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By Aaron Rock-Singer

In previous essays, I have laid out key opportunities and challenges in using media sources to tell an intellectual and social history of Islamic law, with a particular emphasis on print media forms such as periodicals and pamphlets. In this final essay, I will explore two media forms that present greater challenges of contextualization and dating: audiocassettes and television programs. Specifically, I’ll focus on three key sources of these types that I’ve used in my research: audiocassette lessons by the leading Salafī scholar Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī (d. 1999), a popular television program hosted by the prominent state-aligned Egyptian scholar, Muḥammad Mutawallī al-Shaʿrāwī (d. 1998), and finally the audiocassette and textual versions of sermons by the famed Egyptian Islamist preacher ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Kishk (d. 1996). In exploring these sources, I will set out the challenges that they posed, how I sought to work through these challenges, and the limits to my efforts. I’ll then conclude with a short reflection on paths forward in the study of Islamic law through media.

Let us begin with Muḥammad Nāṣir al-Dīn al-Albānī, known as the “ḥadīth scholar of his age” (muḥaddith al-ʿaṣr). The source of al-Albānī’s audiocassette lectures, part of a series entitled al-Huda waʾl-Nūr (Guidance and Light), is https://thedawah.org. The website contains some 169 learning sessions (s. majlis; pl. majālis) that took place in Jordan between March 21, 1988 and November 6, 1993. This collection also has clear gaps, with only one lesson from 1989 and numerous other “breaks” in lessons. Put differently, these recordings, which were converted at some point to MP3 format,[1] constitute but a fragment of al-Albānī’s public teaching activities. These audio recordings of al- Albānī’s lessons, however, are a rich source in and of themselves, as they document not merely al-Albānī’s ideas but also how students responded to these ideas with questions, affirmation, and concern. Just as importantly, the recorder of these lessons, Muḥammad Aḥmad Abū Laylā al-Atharī, specified the date of each, greatly facilitating the work of the historian.

Moving beyond the ideas themselves, drawing on this audio source allows us to more clearly trace the emergence of a distinctly Salafī beard, particularly the use the fist (qabḍa) as a minimal measurement. While al-Albānī only took a clear stance on this question textually in 1995 – alongside another leading Salafī scholar, Ibn Bāz – these lessons recorded on audiocassette reveal that did so to his students in Jordan on August 7,1992 and then against on September 8, 1993. These recording thus broaden our understanding of al-Albānī’s ideas to include not only a transnational Salafī sphere but also its local counterpart and the on-the-ground discussion that occurred therein.

A second major scholar, the Egyptian Muḥammad Mutawallī al-Shaʿrāwī hosted a variety of television programs, most famously his al-Shaʿrāwī’s Ideas (Khawāṭir al-Shaʿrāwī) program, which was broadcast on Egypt’s Channel 1 between July 18, 1980 and September 18, 1981 and comprised 98 episodes in total, each lasting roughly 45 minutes. Like al-Albānī’s lessons, this television program provides us a sense of audience, as the camera frequently shows us Egyptian men of varying ages seated in rows in front of al-Shaʿrāwī, with the latter perched on an elevated chair. Unlike al-Albānī’s lessons, however, al-Shaʿrāwī’s audience does not speak, limiting our knowledge of issues of concern or confusion. Moreover, unlike in the case of al-Albānī, we cannot benefit from clear dates. Instead, to determine dates, one must browse the weekly television listings of the leading Egyptian daily newspaper, al-Ahrām. Based on these listings and episode titles, I was able to date the episodes with a high degree of certainty.

Perhaps the most challenging source, however, was that of ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd Kishk’s sermons. These sermons were readily available on www.archive.org and included over 400 MP3 files that had been originally recorded as audiocassettes. Unlike the cases of al-Albānī and Shaʿrāwī, however, neither the recorder nor al-Ahrām could reveal the dates of particular sermons. As I sought to resolve this challenge, I discovered a 16-volume printed set of Kishk’s sermons published in Egypt between 1987 and 1993, which included dates. As I listened to the sermons, with the printed version alongside the audio recording on my laptop, I realized that the printed version of the sermon was a censored version of the original. Indeed, a comparison of these two “versions” of the same performance revealed how state censors had edited Kishk’s sermon to transform their meaning, neutering them politically by removing all specific references to Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāṣīr (r. 1954-70), Anwar al-Sādāt (r. 1970-81) or Ḥusnī Mubārak (r. 1981-2011). This comparison, which became the basis of a 2017 article published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, allowed me to overcome a basic source challenge of censorship – the inability to access censor reports – by comparing the beginning and end points of the censorship process and identifying the logic by which censorship functioned. The challenge that remained, however, is that I could apply this work-around to only a fraction of the available sermons.

As anyone who had made it through all four of these essays may note, very few of these sources can be found in the conventional archival sites through which historians define their methodological approach. And indeed, for scholars of Islamic law, a move beyond archives is hardly revolutionary; with the exception of Ottoman history, much of the scholarship on Islamic law has depended on manuscripts and edited works by jurists preserved outside formal archives. For historians of Islamic law in the modern period, however, the temptations to depend on archives is greater as the archival resources are far more significant, particularly for those interested in questions of state-sponsored Islamization drives. Yet, state archives rarely preserve the key publications of Islamic movements: when I visited Egypt’s national archive (Dār al-Kutub waʾl-Wathāʾiq), I found only limited textual record of Egypt’s many Islamic movements and no periodical sources that pertained to Salafism. Neither are the archives of state institutions such as al-Azhar University, maintained separately from that of Egypt’s national archive, easily accessible.

Just as important, though, is the question of how to use these sources. As a matter of source base, media sources are best used in conjunction with one another: while a single Islamic magazine is a valuable source for the history of Islamic law, it is by reading multiple periodicals in conjunction not just with one another but also with other media forms that we can tell a story of the processes by which Islamic law is formed and lived in the 20th-century. Moreover, audiocassette sermons and television programs – which in present form are often distended from their original context – can be understood fully only within an inter-textual world of Islamic media. Just as historians of Islamic law have come to emphasize the necessity of an expansive approach to sources within and beyond the fiqh literature,[2] so too will historians of Islamic law benefit from drawing on the varied forms in which Islamic law is debated.

Yet, this expansion of the range of sources that historians of Islamic law use also necessitates an expansion of methodological horizons. While scholars of Islamic law often draw on work done by historians of textual culture, it is less common to draw on the work of cultural anthropologists, particularly those who specialize in media. Specifically, what is the material history of particular media forms? What are the dynamics of authority internal to each? And how are the media forms embedded in social life? These kinds of questions offer the opportunity not only to deepen and expand our knowledge of Islamic legal development, but also to enable scholars of Islamic law to contribute to an interdisciplinary conversation among historians, anthropologists, sociologists and even political scientists.

Notes:

[1] The website itself acknowledges the Salafī scholar Muḥammad Aḥmad Abū Laylā al-Atharī and his website, Daʿwatunā Awalan, who apparently recorded the lectures himself. For more, see http://d3watuna.com/pageCatAudios.php?catAudiosId=2. The suggestion on the first website is that this scholar uploaded these recordings on https://thedawah.org for unspecified “reasons” (li-asbāb).

[2] Marion Katz, Wives and Work: Islamic Law and Ethics Before Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2022), 8-12. Also see Omar Anchassi, “The Churning in the Flogging of ʿUmayra: Or, Towards a History of Masturbation in Premodern Islamic Law,” Studi Magrebini 20, no. 2 (2022): 213-46, 230 cf. 84.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Aaron Rock-Singer, Audio and Audio-Visual Sources and Pathways Forward, Islamic Law Blog (Feb. 23, 2023), https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/02/23/audio-and-audio-visual-sources-and-pathways-forward/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Aaron Rock-Singer, “Audio and Audio-Visual Sources and Pathways Forward,” Islamic Law Blog, February 23, 2023, https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/02/23/audio-and-audio-visual-sources-and-pathways-forward/)

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