Faith, Fear, and Ritual in the Euphoric Pursuit of Freedom. by Taha Firdous Shah

A lady making duʿā (prayers) after performing ṣalāt at the shrine of Sheikh Hamzah Makhdoom in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir (Photo by Yawar Nazir)

This week’s readings extend to an ethnographic exploration to comment on the conventionalities of rituals and the moral order. Borrowing the words of Clifford Geertz, where he defines ‘man’ as an ‘animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’, the readings revolve around finding a greater meaning to the rituals in different religious communities, both in individual and collective dimensions (Geertz, 1977:5; Seeman, 2015:743).

In her thought-provoking essay titled “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual: Disciplines of ṣalāt”, Saba Mahmood offers a profound engagement with the discourse surrounding the diverse interpretations of the Muslim act of prayer (ṣalāt) within the context of the contemporary Women’s Piety Movement in Cairo, Egypt. Mahmood’s analysis departs from the idea that common gestures and behaviors are necessarily aligned with shared objectives. She investigates the interplay between specific structures of self and authority concerning differential relationships, particularly rituals. Her aim is to demonstrate the intricate and diverse connections between these concepts, contingent upon the discursive and practical circumstances of authority and varying conceptions of personhood.

Within the context of ṣalāt, Mahmood learned women utilize self-expression as a technique to comprehend the body as a developing ‘means for realizing the pious self’ (828). The act of praying five times a day, according to her interlocutors, is an act of ‘pedagogy’. This continuous performance of an ‘act’ to gain closeness makes me think back to our discussion from Tanya Luhrmann’s work on making God real by gaining closeness to Him through practice and performance. The argument that we worship to believe appears analogous to these women’s inclination to view prayer as a method for cultivating closeness to God.

From Mona Hilmi’s interpretation of prayer to create humans capable of “enlightened criticism” to Hajja Samia’s prescription of fear as a necessary condition of piety to reach God, it is evident that ritual behaviours are motivated by the personal desire to find meaning in worship. I agree with Mahmood that the body and its behaviors are the theaters where ideological scripts are enacted, and ‘different’ readings can be assigned (839). What interested me more in the reading was to look at how fear comes to be constituted as a motive or modality for pious conduct. It struck me why invoking fear is essential to acting with virtue. Why do our daily activities of not lying or doing any wrongdoing stem from this ‘fear’ of God’s wrath, and can we think of it positively, as Hajja Samia believes?

Mahmood’s engagement with thinking about induced weeping was interesting. While we mainly resort to crying on our prayer mats to seek forgiveness or ease our sufferings, we see that the women in the mosque were mandated to think of this act as a sense of being overwhelmed with God’s greatness and enacted with the action of pleasing Him. To some theologians, the former act is idolatrous (shirk) (843). With the process of acquiring different resources to cultivate ethical and moral abilities, I invite all of us to think, just as Mahmood prompts us: How can we reimagine freedom when we can no longer assume a clear separation between a person’s genuine desires and societal norms? How do we think, in the cases Mahmood mentions, that freedom is contextual rather than universal to practices?

In a similar vein, Don Seeman’s piece on “Coffee and the Moral Order: Ethiopian Jews and Pentecostals against Culture” explores the manifestation of another form of ritualistic agency.  He analyzes the materials as mediums of cultural symbol, which inform the moral experience around which different Ethiopian groups negotiate over the limits of ‘culture’ and the elusive moral freedom. In the examined context, the consumption of buna functions as a sociocultural mechanism to facilitate familial harmony and promote women’s solidarity. However, showing resistance to such a culture acts as freedom of defiance from certain cultural elements that seem intolerant to some.

Seeman asserts that buna avoidance creates a “culture of no culture” to highlight how cultural discourse can be claimed, altered, and disputed in different religious, social, and institutional contexts (743). His advice is that buna practice and avoidance must be understood against an intersubjective horizon of emotionally fraught relationships with kin or neighbors, economic pressures, and the shifting embodied experience of gender and sexuality (743–44). As Mahmood argues for diversity in the language of understanding cultures, Seeman emphasizes accepting differences in the meanings of freedom vis-à-vis rituals. With this, I invite all of us to think about how we determine the extent of freedom within the context of habitus, cultural background, and customary actions, particularly when these are intertwined with rituals.