The Sound of Salvation
Voice, Gender, and the Sufi Mediascape in China
Series: Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University
- ISBN: 9780231198073
- Published By: Columbia University Press
- Published: February 2022
In The Sound of Salvation: Voice, Gender, and the Sufi Mediascape in China, Guangtian Ha offers the first book-length ethnography of Jahriyya—a primarily Sinophone Sufi order in northwestern China. Founded in the 18th century in the city of Linxia 臨夏, Jahriyya traces its origin to the Naqshbandiyya order in Yemen. Over the past few decades, several prominent scholars of Sinophone Muslims, including Joseph Fletcher, Jonathan Lipman, Dru Gladney, and Chang Chung-fu, have examined the early history of Jahriyya and its participation in multiple bloody rebellions against the Qing imperial state during the 18th and 19th centuries. Still, in The Sound of Salvation, Ha offers an unprecedentedly close look into both the past and the present of this diverse, patriarchal, and loud Sufi community. This in-depth ethnography is a long-awaited addition to the study of Sinophone Muslims. Meanwhile, the multidisciplinary analytical framework also makes the book a valuable contribution to the larger fields of Islamic studies, ethnomusicology, anthropology, and more.
The Jahriyya order derives its name from the Arabic word jahr جهر, meaning “loud.” Known as “the loud ones” (13), the Jahriyya sufis practice ritualized recitations in loud and melodic tunes. In his book, Ha unpacks this unique soundscape in both ritual spaces and beyond and uses it as a window into the social and religious making of the order. This ethnography is the result of nearly a decade of fieldwork. From 2011 to 2018, Ha paid multiple visits to the Jahriyya stronghold at Hong Le Fu 鴻樂府 in Ningxia province. His identity as a Chinese Muslim male scholar enabled him to develop an intimate relationship with the local Sufi community and to actively participate in the Jahriyya rituals. At the same time, his multidisciplinary training granted him a unique insight into the different layers of the Jahriyya soundscape.
The Sound of Salvation consists of five chapters in addition to an introduction and an epilogue. In the first chapter, Ha explores the pronunciation of Arabic in recitation rituals. He discusses the remnant influence of Chinese, Persian, and Turkic languages in the Jahriyya Arabic curriculum and argues that this “unclean” pronunciation is, in fact, a living record of the transregional history of the order (72). The second chapter analyzes the melodic tune of a poem called Mukhammas. Ha zooms in on the “silent yet persistent murmur” (103) that occurs when the leading reciter takes his breath. This almost inaudible sound from the congregation allows the tune to be continuous and the ritual to be efficacious. Thus, it witnesses to an unspoken trust and social bond shared among the reciters. Chapter 3 then turns to another panegyric text called Madā’ih. In the first half of the chapter, Ha studies the unintended harmony commonly found in Madā’ih recitations and attributes this phenomenon to the abundance of Jahriyya spiritual lineages and a fragile tolerance for liturgical diversity. The rest of the chapter delves into a recent increase in the tempo of the recitation and ties it to a government campaign that has transformed the rural landscape inhabited by Jahriyya sufis.
In the last two chapters of the book, Ha expands the subject of his study from the male voices in ritual spaces to the larger Jahriyya soundscape. In chapter 4, he examines the “mediatization of Jahriyya recitation” (35), including the production of CD recordings, the installation of loudspeakers, and the circulation of private recordings on social media. The adoption of these modern technologies has especially impacted the experience of Jahriyya women, who are discouraged from entering ritual spaces. On the one hand, the loudspeakers, smartphones, and MP3 players have enabled women to hear, study, and participate in recitations. On the other hand, these technologies have also exacerbated the gendered divide between the direct participation of male reciters and the mediated access of Jahriyya women. The final chapter further explores the issue of gender by featuring the “voices of jolly conversations around the makeshift worktop” (202) as women prepare ritual food for the communal meal shared after the men-only recitations. While the social bond of Jahriyya men is created through the mingling of their voices during collective recitations, the bond between the women is facilitated by their joint labor. Therefore, Ha argues that “being denied a voice in recitation did not hinder [the women] from being empowered by other means” (232). And without the labor and the so-called “meaningless babbling” (217) of women, there would be no food to mark the completion of the ritual or to deliver the blessings of the Jahriyya saints.
The main theoretical move made by Ha in The Sound of Salvation is introducing the concept of “fragile transcendence” to string together the five chapters of the book. Ha proposes this idea to describe a “midlevel sublimation/abstraction” (4) precipitated by the “intrinsic explanatory opacity” of liturgical rituals (9) that allows “a certain degree of ‘tolerance’” (31) towards different ritual practices. This innovative idea is set in conversation with the earlier work of Caroline Humphrey and James Laidlaw on Jain puja. However, it may come off as elusive to someone unfamiliar with the existing theories around ritualization and liturgical rituals. The concept of “fragile transcendence” is also not equally relevant to each chapter of the book and thus does not function very effectively as an overarching framework. Nevertheless, Ha has crafted an intricate, in-depth, and multilayered account of the ritual, history, and social fabrics of Jahriyya by studying the pronunciation, tune, harmony, and tempo of their recitations, as well as the media used to transmit these sounds and the gendered voices excluded from the ritual spaces.
Such a sophisticated and deep ethnography is hard to come across in the study of Sinophone Muslims. And with the heightening surveillance of the Chinese government over its Muslim population, one could expect this type of scholarship to become even rarer in the coming years. In addition to its rich content, the beautiful prose and captivating vignettes make The Sound of Salvation an accessible and rewarding read for audiences ranging from undergraduate students to advanced scholars. I recommend it to anyone interested in Sinophone Muslims, Sufism, liturgical rituals, ethnomusicology, media studies, and gender studies.
Shuangxia Wu is a PhD student in religious studies at Brown University.Shuangxia WuDate Of Review:March 25, 2023