An Islam lost in transition? Emotions, piousness and lack of intellectual genealogy


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.

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4 thoughts on “An Islam lost in transition? Emotions, piousness and lack of intellectual genealogy

  1. While you raise a good point about the act’s possibility of being a spectacle (i.e., done for show/lack of sincerity), some of the things you mention that supposedly make the prayer invalid do not make the prayer invalid at all. While all the madhhabs are unanimus on the requirement of ablution (ritual purity of the body) for a prayer’s validity, reading some of the books on Islamic jurisprudence (not theology, which is usually a term synonymous with aqidah/creed) will show that some of the madhhabs differ with regards to what exactly invalidates one’s prayer with regards to purity of place and clothing. For example, in Sahih al-Bukhari, Imam al-Bukhari brings a hadith that proves it is an established sunnah to pray with one’s shoes on. There is also the hadith in which Prophet Muhammad was praying and paused to take off his shoes due to an impurity that was on them and continued praying rather than starting over, which shows that his prayer was not invalidated by the impurity on his shoes (this is also reported in al-Bukhari’s Sahih).

    There are also various hadiths that mention companions praying in varying places (not only in the mosque), such as upon bridges, on boats, by the side of the road, etc. So the fact that it was done in a stadium like that should have no real bearing on it’s validity.

    The stronger arguement one can make about the possible invalidity of this person’s prayer is the fact that he/she prayed like that in front of hundreds or even thousands of people just to be seen, which would render the prayer invalid due to the person’s intention and lack of sincerity, i.e., it was done for other than Allah. However, due to the fact that one’s intention is hidden and only truly known to Allah, determining that would be almost impossible.

    Another thing to consider is that if a particular prayer’s time is coming to an end, it must be prayed, regardless of place, or situation, which is why you find allowances in the Sunnah for combining your prayers (which a lot of Muslims are ingorant of), praying while travelling, while in the midst of battle, etc. Missing a prayer is a great sin and if one has to pray, he has to pray.

  2. I’m totally surprised of your characterization of traditional Islamic notions of purity concerning prayer. Muslims can almost pray anywhere. Haven’t you seen Muslims praying in the street before? Didn’t you seen Egyptian praying in al-Tahrir square during their uprising against Mubarak?! In the absence of water, a Muslim can -actually should- wash himself with Earth (see Qur’an 5:6). The Prophet himself is reported to have said “the whole earth has been made a mosque and made pure; wherever a man of my community finds himself when the time of prayer comes, he can pray” (Bukhari/Book 7/No. 328). So where does purity go as far that it becomes metaphysical?! Even your claim that Muslims cannot pray in the direction of a toilet is based on some folk traditions and apparently do not have any basis whatsoever in hadith or Qur’an. What does have a basis, is that you shouldn’t build your toilet in the direction of qiblah. As long as you’re outside the toilet, you can pray even when it stands between you and Ka’ba. In conclusion, the pitch on which this student prayed is far cleaner than the place an average Muslim would pray in accordance with traditions!

  3. The prayer issue is an interesting one. I have no problem in praying in public and at times I have lacked a mat or something I could spread on the ground. The first priority is to pray, so the effort should be made even when the conditions are less than ideal. The obsession with halal is a different matter. There is for instance a criteria in Islam for deciding when water is clean enough to drink however in today’s situation of toxic contaminants in water supplies and often inadequate treatment of drinking water those criteria are no longer adequate. Having to see a halal logo on products which are intrinsically halal is extreme. So to are the arguments over alcohol in soft drink and fruit juice. None of these are entirely alcohol free. The fermentation of the sugars they contain by the ubiquitous presence of yeast in the environment is unavoidable. The fact is that you would poison yourself with the sugar or intoxicate yourself with the water, (yes it is possible) before you drank enough for the alcohol content to produce any form of intoxication.

    I agree this is largely the product of issues of identity particularly among Muslims living in a secular western setting. It is a way of marking yourself as being strictly observant and rejecting the perceived ills of the dominant social group.

    Modern technology is a particular problem. One popular brand of ghee over here lost its halal status because testing detected the presence of pig DNA. The given that the PCR test used relies on amplifying the smallest trace amount of DNA the original contamination was probably minuscule. The source could have been anything including the laboratory that did the testing . I have seen similar problems when people who are ignorant of chemistry panic at reports of minute amounts of trace metals in water even though they are harmless at that concentration and are typically naturally occurring and are in amounts at the limit of detection of the analytical method. There really needs to be some thought given to actually properly interpreting and applying just what the results of modern technology really mean.

  4. Perhaps there is another way to look at this…..The blogger has made an important and valid observation—that perhaps some people are too concerned with outward dispalys forgetting that Islam is wholistic and equally concerened with right belief and right intentions—which together with right actions make up the religion. On the other hand, the nuanced and thoughtful responses confirms that perhaps “geneology” is not “lost” after all—it just needs to be shared more often.

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