Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'Between Belief and Unbelief Lies the Performance of Salat': Meaning and Efficacy of a Muslim ritual/«La Pratique Du Salat', Entre Croyance et Incroyance»: Signification et Efficacite D'un Rituel Musulman

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

'Between Belief and Unbelief Lies the Performance of Salat': Meaning and Efficacy of a Muslim ritual/«La Pratique Du Salat', Entre Croyance et Incroyance»: Signification et Efficacite D'un Rituel Musulman

Article excerpt

Introduction

Among the many forms of religious practice performed by Muslims in Turkey, the salat, the five-times-daily prayer (Turk. Namaz), holds a special place. Not only is it seen by many religious Muslims as the single most important of the ritual obligations specified by the experts of Muslim fiqh (jurisprudence) but, together with the Muslim headscarf, it is also the most visible and perhaps most provocative aspect of everyday Muslim religious practice in Turkey. For my friend Aysecan, (1) a middle-aged professional woman from Ankara and self-declared secularist, the prayer's dramatic gesture of submission is proof of Muslim fundamentalism, smacking of irrationality, intolerance, even violence, and the Arabic texts of the prayer and the ezan (call to prayer) sound to her foreign and archaic. Aysecan's views are shared by many in Turkey and Europe, of course, who see in the insistence on the absolute truth of the Qur'anic revelation, which is affirmed in the prayer, a commitment inherently at odds with liberal society.

To view the prayer as an archaic fixture of an outdated tradition is, however, to overlook its role in the dynamic landscape of religious commitment in contemporary Turkey. In recent decades an explicitly religious (dindar) middle class has increasingly been integrated into mainstream Turkish society, religious women have become active players in its institutions and public sphere, and Turkish Islam has embraced the language of human rights and liberal concepts of society. The most tangible aspect of this transformation is the triumph of the post-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), which won a landslide victory in the 2002 elections with a platform combining commitment to its roots in the Islamic tradition with a programme of political liberalization and the quest for EU accession. (2) These changes have occurred, this article will propose, with the aid of the salat, which inserts a fixed point of reference into the diverse and changing lifeworlds of religious Muslims.

A substantial literature is now emerging which is beginning to discuss this transformation of Turkish Islam (Gole 1996; Gulalp 1997; Henkel 2004; Navarro-Yashin 2002; Seufert 1997; Shankland 1999; R. Tapper 1991; Tezcan 2003; Toprak 1996; Vertigans 2003; White 2002; Yavuz 2003; Yavuz & Esposito 2003). The role of religious ritual and its important contribution to maintaining a shared discursive framework among religious Muslims, however, has only cursorily been addressed in this literature. In her recent study of the Islamist movement in Istanbul, for instance, Jenny White notes that

  [w]hat binds people together in the Islamist movement is neither
  ideology (be it political or religious) nor any particular type of
  organization (whether civil society or 'tribe'). Rather, the movement
  is rooted in local culture and interpersonal relations, while also
  drawing on a variety of civic and political organizations and
  ideologies (2002: 6).

White's observation is in many ways compelling and backed by her subtle and persuasive ethnographic study which shows the complex interrelatedness of a cultural heritage, the sometimes shared and sometimes distinct experiences of groups and individuals, and the particular political processes that have shaped Turkish society over the past decades. Yet it seems to me that she is missing an important aspect in her account. Much of the Turkish Muslim movement's appeal, and certainly much of its social and political relevance, stems from the fact that, by tying its diverse projects and the lives of Muslim practitioners into the wider framework of the Islamic tradition, it transcends 'local culture and interpersonal relations'. Through this association, it provides followers with the means of inserting their lives into meaningful narratives of a common history and cosmology and of a fate ultimately shared by a universal Muslim community. …

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