Today I have have found several messages in my email referring to a youtube video that is going viral among Muslims. The video shows a Muslim student praying publicly during his graduation ceremony at WSU (Washington State University). The public appeared oblivious to what may be perceived as a ‘strange’ performance by anyone unfamiliar with the Islamic style of prayer. By contrast, many Muslims have praised this action as being a courageous display of faith. Also, in the messages, you can read the list of “miracles’ that accompany such act of devotion: ‘he was not noticed, he may have been invisible'; ‘the people did not clap their hands until the end of the prayer'; ‘the direction of the Qiblah and the stage were the same’ (but was it?).We can read such performance of piety in different ways. Surely it is nice to see that in the US, despite recent public paranoia surrounding Islam, each citizen is free to express his or her faith (though I do wonder whether the University would have allowed Pastafarians to wear their spaghetti strainers instead of graduation caps!). Islam sometimes may be a very visible religion and, by contrast, nobody may have noticed a Christian or Buddhist who wanted to sneak out a prayer — and certainly not posted him or her on Youtube.
However, as an anthropologist studying Muslims I have some questions about this video. Most notably, in the video he performed a prayer which, for some very simple reasons would have been considered invalid traditionally. Hence, theologically speaking, this performance might be just that: a performance.
As an anthropologist I prefer not to go into theology in detail, but I will note that one of the aspects that characterizes the Islamic prayer is an emphasis on ‘purity’, which is not only applied to the person praying (clean clothes, performance of the required ablutions, no contamination in the mouth or other parts of the body, no contact with food and so on) but also to the place where the prayer is performed.
In other words, Muslims should not pray where there is even the slightest suspicion that the environment is unclean or polluted, even by substances that we cannot perceive. The purity aspect goes so far that it becomes metaphysical: Muslims cannot pray in the direction of a toilet even if this might be the correct location pointing towards Mecca. This is the reason for which Muslims take their shoes off when entering the mosque and lay a prayer mat, even in their own homes, before performing their prayer.
Also Muslims should not pray, even symbolically, to anything other than Allah (God). It is not rare to see Muslims laying a paper tissue infront of them or moving a chair to create a neutral space, if there is the risk of performing the prayer facing other people. The space in the direction of prayer should be ‘pure’ both biologically and theologically. There are also other rules, at least for Sunni Muslims, like gender segregation (or at least division or structured position, i,e, women behind men, children in-between the two genders) that need to be respected for a prayer to be considered valid.
Yet the student was praying on a stadium pitch. I am sure that whoever has played a sport in a stadium would agree that a pitch is anything but clean. So, according to the tradition that most Muslims follow, it can be argued that the student has performed an invalid prayer. Furthermore, some scholars would suggest that praying in such a context (a public, secular, or at least a mixed non-Muslim and Muslim environment) may have been less than acceptable or could have been avoided and the prayer postponed (or the graduation ceremony avoided if the prayer was more important than the secular performance).
Yet more and more we can encounter Muslims praying in the most strange places and sometimes in places where they should not pray at all according to established traditions (see the example of the toilet or towards the toilet). This phenomenon is even more interesting when we discover that, more often than not, those performing such practices are Muslims whom define themselves as “Salafis” (followers of the Salaf (predecessors), i.e. those close to the authentic practice) when many of these pious practices might be considered to be, at least historically speaking, innovations.
Muslim women who fast while pregnant during Ramadan; diabetic Muslims who put their health at risk doing the same; Muslims who fast longer than required; the exclusive trust of only commercialized halal products (such as halal soap, halal mineral water, halal vegetables, halal fish) which however are in reality halal by definition; the refusal to eat bread that contains a natural microscopic quantity of derived fermentation (i.e. natural alcohol), which by the way Muslims have indirectly consumed for centuries since its detection is only due to recent technological advancement; these among other practices are difficult to trace in the history and ‘genealogy’ of Islam.
Should we be surprised? My never-ending indirect research on theological knowledge among Muslims (at the present conducted in some parts of Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia and most recently in Australia and that virtual place called the Internet) shows a considerable number of Muslims lacking even general theological knowledge and, if we add Islamic historical knowledge to it (and in Islam theology is never detachable from history and philosophy), the reality is rather depressing. Muslims do not know their traditions and have no idea of the philosophical or historical development of Islamic scholarly opinions. In other words, they have lost the ‘genealogy’ of Islam. Of course this is not just a problem with Muslims as many Catholics also (despite the Sunday schools) have little knowledge of the Pope’s edicts or Patrology. Nonetheless, there is a relevant difference: Catholicism, as many other religions, has a centralized institution or at least a centre to refer to. There is a “doctrine” which is linked to theology, and some would need only to know that: some parts of the doctrine.
Muslims have lost their history: Nevzat Soguk is very correct when he notices,
The historical amnesia, forced violently on Arab Muslims and other Islamic people as well as internalized by the masses via the fanciful and heroic story lines of Islamic greatness, is devastating in several ways. First where are Ibn Khaldun-like figures in modern Islamic societies now? Why can’t we ask such questions [i.e. the same he asked] in the first place? What happens to those who dare raise questions that go to the heart of the system of half-truths and fabrications […] What most importantly, happened to the sort of Asabiyyah, that dynamic Arab or Islamic outlook on the world that enabled Ibn Khaldun […] to develop the critical faculties and knowledge to be able to write such a masterpiece? Why the fear of history? (pp. 200-201)
In the case of Islam, there is no doctrine per-se but a complexity that needs a genealogy of ideas, practices and philosophy. Today Muslims are less and less capable of relating to, interacting with and expressing such genealogy. Rather it is the emotional (see Marranci 2009) and the unmediated exegetical insight that dictates the complex identity-religion relationship. Today many Muslims relate to Islam (a label per-se, a container rather content, since indeed Islam, to exist, needs a mind—at least the mind of God; but that remains beyond scrutiny) through what Fuller (2006, 2007) calls ‘wonder’, which facilitates ‘cognitive openings’ and new way sof making sense of a person’s Islam as part of his or her act of identity.
Hence, we can read many of the contemporary, and sometimes puzzling–and at other times even questionable–acts of piety among some Muslims (but we may also apply this to other religions) as acts of identity. Identities which are challenged by an environment that today is uber-polysemic and marked by overwhelming inputs. However, if the genealogy (the history, the philosophy, the discourse beyond rhetoric, the intellectual debate, the intellectual challenge and so on) is forgotten we can only have one kind of Islam: emotional Islam.