For Muslims, the Qur’an represents the word of God as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago. Any act of translating it out of Arabic is, by definition, an interpretation and ceases to hold the Divine qualities of the Arabic original. Therefore, Muslims recited and listen to the Qur’an in Arabic, especially now during Ramadan, the month of fasting. The text is divided into 30 sections (juz’, or para), and one is read each night of the month. When a religious scholar from Al-Azhar, a current seat of learning for Sunni Islam, says not to listen to the Qur’an during this month, it is bound to be newsworthy.
His basic argument is that to listen to the Qur’an in the way that it is broadcast now, mediated through various electronic media, is to be disrespectful to the text. In a live setting, people are arguably committed to the word as it is recited; in a recorded setting, the listener is engaged in other activities. Aside from the religious argument that this shaykh is making, there is also a strong Marxist component to his rejection of “passive” listening of the Qur’an. He is essentially arguing that the recording, the sound, of the Qur’an has become a fetish, which is valorized for people’s access to it, rather than for the religious qualities it possesses.
Theodor Adorno writes that this is an infantile stage of listening, when the listener is no longer capable of consciously listening to the sounds around her (pg. 46). He compares it to a technology of his time, the Ham Radio. He says, “Of all fetishistic listeners, the radio ham is perhaps the most complete. It is irrelevant to him what he hears or even how he hears; he is only interested in the fact that he hears and succeeds in inserting himself, with his private equipment, into the public mechanism, without exerting even the slightest influence on it. With the same attitude, countless radio listeners play with the feedback or the sound dials without themselves becoming hams” (pg. 54).
If religious revelation challenges the power structures of the time it is revealed in, then it stands to reason that the text is meant to be engaged with, argued with, fought with, to constantly bring its meaning into the present. Otherwise, the text calcifies, the community ossifies, and the revolutionary quality of the text is lost. The religion then becomes, as the oft-quoted phrase goes, “an opiate of the masses.” Adorno suggests that cultural production is meant to tear down impersonal power structures by celebrating humanity, and once culture is subsumed into those power relations, humanity is lost (pg. 100).
However, what both Adorno and Shaykh Qutb seem to disregard is human agency. First and foremost is the sense of nostalgia that many listeners bring to the sound of the Qur’an. No person exists outside of the context of culture, communal memory, and history; there is no Hayy ibn Yaqzan. When listening to the Qur’an, the listener thinks of all the associations that are tied to that sound. They are thinking of family, worship, God. They are active participants in that moment, creating the world around them by hearing that sound (cf. Stokes, pg. 684). Modern media offers a way for Muslims to hear the Qur’an even when they cannot physically be at live readings (cf. Rozehnal, pg. 673).
The reality is that the vast majority of Muslims do not have access to Qur’anic Arabic. The talismanic component is built into the text already, by virtue of belief in its Divine origin. It is the sound that is salvific. There is a popular story that’s told of a young boy who asks his grandfather why he has to recite the Qur’an if he does not understand the language. The grandfather tells the boy to take an old coal basket to the river, fill it with water and bring it back. The boy goes to the river, fills the basket with water, and all the water leaks out from the holes as he walks back to his grandfather. The grandfather tells the boy to do it again, but to go faster so that that water does not flow out of the basket. The boy runs, but with the same result. The process repeats itself several times, with the boy running slightly faster every time. Finally, the boy says that this task is pointless, just like reciting the Qur’an. The grandfather asks the boy to describe the basket when they started the process. The boy says it was dirty, coated in coal dust. The grandfather says look at it now, it is clean and shiny. He says that reciting the Qur’an is like that for the human being, it may not carry the water (the meaning) but it is still transformative.
Ironically, it seems that Shaykh Qutb’s declarations risk fetishizing the text, thereby devaluing it far more than listening to it on cassette would suggest.
Adorno, Theodor W. The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Edited by J. M. Bernstein. Routledge Classics. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Rozehnal, Robert. “A ‘Proving Ground’ for Spiritual Mastery: The Chishti Sabiri Musical Assembly.” The Muslim World 97, no. 4 (2007): 657-677.
Stokes, Martin. “Voices and Places: History, Repetition and the Musical Imagination.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 3, no. 4 (Dec., 1997): 673-691.