Politics of Piety consists of two almost entirely disconnected texts. The first is an anthropological field study carried out by the author over a period of two years in three mosques in Cairo where female "preachers" address congregations of women. In Sunni Islam especially, the mosque has generally been an almost exclusively male domain where men congregated, socialized, and commanded all relevant roles: public religious practitioner, prayer leader, preacher, interpreter, and authority. The entry of women into that space within the context of a conservative, regional religious revival is an intriguing topic, and Mahmood seems off to a promising start. The three mosques in her study reflect different slices of Cairo's socioeconomic spectrum, mirrored in the different styles adopted by their respective da'iyas or female preachers. Unfortunately, for a field study conducted by an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, the effort has regrettable weaknesses. One expects to learn about the personal circumstances of the preachers and some of their followers in some detail. Who are these women? What are their lives like? What impact do their attendance in the prayer group and their presence in the mosque have on their thinking and their lives? There is almost nothing on this. Mahmood quotes from the sermons and discusses some of the topics chosen by the preachers, but otherwise we are left asking ourselves what exactly Mahmood was doing in Cairo during those two years.
Worse, the author has felt obliged to embed this study in a strange political and epistemological construction that makes up the second part of Politics of Piety. She begins with a reasonable starting premise, addressing the wonder of most Western observers at the sight of women rushing in droves to join a movement that officially defines them as subordinate, a mindset that probably poses an obstacle to understanding Islam. Mahmood's fashionable answer is to claim the women's conduct offers an effective strategy by which they expand their space and acquire a modicum of status, influence, and authority. That might be correct, but it might also be a projection of a liberal's view of men and women. An ethnographic study could have found a way out of this dilemma, providing context and recreating the subjective and objective perceptions and motives of Islamist women. But Mahmood fails to do this and instead embeds her slender field work in a bulky Ivy League ivory tower elaboration hard to read and harder to swallow: "the subject in her sexed and gendered materiality is constituted performatively through a reiterated enactment of heterosexual norms which retroactively produce … the putative facticity of sexual difference which serves to further consolidate the heterosexual imperative." Suchlike may be impressive sentences but they advance understanding little.