Music v Musiki

Last Monday during our discussion on the Islamic Call to Prayer, I mentioned the lack of a neutral middle-term for dealing “music” that doesn’t privilege Wester musical ideas.

As an extension of the liturgical problems surrounding musical performance in Sufi ritual, British ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes describes how debates around sama‘ and sema (the dance associated with Dervishes in Turkey) go on to affect Turkish popular musical genres where the Sufi ideal of musical ecstasy is expressed. He states

It is thus possible […] to read the Koran in a “natural” way whilst still employing makam. Others would deny that anything involving makam could be “natural”. In this debate it is clear that the principal cause of conflict is two rival interpretations of the word “music” itself. One is “music” as an acoustic medium of communication and expression. This other is musiki, inextricably associated with the concept of makam in Islamic scholarship and an unambiguously secular frame of reference. The former is essentially value-free whilst the latter is unambiguously condemnable. The theoretical issue lies in the question of whether the subject of debate is “music” or musiki.

The whole argument over the legality of music shifts into a higher gear on the subject of sema, which exploits this semantic ambiguity to the full. At one level, the definition of an area of “legitimate” musical experience, terminologically assigned to a different category from less reputable musical genres, allows Sufi thinkers in Turkey to challenge orthodoxy on its own terms. At another level, the high status accorded to sema in the spiritual quest is an example of the deliberate flaunting of orthodoxy as a spiritual technique cultivated in Turkish Sufism. (Stokes, The Arabesque Debate, 213)

This is food for thought as we continue to confront the role of musical ecstasy in Sufism in the Near East.


About kgoldschmitt
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music at New College of Florida, music scholar for hire.

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