The Margins of Print: Children's Religious Literature in Egypt

By Starrett, Gregory | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 1996 | Go to article overview

The Margins of Print: Children's Religious Literature in Egypt


Starrett, Gregory, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


For more than a century now, the spread of mass primary and higher education, the emergence of new social classes, and the acquisition of technologies and market structures which encourage the mass-production of books and periodicals, have helped transform religious traditions in the Muslim world. These transformations are both formal and institutional ones, having to do with the manner in which Islamic knowledge is created and transmitted, and substantive ones altering the content, context and significance of what Islam - the free submission to God - means to large sectors of the population in Muslim countries. Particularly important is a gradual but accelerating shift in the locus of religious authority from the partially state-subsidized ranks of the Ulema - Muslim religious scholars - to the ranks of 'secular' intellectuals whose commitment to religion is not matched by traditional credentials. Understanding these transformations, which include the complex set of phenomena often described as 'Islamism' or 'Political Islam', requires us to look at the ways Muslims, whether in Egypt, Pakistan, Malaysia or North America, produce and communicate their understandings of the Islamic heritage. Obviously one of the most important ways this is accomplished is through the production of 'Islamic literature': written or printed material designed to inform, instruct, persuade and mobilize.

Despite the wealth of attention anthropologists have given to writing and print as intellectual technologies over the last two decades (see, for instance, Goody 1977; Finnegan 1988), it must be recalled that writing is only one of a cluster of means through which cultural knowledge can become objectified, means which are highly interdependent (Rodgers 1986; Starrett 1995a; 1995b) and which are not restricted to 'literate' classes or societies (Finnegan 1988; Tonkin 1992). This is well-known to anthropologists who have analysed artefacts not usually considered 'information technologies'. Long before the discipline turned its attention to writing and print, for example, Levi-Strauss (1966: 22) was writing about how the visual artist 'constructs a material object which is also an object of knowledge', and Bourdieu has likened domestic architecture to a book read by the body, 'a tangible classifying system [which] continuously inculcates and reinforces the taxonomic principles underlying all the arbitrary provisions . . . of culture' (Bourdieu 1977: 89). The boundaries between different classes of meaningful objects and media - houses, books, murals, music, commodities, clothing - are fuzzier than we might like, and it is important to look at printed communication within the context of other media. 'In practice,' writes Finnegan (1988: 143), 'people switch from oral to written to electronic communication and back and from personally generated to mass-media forms, without any sense that there is some radical change involved or that they are somehow thereby moving in different kinds of "social space"'. And as Halverson (1992) and others have argued, there is nothing cognitively special or inherently progressive about writing or print as means of communication, except that, to the extent that written materials are used in particular ways, they can allow an accumulation of information beyond the capacity of individual or collective memory (although they can just as well foster secrecy, hierarchy and ambivalence; see Bledsoe & Robey 1986; Kulick & Stroud 1990).

Recently, inaugurated by Anderson's (1983) reflections on the role of 'print capitalism' in the generation of nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere, anthropologists outside the field of literacy studies have entered the debate on the social and political uses of writing and print. 'Texts, writing and print create social and political identities, not just mirror them', Eickelman writes in the introduction to a special issue of Anthropological Quarterly devoted to 'Print Islam': 'The intellectual technologies of writing and printing create not only new forms of communication, they also engender new forms of community and authority' (1995: 133). …

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