The Ethical Soundscape

Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics

Charles Hirschkind

Columbia University Press

The Ethical Soundscape

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Pub Date: July 2009

ISBN: 9780231138192

288 Pages

Format: Paperback

List Price: $30.00£25.00

Pub Date: October 2006

ISBN: 9780231138185

288 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $90.00£75.00

Pub Date: October 2006

ISBN: 9780231510882

288 Pages

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List Price: $29.99£25.00

The Ethical Soundscape

Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics

Charles Hirschkind

Columbia University Press

Charles Hirschkind's unique study explores how a popular Islamic media form—the cassette sermon—has profoundly transformed the political geography of the Middle East over the last three decades.

An essential aspect of what is now called the Islamic Revival, the cassette sermon has become omnipresent in most Middle Eastern cities, punctuating the daily routines of many men and women. Hirschkind shows how sermon tapes have provided one of the means by which Islamic ethical traditions have been recalibrated to a modern political and technological order—to its noise and forms of pleasure and boredom, but also to its political incitements and call for citizen participation. Contrary to the belief that Islamic cassette sermons are a tool of militant indoctrination, Hirschkind argues that sermon tapes serve as an instrument of ethical self-improvement and as a vehicle for honing the sensibilities and affects of pious living.

Focusing on Cairo's popular neighborhoods, Hirschkind highlights the pivotal role these tapes now play in an expanding arena of Islamic argumentation and debate—what he calls an "Islamic counterpublic." This emerging arena connects Islamic traditions of ethical discipline to practices of deliberation about the common good, the duties of Muslims as national citizens, and the challenges faced by diverse Muslim communities around the globe. The Ethical Soundscape is a brilliant analysis linking modern media practices of moral self-fashioning to the creation of increasingly powerful religious publics.

Hirschkind touches on some of the most charged issues of our time. He writes with both sympathy and analytic clarity. But where others bog down in reductive notions such as 'belief,' 'fundamentalism,' and 'modernity,' Hirschkind attends to the concrete forms of the Islamic revival. By concentrating on the circulation of sermon forms—including the practices of listening to them—Hirschkind has written a book that will be essential reading for anyone interested in religion, secularism, media, and the public sphere.

Michael Warner, Board of Governors Professor of English, Rutgers University, and author of Publics and Counterpublics

Charles Hirschkind has drawn on a growing body of literature on the senses, and on the theory of rhetoric and political theory, to present the reader with a complex and fascinating analysis. At one level this is a highly original account of the role of cassette sermons in contemporary Egypt, in which their content is related with unusual sensitivity to their embodied reception as well as to the learned tradition of Islam. At another level it is a powerful argument for relating the work of moral and religious cultivation of the self to larger questions about the politics of the public sphere in Muslim-majority countries. No one who is interested in understanding that heterogeneous movement beyond familiar clichés can ignore the argument presented by this beautiful study.

Talal Asad, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center, and author of Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity

A sensitive listener, Hirschkind writes in a way that conveys the inner life of counterpublics in Egypt to those of us who could not otherwise hear their voices. This is an indispensable book.

William E. Connolly, Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science, Johns Hopkins University, and author of Pluralism

A very timely ethnography of Islam in general and Egypt in specific.

The relevance of this analytic project to readers both within and outside the academy cannot be underestimated.

Ilan Pappe, Arab Studies Journal

This stimulating book offers a sustained argument and excellent, accessible ethnography for specialists of Islamic politics and media alike.

International Journal of Middle East Studies

The Ethical Soundscape provides a timely update to this important genre of Muslim expression.

Flagg Miller, Contemporary Islam

Well worth the effort.

Andre Singer, Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute

This is a substantial anthropological study that delves deep into the meaning and significance of cassette sermons in the context of Islamic revival... This book is a welcome analytical study which should be of profit to many.

The Muslim World Book Review
Note on Transcription
1. Introduction
2. Islam, Nationalism, and Audition
3. The Ethics of Listening
4. Cassettes and Counterpublics
5. Rhetorics of the Da‘iya
6. The Acoustics of Death
7. Epilogue
Works Cited
Web Features

Winner of the Sharon Stephens First Book Award from the American Ethnological Society and Honorable Mention, Clifford Geertz Prize from the Society for the Anthropology of Religion

About the Author

Charles Hirschkind is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the coeditor, with David Scott, of Powers of the Secular Modern and has published numerous articles on religious practice, media technologies, and emergent forms of political community in the Middle East.