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Department of Social Anthropology


Professor Morgan Clarke (University of Oxford) and Dr Ali-Reza Bhojani (University of Birmingham)

Provincializing virtue: dissolving anthropological piety in the ocean of Islam


In this seminar we reflect on some of our recent collaborative work together. Our collaboration is both interdisciplinary and interpositional, one of us being a non-Muslim anthropologist and the other a Muslim scholar of the Islamic religious sciences. Together we have conducted fieldwork amongst a Twelver Shii Muslim community in the UK with the aim of de-exoticizing observance of the religious rules of Islam (‘sharia’). Here we draw on our experiences to situate rule observance in the wider field of community piety and thereby engage with some dominant themes in the anthropology of Islam. Saba Mahmood presented a form of Muslim piety centred on the Islamic virtue ethics tradition and made of it a theoretical paradigm that has inspired a generation. Some have pushed back, questioning whether her portrait of piety was overly idealised and discursive, and thus whether, in Samuli Schielke’s words, there is now ‘too much Islam in the anthropology of Islam’. We argue the opposite, that a fuller appreciation of what Thomas Bauer has called Islam’s ‘culture of ambiguity’ will allow us to provincialize virtue ethics as but one of the many discourses of piety and seek out richer and more ambiguous theoretical tools for understanding social life more generally.

Friday, 13 October, 2023 - 15:15 to 17:00
Event location: 
Edmund Leach room, Department of Social Anthropology