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Introduction: the paradigm of performing Islam beyond the political rhetoric


This book addresses the importance of music, culture and identity in the Muslim world through the study of performance, politics and piety, and in a timely fashion, offers a theoretical basis for the understanding of the pleasures and politics of Muslims worldwide. Today, within stereotyped characterizations of Islam, pleasure, debate and performing creativity find little place. Rather, mainstream discourses’ strongest signifiers of Islam are violence, fundamentalism, repression and joylessness. Such simplifications are misleading. Across the world, diverse communities of Muslims live their collective identities in dialogic interaction with various social forces: the legacies of colonialism, the imperatives of globalization, the pressures of diaspora, the demands of modernity, the pull of sacred pan-Islamic radicalism, and the perceived injustices of the ‘war on terror’. The criss-crossing axes of the global, the local and the transnational impel them to consolidate collective identities, confirm their historical legacies and look forward to the future. Like all human beings in all societies, they also engage in enjoyable and pleasurable expressive acts while doing so, in particular, by making, listening to and being emotionally sustained by music. Music and performance have been an important issue in Islamic thought

from the start of Islam. For some time in the history of Islam there was a controversy surrounding the role of music within the religion. This was followed by a general consensus about two possible theories of music, one initiated by al-Farabi and ibn Sina and the other by the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’) and al-Kindi. One approach is about what music reflects, the other concerns what it does for us, though they are complementary. This theoretical genesis situates the Pythagorean approach becoming the reasoning behind Sufi and other Muslim-influenced music, which sees itself as doing more than just producing pleasure in its addressees. The movements in Muslim-influenced dance and music are designed to reproduce the basis of reality and to worship God by using the body in ways that are not customarily parts of prayer. Our interest in the studies gathered together in this book, as the result of a research network project funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, is not primarily musicology but rather the aesthetics of performance and

the culture and identity subsequently engendered. As reflected in the chapters of this book, the contexts of Islam and performance encompass a wide range of events, manifestations and behaviour patterns which display local conceptions and articulations of aesthetics. Although the term aesthetics remains vague at best, its appropriation and redefinition in the light of non-Western cultures show that performative or ritual contexts assume varying awareness of the aesthetic. In one way or another, the contributors to this volume make aesthetic

evaluations of performance which flow well with the combination and integration of various performative elements of sound, movement, interaction and meaning. The politics of sound is approached as an integral complex involving the visual or iconic, gestural, verbal, vocal, corporal and instrumental. In the case of the visual, the mediums of sound (i.e. musical instrumentals) are crafted with specific materials, symbols and designs to conform to aesthetic and performance expectations. In fact, in some contexts showcased in the various chapters, they are formed and manipulated according to musical, symbolic decorative or abstract considerations. I would therefore argue that aesthetic forms of structured music, dance and other performative elements link the inner experience of the subject with the objective structure of the performance, which satisfies the fundamental condition of piety. However, it is important to distinguish that Muslims do not always use the generic term ‘music’ in the same way it is employed in the English language or in other Western/European languages. The Arabic term for music, musiqa, for example, does not apply to all types of artistic vocal and instrumental arrangements of sounds, tones and rhythms. In more specific contexts Arab Muslims might use the idiom handasat al sawt, the art of sound. Musiqa, or music, applies more to particular genres of sound art, and for the most part it has been designated only for those that have a somewhat questionable or even disreputable status in Islamic culture (al Faruqi 1986). Handasat al sawt is a recently invented term used by Arab Muslims to separate their Muslim conception of ‘music’ from that held in the Western and non-Muslim world, which often contrast in quite critical ways. It is therefore the aim of this volume to look at the influence of Islamic religious beliefs on the role and realization of the art of sound and its manifestation in the Muslim world and its diaspora. Without engaging in a comparative study, it is worth highlighting here that many similarities exist between handasat al sawt and various examples from contemporary Western art music, and also certain forms of jazz. Such comparisons might make the art of sound of the Muslim world more accessible and understandable, not only to specialists but also to those more familiar with developments in the musical world of the West and Europe. For clarity and simplicity the terms ‘music’ and ‘performance’ are used

throughout this book, and in reference to Muslim culture the term music is used precisely to mean handasat al sawt rather than the Arabic musiqa. What should be noted here is the polyvalent and multi-generic nature of the former, which leaves room for artistic and theoretical creativity, particularly in light of

the examples from North Africa and Asia covered in this volume. This also justifies the inclusion of music, culture, identity, performance, politics and piety in the title of this volume and other related terms and concepts in the titles of the essays presented here. No matter what research perspectives we bring to it, the subject of performative Islam remains an important area of challenges and fresh discoveries. Some of these challenges have been addressed. Martin Stokes’ chapter, ‘New Islamist popular culture in Turkey’, is explicitly concerned with music as a vehicle for debate about public culture in Muslim Turkey. He shows how music, in itself and in performance, is a form of contest and he locates the various kinds of debate that revolve around this issue, and their political stakes, within the broader concept of public formation. New considerations have emerged in relation to the contemporary understanding of religion, especially after the events of 11 September 2001. These can appear minor in relation to the bigger picture, but could have a significant impact on approaches to the study of religion and the performing arts, and indeed to wider academic and public concerns. Recent cultural productions have been revealing in the forms of Islamic expression that have been emphasized; there may be little attention paid to cultural and artistic diversity under the umbrella of Islam, with a focus instead on political rhetoric and activism at the expense of quietist mystically oriented beliefs. Sound, music and bodily performance offer a window onto the subtleties and humanity of Islamic religious experience. This is in contrast to much of the media coverage about Islam since the aforementioned events. The performative aspect of contemporary Muslim life is the focus of this

book. It explores how, through modes of performance, piety and protest, music, dance and chanting have become a vehicle for problematic debate within societies where Islam exerts a significant cultural influence. Paying attention to these intra-communal debates, alongside the differences between ‘the Muslim world’ and its perceived antagonists, offers fresh insights into the relationship between Islamic, secularist and nationalist orthodoxies and social repositioning within Muslim communities. Moreover, this approach can shed crucial light on how radicalization, fundamentalism and violence might themselves be countered. This book therefore opens up space for interdisciplinary inter-regional perspectives, and encourages comparative understanding of how, within the wider context of ‘Islam’, sound and bodily performance practice enables disagreement as well as cross-cutting solidarities. It also facilitates a comparative examination of the relationship between practices and the emergence of Muslim collective identities in different geographic locations with cohesive geo-cultural space, namely North Africa, South and West Asia, and their diasporas. It shares the experience of pre-modern Islamic empires – Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal – which, as historians are increasingly demonstrating, were in constant mutual contact, and which remain culturally significant to their modern-day inhabitants. It shares too the experiences of European colonialism that made them layered sites for the negotiation of modernity. Such negotiations have been further complicated by postcolonial

governments at various levels of Islamic adherence, engagement and antagonism. The substantial Muslim diaspora within Europe, originating from this geo-cultural arc, presents a transnational extension of these processes. Through case studies, the respective chapters endeavour to uncover the ongoing dialogic relationships between local and vernacular cultural forces and the cultural legacy of Islam. Related religious performance in the Muslim world lies on the intersection

between myth and history, sacred time and secular time. Religious and cultural historians draw on these intersections for the tropes with which they calibrate the different histories that together represent the Muslim world. The tensions between the various forms of performance inside and outside that world have often turned on the distinction between myth and history. Prior to the advent of the written traditions of Islam there were only the sacred oral traditions of the native in most of the Muslim world. Literacy began with the reading and reciting of the Holy Book, whose capacity for symbolism and mysticism remains undiminished, even today. The temporal dimensions of performance, particularly music, constantly allow for new beginnings. The contact with or embracing of Islam within the various indigenous cultures and traditions of the Muslim world brings new rhythms, tones and performance structures that are themselves – more often than not in Muslim cultural historiography – sustained the longest in religious contexts. The very possibility of multicultural performance and music in that world depends on the capacity of ethnic sections of the population to return to their beginnings when repertoires are in need of revitalization and authenticity. The renewal of beginnings is not only an act of authentication. It also expresses a profound unremitting uncertainty about music’s position in the Muslim experience. It asks whether the music within this experience is, theologically, music at all, whether the sacred and the aesthetic are mutually exclusive. Many are subject to this uncertainty, raising their voices in the daily practice of Muslim religious experience. In his chapter, ‘Social forces shaping the heterodoxy of Sufi performance in contemporary Egypt’, Michael Frishkopf explains how Muslim mystics, Sufis, have became notorious within conservative Islamic circles for heterodox poetic expressions employing metaphors of intoxication and sensual love, or expressing mystical union. Likewise, his study stresses how conservatives have criticized Sufis’ elaborate musical practices for being heretical. They base both critiques on shari`a, the Divine Law, embodying the essence of Islam. However, in contemporary Egypt, where religious fundamentalism is strong, independent professional religious singers, the munshids, publicly perform such poetry, accompanied by musical ensembles. In the more private rituals of Sufi orders, tariqas, texts are generally limited to conventional Islamic sentiments, emotion being more restrained and musical instruments infrequent. Frishkopf analyzes this contrast via models of strategic decision-making, which are employed to define and perform a poetic repertoire, models shaped by the objectives of their users, and their constraints and positions within the dynamic field of Islam in Egypt.