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Islamic Sermons as Oral Literature: Voice and Emotion in Bengali waʿz mahfils

This sub-project dealt with contemporary Islamic sermons in South Asia, particularly Bangladesh. It documented and reflected upon aesthetic dimensions and the literary-historical situatedness of Islamic sermons in a region with long-standing traditions of a multilingual Islamic literature. It focused on a particular ephemeral genre, mostly known as oẏāj māhfil (waʿẓ maḥfil). These sermons are held predominantly in Bengali, but include Arabic, Urdu and Farsias well. Their non-liturgical character and embeddedness in the region’s life-cycles allows for an inclusion of form elements of other Bengali narrative traditions, one main form feature of which is a melodic rendering of prose narratives. The main method of the study is a rhetoric analysis with particular regard to the interplay between linguistic and aural layers of the sermons.

The book emerging from this project starts off with an introduction to the field of sermon genres which delimitate the waʿẓ maḥfils from the outside. In doing so, it first turns to the Friday sermon which is described as a composition of several sub-genres. Here, particularly the different rhetorical roles of the Bengali vis-à-vis the Arabic part of the Friday sermon are examined: while Arabic stands for the continuity of ritual, the Bengali parts, as in other languages in Northern South Asia, take a complementary role of communicational proximity. Against this background, transcultural reconfigurations in the diaspora can be grasped where the different parts are aligned to each other yielding in an equality of the hitherto complementary parts.

A survey of the Islamic rhetoric education in South Asia shows a bifurcation into a hermeneutically oriented theory on the one hand and a field of (post)colonial practice on the other. Furthermore, the education of many preachers prominently includes aural experiences and imitation of performances as listeners. Rather than promoting standardization, this setup allows for considerable adaptability to regional languages and forms of delivery in preaching practice.

As has been indicated, this practice transcends the Friday sermon and the ritual time and space of the Friday congregation and the mosque. Entering into the world of waʿẓ maḥfils, the travelling networks, role and carrier of the preachers as well as the organization of the events are described ethnographically. Particular emphasis is laid on the space created in the temporarily built-up tents, the role of sound to create a particular atmosphere, as well as the communicational setup, which prominently includes the point of view and reactions of the audience.

Next, the inner structure of the sermons held at waʿẓ maḥfils is analysed. This includes the Arabic frame as well as joint recitation and songs, poems, narrative passages in Bengali, and prayer. The translations from Arabic into Bengali show how the dialogic structure of authoritative narratives is extended to salvific scenes with local relevance. The prayer itself is intricately related to the narration and vice versa, to serve the main theological impetus of the sermons: the depiction and emotional experience of salvation. In doing so, the sermons’ form builds on the existing repertoire of Islamic traditions in Bengal, such as the interplay between patterns of narration and performance.

From this entry point the specific musical rhetoric of the sermons can be disentangled. On a macro-level, recited passages are often linked to scenes of mimetic presentation of holy figures with heightened emotional and salvific impact. What does the distribution of linked identificatory attitudes in the field of sermons tell about different groups of preachers and audiences? The micro level, furthermore, reveals how musical parameters influence emotional effect within the respective passages. Single dramatic and rhetoric figures are double-encoded linguistically and musically. On this level the question of ‘politicisation’ of sermons can be addressed. A juxtaposition of the tonal aspects of the sermons with the visual elements introduced by video CDs provides an example of the contemporaneity of different sets of expectations relating to different senses.

On the other side of the continuum of rhetoric and emotional effect in the sermons, lie those parts of the sermons which approximate a conversation. One of the most prominent aspects here is humour, a ubiquitous and central rhetoric device particularly for group formation. The analysis of different kinds of jokes yields insights into the dynamics of consensus and demarcation, not the least in relation to the form of religious discourse, particularly sermons. In a last step, the genre is again described from the outside, this time through the lens of parodies on the genre which can at this point be understood to pool the most important characteristics of the genre.

Some of the recorded and transcribed material of this project is going to be displayed soon on the website of the Cluster of Excellence Asia and Europe in a Global Context. The book is to be published in 2016.

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Principal Investigator

Max Stille