Thinking piety and the everyday together

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Lara Deeb. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.007


Thinking piety and the everyday together

A response to Fadil and Fernando

Lara DEEB, Scripps College

Meditation on Fadil, Nadia and Mayanthi Fernando. 2015. “Rediscovering the ’everyday’ Muslim: Notes on an anthropological divide.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 5(2): 59-88

I have long felt caught between what has emerged as two opposing theoretical poles in the anthropology of Islam: what Nadia Fadil and Mayanthi Fernando describe as an “opposition between piety and the everyday.” But, perhaps naively, I don’t always understand why these bodies of work are so often constructed and read as diametrically opposed to one another, as though this is a zero sum game (aside from the academic practice of producing arguments against prior ones). It is not, and should not be read as such. Despite the authors’ reification of this binary and treatment of both sides as overly unified and unitary, they have convincingly laid out some of the stakes of this debate and provided us with an excellent article with which to think.

Leaving aside the question of whether we are contending with on-the-ground ethnographic differences or, as Fadil and Fernando argue, differences that are produced by the (problematic) epistemological commitments of the ethnographers themselves, I focus here instead on their assertion that there exists in the recent anthropology of Islam a significant rift between scholarship focused on piety and that which instead discusses “everyday Islam.” (In response to the former question and their argument that the secular-liberal investments of certain anthropologists have led them to equate the everyday with the nonnormative: short of conducting an ethnographic study with these scholars, I would simply contend that all anthropologists are grounded in epistemological commitments and part of our work [94]is to question our own such grounding.) I agree fully with them that such an opposition, along with “the concomitant opposition between textual norm and individual practice—is untenable,” but I am less certain that calls to focus on “everyday Islam” necessarily lead the anthropology of Islam back to this binary. As they note, in my own work, without invoking this framework explicitly, I have always taken “everyday Islam” to mean attention to the ways in which people draw on ideas that they understand to be rooted to varying extents in Islam in order to figure out how to handle everything from handshaking to prayer, from dress to which cafes to hang out in and what social invitations to accept. Rather than debate whether or not Muslims are guided by religion, my approach has been to ask how various understandings of morality (including but not only religious ones) come together in relation to everything ranging from fasting to flirting. How does one then define what constitutes the realm of piety in the first place? That in itself should be an ethnographic question, situated and contextual.

Fadil and Fernando locate this opposition between piety and the everyday in much of the scholarship that calls for attention to everyday Islam, suggesting that this body of work highlights only the inconsistencies and incoherences in people’s behavior, aspects of life that appear to fall outside the realm of religiosity. Again, in my view, the problem is not that ethnographers are attending to such inconsistencies and incoherences—surely they warrant attention as much as pious comportment does, and I don’t think Fadil and Fernando would disagree. Rather, a problem emerges if what is understood as nonnormative ways of being are taken up as the only form of the everyday, as defining that category in the first place. If such a slippage exists, then that is a problem. However, in setting up this argument and this binary distinction, the authors link a vast array of ethnographic work to their claims about the everyday, and the spread and diversity of these works raises a question about the uniformity of this side of the binary. Understanding the work of Samuli Schielke, Magnus Marsden, Maimuna Huq, and Amira Mittermeier as representative of the same problem, for example, seems a bit of a stretch, as it collapses work that highlights critical responses to revivalism with scholarship that focuses on negotiations of revivalist forms that include some space for ambivalence within adherence to those forms. This distinction seems to me to be quite important. In other words, I am not convinced that the everyday is being invoked in the recent anthropology of Islam as only a site of contingency or resistance (if it were, this would certainly be problematic), or that the everyday means the same thing to all these authors. Fadil and Fernando’s critique risks turning what could potentially be a useful concept in its focus on an ethnographically-grounded anthropology into a straw man that dilutes the power of their intervention to move discussions in the anthropology of Islam in productive directions. Making the focus on everyday Islam the problem removes the possibility that the everyday could be a productive and primary site for contingency (which is an important point), even if it is neither necessarily such a site nor the only such site. It would be more productive to read Fadil and Fernando’s intervention as a call to think about what we mean by “the everyday” in relation to Islam and more broadly, and whether and how this is a useful analytic category for anthropology.

As Fadil and Fernando note, some of this focus on inconsistency and contingency in the anthropology of Islam has emerged because scholars want to write [95]against stultifying representations of Muslims. Here I would modify their diagnosis: I think people are also writing against the dominant ways in which a set of works has been read. So people are not only writing against Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind’s texts themselves, but against them as they have been taken up more broadly such that “the pious Muslim” became the only visible Muslim (and here I’m not referring broadly to the post–9/11 United States but to scholarship outside the anthropology of Islam). I have encountered this problem in other ways, where the pious Sunni Muslim becomes the only Muslim, writing Shi’i forms of piety outside the realm of legibility. Put differently, because Mahmood and Hirschkind’s work was so crucial theoretically, it came to represent the subfield and our interlocutors ethnographically in problematically limiting ways. This was certainly not these authors’ intention and it is an unfair slippage on the part of critics, a slippage borne of the academic context. Indeed, in a footnote, Fadil and Fernando quote Fadil as writing elsewhere that “the idea of ’veiling as an idiosyncrasy that needs to be explained or accounted for’ is inadvertently confirmed by even sympathetic research on the veil. . . . ’Restricting the analysts’ lens to orthodox Muslim conduct like veiling, and leaving other forms of (pious) conduct unexplored, results indeed in a situation wherein only practices that fail to correspond with ’secular ways of life’ are turned into the object of research’” (Fadil 2011: 85). Here I add: why restrict the critique to highlighting how only “other forms of (pious) conduct [emphasis added]” are ignored; why not broaden it further? This brings me to another way we can use Fadil and Fernando’s discussion productively: by troubling or at least ethnographically unpacking our understandings of the boundary between what counts as piety or the pious and what does not, and by beginning to conceptualize that boundary itself as a moving target that is part of Muslims’ own ongoing discussions.

A brief ethnographic interlude, via a family that I have now known for nearly two decades: Individuals within this family have experienced, over time, their own changing relationships to piety, ranging from rebellion against normative religiosity to what one might call strict adherence to fundamentalist religious principles (the vague term “Salafi” is irrelevant here because they are Shi’i Muslims). These differences have also been experienced at the family level, as relatives have had different—and sometimes conflicting—relationships to religiosity and morality. And over time, the social context in which they live has changed; indeed, what is considered religiously normative in the first place has transformed rather dramatically, more than once, with generational changes a key component. For one generation, normative religiosity was forged through everyday life, which was posited against the secular. The key point here is that all of this has happened in the interstitial spaces where normative religiosity, moral norms, and everyday life infuse one another; they must be understood together.

Both the power-agency problem and the diversity-unity problem to which Fadil and Fernando point produce productive analytic tensions for the anthropology of religion. Hirschkind’s own characterization of this problem, which they quote, notes critically that the everyday is a domain “relatively immune to the powers of religious discipline and normativity.” This is the side of the problematic binary on which the authors focus. Yet we need to add that viewing the everyday in opposition to piety also risks reinscribing the normative as static and homogenous. I think we may well all agree that everyday practices are saturated by power and [96]social convention and that Islamic morality can include space to push back at convention. One way to move in new directions might be to think about how moral norms and everyday practices are coconstituted in relation to one another, which means that their coproduction works in both directions. In other words, scholarship could push further and highlight both the ways the everyday is shaped by religious discipline and normativity and the ways that religious discipline and normativity are themselves produced through and change via everyday social life. By doing so, perhaps we can come to understand that these areas of life are not so separable in the first place.


My thanks to Lori Allen and Jessica Winegar for their helpful comments as I drafted this piece.


Fadil, Nadia. 2011. “Not-/unveiling as an ethical practice.” Feminist Review 98: 83–109.


Lara Deeb
Department of Anthropology
Scripps College
1030 Columbia Avenue
Claremont, CA 91711 USA