Posted by: Dawud Israel | February 15, 2010

Yielding to a New Oral Islamic Culture

“The spoken sound is captured in memory as identical with meaning (thought).”

Is it possible to resurrect the oral culture of the early muhaddithun? Or the early poetic cultures which are so often found in Muslim societies? Here we are going to examine a number of determinants related to this project.

I have been thinking about trying to use technology (the web, Mp3 players, new media, other technologies) creatively in order to bring back, at least to some extent, the oral culture of Muslim societies. We have plenty of audio files online, but why hasn’t it picked up into usage of an oral culture? Why don’t we see forums or chatrooms of individuals exchanging hadith via their microphones?

Phonocentrism is the idea that sounds and speech are inherently superior (or “more natural”) to the written language. To adherents of this philosophy, spoken language is inherently richer and more intuitive than written language. Phonocentrism holds that spoken language is the primary, fundamental way of communicating, and writing is merely a “second-rate” attempt to capture speech.

“The spoken word… lends itself… to virtually everyone, the written word only to the select few.” -Walter Ong


For my purposes, phonocentrism, orality, oral tradition and aurality here are used to mean the same things, but linguistic literature would probably disagree on this.

A few technological concerns come to mind. Firstly with a computer monitor you have a domination of the visual over the aural. You also have an over-competition of iTunes podcasts, Youtube music and stupid comic videos. But these are superficial concerns, let’s start to look at the deeper issues.

Orality’s role with Muslim Ideology

What I do understand is that ideology is shaped and influenced by whether a society is a collectivist or individualistic. In the West, everything is done on an individualized basis. In the Muslim world, we are largely collective and mobilize quickly for events like protests or riots, but this is also because we aren’t reliant on the written word as much. The ideological aspect is more diffuse in the Muslim world- to the extent ideology is almost synonymous to populism. Therefore, there is little muscling over ideology because there are so few ideologies. The foreseeable problem however is that in using the Internet to peddle oral Islam, one must inevitably employ literacy. So although the focus is on oral tradition, it is done through the aid of literacy (the written digital word).

The Mental Intimacy of Orality

Edward Said does something important here in this quotation. He points out the ‘intimacy’ of the spoken word between the speaker and those who listen. Said observes:

The importance of the spoken language is that it is a testimony (shahada) and carried to its ultimate grammatical form (shahid) it means martyr. To testify is to speak, and to speak is to move from yourself toward another, to displace self in order to accommodate another, your opposite and your guest, and also someone absent whose absence opposes your own presence. The irony of this is that you can never directly come together with another: your testimony can at best accommodate the other, and this of course is what language does and is, antithetcally—presence and absence, unless in the case of the (shahid) obliterated for the sake of the other, awho because of the martyr s love is more distant, more an Other than ever.”

And another related quotation that illustrates the intimate nature of the spoken word, especially in its relation to eliciting creativity and discussion:

Yet even witnessing and observing occur under conditions of continuous play “between the excess of thought over language and the excess of language over thought,” so that what may appear as commentary actually “translates” the residual latent inings into new formulations.’

I would make the point that memorizing from audio has much to do a lot with the speaker, the gift of his voice, speaking style, the intonations, the rhythm, the connection he has with his audience and the coherence and relevance of his talk.

Assuming that one can meticulously preserve, reconstruct, and retrieve all the conditions surrounding original utterances, there still remains the challenge of creating audiences with subjectivities and conditions of heteroglossia that are identical to those that were available at the time the original speeches were produced. It is exposed to the erosion of original meaning.

“What deconstruction does is force as to enhance our understanding by searching for other elements that mediate meaning.”

The challenge with oral cultures is not so much in merely saying a hadith or quote, one has to also understand the audience one is speaking too. So the one obstacle we have is, a people who do not value the oral speech, are stuck relying on texts alone or cannot grapple or implement new information into their worldview or understanding of Islam. My presumption, relating to the first quote at the start of this article (“The spoken sound is captured in memory as identical with meaning (thought).”)  is, if someone is a deep thinker or intellectual, they will be able to better utilize, contemplate and creatively implement new information that they have learned orally, far more effectively than if it were merely textual.

The Clarity/Ambiguity of Orality

An oral soundbite spoken in the moment, is much harder to manipulate than images as if a drawing board. Instead, audio is living and direct. It is interactive knowledge. It has a better way of transformation and is much more real than a copy-pasted fatwa or graphic illustration. In that way, its felt much more acutely but yet at the same time, we have the obstacle of grappling with issues of the linguistic meaning, etymologies, and the social context. Especially in the West we have a disconnect with those original social conditions that have been so well-preserved via the method of isnad and chains between the scholars.

There is also the related problem of what you could call the stereotyping of Islamic knowledge that comes from externalizing Islamic knowledge. If you mention a hadith you memorized from an audio lecture, which I often do, people ask for the source, but 9/10 the speaker in those audio khutbahs never use sources since they are very commonly known hadith. The other obstacle that comes about is a fear then of people saying whatever they wish, and a reluctance to accept real Islamic knowledge because it does not concord with the image of Islamic knowledge the Internet has given us (fatawa) and the questioning of credibility of a normal Muslim who says a hadith, but not questioning a scholar who says a hadith.

My proposal for students of Islamic knowledge to focus on audio is also on the fact it is much more immediate, direct, memorable and is the primary method of transmission in Islam (the Quran was taught by tongue, not by pen).

Related readings:

Pakistan’s ‘Oral’ Society

Sources for quotations:

Ghazali and the Poetics of Imagination by Ebrahim Moosa

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.


  1. Was this perhaps inspired by Stairs 2 Bliss conference lecture on the Burda? (a conference that happened in mississauga this weekend)

  2. I never heard of this conference before…this was from reading the above book.

    Are there any links online to talks from this conference?

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