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Against ethnomusicology: Language performance and the social impact of ritual performance in Islam

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This article argues that ‘music’ is unsatisfactory to reference sounds of ritual performance in Islam, not only because the term has been controversial for Muslims, but especially due to its unremovable pre-existing semantic load centred on non-referential aesthetic sound, resulting in drawing of arbitrary boundaries, incompatibility with local ontologies and under-emphasis on the referential language lying at the core of nearly all Islamic ritual. From the standpoint of the human sciences, this study is interested in the understanding of such rituals as combining metaphysical and social impact. Use of ‘music’ tends to distort and even preclude holistic ritual analysis capable of producing such understanding. As a result, ethnomusicology is misdirected. Theoretically and methodologically, this article develops an alternative concept, ‘language performance’ (LP), including four aspects – syntactic, semantic, sonic and pragmatic – especially designed for Islamic ritual performance. Applying a linguistic theory of communication developed by Jakobson, it shows how LP can be developed as a comprehensive, descriptive framework for comparative ritual analysis, akin to Lomax’s global Cantometrics, but avoiding its flaws through a more flexible design and modest scope, enabling systematic, comparative investigations of performance in Islamic ritual. The article closes with an example of such analysis centred on Sufi rituals in contemporary Egypt.

Keywords: Islam; Sufism; ethnomusicology; language; music; performance; ritual; sound

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Alberta

Publication date: December 1, 2013

More about this publication?
  • merging from an international network project funded by the British Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economics and Social Research Council, and research collaboration between academics and practitioners, Performing Islam is the first peer-reviewed interdisciplinary journal about Islam and performance and their related aesthetics. It focuses on socio-cultural as well as the historical and political contexts of artistic practices in the Muslim world. The journal covers dance, ritual, theatre, performing arts, visual arts and cultures, and popular entertainment in Islam-influenced societies and their diasporas. It promotes insightful research of performative expressions of Islam by performers and publics, and encompasses theoretical debates, empirical studies, postgraduate research, interviews with performers, research notes and queries, and reviews of books, conferences, festivals, events and performances.
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