Quoting God and the Prophet

I’ve recently been hacking at the final chapter of my PhD, which will (hopefully) be an analysis of the use of religious language on what I like to call “Islamic advice programmes” on Jordanian radio. These programmes involve a host, typically a scholar well-educated in the principles of religion and Islamic law, taking calls from listeners on a variety of questions – whether a certain course of action is religiously appropriate, for example, or how to interpret some obscure part in an Islamic religious text. (With the recent rise of the so-called Islamic State, for example, a few listeners called in as to whether their appearance may have been “predicted” by the Prophet Muhammad in one of his sayings (hadith). Judgments on this vary.)

What’s particularly striking to me is how the host-scholars talk about and quote the religious texts in which they’re supposed to be experts. Whenever the Qur’an or a hadith of the Prophet is quoted, it impeccably resembles the written form in terms of grammar and pronunciation – a standard which is rarely kept up in “fresh talk” on Arabic-language radio, even for hosts that do tend more towards the “formal” (or Classical/Modern Standard) pole of the Arabic linguistic spectrum (as opposed to being purely colloquial). Every Islamic scholar worth their salt should, of course, know such lines by heart – or at least be able to pretend well enough that they do. But quotations are also, perhaps unsurprisingly, usually pronounced in a different way than the talk which surrounds them. They are not merely said – not even read in the kind of droning, measured style typical of modern formal Arabic reading (see e.g. here). Rather, they are – more often than not – recited, in a way that sets them clearly apart from ordinary speech. Vowels are elongated, pitch is heightened, and there are relatively long pauses after each line (often lasting half a second or more).

So I rummaged a bit through literature in linguistics to see whether anything much has been written on this issue – that is, the distinct prosody of Standard or Classical Arabic phrases when recited or inserted into mostly colloquial talk. I turned up some quite interesting bits of research, including experiments claiming that native speakers of Arabic are able to distinguish between ‘Western’ (i.e. North African) and ‘Eastern’ (i.e. everything east of Egypt) dialects on the basis of accent and intonation alone, and explorations of patterns of poetic recitation on the Arabian peninsula shared beyond linguistic boundaries. There seems to be quite some work on prosody in Arabic going on, sometimes in quite interesting directions, such as the extent to which phenomena like contrastive emphasis (as in “wrote this article, not him”) might affect (or not) the way Arabic words are pronounced.

There are two issues, though, with this kind of research generally speaking. First, most look at ‘dialectal’ Arabic only. This makes sense for linguistics research that looks to examine ‘natural’ languages – that is, replicating conditions of normal communicative interaction, where formal/Classical Arabic is virtually never used wholesale – but doesn’t provide much to go on for the kind of context on which I’m currently working, where Classical and colloquial language is often used interchangeably. And second, they all tend to see prosody as a feature of linguistic production. That is, they approach dialects as ‘having’ (or maybe ‘exhibiting’) a certain kind of prosodic pattern under certain conditions. Again, this makes sense if you’re trying to describe language as a communicative system. But it tells us very little about how prosody may be manipulated, strategically, for specific ends – such as, for example, setting religious quotations apart from ‘normal’ talk.

It’s not a difficult thing to notice. In the recording below, for example, between 1:46 and 1:54, the Islamic advice host Ibrahim al-Jarmi (on his Fatawa programme, broadcast by the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Hayat FM) gives a religious quotation which involves a marked change in pace of speech (mostly, longer vowels) and intonation (heightened pitch) towards the end:

Researching the details of this phenomenon, though, may prove to be slightly more difficult. For one, the classical schemes of research in linguistics don’t do a very good job of capturing these kind of contrasts. Even sociolinguists, when talking about Arabic, tend to focus to a large extent on distinctions between “codes” – formal / Standard / Classical versus colloquial Arabic, for example, or different ‘dialects’ defined as distinct linguistic systems. But for al-Jarmi in the recording above, the “code” remains more or less the same throughout – i.e., ‘formal’ or ‘Classical’ (even as the standards are more strictly applied to actual quotations than to talk that accompanies them). The distinctions, rather, hinge on sociocultural factors in a much broader sense – including the way in which religious texts, in particular, are understood as ‘quotable’ or ‘recitable’ in ways that ‘normal’ speech may not be. (This is not just an Islamic religious issue either; it is also true to an extent of poetry, which in mediated communication in modern Arabic usage is often involved in many of the same prosodic strategies; see e.g. the recitation at the beginning of the programme here, from about 0:38.)

Classical linguistic categories have their place, of course, and can be a powerful tool when trying to analyse the intricacies of human communication. But occasionally, the lens does need to be broadened a bit; otherwise, certain potentially interesting and important phenomena – like the way radio personalities treat Islamic texts – might recede from view.

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Quoting God and the Prophet

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