A foundational moment in the historiographical study of Islam in China was marked by a light scorn. “You cannot alter the text at will and still claim it is from the original,” the prominent historian Chen Yuan thus expressed his frustration with Hui Muslim scholars in 1928. “Each generation had its own way of transcription. You can easily tell the historical period of a certain record by looking at such transcriptions as 摩訶末 and 謨罕募德.” Chen was exasperated. For both 摩訶末 (mó hē mò) and 謨罕募德 (mò hăn mù dé) are Chinese transcriptions of the name of Prophet Muhammad, and both were rooted in specific historical periods. The variations between different transcriptions are invariably the consequences of linguistic transformation not of just one language, but of innumerable languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Turkic, Mongol, Tibetan, and other dialects and languages that may or may not have survived to the present time. Whether Muhammad is transcribed as 摩訶末 or 謨罕募德 relies on the specific trajectories of sounds as they migrated between languages, and across speech and script since at least the twelfth century when the Mongol Empire began to conquer vast territories in Eurasia. An Arabic-speaker of a certain dialect might have pronounced Muhammad in a particular manner, giving it a distinct sound which would later be heard by a Persian-speaker who used the Arabic script to transcribe the sound. This written word might then be vocalized by a Uyghur literati, heard by a speaker of Middle Chinese, and transcribed by the latter using the Chinese script into摩訶末, to eventually romanized by me, an anthropologist living in the twenty-first century, into mó hē mò, using the Pinyin system which was inextricably the product of modern Chinese nation-building.
The circulation of sound shows the reconfiguration of power: empires rise and fall; different languages acquire dominance due to the political favor they incidentally receive. Nation-states, those who gather themselves in the ashes of the Mongol Empire, the Chinese Empire, and the Ottoman Empire—to mention only those most pertinent here—intervene in sound as much as in text to build their hegemony. Nationalism occurs at the middle level—it strives to dissolve both what transcends it (the universal sacred language) and what subtends it (the particular local dialects/languages). Imagined communities in the form of the modern nation are based as much in homogenized sound as they are in print capitalism. Chen Yuan’s exasperation is symptomatic of a particular historic moment: the general language reform advocated by the politically-minded Chinese intellectuals also triggered a concomitant reform among the Sino-phone Hui Muslims, many of them enthusiastic amateur historians of Islam in China. They either consciously or unconsciously standardized key Islamic terms in their quotations of historical records. Increasingly they used 穆罕默德 (mù hăn mò dé) for all different transcriptions of Muhammad, thus erasing traces of historico-linguistic shifts, as though it had been 穆罕默德 all along. Transcription, presumably the ad hoc relationship between heterogeneous sounds and diverse scripts, is replaced by transliteration, arguably the flattened relationship between texts. Sounds are lost; history is silenced.
Above is part of the research I have been conducting for the past three years at SOAS, University of London. As a component of the larger project titled “Sounding Islam in China,” my work is a historical, linguistic, and ethnographic examination of the vocal rituals among the Jahriyya Sufis in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwest China. I am interested in the evolution of “unorthodox” Islamic sounds—those articulations and pronunciations that are frowned upon, marginalized, and criticized, yet on second thought, might in fact have been the dominant sensory mode for Islam’s continual hold among ordinary Muslims, most of them presumably illiterate for much of history. The hegemonic rules of pronunciation and the elevated register of classical Arabic are in themselves contingent political formations. “Unorthodox” sounds may have been the norm rather than the exception among many Muslims around the world. When a Qur’anic reciter from Saudi Arabia feels offended and enraged when he cannot recognize the sound of Jahriyya recitation as that of the holy book, and finds this recitation an outrageous degradation of the orthodox sound, he is perhaps closer to ideology than he is to history. The presumed unity of the global Muslim community supposedly united by the shared commitment to the teaching of Islam, begins to fracture when we move our eyes away from text—whose integrity is carefully guarded by elites—and focus on sound.
These “unorthodox” sounds are not merely remnants from defunct histories. They continue to live among the Jahriyya Sufis in northwest China; they weave socio-musical relations on a daily basis in the prayer hall, and regularly interpellate listening subjects during aurally impressive collective rituals of recitation; they also compete with and contest more recently mediatized “orthodox” sounds of Islam from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Indonesia, which enter the Jahriyya world by means of social media. Acoustic legacies of medieval empires, still vibrant in their ritual incarnations, vie with forces of new empires of sound. At the site of the intimate senses lies the battlefield for global religious ideologies and a constant re-making of one’s relationship to (one’s own) history. From local phonetics to globalized media, sound provides us with a special and especially interesting entry point to examine questions of varying scales that pertain to contemporary Muslim societies. A group of Jahriyya Sufis in rural Ningxia in northwest China, therefore, leads us to examine the clash and collusion of empires from history to the present. As such, an ethnography of them, which I am now finalizing (Sung by the Praise: Voice, Gender, and the Sufi Mediascape in Northwest China), may also offer a possibility to reconsider the promises and limits of the traditional text-centered approach, which continues to find its resonance in the treatment of Islam as a discursive tradition in some contemporary anthropological works on Islam.
Guangtian Ha is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Music at SOAS, University of London. He has conducted extensive fieldwork among the Jahriyya Sufis in northwest China and is now finalizing a book manuscript based in this research on religious chanting. He received his PhD in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in 2014.
Cite as: Ha, Guangtian. 2017. “Empire of Sound.” Anthropology News website, April 24, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.411