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!

6 Replies to “Everyday Vernacular Islamic Practices”

  1. Evgeniia Muzychenko

    Prakash, thanks for this beautiful sketch of your experience of healing. You ask a great question about analysis vis-à-vis the narrative. You are right in saying that Joyce is generous in providing us with “thick descriptions,” – this is what, in my opinion, is most helpful for readers. This is not to say that that analysis comes as secondary – it is crucial for understanding the point that the ethnographer is trying to make. In the case of this book, Joyce wants to disrupt the prevailing assumptions in the U.S. scholarship about gender in Islam, and she is able to do so by analyzing Amma and her practices. A good example is how Joyce understands Amma’s negotiation of her authority when she assigns numbers to her patients in the queue and makes decisions on which person would be taken out of line (41). What stroke me is Joyce’s analysis of Amma’s stories during her breaks from patients, as for Joyce, even the stories that Amma tells during those breaks are a way of Amma’s assertion of her healing authority (43). While Joyce interprets those stories this way, it is not entirely clear whether Amma consciously chooses to recall a particular story to reinforce her authority or whether those stories come to her “naturally’ as a part of her experience that she cannot separate from herself.

  2. Brittany Lynn Fiscus-van Rossum

    Prakash, thanks for your post and for sharing a personal story in connection to this reading. Narratives are a great source!

    I too was interested in how Amma’s healing room as a “crossroads” space allows for pluralistic participation through relationship. In some ways Amma (and her practices) bends some of the traditional constructs of religious and gender structures in Islam, but in other ways she conforms too. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger says, “because relationships as they are lived are variable, shifting, and creative, they provide the primary basis for and site of creativity and flexibility in vernacular Islam as practiced in Amma’s healing room” (235). I echo Flueckiger in saying that I agree that individual human lives in relationships with others include paradoxes as well as moments of conformity, change, adaptability, and creativity. Humans (including our understandings of our religious beliefs and “lived out” practices) are not just one thing and we do not always do things that fit easily within the confines of religious (and other) structures even as we participate in them. I appreciate how Flueckiger’s thick descriptions and intimate focus on one woman allow her readers to have a more vivid picture of how all these nuances are lived out in a real life. By honing in on Amma and prioritizing her unique individual perspective, Flueckiger allows us too to see a rich and detailed view of one example of this kind of lived religious fluidity at work in a life (and those connected to that life).

    While In Amma’s Healing Room offers more descriptive work, and less traditional theory, than some of our other readings in this class, I do not think it is without analysis. While Flueckiger often allows Amma to speak for herself, she also draws conclusions about gender and other dynamics she sees at work. While perhaps this close-up look may not be as obviously transferable for other studies, I think this style allows the reader to really join Flueckiger in observing what she sees (and experiences) and then follow along to what we might learn from this vantage.

    I look forward to talking more tomorrow!

    Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum

  3. Mufdil Tuhri

    Hello Prakash, I appreciate you sharing your childhood experiences with healing practices. Your explanation of the intersection of your identities has led me to reflect on the idea that religious experiences cannot be solely confined to ideal category of religion but are performative actions that are lively and dynamic. In this context, an exploration of the broader religious landscape may not necessarily require reliance on a dominant authority that often labels certain practices as heretical or irreligious. Through lens of vernacular Islam, Joyce emphasizes that it is about practiced and not to be prescriptive about what was “true” or “false” Islam (12, 235). Consequently, the concept of “vernacular” proves useful in elucidating the intersection of local religious identities within a larger cosmopolitan religious network. This perpetuates a religion as a living tradition.
    Your question about being an observer and participant in ethnographic studies is crucial. I also believe that categorization in some ways can limit the distance between us and our interlocutors. I wonder, when we are in the field for 12 months or more, do we still need to categorize ourselves as observers or participants? I, instead, view ethnographic studies as allowing us to blend ourselves as part of the community. Just like Joyce’s term “vernacular Islam” implies, can an ethnographer employ a “vernacular approach” that signifies the blending of identities?
    Related to the concept of habitus as fixed and flexible, I perceive that Bourdieu introduced this concept by emphasizing the potential for habits to change within individuals. This is also evident in Joyce’s explanation when she discusses the articulation of Islamic cosmology in her healing practices. She states, “a site where Islamic religious practice is negotiable, creative, and flexible” (8). In my own observations of traditional healing, I often encounter individuals who, despite being quite puritanical, accept these practices due to the healing experiences they receive. This contributes to the broad acceptance of religion, not necessarily through normative teachings but through religious practices.

  4. Laura Montoya Cifuentes

    Prakash, thank you for your post and the personal story you shared with us. It is a perfect example of crossroads!

    Thank you also for the insightful questions you posed. Regarding habitus as fixed and flexible, Flueckiger states that she saw transitions and changes over time in Amma’s stories, attitudes, and ways of interacting with her. At the same time, she describes the powerful historical developments that precede the religious tradition that this Muslim community preserves in the vernacular practices. So, it is interesting how fixed and flexible coexist in particular moments and shape people’s habitus. However, motion, interplay, and transformation are inevitable in such coexistence. It is evident when Flueckiger describes how “individuals manipulate and negotiate with tradition to create meaning of their own circumstances and understand culture-making as a dynamic process” (25). In this particular ethnographic work, gender roles were clearly negotiated both at an individual and collective level.

    Regarding your question about the ethnographer as observant or participant, the line is blurred in this work (as well as in Wigg-Stevenson’s last week). For instance, due to cultural and traditional practices, Joyce had to sit with Amma and the female disciples behind the curtain during rituals and celebrations (206). In that case, her role as an observer able to reach the full scope of the event was limited by her gender, and then she became a participant. But the same as Mufdil poses, is it not usually the case that we are participants and end up blending in different levels with the community? In this case, Joyce not only observed Amma and Abba but became a participant in a relationship based on love and respect.

  5. Taha Firdous Shah

    Thank you, Prakash, for leading us off with something that is your own. This is the beauty of practices and experiences, more so when they are very spiritual in nature.

    I have been waiting for this class on so many levels. Professor Flueckiger’s writing impresses me so much and gives me hope that effectively narrating experiences and hooking the reader to them is one of the best methods to approach and discuss any religious practice.

    From the title of the book to the narrations, Professor Flueckiger effectively narrates the intimate relationship between Amma and Abbas, as she calls them. It is so beautiful because the words Amma and Abba are for mother and father in Hindi and Urdu. Among other interesting things that the book covers, what caught my attention was when Professor Flueckiger discusses, “Several Muslim audience members over the years have raised vigorous objections to my research of what may be identified as ‘Sufi’ practices, telling me that “all this” was not “true Islam” but was rather influenced by Hindu culture” (11). I want to ask: How ‘Islamic’ is ‘vernacular’ Islam? As a scholar of religion, choosing an area of study and religion, how important is it to ensure that the practice is also ‘peculiar’ to the religious tradition and not just a tradition as it is? I see that Professor Flueckiger has offered us an argument saying that her purpose in writing the book was to merely analyze vernacular Islam as practiced and not be prescriptive about what was ‘true’ or ‘false’ Islam (12). However, I want to gauge the need for this healing practice and also be able to fit into the larger corpus of Sufi practice. This is a question I often wrestle with when I am contested with questions such as “This is not spiritual or Islam anymore, for there are elements of Hinduism or other religious practice in what you claim to be Islamic.”

    I want to hear from all of you in the class tomorrow and look forward to an enriching discussion.

  6. Peter Cariaga

    [Retroactive Post]

    Thanks for this great post, Prakash. I’ll pick up your question about drawing a line between observer and participant. Ethnographers, I think, cannot help but participate at some level; even the ethnographer’s presence in a room can change a dynamic from what it would have been without them. At the same time, most of the ethnographers we’ve read this semester (Wigg-Stevenson being a prominent exception) take pains to not actively participate more than necessary, leaning into the participant side instead.

    What I think is helpful about Flueckiger’s book is that she is very up front about the ways in which she is a participant in her research. More accurately, she names the ways she is entangled or enmeshed (though she doesn’t use these terms explicitly) in Amma’s life and healing practice. This is everything from clarifying her status as a disciple (not in a material way) to her reasons for sticking with a single primary interlocutor (ease of access and how straight-up interesting Amma is) (17-22). I think this is an excellent example of dealing with reflexive issues up front.

    I would say that the difference between Flueckiger and Wigg-Stevenson is that Wigg-Stevenson fully engages as a participant that has sway in the outcome of the situations she describes, and she actively embraces that role. (Indeed, taking an active role in shaping the situations where she’s a participant is basically the raison d’etre for Wigg-Stevenson’s project.) Flueckiger, on the other hand, is so detailed in part as a means of showing the ways she tries to NOT actively participate.

    That said, I was a bit confused as to why Flueckiger singles out the episode with Amma’s niece and her Hindu friend. Was this the ONLY instance in which she joined in as an actual conversation partner? Was there nothing comparable in the discussion on avatars (176) in which by the end everyone (presumably Joyce included) was laughing? It was unclear to me why this particular instance warranted its own appendix, especially when Joyce’s comments are only two lines.


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