Hearing Prayers in the Grave: The Lives of the Dead and the Sa‘udi Biopolitical State

By John M. Willis
Submitted to Session P3602 (Arabian (Imagi)Nations, 2013 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
State Formation;
In 1925 the Sa‘udi Ikhwan razed the domed mausoleums of the Prophet’s family and companions in the cemeteries of Mecca and Medina. The act prompted a wave of criticism in the broader Islamic world, which saw the imposition of Sa‘udi-salafi rule over the holy cities as an attack on the beliefs and ritual practices of the majority of the community of believers. This was the especially the case in India. Scholars and activists representing the Shi‘i, Barelvi, Jamiat-e Ulama, and Khilafat movement disseminated a number of treatises defending the practices associated with “visitation,” including the ability of the Prophet and his companions to intercede on the behalf of believers (tawassul) due to their continuing life in the grave.

This paper takes the issue of the life in the grave as a point of departure for an investigation of the birth of a modern biopolitical regime in what was to become Sa‘udi Arabia. It suggests that the juridical and theological arguments mobilized by the Sa‘udi regime against the practice of visitation (ziyara) and life in the grave must be read in a the broader framework of a type of government increasingly interested in the management of biological life, especially as it intersected with the Hajj pilgrimage by means of the sanitary regulation of pilgrimage by both the British and the nascent ministry of health formed by the Sa‘udi state. The continuing life of the Prophet and his companions threatened these new forms of religious-juridical and biopolitical sovereignty by their refusal to conform to bare life. Drawing on polemical tracts and legal works written between 1924 and 1926 by South Asian Shi‘i and Barelvi scholars in Arabic and Urdu, this paper seeks to determine the ways in which debates over religious belief and practice were also debates over the meaning of the political and the political life.