[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anna Gade’s “Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Anna M. Gade’s portal raises questions about forms of instrumentality and the nature and role of intention in framing various Muslim prayer practices. The five daily prayers called salat have generally been understood as minimally instrumental and considered by many jurists to be opaque to rational analysis; salat is about worship, not petition. Around salat, we might envision concentric circles of prayer types with increasing degrees of instrumentality, along with increasing local variation and, at times, levels of controversy, beginning with istiska, du`a, and qunut, moving through salawat and dhikr, and so forth. As we see in Gade’s work, practices viewed today as further from normative types may be classified as “culture” to protect “religion” from suspicions of heterodoxy.

For potentially petitionary prayer practices such as du`a, salawat, and ziyarat (visitation of saints’ shrines), scholarship shows that the purpose or object of the prayer is generally divine aid in times of hardship, forgiveness of sins and entry into heaven for oneself or loved ones, or some element of personal or familial flourishing: health, wealth, marriage, progeny, and so forth.

Gade illuminates an apparent shift from this pattern, the emergence of “the environment” as a prayer target: “‘the environment’ has been introduced as an intentional object, a third agent with respect to the relation of supplicant to petitioned. ‘The environment’ could even be said to be the primary beneficiary of prayer practice.” Muslims have long prayed for aid in times of war, famine, or disease, or for the wellbeing of the political ruler. But “the environment” seems a degree removed from these in abstraction—is this prayer for the environment’s own sake, not necessarily for human benefit?

I can’t supply the historical, interpretive, or comparative work this new ritual environmentalism invites. Instead I will highlight one deceptively simple moment in Gade’s account, namely a new use of the term khalifa that raises questions about how environmental concern and prayer practices are (re)shaping one another and perhaps reframing aspects of Muslim ritual subjectivity.

In discussing the inner workings of Indonesian “eco-dhikr,” Gade says:

Ilmu Giri’s founder, H.M. Nasruddin Ch. . . . names the spiritual quality to be developed as khalifa (“stewardship”), a Qur’anic term linked to humanity’s responsibility to care for God’s creation. From the context, it is clear he means this to be understood as “environmental stewardship.” . . . Nasruddin suggests that alignment of internal order and cosmological order leads to environmental well-being.

The term khalifa has not historically been strongly linked to ecological concerns, but rather to political leadership, legitimacy, and unity. It comes from a root meaning “to succeed” and has traditionally been translated into English as “viceregency” (or, confusingly, “vicegerency”); khalifa in early Muslim history meant political (though not prophetic) succession to Muhammad as leader of the umma. Tradition holds that Abu Bakr called himself the “mere” khalifa of Muhammad in a gesture of humility. Umayyad leaders shifted the tone by shifting the focus from Muhammad to God directly, calling themselves “God’s khalifa,” implying a divine right of rule. Scholars unimpressed with the quality of leadership held that the true institution of khalifa ended with the first four “Rightly Guided Caliphs.”

In more recent eras, the term has mostly signaled an aspirational ideal hearkening back to the “golden age” of Islam, used as a grandiose affectation by some leaders, and as a cudgel by their critics. Ottoman Sultans used the title in their dealings with Europeans, staking a claim to represent the entirety of the Muslim world. After World War I, in an effort to gain leverage against colonial machinations, many Indian Muslims joined the “khilafat movement,” calling on the British to recognize Ottoman sovereignty over a supposedly unified Muslim population. Today the title is claimed by leaders of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (al-dawla al-islamiyya) in Iraq and Syria. However, recent decades may have witnessed a nascent de-politicization of this term as literacy has increased and traditional authority structures have been disrupted; some Muslims talk of a “universal khalifa” in the sense of generalized responsibility for religious learning devolving on every individual.

If khalifa is coming to mean, for some Muslims, “environmental stewardship,” perhaps it is gaining a semantic range (and potential divisiveness) something like the term “dominion” among modern English-speaking Christians. Drawing on Gen 1:28, some Christians have taken “dominion” to license the “subduing” or exploiting of the earth for human purposes, on the one hand, or to charge humanity with caretaking of God’s fragile creation, on the other. Conservative evangelical dispensationalists have tended toward the former stance, and liberal Christians toward the latter. Recent decades have also seen the emergence of hyper-conservative post-millennialist “Dominionism” (also called “Reconstructionism” or “Theonomy”) pursuing strong-handed Christian political rule with little apparent ecological concern.

Muslim prayer done in, or in pursuit of, a spiritual state of khalifa-as-stewardship suggests not only a significantly different understanding of the term khalifa, but perhaps a distinct framing of the subjectivity of the pray-er. Though the brief remarks documented by Gade don’t allow us to move beyond speculation, perhaps cultivating a stance of khalifa in this sense shifts one from being a passive supplicant requesting God’s intervention to a more active agent working to enact God’s will, in this case specifically working to safeguard God’s creation.

To complicate this picture further, we must be careful not to frame this emergent notion of prayer as a state of environmental stewardship too simply, as a liberal/moderate Islam open to environmentalism versus a conservative/militant Islam bent on political domination. There is a jarring moment in al-Qaida’s too-overlooked 2002 open letter to the American people titled “Why We are Fighting You.” It comes amid a litany of complaints against the West, a litany that emphasizes alleged American hypocrisy and includes sexual immorality, drug use, exploitation of women, usury, and being a puppet of Israel. To these rather standard complaints the letter adds:

You have destroyed nature with your industrial waste and gases more than any other nation in history. Despite this, you refuse to sign the Kyoto agreement so that you can secure the profit of your greedy companies and industries.

Did Osama bin Laden really care about the environment, or did he just want more arrows in his ad hoc quiver? It is easy to discount this particular charge, and perhaps most, if not all, of the letter as disingenuous and even cynical; in any case, the letter could hardly be called a prayer. But it reminds us that the ongoing process of defining, redefining, and contesting terms and concepts is central to the vibrancy of any religious tradition.

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