Friday, October 05, 2012

Blogging from Indonesia: Prayer frequency versus Religiosity

When we designed our study of understanding the reception of biological evolution amongst Muslim physicians and medical students, we used prayer frequency as one of the measured of religiosity (we also used self-designation and if the person has read the Qur'an or not). Now our pilot study was amongst Pakistanis, and the question of prayer frequency made sense and it worked well (we recovered the full range, from 5 times a day to never or once or twice in life). When we did the same study in Turkey, it still worked, but the self-designation of "religious" corresponded to a lower level than Pakistan. Such variations are expected across countries and all we have to do it is to normalize the difference (and perhaps use other surveys, such as Pew study on prayer frequency), and take note of the difference when doing cross-country analysis.

Ah - but then we did interviews in Malaysia - and this particularly category completely collapsed. Almost everyone we interviewed prayed at least 5 times a day. There was one exception. He called himself "not very religious", but he prayed 4 times a day! Okay - so it seemed a little amusing that this guy is calling himself not very religious. However, the broader lesson was that since everyone prays 5 times a day, the prayer frequency may not tell us much about religiosity (for example, if everyone is taking hijab, then the taking of hijab may not symbolize more piety).

Well, I have been finding similar results about prayer frequency here in Indonesia. However, I interviewed a very thoughtful young student today, who provided a clear explanation for this. He picked the category of "Religious but Not religiously observant", and defined himself not religious. However, he prayed 5 times a day. When I questioned about it, he said that he is only doing things that are "obligatory" in Islam. That doesn't make him religious. He doesn't do anything extra that would separate him from others who are doing things more or less as part of culture. I this is a fantastic explanation and now I find the answer of Malaysian exception completely reasonable. Very cool. And it is a good reminder to be extra careful in analyzing big cross-country surveys.

The interviews here are going a bit slow as english is a bigger problem that we initially thought. We thought that since English is taught in schools, and medical students encounter it in their medical studies. However, the ground reality is a bit different and that limits the choice of who we can interview.

Okay - tomorrow, I have to get up early to check out the fantastic Prambanan Temple. More on that later.

6 comments:

Don said...

Thanks for the update! Very interesting results, but then, we knew collecting data in Indonesia would expand our minds. It is intriguing that there are commonalities in religious practice/observance between Malaysia and Indonesia. Even though they are both geographically southeast Asian, I expected the Malay identity to vary greatly from that of Javanese Muslims. Of course, practice/observance is only a component of religious identity. Lots to think about here... can't wait to hear more!

Salman Hameed said...

Yup - I agree. But one very interesting difference I have found here is that a number of people I interviewed did not know the difference between Sunni and Shia. One student who did know the difference explained to me that he found out only after spending some time outside of Indonesia. Then he found out that his practice (and those of a number of other Indonesians) would fall under Sunnis. More precisely, a number of them identified themselves as Muhamadiyya - followers of a modernist movement (Wiki tells me that that this is the second largest Islamic organization in Indonesia). Unfortunately, I did not ask them to them to write such affiliations on their forms, but I think most of the ones I interviewed belonged to this group (Yogyakarta is a stronghold for Muhamadiyya). Any way, I'm now curious to look back to Malaysian interviews to see if they mentioned anything about these kind of affiliations (I know it wasn't like Indonesia, but I will be curious for any hint). Good stuff.

Anonymous said...

considering the fact that abandoning the five daily prayers is punishable by death according to the four schools of thought in the sunni Islam, prayer frequency may not be a good indicator of religiosity in highly conservative countries. It might be a good variable when there is true free will in exercising /practicing religion.

Salman Hameed said...

Dear Anonymous,

And where does this knowledge comes to you about capital punishment in four sunni schools for not praying 5-times a day? Also, are you familiar with capital punishment cases by any government for not praying 5-times a day? Have you ever visited Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, or Egypt and have you talked to people who live over there, or is your knowledge based on surfing the web?

I'm curious about your line of reasoning.

P.S. Also have the decency to use your name - rather than anonymous. When I say things, I have my name out, and I would rather have a conversation with a person rather than"anonymous".

Anonymous said...

Dear Salman,

First, I am sorry for being an anonymous. Perhaps, while growing up I had not had the privilege to express myself freely. I am uneasy about that now I guess.
In my comments, I should have been more explicit perhaps. My knowledge of the capital punishment for abandoning prayers comes from the published literature (ref below) and from asking very knowledgeable people in these matters. When I first encountered this, I was quite shocked, and since then I don’t/can’t pray with the same spiritual depth as I used to. I am not aware of this punishment being practiced today but in “theory” it is there in the books/edicts by the major scholars.

One reference I have is a Turkish book (Freedom of Religion in Islam), published by Presidency of Religious Affairs. There is an excerpt below.

Reference: İSLAM'DA DİN HÜRRİYETİNİN TEMELLERİ s:21
http://www.diyanet.gov.tr/yayin/basiliyayin/yweboku.asp?sayfa=21&yid=4
“eş-Şâfiî ve Malik b. Enes'e göre namazı kasten terk eden kimse kafir olmaz, ama öldürülür.” (According to Safii and Malik b Enes, a person abandoning prayer is not a kafir (infidel) but should be killed)
http://www.diyanet.gov.tr/yayin/basiliyayin/yweboku.asp?sayfa=24&yid=4

Salman Hameed said...

Dear Anonymous,

So couple of things:
First, as you have also found that there is no capital punishment in any of the countries for missing prayers (in fact, any punishment, with the exception of enforced shop-closures in Saudi Arabia), we can possibly say that this is not a widely-held view. In fact, it is quite common for people in countries like Pakistan (a country that is conservative and I'm very familiar with) to not pray and say that they don't perform salat at all, or just on the celebratory occasions. This is confirmed by the Pew data as well as interviews we have been doing. The same is true for Bangladesh (30% say they pray 5-times), Egypt (53%), and Morocco (67%). And the actual numbers are definitely going to be less than that. Heck, even Indonesia and Malaysia are in the low 70s for 5x prayer.

So from a descriptive perspective, your idea that people will be afraid of death to admit praying less than 5-times a day does not work.

What about the schools of thought? You gave me one example from a Turkish website. It looks like it cites Shafi school. I don't know much about it and a fiqh scholar would be the better person to answer. However, two comments: First, I know that at least Hanafi school - as harsh as it is - definitely does not prescribe death penalty for missing prayers. Second, there are a number of other odious things in these laws as well. For example, chopping of hands for stealing and details about slave holdings etc. These kind of things were prescribed in a particular time and are present in many religions (and non-religious codes) and have no practical meaning in 99% of the Muslim world.

So the key is to understand the context. For this particular matter, I think we have a pretty good idea that prayer frequencies might be an indicator of religiosity in some cultures. But even where it doesn't, it has nothing to do with your aforementioned capital punishment.