Heavenly Readings: Liturgical Literacy in a Multilingual Context

Heavenly Readings: Liturgical Literacy in a Multilingual Context

by Andrey Rosowsky


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Heavenly Readings: Liturgical Literacy in a Multilingual Context by Andrey Rosowsky

This ethnographic study investigates for the first time in any significant depth the literacy practices associated with the religion of Islam as they are shaped, lived and experienced within a typical multilingual Muslim community in the United Kingdom. It seeks to counterbalance prevailing views on such practices which have often been misinformed, misrepresented and misunderstood. Making liberal recourse to the words, views and lives of its participants, this book describes, explores and celebrates liturgical literacy as a major contributor to group and individual cultural, linguistic and religious identities. In a political and social climate often inimical to religious practices in general, and to Islamic ones in particular, this book highlights the centrality and significance of such literacy practices to minority ethno-religious communities in their daily lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847690920
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 07/15/2008
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Andrey Rosowsky was a secondary school teacher of English and Languages for twenty years spending most of his career working in multiethnic and multilingual schools in the UK and elsewhere. After spending three years working for a local authority as a literacy consultant, he joined the School of Education at the University of Sheffield in 2005 and now works in Initial Teacher Education.

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Introduction to Liturgical Literacy, or Heavenly Readings

This book aims to account for some of the social, cultural, linguistic and religious processes that give rise to what I shall call 'liturgical literacy'. Wagner et al. (1986) use the term 'religious literacy' to describe one of the objectives of having attended a Qur'anic school in urban or rural Morocco. Fishman (1989) uses 'religious classical' as a general category of language used for religious purposes only. I prefer 'liturgical' as it restricts the literacy involved to that used exclusively for ritual and devotional practices, which is the topic of this book, and, in itself, is a word intimately linked with notions of words, texts and scripts.

The domain of liturgical literacy is wide and complex. It has a long and often controversial history. Its place in the 21st century is also varied and contested. It has often had a bad press, particularly in its Islamic form, and compared unfavourably with other forms of literacy. Nearly 100 years ago, MacDonald, for example, emphasised the 'rote' nature of the learning involved:

It trains the memory and the power of reasoning – always in formal methods – and then gives to neither any adequate material on which to work. The memory is burdened with verbatim knowledge of the Qur'an and some outlines of Theology and law, and the reason is exhausted in elaborate argumentations there from deduced. (MacDonald, 1911: 228–289)

Another writer, much later in the century, echoed these sentiments with:

Qur'anic school imposes on the child a purely mechanical, monotonous form of study in which nothing is likely to rouse his interest. (Zerdoumi, 1970: 96)

And, at the beginning of the 21st century we even have Muslim writers weighing in with similar comments:

Inevitably, their experiences of rote learning without any understanding left them bored and alienated not only from the madrassah but from religion itself. (Lewis, 2001)

And when an attack on such literacy is not intended, writers often reveal their unconscious disapproval with value-laden words and expressions making invidious comparisons between learning how to read the Qur'an and Western learning as in Bledsoe and Robey:

Arabic is traditionally studied from the Qur'an under a karamoko (Arabic teacher, Islamic scholar) who demands stringent discipline, laborious work, and long-term commitments from his students. (Bledsoe & Robey, 1993: 116; my emphasis)

English (or any other non-liturgical literacy) is obviously taught and learnt effortlessly in an environment of perfect motivation needing only a short time for its mastery ...

This point of view can be interpreted, in many respects, as an example of that dismissive or condescending attitude to the East, and to Islam in particular, discussed by writers such as Said (1997) and Asad (2003). Although this book does not directly deal with Western attitudes to things oriental, it is relevant inasmuch as the marginalisation of literacies, which is one of the themes of this book, is a manifestation of a tendency in dominant cultures to emphasise, and thus exacerbate, cultural differences which, in turn, leads to 'othering', an elected ignorance and deliberate sidelining of alternative cultural practices. A lack of detailed knowledge about other cultures, forgivable if confessed, but criminal if suppressed, inevitably leads to unfounded generalisations and platitudes that inform nobody. In the bigger picture, which may involve communities, nations, or nation-blocs, this ignorance leads to stand-off, distrust and suspicion, with all that these positions may entail. And, indeed, since the events of September 11th 2001 and July 7th 2005, there is even more onus upon those who discuss and write about matters pertaining to aspects of Islamic culture or to Muslim communities to do so in an informed and intelligent manner. When discussing the Other in terms of literacy practices one is mindful of the responsibility to avoid short-cut assumptions and ascribing motives and to present as accurate and honest a description of the literacy practice as is possible whilst admitting any limitations on such a description as might arise.

Respect for the concrete detail of human experience, understanding that arises from viewing the Other compassionately, knowledge gained and diffused through moral and intellectual honesty: surely these are better, if not easier, goals at present than confrontation and reductive hostility. (Said, 1981: lxx)

However, it is not only Qur'anic liturgical literacy which is thus disparaged. Reder and Wikelund (1993) report that the Old Church Slavonic liturgy of the Russian Orthodox Church still present in Alaska is being slowly but surely replaced by the dominant English literacy introduced by Baptists.

The technology of the Baptists' literacy was English-based and used the Roman alphabet, whereas the Orthodox literacy used Cyrillic script in Slavonic and Alutiiq. Few if any Orthodox parishioners understood the Slavonic services they attended; participation was by rote, and comprehension of the oral languages was limited. (Reder & Wikelund, 1993: 184)

Note here the substitution of not only language but also script (there are no linguistic reasons why Alutiiq could not be maintained with a Slavonic script). This colonising aspect of the seemingly neutral technology of a script is expanded upon below (Chapter 5: Teachers) where the script associated with a dominant language comes to be used for other languages. One might argue that a single script, when dealing with several languages, would be economic and more practical, allowing for the transfer of skills learnt acquiring the script in one language to facilitate learning literacy in another. It is rare that such a decision (one that is likely to be made officially once official resources come into play) is made solely on linguistic grounds. Rather, the dominant script will be adopted by default for political reasons. Azerbaijan is currently experiencing its fourth major alphabet change in a century. Originally using an Arabic-Persian script reflecting its geographical position and political ties to the Ottoman Empire, the language briefly flirted with Roman script immediately following the Communist takeover, was obliged to conform with the rest of the Soviet Union and adopt a form of Cyrillic, and is now once again attempting to re-introduce a Roman script in the light of the break-up of the Soviet Union (Grimes, 1992). A script is rarely neutral. The use of other scripts is a vital issue for the community involved in this book (see Chapter 11: Mirpuri-Punjabi).

The ethnocentrism of the quotes cited earlier is sometimes matched by the 'chronocentrism' of other writers describing literacy practices from the past. Graff (1979) argues that the claims for universal literacy in Sweden before the end of the 18th century are weakened when we bear in mind that the literacy in question was guided by religious considerations.

... good reading ability did not relate strongly to the ability to understand. Popular skills tested well in assessments of oral reading and in memorisation. They were, however, much less useful when it came to comprehension ... (Graff, 1979: 310)

With religion becoming less and less of an influence on the lives of many people living in the world today, particularly the Western world, it may seem bizarre to focus upon a literacy practice which, to some minds, appears irrelevant, outmoded and clearly unsatisfactory. As Frank Smith reminds us, exclusive attention to the phonic dimension of the reading act leads to what he terms 'barking at print'. Reading without meaning? Where is the point in that? (Smith, 1994: 7). Yet, at the time of writing, in the UK, at least, there is a government-approved initiative to introduce a reading scheme into primary schools that relies more heavily on the process of systematic phonics teaching than ever before in recent history, and is akin in many ways to the methods employed in traditional settings for the acquisition of liturgical literacy (DfES, 2007; DCSF, 2007).

What is important to note is that, whatever current orthodoxies may be regarding the meaning of 'reading', millions of the world's citizens participate in this literacy practice and do not, in the slightest, perceive their practice to be meaningless, but rather understand it as a meaningful and fulfilling part of their daily lives, informing their notions of both personal identity and community.

Liturgical Literacy: Defining Remarks

Liturgical literacy is understood as that use of reading, more rarely of writing, which is essential to ritual and other devotional practices connected with an established religion, usually a 'religion of the book', such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam. The language of the liturgy is often different from that spoken by the congregation, such as Classical Arabic in non-Arab Muslim countries and communities, Old Church Slavonic in the Russian Orthodox Church, or the retention of Latin in some aspects of Roman Catholicism. Even when the language of the liturgy can be considered, in some senses, the same as the spoken tongue of the congregation, there are often major differences in register, style and vocabulary that can problematise meaning for participants. This is the case in the Arabic-speaking world, where the Classical Arabic of the Qur'an is not the same as the spoken Arabic of the congregation, or even the same as the Standard Arabic of more formal settings. Ferguson and others (1957; Fishman, 1967) have described this general sociolinguistic phenomenon as an example of diglossia where there is a functional distinction between varieties of the same language. Whena liturgical language is involved, as it is, for example, in Muslim communities, the diglossia is of a particular kind. It is more often the case that the liturgical language, or more specifically liturgical literacy, is not a variant of the spoken language of the congregation. However, the linguistic 'compartmentalisation' that Fishman argues for (1991, 2001), and which needs to take place for a language variety to survive in a minority language setting, appears to be enhanced when the variety is a liturgical one. I hope that this book will show how this compartmentalisation, where the domain for the use of liturgical literacy is clearly demarcated and defended, takes place. That there is a difference, in this example, is due to the considerable passage of time that has elapsed from the period of the first scripted Qur'an (650 AD) to the present moment and to the extensive geographical spread of the Arabic language. Although the written form of the Qur'an crystallises a moment in the history of Arabic, and indeed has acted as a conservative force on the Arabic language throughout its history, the spoken language moves inexorably on through time and place. An English reader with little appreciation of the diglossic situation that exists with many languages in the world would do well to think of the differences between the language of Shakespeare, a version of English crystallised at a particular moment in history, and the spoken language of today, 400 years later. For most first-language English speakers, much of what Shakespeare has written is incomprehensible on first hearing without the aid of the text.

Islamic Liturgical Literacy or Qur'anic Literacy

The liturgy often is derived from the central scripture of the religion involved. For the liturgical literacy described in this book, the liturgy is derived from the Qur'an. The Qur'an, according to Muslim belief, was a book revealed to the Arabian Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century AD. It was revealed in Arabic and committed to memory by the early 'companions' of Muhammad, many of whom memorised the entire book. Soon after the death of Muhammad, when many of the memorisers of the Qur'an had died and there was a fear that the Qur'an might be lost, the Prophet's successor as leader, or khalifah, Abu Bakr, ordered the Qur'an to be transcribed in full. The first transcribed version of the Qur'an made in the 7th century AD is almost identical to any copy of the book found in any mosque today.

Islam is, par excellence, a religion centred on literacy. The first word of the Qur'anic revelation was the imperative 'iqra' ('read!'). This was, in Islamic tradition, a miraculous event in many ways. The Prophet Muhammad was said to have never been taught to read. Despite the primacy of the overwhelmingly oral culture of 7th century Arabia and the Prophet's own lack of literacy, from the very first days of Islamic history reading was always of the utmost importance and was considered a pathway to virtue. An early instruction of the Prophet was to free prisoners-of-war who were able to teach someone to read. Alongside memorisation of the Qur'an, a common practice was to memorise sayings of the Prophet. These too were eventually written down after the compilers of collections of these sayings devoted their lives to their authentication and arrangement. In the Islamic religion, therefore, there are two principal scriptural sources. However, it is the Qur'an that is used most extensively in the liturgy in the mosques and in private devotions. Chapters and verses of the book are used regularly in congregational and individual prayers. Indeed, it is impossible for a Muslim to pray without reading the first chapter of the Qur'an, The Opening, usually followed by other verses.

The Opening

In the name of God, Most Merciful, Most Compassionate Praise be to God, Lord of all worlds,
The Qur'an is read individually as part of one's individual devotions. It can also be read in a group as part of group devotions. It is often read aloud for people to listen to. It is often read in its entirety during the month of Ramadan, either individually or by the congregation as a whole during the nightly extra prayers of tarawih. It is read aloud to accompany birth and to accompany death. It is read in times of distress and in times of joy. It is referred to in nearly every sermon and religious talk or lecture with verses quoted and explained. In the Arabic-speaking world, its language has entered common parlance. As the human form is not generally depicted in art form in the Islamic world, the words of the Qur'an have become of great significance in the art form of calligraphy. Most mosques will have decorations featuring Qur'anic verses and words. Copies of the Qur'an will also be very much in evidence on window shelves or in bookcases. The Qur'an will also feature in the home, with decorative calligraphy on walls and copies of the Qur'an on shelves often decorated. The car will also usually contain a Qur'an. Wallets may have small credit-card size verses. Jewellery will often feature verses, in particular the 'Throne' verse for protection (see Chapter 9: Homes).

The community who are the subject of this book do not speak or usually understand Arabic, the language of the Qur'an. For them, the language of the Qur'an has a sound they can replicate, a form they can recognise, but a meaning that often eludes them. For an understanding of their religion, they have to be taught in their mother tongue by, in theory, someone with access to the meaning, or they have to read in a language they understand. When they pray, they use their liturgical language which is Arabic. They will also be able, at varying levels of proficiency, to read the Qur'an. This will be decoding, and may be aloud or silent. They will probably also know, in common with all Muslims, a few common interjections and sayings in Arabic which they will use sometimes in conversation such as 'alhamdulillah' ('thanks be to God'), 'subhan Allah' ('glory to God') and 'astaghfirullah' ('may God forgive us').

In order for this community to be able to participate in this liturgical language, considerable investment in terms of time and money has to be expended. Instruction for children is begun on a part-time basis from the age of six and continues until a reasonable level of proficiency in decoding is achieved. At the end of this period a young person is left able to read, or decode, the Qur'an and able to conduct his or her prayers correctly.


Excerpted from "Heavenly Readings"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Andrey Rosowsky.
Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

AcknowledgementsList of PlatesList of Tables and FiguresPart I The Study of Liturgical LiteracyChapter 1 Introduction to Liturgical LiteracyChapter 2 The Community and its EthnographyPart II The Community and its Liturgical LiteracyChapter 3 ChildrenChapter 4 ParentsChapter 5 TeachersChapter 6 OrganisersPart III The Settings for Liturgical LiteracyChapter 7 MosquesChapter 8 HomeChapter 9 SchoolPart IV The Languages of Liturgical LiteracyChapter 10 UrduChapter 11 Mirpuri-PunjabiChapter 12 EnglishChapter 13 ArabicPart V Concluding Remarks and ImplicationsChapter 14 Concluding RemarksReferences

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