Fri 12 Aug 2011
Today’s New York Times contains a commentary by Timothy Egan on “Rick Perry’s Unanswered Prayers.” Perry, who today is declaring his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, has been governor of Texas since his predecessor George W. Bush left that office to become president. Despite the fact that both Bush and Perry wear religion on their sleeve, the front of their chest, indeed on just about every bit of clothing (I am not sure about tattoos), both seem to have a poor record of getting their God to do their bidding. Unless this God west of the Pecos has a wicked sense of humor, I think the debacle of the Iraq War is an answer only to the prayers of arms dealers and Blackwater International. But Perry has no problem putting the ball (like the economy or the drought in Texas) in Jehovah’s court. Last April he declared a three-day prayer for rain. Not a drop has fallen since. Now he thinks the time is ripe for another Texas governor to run for president. Let us all hope he does not have a prayer.
I mention this goobernatorial prayer fiasco as a contrast to an istisqā’ (Islamic prayer for rain) that I witnessed in the highlands of Yemen in the spring of 1979. At that time, when I was conducting ethnographic fieldwork in a highland valley full of tribesmen and women (with nary a terrorist in sight, as is the case today), the usual spring rains were late in coming. There is within Islam a specific prayer that the community can offer up to Allah in times of drought. I have no way of knowing whether Allah has a better track record of sending rain than Jehovah does in Texas, but here is my own experience.
Many of the men of several villages came together with a local imam and the local elementary school children. They all shared in buying a young camel, which was to be slaughtered in an open space at the time of the prayer. There is nothing specifically “Islamic” about the camel, but it is clearly a custom in Yemen from centuries, if not even before Islam. I followed along, recording the chants, until a suitable space was found for all the men to pray. The prayer, according to the Zaydi school, was recited, the camel’s throat was slit and the remains left for the birds. The main difference between this and that of Rick Perry is that the Yemeni example was generated by the people and involved the intentional slaughter of a camel, while the Texas ritual was goobernatorial hubris that no doubt got a mention in the many Baptist churches that dot, jot and tittle the Panhandle landscape and beyond.
Texas is still waiting for rain, not unlike the biblical prophets of Baal for those who think politics and old-time religion mix. In my case over three decades ago on the way back to the village the heavens opened up and it rained. Governor Perry might be tempted to quote the verse that says the rain falls on the just and the unjust, but he might also think about the other Gospel advice about seeing a mote in someone else’s eye when he has a plank in his own.
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