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EXPERIMENTS IN DEVOTION ONLINE: THE YOUTUBE KHUṬBA

  • Charles Hirschkind
Abstract

This paper explores what I call “online experiments in ethical affect” through an analysis of one popular Islamic genre: the short video segments of Friday sermons (khuṭub, s. khuṭba) placed on the video-sharing website YouTube. In my discussion of this media form, I give particular attention to the kind of devotional discourse and ethical socius that is enacted online around these taped performances: notably, the practices of appending written comments to specific videos, offering responses to comments left by others or criticisms directed at either the preacher or other commentators, and the act of creating links between khuṭba pages and other web-based content. In examining these practices, I want to look at the way some of the norms of ethical and devotional comportment associated with the khuṭba in the mosque carry over to the Internet context of khuṭba listening/viewing while also engendering novel forms of pious interaction, argument, and listening.

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Corresponding author
Charles Hirschkind is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, Calif.; e-mail: chirschk@berkeley.edu
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NOTES

1 Weimann, Gabriel, Terror on the Internet: The New Arena, the New Challenges (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2006); Bunt, Gary, Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber Islamic Environments (London: Pluto Press, 2003); Faris, David, “Revolutions Without Revolutionaries? Network Theory, Facebook, and the Egyptian Blogosphere,” Arab Media and Society 6 (2008), http://www.arabmediasociety.com/topics/index.php?t_article=232 (accessed 5 June 2010); Roy, Olivier, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (London: Hurst, 2004).

2 Mandeville, Peter, Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (London and New York: Routledge, 2001); Anderson, Jon and Eickelman, Dale, “Redefining Muslim Publics,” in New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, ed. Anderson, Jon and Eickelman, Dale (Indianapolis, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1999); Anderson, Jon, “New Media, New Publics: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere of Islam,” Social Research 70 (2003): 887906; Anderson, Jon and Gonzalez-Quijano, Yves, “Technological Mediation and the Emergence of Transnational Muslim Publics,” in Public Islam and the Common Good, ed. Eickelman, Dale and Salvatore, Armando (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004), 5374; Lawrence, Bruce, “Allah On-line: The Practice of Global Islam in the Information Age,” in Practicing Religion in the Age of Media, ed. Hoover, Stewart and Clark, Lynn Schofield (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 237–53; Alterman, Jon B., New Media, New Politics: From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World (Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998); Bunt, Gary, iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Sands, Kristen Zahra, “Muslims, Identity, and Multimodal Communication on the Internet,” Contemporary Islam 4 (2010): 139–55.

3 Lev Manovich has written insightfully on the spatial logics of the Internet. See The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2001). For a thoughtful discussion of the embodied dimensions of Internet use, see Hansen, Mark B. N., New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006).

4 Among the more popular instructional guides on the practice of daʿwa from the late 1990s was Madi's, Jamalal-Daʿwa al-Muʾaththira (Mansura, Egypt: Mutabiʿ al-Wafaʾ, 1995). Notably, a study of preaching in Egypt conducted by Egyptian sociologist ʿAbd al-Fatah ʿAbd al-Nabi was titled al-Muʾathirin: Dirasat Namadhij Aʾimmat al-Masajid (Zaqaziq, Egypt: Maktabat al-Nahda al-Misriyya, 1995).

5 For anthropological analyses of sermon practices in the Middle East, see Hirschkind, Charles, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006); Gaffney, Patrick, The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 1994); and Antoun, Richard, Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Contemporary Perspective (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989).

6 As I will explain, my use of such expressions as “pious web surfers” or “pious affects” is meant to indicate a particular genre of expression found in the commentary section of the videos I analyze. “Pious,” in other words, does not reflect my assessment of someone's religious commitment—something I am not in a position to judge—but rather the form of discourse certain web surfers adopt online.

7 Performance genres like the khuṭba that have ritual entailments tied to a specific place and time, and that are not easily disaggregated into information bites for rapid consumption, would seem to be less adaptable than other genres to the protocols of the Internet. Khuṭub have a deep anchor in some of the more abiding structures of Muslim social and religious life, a point inadequately understood in many media-centric analyses of the genre.

8 Khuṭba clips are also found on other video-sharing web sites, such as Arabtube and Islamtube. In addition, many of the preachers whose sermons are found on these sites also have fan pages on Facebook as well as blog sites dedicated to their careers. Much of the material on these sites consists of laudatory statements left by followers as well as occasional responses and commentary by the preachers themselves.

9 http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=qqstPZ0S0jw&feature=related (accessed 21 May 2010). The career of Muhammad Hassan has been discussed by a number of scholars including Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape; and Lutfi, Wael, al-Duʿat al-Judad . . . Tahlil Ijtimaʿi (Cairo: al-Usra, 2005).

10 For a very informative account of Hassan's recent career on television, see Field, Nathan and Hamam, Ahmed, “Salafi Satellite TV in Egypt,” Arab Media and Society 8 (2009), http://www.arabmediasociety.com/topics/index.php?t_article=266&p=0 (accessed 3 June 2010).

11 I find that the variety of features often used to define “Salafism” do not cohere or fit together in a unified bundle in the way the term suggests, especially when one considers actual practices. For an attempt to develop “Salafism” as an analytical category, see Meijer, Roel, Global Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

12 See Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape, Chap. 6, esp. 169–72.

13 All comments taken from the YouTube website and cited in the paper are originally in Arabic unless otherwise noted. Translations by author.

14 Samuli Schiekle has suggested that, in focusing on the cultivation of Islamic virtues by contemporary Muslims, scholars (including me) fail to take into consideration the extent to which most people do not act solely in accord with a religious frame of reference but, on the contrary, invoke a plurality of often mutually incompatible frameworks of discrimination and judgment depending on the activities they are engaged in. In developing this argument, Schielke emphasizes the extent to which Egyptians, even those who are committed to living piously, frequently fail to live up to their religious commitments and often must invoke nonreligious ideas in order to try to make sense of their experience. In my view, Schielke is right to view ambivalence and contradiction as common elements of many people's experience but wrong to interpret this as incompatible with a commitment to live in accord with Islamic virtues. To abide by a religious model of virtue is not to become a saint or to expect all of one's actions and thoughts to conform to a religious ideal. Religious people generally recognize that life pulls one in many directions other than those authorized by such an ideal—indeed, the idea that it is virtually impossible for humans to live in this world without ever straying into error is at the heart of both Islamic and Christian traditions. The attempt to live in accord with pious ideals does not eliminate contradiction from one's life but, rather, shapes the way one interprets and responds to it. This does not mean people do not invoke nonreligious notions to justify their actions, only that those attempts at justification will be seen as erroneous deviations when one assesses them from the standpoint of one's religious tradition. See Schielke, Samuli, “Ambivalent Commitments: Troubles of Morality, Religiosity and Aspiration among Young Egyptians,” Journal of Religion in Africa 39 (2009): 158–85.

15 This pattern is also borne out by other studies of religious media consumption in Egypt. Comments like the following, from a young woman in rural Egypt interviewed by the media scholar Sahar Khamis, are common: “Although there are now five mosques in the village, and there is a special place for women to pray, I really prefer to watch Amr Khalid, Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, and Khalid El Gindi on satellite television and the Internet rather than listening to the imam in the mosque.” Khamis, Sahar, “New Media and Social Change in Rural Egypt,” Arab Media and Society 11 (2010), http://www.arabmediasociety.com/?article=758 (accessed 28 July 2010).

18 Namely, those eliciting the devotional responses that I described previously.

20 Kishk's preaching and politics have been examined by a number of scholars. See Kepel, Gilles, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and the Pharaoh (Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif.: University of California Press, 1986); Gaffney, The Prophet's Pulpit; and Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape. Many of his sermons are available on the “Islamway.com” website.

21 This exact critique was leveled against a theatrical performance written by the popular Egyptian author and onetime television personality Mustafa Mahmud. A number of the comments left on the “Yawm al-Qiyama” page also criticize the use of a musical background for the sermon, invoking the popular claim that music is illicit within Islam.

22 al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid, The Recitation and Interpretation of the Qurʾān: al Ghazāli's Theory, trans. Quasem, Muhammad Abul (London: KPI Press, 1984).

23 Qutb, Sayyid, al-Taswir al-Fanni fi al-Qurʾan (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿarif, 1993). See also Boullata, Issa, “La pensee visuelle et la memoire semantique arabe,” Science Sociales, Societes Arabes: Peuples Mediterranees 54–55 (1991): 93110.

26 This film clip has since been withdrawn from the YouTube site due to a copyright claim.

29 See Berkey, Jonathan, Popular Preaching and Religious Authority in the Medieval Islamic Near East (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2001); and Athmina, Khalil, “Al-Qaṣaṣ: Its Emergence, Religious Origin and Its Socio-Political Impact on Early Muslim Society,” Studia Islamica 76 (1992): 5374.

30 Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape, 68–74.

31 As I have discussed elsewhere, the use of cassette tapes to record and circulate sermons effected a similar dislocation of the khuṭba from the conditions that had previously governed its reception (The Ethical Soundscape, 55–60). What is unique to the Internet, however, is the way it provides immediate access to a limitless archive of heterogeneous contents.

32 The impact of changing media technologies on Islamic ethical and epistemological traditions is discussed in Hirschkind, Charles, “Media and the Quran,” in The Encyclopedia of the Quran, ed. McAuliffe, Jane (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003).

33 It is interesting to compare the loss of emotional specificity I have described here with what Eickelman and Anderson refer to as the “reintellectualization of Islamic discourse.” These authors argue that one effect of the emergence of globalized mass media has been a shift within Islamic forms of knowledge toward more accessible, vernacular styles of reasoning and argument. What had once been provinces of Islamic learning restricted to the erudite and scholarly, they argue, have been increasingly recast in popular languages, readily apprehended and applied by ordinary Muslims (“Redefining Muslim Publics,” 12–13). The recourse I have described here to a language of emotional generality might be interpreted, in light of Eickelman and Anderson's thesis, as a vernacularization of affect, one propelled by the democratizing force of the Internet. Before making such a claim, however, one would want to explore how the forms of sociability enacted online articulated with other domains of Muslim devotion and expression, a question I have yet to investigate.

34 Roy, Olivier, Secularism Confronts Islam, trans. Holoch, George (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 76. A useful discussion of Roy's argument is found in Sands, Kristen Zahra, “Muslims, Identity, and Multimodal Communications on the Internet,” Contemporary Islam 4 (2010): 139–55.

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International Journal of Middle East Studies
  • ISSN: 0020-7438
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