Theorizing Modernities article

Textual Encounters: Meaning and Time in Islamic Studies

“Woman Applying Henna,” Late 16th century. This painting is a rare depiction of a young woman applying henna to her feet, a ritual associated with rite of passage celebrations, specifically marriage, in Iran and surrounding regions. Via the Metropolitan Museum of art. Public Domain.

In Say What Your Longing Heart Desires, Niloofar Haeri offers an anthropological account of textual encounters. While the book does not explicitly criticize major trends in Islamic studies, its approach to religious texts provocatively, if sometimes quietly, subverts familiar methodological distinctions. I want to ask how the book offers not a new interpretation of canonical texts, but a new way of conceptualizing textuality.

Let’s begin from the fact that Haeri is not primarily approaching Islamic texts as objects of exegetical interpretation or historical contextualization, as is common in the discipline of history. She also does not adopt an approach more commonly found in her own discipline of anthropology, which focuses on the sociopolitical use of texts — how, for instance, certain actors invoke scriptural passages to certify political authority or justify institutional inequalities. Haeri does not repudiate these approaches, and to a degree she draws on them in framing her analysis. However, her attention in this book mostly lies elsewhere, drawing our attention to a very different type of textual engagement. Across this remarkable ethnography of prayer and poetry, Haeri examines texts that her interlocutors recite, recurrently, over their lifespans. This shift in focus represents a methodological displacement, indeed a reorientation of the primary modes of textual analysis in Islamic studies. What is at stake in this displacement?

I want to highlight a difficult passage from the book that begins to suggest the significance of this move—difficult not because the analysis is unclear but because the passage concerns the very meaning of “meaning.” A number of Haeri’s interlocutors told her that in reciting al-Hamd (the sura recited in acts of daily prayer), they are communicating with God. They are using God’s words to express their own concerns, and because their own concerns are multiple and change with time this communication does not always have the same meaning each time they pray. Haeri notes the somewhat unusual nature of this claim, which strains the concepts of “meaning” and “communication”: “How can the most recited sura of the Qur’an ‘not always have the same meaning’?… What many of these women explained effectively meant that they use God’s chosen words to tell Him what they want to share: requests, gratitude, questions, anxieties, and remembrance of a person who is ill or has passed away, or wordless thoughts and feelings” (85).

In these acts of ritual prayer, the concept of meaning is not primarily about how these women interpret the words of the text. The women do, of course, reflect on the lexical semantics of certain passages in the Qur’an, and their understandings of certain verses evolve as they learn more about the texts in classes, discussions, and readings. But in the act of namāz, exegesis is not the primary concern of the enunciator. “I do not immediately begin to pray as soon as I stand on my sajjadeh,” Parvin states. “I pause and gather my thoughts. Then I try to concentrate on each word that I am saying and while doing that I am also telling God what I need, what I am afraid of, I ask for guidance” (84). Maryam also emphasizes the labor of enunciation itself: “Well, I am not choosing the words of the sura… but I try to concentrate on pronouncing them well, not hurrying through them, and I try to learn to tell God what I want to” (85). In both of these accounts of namāz, the moment of expressing one’s own anxieties and desires is preceded by an effort at concentrating and on trying to pronounce correctly. The meaning of scripture is at issue not as a problem of interpretation but of recitation.

Maryam indicates that she is learning to speak to God. The emphasis on learning suggests that she does not presume her own adequacy as a speaker. Her capacity to communicate with God can be improved over time, implying that the ritual act neither begins nor concludes with this one prayer. It is part of a longer process of repeated performance of the divine word and, across these many recitations, of learning how to present oneself to God.

If namāz is a mode of communicating with God, we need to rethink the very concept of communication that is at work here. The familiar, modernist concept of communication, which assumes that a speaker is verbalizing an intention and conveying a message to an addressee, is insufficient for understanding namāz. The words of the ritual are not simply an externalizing medium for expressing an internal intention or desire. The speaker, in this case, cannot presume the adequacy of her own presence before her addressee. The sincerity of her intent (kholūs) and the presence of her heart (hozūr-e qalb) are part of what the continued practice of namāz is meant to cultivate over time. As Haeri argues, “the reciter of namāz strives to create a space of co-presence by using God’s words to tell Him what the reciter wants. She comes to coexist with the divine in the very words that belong to Him” (87).

In retraining our scholarly attention on textual encounters defined by recurrent recitation, Haeri’s account signals an additional aspect of meaning-making that might otherwise fall from view. The women’s sense of meaning in prayer acquires depth in time, as their words and action comes to be mediated by a layering of voices. Returning to certain mystical verses of Hafez or Saadi or repeating certain Qur’anic passages across a lifespan, these women hear echoes of past encounters with the text—the voices of parents who taught them a passage in years past, or the intonations and accents of other relatives and friends who guided them in the studied act of properly reciting it. When someone communicates their own concerns and questions to God, using the words of God that they have repeatedly recited over time, they also carry the “accumulated presences” of others’ voices in their own (67). If the women cannot simply select and choose which voices from their biographical past to privilege and which to silence, then we cannot presume that they are sovereign with respect to the voices that arise in prayer. Already embedded in the act, a multitude of others’ voices shape the acoustic medium in which one is otherwise expressing one’s own concerns to God. How, then, does this communicating subject come to isolate her own concerns from the multitudes that populate the sounds she enunciates? This is a problem not for the analyst to resolve in theory but for participants to contend with as part of the process of subject formation. How do these women come to know their desire, if the very practice of prayer summons the presence of others?

I have suggested that Haeri’s monograph provides a double reframing—of meaning in terms of recitation and of prayer in terms of the presence of multiple voices. I want to consider now how these two aspects of Haeri’s depiction of textuality converge on a distinctive understanding of temporality. It is nothing new, of course, to say that a religious text is not static and that its uses and interpretations are subject to changes over time as the circumstances of uptake evolve. Haeri’s ethnographic materials go beyond the now-commonplace preoccupation with contextualizing the site and moment of textual engagement. The subject reciting God’s word in prayer is constituted by multiple processes unfolding in time, or as I will describe it here, processes shaped by the time of tradition and the time of biography.

A biography will never encompass the historical scope of the tradition, and in this respect the historical unfolding of tradition will never fully coincide with an individual’s lifespan. Tradition, however, is an inheritance across generations, and its transmission requires a specific materialization in the voices of kin and the guidance of instructors. The time of tradition manifests itself for the practitioner as a striving to become present before God in and through God’s words; at the same time, however, the practitioner, progressively learning to speak to God, must voice herself with the multiplicity of past figures and events, intonations and accents, that she recalls but cannot command in the present moment of recitation. From the perspective of an individual, the trajectory of tradition must be made to articulate with the trajectory of a life, along with the uncontrollable multivocality by which the latter is constituted.

One might ask at this point whether this methodological reorientation of the study of texts simply puts politics to the side? How might we bring an account of the politics of religion back into the analytical frame? Haeri’s ethnography does not directly broach the question, but nor, I would claim, does the work foreclose it. I read Haeri’s text as cautioning us not to assume that political encounters with religious texts have primacy with respect to practices of recitation in prayer. Politics, taking place in time, must render itself intelligible in contexts already shaped by the temporal unfolding of tradition and biography. A Qur’anic sura may be invoked for political purposes, but the invocation is often made public, and thereby political, by means of its recitation. For listeners familiar with the sura, this recitation evokes a spectrum of instances whose paradigmatic moment is one of communication with God. To the extent that a social actor pursues a political end by means of recitation, the individual can be questioned and criticized for whether they act with the sincerity and presence of the heart required for that form of speech. The criteria for that judgment derive from prayer, through the intersecting trajectories of tradition and biography that shape that practice. These multiple temporal trajectories may in the given conjuncture reinforce or disrupt one another. A key task for the future study of Islamic texts lies in accounting for how social action orients itself at these points of articulation between the times of tradition, biography, and politics.

Kabir Tambar
Kabir Tambar is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. He is the author of The Reckoning of Pluralism: Political Belonging and the Demands of History in Turkey. He is currently researching the critique of violence in late Ottoman and Turkish Republican contexts.

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