Islam, devotional genres and electronic mediation in Mauritius
Here comes the ninth (9th) set of notes under the theme of media and change in preparation for the volume Postill, J., E. Ardevol and S. Tenhunen (eds.) forthcoming, Digital Media and Cultural Change. The notes are taken from a wealth of media anthropological research into this question that has remained to this date largely hidden from mainstream media, communication and internet studies. This research deserves, in my view, to be read more widely across this interdisciplinary area of scholarship.
Notes prepared by Fran Barone (my emphases)
Used with permission.
Eisenlohr P. 2006. As Makkah is sweet and beloved, so is Madina: Islam, devotional genres and electronic mediation in Mauritius. Am. Ethnol. 33(2):230–45.
Fieldwork in Mauritius [Indian Ocean] in 1996, 1997–98, and 2003.
Some scholars have argued that a global “return to religion” intertwined with modern forms of mass communication is taking place in the contemporary world (p. 230)
Recent work on Islam and electronic media focuses on discourses, inclusion and exclusion of different categories of actors. Arguing against technicist tendency to highlight media over social agency and “thus, push societies toward a kind of social change that can be read off from the material and formal setup of media apparatuses (e.g., Kittler 1997; McLuhan 1964)”, author emphasizes that local assumptions/traditions inform process of mass mediation. Need to avoid both technicism and excessive celebration of individual agency/self-determination (p. 231)
Investigation of the circulation of audiocassette and audio-CD recordings of the Islamic devotional genre na‘t and its role in shaping performances in religious speech events known as “mahfil-e mawlūd”. (p. 231)
“The significance of electronically mediated na‘t emerges in the ways in which practices of electronic mediation become part of a preexisting genealogical logic of Islamic authority” (p. 232).
Competition between Ahl-e Sunnat tradition that sees prophet as a spiritual presence and Deobandis (purists) who see this as illegitimate innovation. Na’t devotional performance genre is a key point of contestation between followers of these two traditions (p. 233).
1980s brought audiocassettes, followed by CDs from India and Pakistan and performers in Mauritius produce own collections of na’t supported by Ahle-Sunnat imams. People listen to na’t recordings on the radio to prepare for mahfil-e mawlūd on special occasions and transcribe the text, then photocopy the handwritten notes to distribute to event attendees. Local performers create printed booklets to go with their cassettes and CDs. Audio is considered the actual model to emulate (p. 234).
Imams used to be the main source of na’t in Urdu before cassettes, but audiocassettes have brought “a new popularization of na‘t, making the poetic genre accessible to people who lack the necessary reading knowledge of Urdu”. Authority of accomplished na’t performer is important, becaut na’t is a delicate genre that must be done properly: “The audiocassette recordings reassure many Mauritian Muslims that reciting and appreciating na‘t is not a matter of ignorance about proper Islamic conduct in the diaspora or an unwarranted perpetuation of the ways of ancestors who may not have been very knowledgeable about scriptural Islamic traditions when they arrived as indentured laborers in Mauritius” (p. 235).
Cultural influence: Contrasting proper and correct na’t performance with Bollywood film songs which have ubiquitous influence in Mauritius (p. 236).
Media choices have local meaning: Cassette tapes enthusiastically adopted because spiritual benefit of na’t performer increases with the number of times it is recited and listened to (p. 236). “Here, Mauritian Muslims reshape technology according to a genealogical form of Islamic authority centered on a “safeguarding” of textual and performative transmission through long successions of reliable interlocutors.” (p. 241)
Media change and culture: “Whereas the mass circulation and reproduction of art has been associated with a loss of aura and authenticity in some modern European aesthetic traditions (e.g. Benjamin 1968), here, in the case of electronic voice mediation of na‘t as a genre of devotional verbal art, an opposite dynamic seems to be at issue.” (p. 241). Introduction of new technology does not necessary create “new” fields of cultural and political debate; instead, “audiocassette and audio-CD na‘t in Mauritius demonstrate how new practices of mediation become part of old debates” (p. 242).
Image credit: Maa Ke Shan Muhammad Umair Zubair Qadri Mahfil e Naat In Mauritius (daily motion)