Professor Masooda Bano

Professor of Development Studies, Oxford Department of International Development

In recent years, development theory and practice have come to recognise that informal institutions, such as social norms, values and beliefs, matter just as much, if not more, in shaping development trajectories followed by different societies, as do the formal economic and political institutions.

My intellectual curiosity rests in understanding the workings of informal institutions, with a particular interest in mapping the processes of change or consolidation within them. I am particularly curious about how developments within informal institutions often correlate closely to developments in formal institutions, and vice versa. It is these analytical concerns which led to the development of my current project, Changing Structures in Islamic Authority and Consequences for Social Change (CSIA). On the one hand, the project is investigating shifts within Islamic authority structures in response to changes in societal conditions. On the other, it is considering why people develop loyalties around a specific Islamic authority and to what extent adherence to that authority shapes their everyday socio-economic and political decisions.

My book, The Rational Believer: Choices and Decisions in the Madrasas of Pakistan (Cornell University Press, 2012), addresses these very questions about the workings of informal institutions by drawing on rich ethnographic and survey data from madrasas across Pakistan. Not only does it provide an insight into the functioning of Pakistani madrasa hierarchy, but it counters claims that link Islamic education to recruitment for jihad.

My other major monograph, Breakdown in Pakistan: How Aid is Eroding Institutions for Collective Action (Stanford University Press, 2012) tests similar theoretical concerns, while looking at another important development puzzle: why does aid given with the express aim of mobilising collective action in developing countries often have the reverse effect, causing groups that had previously worked well together to lose members when aid becomes available? Drawing on ethnographic and survey data, I demonstrate that existing mechanisms of aid disbursement provide strong material incentives to the leaders of these groups, resulting in material concerns ‘crowding out’ intrinsic motivation to act. This change in motivation in turn alters the leader’s behaviour in ways that gradually cause group members to start questioning their leaders’ commitment.

My work on female Islamic education movements, which was supported by an ESRC/AHRC Ideas and Beliefs Fellowship, led to a major co-edited volume Women, Leadership, and Mosques: Changes in Contemporary Islamic Authority (Brill, 2012), which features articles on female preachers from across the Muslim-majority countries as well as in the West. A second co-edited volume, highlighting the influence of Al-Azhar, Al-Medina, and Al-Mustafa on the shaping of global Islamic discourses, has just been published: Shaping Global Islamic Discourses: The Role of Al-Azhar, Al-Medina, and Al-Mustafa (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). My most recent monograph Female Islamic Education Movements: The Re-democratisation of Islamic Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2017) analyses the global and local forces that have led to the birth and expansion of female Islamic movements across the Muslim world since the 1970s, based on ethnographic fieldwork in Pakistan, northern Nigeria and Syria.

All these research strands have helped shape my current interest in building cross-country comparative studies on the subject of Islamic authority.