Interview with Naveeda Khan about "Of Children and Jinn"

Of Children and Jinn: An Inquiry into an Unexpected Friendship during Uncertain Times.” Cultural Anthropology 21, no. 2 (2006): 234–64. 

Kathryn Zyskowski: This article speaks to scholarship on the intersection of religion and politics in Pakistan, and on the process of creating an Islamic nation. Can you talk a bit about how ambiguity is a useful tool for analysis?

Naveeda Khan: Ambiguity is certainly central to my analytical framework. “Of Children and Jinn” took up several events of sectarian violence, specifically Shia–Sunni violence that made the headlines in Pakistan, to show how events of this scale fold into and grow out of the intricacies of everyday domestic life. In the article, I drew out the aspects of generosity and malevolence that made the actions of a pious individual ambiguous within the context of sectarianism. In the book that followed this article, Muslim Becoming (2012), this ambiguity was expanded to encompass the striving to become Muslim and the self-doubts and doubts towards others that came with it within the history of Pakistan and individual and collective lives there. The importance of ambiguity as an analytical tool was that it allowed me to posit a mode of striving that was not free of danger to oneself or to others in contrast to scholarship that focuses on moral striving in itself as either virtue (Pandian 2009) or piety (Mahmood 2004).

KZ: How can your focus on sectarianism as “possibility for Pakistanis” offer new narratives for understanding Islam globally?

NK: I know it is a potentially provocative position that sectarianism, premised on heightened religious differences and increased chances of conflict, offers possibility for Pakistanis. This is how I would explain my position now. Since the publication of Muslim Becoming, I have tried to specify for myself the possible relation between a moral striving laced with skepticism that I describe in the book and modern social life, on which Foucault has written extensively. Frances Ferguson (2004), a close reader of Foucault, has written that a major impulse within modern life is not the creation of categories of persons (mad, ill, criminal) but rather the proliferation of criteria for ranking and evaluating individual states and actions. This impulse to judge, qualify, and hierarchize points to the ubiquity of value within modern lives. This has led me to think that striving is surely suffused with a lively, yet also potentially harmful, play of values (good/bad, authentic/inauthentic, real/imaginary, original/copy) within Pakistani Muslim lives. Thus a question that has arisen for me is whether ambiguity, as in the interplay of striving and doubt, is valued and sustained towards specific ends or whether it breaks the very hold of values upon imaginations to produce new spaces for experimentation or the casting of new evaluative criteria. Thus, seeing ambiguity at work within actions deemed sectarian at different scales of social life opened up the opportunity to see experimentation and newness in modern Muslim lives and values.

While I have pursued this possibility for experimentation within sectarianism, my initial impetus for taking up the topic was in reaction to a plethora of works that focused on the national and international dimensions of sectarian-inflected violence amongst Muslims in Pakistan but which did not take seriously the fine-tuned vocabularies for self-differentiation and the disavowal of others within everyday life. My effort was not to assert that the everyday is globally consequential but to show how the everyday and the global stand in relation to each other in which the everyday retains its independence in terms of ramifying, refiguring, or even resisting sectarian violence. Consequently, I would argue that a greater commitment to the everyday as a space for the expression of ambiguity would significantly nuance the homogenizing political discourse on sectarianism current in the Western and Westernized media. But we have to be prepared to find an exhausted everyday because, as I show in “Of Children and Jinn,” the everyday is not a secure refuge from the world but is a dimension of the world that is itself continually in need of securing. 

KZ: This article focuses on how people negotiate everyday life, including humans’ relationships with non-humans such as jinns (spirit or ghost). Can you talk about how taking peoples’ narratives as serious, including actors that may not be empirically proven, can offer new frameworks for understanding human relations? 

NK: I agree that my work can provide a new framework for understanding human relations but not one in the sense of “our” ontologies versus “theirs,” that is, a “plurality of metaphysics.” The later is how Bruno Latour caricatures the aim of anthropology in Reassembling the Social (2005). Rather, I subscribe to the notion of a global condition of imbrication in modernity. There are non-human forms of life extant in every milieu and my curiosity is to explore how they are repressed, authorized, or acknowledged, and the various implications of these postures towards them. To bring the problem of doubt or skepticism into this conversation, I see one of the capacities of skepticism is to produce humans as things, for better or for worse. Latour for instance sees this as a promising move and encourages social scientists to see humans as things more often in the hopes of opening us to the liveliness of things, whereas Veena Das in Life and Words (2006) offers us a devastating image of humans as killing machines. A counterpoint to skepticism, which I explore in “Of Children and Jinn” and in Muslim Becoming, is precisely the capacity to see the effects and claims of non-human forms of life upon us. Thus I offer a framework of viewing non-humans as both constructive and negative figures in all milieus.

KZ: How does an investigation of local iterations of religion help us to understand the form or meaning of a global religion?

NK: The problem that assails me as I try to think with this question is that globalization is such a recent concept and I wonder about its explanatory potential for the longstanding universalist ambitions and scope of Islam (Faisal Devji [2009] describes it as planetary on one occasion). Furthermore, the idea that there is a scale and temporality such as the “local” in which this universalist quality is not felt and acted upon by Muslims does not strike me as convincing. So, for instance, while I am willing to grant that practices vary widely from place to place, I cannot imagine Muslims qualifying their practices of Islam as Turkish, Egyptian, Pakistani, or what have you. I believe this vision of Islam as universal to its adherents has yet to be taken account of in the anthropology of Islam. 

If we were to speak of global religions and not specifically Islam for a moment I am reminded of Bhrigupati Singh’s article in Cultural Anthropology, “The Headless Horseman of Central India” (2012), in which he makes clear that the local, in his case the present lives of the Sahariya in Rajasthan, is as much if not more so transected by the supra-historical, a different sheet of time than the global. Recall too that Pierre Hadot (1995) criticized Foucault’s use of Hadot’s own writings on spiritual exercises in Ancient Greece for his neglect of the dimension of the cosmos that made these exercises meaningful and efficacious. Perhaps the question could be posed as, how do we come to grips with the universal, the supra-historical, or even the cosmos within our global present, imagining a local that lays claims upon all three?

KZ: What direction do you see anthropology of Islam moving towards, and what analytic tools do you think may be useful for this shift? 

NK: I believe that the singular focus on piety within the last decade in the anthropology of Islam has tended to give short shrift to other modalities of being Muslim or to think of Muslims in interrelations with others (a gap which has been more often attended to within religious studies, for example, Bellamy 2012). Whereas “Of Children and Jinn” and Muslim Becoming brought in the question of difference internal to Muslim lives and selves, I am also thinking of work that explores the lives of those who are lapsed Muslims but live in close relations to pious Muslims making up their families and friends (Bush n.d.) or that which explores the nature of entanglements of Muslims with, say, Hindus within the context of pluralist states (Baxtrom 2008, Das 2010, 2011).

Besides these, I also find promising the writings of Hussein Agrama and Amira Mittermaier. In Agrama’s Questioning Secularism (2012), the Egyptian state’s claim upon secularism is of course under close scrutiny. But the part that I find poignant and useful to think within the context of the anthropology of Islam is Agrama’s description of the fatwa council. The council, which is an established and well-utilized office within the architecture of the state in Egypt, is contrasted with the dealings of the court on issues relating to marriage, divorce, maintenance, etc. to excavate an attitude of what Agrama calls “asecularity.” This amounts to an indifference to emergent concerns of the state, for instance, law and order or impiety. This attitude of practiced pragmatism that resists capture by the state while being within the state structure holds great promise in so far as it suggests the possibility for a richer conceptual vocabulary and description of ways of being Muslim in the world that isn’t either within statist modes of reasoning nor outside of its jurisdiction. 

Mittermaier’s Dreams that Matter (2011), and the more recently published article “Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities Beyond the Trope of Self-Cultivation” (2012), presents a somewhat strong challenge to writings on piety in suggesting that there is work yet to be done in excavating the work of the imagination in making Muslim subjects. The en-figuration of the Elsewhere in her writings recalls and continues the wonderful explorations in Stefania Pandolfo’s Impasse of the Angels (1998) of the active dream life within Muslim societies (see also Perdigon 2011). Going forward, I feel the need for more descriptions of fields of mutuality and intimate antagonisms, richer conceptual vocabularies of that which resists territorialization, and greater attention to the work of the imagination in the anthropology of Islam.

KZ: What direction is your own research moving towards?

NK: In the past four or five years I have shifted from studying Pakistan within the context of sectarianism to studying the rural and riverine environment in Bangladesh within the context of global climate change. This may seem a sharp break but my new research continues many of the interests that you highlight in your questions. I find in this context a central ambiguity, which is that between the scientific certainty about climate change, and the strong skepticism that accompanies such assertions within the international arena and everyday life. I explore how this ambiguity informs the lives of rural Bangladeshis assimilating to emergent and perceived situations of crisis. The question of the availability of the tradition of Islam for how people come to accept (or not) new horizons and what happens to pre-existing efforts to secure everyday life is a constant in my work. And I also ask the new question of whether there is a Muslim environmental imaginary? This question has led me to engage a new body of writings within religious studies on the viability of something called Islamic ecology and environmental ethics. My engagement with this as yet underdeveloped literature has made clear the need to center a vibrant materiality or the liveliness of things in the anthropology of Islam that has been to date largely preoccupied with Muslim polities and subjectivities. It should come as no surprise that my own efforts at centering materiality comes through studying how these predominantly Muslim farmers interact with and come to acknowledge non-human forms of life (including the figure of Khizr, dogs, river waters, silt, and lightning, to name a few). Finally, I remain concerned to explore how the singularities of these lives, both human and non-human, come to be hitched to the global. This research will culminate in a book tentatively titled Ensouling the Anthropocene: Riverine Life and Climate Change in Bangladesh, in which “ensouling” treats the problem of scaling up singularity to the global, intensifying efforts that began with “Of Children and Jinn.” 

Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on my paper now seven years after its publication.


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Mittermaier, Amira. 2012. “Dreams from Elsewhere: Muslim Subjectivities Beyond the Trope of Self-Cultivation.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 18, no. 2: 247–65.

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