Muslim prayer

September 18, 2015

Broadening the Category of Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This essay is a part of  “Landscapes of Prayer: Islam, the Environment, and Java,” Anna Gade’s portal into the study of prayer.]

As Anna Gade points out, the case of istisqa’ is very relevant here. It’s true, of course, that the modern concept of “the environment” is alien to older understandings of this ritual. 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. As the Shafi’i jurist Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi (d. 1083 CE) remarks in one of the foundational legal manuals of the medieval period, “If the ruler wants to go out to pray for rain, he exhorts the people and orders them to cease committing injustices and to repent from their sins before he goes out, because injustices and sins prevent rain.” In support of children’s participation, he cites a hadith stating that “Were it not for nursing children, grazing animals, and servants of God who bow [in prayer], He would pour out wrath upon them.” Al-Shirazi also supports the practice (rejected by al-Shafi’i) of bringing animals out for istisqa’ citing a story in which the Prophet Solomon goes out to perform istisqa’ but is forestalled when God responds to an ant’s rain prayer instead. (Solomon’s relationship to ants is a Qur’anic motif; see Qur’an 27:17-19). He also invokes the authority of the early Qur’anic commentator al-Mujahid, who said of the statement “The cursers curse them” (Qur’an 2:159):

[They are] the beasts of the earth; they curse them, saying, “Their sins prevent the rain.”

(For Shirazi’s discussion, see Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi, al-Muhadhdhab, 1:231.) In North Africa, there is a recorded custom of the practice of bringing out young cattle separately from their mothers—giving rise to heart-rending cries (see Abu-Zahra).

In a very different sense than we would understand today, traditional interpretations of the istisqa’ suggest that, for Muslim thinkers, it was always the Anthropocene—environmental disaster was pervasively assumed to be the result of human wrongdoing. Conversely, however, disruption of natural processes opened cracks in the anthropocentric model of worship. Tormenting young cattle so that their innocent cries will move God to send rain is, on one level, a very instrumental use of non-human animals; on another level, though, the idea that animals are cursing us moves us just slightly from the center of the picture. None of this makes much sense from the point of view of the usual systemic assumptions of the Islamic legal tradition, which regards neither non-human animals nor small children as possessing legal agency or the ability to frame a valid niyya (intention) for an act of prayer. Unlike the halakhic tradition, which occasionally pondered questions such as the Sabbath observance of cattle, Muslim legal texts generally do not countenance the idea of non-human ritual actors (other than jinn). It is worth noting that this legal model contrasts with Qur’anic language, which suggests that non-human beings, both animate and inanimate, engage in acts of worship; this theme is explored in Sarra Tlili’s study Animals in the Qur’an.

Some classical scholars also advocated the participation on non-Muslims (Jews and Christians) in prayers for rain, a near-unique endorsement of the desirability and efficacy of their participation in a worship ritual alongside Muslims. Here, it seems that the shared experience of suffering—and the shared need for means of subsistence that can only be ensured by the proper environmental conditions—displaces the legally-defined intent that is crucial to the validity of most prayers.

The parameters of prayer are also broadened when Pak Asih labels the labuhan ritual as “a practice of cultural heritage.” This move reminded me of claims made within debates about rituals celebrating of the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad (the Mawlid) in present-day Yemen (see Marion Katz, “Women’s ‘mawlid’ Performances in Sanaa and the Construction of ‘Popular Islam’”). Among women chanters who perform these ceremonies professionally, accusations of illegitimate religious innovation have sometimes been met with efforts to reframe the ritual as an educational commemoration, or to re-label it as cultural heritage (turath). In both cases, one wonders whether such claims effectively place the practices in question out of the broad English category of “prayer,” or whether—and I think more plausibly—we should understand them as broadening that category beyond a certain normative model. It would be interesting to know about the hoped-for effects of environmental dhikr. Is the objective to accumulate blessing, to solicit divine favor, to raise the consciousness of participants, or to galvanize political action through the mediated dissemination of the prayers? The range (and possible overlap) of different ways of envisioning the effect of these environmental rituals is reminiscent of the long dialogue over the donation of merit and the dynamics of baraka (auspicious power or blessing) associated with pious recitations over the course of Islamic history. Through the donation of merit and the communication of blessing, pious acts could be understood as involving horizontal ties among human beings (and the events that affected their lives) as well as vertical ones directly with God. Models centering on the generation and donation of merit and the channeling of baraka, although their mechanisms and importance were sometimes contested, historically offered supple tools for pious action that went far beyond narrower models of Muslim prayer.

August 28, 2015

Ritual Environmental Stewardship in Islamic Indonesia

[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.

April 29, 2015

Woman-Led Prayer: A Conversation with Juliane Hammer

The following is an interview conducted by Professor Fareen Parvez and Mariam Awaisi with Juliane Hammer, Associate Professor and Kenan Rifai Scholar of Islamic Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. Professor Hammer specializes in the study of American Muslims, contemporary Muslim thought, women and gender in Islam, and Sufism. She reflects here on the topic of woman-led ritual prayers in Islam and the debate surrounding them.


Fareen Parvez and Mariam Awaisi: In your book, American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer, you discuss the various stakes involved in the debate over woman-led prayers. These include the integrity of the Islamic legal tradition, authority, gender justice, and the politicizing of Islam. This is clearly an important issue. At the same time, it seems to us that we must be careful not to conflate the overall status and well-being of Muslim women across societies with their roles within religious ritual practice. Can you tell us more about the importance of women’s leadership in prayer?

Juliane Hammer: In the book I argue that the debate about woman-led prayer is about more than the question of whether women can, should, or want to lead mixed gender congregations in prayer. In that sense, it is not a matter of conflating issues, but a matter of pointing out that what is at stake in the particular debate about women’s ritual leadership is a larger question about the roles of women in Muslim communities. The answers that constitute the debate come from different actors and represent different perspectives. Thus, for those advocating for women’s prayer leadership, it is a reflection of women’s equality to do so, while opponents point out that women’s rights, safety, integrity, etc. can be achieved without their prayer leadership. It is then a debate about whether leading prayers is representative of women’s status in Muslim communities and societies. In other words, if women are not accepted as prayer leaders, what does that tell us about their status otherwise? Do arguments about why women should not lead prayers, such as their menstrual cycle (women are exempt from prayer during menstruation), the potential temptation that their bodies pose for men praying behind them, concerns about the legal validity of prayers performed behind a woman, etc., tell us something about gender roles and boundaries? Taken to its logical consequence, the debate about woman-led prayer is about what equality might mean and whether different interpretations of that idea (i.e. egalitarianism, different but equal, complementary and equal, and so on), as applied to Muslim communities and societies, are part of God’s intent for humanity. It is, of course, also possible to argue that God did not intend equality for the sexes in the social sphere. It is this distinction between the social and ritual spheres that some argue distinguishes prayers from other aspects of life, while others would say that congregational prayer is simultaneously a ritual and social act. Thus, who can and cannot lead prayers is symbolic of both spheres.

FP and MA: Aside from the issue of leading the ritual prayer, there is also the question of khutbas (“sermons”), typically delivered at jum’ah (“Friday prayers”). Although women may not deliver Friday khutbas in front of a congregation, they may write them and thereby communicate and lead via written format rather than oral. Is this actually practiced in the U.S.? Are these types of avenues embraced by Islamic feminists and activists, or are they viewed as limited in potential?

JH: In the debates outlined above, the two acts are often conflated but they are indeed two different religious acts. There is some legal debate, and thus room, for women to lead at least other women in congregational prayer (not Friday prayer), but traditional legal opinions do not under any circumstances allow women to offer the Friday sermon. The two functions, to lead Friday prayer and to offer the khutba, are not always carried out by the same person either.

While the practice of having women write a khutba and then having a male member of the community read it to the congregation was not part of my research, I have of course come across examples a few times, both in North America and in Germany. Some of the women who do this argue that it is an approach that allows them to stay within their communities and affect gradual change. I would estimate, though, that communities that accept this practice are in the minority; women and men who push for more radical change are often faced with the necessity of leaving their communities and building new ones that reflect agreement on these foundational questions.

As I pointed out above, it is worth asking why a woman’s ideas are acceptable in khutba form. In this case, the problem is not her intellectual ability or religious qualifications, but her physical and aural presence in front of the congregation. More broadly, this is a question of the role of change in religious traditions. Are religious communities and their practices and interpretations constantly changing, as Talal Asad argued when he defined the idea of “discursive tradition”? If that is the case, how do communities determine how much change and in which direction? When do religious communities change so much that they disintegrate? And how much uniformity can one expect from a religious community of over a billion followers?

FP and MA: In many communities, women themselves will say that they desire women-only spaces, that such separation suits their norms and makes them more comfortable. What is the relationship between this, on one hand, and the activism in support of mixed congregations and worship, on the other hand?

JH: You are right—many communities, particularly in North America, have engaged in discussions of women’s spaces. In fact, the initial prompt for Asra Nomani, the lead organizer of the 2005 woman-led Friday prayer in New York, was a change in the construction of the mosque she attended in Morgantown, West Virginia. Thus, for the organizers and participants of the prayer event, the two issues are clearly connected.

At the same time, a good bit of the debate revolved around the distinction between women’s prayer leadership and women’s status, roles, and spaces in mosques. There was much broader consensus on the need for women’s participation in leadership and better prayer facilities as well. Prominent supporters of this type of change included Zaid Shakir, an important American Muslim leader and scholar and Ingrid Mattson,then-president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which has led more than one initiative about women’s spaces and status in mosques since 2005.

It strikes me that the arguments about women-only spaces are not new. If one traces the study of Muslim women from the early twentieth century to the present, there was a period in the 1980s in which the earlier condemnation of gender segregation made way for very interesting discussions of women-only spaces and single sex dynamics. This exploration had a lot to do with questions of women’s agency and led to some celebration of segregated spaces. At the same time, this is also a younger version of feminist debates and critiques of the distinction between the public and the private spheres, and the ways in which exclusion from the former creates a power differential that is a product of patriarchy. This, then, brings us full circle in our discussions of gender equality.

There is, of course, also a complex nature/nurture debate at play here: do Muslim women who feel more comfortable in segregated spaces feel that way because they have been socialized to? What should communities do with those women who do not feel that way? Can they be accommodated as well? I am reminded of an episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian sitcom written by Zarqa Nawaz that aired on Canadian public TV from 2007 to 2012. In the episode, the small community at the center of the show debates a physical barrier between men and women in the prayer room. After much discussion the imam arrives at a Solomonic solution: a partial barrier. Those women who want to pray behind it can, and those who don’t can pray behind the men.

Perhaps it helps to think of this as a spectrum and to think of different communal practices, and changes to such practices, as situated on this spectrum. There are communities with a long history of shared prayer spaces and others that have long had separate spaces. It is also the case that Muslim women and men attend prayers and other events at mosques that have spatial arrangements they like, and they might stop going to a mosque whose gender management they do not agree with.

FP and MA: It seems that there’s a tension between the need to sustain a social movement around these issues and the consequences that organized movements can entail, such as sensationalized and inaccurate media reporting. This is especially fraught when it comes to Islam. To what extent do you think that greater social change around Muslim women’s mosque participation can occur in this particular global political and media environment? What have you seen to be the main barriers to sustaining a social movement?

JH: I would not want to think of the visibility of Muslim communities as a barrier to sustaining a movement. This is a version of the argument for not airing dirty laundry in public that has been used to slow or stop all kinds of social change. In fact, as I argue in my book, the organizers of the prayer event intentionally utilized media interest to generate intra-Muslim conversation. And that conversation or debate has certainly taken place under the gaze of non-Muslims in the form of various media. I do not think that media attention, or less positively, media bias, has prevented woman-led prayer from becoming a social movement. I am not even sure that was the intent of the organizers. Rather, the prayer event reflected a certain momentum in terms of gender debate and provided that debate with some energy. There are groups and communities in which women and men take turns leading prayers and offering khutbas, and there are communities where that took place before 2005. There are projects, initiatives, and networks of Muslims who work for changes to existing gender practices, including, but also beyond, prayer leadership. And I find it very important to point out that change is directional. It is dangerous to present changes in gender practices as a trajectory towards progress in which Muslims both perpetually play catch up with non-Muslims and in which religion itself easily becomes disposable as part of what holds women back. American Muslim communities produce discourses and practice their religion in a multitude of ways, while often claiming that their discourses and practices are universal and that there is a larger community of Muslims who need to all agree. The reality is much more complex and in my view provides room for debate and for a diversity of practices and interpretations.

FP and MA: Can we say that the struggle for woman-led prayers is a global phenomenon? If so, in what ways do these struggles and successes abroad differ from what we’ve seen in the American context?

JH: I would say no, it is not a global phenomenon by any means. There have been woman-led prayers elsewhere in the world, again, both before and after March 2005. There are global echoes of the debate that took place in 2005, but the event itself is framed more by the American religious landscape and developments in American society than by shared and global Muslim debates about women’s prayer leadership. That is not to say that it is not also part of global discussions among Muslims about gender roles and women’s status in society. It feeds and is fed by such global conversations. But it is precisely in this global framing that other concerns about Muslim women’s safety, welfare, legal equality as well as issues of poverty, racism, war and occupation take precedent over the specific concern with women’s ritual leadership.

In an interesting way, the international responses to the event in 2005 also help us understand the complex relationship between American Muslims as American and as transnational and the ways in which discursive developments among American Muslims are perceived among other Muslims. The organizers of the event were celebrated, but were also branded as agents of American imperialism, bent on undermining Islam and Muslim societies. It is here that the significance and strategic location of American Muslims becomes most evident. The debate thus allowed for important reflections on the role of American Muslims in global Muslim landscapes.


Professor Hammer is the author of Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland (2005) and American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (2012) and the co-editor of  A Jihad for Justice: Honoring the Work and Life of Amina Wadud (with Kecia Ali and Laury Silvers, 2012) and The Cambridge Companion to American Islam (with Omid Safi, 2013). She is currently working on a book project focusing on American Muslim efforts against domestic violence, and on a larger project exploring American Muslim discourses on marriage, family, and sexuality.

January 28, 2015

Nigerian Muslims' and Christians' Prayer Practices Come Together

2014 Eid ul-Fitr Praying - Imam Ali Shrine - Najaf | Image via Flickr user Sonia SevillaThe news from Nigeria that makes world headlines is most often about violence being done in the name of Islam, but Ebenezer Obadare’s research brings to light a more positive development in the Muslim/Christian relationship. He calls it competitive amity.

“In Nigeria, the fight for converts is fierce and constant with each side promising earthly purpose and eternal salvation. The Muslims have, of course, noticed that the Pentecostals are having great success in winning souls. And so, they are taking lessons and adapting accordingly,” Ebenezer Obadare says.

See the full posting at Psychology Today.