Issue 11 / June 2016
by Hans-Joachim Neubauer
The historian Leor Halevi studies how the Muslim world reacted to things in modernity
Gongs for instance. Gongs can really be difficult. Perhaps not for Leor Halevi, but for example for certain Muslims in Indonesia who at start of the twentieth century asked a legal scholar whether it was okay for the muezzin to perform the call to prayer with one of these giant Chinese gongs. Shouldn’t he actually perform the call to prayer by calling – using nothing but the human voice?
Leor Halevi has entitled his Wissenschaftskolleg project: “Forbidden Goods: Cross-Cultural Trade in Islamic Law.” This might sound like a somewhat dry study – in most people’s minds an excursion into the realm of religion, law and economics does not immediately equate with a thrilling journey of discovery. But whosoever takes their place at the table with Halevi, a Harvard PhD in History and Middle East Studies, will soon be disabused of this notion. This friendly man exudes an unruffled and almost tranquil quality, yet it is indeed with the passion of a discoverer that he transports one to a world rife with strange and even mystifying tales. No, it is not fairy tales that Halevi uncovered in his research on Islam but lively and always exemplary accounts that pivot about a leading question: How does a religion respond when confronted by the alien and unknown?
Halevi peruses fatwas, normative legal advice, expert evaluations of the religious position vis-à-vis a particular question, rendered by leading religious authorities. Halevi has tracked down fatwas from around the world – texts that skirt the boundaries between tradition and modernity, texts that show how the reality of traditional law attempts to apprehend new phenomena. He consciously ignores the boundaries between academic disciplines. Up until now it was mainly historians of Islamic legal theory who analyzed fatwas. Halevi now brings the double vision of cultural and economic history to these primary sources, and what he brings to light is how contradictory and multifarious were the contacts between Muslims and non-Muslims.
History is concrete and specific. Halevi’s stories are all about banknotes and gramophones and records, about gongs and telegraphs and alcoholic dyes. And toilet paper. Toilet paper, you say? Where’s the problem? That’s a long story, says Halevi, and he proceeds to recount it. In the late nineteenth century the industrial West began to develop special toilet paper that was practical, perforated, rolled or folded. Halevi tells of a 1909 Sudanese fatwa which addressed the question of a believer as to whether it was within the law to resort to toilet paper when the customary and prescribed water was unavailable. Was someone who used toilet paper ritually pure and permitted to pray? Must the prayers be repeated under other conditions?
Or the telegraph for instance. There is nothing that so permeates our lives today as the electronic transmission of information. Yet the introduction of electric and electro-magnetic telegraphy presented deeply religious Muslims with a problem – namely whether the equipment could be utilized to transmit the correct time for the beginning and end of Ramadan, or when it was a matter of oral statements in a legal dispute. Islamic law determined in which cases written statements were required. There were similar discussions regarding phonograph records with readings from the Koran. In short, what exactly was permitted?
Halevi is not merely compiling a catalogue of dubious objects. He is interested in the debates surrounding practices and things and the reflection of the one upon the other. In the early twentieth century there was increasing discussion regarding the daily coexistence of religions. Were Muslims permitted to trade in wine? Were they allowed to earn money with products that were manufactured from pork? Was it permissible to play the lottery?
Even paper money was not to be taken for granted. Medieval Muslim merchants had used bills of credit and exchange to facilitate their finances. Actually it should have been easy to extend this to bank notes, which were originally promissory notes: documents that obligated the bank of issue to make a material disbursement in the equivalent value of gold or silver. Yet when money became increasingly abstract, faithful Muslims asked themselves whether they could pay with notes that only symbolized precious metal coins. The upshot was – they could. And the believer who inquired as to wiping versus water must have breathed easier when he received the answer: “Not to worry, it is completely acceptable to use toilet paper.”
When Leor Halevi speaks of these matters – when he unfurls those arabesque tales which he has excavated – his face radiates the joy of discovery. The slogan of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he teaches, applies very nicely to him: “Curiosity drives us.” He was born in Montreal in 1971, grew up in Mexico, trained in history and Middle Eastern Studies at Yale and Harvard, learned Arabic, and wrote his PhD dissertation on Islamic death rituals. He studied Islamic law at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris. When Halevi returns to Nashville this summer with his wife and three children he will resume his post as associate professor – and with a book manuscript in his satchel.
This book is about those particular objects, commodities and practices mentioned above as well as the question as to how debates about these changed over the course of decades. The globalization of work has generated a rapid increase in contacts between Muslims and non-Muslims. Restaurants, banks and offices have become places of transcultural exchange. There is no lack of readers for Halevi’s research findings – he has a fine grasp of narrative and is an excellent scholar and overall brilliant author much in demand by prestigious publishing houses.
What actually draws Halevi to these questions? “Good question,” he replies with a laugh. “That certainly has to do with my personal background.” Perhaps a mufti as his neighbor, a Muslim as his uncle? No. Halevi grew up in a secular Jewish household in Mexico. Very early on he marveled at the sumptuous rituals of his Catholic environment. Long before he began to develop an interest in Islam, he observed how religion can define social life. “I could also have been an historian of Christianity,” he declares; but it was ultimately Islam which captured his imagination. Luckily, as, so far, only few serious studies have been able to elucidate the connection between material history and the history of ideas in the Muslim cultural sphere.
Curiosity drives us. And time and again, personal happenstance plays a role, too. For instance Halevi’s interest in the Muslim dietary prescriptions was not because the halal norms reminded him of kosher food. His attentiveness to right and wrong diets was rather owing to the fact that one of his three children developed a food allergy. Norms and reality are conjoined. Particularly in the religions: “I am fascinated by the tension between religious ideas and concrete practice.” Simply trafficking in ideas would not have been enough for Halevi over the long term; history is and shall always remain a concrete matter.
Research increases knowledge. But what is the purpose of this knowledge? Halevi sees the meaning of his research, for one, in illuminating the past. He seeks to understand how the present has in fact become the present. Many of those consistently tangible frictions between adherents of various religions are the result of reinvented customs, norms and rules. Religions give evidence of themselves in everyday life. Halevi views religion as a cultural phenomenon that is “not independent of the world but formed by material forces. In the end it is shaped by the encounter with objects, technologies and other new phenomena that enter society.”
This consequent historical view does of course have consequences for religious claims to truth. For Halevi there is “no firm set of beliefs that is immutable and unchanging” – instead he concentrates on “salient content from the religious structures that are accentuated under certain conditions.” Hence varying elementary norms of the Koran are consulted when thought must be given to new phenomena and a way be found to conjoin tradition with modernity. It is ultimately a matter of people wanting to learn how to live with the new while not losing the old. Religions are cultural systems and cultural practices, and norms regulate how they get along with one another. Today this is no longer self-evident in view of rampant fundamentalisms. In his research, Halevi puts everyday life praxis on a level with the categorical differences between faiths. He states that religion is “a changing thing” – he is less interested in eternal truths than in the here and now, in paper and gongs and wine and notes. This is also a statement regarding the audience for his research. Halevi is naturally too modest to assume his research to be of use for everybody. Instead he prefers to sit and talk of his adventures and discoveries – fine little stories from the past that mirror so much in our present world.
More on: Leor Halevi
Images: © Maurice Weiss