Audible Matter / Wave #4 VIDEO ESSAY April 2021

Sounding Calamity

Moad Musbahi

Editor's note – Sounding Calamity is a two-part series. Chapters 2 and 3 will be published over the course of Wave #4.

Sounding Calamity

A sermon is a word used to define spoken acts within a liturgical practice. The etymological root of the English word ‘sermon’ stems from the process of ‘a stringing together of words’, from the Latin ser denoting the verb ‘to line [things] up’. This points to the word’s origin beyond its spiritual confines to the base aggregation of language, the building up of a set of abstract meanings into a particular structure of possible vocalisation; a syntactical event sounded in the presence of others. The moment of performance, in combination with the speaker’s position and mode of projection, is referred to as an oration: the formalisation of speech delivered within a specific space of public audition.

[1] My reference to the Ancient Greek past in relation to the Arabic tradition requires a certain clarification. It builds on convincing scholarship that strongly contests the privileged patrimony that scholars in the West claim as their exclusive domain and inheritance. C.f. Walter Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influences on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), among others.

[2] Sulayman Bashir, Arabs and Others in Early Islam, Studies in Late Antiquity and Islam 8 (Princeton, N. J.: Darwin Press, 1997)

[3] Vagelpohl, Uwe. Aristotle's Rhetoric in the East, (Brill, 2008)

[4] Oludamini Ogunnaike, " The Presence of Poetry, the Poetry of Presence", Journal of Sufi Studies 5, 1 (2016): 58-97, 68.

In the history of the oratorical tradition, the period of the Second Sophistic is dated to the first two centuries AD. [1] This tradition was defined by the itinerant performers and teachers invited by influential figures to deliver orations or train future public speakers. These mobile and migratory individuals spanned Rome’s southern provinces, from Alexandria to Gaza, Antioch, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula. The art of the spoken word developed further as it was co-opted by the ancient Arabs before the birth of Islam at the start of the 7th century. [2] By the time the ancient Greek and Roman texts were formally translated in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Arabic word for oration was khutba, a term no longer beholden to the Aristotelian determination that it had within its rhetorical role in antiquity. [3]

Khutba, or sermon, is one point on a triangle referred to as the art of oratory (fann al-khataba) that also contains the khatib, preacher or orator, and the khitab, public discourse (understood in the broadest sense). This final component is an indication of the privilege given to the oral transmission of knowledge. That knowledge became discourse through the necessity for vocal presence as it was embedded into the core of the Arabo-Islamic tradition. A facet of this is found in Ibn Arabi’s (d. 637 AH/ 1240 CE) Sufi Islamic theology that believes the entire universe was composed of the cosmic breath of an ‘unarticulated Wujud [Being]’. Arabi determined that “‘Divine Breath’ is pure being, so everything that exists is Divine speech, a cosmic array of words.” [4] Thus, the bare protocol of human speech, in its most simple form, is a limited articulation of this Breath. Taking the Divine’s act of creation, ‘be, and it is’, as a foundational prism of phonatory conceptualisation and the production of all things in which the self is but a word articulated by its creator, orality encompasses many dimensions. The defining sonic document in this history, the Quran, began as an act of divine oration between the archangel Gabriel and the Prophet. It prophesied the moment for the end of Time in phonological terms, a purely vibratory event, ‘a deafening blast’ known as ‘al-sakhat’.

Listen to The Deafening Blast, some notes and commentary

On a mortal level, the khutba is derived in some lexicographic interpretations to have originally meant “an important or catastrophic event” or “a calamity”. [5] The ancient Arabs named it because it was delivered only after these catastrophes, or because such events were understood only through their sound. One hears history and is attuned to the frequency of its broadcast. These moments of audible distortion within the trajectory of historical action denote the passage of time and serve as durational markers. Here, orations provide material for the archival record and indicate allegiance, vocal kinship, political patronage and hostile enmity. At times, wars were waged over what was heard, as was the case in Baghdad during the year 1010 AD.

A Story in Surround Sound (coming soon)

[5] Ibn Manzur, Lisan al Arab (d.711H/ 1311AD) and in Ishaq bin Ibraham al-Ktib, al-Burhan fi wujah al-bayan, (d. 335H/ 946AD)

The khutba has a long history with many variations, forms and sub-genres. The most common liturgical khutba accompanies the Friday prayer and the two annual festivals of Eid. These khutba feature a repeated ritual performance based on the sacred time encoded in the Islamic lunar calendar. On a more celestial temporality, the ul-Kusuf and ul-Khusuf were prompted by the solar and lunar eclipse respectively. This speech marks - and is marked by - an elevated portal of time and a protocol of expectation that defines the sequence of public life and the intervals of verbal intrusion between the citizens and their spiritual or political figures. “All of the world is endowed with rhythm, fastened by rhyme, on the Straight Path.” [6] The space of this encounter was carefully conditioned, where the content of the khutba is coloured by its context, a relationship recognized by the Ancient Greeks as the Kairos and by Arabs as the muqtada al-hal. To limit their subversive potentiality, access to sermons was regulated. As recently as 2013, an Egyptian law sought to not only suppress what was said but how and where orations were given, creating a blanket ban that targeted sound and space through coercive control.

Mute Liturgy (coming soon)

[6] Ibn Arabi quoted in D. McAuley, Ibn Arabi’s Mystical Poetics (Oxford University Press, 2012), 45.

During times of unfavourable environmental conditions, there is an oration that assists the prayer that beseeched for rain, al-istisqa'. Here, words are sounded aloud to call forth a future climatic event. This clairvoyant aspect can find its corollary in the rich tradition of the khutba prior to the birth of Islam and breaks down its commonly misunderstood meaning to relate only to liturgy. The orations of the oracles were broken into three distinct vocal categories: the kahin (soothsayer), munajjim (astrologer) and arraf (foreteller). These went along with orations that accompanied festivals and other moments of grand social recourse, such as marriage ceremonies. This latter part signalled the gendered performance of the speaking subject of history and all its mute absences.

Listen to The Oration of the Wife of Abu al-Aswad al-Du'ali

This series of work aims to amplify the vast polyphony of practices that both resonate with -- and are in a discordant disjuncture from -- the long and loud history of the khutba and its disbursed provenance. Parallel to this, methods of compression, transport and amplification of sound were applied, an infra-structural set of processes that carried this practice through time and place. In their varied application and evolving comprehension, these methods create divergent sounds in each respective ear.

Read Semantic Condensation and Other Techno-Acoustic Devices

Sounding Calamity endeavours to break down and open up a sonic practice that in its multi-vocality provides for an indigenous method of relating to others and the environment, listening to the past and foretelling the future to create social action and political possibility amid a present that has been too frequently silenced.

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