This study is a comparative project on prayer among poor and working-class Muslim women in India and France. Specifically, it will examine the following two dimensions of prayer: supplications (duas) and prayers for healing from jinn afflictions (ruqya). The communities of women whose prayers will be studied belong to sectarian, reformist traditions that seek to purify Islam of external influences and more precisely, seemingly polytheistic (shirk) practices. However, the collective articulation of informal duas and performances of ruqya occupy ambiguous spaces in Islam, because both carry the danger of engaging in polytheism.
France and India are chosen cases despite their many differences, as Islamic reformist movements have grown significantly in certain areas of both countries, with women actively involved in these and other Islamic revival activities. More broadly, they are secular democracies where Muslims comprise the largest minority populations and are amongst the poorest and most marginalized sections of society. Explaining similarities and differences across societies of the global North and South can provide a sharper understanding of the degree to which reformist Islam is truly global. Further, the effects on prayer of India and France’s divergent policies toward religious and ethnic minorities can be brought to light through this comparative design.
The research objectives are: to provide a richer account of the prayer practices of Muslim women who are popularly dismissed as “fundamentalist” or Wahhabi; to complicate and challenge the dichotomy between traditional (ritualistic) Islam and reformist Islam, which is often viewed as homogenous; and to show precisely how debates over Islam’s internal reform are being constructed and brought to life on the terrain of everyday prayers.
To pursue these objectives and specific research questions related to duas and ruqya, I will conduct participant observation (6 months each) in Hyderabad, India, and Lyon, France. During this field work I will participate in women’s Islamic study circles and hear collective duas as well as observe prayers of ruqya among women in those same communities. The ethnography would be supplemented with interviews with women who receive ruqya prayers and those who perform them. Additional research methods include: constructing a trajectory of local reformist teachings and the most commonly cited sheikhs; and examining and coding the wide discussions about ruqya taking place in online forums (France) and the Urdu Muslim press (India).
The intellectual merit of the proposed research is distinctly sociological and structural perspective on Islamic prayer that incorporates multiple axes: gender, class, minority status, sectarian tradition, and nation. An in-depth look at supplication will demonstrate the social role it plays among women who lack access to formal leadership and the relationship to the divine that it forges. Examining ruqya as a prayer practice that is defined as distinct from rituals of spirit interaction and that is shaped by institutional context will refine existing understandings of the meaning of spirit and healing in lived Islam. Finally, the project’s broader impact is a reconstructed and deepened understanding of the so-called problem of “neo-fundamentalist” Islam. This would be gained by examining the meaning of reform for communities of women, its transnational dimension, and its expression and contestation through prayer—as an individual and collective means of struggle toward perfect faith.