Everyday Piety

Islam and Economy in Jordan

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Sarah A. Tobin
  • Ithaca, NY: 
    Cornell University Press
    , February
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In her book Everyday Piety: Islam and Economy in Jordan, Sarah A. Tobin lays bare the tensions and anxieties that many of her upwardly-mobile Jordanian informants experienced when  reconciling their economic aspirations with their desires to adhere to authentically Islamic principles. These tensions are partially resolved, Tobin demonstrates, because in late-capitalist Jordan, economic and religious activities are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Rather, economic and spiritual pursuits may shape each other in a process of “co-production,” where economic practices such as consumption and investment integrate “into the everyday experience of Islamic piety, and vice versa” (49). This reconciliation is made possible, in part, because neoliberal worldviews and modern forms of Islamic piety “share similar temporal sensibilities” (6). They both create a sense of deficiency that one should do and have more—whether more consumer goods or more blessings from God.   

The persistent sense of deficiency common to neoliberalism and Islamic piety is the primary source of anxiety about just what sorts of actions—including economic actions—will advance a believer on the path of righteousness. Unlike other anthropological works on Muslim piety, the issue Tobin explores is not how well devout Jordanians adhere to doctrines or legal decisions propagated by religious authorities. Indeed, a discussion of religious authority in contemporary Jordan is curiously lacking in a book on the production of Muslim authenticity. Instead, Tobin explores how believers try to align orthopraxy with orthodoxy: that is, how they try to match religious practices with their individually held beliefs about what proper Islam is. Defining individual interpretations of Islamic tenets as “orthodoxy” is an unconventional move on Tobin’s part. She insists that distinguishing between doctrine (authoritative Islam) and orthodoxy (an individual’s grappling with doctrine) is important in order to highlight an individuals’ agreements and disagreements about proper Islam, a process that “is consonant with person-centered constructions of neoliberal piety” (11). This distinction allows Tobin to concentrate on the fact that doctrinal Islam and individual interpretations of it may differ, even when individuals consider themselves to be good Muslims. Tobin also draws on the notion of “adequation”—a term introduced by anthropologist Bill Maurer—to analyze the ways in which Muslims striving for spiritual perfection try to match their real-world actions to their personal orthodoxies. To paraphrase Tobin (107), deliberations about what actions are authentically Islamic are ultimately about adequation. Why she waits until chapter 5 to introduce this idea is not clear. Since it seems to encapsulate some important aspects of her analysis, it should have been introduced in her initial discussion of orthodoxy.

In the book’s ethnographic chapters (3 through 7), Tobin explores various religious practices—fasting during Ramadan, veiling, Shari’a-compliant banking and finance—to bring together her two central theoretical strands: economic-religious coproduction and adequation. For example, Tobin demonstrates how modern Islamic banking in Jordan is an especially fruitful space where both bank employees (discussed in chapters 5 and 6) and customers (chapter 7) grapple with the idea of what it means to be a good Muslim in a relatively new and complex context. In evaluating various financial practices and instruments, pious Muslims seek to align (or “to adequate”) their economic behavior to what they individually understand to be properly pious action. Yet different individuals may have different interpretations of proper Islam, such that guidelines coming from authoritative sources may be questioned on the grounds that they are old-fashioned and have not appropriately accommodated developments in banking.

Among the strengths of Tobin’s work is the ethnographic detail she offers and the many examples culled from her field research. This makes for lively and enjoyable reading, since one gets an intimate look at the lives of pious, middle-class Jordanians and their aspirations. Yet there are some important shortcomings. What Tobin defines as economic behavior is sometimes so broad and flexible as to be useless. For example, in discussing the fact that many men spend the “Night of Power” during Ramadan in the mosque is, for Tobin, a practice that facilitates a “heightened consumption of religion,” since the participants gain extra religious merits for doing so. Such an evaluation of a popular religious practice as a form of consumption is jarring. Is “consumption” another word for pursuing religious ends? Is it really so calculated? This practice is quite traditional: were men who participated in the mosque sojourn in the past acting according to different logics while current practitioners are acting according to neoliberal logics? Perhaps so, but this question should be addressed. In the end, it makes one wonder if Tobin’s insistence that Islamic practices are “economized” is an analysis imposed by her own neoliberal orientation rather than something found in the actions of the purportedly neoliberal ethnographic Other.

Once she moves to discussing banking in the last four chapters of the book, Tobin’s material seems more appropriate to her analytic model. Perhaps it would have been best to leave out chapters 3 (on Ramadan) and 4 (on veiling), since Tobin’s insistence on interpreting the actions of pious Muslims in terms of economic calculation seem forced, and ultimately unconvincing. But for those interested in Islamic banking and finance, Tobin’s study is certainly enlightening; especially in uncovering the conflicted view pious Muslims have toward this new and dynamic aspect of modern Jordanian life.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kim Shively is Professor of Anthropology at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sarah A. Tobin is the Associate Director of Middle East Studies at Brown University.



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