In my book, I will analyze the effects of novel technology on the practice, as well as the perception, of prayer rites by Sunni reformers who invariably assess modern things on the basis of scriptural precedents. To understand these effects, I will research fatwas, authoritative juridical opinions, concerning a wide range of new machines: gramophones, airplanes, slaughtering machines, digital devices, and many other objects. Such technological innovations became controversial in Salafi circles because they made it difficult to follow scriptural standards related to one or another aspect of prayer. Some machines simply presented a physical challenge to believers, constraining their ability to perform prostrations in the direction of Mecca. Other machines raised ethical dilemmas; they served a religious or social purpose but their operation made it difficult to concentrate on statements of belief with the requisite spiritual intention. Paradoxically, despite their conservative approach to religion, Salafi legal authorities often ruled in favor of new technologies, evincing a pragmatic tendency. Rather than ban all machines that had an impact on prayer rites, they found creative ways to justify partial adoption, subject to certain religious safeguards.
I approach Salafi fatwas as a historian of both Islamic law and material culture. This is an unusual combination, and my project’s intellectual merits follow from it. First, the vast majority of experts on Islamic law have focused on hermeneutics, theories of juridical interpretation, with little thought to the realm of practice. By contrast, my work shows how material circumstances have shaped Islamic law. Second, it is not uncommon in the professional study of religion for scholars, both insiders and outsiders, to emphasize the importance of belief in immaterial realities—of faith in a transcendental or numinous object. My work reveals instead a materialist dimension to religion. Salafi jurists pay close attention to material realities in connection with prayer rites; and they rarely address questions about personal spirituality and divine agency, the subjects that prevail in western scholarship on prayer. Third, while in recent years historians of technology such as Daniel Headrick have made strides in understanding the mechanisms for technological diffusion worldwide, they have by and large dwelt upon neo-imperialist and capitalistic views of overseas expansion. Much less is known about non-western responses to products that originated in American or European factories, although Nicholas Thomas, Marshall Sahlins, and other cultural anthropologists have made key contributions to this field. My historical analysis will show that in Salafi legal cultures the reception of “western” or “foreign” technology was directly tied to deliberations about prayer rites.
When they pondered the reasons for adopting or rejecting modern machines, Salafi jurists entertained technical considerations (obscure legal precedents and abstruse theological points) that non-Muslim producers and international marketers in no way anticipated. But their rulings had a persuasive power over many pietists, especially lay Salafis and Islamists, across the world, as well as considerable influence within Saudi Arabia, where state institutions existed to control imports, advertisements and sales in accordance with their guidelines. Given that today goods flow across national boundaries with greater ease than ever before, the risk of cultural conflicts has greatly increased. Recognizing this risk, some transnational entrepreneurs have begun to ask Salafi jurists for fatwas about products still in development. But ignorance about Salafi views on the desirability of foreign technology and its effect on prayer rites still reigns. My interdisciplinary history of this subject will, I hope, attract scholars from various fields and perhaps also serve to inform agents of cross-cultural trade.