Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java

This four-part essay presents new terrain for the dedication of traditional prayers in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia. Comprising one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet with its vast forests and oceans, Indonesia also faces some of the most drastic global environmental challenges today. While prayers related to natural phenomena such as drought/rain and earthquakes are outlined in classical manuals of fiqh (jurisprudence), Muslim Indonesians now self-consciously recast older forms of devotional prayer (such as Arabic-language salawat and dhikr, often dedicated to the Prophet Muhammad) so that they are performed for the sake of environmental well-being. The parts of this essay document a spectrum of Muslim prayer practices relating to “the environment” in Indonesia: observances on the slopes of the active volcano, Mt. Merapi, and new environmental practices that are recognizable also as traditional ones, such as “eco-dhikr” and “eco-salawat.” These case studies show the transformation of traditional forms of prayer as a response to environmental change across the island of Java, highlighting sudden changes in prayer practices brought on by natural disaster or the introduction of a new purpose for prayers themselves, “the environment.” In all cases, shifting landscapes of ritual dedication reshape prayer with respect to crisis and conservation.

Read responses from Amanda Baugh, Marion Katz, and Paul Powers.

Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java | September 18, 2015

Broadening the Category of Prayer

It’s true, of course, that the modern concept of “the environment” is alien to older understandings of istisqa’. Nevertheless, aspects of it are potentially interesting with respect to the human relationship to the non-human world. Nadia Abu-Zahra argues in a study of istisqa’ rituals in Tunisia (based on fieldwork conducted from the 1960s to the 1980s) that earlier analyses were deficient, in part because they “did not consider the connections people make between the environment (rain, land and agriculture), the socio-moral order and the spiritual order.” Because the prevalent theological assumption has always been that drought is the divine response to human wrongdoing, istisqa’ appears not only as an intervention to elicit a human-friendly response from God (the sending of rain), but also as a means of redressing the wrong that humans have inflicted on other elements of creation.

Read Broadening the Category of Prayer

Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java | September 17, 2015

Liberal Protestant Assumptions in American Environmental Prayers

Pope Francis’ historic encyclical on the environment has the potential to bring new religious voices to conversations about the environment in the United States, and it could significantly change landscapes of prayer when it comes to religion and environment in the United States. Examining the differing types of religious responses to ecological conditions indicates the complex array of religious reconfigurations emerging in the Anthropocene era. In Landscapes of Prayer, Anna Gade documents ways that environmental changes in the Anthropocene have contributed to changing prayer practices among Muslims in Indonesia. Picking up on her final point, that environmental prayers are globalized performances related to “pluralistic religious norms of environmentalism,” I’d like to shift geographical focus as I consider related trends at Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental organization in Chicago.

Read Liberal Protestant Assumptions in American Environmental Prayers

Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java | August 28, 2015

Ritual Environmental Stewardship in Islamic Indonesia

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.

Read Ritual Environmental Stewardship in Islamic Indonesia

Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java | May 22, 2015

Landscapes of Environmental Prayer: Shifting Dedication

Landscapes of prayer for the environment in Indonesia are being transformed primarily through interventions of dedication and intent, and secondarily through structural form. Cases of observances of various forms of Muslim prayer, such as observances known as du’a, dhikr, and salawat are presented here by considering how a third term besides supplicant and deity, namely the natural world and its conditions, or “the environment,” comes to emerge or alternatively recede in changing landscapes of prayer. Expectations that prayer carry an intent, subject to the individual dedication of action, now coincide with an expanded array of options for dedication with respect to environmental change, both in the present and in the future.

Read Landscapes of Environmental Prayer: Shifting Dedication

Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java | May 22, 2015

Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster

Indonesia is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, and it is one of the most severely threatened due to deforestation, sea temperature rise and acidification, and other impacts of resource extraction and environmental degradation. Indonesia is also vulnerable to disasters, like earthquakes; these disasters may also be intensified by human factors, as in the case of severe weather events that are linked to climate change.

Disaster brought both the beginning and the end of prayer to the slopes of Mt. Merapi, Java, when the volcano erupted in 2010. Conditions of chaos and re-established social order following the catastrophic eruption transformed key relations of religious dedication. Below I consider two examples: one documents prayer arising spontaneously in the context of environmental crisis, while the other relates of the end of a kind of prayer, or more specifically a mode of its dedication, also brought on as a result of the disaster.

Read Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster

Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java | May 22, 2015

Dedicating Environmental Devotions

In a trend I have seen developing in Indonesia for at least two decades, some Muslims in Indonesia have recast traditional devotional observances, salawat and dhikr, for non-traditional intents and purposes. Salawat are prayers of peace and blessings devoted to the Prophet Muhammad—a longstanding tradition with a Qur’anic support, which became increasingly popular in the “Islamic revival” since the 1990s (for explanation, see my book). This phenomenon would have been unexpected decades before, given historical controversy around the practice. Salawat has come now to be increasingly performed in new contexts and for public purposes, such as mass entertainment. While long carried out for instrumental ends, such as blessing a at a new baby’s naming ceremony, it was also now being observed for beneficial outcome in new contexts such as corporate functions and even, in one case I documented, as a way for a women’s mosque group to support the home soccer team to a win from up in the stands.

Read Dedicating Environmental Devotions

Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java | May 22, 2015

Islam and Prayers for the Environment in Java

All of the cases show re-dedication of prayers by Muslims with respect to the environment within a landscape of multiple, even expanding options. One ritual had come to exclude agents of prayer with connection to the natural world, the mythic guardian spirit (who nevertheless still receives his new clothes and offerings every year). Coinciding with expectations that religious intention should become rationalized, the traditional forms of prayer associated with labuhan had been rendered as non-religious “culture,” while their identity as private devotion receded into domains of the inaccessible. As a response to the same event that precipitated social change of the labuhan, another form of prayer in the wake of disaster unexpectedly shifted boundaries of intent to include others (Christians) as purpose was reshaped by abrupt environmental change.

Read Islam and Prayers for the Environment in Java