During my fieldwork in Lyon, France, and its working-class urban periphery, I heard a refrain among Muslims and non-Muslims alike about the “superficiality” of reformist (in this case, Salafist) concerns: among others, their concern over the details of prayer, from body positioning to length of time spent in prayer. I eventually lost track of how many times I heard this common sentiment, and over time, I learned the deep inaccuracy of this view. This isn’t particularly surprising, given the global (mis)perceptions of reformist movements as both troubling and homogenous. I use “reformism” here as employed by Osella and Osella as “…projects whose specific focus is the bringing into line of religious beliefs and practices with the core foundations of Islam, by avoiding and purging out innovation, accretion and the intrusion of ‘local custom’…”.
A category of Islamic prayer whose centrality to the faith I began to understand while spending time with reformist women in Lyon’s periphery is duas, or supplications. These are distinct from the daily obligatory salat. According to the Prophet’s teachings, they constitute a form of worship and express one’s ultimate humility vis-à-vis her Creator. As I saw among my companions in the field, duas are crucial to questions of avoiding shirk (associating other powers or entities with God); having a direct, unmediated relationship to God; and perfecting one’s faith. These are central concerns among reformist women.
One of the things we frequently discussed during informal mosque lessons is the dangers of shirk, for it constitutes the greatest sin a believer can commit. Among the practices the mosque teachers would mention included praying at cemeteries and saints’ tombs (a common practice in the Maghreb and many Muslim societies), incorporating small objects in one’s prayers, and engaging in adoration of statues. But it wasn’t just material objects or statues. “What about singers and artists we adore?” one of my companions asked. Whether adoring a singer, an artist, or a prophet, we run the risk attributing undue powers to them and falling into shirk. Above all, I remember the teacher asking, “is there shirk in your heart?”, and saying, “complete faith is to love what Allah loves and detest what Allah detests.”
Because shirk is the gravest sin, my companions sometimes worried about family members and loved ones whom they knew practiced obvious forms of shirk. “Can you ask people to make duas for you?” someone asked one day. The teachers debated back and forth, suggesting that there may be conditions when one cannot pray and needs assistance. “Sometimes people ask me to pray for them because I wear the hijab, and they think I’m more pious than them,” the young woman continued. One of the teachers was adamant in answering, “no—it’s the devil who tells you that you cannot ask things of Allah directly. If someone asks you to pray for them, tell them they need to make duas for themselves.” My companions struggled a great deal with this idea, again because of the gravity of the sin. “What if your parents pass away in a state of shirk, can the children make duas for them? Can they be saved?” “Allahu Alam [Allah knows best],” the teacher shook her head out of concern. There was some murmuring and anxiety about the question and response. An hour later, after other discussions, someone again returned to the issue. “Can we do prayers for someone who’s very sick and dying so that they will be forgiven of shirk?” Again the teacher stressed that it was the greatest sin, although only Allah knows best. The best we might do is to teach by example, she offered.
Questions about supplications arose in various other conversations. I recall one in which my companions asked numerous detailed questions about duas during the act of prostration (in the five daily prayers of salat) and then, details about prostration itself. Finally, our teacher dismissed the questions and said what was most important was to have fear of God and to feel happiness in prayer. “My sisters,” she implored. “Be careful about getting too caught up in details that you forget what’s in fact primordial.” She said focusing our minds and feeling the combination of love and fear was most critical in prayer rather than the details of its physicality per se. I was struck by how much this contradicted the popular accusations of reformist “superficiality.” Duas, after all, served as a means to strengthen the heart and to develop sabr [patience], as my companions learned and emphasized. These matters are not exactly obvious or external and are key to perfecting one’s faith. The mosque teachers worked hard to alleviate fears and worries, encouraging us to memorize a specific dua to seek piety and protection in this life and in death. “The point of this dua,” they said, “is that you are not left to live alone-because everything is in God’s hands.”
Clearly, reformist approaches to prayer practices must not be dismissed as “superficial” or “narrow-minded.” The debates and conversations I observed about duas acknowledged the complexity and ambiguities of prayer, its method and effects. Studying even this one dimension of prayer leads us to question what exactly is the meaning of reformist Islam—and shows the degree to which this question plays itself out on the terrain of prayer. Although the relevant questions of shirk and intention/heart I discussed above are internal to Islam, they are not trans-historical. Indeed, it’s the social, political, and economic context that locally bounds, surrounds, and affects these conversations that I hope to understand.