Sounding Islam

Voice, Media, and Sonic Atmospheres in an Indian Ocean World

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Patrick Eisenlohr
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , June
     2018.
     192 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520298712.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Patrick Eisenlohr’s Sounding Islam: Voice, Media, and Sonic Atmospheres in an Indian Ocean World comprises a substantial intervention to recent conversations about the role of sound, affect, and atmosphere in religious practice and, specifically, in Islam. The argument of the book is two-tiered. On one level, it focuses on the recitation of naʿt—Urdu-language poetry in honor of the Prophet Muhammad—in Mauritius, using this genre and practice as a broader platform for exploring not only the aesthetics of the genre itself, but its relationship to media, particularly its mediation of the divine presence. Yet this specific practice—the recitation of naʿt poetry—also serves as an opportunity for Eisenlohr to make the following, broader claim.

In the first four chapters of the work, Eisenlohr introduces naʿt and the broader issues to which it relates (chapter 1); naʿt as mediated sound, particularly in relation to issues of religious genealogies and authority in Mauritius (chapter 2); naʿt and globalization via the transnational religious networks of South Asia (chapter 3); and how the materiality of media of naʿtmay store signs particularly as recordings of the genre are reproduced and circulated (chapter 4).

In chapters 5 and 6, Eisenlohr considers the sound of naʿt as sound (meaning, seriously considering its sonic qualities), and he does so in a way unlike how sonic practices in Islamicate contexts have, to my knowledge, been previously considered. He analyzes sound not via its associated practices or discourses—as has been done to great success in demonstrating how sonic practices, broadly speaking, interface with their contexts—but as atmospheres. Atmospheres are, for Eisenlohr, “events emerging and exuding from persons and objects” (83) that move between bodies through transduction. “Sonic events turn around the emission and omnidirectional spread of sound waves, encountering and penetrating bodies, effecting changes in them analogous to the structures and shapes of the sound waves colliding with them” (86). Conceptualizing the sound of naʿt in this way allows Eisenlohr to think about its sonic qualities specifically, as well as consider the ways in which the sounds move between bodies—between reciters and listeners—in such a way that de-centers the reciter, and allows for consideration of the listener’s experiences of these sounds and the ethical preconditioning that allows for receptive listening (86-87). In the analysis of specific audio examples (chapters 5 and 6), he thinks broadly about the sonic features of these examples, and treats each example as sound, in which the details of its sonic features play a key role in the analysis. 

The analysis of the sonic qualities of naʿt is detailed and, as I note at the end of this review, works particularly well with the open-access format of the book that allows for online access to audio examples. However, there is a brief point made about the use of echo or reverb in recordings of naʿt, namely that it indexes space—specifically open reverberating spaces. However, Eisenlohr also suggests that, for Muslim listeners, it evokes the “reverberating sound of the azan (the Islamic call to prayer) in a built environment” (98). It certainly could. Yet it is also the case that reverb is an effect in vocal recordings, within Islamicate and non-Islamicate contexts. The reverb could also be used, as it is a commonly used effect and aesthetic in recent memory and current usage.

As Eisenlohr points out, the idea of sound as atmosphere does bear some similarity to ideas of affect (and here affect is understood specifically through the work of Brian Massumi), and while Eisenlohr is clear that atmospheres are different from affects—this distinction largely hinges on the idea that sonic events understood as atmospheres do not necessarily need to originate within individuals but can exist independently (142 fn 7). The idea of affect is useful as the discursive contents of naʿt come back to the analysis in the final chapter of the work. Eisenlohr claims that the discursive aspects of naʿt recitation are closely intertwined with the sonic elements (109). Indeed, through compelling use of evidence, including sound examples with spectrogram and waveform diagrams in chapters 5 and 6, he illustrates many specific instances when this is the case. 

The sixth chapter, “Sound as Affect?,” begins with a claim about the relationship between discursive and sonic meanings in recited naʿt poetry. Namely, that “the discursive and sonic dimensions of naʿt poetry complement each other” (109). The examples that Eisenlohr explores in the text do seem to suggest this. Yet one is left wondering about other possibilities for relations between discursive and sonic meanings. Is it necessarily the case that they must complement one another? Could there be disjuncture between these realms? Or, could there even be conflict between them?

Finally, there are two points about readership that are worth noting here. First, the open access format affords access to readers who may not otherwise be able to engage with the work. This book, as any other involving sound, works particularly well in the online open access format, as this medium allows for sound examples to be embedded within the text. Anyone accessing the text online can simply click to listen, which is a substantially better mode of access than indicating a URL in the front matter of the book, or including a CD—as publishers have done in the past. In the case of the print version of this book, sound examples include QR codes, so readers may scan these with any device in order to access sound materials. I dwell here on the mechanics of publishing, in this case due to the subject matter of the book. Writing about sound in a way that takes sound seriously has always been a challenge, and this format allows Eisenlohr to include actual sounds in his analysis, reflecting the way in which his work takes sound seriously as such, and allows for readers to engage seriously as listeners

However, the writing style poses a challenge. While most chapters are approximately 20 pages long, which suggests an opportunity for using the work in teaching, the style may not be accessible to, for example, undergraduate students. The concepts of atmosphere and affect are nuanced and significant, and perhaps accessible to undergraduate students who are theoretically versed, although the style may not be accessible to a general readership.

In sum, Sounding Islam comprises a significant development in scholarship of sonic practices of Islamicate contexts, particularly those in South Asia and, specifically, in Mauritius. Similar to many recent theoretically-driven anthropological works, the broader theoretical apparatus is foregrounded in the work. The book marks a major contribution in terms of theorization of sound—in religious contexts as well as more broadly—particularly in relation to the ideas of atmosphere and affect. In this regard, I am hopeful that this conceptualization of sonic events can influence subsequent works on sound and, more broadly, sound-related practices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lauren E. Osborne is Assistant Professor of Religion at Whiman College.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Patrick Eisenlohr is Professor of Anthropology and Chair in Society and Culture in Modern India at the University of Göttingen. He is the author of Little India: Diaspora, Time, and Ethnolinguistic Belonging in Hindu Mauritius.

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