Comparative Studies in Society and History

Research Article

Neo-Calligraphy: Religious Authority and Media Technology in Contemporary Shiite Islam

Morgan Clarkea1 c1

a1 University of Manchester

Religious authority and its relation to the mundane, and especially to the domains of politics and the state, is a perennial issue of sociological and theological concern. Within the Islamic world, my focus here, this issue takes particular form, inflected through the powerful trope of the shari‘ah (Arabic, sharī‘ah), most commonly glossed in English as “Islamic law,” although God's right “way” through life potentially addresses every aspect of human life. This comprehensiveness, conjoined with the “openness” that the shari‘ah's nominally divine and hence, in the final analysis, inscrutable source entails, has consequences for the ways in which one might imagine a state that grounded its legitimacy in following that right path. Brinkley Messick's (1993) monograph The Calligraphic State has provided a now classic exploration of such a polity in North Yemen, and its transformations under modernization. His analysis of these processes turns on a central image: the shift from a “calligraphic,” that is, personalized form of “textual domination,” drawing its authority from the endlessly open and interpretable field of “shari‘ah discourse” (1993: 1–3), to the rationalized, impersonal authority of modern legal texts, fixed and monopolized by state officials and symbolized, following the master metaphor, by uniform, rigid print.


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank all those who have helped in my researches in Lebanon, especially those cited in the course of this article and most particularly Shaykh Muhsin ‘Atwi, Hajj ‘Ali Sammour, and Hajj Hamid al-Khaffaf. I also express my gratitude to Professor Talal Khodari and Tom Perry for their unfailing friendship, hospitality, and support. My thanks are due to Judith Scheele and Michelle Obeid for reading drafts of this paper and CSSH's editors and anonymous reviewers for many helpful suggestions. Many of the points I make here have been presented at seminars at Cambridge, Aberdeen, the British Academy, Yale, SOAS and Manchester and I am grateful for the responses of those participating. Needless to say, all errors and infelicities are entirely my own. The research, writing, and final reworking of this paper have been generously supported by an ESRC doctoral studentship at the University of Oxford, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Cambridge, and a Simon Research Fellowship at the University of Manchester.