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Inhabiting or Interrogating Faith

Piety among Muslim Women in Mumbai

Tanvi Patel-Banerjee ( is research scholar in sociology at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. Rowena Robinson ( is professor of sociology at the same department.

Against the growing literature on Muslim piety movements, this paper analyses the practices of faith among a young generation of educated middle-class Muslim women in Mumbai in the context of a liberalising economy, which offers them greater employment opportunities and draws them out of the ghettos to work and interact with people of different social and religious backgrounds. The paper shows that these women question and reason with their faith, while the earlier generation abides by a quieter piety. The findings are grounded in Mumbai’s specific history in which the riots of 1992–93 were a defining moment for Muslims. While focusing on everyday religiosity, it also connects with a larger canvas by arguing that piety movements, though located in society, are not unattached from the ways in which states may constitute secularity or define religious freedoms.

The data used in this paper comes largely from the fieldwork conducted by the first author as part of her doctoral work.

The practices of faith among young, middle-class Muslim women in Mumbai is analysed in this paper and it located within the broader domain of the “piety” literature in the anthropology of Islam.1 It also extends this literature in an unusual way by showing that a shift seems to be emerging between the practices of faith of young, educated professional Muslims and the generation of their parents. At first glance, this may seem unremarkable, but it is intriguing when placed against the changing politico-economic situation in Mumbai, with the riots of 1992–93 as a focal event, as well as the broader dynamics of relationships of religious communities in a majoritarian democracy constitutionally committed to freedoms of various kinds.

A second advancement lies in the theorisation of everyday religiosity. Though the focus on piety movements successfully turned the study of Islam away from a preoccupation with the state and the political domains, we argue that the latter cannot be altogether removed from the canvas. Apart from changing economic and political realities, which have their own implications for piety patterns, the state is imbricated with society in constituting what might be freedom or religion or the secular within any particular context. These complexities become clearer in a comparative framework. Thus, the paper illustrates the richer analytical possibilities of a regional and cross-cultural analysis, rather than only a narrow focus on local specificities of piety practices.

Women and Islamic Piety: Anthropological Trajectories

Many studies of Muslim women’s piety have emerged after Saba Mahmood’s (2005) crucial intervention. These studies mark a shift from a focus on political movements, conflict and violence towards the faith and practices of ordinary Muslims who, far from being part of global or national religio-political happenings, were simply engaged in efforts to shape their own lives according to personal convictions or ethical sensibilities (Kloos 2012; Peletz 1997). At the same time, the deeply political nature of this piety is undeniable.

The emphasis is on everyday Islam, but the concept is a contested one. Several authors look at women’s efforts to cultivate piety and constitute ethical selves through continuous engagement with Islamic textual traditions. Their anthropology is embedded in the world of ordinary decision-making and mundane, everyday actions and interactions, even if they do not self-consciously embrace the concept of the everyday (Mahmood 2005; Fadil and Fernando 2015; Jacobsen 2011; Hirschkind 2006; Echchaibi 2009; Huq 2009; Fernando 2014; Deeb and Harb 2013). Osella and Soares (2010: 11), on the other hand, speak of the “Islam mondaine,” which does not privilege Islam, but emphasises the actual world in which Muslims find themselves. It may be understood as “worldly Islam” (Kresse 2013). While signalling the “contextual” presence of religion in the background of Muslims’ lives, it also points towards their more worldly orientations and interests. This perspective, however, rends the everyday from the ethical and problematises the pietistic or religious orientations of ordinary Muslims (Fadil and Fernando 2015).

Women’s piety has been perceived as an expression of conformity to religious prescriptions (Mahmood 2005) or submission to religiously sanctioned gender hierarchies. It has been studied in relation to ideas of self and society or agency and resistance and has been understood as a direct contravention of secular and liberal traditions, though such a binary may actually be a false one (Jacobsen 2011). It has been seen as a movement of moral renewal (Schulz 2008) and a form of activism challenging traditional gender inequalities (Gomez-Perez 2016). Mahmood (2005) suggests the need to separate the discourse of self-fulfilment from that of autonomy. Others seek to break the dualism of subordination and resistance permeating such analyses (Jacobsen 2011). Also relevant is the fashioning of the ethical self as well as the problematic of why Muslim women accede to participation in practices that apparently entrench their subjugation and conformity to subordinate roles. Questions have been raised as to whether these ethics need to be located outside of religion per se (Lambek 2012; George 2009; Fadil and Fernando 2015), but we follow Mahmood (2012) and Laidlow (2002, 2014) in their thinking about everyday faith—that subjects may form differing relationships with available moral codes depending on the given norms and the capacities of the self.

For Laidlow, an understanding of ethics (including morality as the following of “socially sanctioned” moral codes and the ethical injunction to “make oneself into a certain kind of person”) is possible only if the “possibilities of human freedom” are taken seriously (2002: 315). Agency is an inadequate stand-in for freedom.2 With particular reference to Foucault’s “techniques of the self,” Laidlow culls out the project of freedom as forming and reforming oneself into a specific type of person. Foucault’s idea that ethics is the “conscious practice of freedom” (2000: 284), allows Laidlow to perceive that this freedom is not utopian, random or obtainable only in the absence of power, but is of a “definite, historically produced kind” (2002: 323). The practices through which a subject fashions a self may be “proposed, suggested, imposed upon” her by her society, culture or social group (Foucault 2000: 291), but the act of constitution is an exercise of freedom.

Muslim women’s piety permits us to look at Islamic revivalism through the lens of ethical self-cultivation. Piety literature veers away from the political manifestations of Islam, violence and the relationship with other communities and sees engagement with the state as an indirect product of self-reforming ethical practice. The focus on individuals and activists directly challenges analyses that restrict themselves to the level of the state. In this paper, however, we would like to reconnect societal and state processes at some level by also imagining secularism and liberalism “as moral fields” that intersect with everyday piety practices on the ground and include a range of ethical and social dispositions, apart from the strictly political (Fadil and Fernando 2015: 64; Mahmood 2012; Selby and Fernando 2014; Fadil 2011).

Women’s Piety, Society and State in South Asia

There are few analyses of women’s piety movements in India (Metcalf 1996; Parvez 2011), while in the South Asian region two studies are significant for us. Iqtidar (2011) argues that Islamist groups in Pakistan facilitated the secularisation of society. In the competitive marketplace of religion, Muslims can choose between different maslaks (Barelvi, Deobandi, Ahl-e-Hadees) or among available Islamist groups such as the Jama`at-e-Islami. The latter rely not on obedience to a particular school of law, but on the individual’s own reading and understanding of the Quran and the Hadith. For these groups, secularism as state policy is anathema, but by transforming religious practice into an individualised decision that must be inwardly justifiable and outwardly defensible to others they enable secularisation—the rationalisation of religion—at the societal level (2011: 157). Thus, where Mahmood (2005) sees piety as submission to spirituality obliquely confronting a secular–liberal state, Iqtidar perceives secularisation on the ground despite the state being Islamic. However, both contend that processes at the societal level might advertently or otherwise run counter to macro-level or state-level ideologies and agendas.

Haniffa (2008) locates the cultivation of piety in Sri Lanka within a context of conflict and hostility between ethnic groups. Local activities of preaching in a suburban Colombo neighbourhood by the Al Muslimaat cultivate Muslim exclusivism by marginalising those referred to as kafir, thereby reflecting, if not reaffirming, the divides between ethnicities that already tear apart Sri Lankan society as a whole. While piety may bolster the confidence of a politically vulnerable minority community that has few constitutional protections in an environment where intercommunity relations have often been decided by violence (2008: 352), it also separates Muslims from others, with whom they may otherwise have much interaction as well as shared interests. This has disquieting implications for an already polarised polity.

We situate our arguments through a conversation with these two studies. Against the historical context of partition, Muslims in India are also a stigmatised, even despised, minority who face hostility and periodic targeted violence. In Mumbai, the location of this study, the 1992–93 riots were a defining event for the Muslim community. The riots created ruptures and insecurities, fostered greater insularity and left an indelible psychological impact on many Muslim Mumbaikars. The uncertainty and dread remained for a long time afterwards and those who were witness to that time continue to harbour fear and suspicion of the world outside their Muslim enclaves. Predominantly Muslim areas are often associated in the public imagination with criminality and are marked by the permanent presence of police posts and the surveillance of public areas via closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. Here, marginalisation and discrimination in aspects such as access to government utilities, public services, school admissions and home delivery facilities are an everyday experience.

Despite this, the generation born and growing up after the riots is now in young adulthood and does not share the inhibitions and fears of elders. These young adults do not see the city or majority community of Hindus in the same way as did their parents, who are among the survivors and witnesses of the violence. As some of them articulated, earlier there was a fear within the Muslim community of Hindu domination and suppression. Muslims felt they would be discriminated in the workplace and never enjoy their due. But, young Muslims today feel that these misgivings are unfounded. They believe that in the current economic climate what matters more is one’s ability, and talent and hard work are adequately rewarded. As one respondent said: “Earlier there was a fear that Hindus will crush you ... they won’t let you move up and prosper ... but that has changed now ... that fear has gone.” Another stated: “Being a Muslim should not get in the way of developing relationships with others and seeking out opportunities.”

It is true that the pietistic teachings of the aalima described here focus on Muslims and on their internal divisions. Little is said about relationships with outsiders. However, the language of “otherness” is rarely used for these outsiders, the word “kafir” does not occur and the accent is on love and peace. Moreover, the preachers have to negotiate the fact that the young persons in their audiences are mobile members of plural modern institutional and occupational settings, are educated and have a virtually unlimited connection to a variety of different sources of information, particularly those available through the internet and smartphone software applications. Indeed, even Muslim charitable trusts, mostly funded from zakat, are especially active in the areas of education, nutrition and health and recognise that the youth need access to education. The last decade has seen many Muslims, especially from the cities prioritise education as a means of social and economic mobility.

Among Mumbai’s young adult Muslims, there is greater hope and the desire to share in the prosperity of a thriving city. Though statistics still show only marginal social or economic improvements,3 there are palpable shifts among young Muslims with more of them actively seeking higher education and constituting an “aspirational” generation. Our research suggests, therefore, that practices of faith may split women by generation and levels of education. The older women observe a greater quietude in piety practices, while the younger and more educated ones bring to belief greater questioning and deliberation. The ethical self is constituted in different ways, which is in each case the product of a particular set of relationships between the “capacities of the self (will, reason, desire, action, and so on) and a particular norm.” Only by understanding the “specific shape and character of ethical practices can one apprehend the kind of ethical subject that is formed” (Mahmood 2005: 29).

Therefore, one may question Iqtidar. The religious marketplace in Pakistani society is severely constrained (actually “unfree”) when viewed against the backdrop of a state religion, the federal Sharia court, blasphemy laws and ineffective or non-existent welfare measures or legal protections for minorities. Thus, if the ethical subject constitutes itself in freedom as a historically specific product (Laidlow 2002, 2014), then ethicality and piety as a project for contemporary Mumbai’s young women constitutes itself in a substantially different type of polity from that in Pakistan or even Sri Lanka: one built on secularism, minority rights and religious liberties and in which economic opportunities for young, educated Muslims are rapidly increasing.4

Overall, the constitution of piety in contemporary Mumbai, even in its Muslim-dominated areas, takes place in a public environment wherein purely Muslim issues are not the sole focus. The posters and banners visible throughout these enclaves place greater stress on the access that Muslims must have to their rights as citizens of the country. These posters wish people for Independence Day, for instance, or express patriotic and nationalistic sentiments in Urdu. On Eid, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM), a party that represents the interests of Muslims and Dalit–Bahujans, had posters in Muslim-dominated areas of the city wishing people “Eid Mubarak” and promising “Mumbai badlega” (Mumbai will change for the better if their representatives are in power). Few posters press Muslim issues, instead there is emphasis on Muslims accessing rights, as citizens of the city and of the country.

These differences make us rethink the way in which the piety literature deals with the relationship between societal processes and macro-level politics and the state.5 By moving away from developments at the level of the state and insisting that what happens within society is in any case at odds with the former, the literature renders invisible the deep connections between the two planes. Thus, in the case of Pakistan, it is clear that the state has an important role in limiting the universe of possibly obtainable versions of Islam and that freedom’s relationship to coercion and imposition constitutes itself differently from a case in which the state is committed constitutionally to secular democracy, however fragile and ruptured in practice.

Faith among Mumbai’s Aspirational Muslim Women

This is part of a study of emerging identities and subjectivities amongst a newly aspirational group of Muslims all over Mumbai. The respondents, numbering over 40, are between the ages of 18 and 40 years, and of varied educational levels. Common to them all is that they are in newer professions, unlike those of the previous generations: whether they are women working as security guards at malls, younger women aspiring to be Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers, or accomplished professionals in the fields of media, engineering or finance. In this context the “experience and imagination” of being middle class is more crucial in determining who forms this group than only tangible indicators such as education and occupation. Being middle class could mean being able to consume more and differently, emphasising cultural markers that set them apart from the old middle class and lower classes.

A significant number of respondents were women and it soon became clear that far from having their identity swallowed up by the modern workplaces within which they function or the modern communication technologies that have become so much a part of the lives of young people everywhere, these women are greatly invested in their faith in a number of personal as well as public ways. Their efforts to weave their lives around Islam are the result of personal decisions of individual women to go deeper into their faith even as or, perhaps, because they attain professional success. This is not merely the Islamicisation of modernity (Echchaibi 2009). Rather, to a degree hardly possible in contemporary Pakistan, the historically produced political and economic shifts in India (and Mumbai) become part of the processes that enable the secularisation of Islam. By secularisation what is meant is that religion is imagined not as a given, but as a terrain of possibilities, among which active choice and selection is conceivable.

Ijtema groups throughout Muslim enclaves in Mumbai have taken off in the last decade or so. These are attended by women of all ages and social backgrounds, but, interestingly, the projects of piety of young Muslim women are not limited to membership of such circles or groups of faith wherein women are led in discussions of the Quran and Hadith by trained aalima. Rather, they are constituted out of the free and selective amalgam of discourses from group meetings, teachings on the internet, personal reading and the like. The paper focuses on Aminah apa, an aalima, on two young professionals (Reena and Shabana) and on Shaheen apa, the mother of one of the young respondents in our study.6 Reena and Shaheen apa ­attend piety discourses, but the two young women also learn about their faith through the internet and other sources. Though there are many different aalima in the city, the individual in this article is not atypical. The experiences of Shaheen apa, Reena and Shabana, moreover, are echoed in the voices of others of their particular generation in Mumbai.

Inhabiting’ Islam as a Learned Discipline

Shaheen apa is a homemaker, who took a good deal of interest in her own children’s education and Islamic upbringing, but was schooled in faith more by teachers than her own parents. Hafiz saab would come and teach the children; the parents did not oversee, though they sometimes told them stories from the Hadith. The Quran was read in a language that was not understood; in those days there were no ijtema and women did not venture out much. There was less technology and she was not highly educated. In the last three to four years, she has started attending piety discourses and has learnt the proper way of doing things that she did not know earlier. Ijtemas are frequent and happen on different days of the week at varied locations. They are also held at times that make it convenient for women to attend. One can finish one’s housework and then go. This has had a great impact on women’s piety practices.

What I liked in the ijtema is that I learnt [the] … proper way of doing ghusl … like if somebody dies what is the proper way of dealing with the body, these are things we should also know, because if the time comes then we should know our correct practices (Her mother had passed away some months ago) … In ijtema you learn the step by step “proper tareeka” (way) of doing things.

At the same time, for a woman such as Shaheen apa and others of her generation, the approach to Islam is of quiet acceptance; the ijtema is an opportunity to learn the correct disciplines of the faith. Unlike the younger Muslim women, they do not ask “why” something is or is not done in Islam. Through the ijtema, they seek to know more about what is compulsory and how it should be done rather than research for explanations. As Shaheen apa said:

I hardly go online … I studied the Quran because it was what we all were supposed to do … But my kids, probably because of ijtema, do not approach religion in a mechanical way … they want to actually understand, what does God really want from us?

On the other hand, the generation after them approaches the ijtema and other sources of faith with an attitude of greater questioning. This must not be read as an expression of their discontent with Islam, far from it. Rather, they seek fulfilment in their faith through reasoned engagement with it.

Living Islam as a Reasoned Choice

Reena is a young dentist in her late 20s, with a master’s in dental surgery, running her own clinic in Mumbai. Her father is a businessman, though her parents have not had much education. She is a successful professional, has many friends, enjoys workouts and yoga, watching films and going to the mall. Her parents arranged her marriage while she was an intern. However, she soon had to take khullah as it turned out that her husband was homosexual. Now, she expects to be remarried quite soon. As Reena attained her career goals, she increasingly felt that she needed to place her personal and religious views on the right track as well. She is very interested in Islamic studies and in relating to what she speaks of as “her” Islamic history. She expresses interest in questions such as: How did Islam come about? Why do we follow certain things such as wearing hijab? Her success in her professional life is spurring her to learn more about her faith, though she does not want to become an aalima. As she said:

I do not want to become a scholar to preach as such, but I want to learn. I am doing it for myself ... I want to go deeper into my religion, to see what we practise, how it came into being, what is the right choice we should make regarding the Islamic point of view. Why I should do this and why I should not do that.

Certainly, as with other Muslim girls, Reena had a religious teacher coming home during her childhood to teach her namaz and the Quran. However, as she says, she learnt nothing of Islamic history, and was never given reasonable explanations of the Quran and Quranic practices by her religious tutors. Therefore, she is engaged in self-study now and reads English translations of the Quran to understand her faith better. Her curiosity extends to trying to defend her understanding of Islam, to understand why she is right to do what she does and if there are so many sectarian divisions in Islam, despite all believing in one Allah, which particular tradition is the right one? In so doing, she is not interested in proving the other person wrong but in comprehending why each is right in what he or she believes or adheres to.

I have a curiosity not into other religions, but mostly into Islam, because we have a lot of sects like the Shias, Bohris, Sunnis, non-Sunnis, Tabhligs, but the actual faith is that we have only one Allah. Then why so many sects, when we follow only one person … So I want to go to the roots of the right faith. So if somebody asks me why I do this, I want to answer them back, certain things are very clear. I think, read a lot of books and all, but I want to know the other point of view as well.

Reena’s Sunni Islamic beliefs are sustained against Ahl-e-Hadees and Wahabi teachings, for instance, on the issue of visiting dargahs. She also thinks about her practices in relation to traditions received from her parents, grandparents and others in her circle of friends, family and acquaintance. In the end, she may decide to choose a different way. For instance, she goes to Haji Ali Dargah every Thursday. As she said: “It is my belief and it is not written in Quran that you shouldn’t go.” Her parents introduced her to namaz and the Quran, to rituals and practices, but without explanations as to why something was right or wrong. Now, however, she negotiates with her parents or others and “reasons” with them and if she feels they have a valid reason, she will agree with what they say. Otherwise, if she is not convinced, if she feels something is not “written in Islam,” she will ask how they can insist that she do it.

Reena is very clear about choosing her own faith system. She has the Quran on her computer, an app on her smartphone that gives English translations and the correct pronunciations of Arabic words, she listens to Suras and goes to the women’s ijtema every Saturday.

I want my belief to be my own belief. I do not want to be influenced by someone else’s belief. If I talk to you and you tell me that this is right and this is not right, and I follow it blindly, then if you are wrong, I am following a wrong person. But if I read ten things and I choose one out of it, then I am choosing my beliefs. Everything in Islam is based on faith. Faith is based on your beliefs. Belief is based on your knowledge of reasoning. My knowledge of reasoning is based if only I have the knowledge. Without the knowledge, how can I reason the stuff?

Shabana is a nutritionist of around 30 years of age. Her family has roots in northern India, but has been in Mumbai since her paternal grandfather’s time. Shabana studied microbiology and then did a diploma in nutrition and dietetics, as this was an emerging field with considerable potential. She enjoys her work, consulting and advising people on diet issues. Having achieved a certain degree of financial independence, she looks forward to eventually marrying and having her own home. Exposed to the Quran in Arabic in childhood, she now poses questions about her faith to her sister or researches online. She reads up on modes of behaviour, conduct and teachings that provide her with solace, so she is selective in what she reads. She turns to prayers on the internet to help her handle stressful situations at work. She says that this is something she never did before. But, after facing some difficult circumstances, she decided to “google” prayers and read them on the internet.

I did a trial and then I started. I was not patient earlier and then once when I started reading about how to keep patience and how to pray and then I got connected to Allah I saw certain changes in myself and then success … I looked for information or prayers on how to get rid of hard times or how to keep yourself motivated so those things I use to just type and then it comes in form of dua or it comes in the form of more of what these scholars who keep on doing online


What Shabana wants even more than to get married is to adopt a baby girl … she says that this is a desire she has had for many years. Adoption is not permitted in Islam, but for Shabana that is irrelevant, what is more important for her is that she is able to give an underprivileged girl a secure home.

Reena recounts how her faith became stronger after she went through a messy divorce as it helped her cope with the despair and uncertainty she was facing. Her sense of ethicality has been primarily based on Quranic teachings, for instance, the intentions with which a person performs an act matter, and lying is unacceptable, but if one is lying to save someone from heartbreak or for a greater good then that may be religiously allowed. So her reasoning is based on a religious basis, but she did not note any instance where her reasoning and religious injunction contradict one another. Her ethicality and morality is primarily premised in Islamic teachings.

Till that time, my religious beliefs were not so strong. After this thing happened, I started going deep into Islam … I have become so godly now that … I have such a connection with Allah now … I like to connect to him, even when I am alone and I am tensed, I talk to him and it is not only through prayers. I believe that God is everywhere and he is always listening to you.

For all these Muslims, living in the faith translates into a hundred different small and large questions about the practices of ordinary life. Is it permissible to go to a gym with a male instructor? How should one dress for the gym or to go to work or to the mall? Should one send her picture to a prospective groom with a smartphone app? Is adoption permissible within Islam? If one gives food to the poor in one’s dead grandfather’s name, will he obtain blessings from it? Is it possible to pray during one’s periods? How can prayer help to change one’s behaviour and become more patient? Why and where is it required to don hijab? What are the Islamic rules for dividing property? What is the proper way of doing ghusl?

However, for older women such as Shaheen apa, participation in ijtema clarifies and enables the relearning of disciplines cultivated since childhood in a proper way. They may not have the technological skills, the education and the confidence to probe further, but theirs is also a self-conscious surrender to the ethical demands of the faith. In its quietude, though, it may not be unlinked from the withdrawal and inhibition that on the whole marks this generation of survivors of the 1990s riots. On the other hand, the younger, more educated women manifest greater assurance in thinking independently and working through such questions by picking the best view after reading or learning as much as possible through the internet and other sources. Even attendance at the ijtema does not signal Reena’s acceptance of all that is said there. With intentional deliberateness and through an emphasis on reason, these women build for themselves a justifiable ethics, not merely to answer to others’ probing, but for their own clarity.

Becoming an Aalima

Aminah’s parents died when she was very young. She grew up on Mohammad Ali Road, but originally the family was from Kutch. Her husband is from Pune. Her grandmother was headmistress at an Urdu school. She went to an English-medium school run by Muslims. Having finished her SSC (Secondary School Certificate), her first thought was to earn because her grandmother was till then the only earning member of the family. She gave tuitions to children to earn a little money. Later, she began working at a bank. Aminah describes herself as being a namazi at the time. She says, “praying was in our blood, I could live without food but not namaz.” Thus, she feels though she was always “religious,” she was not yet deep into the faith. The transformation started when she began to read the Quran.

When I took the train … [to the bank in Malad] I would read the translation of the Quran, I would read tafsir7 etc and I wanted to know more, I had to search for an English speaking apa like me … not very strict, like me, lenient. This was 20 years ago … so I found one old apa and she saw “ki iska jazba accha hai” [her sentiments are good]. She too never took any money from me. So after I finished at the bank I would go and sit and study with her … [Before this], I didn’t know things like taking interest was wrong, so working in the bank was wrong … I used to dress up nicely, wear rich suits and jewelry from Amarsons, but when I started reading the Quran then things changed … but my husband was very modern, he would roam about on the bike and watch Mel Gibson and Hugh Grant movies.

This was her initiation into a serious engagement with her faith. It strengthened with her reading at home from her large collection of religious books, which whet her appetite further and gave birth to a profound love for god. It also led to her questioning her choices and those of the people closest to her, including her husband. She felt she could not continue with her job. She took to preaching and did not feel comfortable going to see films with her husband.

[A]fter I changed I couldn’t go, I said I’m a preacher what will my congregation think if they see me at a cinema hall! Also I didn’t want to see those dirty men taking off their shirt, then I told my apa what do I do? So she said, “bring him [her husband] to your side” … and then slowly, slowly he became like me. I would tell him, see I used to wear great clothes but now I wear a burkha, so that only you see me looking good, I said ‘Look, now you won’t have any tension that I will have an affair with anyone … and as for me I trust you implicitly. So slowly I prayed for my husband … I had a love marriage, I had met him at the bank I worked at. My husband is so loving and of such a good character, but I prayed to Allah to make him more devout too.

Today, a preacher in her late 30s or so, Aminah distinguishes her approach from those of others. She bases her ethical and moral prescriptions on an understanding of Sunni Islam and feels that the rigid domineering maulvis and aalima who preach a Tabligh or Salafi-inspired Islam are inhumane and extreme. She believes herself to be a healer who can eliminate negative energies and diseases through special prayer or “phook.” This practice is frowned upon by more orthodox Salafis and even Barelvis, who do not allow individuals to attribute to themselves spiritual powers and healing abilities. Perhaps, this is also a source of the conflict and trepidation she feels when it comes to maulvis.

Aminah’s ijtema are held in a 200 sq foot room in a by-lane off Nagpada on Saturday afternoons. The road is lined by small hardware stores, restaurants, butcher shops and wholesale dealers. The space is used as a madrassa of the Raza academy during the day. The room is on the ground floor opening onto the road; the women leave their shoes at the door. Near the door are two large drums with water for wazoo (ritual cleansing) and drinking. The women sit on the frayed chatais or mats lining the floor and wait eagerly for Aminah to begin. The walls have pale green paint peeling off on which calendars depicting sacred sites in Medina are hung. In the corner are two large old Godrej almirahs and behind Aminah is a wall-mounted white board used for the morning madrassa sessions and for Arabic classes held in the evenings.

The audience is a mix of women of different age groups. While it is true that many of the women are homemakers with young children in tow, there are several professionals, doctors and businesswomen as well. All the women have black head coverings or hijab and wear abayas. Some wear niqab, which they remove indoors. Though Aminah places great value on modesty and saadgi (plainness), a few women wear colourful and embellished salwar kameez and cover their heads only lightly with a dupatta. Aminah sits on the floor at the head of the class and often has to speak very loudly to contend with outside noises, as there is no microphone available. She addresses the audience on a set of chosen themes and also answers questions put to her.

Aminah says that she seeks to be practical in her outlook in contrast to preachers who only talk about the afterlife (akhirat) and Jannat. Her aim is to help people solve the issues they face in this world (duniya) as well. Thus, she dispenses appropriate ayaat (verse from the Quran) to those who seek to have children or are having financial problems, or may have a husband who is unfaithful. Something that sets her apart is that Aminah does not charge for her services, which she sees as performing “for Allah.” As a result, she is highly sought after and is deemed “authentic.” She has also garnered considerable social prestige.

Aminah conducts ijtemas at personal residences as well as at the madrassa after teaching hours. Sometimes a group of women also book a hall for her to come and give weekly lectures. She notes that she has a diverse audience, most are women, but occasionally on request she may counsel husbands too. Her audience is made up of poorer Muslims as well as elite Muslim women “who live in towers.” Further, she consciously goes out of her comfort zone to counsel Muslim women engaged in “dishonourable” professions such as dancing at bars and sex work. She feels that they are in need of “emergency” spiritual care and would never turn them away.

The centring of the woman in the family is crucial to Aminah’s teachings. She counsels women not to quarrel with their mothers-in-law but to see things from the perspective of the older woman. The relationship with parents is very important; one must care for one’s aged parents. Her advice to women includes staying at home to look after the children and household responsibilities; if they must work they should do so from home. This is linked to ensuring that one has time and energy to look after one’s husband both in terms of his sexual needs and his need for friendship and companionship from his wife. While women should dress modestly, they should also please their husbands. If this involves waxing, keeping one’s hair in a short smart style, dressing in good outfits or going out with him to watch films, then these things are acceptable at least from the practical perspective of maintaining harmony in the home and ensuring that the man does not stray.

A turn to Islam brings love and peace to the home, enhances the understanding one has of other family members, particularly one’s in laws, and increases one’s patience with them. It decreases fights and arguments and reduces aggression. It introduces moderation, for instance, in spending; one becomes careful about saving and spending judiciously one’s husband’s hard-earned income. Of course, a woman may take khullah if she finds herself in a difficult marriage, but the riders placed on this are so many—she must ensure that she is not taking a decision in a hurry or when she is hormonally unstable, that her judgment is clear and that she is not condemning a basically good man for something done merely in anger—that the bias against this form of divorce is clearly perceptible. Considerable tolerance is expressed towards a man taking another wife as it prevents him from philandering and ensures the woman is respected and provided for.

A significant part of her sermons is devoted to the “correct” manner of praying, and a range of bodily actions one must perform throughout the day to generate and maintain a pious self. This emphasis on the importance of correct actions to maintain piety, or a regular “performative behaviour” is what ultimately shapes inward disposition (Mahmood 2005: 157). Mahmood contends that it is the sequences of ritualised practices and actions which one engages with that shapes ones moral landscape rather than the other way around.

Observing hijab emerges as another of the central preoccupations of the aalima’s teachings. Audiences are repeatedly lectured about the dire spiritual consequences they face in the present and afterlife if they do not observe hijab correctly, and the impossibility of cultivating a pious self if this aspect of faith is not correctly observed. As Mahmood (2005: 158) notes, the veil functions as a means to tutor oneself in the attribute of shyness and is a crucial aspect in the programme of self-cultivation and self-discipline, rather than a mere patriarchal imposition. Further, within the community, the hijab becomes ubiquitous to the extent that some feel that the “voice” should be veiled and one should not even speak in front of strange men, though Aminah declares herself less “strict” than that. She will speak unveiled to boys below the age of 10, but when she counsels older boys, she dons full niqab, even covering her eyes.8 At the same time, hijab is not something that one can adopt or doff as and when one wishes. Aminah observes:

On Mohammed Ali Road, women wear burkha, but on weddings they keep their hair open, wear make-up, good clothes, walk on the chaali. Women have a responsibility for attracting men. So also we should insist on wearing pardah even if they object. We have responsibility for nazar firna (wandering gaze) of men.

The individual’s responsibility and answerability to god are stressed throughout Aminah’s teachings. This contrasts with an attitude of withdrawal from issues of direct political consequence for the community as a whole, such as reservations.

Sometimes they get their community problems to me… like they were concerned about reservations … that they will not give us anything … so I said pray and work hard, you will automatically get your due … I said … you just concentrate on namaaz and prayer. Everything is in our naseeb, I say, so this removes the hatred from their hearts.

On the other hand, some effort is made to address cleavages within the community. Aside from the obvious Shia and Sunni divide, there is a very evident cleavage between the dargah-going Muslims and non-dargah going ones, the latter are the Salafis and mostly Tabligis. Dargah-going Muslims respect and revere the charisma of saints and acknowledge a spiritual energy present at mazaars, but only some permit sajdah or prostration in front of the grave, while others see it as a contravention of tauhid or the oneness of god. Aminah seeks to mediate between such groups and bring about a rapprochement without fueling tensions.

Such aalima are intent on revalorising their religion by redirecting individual energies in the service of an Islamic revivalism that is not concerned with the militancy of political Islam, but with the Islamicisation of modernity (Echchaibi 2009: 4). One might revert to Aminah who asserts:

I don’t have anything to do with non-Muslims, my aim is to improve the lot of Muslims. You should observe restrictions of hijab, read namaaz … we have to lead our lives according to the Quran. Hamare khayalat modern hai (Our thinking is modern) … my daughter is studying, but we have to observe hijab.

However, there may also be more to the story, as is suggested below.

Secularisation and the Production of an Ethical Self

Aminah’s teachings on hijab place the burden of modesty on women, her understanding is that women should locate themselves primarily within the familial setting and let go of other occupational ambitions, her exhortations are to avoid television and films which only spread the wrong values, and she declines to engage with direct intercommunity political issues. Her life, however, began differently and her story speaks of an ethical commitment to a scriptural, authoritative Islam. However, the discourses of aalima such as Aminah are listened to by different people. Some older women, such as Shaheen apa, accept what the aalima says without question, but others like Reena maintain a critical stance towards what they hear at the ijtema. Engagement with the written tradition actually provides women such as Reena with arguments against discriminatory gender norms in Islam whether in the domains of marriage, the family, the community, education or the like.

Moreover, Aminah holds herself to a higher standard as a preacher. She prayed for her husband and family to be more like her, but does not apply the same measures in her advice to others. This is where her perception of a “life-relevant” or practical Islam comes in. She wishes to assist her clients to cope with the problems of this world, perhaps as a proselytising device to draw them further into the tracery of an Islamic way of life, but more significantly because she sees each person’s location and problems as distinct. Thus, while she exhorts the larger gatherings to a firmer and fuller adherence to the writ of Islam, in dealing with individuals or specific families she alters her advice to suit the particularities of their situation.

For instance, she expresses distaste for films but advised a woman who was too strict with her son’s wife to permit the couple to go out together to the cinema or elsewhere, because it was better than keeping control of the daughter-in-law and tempting the son to stray. Again, she tells mothers to keep their children close and preferably teach them at home, but accepts that Muslims’ aspirations for the next generation revolve around sending boys and increasingly girls as well to English-medium schools. Against received understandings (Marsden 2005; Schielke 2009; Osella and Soares 2010; Fadil and Fernando 2015) the practicality she reveals in these cases is not viewed here as an incoherence of her beliefs or evidence of their uncertainty or ambiguity. Aminah does not set herself up to the audience as an exemplar so much as an ethical preacher, in whose pietistic teachings is entailed a project of self-making that each woman has to engage in herself through learning, reading and understanding the textual traditions.

More than viewing the cultivation of piety as empowering women by according them some sort of political voice within community spaces or promoting their rights (Vasilaki 2011; Parvanova 2012), we suggest that it enhances their prestige. Its accumulation as a form of spiritual currency, especially when one becomes an aalima, but perhaps otherwise as well, gives women access to financial and other resources and increases their moral worth in society. Aminah insists that a “pious” woman whose husband strays can get a divorce from him, but she will be better off forgiving him for he will always want her back and will respect her worth. Indeed, a woman’s piety acts as a kind of insurance against divorce because, even if she is average-looking, her husband will never leave her. Aminah left her own bank job, but her husband finances her charity and preaching work even as she studiously avoids any payment, thereby increasing her moral value as healer and teacher. Further, a woman who arranges discourses by aalima in her house or in a neighbourhood hall accumulates prestige within the community.

By introducing the idea of election—women either “inhabit” the faith or translate discipline into personal decision based on reason—the relationship to religious traditions alters significantly. Moreover, this piety is not a result of coercion and is also not regulated by sanction, but relies more on persuasion. While older women are self-aware in their surrender to the faith, younger ones such as Reena or Shabana debate with received Islamic tradition, expecting it to be consistent and logical in its requirements and application. We return, therefore, to Iqtidar’s (2011: 157) concept of a secularised model of Islam that constitutes religious practice as a product of justifiable decision-making that lies in the hands of individuals.

In Mahmood (2005), women of the Egyptian mosque movement do not directly engage the state, but their pursuit of piety, inasmuch as it seeks to bring an Islamic sensibility to all spheres of social life and not merely to a differentiated and set apart domain of “religion,” challenges the liberal, secular governance practices of the state. On the other hand, in the Pakistani context closer home, the result of the pietistic practices of Islamic religious organisations that denounce secularism as a state policy is the secularisation of faith on the ground (Iqtidar 2011). Our research suggests that even while the secularisation of Islam is undoubtedly nourished by the ethical argumentation of young Muslim women professionals, the possibility that women of another generation and different educational circumstances may be making a leap into faith of the kind that Mahmood (2005) perceived is not inconceivable.

Moreover, Iqtidar’s assertion that the process of secularisation is sustainable in the absence of political secularism or in a society constrained at once by religious choice and in terms of basic freedoms is deeply contentious. It is not that Muslims in Mumbai dabble in a marketplace of beliefs that includes other religions. They are remarkably inward-looking in confining themselves to the terrain of Islam. However, if we are to think of these processes of ethical self-construction as the practice of a specific, historically produced freedom, then the possibilities of comparative research are particularly fruitful, especially when it comes to the countries of South Asia, so intimately linked by ties of history, politics and faith. For this potential to emerge, though, we need to take seriously the place of wider social, economic, political and legal conditions, including, for instance, relationships between different ethnic communities (Haniffa 2008) as well as state and constitutional provisions with regard to secularism or religious liberties, in constituting or constraining the conditions within which subjects exercise their ethical freedom.

In Mumbai, the process of secularisation of faith must be seen within the context of a liberalising economy offering many more employment opportunities for young Muslims, which take them out of their ethnic enclaves and bring them into contact with people of different faiths, their education and access to varied sources of information which make them question and reason with tradition, and the overall conditions of secularity secured by the constitution and democratic citizenship. At the same time, a long history of interethnic conflict and violence has played its own somewhat contradictory part in constituting the ways in which different generations of Muslims relate to state, society and their own faith. “One can have more or less freedom, and it takes different forms, in different historical situations” (Laidlow 2002: 323). We should make this the basis for a critical comparative study of ethical piety, secularisation and freedom across the countries of South Asia.


As part of ongoing research on the formation of a middle-class identity among Muslims in contemporary Mumbai within the swirl of global change and heightening aspirations, this paper has traced women’s experiments with faith and the disciplines of piety. Moving beyond the binaries of conformity and resistance in the feminist writing on piety movements, or even the insistence on empowerment within the community, the paper hones in on the idea of the making of the ethical self as the practice of freedom. In so doing, it argues that the piety movement may produce contradictory outcomes within a community caught in the flux of change, wherein sacralisation and secularisation, subjecting all aspects of everyday life to religious discipline, and questioning of customary beliefs may coexist. Among Mumbai’s Muslims, the generation of survivors of the riots and the one born and attaining adulthood after may be distinguished in terms of piety practices. The latter seems to have developed the self-assurance to openly demand reasons of Islam; the greater caution and reticence of the former expresses itself in willing submission to Islam’s proper disciplines without seeking to enquire “why.” Further, in contradistinction to literature on piety, which confines itself largely to the microcosm of women’s specific experiences, this paper, by placing the study in relation to research on Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has argued that a serious consideration of freedom as historically situated needs to examine state–society engagements more closely because a state may be as deeply implicated in framing the domain of religion as it is in constituting the realm of the “secular.” Comparative research will be considerably enriched by this approach.


1 For instance, the concept of “inhabiting” faith in the title and elsewhere in the paper is owed to Mahmood (2005).

2 For, agency is less concerned with whether a person’s choices are genuinely her own than with the causal capacity or structural significance of these choices (Laidlow 2002: 315).

3 As per statistics on Indian Muslims as a whole. See Sachar Committee Report (2006) or Hasan and Menon (2004).

4 This remains true despite a shifting political atmosphere in recent times with the targeting of Muslims in the name of gau raksha.

5 Osella and Soares (2010) also suggest that the state may be involved in supporting what it considers “good” Islam and setting it apart from the “bad.”

6 All names changed.

7 Tafsir refers to exegeses, usually of the Quran. Quranic tafsir explains content, provides places and times, not contained in Quranic verses, and gives the views and opinions of different scholars on the verse.

8 Burkha is abaya (gown) plus hijab, hijab is only the headscarf. Some women may wear hijab even with trousers. Niqab is face-covering almost always worn with an abaya. Nowadays, girls are wearing a more United Arab Emirates–inspired hijab and abaya style tied high and embellished with fashionable prints in shades of purple, brown, gray or navy.


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