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.

August 24, 2015

Salafi Muslim Women in France and "Je suis Charlie"

Recently, New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Fareen Parvez wrote for the Council for European Studies’ CritCom on the experience of Salafi Muslim women in France, particularly in the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015. Lyon, where Parvez did her fieldwork, has been a center for political satire since the early 1800s and the rise of the famous puppet character Guignol. Parvez draws a distinction between Guignol and other satirical works that targeted privileged classes (including Catholics) and more recent satire that has targeted underprivileged minorities, like French Muslims. She offers the example of Salafi Muslim women in Lyon, who are prevented from taking part in public life, due in large part to the discrimination they face since laws banning headscarves and burqas were passed over the last decade. With this historical context in mind, Parvez problematizes the popular expression of solidarity, “Je suis Charlie”:

[T]he implications of the slogan “je suis Charlie” are not as straightforward as they are made to appear. To say “je suis Charlie” is not only to denounce the killings and express one’s sympathy with the victims and their societies. It is not only to show one’s support for protected speech and the use of satire. Rather, it simultaneously has the effect of dismissing and invalidating the persistent reality of aggression, harassment, and political and economic exclusions that have been plaguing French Muslims, especially women among the unemployed working-class. Furthermore, it ignores the history of satire and perverts its logic by prodding and provoking those without social power—those who are excluded from public space and denied various dignities of citizenship.

You can read the full article here.

December 9, 2014

Announcing Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer

The Social Science Research Council’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere announces Why Prayer? A Conference on New Directions in the Study of Prayer (February 6-7, 2015). This two-day gathering will showcase the work of over 30 scholars and journalists exploring what the study of prayer can tell us about a range of topics.

Please join us February 6-7, 2015, for panels and presentations on topics including religious technologies, embodiment, material culture, language, politics, and the mind. Beginning Friday afternoon, the conference will also feature the Prayer Expo—a pop-up installation of multi-media presentations and material objects that call attention to the myriad representations of prayer shaping discourse and practice. On Saturday, two plenary events will highlight the multiple registers of engagement occasioned by new, transdisciplinary research on the practice of prayer.

For more information on the conference and how to register, please click here. Registration is free, but space is limited.

December 3, 2014

The Piety of Celebrating the Prophet

Festival in India | photo by Fareen ParvezIn India, Milad-un-Nabi refers to the celebration of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. The word milad is the Urdu variation of the Arabic word, mawlid, meaning birth. The Prophet’s birth took place on the twelfth day of the Islamic month of Rab ̄ı’al-Awwal  in the Sunni tradition, or the seventeenth day in the Sh ̄ı’ite tradition. Muslims all over the world honor the date, but differently, according to local custom (and, I argue, local politics).

While I was conducting fieldwork among religious women in a poor, largely Muslim, enclave in Hyderabad, I observed the city’s large-scale public festivals and the women’s thoughts about these celebrations. That year, 2010, marked the height of public revelry celebrating Milad-un-Nabi. This was no coincidence, as the festivals (and the riots that ensued) occurred just after the passage of a controversial reservations bill that would allot 4% of government jobs and university seats to Muslims. Milad-un-Nabi thus became a public site for marking and demonstrating local political power, especially in the presence of opposition to policies like the reservations bill.


March 13, 2014

Praise, Pentecostalism, and the Political: Renewing the Public Square III

My two previous blogs on Pentecostalism and the political have approached this intersection through consideration of prayer and the prophetic. Even if a stretch, careful observers of the religious life know well that Christians are called to pray for their governments and political leaders even as there may be occasions for civil disobedience; what the scriptural tradition calls “prophetic resistance” in response to what happens in the polis. But if prayer and the prophetic might be tied in with the public square in this way, isn’t the activity of praise altogether only religious and without public or political consequences? What does the liturgical life of believing communities, especially Pentecostal ones with their extended singing, shouting, clapping, and dancing, have to do with the public area?


January 21, 2014

Pentecostalism, Politics, and the Prophetic: Renewing the Public Square II

In my previous post on “Prayer, Pentecostalism, and the Political,” I suggested that the anticipated growth of global pentecostal-charismatic Christianity in the twenty-first century had the potential to impact, even transform, the public square as these Christians take their faith from out of their private and ecclesial lives into the political domain, broadly considered. Here I want to reflect further on how such convergence might unfold, and how pentecostal-charismatic spirituality might register its commitments within a public arena that is both post-secular on the one hand and yet post-Christendom on the other. In particular, I wonder if pentecostals’ prayer might move them to a more prophetic form of interface with the sociopolitical?

What does “prophetic” mean in this context? In the biblical and Christian theological traditions, prophecy can involve either the fore-telling of a future otherwise unknown to human beings or the forth-telling of a divine message for a specific place, time, and situation. Pentecostals presume both to be achieved under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Whereas pentecostal-charismatic prophecy has more often proceeded in ecclesial contexts and thus been between individuals, New Testament texts like the book of Revelation purport to be about an otherwise obscure future. While such apocalyptic passages also existed in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible, more prominent there is that the prophets of ancient Israel warned kings and governments, questioned existing sociopolitical developments, and advocated for the poor, women, and other oppressed groups, often challenging the status quo.


September 20, 2013

Prayer, Pentecostalism, and the Political: Renewing the Public Square?

What does Pentecostalism have to do with the public square or the political? One might think, initially, perhaps not much: classical Pentecostals have by and large been apolitical, although more often than not such postures have been nurtured less by pentecostal spirituality and commitments than by eschatological ideas derived from dispensationalist theologies otherwise inimical, ironically, to the idea that the Holy Spirit’s charismatic and miraculous work has continued unabated after the age of the apostles. But as people of the book, Pentecostals do adhere to the New Testament injunctions to pray for their governments and political leaders. In political environments in which they are a minority, often this takes on the form of urging divine intervention that makes possible ongoing pentecostal mission and especially local evangelism. In liberal democratic societies, however, especially those which at least in theory support the freedom of religion, pentecostal growth has precipitated other political possibilities and aspirations and hence also nurtured other types of prayer regarding the public domain.


March 21, 2013

Studying Ritual

The January 24, 2013 issue of Nature features “The Ritual Animal,” an article by Dan Jones on the study of ritual that draws on research conducted by New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Jeremy Ginges.

The article focuses on research that Brian McQuinn and Harvey Whithouse conducted while McQuinn was traveling with Libyan rebels in 2011. They focused on understanding how the rebels “used ritual to create solidarity and loyalty amid constant violence,” and how rituals evolved over a period of time marked by intense combat and victory.

Rituals are a human universal—”the glue that holds social groups together,” explains Whitehouse, who leads the team… Rituals can vary enormously, from the recitation of prayers in church, to the sometimes violent and humiliating initiations of US college fraternity pledges, to the bleeding of a young man’s penis with bamboo razors and pig incisors in purity rituals among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. But beneath that diversity, Whitehouse believes, rituals are always about building community—which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began.

McQuinn and Whitehouse operate on the theory that rituals are either “doctrinal” or “imaginistic.”  In the first instance, rituals are easily transmitted to both children and strangers, and are suited to large-broad-based communities “that do not depend on face-to-face contact.” By contrast, “imaginistic” rituals are more suited to small, intensely committed groups, and are often more traumatic in nature, allowing for the creation of strong bonds among the participants.

Jones contextualizes McQuinn and Whitehouse’s research within a larger set of studies conducted with other communities around the world. In particular, he draws on research conducted by Ginges and his colleagues in Palestine.

Read the full piece here.

March 11, 2013

Thinking Methodologically about Prayer as Practice

What does it mean to study prayer as practice? This question implies considering prayer as a certain type of object, or at least, that the object prayer can be seen to have a minimally analogous relation to the object practice. However, it can also be understood less a possible ontology of prayer—prayer ≈ practice (rather than say, cognition, or contemplation, or ideation) —than the question of how we should study this “thing” we’re calling prayer. Given the deeply comparative nature of our project, this methodological question is paramount. And the first problem a comparative methodology must grapple with is precisely the difficultly of thinking about what prayer is, across the many varied and disparate instances being studied by the scholars in the project.

Is it possible to assume that we all know what we’re talking about when we talk about prayer? I argue that unless we all study prayer as practice, the answer to this is no. But what do I mean by “studying prayer as practice,” if the as doesn’t imply anything fundamental about the nature of prayer as such? Simply put, I want to make a plea for a Foucauldian approach to our object of study, which is not to say a theory of it, or any substantive claim about it, but rather a mode of problematizing it. Such an approach rejects the existence of a transhistorical object “prayer,” as some kind of preexisting natural object of which the particular instance under scrutiny would be one projection. Prayer understood in this way is a pure abstraction, a metaphysical object. Objects such as “the State through the ages,” or “religion” do not exist as such—these are rather objectifications created through discursive practices. Moreover, despite certain social scientific pretensions to the contrary, there is nothing “pure” or “natural” about such objects. What is taken for a transhistorical object—such as religion, the state, or prayer—generally refers to a historically specific form passing itself off as a universal, as Daniel Boyarin and Tomoko Masuzawa have shown us with regard to the concept “religion.”