Rhys Sparey (KCL) - 2019-20 Students

Pandemic Pieties: Muharram, Music, and Mourning in the Time of Covid-19.

Scholars of the configuration of religious piety movements to the Covid-19 pandemic have tended to prioritise the study of worshippers’ adaptations of their observance of corporeal practices to constraints on mass gatherings with digital media hardware and videoconferencing software. In contrast, this project examines a practice that changed little because of Covid-19: The Mourning of Muharram. For many, the Hijri month of Muharram entails the ritual memorialisation of Hussein ibn Ali, the martyred 3rd Imam of Shi’a Islam and a foundational figure in Sufi Islam. During the coronavirus crisis, this took the form of live-streamed ceremonies on Facebook, virtual pilgrimages on Instagram, call-in talk-shows on broadcasters that encountered twitter by way of hashtags and handles, and professionally produced videos on YouTube. An analysis of the discourses, performances, cantillations, and spaces of producers, musicians, hosts, guests, callers, and commenters demonstrates a social and political change that is less about globalisation and mediation (terms that often take centre stage in discussions of “the digital age”) and is more about the relationship between human beings and technology broadly. The analysis involves four case-studies: The Imam Hussein Islamic Centre in Earlwood (Australia), Mahmudabad Estate in Uttar Pradesh (India), Imam Hussein TV in Karbala (Iraq), and Royal Records in an undisclosed part of Pakistan. The analysis reinvokes Hirschkind’s argument that many practices, rather than adjusting to constrictions on space and time viz-a-viz the current pandemic, have been “recalibrating to a new political and technological order” for decades (2006). In so doing, the dissertation elaborates a two-fold argument: Firstly, hitherto-unstudied ways of interacting between man and machine dismember prevailing assumptions of community and mediation that underpin studies of religion on the internet; And, secondly, the Covid-19 pandemic was a catalyst, if not a cause, of mainstreaming these subversive forms of community-making and mediating. These arguments invite scholars to complicate prominent ontologies of music, mediation, and technology, and to explore the impact of such artistic, social, political, and technological innovations on corporeal religious practices in Covid-19’s aftermath.

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