chapter  2
22 Pages

Social forces shaping the heterodoxy of Sufi performance in contemporary Egypt


A number of Sufis (Muslim mystics) became notorious within conservative Islamic circles for heterodox poetic expressions employing metaphors of intoxication and sensual love, or expressing mystical union. Likewise, conservatives criticized Sufis’ elaborate musical practices as heretical. They based both critiques in shari`a (Divine Law), as embodying the essence of Islam. Yet in contemporary Egypt, where religious fundamentalism is strong, independent professional munshids (religious singers) publicly perform such poetry, accompanied by musical ensembles. In the more private rituals of the Sufi orders (tariqas), texts are generally limited to conventional Islamic sentiments, emotion is more restrained, and musical instruments are infrequent. This chapter analyzes this contrast via models of strategic decision-making employed to define and perform a poetic repertoire, models shaped by their users’ objectives, constraints, and positions within the dynamic field of Islam in Egypt. The professional munshid lacks status within the Sufi establishment, and so is freer to maximize emotion via texts which are felt to provide glimpses of Divine Reality (haqiqa). Logical discord with shari`a is muted by the affective frame of aesthetic performance, and by strategies of textual delivery which discourage rational comprehension of assertions, while promoting affective perception of concepts and language sounds. The tariqas, as official religious organizations, are vulnerable to conservatives’ critiques. Through ritual they reinforce connections to shari`a, thus defending reputation and increasing membership. They also use poetic performance as a tool for spiritual education and group solidarity, not merely to create an ecstatic moment. Both factors lead to restrictions on poetic content and performance. In this chapter I probe the social forces shaping the heterodoxy of Sufimusical

performance in contemporary Egypt.1 The debate over music (Arabic musiqa) in Islam, historically and geoculturally widespread, is well documented in secondary scholarly sources (Farmer 1952; Choudhury 1957; Nelson 1985; Shiloah 1997) as well as in primary source texts (Ghazzali 1901; Dunya 1938; Ghazzali 1938). Throughout this literature it typically appears – stated or implied – that musical sound is more acceptable in Sufi Islamic ritual contexts (where it may be known as sama`, spiritual audition) than in Islamic ritual at large. In ethnomusicology, in particular, Sufism (along with, or as a form

of, ‘popular’ Islam) is often assumed to imply a willingness to harness music for spiritual ends, leading to lush sonic rituals, replete with musical instruments and complex musical forms – the quintessential example being the Mevlevi ‘whirling dervishes’, followers of Jalal al-Din Rumi, which served for a time as a kind of de facto conservatoire of the Ottoman Empire (Friedlander 2003). Ordinary Islamic ritual, by contrast, is typically portrayed as musically arid, containing only the solo unmeasured chants of adhan (call to prayer), du`a’ (supplication) and tilawa (Qur’anic recitation). None of these is classified under the heading musiqa, and beautiful performances, while appreciated, are not required for ritual efficacy; aesthetic perfunctoriness is common.2