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Review of Charles Hirschkind’s Ethical Soundscape

  • U. of California, Davis
Editorial Manager(tm) for Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life
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Manuscript Number: COIS51
Title: Review of Charles Hirschkind's Ethical Soundscape
Article Type: Reviews
Keywords: Islam, ethics, media, public sphere, Egypt
Corresponding Author: Professor Flagg Miller, Ph.D.
Corresponding Author's Institution: UC Davis
First Author: Flagg Miller, Ph.D.
Order of Authors: Flagg Miller, Ph.D.
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Flagg Miller
University of California, Davis
Religious Studies
1 Sheilds Avenue
622 Sproul Hall
Davis, CA 95616
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The Ethical soundscape: cassette sermons and Islamic counterpublics.
Charles Hirschkind. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. 270 pp. ISBN 0-231-
Before publication of the present volume, English-language scholarship on contemporary
Muslim homily was restricted to an eclectic array of articles and books, most
significantly among them Robert Gaffney’s The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in
Contemporary Egypt (1994) and Richard Antoun’s The Muslim Preacher in the Modern
World (1989). Drawn from the author’s field research in Cairo during the mid 1990s,
The Ethical Soundscape provides a timely update to this important genre of Muslim
expression. Hirschkind’s contribution is especially valuable not only for investigating the
ways preachers have used the audiocassette medium in recent decades, but for
assembling a masterful and complex argument for re-assessing the significance of
listening for Muslim reformers and for scholars of modern Islam in particular. If post-
colonial studies of modernity have helped situate rationalism and secularism historically,
within the West, as well as cross-culturally, Hirschkind generatively extends such work
by exploring the novel genre of the ‘cassette sermon’ in relation to discourses of virtue,
pious fear (taqwa), and ethical activism (da`wa) among 20th and 21st century Muslim
The Introduction (serving as chapter one) outlines the author’s broader theoretical
goals, inviting readers to reconsider the significance of listening to studies of political
discourse and modernity. According to Hirschkind’s informants, audiocassettes help
strengthen the will of listeners by providing them with a user-friendly means to keep up
with sermons and Qur’anic recitations by important preachers. Cassettes prove especially
useful, however, insofar as they help inculcate techniques of disciplined ethical listening.
Click here to download Manuscript (excluding authors' names and affiliations): Hirschkind.2006.docClick here to view linked References
The latter observation provides Hirschkind with a fertile launching point for exploring the
emergence, through the 1980s, of a distinct genre of performance that he calls the
‘cassette sermon.’ Increasingly independent of mosque settings, the cassette sermon
became a new signifying practice that has been oriented to the ethics and political
community of the Islamic Revival. Central to the semiotics of this community is an
ethics of therapeutic listening that can help Muslims attune themselves to the broader
currents of a modern ‘counter-public,’ defined more by sensual attunement and reasoning
than by the secular rationalism of states. The possibility for such an alternative, acoustic
engagement with modernity is precluded, the author argues, by the ‘occularcentric
epistemology’ (p.18) of Western discourses of modernity. Indebted to Enlightenment
philosophy, such discourses privilege detached visual observation above hearing, and are
regularly re-asserted in the popular Western media through images of bearded Muslim
activists in chaotic Middle Eastern streets and mosques.
Chapter two, ‘Islam, Nationalism, and Audition,’ provides a fascinating range of
insights into the institutionalization of public listening in Egypt during the 20th-century.
Part of the institutional regimenting of listening techniques stems from state monitoring,
as institutes for ‘preaching and guidance’ are founded, professional preachers are
appointed with a new range of qualifications, and a pedagogical literature emerges on the
art of sermon oratory and the importance of conveying new ‘information’ to audiences.
Another set of institutional standards for listening are instrumented through civil society
and technological reforms, as charitable associations organize practical homiletic training
for more populist preachers (da`iyas) and the Muslim Brotherhood employs cassette
technologies to mobilize political activism in the 1980s and afterwards. In detailing these
transformations in an ethical ‘soundscape,’ Hirschkind delineates a set of observations on
Islam’s historical emphasis on listening more than speaking (an assertion that I explore
critically below.) Hirschkind’s focus on nationalism provides the principle template for
charting the growing centrality of receptive aural disciplines over populist forms of
oratory, with special attention given to the performance virtuousities of president Gamal
`Abd al-Nasser and singer Umm Kulthum.
Chapter three, ‘The Ethics of Listening,’ provides some of the book’s finest
insights into the ways informants use cassettes to cultivate a range of normative Muslim
virtues. The attention given by many popular preachers to bodily practice, thanatology,
and eschatology, in particular, proves instrumental for informants as they reflect on the
virtues of fear (khawf), humility (khushu`), regret (nadam), repentance (tawba), and
tranquility (itmi`nan or sakina). With ethnographic sensitivity, moreover, Hirschkind
attends to the ways such virtues combine listening with bodily gestures, movements, and
rhythms. For many listeners, cassette material is best considered through affective
dispositions that allow one to move beyond the superficial responses of commercial
‘entertainment’ to a more discrete set of receptive competences that lie beyond the
technology itself.
Chapter four, ‘Cassettes and Counterpublics,’ seeks to identify the social content
of such cassette-coordinated listening techniques. Challenging the assumption of
political liberalism that one’s identification with communal ‘virtues’ necessarily entails
an abandonment of individual agency, Hirschkind argues that the cultivation of sensory
Muslim virtues enables individual ethical activism precisely by contesting the totalizing
intimations of rational public discourses that privilege elite forms of abstract reasoning.
For cassette listeners, recordings of Qur’anic recitation played aloud from store-front
speakers help condition one’s exercise of reason, whether employed in discussions about
public affairs or in governing one’s own daily conduct. Affective listening is itself a
form of political action that begins locally and counteracts the doctrinal rigidity that
Western analysts often associated with conservative Islamists. Captured best in the term
‘ethical activism’ (da`wa), Hirschkind writes: ‘Da`wa… does more than simply enforce a
normative moral order. It makes that order dependent upon the activities of ordinary
Muslim citizens acting within changing historical circumstances in such a way that
mediates against claims to closure and certainty’ (137). Throughout the chapter,
Hirshkind’s focus on the Muslim Brotherhood provides a compelling case study for
elaborating the implications of this decidedly post-colonial approach to the experience of
history for modern Cairene subalterns.
The final two chapters explore the expressive repertoires of preachers. Chapter
five, ‘Rhetorics of the Da`iya,’ investigates the formal composition of Muslim sermons,
treating readers to a survey of traditional discursive structures and themes, as well as to
an assessment of how such elements have been adapted to broader cassette audiences in
recent decades. Much appreciated is Hirschkind’s attention to a single preacher, Shaikh
`Abd al-Hamid Kishk, whose use of cassettes helped him become a popular mouthpiece
for the Islamic Revival during the 1980s and 1990s. With innovative flair, Hirschkind
traces Kishk’s penchant for cinemagraphic images to the influence of Egyptian thinker
Sayyid Qutb, whose influence on modern reformers and revolutionaries has received
much treatment in recent years. Despite slightly strained assertions about the ‘radical
departure’ (p.161) of such imagery from conventions of Muslim discourse, his creative
insights into the supple adaptability of traditional sermons, and especially into their
responsiveness to modern media forms, provides for fascinating reading. Chapter six,
‘The Acoustics of Death,’ provides an elegant addendum to the book’s overarching
treatment of the somatic qualities of listening. Narratives of dying, funerals, and the
afterlife frequently evoked by preachers provide what theologians call a ‘taste’ (dhawq)
of the truth of one’s mortal condition. Troubled with the ways Western analysts
frequently seize upon Muslim narratives of death and martyrdom as evidence for a
general antipathy toward life, Hirschkind explores how, according to informants,
awareness of mortality can help recall the brevity of one’s existence in the world and the
need for cultivating one’s higher ethical sentiments.
Finally, a short epilogue presents a general rebuttal to those who would hold
religious traditionalism to be the primary impetus for counter-modernity and ethno-
sectarian hatred, especially in the Muslim world.
If The Ethical Soundscape provides a compelling case for attending to the critical
resourcefulness of listening for modern religious reformers, the book adopts several less
convincing frameworks for analyzing historical modes of sensory perception and
activism in Islam as well as in the West. Keying readers to the politics of listening in
non-Western settings, Hirschkind makes a case in the Introduction for the West’s
‘occularcentric epistemology’ (p.18), a mode of knowledge which, in contrast with Islam,
holds listening to be an inferior sensory enterprise. Although such a position
complements Timothy Mitchell’s earlier study of visual spectacle in colonial and post-
colonial Egypt (1988, Colonizing Egypt, University of California Press), the normative
equation of visible things with shared knowledge and ethical orientations is evident in a
range of different societies, as documented by anthropologists in studies of Indo-
European linguistic communities (Stephen Tyler, The Unspeakable: Discourse, Dialogue
and Rhetoric in the Postmodern World, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987),
Buddhist phenomenology (Robert Desjarlais, Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths
among Nepal's Yolmo Buddhists, The University of California Press, 2003), non-market
exchange practices across the world (David Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory
of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, Palgrave, 2001), and popular traditions of
Islam (Michael Gilsenan, Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Arab
World, I.B. Tauris, 1988; El Sayyid El Aswad, Religion and Folk Cosmology: Scenarios
of the Visible and Invisible in Egypt, Praeger, 2002). By chapter two, Hirschkind’s
commitment to identifying listening as Islam’s paramount diacritical ethics leads him to a
second misleading assertion. A concern for the civic function of speech, Hirschkind
writes, ‘was never rigorously pursued by Muslim scholars of language. Instead of
elaborating formal rules of speaking, Muslim scholars gave priority to the task of
listening…’(p.34). A breadth of Muslim enquiry into the relation of language, theology,
and Islamic law lends little credence to such a statement. Salafi thought generally holds
special regard for the importance of speaking and civil communicative acts to building
consensus about the meanings of transmitted ethical imperatives. Linguist Mohamed Ali,
for example, notes historical contrasts between ‘mentalist’ and ‘externalist’ schools of
Islamic thought about the relation of linguistic expression to ethical knowledge of the
world; for the latter tendency (represented by such ‘salafi’ scholars as Taqi al-Din Ibn
Taymiyya and `Abd al-Rahman Suyuti), research into the speech of Arabs held special
relevance for understanding revelation and shari`a (Medieval Islamic Pragmatics: Sunni
Legal Theorists' Models of Textual Communication, SUNY Press, 2000, p. 20.) More
germane to Hirschkind’s thesis on sermons, Philip Halldén (“What is Arab Islamic
Rhetoric?: Rethinking the History of Muslim Oratory Art and Homiletics,” International
Journal of Middle East Studies, 2001, v.37) has challenged the opinion held by scholars
of Islamic rhetoric (and reiterated by Hirschkind in a footnote on p.219) that more
popular traditions in a ‘science of speaking’ (`ilm al-khataba) exerted little influence on
the art of the sermon. As Halldén argues, the influence of such a science on preachers
has been underestimated because rules of practical oratory were inculcated by preachers
through the study of Islamic law, especially ways of conveying traditional ‘stipulations’
and ‘customs’ to listeners, rather than through studies of the formal art of eloquence
(balagha), the latter of which have received much treatment by Western and Arab
scholars alike (Halldén, p.23).
The net effects of these two assertions betray a larger problem with Hirschkind’s
thesis that pious Muslims are, according to Islam, better served by listening than by
speaking or viewing. Such a position admittedly accords well with mainstream Muslim
attitudes toward revelation and the credibility of established religious authorities, as well
as with the perspective of preachers, esteemed guardians of the revealed word.
Hirschkind’s primary informant, preacher Muhammad Subhi, an employee of Egypt’s
Ministry of Religious Affairs, supplies many of the book’s key quotations. While
Subhi’s contributions provide excellent insight into his own worldview, and serve
centrally to support the book’s larger arguments, Hirschkind struggles to situate his
assertions in relation to the social and historical complexities of Muslim attitudes toward
the ethics of communication and its pragmatic relation to revelation. For many
reformers, the ‘tongue’ as well as visual observation have long been instrumental to
ethical action and knowledge of divine imperatives. Attention to speaking, in particular,
would seem especially germane to a study of audiocassettes, whose user-friendly
recording capacities lend them to popular uptake in accordance with a range of
vernacular discourses. Ultimately, a full account of Muslim modern ‘publics’ and
‘counterpublics’ would require deeper inquiry into the relation of listening to a broader
and more populist range of modern communicative modes and their associated media.
Overall, however, The Ethical Soundscape supplies a valuable corrective to
scholarship and popular writing that depict the Islamic Revival as inherently
authoritarian. With its ground-breaking approach to the practice of sermon listening as
well as to a much overlooked technological medium, the book provides an engaging,
creative, and carefully substantiated contribution to studies of Muslim ethical
conventions, modernity, and contemporary religious reform movements.
Flagg Miller , The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About al-Qaʿida (London: Hurst & Company, 2015), ISBN: 978-0-19-026436-9 (hb). - Volume 14 Issue 1 - BEAU BOTHWELL
Robert Desjarlais's graceful ethnography explores the life histories of two Yolmo elders, focusing on how particular sensory orientations and modalities have contributed to the making and the telling of their lives. These two are a woman in her late eighties known as Kisang Omu and a Buddhist priest in his mid-eighties known as Ghang Lama, members of an ethnically Tibetan Buddhist people whose ancestors have lived for three centuries or so along the upper ridges of the Yolmo Valley in north central Nepal. It was clear through their many conversations that both individuals perceived themselves as nearing death, and both were quite willing to share their thoughts about death and dying. The difference between the two was remarkable, however, in that Ghang Lama's life had been dominated by motifs of vision, whereas Kisang Omu's accounts of her life largely involved a "theatre of voices." Desjarlais offers a fresh and readable inquiry into how people's ways of sensing the world contribute to how they live and how they recollect their lives.
Biography 26.3 (2003) 506-509 Written with a sharply focused clarity that is free of academic jargon, Sensory Biographies compellingly explores the life histories of two elderly Yolmo, members of a Buddhist ethnicity whose ancestors migrated from Tibet into Central Nepal three centuries ago. The work juxtaposes these two lives, each serving as a mirror not only to the other but also to Yolmo society. One is a hereditary lama, "Mheme" ("Grandfather") Lama, a widower, twice married, who was eighty-five years old in 2000; the second is a twice married lamini (daughter of a hereditary lama), Kisang Omu, a widow, eighty-eight years old in 2000. Both Mheme and Kisang found themselves displaced from their traditional community, awaiting death in the care of family members who have migrated from Helambu down into the Kathmandu Valley. To portray these lives in ways immediately accessible to those who know little of Himalayan cultures, Robert Desjarlais develops a phenomenological method of inquiry, an approach that seeks to describe phenomena as they appear to the consciousness of other peoples. Key phenomena explored in this book include the workings of time, form, perception, selfhood, bodies, suffering, personal agency, morality, memory, vision, and language (6), an extraordinarily ambitious list of topics which are nevertheless each lucidly explored in the diverse ways that they have taken form in and through these two lives. As both Mheme and Kisang were fully aware that they were nearing death, themes of aging and dying featured prominently in their conversations with Desjarlais. Their focus on death is in accord with Tibetan Buddhist teachings that encourage contemplation of the fragile, transitory nature of all existence in an effort to overcome the delusions that bind one to that existence. Paralleling the ways that these two elderly Yolmo examined the ends of their lives, they also reflected on the passing of the society that they had known, now undergoing changes so rapid and pervasive that its "death" also seems to be approaching, its transformations documented through the details of these two life histories. This deterioration of a society, too, agrees with Buddhist tenets regarding the erosion of all forms in time, an observation that comes easily to Yolmo. The rhythms of different temporalities—a life's course or cosmological time, calendric time and mythic time, economic time or narrative time, remembered times and forgotten times—pervade Yolmo selves, establishing multiple ways of knowing and talking, of living and dying. A concentration on just two individuals might seem excessively restrictive, but it is remarkable how much a reader will learn of the multiplicities of Yolmo selves through the subtleties of Desjarlais' presentation of those two lives. Beyond demonstrating the ways that careful attention to two particular lives can unfold an understanding of an entire culture, and confirming how central are questions of selfhood and subjectivity to anthropological inquiry, Sensory Biographies advances well beyond all previous "person-centered" ethnographies through its insightful exploration of how these two individuals each emphasized a different sensory modality in their understandings and retellings of their lives. Vision was of central importance in Mheme's life. This involved not just his emphasis as a lama on writing and visibility (explored in the extraordinary chapter "Twenty-Seven Ways of Looking at Vision"), but also his insistence on perceptual clarity. For Mheme, "seeing" had multiple features, variously metaphoric, pragmatic, political, epistemic, transformative, or intersubjective (55). He "spoke in ways that brought to mind ideas of materiality and immateriality, appearances and disappearances, contact and disconnection, longing and fulfillment, remembrance and forgetting, matter and the decay of matter, the changes that time effects, the fate of sentient bodies, the life and death of things" (2). Kisang's account of her life, in contrast, largely entailed a "theater of voices." Kisang was particularly attentive to the flow of words in her life. She often invoked the voicings of key actors in the events of her life, and also frequently expressed aesthetic concerns regarding the effectiveness of her own speech in her retelling of that life:
But about this same time, we were exposed to an even stranger kind of rhetoric, the rhetoric of the Middle Eastern world…. This was a rhetoric that seemed to play by none of the rules that had come down to us from a tradition of rhetoric that had been practiced by the reigning nations of the Western World for over 2000 years. And then there is the distinctive rhetoric of the Oriental world…. But those are rhetorics that we still have to study and analyze and codify. —Edward P. J. Corbett, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (1990), viii.
This is a paperback version of a book first published in 1982, and not previously abstracted. Starting from the premise that all Western stereotypes of Islam and its practitioners need to be treated with considerable scepticism, the author tries to show the multitude of everyday forms and practices of Islam which interweave in the region. Drawing extensively on fieldwork in cities, villages and tribal communities in the Middle East, a variety of social worlds all claiming Islamic affiliation are explored: the feudal aristocracy of northern Lebanon, the working class Sufi brotherhoods of Egypt, the new bourgeoisie of Algeria and Morocco. The evolution of Islam in each is related to shifting social, political, economic and class structures. The impact of colonialism is also discussed and reformist and radical Islamic movements are analysed in relation to changes in society as a whole. -from Publisher
This volume is the first comprehensive synthesis of economic, political, and cultural theories of value. David Graeber reexamines a century of anthropological thought about value and exchange, in large measure to find a way out of ongoing quandaries in current social theory, which have become critical at the present moment of ideological collapse in the face of Neoliberalism. Rooted in an engaged, dynamic realism, Graeber argues that projects of cultural comparison are in a sense necessarily revolutionary projects: He attempts to synthesize the best insights of Karl Marx and Marcel Mauss, arguing that these figures represent two extreme, but ultimately complementary, possibilities in the shape such a project might take. Graeber breathes new life into the classic anthropological texts on exchange, value, and economy. He rethinks the cases of Iroquois wampum, Pacific kula exchanges, and the Kwakiutl potlatch within the flow of world historical processes, and recasts value as a model of human meaning-making, which far exceeds rationalist/reductive economist paradigms.