Art and Architecture

Islamization Through the Sound Arts

Just as philosophical and religious writings are a verbal expression of the ideology of a people, just as social and economic institutions are determined by that basic ideology, so also music and the sound arts are "translations" of the deepest convictions of a people. They fit into the cultural whole as pieces of a giant mosaic, each tessera reflecting the world view of that people and corresponding to the other expressions of that spirit. Fulfilling this role in the culture, the arts of sound become an important, even crucial, bulwark of a people's heritage.

In English, such aesthetic "translations" of the ideology into pitches and durations are known as "music"; and the term has generally encompassed all forms of sound art, regardless of their intrinsic characteristics or the circumstances of their performance. In Islamic culture, however, there is no term or expression which includes all types of sound art. The term “musiqa”, which is sometimes loosely equated with the English term "music," is certainly inadequate. That Arabic term derived from the Greek has been applied primarily to those forms which, because of context of performance or aesthetic characteristics, were culturally and religiously regarded with some degree of suspicion, or in certain cases, even condemned. The term musiqa has never included those genres of sound art which were wholeheartedly approved and fostered by the culture, e.g., Qur'anic chant, the adhan, the pilgrimage chants, madhih or chanted poetry (shi’r). Elsewhere I have therefore advocated the use of a new expression, handasah al sawt (al Faruqi 1982:30ff). This designation would cover all the forms of sound art, and thus more truly equate with the term "music" and its cognates in other European languages. It is with that expression and an appreciation of the wide meaning which it implies that this presentation continues.

Handasah al sawt is a cultural phenomenon which can play an important role in the life of a nation and a people. But this important role cannot be played by any sound art, regardless of its content and form. It must be one growing out of the cultural roots of its people and expressing the message of the cultural complex from which it arises. The fostering of such a sound art or musical tradition is crucial to any people at any period of history. But it is especially important to the Muslim peoples today as they face the drastic cultural changes of our contemporary world, extensive migratory displacement, and the unprecedented incidence of cultural interaction and alien influences on their life and culture. Handasah al sawt is an important aspect of that cultural core which is ultimately the only significant defense against cultural alienation or annihilation. It is an important factor in strengthening the Islamic cultural core, or, put another way, a crucial ingredient in the process of Islamization of the 'ummah.

Islamization, as a process of renewal and creativity, has been on the lips of Muslim activists and reformers for decades. Yet few writers and thinkers have pursued Islamization with any understanding of its implications for handasah al sawt or the sound arts. We read of the Islamization of knowledge, the Islamization of the field of economics, the Islamization of social theory, the Islamization of political thought, and the Islamization of psychology. We even see the effects of the Islamization of dress codes and eating habits. All of these movements and changes are attempts to produce the requisite Islamic core and identity from which the Muslim peoples can encounter or avoid, adapt or ignore, accept or reject the influences of contemporary life which are inevitably thrust upon them. Without this Islamization, maintaining a positive and actively creative cultural identity becomes doubtful, and even our very existence as a viable community is threatened.

Despite their concern for Islamization of many other aspects of culture, contemporary Muslims seem strikingly unaware of the de-Islamization which is evidenced in the aesthetic components of their lives. Many of them fill their homes with French provincial furniture and figural painting produced for a 19th century European clientele. They entertain themselves with the products of the Western or Hindu movie and television industries, which are anything but Islamic in content and form. And radios and cassette machines fill the sound waves of their environment with the latest musical expressions of a non-Islamic cultural message. Equally disturbing is the response from the other end of the liberal-conservatives spectrum. When one asks any of the super-conservatives about Islamic musical expression, they hasten to disassociate themselves from the discussion as though not only the listening to music, but even the discussion of it might have a contaminating effect. An exchange regarding the wide variety of new religious songs from Egypt elicits the response from one devout Muslimah that she will no longer listen to any type of music for it may be disapproved by Islam. The presentation of musical knowledge is never included on the agenda of any Islamic conference. And it is impossible to count the number of times Muslims have asked me whether music as such is halal (“legitimate”) or haram (“illegitimate”).

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