Modern Things On Trial: Islam’s Global And Material Reformation In The Age Of Rida, 1865-1935

Modern Things on Trial
  • Book Title:
 Modern Things On Trial
  • Book Author:
Leor Halevi
  • Total Pages
382
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MODERN THINGS ON TRIAL – Book Sample

The Qurʾan in the Gramophone Sounds of Islamic Modernity from Cairo to Kazan

American entrepreneurs were busy selling Victrolas around the world when Abū Adīb Ḥāfiẓ Ḥilmī wrote to Riḍā from Kazan, Russia, to ask him if Islamic law prohibited using “the cabinet of the phonograph” to listen to records of the Qurʾan. The turn of the century was a period of dizzying technological innovations in sound technology, especially in the United States. Inventors developed and marketed many models of phonographs and gramo-phones, which played either wax cylinders or flat discs, for consumers world-wide.

By 1910 one of the machines that played disc records— if not a Victor Talk-ing Machine then a competing model designed to conceal the horn inside a fine, boxy piece of furniture— had reached a circle of Tatars in Kazan, and they were using it, remarkably, to hear the voices of Arabs reciting Qurʾanic suras.1

Like toilet paper, the mass- produced gramophone was a perfect embodiment of industrial capitalism in this era. In the late nineteenth century, inventors still had only a vague idea about the future of the instrument. At the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1888, Emile Berliner, a German immigrant to the United States who would play a key role in the technology’s development, dreamed of possibilities. “Supposing his Holiness, the Pope,” should desire, mused the Jew-ish inventor, to “broadcast a pontifical blessing to his millions of believers,” he could simply speak into a recorder. The pope’s words would be etched upon a plate.

 Within a few hours, a printer could produce “thousands of phonauto-grams on translucent tracing paper” for dispatch to “the principal cities in the world,” where they would be reproduced, ad infinitum, through a standardized process of factory production. On the same occasion, Berliner also entertained an alternative process of production where individuals could visit local gramo-phone offices to make their own personal recordings. He grasped readily not only the religious but also the commercial potential of mass- producing gramo-phones and musical records.

He gathered inventors in the United States, and with their backing he founded in 1895 the Berliner Gramophone Company.

Berliner asked his audience to imagine a technology that would allow Catho-lics, however dispersed they were on the earth, to hear the pope speaking as if he were in their presence. Once his dream became a reality, critics around the world found reasons to criticize it.

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Manufacturing imperfections distorted the human voice, and early records failed to reproduce sound at certain frequen-cies. They emitted a hissing noise, caused by friction between the gramophone’s steel stylus and the record’s groove. To promote wax cylinders, which were played on the instrument that he invented, Thomas Alva Edison criticized flat discs for their “rotten scratchy” sound.2

Around 1904 the Egyptian composer and musicologist Muḥammad Kāmil al- Khulaʿī emphasized the artificiality of the medium. He compared listening to music through a phonograph to “eating with dentures.”3

In 1906 the American composer John Philip Sousa penned a famous traditionalist attack. Resentful of the record industry, which made and sold unauthorized reproductions of his marches, he lobbied Congress to recognize composers’ right to profit from their own compositions. He castigated the purveyors of “canned music” and railed against the “tireless mechanisms” that repeated the same “story day by day, without variation, without soul.”4

While Berliner and his partners recited rhapsodies of praise about the gramophone’s ability to make the absent sound present, intellectuals emphasized ways by which the instruments accentuated feelings of absence. Franz Kafka, who found “the confounded din” raised by the Parlophon factory a personal threat, described mediating machines (the telegraph, the telephone, the radio-graph) as ghosts that fed off emotions, rendering long- distance relationships all the more poignant— and artificial. He preferred trains, cars, and airplanes: inventions that facilitated “natural communications.”5 Similarly, Walter Benja-min, a German Jewish cultural critic, emphasized the depreciation of the “qual-ity of presence” that happened with mechanical reproduction. Authenticity derived, according to him, from the presence of the original artwork or perfor-mance in time and space.6

In his historical- materialist approach to new media, Benjamin argued that art “originated in the service of a ritual— first the magical, then the religious kind.” Until the Renaissance, works of art had derived their aura from magical or religious performances.

Gradually, with the development of secular aesthetics, they began to lose their “ritualistic basis.” Capitalism supposedly brought this process of secularization, the “shattering of tradition,” to its expected culmination: “for the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.”7

Benjamin’s formulation depended here on a Weberian conviction about the secularizing effects of capitalism. Elsewhere, in a fragment of an essay titled “Capitalism as Religion,” he played with the idea that capitalism had the structure of a religious cult devoted to the global spread of despair.8 Capitalism appeared to him as a soulless system of industrial production that would eradicate the last traces of mystical enchantment and medieval spirituality from the modern world.

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Ritual was also central category of analysis for the Muslims who debated the irreligious sale and the religious utility of the gramophone at the beginning of the twentieth century. Some of them greeted the mass- produced Qurʾanic records with suspicion, seeing them as a challenge to the traditional art of Qurʾanic recitation. Others saw the same records as a boon to the modern worshipper.

This chapter explores the rationale of each camp. It dwells on the opinions expressed by self- styled reformers and their foes in Kazan, Singapore, and Cairo, between the turn of the century and World War I. How did they relate to the commodification of Qurʾanic discs?

 Did they think of them as inviolable ceremonial objects that had to be handled with respect? Or did they think of them as goods that could play a religious role but did not require the reverential treatment accorded to Qurʾanic manuscripts? How, in other words, did they relate to Qurʾanic discs materially? In addition to answering these questions, insofar as the sources allow, this chapter also exposes the system of values behind the casuistry that moved Riḍā to permit the gramophone reluctantly but ban the gong readily. Before turning to any theological and legal subtleties, it is critical, however, to appreciate a few salient features of the system of pro-duction and marketing that brought Qurʾanic discs and gramophones to Cairo and Kazan.

Capitalism for Ethno- Religious Markets: The Realization of Islamic Consumers’ Dreams

The production of sound technology emerged as a fiercely competitive interna-tional business. Entrepreneurs raced to profit exclusively from the inventions of others; advertisers hurried to market models under rivals’ brand names; and lawyers rushed to represent clients in patent infringement and exclusive sales rights cases.9

In the United States, the quest to invent new things for indi-vidual profit in this field was intense, and it had such social depth and breadth that it marks a key moment in the history of capitalism. So many tinkerers participated in this quest that a sourcebook details 2,118 phonograph- related patents by 1,013 inventors in the span of three and a half decades, beginning in 1877. Acting upon their global commercial ambitions, several of these inventors began competing with each other to establish factories and shops internationally.

Russia proved to be a thriving market for this technology. Victor Talking Machines sold beyond all expectations in the country. By 1900, according to a historian of the phonograph, “there were gramophone shops in every large Rus-sian city.”10 A merchant who owned one of these shops on St. Petersburg’s main avenue, Nevsky Prospekt, played a role in marketing Victor’s new line of luxury discs by proposing that they be stamped with distinctive red labels.11 Multina-tional corporations hurried to extend branches to the enthusiastic Russian mar-ket. Between 1902 and 1907 Zonophone International, Deutsche Grammophon, and Pathé Frères, joint- stock companies incorporated in London, Berlin, and Paris, respectively, established record- making factories in Riga and Moscow, where they began to press as many as 12,000 records every day.12 On their new gramophones, Russians in Kazan, as in other cities, could enjoy unique record-ings by Enrico Caruso and Medea Mei- Figner. But they were not obliged to listen to Italian opera; they could use the same machine to enjoy Russian and Turkish music— perhaps even Tatar folksongs.

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By 1901 the Russian subsidiary of the Anglo- American company that owned Emile Berliner’s patents had recorded Tatar as well as Armenian and Georgian artists in the Caucasus at the Oriental Hotel in the city of Tiflis. Within a few years, as indicated by catalogues, the mul-tiethnic subjects of the Russian Empire could listen to a very wide range of records in a multiplicity of native and foreign languages, including Arabic.13

The instrument’s incredible versatility is what allowed a circle of Volga Tatars to hear recordings in the language of the Qurʾan. A remarkable quality of the gramophone is that it could serve just as well— without requiring a single adjust-ment to turntable, stylus, or horn— to play records in Arabic, Russian, or Tatar. To listen to Arabic with a gramophone in Kazan, the only thing needed was a sound recording in that language pressed on a compatible disc. And to profit from this technological flexibility, companies such as Gramophone decided to exploit the great variety of ethnic tastes.

Already in the fin de siècle, they began systematically to record discs in diverse languages for sale in diverse cultures.14 Contemplating the diffusion of the innovation across borders, they treated lin-guistic and cultural differences as a market opportunity, not as a market prob-lem. Their multilingual production facilitated the rapid adoption of the instrument worldwide.

In Cairo, as in Kazan, record shops competed to sell records in multiple languages to the city’s cosmopolitan population. The British firm Gramophone Company Limited established its shop in the Continental Hotel buildings in 1905. Within three years it was selling records in what Wright’s Impressions of

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