

[4] Asad, Formations of the Secular, 249-51.

[5] Saba Mahmood, The Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005); Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); and Hussein Ali Agrama, Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

Symposium Essays

Introduction: The Roots of Islamic Piety

In the introduction to the symposium “The Roots and Ruptures of Contemporary Islamic Piety,” Aaron Rock-Singer elucidates the questions within contemporary Islamic studies that stand between the completeness of historical narratives and the ruptures of Muslim intellectual, social, and cultural life.

The Multiplicity of the Premodern Islamic Tradition

The school of Talal Asad has identified virtue ethics as the primary model constituting the continuity of premodern Muslim thought with movements of the modern period. But is this model really the most characteristic common denominator of premodern Islamic thought?

Using Cognitive Science to Reconceptualize Islamic Ethics and “Islamist” Socio-political Movements

This article explains how insights from recent research in cognitive science can be used to rethink the related phenomena of traditional Islamic ethics and modern Islamist socio-political movements.

Genealogy and Tradition as Methods in Islamic Studies

As Talal Asad’s notion of a discursive tradition has become a mainstay in Islamic Studies, how has it contributed to the larger debate on continuity versus rupture? And how does Asad’s anthropologically-informed definition of Islam shed light on the tension between genealogy on tradition?

Pious Disjuncture and the Discursive Condition

Formulating a rigorously historicist approach to contemporary cultures of Islam can build on Asad’ pivotal concept in The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam: not the “discursive tradition,” but the discursivity of tradition. Already implicit in its reiterative tradition, the modernity of Islam consists in the reconfigured powers of discursivity beyond discourse.

The Inheritances of Immigration

Muslim French are heirs to a rupture that has become a continuity. While the Islamic revival in France is often framed as a movement of “modern” young people distancing themselves from their parents’ and grandparents’ “traditional” forms of Islam, many young Muslims describe their religiosity in terms of the inheritances of immigration.

Salafi Piety: A Story of Radical Rupture

This post examines the Islamic movement that most explicitly patterns itself on early Islamic history –Salafism – and the way in which its distinctive social practices are fundamentally indebted to modern questions and challenges of visibility and social performance.