Theorizing Modernities article

Modern Religion, Modern Sign, Modern Ritual

In the course of my recent research in Iran, I read informative studies of mysticism in Iran and found Ata Anzali’s history of Mysticism in Iran (see Anzali’s contribution to this symposium here) especially compelling. His and other studies led me to ask: How should we think about modern ideas that were thought up by poets, writers, theologians, scholars, and scientists who lived in pre-modern times?  What kinds of blind spots has this division of modern/pre-modern created in our thinking? I would say that there are possibilities that we do not think about because our whole intellectual edifice is so invested in a version of western modernity that is eloquently and methodically critiqued by Robert Orsi in his book on History and Presence.

One of the major blind spots has to do with the rather impoverished way in which we have come to think of language. We make certain kinds of assumptions that prevent us from understanding the many ways language shapes experience. For example, we assume that the relationship between form and meaning always holds, is always relevant, is predictable, and is constant regardless of the kind of text and kind of activity that we are engaged in; that semantic meaning is of utmost importance in our encountering of texts; that memorization, repetition, and regular recitation that result inevitably in internalization make no difference in how language transforms experience. In short, we have an implicit but very consequential idea of the modern sign that is in part a result of how we imagine a modern religion to be.

A modern religion is one where hermeneutic activity with regard to scripture and all similar texts dominates. It is the most important factor in understanding “belief.” Interaction between such texts and individuals is an intellectual give and take where meaning is only the semantic/interpretive one; and believers must operate in their vernacular as opposed to a sacred language associated with their religion (hence Islam and Judaism are not modern).[1] Believers must engage with scripture in their vernacular because they must “understand” what they read. This is all very Protestant, though when we actually look at Protestant church services, for example, and their recitation of Psalms, we realize that we are living with a stereotype of modern religion that even Protestants do not follow. Monique Scheer addresses this point while asking what a modern religion is in the first place, a question close to my heart.

Ferdinand de Saussure, who grew up in Calvinist Geneva (with a few years in Paris and Leipzig), is repeatedly referred to as the “father of modern linguistics.” What in particular was “modern” about his intellectual contribution was that, for him, the relationship between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. Language is a system where everything coheres, according to him. It does not matter where the sign is located; in the Qur’an, the Torah or in psalms, or poems and prayers. Nor does it matter how we use the sign; that relationship is still arbitrary. The problem is that this view does not help us understand why centuries-old texts come to have such a sway over believers, reciters, performers, listeners, spectators, and interpreters. The arbitrariness of the sign leaves us with no answer to this question. That the relationship between the signifier and signified is arbitrary, not logical, nor natural, is true but where does this take us? It could be objected that de Saussure did not set out to theorize language from the point of view of the speaker and her experience, but what he called “the nature of language.” This is true but we are heirs to his conception of language, a conception that has been fed by the Protestant Reformation leading to the idea that any text can be translated and the experience ought not to matter because, whether in or out of translation, the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary. If there are important texts, it is their interpretation that matters. Bringing what Orsi says, that modernity is premised on absence to bear on this discussion, one could say that the thesis of the arbitrariness of the sign is premised on the speaker’s absence, on the absence of a voice (whether divine or not) (62).

In the Saussurian framework, language leaves religion intact because in the performance of religious rituals and in engaging with religious texts, the dominance of the idea of the modern sign and the singular centrality of the semantic/interpretive does not allow for a different imagination of what language can do to the experience of religion.

One other crucial factor in our implicit assumptions about modern religion is that only when we use our own words to pray and talk to God is it possible for us to be sincere in that act. But if we use someone else’s words in the form of a prayer or poem, that language lies outside of us and sincerity is harder to achieve if not impossible (Webb Keane’s Christian Moderns elaborates on this view). How can we use others’ words to address God and still be sincere? Here there is also an idea of “freedom of speech” that is lurking in the background. If we recite a prayer that we have not authored, our freedom is somehow constrained because we have agreed to use the constraints of someone else’s words.

When we recite, in time we come to embody the language of the recitation. We hear our own voice and at times that of others and matters other than semantic meaning give meaning to and shape such experiences. Kabir Tambar’s piece articulates this point quite well. Hence, when we carefully examine what happens in the recitation of prayers, poems, the psalms, and so on we see that so much of what I just described is wholly inadequate to an analysis where repetition, recitation from memory, and embodiment are at the center of what we are trying to understand and analyze.

One of the major discoveries I had during my fieldwork that truly shook my thinking had to do with what I was told about the recitation of the obligatory ritual prayer, namāz, whose verses are from Qur’anic suras (chapters) that are recited 5 times a day (varying in length) everyday. I was told by many of the women whom I talked to that each time one stands to pray, all kinds of factors affect what one ends up actually communicating to God. I had started out by asking whether doing the namāz is communication and everyone showed surprise at the question. Of course it was communication, they said. Becoming adept at doing this prayer while making efforts not to treat it as a rote activity means in large part to use the words that belong to God to tell Him what the reciter wants to communicate, what she has in mind—questions, worries, gratitude and so on. Hence, the relationship between form and meaning in the act of namāz is not necessary, predictable, or constant. It is crucial to incorporate this into our efforts to understand the work of rituals. In short, the namāz, like many other rituals that involve language, is a recitational act, not a hermeneutic one.

When we recite, in time we come to embody the language of the recitation. We hear our own voice and at times that of others and matters other than semantic meaning give meaning to and shape such experiences.

A related matter brought up by Amy Hollywood has to do with formality and its association with what she calls “religion of the heart” vs. “religion of the law.” Perhaps if we were to change our idea of formality, we would not associate it with law. Namāz is formal in that it has prescribed body postures, has a set sequence of acts, and the words are from the Qur’an. Yet, because individuals use the words to tell God what they want, and because it unfolds in time so that its outcome (degree of concentration, feelings of closeness or distance with God, and so on) is unpredictable, it is not perceived as rigid. This unpredictability is part of the challenge and the attraction of doing the namāz so that its formality does not foreclose the involvement of the heart.

Both Amy Hollywood and Ahoo Najafian bring up the matter of the relationship between religion and literature. I cannot agree more with what they say. We are moved by language, reach various difficult to account for understandings, and experience heightened awareness without being able to categorize these as “secular” or “religious.” I find this to be the promise of the world of poetry and of literature more broadly. Without paying attention to such adjacent and overlapping worlds to religion, we are stuck with the binary of religious and secular as Joshua Lupo puts it, and we isolate religion from neighbors that it clearly exchanges with, albeit often in challenging ways.

Related to the two pieces just mentioned is Brenna Moore’s discussion of Islamic mysticism and making Muslims’ forms of religiosity understandable without orientalizing them. Finally, I agree with Setrag Manoukian, as I elaborate in this piece and in my book, that what we have paid little attention to is that language is not always there for “communication” purposes between a sender and a receiver. Both prayer and poetry show this quite well.

I am grateful to all the authors of the blogs on my book. Each brings up points that I would like to discuss at greater length. I also want to thank the editors of Contending Modernities for organizing this symposium on my book and offering me much food for thought.

[1] Although Latin was not the original language of the Bible, it came to be regarded as sacred for many centuries and so as many other scholars have pointed out, the use of Latin figures prominently in Catholicism being regarded as a “backward” religion.

Niloofar Haeri
Niloofar Haeri is professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and Chair of the Program in Islamic Studies. She is a Guggenheim fellow and a former fellow of the Stanford Humanities Center (2015-2016). Her first book was on language and gender in Egypt, and her second one Sacred Language, Ordinary People: Dilemmas of Culture and Politics in Egypt (2003 published in Arabic in 2011) followed the implications of attempts since the 19th century to “modernize” Classical Arabic—a language primarily associated with the Qur’an; and argued that whereas we are the owners of our vernaculars, we can only be custodians of sacred languages. She is the editor of a Special Section of Hau: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory (2017) where the Protestant notion of sincerity is put in conversation with other religious traditions. Her most recent book is Say What Your Longing Heart Desires: Women, Prayer, and Poetry in Iran (Stanford 2021), which won the Middle East Studies Association’s Fatema Mernissi Book Award and the American Academy of Religion’s Award for Excellence in the Study of Religion: Constructive-Reflective Studies.

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