‘Phenomenology of the Islamic Prayer’


Attended this wonderful lecture at Columbia recently.  Was able to attend only the morning sessions, always a pleasure to go back and listen to these wonderful scholars. The section that really stood out for me (mostly because it resonated with my own academic concerns) was the Second Panel with Dr. Charfi and Professor Dabashi which sought to differentiate between the ritual act of prayer and the spiritual experience of praying. While I have been familiar with such a notion which upholds all juridical theology as being a dialectical response to the sociology of religion being  an underlying theme in Professor Dabashi’s work , Dr Charfi’s work also underlined similar intellectual anxieties.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Dr.Charfi’s discussion was the fact that inspite of the rigid rituals upheld by all schools of  Islamic jurisprudence, historically there is no certainty with regards to the exact ritual or formula prescribed in Islam with regards to praying.  ‘All available information on which Muslims rely are elaborations by the fuquha ( jurists) of different schools’, he said,’ which were not made in the early stages of Islam but much later in the 9th century after the various schools of jurisprudence were elaborated and practices stabilized. Some evidence even suggests that such stabilization was achieved at the expense of manipulating historical facts, either by omission or by selecting and deliberately choosing some facts over others that are inconvenient for the harmony of the ritual system as a whole’.  Dr Charfi pointed out that ‘ the fuquha  themselves were divided about the most simple acts associated with prayer, such as the method of the iqama ( the call to prayer), the recitation of quranic ayat in a high or low voice, and the action of lifting the arms or keeping them to the side etc. No hadith whose authenticity is certain, according to the strictest criteria used by the traditionalists, has come to settle how to conduct these acts that are repeated in each prayer. However the juridical institutions do not tolerate any deviations and refuse to bow down from their common standard of compliance with established worship…It must also be mentioned that Centuries and generations have shaped the ritual prayer as we know it’.

Professor Dabashi also reiterated these views saying that the fiqh (jurisprudence) are human interpretations of the Sharia and not definitive constructs that have sacred sanctity. In the actual reality of lived Islam, he said, ‘Both the theologian and philospher are out for lunch proverbially. No body pays much attention to what juridical worship suggests but do their own thing. There is clearly something else to religion then, there is a complex interaction between practice and law. There is historical evidence of multiplicity of pieties and popular influences in Islam where diverse events  and narratives have given meaning to rituals like prayers. Consequently there are multiple  ways to pray and the notion of prayer is complicated by the fact that a majority of Muslims today do not speak Arabic so they don’t know what they are saying when they recite the Quran’. He highlighted the two ideal types in the Sharia regarding prayers, one which emphasizes bodily regulation, scholastic  formalism with concerns like exact pronunciation etc and the other focuses on the spirituality of the act or internalism, interiorizing the truth. The former approach upholds the notion of bila kaifa (don’t ask) and the supposed intelligibility of prayer does not matter but the latter  emphasizes the need for the self to understand and connect with God.  “When you are at the Kaaba you don’t have a qibla, you are already there’, he quoted from Rumi’s Mathnawi about the story of Moses and the Shephard. Najam Haider also spoke ‘in defense of the juridical’  saying that there was a need to differentiate between fuquha and ulema, and that the tension in Islam between these two viewpoints was not really between the juridical and the popular but rather created by the manipulation of  power in Islamic societies.

Such information clearly points towards a lack of certainty on any normative method for praying and is attested by the historical accounts from the early Islamic period which show that Muslims of all persuasions prayed in their own way and accepted diversity as I have mentioned elsewhere. This  is significant specially regarding the discord surrounding the primacy of the ritual in most muslim communities today, where there are irreconcilable divisions between different sects and even within the sects themselves. In many cases many muslims do not pray with each other or in many occasions throw fellow Muslims out of mosques because their method of praying does not conform to a certain ritual prescription. This is specially true for the ‘traditionalists’  the Ahle Hadith or the Salafis, but also true for other orthodox groups like the Deobandis in South Asia, who all refuse to pray with Muslims from other maslaks.

For those interested the SSRC’s The Prayer Blog has good discussions going on regarding the Islamic prayer among others.  An interesting article on this blog where the author argues that  the reformist approaches to prayer practices should not be dismissed as ‘superficial’ and that such  debates and conversations about duas acknowledged the complexity and ambiguities of prayer, its method and effects.   http://forums.ssrc.org/ndsp/2013/04/15/supplications-and-islamic-reformism/

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