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.

September 17, 2015

Liberal Protestant Assumptions in American Environmental Prayers

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

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.

To date, interfaith environmentalism in the United States has primarily attracted liberal Protestants and others who maintain theologically progressive outlooks. This coalition has shaped the “pluralistic norms of environmentalism” in particular ways. The main difference I see between Gade’s interlocutors and my own concerns the relationship between emerging environmental religious practices and traditional religious forms. Among Muslims in Indonesia, Gade observes that environmental prayers preserve religious and ritual structures while introducing a new dedication or intent. Even at the expressly environmental eco-pesantren, environmental purposes were not made explicit. At Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental coalition where 81% of the supporters were Protestant, participants appeared much more comfortable with environmental religious innovations, embracing events such as “bike to worship” Sundays and solar panel dedication ceremonies as innovative ways to bring environmental awareness to the center of religious life. Faith in Place’s executive director sought to redefine the boundaries of traditional prayer even more, as she often insisted that switching to energy-efficient light bulbs can be an “act of worship, an act of love and faith.”

Conserving energy and other “environmental” activities in this register became the prayer. According to this outlook, the earth is God’s creation, and acts undertaken to respect it are acts undertaken to praise God. Traditional forms of devotion recede in importance because environmental activities themselves are acts of faith.

These differences between the contours of environmental religious practice or devotion relate to a range of understandings of the intentions and purposes for undertaking such acts. Gade indicates that her informants’ environmental religious expressions reflected expectations of instrumentalism, so that those praying for rain did so with the expectation that God would respond. Faith in Place participants generally did not hold expectations of instrumentalism in their environmental prayers because their theological outlooks rejected belief in an interventionist God. As the organization’s Unitarian Universalist executive director explained it, prayer is a way of conforming oneself to the will of God. Prayer was understood at Faith in Place to involve work on the self much more than work on the world.

While it is not particularly surprising that my liberal Protestant interlocutors did not hold expectations of instrumentalism in their environmental prayers, it is surprising that they did not hold such expectations of instrumentalism in their environmental actions, either. Rather than praying to God for specific environmental outcomes such as relief from drought, Faith in Place participants sought to achieve particular outcomes through human actions and believed that environmental policy was the primary locus for real change: citing the enormity of the environmental crisis, they tended not to believe that individual acts would make any measurable difference. Yet they insisted that maintaining an eco-friendly lifestyle was still important as a matter of “personal integrity.” As one intern put it, making the effort to recycle was important even if her refuse ended up in a landfill, because making such efforts “helps me sleep at night.”

Similar to their symbolic understandings of prayer, Faith in Place participants saw engagement in eco-friendly practices (e.g. recycling and conserving energy) as primarily symbolic activity that contributed to making better selves. In that sense, their understandings related to an explanation of eco-dikhr by H.M. Nasruddin, who described the practices as a mode of self-cultivation. But, whereas the eco-dikhr was intended to cultivate a better self that could not harm the environment, Faith in Place participants saw eco-friendly behaviors as ways of creating a better self.

While Indonesian Muslims and Faith in Place participants differed in their expectations of instrumentalism related to environmental prayers, they shared an understanding of instrumentalism in another register related to environmental religious devotion: religious vitality. Gade notes that certain aspects of environmental religious observance might actually have the effect of revitalizing religious practices that are on the decline, like the increased popularity (but altered understandings) of labuhan devotions after the eruption of Mt. Merapi. Some Faith in Place participants explicitly sought a similar revitalization of religious life when they initiated environmental programming, hoping that their demonstrated concern for the environmental crisis would bring vitality to dying churches and add new, younger members to their declining ranks. Sarah McFarland Taylor considers the same phenomenon in Green Sisters, when she suggests that ecological activism among Catholic sisters might attract new vocations to their orders. Whether ecological devotions preserve traditional religious forms or create new ones, contemporary practitioners seem to understand ecological religious adaptations, and by extension the ecological conditions that shaped them, as contributing to revitalized religious life.

I began this reflection by commenting that Faith in Place’s religious environmental devotions shaped the “pluralistic religious norms of environmentalism” in particular ways, and will end with an explicit example. Gade notes that expectations of rationalism have silenced traditional forms of “nature” prayer in the case of labuhan devotions, and in the case of recast traditional devotions, expressly environmental references are pushed off to realm of interior, private belief. Rationalist expectations at Faith in Place enabled environmental activities themselves to be rendered acts of faith, but also precluded the possibility of some faith acts as traditionally understood. In January 2014, the Catholic bishops of California asked people of all faiths to pray for relief from the drought. While Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Mormons have responded to the call, such a practice would not be welcomed at Faith in Place because it would not accord with liberal Protestant expectations of rationalism. At Faith in Place, environmental actions could be religious acts, but religious acts as traditionally understood were not considered to have any efficacy in terms of the environment.

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.

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.

Emerging structures and orientations for Muslim environmental religious observances are not dramatically new in terms of their formal enactments in Indonesia. By and large they preserve religious and ritual structures that predate the 20-21st centuries. New strategies to promote aspects of local “culture” in order to foster notions of environmental connection and responsibility may even revitalize otherwise declining practices. What is becoming altered, however, are possibilities for the dedication and orientation of practices that some Muslims now seek intentionally to promote as “environmental prayer.”

In the current era of the Anthropocene, in which human actions dominate planetary conditions, any global prayer practice could be said to be “about” the environment. Not only does the state of the biosphere determine human survival, just as it always has, but now humans alter those conditions irrevocably and on a global scale. To designate a prayer to be explicitly “environmental” is also new, just as the English-language expression, “the environment” (in contrast to a concept of “nature,” for example), is distinctively modern. Landscapes of prayer shift in Muslim Indonesia as a direct effect of changes in the natural world (alam), as in the case of a natural disaster, as well as with respect to the development of explicitly social ideas like that of “the environment” (lingkungan hidup).

As with other global faith traditions, typical Muslim religious expression related to “the environment” reflects expectations of instrumentalism: these acts are expected to be purposive or intended for something, rather than, say, performed self-justifyingly for their own sake. “Acts are known by their intentions” overall from the perspective of Islamic legal traditions, Paul R. Powers explains in his study of Muslim jurisprudence and philosophy. In other words, intention shapes the identity and recognition of any ritual act. Thus, to introduce a new intentional field, “the environment,” in ritual activity means also to reconfigure substantively the act itself.

We can understand niyya (Islamic ritual intent) by considering it first with respect to obligatory rituals in Islam, ‘ibadat (acts of worship) that are also rewarded in the life to come. These include the five pillars of Islam (such as praying, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage). Only with intent performed as an explicit component of action are these considered legally or spiritually valid: a good example of this is how the act of forming niyya is a requirement of salat (canonical worship) in Islam, as discussed in detail in a recent book on Islamic prayer by Marion H. Katz.

In modern Indonesian contexts, anthropologists John R. Bowen, writing on salat in Indonesia, and Mark R. Woodward, analyzing a Javanese ritual called the slametan, show how intention is a locus of practical and theological controversy and consensus in historical and cultural contexts. More generally, a wide range of disputes about the permissibility of practices in the history of Islamic thought and practice have long been resolved by an assessment of intent, whether in the modernist/reformist rhetoric of the colonial and post-colonial eras or long ago, in the time of the earliest development of Sufi expression.

In addition to acts of canonical worship known as salat, there are many types of “prayers” performed by Muslims in Islamic Indonesia and globally, and many sorts of purposes and non-formal intents go along with them. For example, du’a is the word for acts that fall within the category of supplicatory or petitionary prayer, whether performed in Arabic or another language that Muslims speak. Dhikr is a disciplined practice of repeated or repetitive piety; it may be performed communally or individually, and may be associated with esoteric expression or with the regimens of self-cultivation of Sufi orders. Dhikr may also be an act of devotion, such as rehearsing divine praise of the names of God after daily worship.

Muslims in Indonesia also engage in prayers in spaces and times that are contested. These include veneration performed at the tombs of holy or powerful figures such as the “Wali Songo” or “Nine Saints” of Java. Also controversial have been communal recitations like the mawlid (sometimes called barzanji for an author of one of the versions, and sometimes called salawat nabi) that venerates the Prophet Muhammad through his life story and praise. More theologically problematic still is the popular talqin reading, often Surat 36 Ya Sin of the Qur’an, observed in commemoration of the dead.

The prayer-types as outlined above follow a progression from what are probably the least contested practices (salat, du’a) to those that are considered more questionable among certain scholars (mawlid, talqin). The historical grounds for objections to such practices are usually that proper intention has been distracted or diverted; for example, reformers may claim that the questionable acts are not performed for the sake of Allah but rather for the sake of something else, like a saint’s intercession.

Texts of Islamic jurisprudence do authorize a form of environmental prayer that has a worldly dedication. These are salat prostrations for rain, called salat al-istisqa, which is based on a hadith (report) that the Prophet Muhammad conducted the practice. As a normative ritual, it is governed by guidelines that include a combination of du’as (prayer formulas) and rak’at (prostrations), just as are performed in daily salat. Classical books of fiqh treat it within a class of required salat on the occasion of unpredictable yet inevitable events, like funerals, and salat in the event of natural “signs” such as eclipses and earthquakes. The difference between salat al-istisqa and other salats in this grouping is that prayer for rain occurs before, not after, the event.

Another key difference between the required daily salat of worship and salat for rain is that the salat for rain is a petition for a specific outcome. As with most Muslim du’a, there is a third term added to the relation of God to supplicant: the event of falling rain. Present scholars of religion would feel at ease calling this practice “environmental” since it is a religious response to climate disturbance (i.e., drought). The Indonesian cases presented here, highlight environmental ritual practices that are performed in response to environmental conditions and those that anticipate them, and also practices that have been altered as a result of environmental change.

All of the cases discussed here relate to new prayer-intents, such as: formulating an explicit, instrumental purpose for an enactment; establishing an intent that is singled out from among other possibilities; and, making a dedication that is specifically “the environment.” I offer two pairings of ethnographic examples of prayer related to the environment in eastern and central Java, Indonesia. The first two of these cases are accounts of the effects of the catastrophic eruption of the volcano, Mount Merapi, in 2010. The other examples are instances of a transformation of older devotional practice (dhikr and salawat nabi) in new, “environmental” registers. These examples represent how intentional dislocation and re-ascription may be critical to contemporary practices of prayers, rendered with the environmental urgency that increasingly defines a shared global experience.

Part One: Landscapes of Environmental Prayer
Part Two: Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster
Part Three: Dedicating Environmental Devotions
Part Four: Islam and Prayers for the Environment in 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.

In Cangkringan District, Sleman, there is a pesantren (residential religious school, a madrasa) called Al-Qodir. It is located right at the boundary of what was the initial evacuation line at the time of the volcano’s eruption. This meant that the residents who fled from within the perimeter of the evacuation zone came to the pesantren as refugees in the first hours, days and weeks after the eruption. (For another firsthand story of an Islamic pesantren and disaster relief in the area, see the end of this video, taken in 2011, explaining efforts underway at Pondok Pesantren Pabelan, in Maggelang near the Borobudur monument.)

The leader, or kiai, of “Pondok Pesantren Al-Qodir” is K.H. Masrur Ahmad. In a 2014 interview in Ramadan, K.H. Masrur explained the chain of events at Al-Qodir at the time of the eruption:

Al-Qodir had already long been known as a center for interreligious activity, but in October and November 2010, the multifaith commitments of refugees and relief workers made it a site at which boundaries of religious practice were blended through shared, urgent need.

Sleman, Central Java, has been a region of tense conflict among Christians and Muslims; however, the recognition of common experience and intention made spontaneous, communal prayer possible at pesantren Al-Qodir in 2010. At time signature 3:20 in the video embedded above, K.H. Masrur narrates how interreligious prayer took shape as people gathered at the evacuation line. Communal prayer that broke down boundaries was made possible by shared purpose or intent, namely safety (5:29), which allowed members of different faith communities to come together in shared observances and in one voice.

The eruption brought other religious changes in Cangkingan over the long-term as well as the short term. Some alterations of prayer practices were exclusive, not inclusive, with respect to traditional intentions. This, however, did not mean that such practices disappeared. Rather, a purpose with respect to the natural world was recast in the context of disaster relief efforts.

The ritual called the labuhan is a longstanding annual Javanese observance during which offerings are made to the spirits of Mt. Merapi. These offerings, such as new clothes, are gifts from the sultan of Jogjakarta, provided to the mountain’s spirit-guardian. Besides Mt. Merapi, offerings are also made at two other locations linked to the kraton, the royal palace of Jogjakarta, Central Java. The ritual begins with simultaneous processions leading from the palace to the ritual sites, the mountains and the beach of the southern sea respectively. The labuhan on Mt. Merapi, however, changed in imagination if not in its form after the eruption of the volcano and the concurrent passing of the mountain’s juru kunci (gatekeeper), Mbah Maridjan. (This documentary film on Mbah Maridjan includes an historic interview with him.)

As the juru kunci of Mt. Merapi, Mbah Maridjan, now deceased, was charged with conducting the labuhan annually. In his lifetime, he was famous for his daily silent walks up the mountain to visit its special sites, during which villagers would accompany him. On the day of the worst eruption in October 2010, when the call came for evacuation, he did not leave his home in his village on the mountain. The red cloud of pyroclastic flow subsequently swept down the slope at a temperature estimated at 600 degrees centigrade. His burned body was found later in the position of salat prayer prostration. Thirty-nine others from his village also died, many of whom had returned to their homes when they thought it was “all clear” to retrieve their animals. In total, the eruption caused 350 fatalities on the mountain.The figure of Mbah Maridjan is now venerated widely. Many praise his dedication to his role as juru kunci and to the sacred mountain, and he is seen as having made the ultimate sacrifice in this capacity. His house, once buried in ash, and his adjacent grave have now become a tourist destination. The role of juru kunci has since been passed on to his son (see top photo), Mas Asih Surakso Hargo (“Pak Asih”). Pak Asih says he is the fourth juru kunci of his line, now serving under the tenth sultan of Jogjakarta; the lineage began in his family under the eighth sultan of Jogjakarta. He continues the ritual of the labuhan, which has transitioned in public imagination out of the domain of religious rite and into the realm of “culture” and “tradition.”

I took the hike up the mountain with Pak Asih early one morning in July (Ramadan) 2014. The path starts at the ruins of the village where he had lived with his father before the evacuation; the government prohibits re-settlement there. He explained that it had taken three months to clear the path up to the second post, where the labuhan ritual is now held. (It used to be conducted higher up at the third post, but the way there is still obstructed, blocked by debris and ash.) Following a narrow path of loose rock up the steep grade of the slope, I saw signs prohibiting hunting in the sacred area. We met numerous people coming to clear vegetation for feed for livestock, even though the government prohibits anyone to live for quite a distance below. One person said he was carrying wood, and a couple more came along with hunting dogs. Pak Asih was guarding the mountain through his watchful presence in the social and physical landscape during our long hike, talking to everyone we met, all of whom recognized him instantly. When we got as far as we would go, the second post, he asked to take a picture of me under a tree he himself had planted. We stopped for a while there, the location of the ritual since the eruption, as he uttered silent devotions. On the way back down, we chatted about environmental studies and the importance of protecting the watershed against deforestation. He showed me where Mbah Maridjan had planted trees whose leaves protect against malaria.

Pak Asih explains the labuhan ritual conducted at the top of the path in the following segment of video:

At the end of the clip (6:28), when asked about the changes to the ritual since the eruption, he responds in terms of the intensification and proliferation of activities, not their disappearance. Labuhan has become embedded in what is now a media event, he explains. Since the eruption, disaster relief efforts have promoted festivalization as a part of community-building initiatives; the multi-day event now includes traditional dances, shadow puppet theater and popular musical performances.

Prayer, as in labuhan devotions to the mountain-spirits, had become a public enactment of “cultural tradition.” Pak Asih explains this point in his own words in the video segment posted below, in which he narrates the complete origin-myth of the ritual, explaining why the mountain’s guardian, Sapu Jagad, receives offerings from the sultan during the labuhan every year:

He clarifies here emphatically that the purpose of the ritual is not to worship or petition the mountain, or its spirit, since these are the creations of Allah the Creator, who Alone is worthy of praise (8:10). In the final minute of the clip above, Pak Asih emphasizes that the labuhan is a practice of cultural heritage. Intent, if it was formerly to petition the mountain or its spirits, now conforms to confirmations that do not leave space for ontological ambiguity. Labuhan is still performed, and bigger than ever, but now as “culture” not “religion.” Dedicated purpose for prayer is has come consciously to be framed among various competing or complementary commitments, aligning with reformist voices of Islam.

On the other hand, we never did discuss what Pak Asih was saying quietly when we were at the ritual site, or as he stopped for a few moments at various locations along the way. When asked, Pak Asih only offered that individual and private devotions were still observed by others. The purpose of such prayers that appeared to respond directly to the conditions of the natural world had disappeared from access. With both the gatekeeper of Mt. Merapi as well as the case of interfaith prayer in the evacuation zone of its eruption, catastrophe in the natural world had come to reveal dramatically either the rejection, adaptation or inclusion of competing possibilities for ritual purpose across what was a radically altered terrain.

Part One: Landscapes of Environmental Prayer
Part Two: Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster
Part Three: Dedicating Environmental Devotions
Part Four: Islam and Prayers for the Environment in 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.

Such practices may be dedicated as suits the practitioners, whether as individuals or as part of a group. In modern contexts, dedication that is specified for an explicit purpose may be expected in many circumstances. In two cases of environmental prayer described below, a formerly generalized practice has been reworked specifically in service of the well-being of a newly-introduced ritual agent, “the environment.” In both of these cases of Muslim environmental devotions, “the environment” has been introduced as a third agent with respect to the relation of supplicant to petitioned, perhaps as the primary beneficiary of prayer practice. However, re-dedicated intent is also overlaid, implicitly or explicitly, on traditional prayer practices that are not formally changed.

An example of “eco-salawat” provided by a highly respected kiai (religious scholar) in West Java demonstrates this re-dedication of prayer to environmental intent. K.H. Thonthawi Jauhari Musaddad of Pondok Pesantren “Al-Wasilah” is renowned for his Islamic religious knowledge as well as his environmental activism (see this article for more on K.H. Thonthawi). Along with developing Islamic law of the environment through key fatwas (non-binding legal opinions) under the authority of the national organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, K.H. Thontawi has also developed new forms of environmental religious devotion that preserve traditional forms. Here is a short recorded excerpt of his eco-salawat from 2010, the full text of which appears in the article linked above.

The first verse of the 45-second clip is from standard Arabic “salawat nabi,” as recited for centuries by Muslims worldwide, in accord with a Qur’anic injunction. It calls prayers, peace and blessings on the Prophet Muhammad, his family and his companions. The second part, in the national language of Bahasa Indonesia, is for the environment. It translates as: “With blessing (we) care for the natural world, a healthy environment, the Earth sustained.” A new intent has been created (environmental care), here both spoken and explicit, while the traditional structure and authority of salawat tradition remain the same.

At an “eco-pesantren,” a traditional Islamic school dedicated to environmentalism, located across the island of Java, new forms of environmental religious observance were developing along similar lines. This is another case of the conservation of traditional devotional ritual form with re-purposed intent. However, environmental purpose is internalized and left to individual choice in prayer, even as it is officially sponsored by the institution. This follows religious theory and practice that are consistent with Muslim Sufi tradition as well as modern, globalized structures of religious participation.

I have seen two “eco-dhikrs” at the institution called “Pesan Trend Ilmu Giri,” which is located on the southern side of the city of Jogjakarta (Mt. Merapi lies to the north), in the vicinity of Imo Gir. This is the area of the tombs of the kings of central Java, both Majapahit and Mataram dynasties. The dhikr observance I attended in 2011 did include an opening dedication of salawat for the sake of the environment, as well as to the Prophet Muhammad. Later in 2014, I returned to film another enactment: like the previous one, it corresponded with a calendrical observance traditional to Java, in which various forms of Muslim chant occur on certain nights of certain months.

The ritual in Ramadan 2014 was a “Selasa Pon” in which the first chapter of the Qur’an, Al-Fatihah, is recited forty-one times. “The Fatihah” is the surah recited with each cycle of salat (which means it is to be recited seventeen times a day, adding up all five daily prayers). As scholars of Islam—from Fazlur Rahman to Mahmoud Ayyoub—have observed, the sura itself takes the structure of a prayer. The entire “Selasa Pon” ritual, edited from its original length of about 40 minutes down to 20 minutes, can be viewed here:

The dhikr above was convened at Ilmu Giri after the special evening tarwih prayers of Ramadan (which mixes prostrations with ritual audition of Qur’an) and supererogatory, nighttime salat, called witr. The introspective and participatory nature of the dhikr lends itself to an intent of environmental well-being at this eco-pesantren, whose stated mission is sustainability and environmental care; nevertheless, there was no explicit mention of “the environment” during the entire ritual, which is exceedingly conservative of its traditional form.

Ilmu Giri’s founder, H.M. Nasruddin Ch. succinctly introduced the ritual as an eco-dhikr on the same night of its observance documented above, using the following words.

First, he frames the practice in terms of a regime of self-cultivation, using classic Sufi concepts and terminology (e.g., a Sufi observance called mujahada). In the next statement, however, he 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.” The ritual, with an intent that he says is interiorized, he now names as an eco-dhikr. At 1:15, H.M. Nasruddin suggests that alignment of internal order and cosmological order leads to environmental well-being, with words I translate as, “After this, it is not possible to destroy the environment” because the ritual has “humanized humanity, naturalized nature, and divinized the Divine.”

In each of these cases of Muslim environmental devotions, “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. As with the cases of changing prayers in the aftermath of disaster on Mt. Merapi, these cases of re-dedicated intent also represent a reworking, whether implicit or explicit, of traditional prayer practices that nevertheless do not change formally in their outward structure.

Part One: Landscapes of Environmental Prayer
Part Two: Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster
Part Three: Dedicating Environmental Devotions
Part Four: Islam and Prayers for the Environment in 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.

Across the island of Java, devotions for environmental well-being introduced a new object of purpose (“the environment” itself), through forms of dhikr and salawat that nevertheless still conserved outward form. Esoteric theory and practice combined with modern patterns of ritual purpose to support the specificity of such explicitly “environmental” prayer. As I discuss elsewhere, new stakeholders, such as Muslim and non-Muslim NGOs, now seek to extract from Islamic traditions such ritual resources in order to promote environmental care. The conditions that shift landscapes of prayer in this manner also form the contours for pluralistic religious norms of environmentalism that are committed to notions of the traditions of “world religions.” This renders Muslim prayers, now re-dedicated in their intent to be universally and instrumentally “environmental” as globalized performances in our shared era of the Anthropocene.

Part One: Landscapes of Environmental Prayer
Part Two: Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster
Part Three: Dedicating Environmental Devotions
Part Four: Islam and Prayers for the Environment in Java