Journal Article

Interiors, Intentions, and the “Spirituality” of Islamic Ritual Practice

Paul R. Powers

in Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Published on behalf of American Academy of Religion

Volume 72, issue 2, pages 425-459
Published in print June 2004 | ISSN: 0002-7189
Published online June 2004 | e-ISSN: 1477-4585 | DOI:
Interiors, Intentions, and the “Spirituality” of Islamic Ritual Practice

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The Arabic term niyya (intention) is prominent in texts of Islamic ritual law. Muslim jurists require niyya in the “heart” during such ritual duties as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage. Western scholars often treat niyya as a “spiritual” component of Islamic ritual. Muslim jurists, however, consistently treat niyya as a formal, taxonomic matter, a mental focus that makes a given act into the specific named duty required by religious law. Although the effort to thrust niyya into a “spiritual” role is meant to defend Islam from charges of “empty ritualism,” it subtly reinforces the characterization of Islam as rigidly legalistic. Much scholarship on niyya belies the scholars' own definition of “proper religion” centered on an inner, individual, nonmaterial dimension of the self. Instead of trying to wash away the formalism of niyya, I argue that scholars ought to recognize that such embodied practices are properly religious rather than spiritually defective.

Western ankles won't do what Muslim ankles have done for a lifetime. Asians squat when they sit, Westerners sit upright in chairs. When my guide was down in a posture, I tried everything I could to get down as he was, but there I was, sticking up. After about an hour, my guide left, indicating that he would return later.... I never even thought about sleeping. Watched by the Muslims, I kept practicing prayer posture. I refused to let myself think how ridiculous I must have looked to them. After a while, though, I learned a little trick that would let me get down closer to the floor. But after two or three days, my ankle was going to swell.

—Malcolm X: 333–334

Journal Article.  0 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies

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