Everyday Vernacular Islamic Practices

When I was reading In Amma’s Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India, I was reminiscing about my first-ever healing experience. I was around 9 or 10 years old when my family and I visited my maternal family in Chennai. Every summer break–we would visit my grandparents in Chennai, and we would not miss going to Marina Beach even in the scorching heat. When my siblings and I were playing in the water I was dragged inside by a strong undercurrent and I almost drowned to death, fortunately, I was pushed to the shore by a bigger wave. After this incident, for the next couple of nights, I was having dreadful nightmares, and I was not able to sleep. My parents didn’t know what to do. From Chennai we went to my paternal grandparents’ house in Vellore, to spend the rest of the summer break. When we reached my grandparents’ house in Vellore, my mother told my grandmother about what had happened to me. My grandmother sensed what it could be, and on the same evening, she took me to a Hindu spiritual healer, which was away from the center of the village. I trusted my grandmother and went through the narrow dark lanes of the village. The spiritual healer was an old frail woman with matted hair living in a straw-thatched hut. The healing hut was wafting with burning incense sticks. My grandmother and I sat in front of the healer on the floor and my grandmother told the healer about what had happened. Immediately, the healer lit a camphor and prayed to the gods displayed next to her and gave me tirunīru (sacred ash), and told me to smear it all over my body. When I went back home, I went to bed directly and slept peacefully. My maternal family believes in Christianity, whereas my paternal family follows Hinduism. My dual religious identity didn’t matter and was never told when I was healed by the spiritual healer. Joyce Flueckiger in her book explores such vernacular healing practice which cuts across religious boundaries.

Joyce’s ‘thick description’ of Amma’s syncretic healing practices gives a new perspective to Islam in South Asia, and how a non-institutional Islamic practice is performed and embodied by Amma in the public sphere through her position and authority. Joyce calls the spiritual healing practice by Amma ‘vernacular Islam’, which is juxtaposed against ‘universal Islam’. Vernacular Islam doesn’t indicate the semantic understanding of Islam, rather it talks about specific relationships and contexts shaped by individuals (2006: 02). The local practices of Islam in Hyderabad through the lens of Amma show fluidity, flexibility, and innovation in a religious tradition.

Amma is as pious as Saba Mahmood’s ‘women of piety’. In her essay “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject,” Saba Mahmood argues about the embodied behaviour of her interlocutors. For instance, the virtue of shyness/modesty (al-hāya) is central to a virtuous performer. In contrast to the women of piety, Amma’s embodiment of religious pious is not monolithic. It is fascinating to see how Amma navigates through the gendered space, where Sufi practices are predominately a male space.

As shown in my own experience, a vernacular religious idiom is shared by most religious traditions in India, where spiritual illness is countered by spiritual healing. Amma is a piranima (wife of a pir) who dedicated all her life to learning spiritual healing, however, it is Abba’s presence that validates her authority as a spiritual healer. When Abba dies, her authority is questioned – until her eldest son becomes Abba’s successor. Nevertheless, Joyce argues that they both help each other mutually because most people come to the healing room to seek Amma’s help and guidance. It is her compassionate nature that brings people from all religions and classes to the healing room, and people get to know about Abba only later. One thing that is unique about Amma is her skill and ability to write, which authenticates her vernacular Islamic healing, whereas Abba mostly depends on folktales and oral narratives. Vernacular Islam is more practical than prescribing what is ‘true Islam’.

Amma’s healing room a symbiotic pluralistic crossroads where people across religions experience healing, and healing is received even when someone doesn’t belong to the same faith. However, when it comes to initiation, the individual has to give up her/his former faith practices and rituals completely. In one instance, Amma told Joyce not to eat food offered to Hindu gods or goddesses even though there was no intention of initiation. What are the other limitations of this crossroad? Can habitus be both fixed and flexible?

When Amma talks about two jatis (castes), i.e., male and female which is the only division created by Allah, and the rest of the division is socially constructed. What leaves me thinking is how the term jati is used in this context. Jati is not the only term that is used to signify gender. There is not much clarity on how Joyce distinguishes between jati as gender and jati as caste hierarchy. Furthermore, there is no hint about the hijras (third-gender persons) who are very much part of the Islamic community in Hyderabad (See Gayatri Reddy’s With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India).

In ethnography, does the ethnographer draw a line between being an observer and a participant? Or do they participate always? For instance, during one of the discussions between Amma’s niece and Munappa. They discuss about cremation and burial, towards the end of the discussion, Joyce says that, now she steps down from being an observer and wants to become a participant.

In Amma’s Healing Room is a rich archival source that talks about local Islamic practices. However, Joyce’s well-knit coherent narrative lacks analysis of her interlocutors’ thoughts and perspectives. How important is analysis for ethnographic research? 

Looking forward to the discussion!

Isms, Ists, and Co-producing Knowledge

Young people with open books at a wooden picnic table
Credit: Alexis Brown via Upsplash

[Note: This post is written autoethnographically as a stylistic choice.]

I sit down and begin. Gut the book, make something with its contents. Don’t we do this every week?

Natalie Wigg-Stevenson is a theologian, that much is for sure. Besides admitting it in the title (the book is “An Inquiry into the Production of Theological Knowledge), she focuses squarely on a question about theology: “How can ethnographic methods help us foster the already organic relationship between everyday and academic theologies in order to bolster their shared production of theological knowledge?” (10). If anthropologists of Christianity may be aided by knowing something about theology, Wigg-Stevenson wants to use their tools to produce theology. I’ll come back to that last part in a bit.

I say it’s for sure she’s a theologian (as in a systematic one) in part because she uses anthropomorphized theologies. Everyday theologies and academic theologies “relate” to each other in her book—this is fictive relational language. Why not say theologians relate to each other? If a theologian is “made” (47-48), why not focus on the relationship between everyday theologians and academic theologians?

I stand up and grab a book by a theologian. Kosuke Koyama has some of the best book titles; this one is Water Buffalo Theology. He distinguishes between religious traditions (“isms” he calls them) and their practitioners (“ists”) (93-95). Comparison between isms is easy, he says, but talking to other ists is much harder. After all, “Buddhistm does not feel hungry [. . .] Buddhism does not suffer from flood or drought. A Buddhist, on the contrary, [. . .] complains, laughs, grieves, sweats, suffers, thirsts, and hungers” (94). One could just as easily say the same about a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim. This is what makes talking to other ists difficult, even those of the same ism. We have the immediate needs, hopes, hangups, relationships, and emotional reactions that come with having bodies. Ism and ist are related,” Koyama acknowledges. He makes his point nonetheless: “Don’t let ism walk alone!” (95).

I plop back down with Wigg-Stevenson. To her credit (despite those anthropomorphic theologies), focusing on ethnography means she must focus on people—her study is largely about ists. Two twists distinguish her book from most of what we’ve been reading. First, she implicates herself as one of the study’s ists. She does this in complex ways, drawing first on Bourdieu’s notions of habitus and doxa (and if you can keep these two straight, please help), and then Ortner’s idea of making a field (not just structuring, à la Bourdieu) before connecting directly with Wacquant’s “sociology of the body.” Wigg-Stevenson, though, is not content to “mine knowledge out of the site” of her inquiry like Bourdieu or even Wacquant. She seeks “to produce—or, better, coproduce—knowledge from [her] embodied location within it” (61).

That’s the second twist: Wigg-Stevenson is aware of the ways she influences her fields (both ecclesial and academic), and she’s actively trying to enact (or make, following Ortner) change among her co-participants. She is trying to not only produce knowledge about a particular place and people and their theologies but produce it with and for them (cf. 2). The goal, in other words, is to affect both ists and ism, and to be affected by the process as an ist herself, and it is these attempts and interaction that produce theological knowledge.

I lean back and think for a bit, mirroring (mimicking?) Wiggs-Stevenson’s self-narrated episode on her study floor (66-71). (I do eventually get to the constructive chapters, but in good book-gutting fashion I browse them after having scooped out the theory.) What might all this entail for us in this “field” of Studying Religious Practices? Some of us (like me) want to engage ethnography precisely as part of theological knowledge production; the applications are pretty direct for us. What about those whose projects (seminar-level and larger) are decidedly not theological, at least not in the same way that Wigg-Stevenson’s is? What might they draw from her book? Certainly the role that the researcher has in affecting their field (as seen in Wacquant and the boxing gym). But if there are “moments of slippage and social change” and the researcher, as “objectified participant” has “the power to create them,” then it seems a high degree of reflexivity is absolutely crucial.

I’m tired, and book-gutting is work. I’m left with these questions, which I’d really like my colleagues’ help thinking through. We do this every week, too: We co-produce knowledge.

1. Wigg-Stevenson is focused on the (co-)production of theological knowledge, but in a sense all knowledge produced by ethnography is a co-production. Is the work of other ethnographers to “get the story straight” (Orsi) a different kind of co-production, or is Wigg-Stevenson just being more up front about the ethnographer’s role?

2. What is transferable here? Would someone from a different religious tradition (or none) be able to engage in the same kind of knowledge production that Wigg-Stevenson does, or is it particular only to Christian theology?

3. How is Wigg-Stevenson’s “objectified participation” different (if at all) from being a highly reflexive ethnographer? What distinction is there in the knowledge that it produces?