February 27, 2013

What Can the Study of Prayer Tell Us?

Noguchi, Water Garden, NYC via flickr user lao_ren100 What can the study of prayer tell us – about social life, religious institutions and practices, shared and unique concepts of communication, and ethical self-formation? New Directions in the Study of Prayer supports research that seeks to better understand prayer, in its many forms, but that also considers how the varied practices (from the textual to the embodied) associated with prayer may influence broader questions about social and human concerns. This SSRC initiative is thus working to broaden the study of prayer beyond the relatively narrow range of questions that has recently shaped scholarly discourse and interest. Indeed, we have noted that the relatively limited scope of high profile research on prayer reinforces a widely (if implicitly) held view that prayer is of marginal interest to scholars whose work is focused on themes and issues generally deemed more consequential for modern life.

In so doing, the initiative has taken a broad approach to defining prayer, and likewise how it might be understood as an object of study. Prayer is, understandably, defined and described in many ways that impinge, productively, on the disciplines (and tools and theories) used to engage it. As we are well aware, prayer’s boundaries and its distinction from other kinds of activity (meditation, for example) are not always clear. What appears to be a clear and salient definition in the psychological laboratory, for example, may be quite different from the anthropological or legal definitions that are useful and uncontested in other social contexts. An exciting and central part of our program is to engage these linked definitional and disciplinary issues head-on. We thus believe that to produce a more expansive and nuanced body of research on prayer, scholars must develop an enlarged understanding of the variety of disciplinary approaches operative in the study of prayer throughout the academy, and of the distinctive questions, methodologies, commitments, and presuppositions that govern each.


February 26, 2013

Machines and Prayers: The Transformation of Islam in the Modern Era

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.

February 26, 2013

Prayer Machines: Case Studies in a Secular Age

My project examines the profound effect that technological forms (material, conceptual, linguistic, epistemic) have had, and continue to have, on the practice and study of prayer. My project addresses: 1) social and technological contexts in and through which prayer has been represented, 2) the relationship between these contexts, these representations, and the dynamics of the secular age, and 3) the use of machines to measure one’s prayers and the prayers of others. Chapter topics include the mechanization of prayer in recent American history; the institutional and technological contexts that have shaped the Catholic practice of the rosary in the second half of the twentieth century; the use of the E-meter among Scientologists as a self-conscious displacement of prayer; and brain-imaging machines currently utilized in cognitive inquiries into religion.

My project is a blend of two scholarly genres—1) genealogical excavation of the mechanization of prayer and 2) thick description of three sites of mechanical interface where the discourse of prayer becomes operational. Through historical documentation and case studies I will address how prayer is constructed, what social and political factors contribute to these constructions, how these constructions change over time, and how these constructions compare with one another.

In addition to the relationship between prayer and technology my project addresses larger questions concerning the secular age—its emergence, its maintenance, its tensions and contradictions. If, as Charles Taylor argues, the secular age is marked by a notion of choice—a necessary stance one must take vis-à-vis the religious, then a pressing line of inquiry revolves around the question of what conditions the possibilities of such choices being made in the first place. Consequently, the secular age must be understood in light of that conditioning and those possibilities and the effects that such necessary stances generate. Consequently, my project on prayer machines will engage ongoing debates about secularism. Secularism refers, here, to those processes by which the truth and falsity of religion become charged with meaning and affect and how those charges, in turn, precipitate epistemic and political practices. Such processes exceed the boundaries of any single tradition of prayer—be it confessional practice of or scientific discourse about. To this end, my project will identify discursive threads that connect living traditions of prayer—conservative and liberal Protestantisms, Catholic sacramentalisms, new religious movements, medical and scientific considerations of prayer, and the amorphous modes of spirituality that have emerged over the past century.

Activities during the grant period range from the collection and analysis of twentieth-century prayer ephemera and the systematic study of the arguments of cognitive science to hands-on experiments with the E-meter and field visits to working laboratories in Philadelphia, Boston, and Copenhagen. My emphasis on the mechanization of prayer across different confessional traditions as well as beyond them will: 1) initiate a new direction in the study of prayer by reconsidering questions of technic and agency, 2) reconsider the content of American religious history by foregrounding the role technological intimacy plays in constructions of religious experience, and 3) contribute to discussions about how technological forms structure the human sensorium and effect broader cultural fields.

February 26, 2013

Repertoires of Devotion: Prayer and the Rise of Charismatic Islam

In the aftermath of 9/11, the assumption that adherents of evangelical Christianity and reformist Islam inhabit discrepant, permanently warring publics, has solidified. The dominant narrative is one of mutual antagonism, which positions these religions as foundational in major global conflicts. In Western Nigeria however, scholars have noted new forms of Islamic prayer whose modalities such as all-night prayer sessions, Sunday Services, personal testimonies, and a new emphasis on good and evil bear a striking resemblance to those of Pentecostal Christians, Similarly, evangelicals are engaging in new approaches to prayer and uses of religious space that reveal the influence of Islamic practices. The convergence between the religious practices of these two groups reveals the direct sharing and transfer of experiences in religious practices and evangelizing stratagems. The new forms of Islamic prayer suggest an emergence of “Charismatic Islam” as can be seen in the intensification in (Yourba) Islam of the kind of “all-embracing enthusiasm” (Ojo 2006) normally associated with Pentecostalism.

In this study, I use the case of these new dramatizations of Muslim prayer in order to understand broader questions such as: how does the transformation of Islam, betoken by these new expressions of prayer, help us to understand the shifting boundaries between Islam and Christianity, particularly in ecologies where both remain socially, economically, politically, and ideologically competitive? Further, to the extent that the nascent modalities of worship symbolize or anticipate doctrinal transformation within faiths, how does a study of prayer provide an analytic platform for understanding of critical shifts and tension within and between Christianity and Islam primarily within the cultural contest of Western Nigeria? In a national context in which the state is disconnected from ordinary people’s lives, prayer has become a central element in the rearrangement of personal and inter-personal regimes, and in the composition of ordinary people’s selfhood. Using prayer transfer and imitation, important components of how the two faiths relate in Western Nigeria, I interrogate the role of these emergent forms of Islamic prayer in the deeper transformation of the totality of the religious culture in the area.

To address questions, I will conduct ethnographic research that focuses on close observation of devotional programs and social events among Islamic groups in two Western Nigerian cities: Lagos and Ibadan. My goal is to closely monitor these events to capture the expressions and nuances of the new protocols of Islamic prayer. My work in the field will be supplemented by interviews with participants. The primary data I plan to collect will be supplemented with an analysis of audiovisual material used by Islamic groups for proselytization. Secondary data will come from published books, journal articles, newspaper reports, and religious pamphlets and tracts. The intellectual payoff of this research will be to challenge the ideas of an “economy of political panic” (Last 2007) or “cosmologies in collision” (Kileyesus 2006) that have appeared in mainstream literature. Instead, I will shift the emphasis to a “spiritual economy” (Rudnychyj 2010) in which, even as theological differences remain salient, competing faiths, in their attempts to expand and preserve themselves, frequently cross boundaries to appropriate the other’s devotional and conversionary strategies. In addition, by emphasizing the strategies of mutual influence and appropriation between Islam and Christianity, the research demonstrates the fundamental “instability of the borders” (Larkin 2008, 103; cf. Soares 2006) between these seemingly antagonistic groups, providing deep insight into their modes of adaptation and accommodation.