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Social Sciences - Sociology | Contemporary Islam - Dynamics of Muslim Life – incl. option to publish open access

Contemporary Islam

Contemporary Islam

Dynamics of Muslim Life

Editor-in-Chief: Ronald Lukens-Bull

ISSN: 1872-0218 (print version)
ISSN: 1872-0226 (electronic version)

Journal no. 11562

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Virtual Issue: Celebrating the work of Saba Mahmood


When Saba Mahmood recently passed away, I reflected on how she had influenced this journal. I know she was involved in the early discussions about its creation. Curious as to how she might have influenced its pages, I did a word search of all articles published in the journal. No fewer than fourteen articles cited her and several engage her work more fully. I have selected here those articles that engaged her the most and which allow us to reflect on her intellectual legacy. When it came to writing a treatment of Professor Mahmood and her work, I reached out to Robert Hefner who considered her a friend and colleague. Professor Hefner has written a reflection on her work and its influence not only on the pages of this journal but on Islamic studies, anthropology, and the social sciences more generally.
A full introduction by editorial board member Robert W. Hefner can be read here.
Ronald Lukens-Bull
Reading and remembering Saba Mahmood: Islam, Gender, and the hermeneutics of tradition move element upmove element upupdate row from input fieldsdelete row
Saba Mahmood’s untimely passing on March 10, 2018 at the age of 56 was a tragic loss to family, friends, and colleagues, as well as to cultural anthropologists inspired by her scholarship over the past two decades. Her influence has been no less far-reaching in contemporary Islamic and gender studies. It is against the backdrop of her legacy that the editor and editorial board of Contemporary Islam have taken the opportunity to dedicate this virtual issue of CI to the memory of Mahmood and her scholarship. This introductory essay aims to pay critical homage to Mahmood as an anthropologist of Islam, gender, and ethics, and to reflect on where, in the aftermath of her contributions, these important fields seem to be going
The meta-theory of piety: reflections on the work of Saba Mahmood
This paper was the first in our journal to reflect on Saba Mahmood and discusses the extent to which her 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.
Revisited: Muslim Women’s agency and feminist anthropology of the Middle East
This article locates imaginative aspects of human subjectivity as a feminist issue by reviewing the concept of agency in the genealogy of Muslim and Middle Eastern women in anthropological and ethnographic literature. It suggests that, if feminist scholarship of the Middle East would continue approaching to Muslim women’s agency -as it has been doing for decades-, it should do so as an epistemological question and thus expand the limits of ethnographic and analytical focus beyond the broader systems, such as family, nation, religion, and state. As an example to this proposition, the article then discusses the recent work on aspects of selfhood that escape from the structures, rules, systems, and discursive limits of life but captures imaginations, aspirations, desires, yearnings, and longings.
Seeking sanctuary in ‘the age of disorder’: women in contemporary Tablighi Jamā‘at
This article addresses the novel phenomenon of the attachment of women from privileged backgrounds to the Tablighi Jamā‘at movement in Indonesia. How to understand the involvement of these urban wealthy women who eventually give up their high-class lifestyles for the sake of their new understanding of Islam? The common stereotype of Tablighi Jamā‘at women is that they are oppressed, cannot exercise agency, and do not contribute to the development of the movement. However, based on an ethnographic study of middle and upper-class Tablighi Jamā‘at women, I found that their passion to return to the true path of Islam and the commitments it embodies have made them aware of their capacity to exercise agency within the movement’s structuring conditions. The women’s privileged social background has enabled them to embrace the meaning of being active in a religious group. The most notable contribution of these women is their effort in undertaking recruitment and sustaining this religious network of shared meaning with their colleagues. Within these activities they are social agents, not just tools of the movement’s men.
Piety among Tablīghī women
Islamic piety in Muslim women has been on the rise in the last three decades around the world. Much of it involves formerly nominal Muslim women becoming observant of Islamic rules, rituals and practices and taking their faith seriously. For these women, it is a journey of spiritual elevation. It is a new endeavor of Islamic awakening and self-discovery. All this is occurring in an era characterized by a modernity which claims, among other things, that religion is the basis for women’s oppression in society. Thus, western and western-educated scholars and feminist theorists have argued for the “unveiling” of Muslim women as part of the process of weakening the hold of Islam and allowing women to become free thinking, liberal and independent. This article is an attempt to explore the continuous growth of Islamic piety in Muslim women around the world. Using the Tablīgh Jamā‘at in Australia as a case study, the article seeks to understand the role of Islamic piety in Muslim women. The article argues that Islamic piety in Muslim women is an attempt by Muslim women to find a religious response to modernity.
Muslim women, middle class habitus, and modernity in Indonesia
This article asks how pious religious practices, which are often highly gendered, and implicated in diverse formulations of “the modern” in non-Western contexts. Based on ethnographic research among women members of Indonesia's Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), I argue that PKS women’s pious practices are part of the creation of a particular kind of middle class subjectivity. An examination of two constitutive elements of this habitus, clothing and marriage, reveals how these pious Islamic practices enact class and gender difference, and simultaneously produce “modern” selves. While scholars have shown that gender is an important axis for class difference, I extend this argument to suggest that gendered forms of piety are key ways class in which distinctions are embodied and expressed. Yet the habitus of PKS women is just one of several competing Islamic habitus in Indonesia. The question of which habitus is most culturally legitimate, I maintain, turns on the hegemony of particular understandings of piety and ideas about how modernity should be defined–issues which remain unresolved in contemporary Indonesia.
Bringing the mosque home and talking politics: women, domestic space, and the state in the Ferghana Valley (Uzbekistan)
In this article I argue that domestic space has to be theorized as an important center of religious practice and socio-political activism. Born-again and devout Muslim women in the Ferghana Valley (Uzbekistan) use domestic space as an important sacred place for religious observance and socialization equal to the mosques. This sacred place has a special meaning for born-again and devout Muslims as it carries a promise of personal and social change. In the context of religious and political persecution by the Uzbek state, domestic space is experienced as a politically safe place and as a critically important site of socio-political criticism and activism, as some intimate in-house discussions about religious, political, and social oppression take a form of public protest on the streets.
Discussing the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) rebellion: non-Islamist women and religious revival in urban Bangladesh
This article explores the piety/politics nexus by asking what it means when educated, urban Bangladeshi women who are embracing religion anew claim that their pursuit of piety, and the learning circles that inspire it, are apolitical. I explain this self-proclaimed apolitical stance through women’s own accounts of why and how they maintain political neutrality. The article demonstrates that organizers of many Islamic discussion circles in Dhaka consciously strive to attain a certain political neutrality, while allowing whoever is interested to attend, irrespective of the latter’s political affinities. This decision stems from an understanding of the lack of trust that accompanies organized religion in Bangladesh, and its alliance, in the national imaginary, with the explicit political agenda of the Jama’at-i Islami. The article provides an account of different discussion circle members’ varied articulation of political neutrality and how they draw from different ideas and discourses about being publicly religious in their molding of the ideal, pious, Bangladeshi woman. To exemplify the pious self-fashioning of urban, educated, Bangladeshi women, I will recount the ways in which several women discussed the March 2009 Bangladesh Rifles mutiny—a highly politically charged event. Women’s accounts of the mutiny serve to unify lesson attendees around the cultivation of piety. Contestations over national politics and political affinities are made secondary, as women focus on giving an ethical bend to the deeply personal, subjective and gendered experiences of being educated and upwardly-mobile in present day urban Bangladesh.
Veiling as self-disciplining: Muslim women, Islamic discourses, and the headscarf ban in Turkey
This article is an ethnographic and discursive analysis of women’s experiences of the headscarf ban in Turkish universities and public offices. Based on in-depth interviews, it examines how the headscarf ban, which continued until 2011–2013, affected Muslim women’s personalized understandings of self-discipline and Islam, as well as their production of new Islamic discourses. Analyzing discourses and subject formations, this article gives an insight into answering broader questions such as nature of women’s agency and the role of piety in a secularized public sphere.
Giving in God’s name: investing in the ethical self in the case of the kermes
This article examines a case study of a kermes (kermis) to see how Islamic discourses can structure and re-structure an apparently mundane practice. The aim is to see how a mundane activity is transformed into an act of piety, simply because it is driven by a religious intention. Additionally, we study how this intention supported by the articulation of a particular interpretation of an Islamic tradition. Ultimately, the goal is to understand how the kermes is converted into a disciplined practice of moral construction, ethical conduct and allows for the fulfillment of religious and nonreligious responsibility and, consequently, how a moral discourse can embed a completely mundane practice and transform it into an ethical cycle of self-development, sacred duty and gift giving. This study fills a gap in the literature on volunteering as it examines how practices of volunteering are developed according to a discourse of piety and are the result of a process of active decision-making, according to the context in which the volunteers live. The data for this research was gathered through participant observation and dialogue.
Piety as a concept underpinning Muslim women’s online discussions of marriage and professional career
This article addresses piety as a concept shaping Muslim women’s online discussions about gender roles, marriage and professional careers. It also investigates cross-cultural religious encounters in these women-only groups as I am interested in the potential of such online environments to facilitate women’s religious reflection and intellectual engagement. Finally, I explore motivations and religious interpretations of three categories of participants in these discussions: egalitarians, for whom gender equality is a necessary component of piety (Barlas 2006); traditionalists, identified by other authors as Islamists (Karam 1998) or social conservatives (Gül and Gül 48:1–26, 2000; Mahmood 2005) and finally, holists, a group that cannot be mapped out on the political landscape by using the progressive–conservative binary (Badran, Agenda 50:41–57, 2001) and which exists and acts outside of it, neither subverting nor enacting norms of any dominant system, be it secular–liberal or patriarchal. Following Mahmood’s argument that formulating an analysis based exclusively on such a binary is simplistic (Mahmood 2005), I argue that actions of holists can be only addressed by formulating a set of questions different to those used to analyze self-defined egalitarians or traditionalists.
Islamic piety against the family: from ‘traditional’ to ‘pure’ Islam
One might suppose that a foundational element of proper Muslim behavior is respect for one’s parents. However, it is not unusual in the contemporary Islamic world, both in Muslim-majority countries and in the diaspora, for young people to be much more ‘Islamic’ in behavior, dress and lifestyle than their parents. As this may suggest, modernist Islamic piety is not infrequently directed by young people against their parents, as a mode of resistance to parental authority. However, wearing the hijab, becoming a follower of a Sufi shaykh, or marrying a ‘good’ Muslim spouse from another ethnic group to one’s own, are different kinds of resistance from, for example, joining an inner-city youth gang, or rejecting one’s parents’ Asian cultural background for a more globalized identity. I discuss some of the ways in which Islamic piety can be deployed in resistance to parental authority through case studies from my Economic and Social Research Council-funded field research in Bangladesh and the UK, and consider in what ways these forms of behavior resemble, and differ from, more familiar forms of resistance.
Modesty and style in Islamic attire: Refashioning Muslim garments in a Western context
Ethnographic fieldwork conducted with female converts to Islam in France and in Quebec (Canada) shows that, for these women, being Muslim does not necessarily mean wearing clothes with ‘oriental’ designs. Rather, they are starting their own clothing companies so as to produce distinct Muslim-Western fashions that they promote through the Internet. By interpreting Islam in a context where Muslims are a minority religious group, converts construct alternative religious and social representations of Muslim identity that accord with their feminist interpretation of the Qu’ran while simultaneously incorporating the Western background within which they were socialized. In this regard, the strategies that they develop for wearing the veil and for integrating into their environment (family, workplace, etc.) make it clear that fashion, religion and politics are interacting in multiple, creative ways. In this paper, I look at how new Muslim feminist subjectivities are produced and realized through habits of dress, resulting in new representations of the body. I explore this issue by considering dress and hairstyle strategies developed by Muslim converts, in order to examine new perspectives on the place of gender in religion as it relates to particular social contexts.

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  • Aims and Scope

    Aims and Scope


    The importance to study and understand Islam and contemporary Muslim life from a socio-scientific perspective seems more relevant than ever. Currently, there is no specific journal that offers a platform for discussion on contemporary aspects of Islam and Muslims. Indeed, the historical, political and comparative approach to Islam has been preferred over social scientific research and themes. Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life aims to fill this gap by providing an active forum for the discussion of new ideas, fieldwork experiences, challenging views, and methodological and theoretical approaches to Muslim life.       

    Topical and interdisciplinary
    Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life focuses on topical issues and takes an interdisciplinary approach that benefits from a cross-cultural perspective: articles will explore the relationship between Islam and its contemporary cultural, material, gender, economic, political, and religious expressions from different socio-scientific perspectives, such as anthropology, sociology, education, politics, international relations, ethnomusicology, arts, film studies, economics, human rights, international law, diaspora minority studies, demography, and ethics.

    The journal provides insights into the contemporary dynamics of Muslim life by focusing on questions concerning ordinary aspects of everyday life of Muslims as well as more systemic concerns.  The journal focuses on what Muslims actually do rather than what one reading or another of the texts suggest that they should do.  Papers on the lived experiences of Muslim  in both Muslim minority and Muslim Majority contexts are encouraged. Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life regards Islam as a modern religion in today’s global societies.

    Readership and Editorial Board
    As the first socio-scientific journal to focus on Muslim life, Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life will be of interest to scholars and students in various academic fields related to the world of Islam. The editorial board reflects the multidisciplinary approach of the journal.

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