“We Aren’t that type of Muslim”: exploring Islam and music-making in Istanbul

Abstract

Much has been written in recent years on Muslim art practices in which there is an overt mobilizing urge to use music/art as a tool for communicating a moral-religious message, or a deliberate intention to transform individual subjects into better Muslims. But what of other forms of Muslim music-making that not only lack such a mission, but which are actually at odds with the project of art as piety mobilization or as missionary apologetics? Taking a vibrant artistic community of practice in contemporary Istanbul as its case study, this article analyzes how this practice of art relates to current debates in anthropology around Islam, piety, and music production. The paper argues that participation in this project of musical Islam fosters in practitioners an explorative way of knowing both music and Islam – a way of knowing one through the other.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    I refer to him throughout this article using the honorific title Salih Hoca (‘master’).

  2. 2.

    Other studies also observed the potential of music-making to spread Islam and to bring knowledge to non-Muslims (da’wa); see, for example, Shannahan and Hussain (2011); Fiscella (2012).

  3. 3.

    Van Nieuwkerk expresses this concern of the piety projects with the authorization and prescription of ‘correct’ practice when she writes: “Pious productions … enable the realization of the virtuous self in an embodied way within the discursive field of the ‘appropriate.’ Pious art is thus for both producers and consumers a sensory means for ethical self-making in accordance with religious ideologies” (2011: 18).

  4. 4.

    As I highlight these analytical and conceptual framings dominant in this literature, I also acknowledge the contributions of other scholars in the field where concerns about the legality of music and discourses that promote apologetics are not shared by all Muslim artists (Stokes 2013; Schaefer 2015; Shannon 2006; Gill 2018; Racy 2003). However, as Hill observes, within the anthropology of Islam, there has been a particular tendency over the last decade to focus on “discursive reasoning based on authoritative texts,” when the study of Islamic practice is concerned (2016: 270). According to Hill, this analytical privileging is reinforced by the Asadian conceptualization of Islam as ‘discursive tradition’ that has been taken up by these studies. Asad remarks that “a practice is Islamic because it is authorized by the discursive traditions of Islam, and is so taught to Muslims whether by an alim, a khatib, a Sufi shaykh, or an untutored parent” (1986: 15). Here the emphasis is on the authorization of practice based on the authoritative texts. Like Hill, my concern here is the implications of this privileging of one particular conceptualization of Islam that shapes the debates surrounding music and Islam.

  5. 5.

    For an account of professional musicians moving between sacred and secular contexts, see Shannon (2006) on Syrian music.

  6. 6.

    Sohbet is a key and long-standing disciplinary practice in Islam, with a rich presence in the social worlds of Sufi orders (Silverstein 2008). It refers minimally to spiritual conversation between a mürşid and disciples. The intimate, face-to-face dialogue it fosters is conceived as conducive for the moral transformation of the disciple. Sohbet is accorded so much value in the pedagogical practices of some Sufi orders that, as one Sufi master describes it, “it is the greatest namaz, which cannot be made up later” (“kazası olmayan en büyük namaz”) (Filiz 2009: 246).

  7. 7.

    “The divine reality [hakikat] is utterly transcendent, yet everything that exists (kesret) is a manifestation of that reality (vahdet)”, says Ibn Arabi (Lapidus 1992: 21).

  8. 8.

    As Ortony remarks, “in the process of comprehending the statement I in some sense “reconstruct” the event described and I do so by bringing to bear a great deal of what I already know, not just about the language, but about the world … What I invoke is largely experiential, perceptual and cognitive, and to this extent generally similar, but probably almost never identical, to what others invoke” (1975: 47). The experience of meaning-making is largely mediated by our horizons of the past.

  9. 9.

    As The Melodies of Listening to Music (1972), a book published in Pakistan for the use of qawwali performers, notes: “The metaphorical is the bridge to reality” (cited in Ernst 1999: 112). See Pinto’s (2019) recent article on a Sufi brotherhood in Syria for a discussion on how metaphors and paradoxes are central to the communication and transmission of Islamic knowledge.

  10. 10.

    The Qur’an of course is also full of analogies and allegories, as it says for example in the Sura An-Nur 24, in the Light verse 35: “And Allah speaks to mankind in allegories, for Allah is Knower of all things.”

  11. 11.

    See Gill (2018) for the generation of an alternative masculinity created by exposure to communal music-making amongst Ottoman classical musicians.

  12. 12.

    There is no pressure to disguise the pleasure that music-making provides by using pious discourses, Hadis quotes or legalistic justifications.

  13. 13.

    See Nakissa’s (2019: 116-120) discussion on how pleasure and ethics are intertwined in al-Ghazali’s philosophy. For a discussion of the importance of pleasure in skilled learning, see Prentice (2012).

  14. 14.

    Qur’anic verse (Bakara) 2:195.

  15. 15.

    In making this distinction, Ahmed does not suggest that these two modes of authority that have been historically in operation in societies of Muslims – explorative authority and prescriptive authority – are exclusive. For his discussion of how a discourse may be informed by both see Ahmed (2016: 284-5).

  16. 16.

    Gill’s (2018) work has also plumbed aesthetic and moral questions that emerge in the sort of non-legalistic contexts that I investigate. Her practices of muhabbet, listening and music-making that her Muslim male interlocutors in Istanbul engage with also present us with a worthy model of Islamic explorative discourses and their long trajectory in Turkey.

  17. 17.

    Dictionary definition: “Willing to respect or accept behavior different from one’s own; open to new ideas.” https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/liberal

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Senay, B. “We Aren’t that type of Muslim”: exploring Islam and music-making in Istanbul. Cont Islam (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11562-020-00449-9

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Keywords

  • Islam
  • Music
  • Turkey
  • Sufism
  • Metaphor
  • Exploration