Islam, the religion of over 1.6 billion followers has been subject to heated debated on both regional and international stages. The growing interest in Islam, as a category of monolithic religion, has been coupled with the rise of the so-called ‘global terrorism’. Beyond generalization and essentialism, we, students at Harvard, get the chance to approach the study of ‘religion’ from various theological, social and political perspectives in order to unravel the complex phenomena of human existence. This semester, the course For the Love of God & His Prophet represented a methodological manifesto not only for the ‘academic’ study of Islam, but the human appreciation of beauty and diversity. The teaching and apprentice were largely guided by Prof. Asani’s views he articulated in his book Infidel of Love. He writes, on page 20:
All interpretations of religions are essentially human enterprises: the faithful may consider certain religious truths to be divinely revealed, but religious meaning is constructed by humans based on their worldly circumstances and material realities. As these circumstances differ, multiple conflicting interpretations are not only to be expected but also inevitable […] These conflicting definitions provide incontrovertible evidence of the role of context in formulating religious worldviews.
The context, worldly circumstances and material realities I am particularly interested in is “audible Islam.” As a student of Arabic music and of ethnomusicology, I have always been fascinated by the seemingly intrinsic relationship between religious beliefs, theologies & practices, and musical activities—or what I will call borrowing from ethmunisocologist Christopher Small, “musicking”, that considers music a process of composing, performing, receiving. In the context of the Muslim world, how set of chants or recitation gathered and consolidated dispersed communities into a shared worldview by simultaneously highlighting the tensions among local differences and celebrating their richness never ceases to astonish me.
Since the sixth century, sonic manifestations of Islam, including spoken words, music and sound—have largely been diverse. These sounds include Qur’anic recitation and call to prayer heard on loudspeakers, religious sermons and chants on cassettes, and all genres of musics, such as folk, pop and more recently rap and rock. The different audiences add another layer to the plurality of sounds that appear in public and private places, and the space between the two. Musical/oral expression is only one among infinite artistic celebration of the Love of God and His Prophet in Muslim societies. Renard, in his compelling book Seven Doors to Heaven supplies us with an important observation:
“Revelation and artistic inspiration go back long way, but theirs has been an often tempestuous love-hate relationship. The Islamic tradition has drawn an exquisitely fine line between divine initiative and human effort, between genuine spiritual experience and simple-self-deception, between verbal visual imagery and the transcendent reality to which they allude. This study of religious aesthetics attempts to trace that line” (p. 108)
As for the aesthetic aspects manifested in the sounds are important to consider for many reasons. First, they offer an opportunity to question and analyze why and how the oral/aural mode of human expression and communication is central in Muslims communities. Second, it provides a lens through which one can develop appreciation of oral/aural aesthetic practices through the engagement of the emotional faculty and the sensorium. This ultimately allows us, as listeners, to draw near the original listeners of the sonic/musical tradition. Lastly, sonic cultures bring to light the function of creativity in the expression of religious beliefs, social norms, and cultural values.
Given the title of the blog “Musical Arabesque,” it may seem that I am borrowing an orientalist trope to come up with some theory about music in Muslim cultures. However, my intent is to subvert this claim through its own vocabulary. Just like Grabar’s approach to architecture, I do not intent to “seek general and abstract meaning in what had been a concrete personal experience,” (Symbols and Signs in Islamic Architecture, p. 25). I consider this attitude to be conceptually and morally problematic for it threatens the unique cultural experiences by reducing them into “meaningless and obvious generalities” (Grabar, p. 25). By that, I also follow Nebahat Avcioglu’s approach that rejects reducing cultures “to homogeneous stance of a visible sign of referential singularity,” (Identity-as-form: the Mosque in the West, p. 92). Suggesting a theory of oral/musical aesthetics signifies a recognizable modes of understanding associated with specific modes of thinking, behaving and feeling. The multitude of the manifestation of Islam makes this endeavor impossible.
I must thus also note that the creative responses I provide do not aim to trace the origins of beliefs or the contest the debates around the lawfulness of music, or assert any particular theory to explain these expressions; for given the general acceptance of the difficulty of this task, it is impossible to formulate any model or strategy to interpret the originality of these musickings. Suggesting a model for analyzing creative expressions is a self-contradiction, an oxymoron, for the very concept of “model” assumes a language whose characteristics are fixed, defined and predictable.
The overview I hope to provide of sonic expressions yields insight into the relationship between oral culture, musicking, religious and political authority and spirituality. Generally, musical expressions have been used as means for loftiest sentiments that break the boundaries between secular one, and religious ones, the mundane and the profane, the sacred and the worldly. They also testify the official religious discourses, social and cultural norms.
The first mix is the recitation of Sūrat al-fātīḥa by seven reciters from across the muslim world. The sound of the Qur’an defines the everyday life of Muslims. The recitation featured, that is tajweed based on the art of Arabic maqām improvisation, brings together “majesty and intimacy that makes the Qur’anic voice distinctness,” as Michael Sells puts its (Approaching the Qur’an, p. 3). What I hope to highlight is the consistency of pronunciation and spelling despite the various linguistic and cultural background of the reciters. This distinct characteristic reflects Muslims’ attempts to preserve the oral tradition given the belief that the orality of the Qur’an is intrinsic to the revelatory nature of the Qur’an revealed to prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Then we hear, in the second mix, this monolithic sound being fractured by the local musical traditions. The salawāt, again collected from across the Muslim world, give a contrasted perspective to the entrenched desire for a common Muslim identity. It puts forward an aspiration to retain exceptional cultural practices within the lofty ummah.
In the next sound clip, we hear the oral tradition of Ghazal recitation. Poetry in general and Ghazal in particular has been the literary form the most celebrated in Muslim societies since the dawn of Islam. The subject of Love addressed in this form of poems is the symbol of the universal passion that moves Muslims towards their Beloved/beloved. The poem ‘Away from the Garden’ draws on themes from the Persian ghazal tradition in order to orally exemplify the ambiguity of addressed and addressee; subject and object; spiritual and worldly realms; rhythms and meanings.
Beyond the Persian world, we then travel to Pakistan to attend a Qawwali concert by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan only to discover that the concert is a festival where other vocalists (Madhushree) and bands (Junoon) are taking on the stage. Carried by the rich traditions of Sindhi and Hindi, pop and rock musics, the songs celebrate Sir Muhamad Iqbal’s poetry. The recent adoption of Iqbal’s poetry in music has been a shouting illustration of how music has been used by young muslims to protest and proclaim their hybrid identities, and above all interpret the world. Muslims’ conciseness of this complex identity-politics in constant formation is then exemplified by an Egyptian crowd listening to Um-Kulthum on the radio in on the cafes in Cairo (mix 5). The persona of Um Kulthum and the popular culture that surrounds it is an example of a woman whose agency played out in her mastery of the art of tajweed , religious chanting, and the art of Arabic musical tradition. The songs cover religious chants, love songs and patriotic hymns all interweaving within a hybrid musical repertoire.
After turning off the radio, the listener will finally engage aurally and visually. The last clip juxtaposes scenes from the film by (feminist) modernist Iranian poet Forukh Farukhzad with the recitation of Rumi’s poem of the reed and the soundscape of Majid Majidi’s Colors of Paradise رنگ خدا . We hear the sound of nature manifesting in the voice of woodpecker metamorphosing into the complex human voice, and finally orchestral music. To my mind, the colors of God that can also be heard not only seen, emanate over the whole of existence, and every creature.
A given religion, in this case Islam, can be perceived as simultaneously a message from God and a human response to His presence. The works of arts elicited by ‘Islam’ manifest themselves through and within various cultural and artistic expressions from literary, visual and musical. Audible Islam challenges the dominant narratives about Islam and monolithic reductive discourse about its followers. As for the blog Musical Arabesque, I hope it will offer a taste of at least, one musical notation.