Everyday Piety: Islam and Economy in Jordan

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By: Sarah A. Tobin

Publisher: Ithaca Press

Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016. 248pp. $26.95(paperback) $89.95(hardcover). ISBN: 978-1-5017-0046-0.

Volume: 4 Issue: 12

December 2016

Review by:

Claire Oueslati-Porter, PhD

University of Miami

Coral Gables, FL

Sarah Tobin’s Everyday Piety: Islam and Economy in Jordan combines ethnographic artistry with astute theoretical analysis.  Tobin participant observes as a bank teller in Jordan’s Islamic banks, she studies at Jordanian universities, and she socializes with Jordanian women in the modern shopping malls and cafes of West Amman. Throughout her book, she seeks answers to the question that was omnipresent among the cosmopolitan Ammanis with whom she conducted this research: “What is the real Islam?”

In Chapter One, Tobin begins with an ethnographic vignette focused on a middle class, middle aged Ammani woman named Asma who recalls a trip she made as a young woman to a Las Vegas casino.  The vignette reveals the ways in which Asma and a growing movement of Muslims are practicing, and economizing, Islam in a new way that is shaped by neoliberalism.  Unlike the past, where Muslims self-identified as Muslim but whose practice and intention are now considered inadequate, contemporary Muslims are investing in the practices of piety in ways guaranteed by scripture to increase heavenly reward.  Tobin’s ethnography is ideal for use in courses on gender, Islam, and the Middle East for students whose preconceived ideas of Islamic societies need to be rebuilt on a foundation of class, gender, and the economics of globalization.

Tobin uses a tripartite model to conceptualize belief in practice that allows for understanding of the malleability of belief and practice that neoliberal piety necessitates.  This tripartite model includes the public performance of religious activities and rituals, doctrinal beliefs that command societal consensus, and finally the orthodoxy of individually-held belief.  Tobin argues that there is a dialectics between the orthopraxy and orthodoxy that is core to the neoliberal piety construction.

Tobin’s focus is West Amman, the wealthier part of the city, and not East Amman where the working classes live.  This focus has implications for her findings.  There are many participants who are from East Amman with whom Tobin socializes with in West Amman.  These people aspire to be middle class, as can be seen by their consumption practices and their espoused ideals.  Those in East Amman do not even know what Starbuck’s is, as one of Tobin’s informants disparagingly describes (37).

In Chapter Two, Tobin describes the history of Amman in terms of what makes Amman different from other Orientalist depictions of urban Islamic cities of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).  Amman is far from a typical urban Islamic ancient city. It was a Circassian fishing village until relatively recently, as well as a stop on trade routes for people headed for “more important” places.  Contemporary Amman is a place shaped by the regional circumstances of the last century, especially in the period between 1946 and the Civil War of the 1970’s, and the peace treaty with Israel of 1993.  Tobin also contextualizes contemporary ethnic and class differentiations in their historic circumstances.  She emphasizes the ways in which Jordan’s imagined community negotiates the ethnic divides of “Jordanian-Palestinian” versus “Jordanian-Jordanian,” and the religious diversity of the nation, while making a compelling case for the centrality of class, especially middle-classiness, as the central distinguishing difference in contemporary Amman.

In Chapter Three, Tobin’s use of ethnographic vignette serves to elucidate the ways in which Islam is experienced individually and how it is regulated by the Jordanian State through law.  She also describes the ways in which religious minorities who do not follow the Ramadan fast experience Ramadan, and how Muslims experience the non-Muslims in their midst.  Tobin’s excellence as an ethnographic researcher is clear.  She captures the reflections of Jordanian Christians who sometimes rebel against restrictions on their behaviors during the month of Ramadan, such as a Christian woman who smacks her gum more loudly in the supermarket during daylight hours once she notices fasting Muslims staring at her with disapproval.  She also captures the very different perspectives of Jordanian Muslims who tend to report that Christians are happy with the Ramadan rules.

Ammani Muslims’ economizing of Islam and Islamizing the economy are explored by Tobin. Tobin describes some of the ways in which promoting virtue and preventing vice among the Ammani public can be illiberal.  The reader of this ethnography will see that Tobin was troubled by the strictness of these forms of social control.  Especially intense is her description of a taxi driver who becomes so irate that he swerves off the road when she drinks water in his cab during the Ramadan fast.  However, Tobin overcomes stereotypes of the Muslim Middle East through the diversity of people with whom she conducts this research.  For example, she describes a queer Ammani Muslim who describes the many benefits of doing Ramadan fast (including as a “detox”), as economizers of Islamic practice in similar ways to others of Amman’s middle class.

Tobin’s description of the economizing of Islam that happens through Lalat Al-Qadr, the most powerful night of Ramadan, the night when all prayers and good deeds are multiplied many times over, is especially fascinating.  Tobin recounts her attendance at two weddings that happened near and on Lalat Al-Qadr, and interviewed the brides concerning the significance of multiplying blessings, and serving Iftar dinner as a wedding dinner as double-dipping the spiritual reward.

While Ramadan is described in holy scripture as a time for egalitarianism, Tobin finds that Jordanian society is rife with “competitions for moral correctness” (72).  Her discussion of the ways in which class distinction complicates the Islamic principle of egalitarian offers a way for university students to study Islam against Orientalist depictions of Islam as a timeless and unchanging religion.  In our current political climate, this is an urgent educational necessity.

Tobin finds that the social status of men if below women such as male servers at a women’s party or event, do not compel women to cover in front of these men.  Tobin describes that their “status as men” becomes “marginalized,” with little further analysis.  This was an opportunity for some class analysis, but also more analysis on the special context of weddings, where oftentimes gender boundaries and the boundary between men and women softens.  Was it really that these men’s very “status as men” was marginalized or was it that their masculinity was mitigated by their working class status to render them beneath female deference.  The analysis at this same wedding, where women danced in a driveway without hijab or with “downsized” hijab unimpeded by the male neighbors who might be looking downwards from their balconies at them as not mattering because they weren’t at women’s sight lines also seems unsatisfactory.  This only seemed to happen at weddings, so again, more need for understanding of what cultural aspects of weddings are.

In Chapter Four, those of us who teach gender in Muslim societies will find the nuance we need in Tobin’s depiction of Muslim Ammani women who wear, do not wear, or once wore, hijab.  The complexity of decision-making compels elevated class discussion around this practice. The hijab is not just a personal spiritual choice but a part of orthopraxis that is purported to prevent fitna.  Further, Tobin describes the ways in which women who do not wear the veil are likely to perceived as not yet “ready” to wear it, or as ignorant.  This second category again links hijab with class, cultural capital, and modernity.  Tobin’s description of the few women who choose to stop wearing hijab reveal the value of ethnographic research based on friendship and trust. For students who are studying ethnographic research methods, this book will be formative.

Yet the consequences for women who make the unlikely choice to remove hijab are dismal.  Since they cannot be considered merely ignorant of the Islamic rationale for wearing hijab, they are the subjects of gossip and condemned as in moral decline. Of note is the story of a woman who stopped wearing hijab after leaving her abusive husband and emigrating to the USA.  Many of this woman’s social circle on Facebook condemned her posts of herself without hijab.  Tobin’s etic analysis of the ways in which women’s maturity is denied in a decision to not wear or stop wearing hijab is eloquent.  However, if Marwa had down-veiled, but she had NOT exerted agency over her marriage plans, or had a goal to travel abroad to work, would her family would have ostracized her?  If Marwa had continued to wear the socially accepted hijab and abaya but had continued to exert agency over her marriage plans and still planned to travel abroad, would her family still have ostracized her? (p. 90).  Is it possible that her assertion of her own goals to travel abroad to work and to marry for love rather than by arrangement were really what troubled her family?

In Chapter Five and Six, Tobin delves into the Islamic banks.  She illustrates the complexities of making a bank “Islamic” in Jordan’s capitalist economy.  She conducts participant observation research as a bank employee, as a teller and in other positions that tend to be held by young, college-educated Jordanian women.  In a rare feat, she combines the intricate artistry of her ethnographic story with astute political economic analysis of the Jordanian capitalist consumerist culture in which these banks exist.

Tobin shows that the Islamic banks exist in a precarious place in society.  There is much debate and frustration over what makes an Islamic bank Islamic.  For example, when an Islamic bank advertises a new product, an “Islamic Credit Card,” the bank line is flooded with calls from people who ask if the credit cards that they already hold are forbidden.  Further, the bank’s Shari’a Committee is composed of Islamic scholars, who must be convinced by the bankers to get on board with the economic practices that will make the bank successful.

She describes the ways in which Ammanis’ assertion of what makes for the “real Islam” are debates about adequation.  Her synopsis of the history of Shari’a and Islamic economics, the complications, technicalities, and justifications for Islamic banking and finance in a complex node in the global capitalist economy are sometimes seemingly contradictory.  How can the principles of Shari’a economics be reconciled with the brutalities of capitalism?

In Chapter Seven, Tobin describes the confusion many Muslim Ammanis feel when trying to figure out what makes an Islamic bank different from a bank that is not labeled as such.  Here, Tobin employs the psychological concept of affect (interpretations, judgments, and feelings) to analyze the uncertainty Ammanis feel about Islamic banking, and banking in the non-Islamic banks as well.  Many of her informants describe not feeling anything different when entering the Islamic banks, and therefore choosing not to bank there.  The pressures of orthopraxy also compel some Ammanis to open accounts; however, many keep accounts at the regular banks simultaneously.  Indeed, many informants felt that the bank was only Islamic in name, and doubted that there could be no interest accrued.  This, many of her informants seemed resigned to orthopraxy, without having much actual faith in the Islamic banks.

Tobin then analyzes the ways in which consensus among Ammani Muslims surrounding Shari’a norms informs decisions to bank or not to bank with the Islamic banks.  While affect influences the choice, higher-level reasoning is also employed in the decision.  While there is consensus that Shari’a is the best source of guidelines for living one’s life, the interpretations are quite varied.  Much of the interpretation that would lead Ammanis not to bank at Islamic banks comes from outside education, especially university courses.  Thus, social class is central to the decision.  Similarly, those who advocate that Ammani Muslims should be customers in Islamic banks also appeal to intellectual, higher-order thinking, rather than affect or orthopraxy.  This emphasis on intellectual logic is an expression of the hegemony of modernity.  The complexity of people’s perceptions of the Islamic banks is well depicted through Tobin’s use of a profile of a woman who chooses to be a customer at an Islamic bank.  Tobin makes clear that just having the name “Islamic” in it will draw only limited numbers of new customers.  Customers need to feel Islam and modernity simultaneously when they enter the bank.

In Chapter Eight, Tobin concludes her ethnography with a focus on the political economic reasons that there was not a successful Arab Spring in Jordan.  Middle class ideals trump ethnic divides, and political Islam is aligned with the Hachemites, rather than in political opposition groups.  As Tobin shows through her ethnography, the Jordanian middle class calculates risk and benefit in their Islamic and economic practice, and they used a similar calculative strategy in weighing the risks versus the benefits of an Arab Spring.

Tobin also tells the story of Jordan’s 2011 bid to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (G.C.C.).  In this bid, that happened at the time of the Arab Spring in several countries, there can be seen a political economic strategy for maintaining personal wealth through the patronage of the wealthier Gulf countries.  Tobin analyzes Jordanian people’s online responses to their government’s bid to join the G.C.C.  She finds that many chose to sarcastically and aggressively compare and contrast Jordanian “real Islam” with the Salafist Islam associated with the Gulf countries.  Many online writers expressed sarcasm at their government’s move to align with the Gulf, emphasizing Jordan’s diversity and democracy in comparison to the Gulf countries.  The Hashemites maintain power through fomenting notions of middle class diversity in Jordanian society’s institutions.  Tobin ends her final chapter with a fascinating discussion of Islamic branding.  Branding Islam is already being done, and the link between a comfortably Islamic, modern consumerism and the promotion of good through proper forms of consumption is likely to compel a continued emphasis on Islamic diversity in urban Jordan. Tobin offers rare and vital insight into Jordan’s future that not only is a testament to the value of anthropological ethnography, but to what this work can do to inform political science of the region.

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