Academic journal article Ethnology

The Aesthetics of Spiritual Practice and the Creation of Moral and Musical Subjectivities in Aleppo, Syria (1)

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Aesthetics of Spiritual Practice and the Creation of Moral and Musical Subjectivities in Aleppo, Syria (1)

Article excerpt

This essay analyzes the performance of dhikr (the invocation of God through prayer, song, and movement) in Aleppo, Syria, as an embodied practice mediated by specific repertoires of aesthetic and kinesthetic practices. In dhikr, aesthetic stimuli produce an experience of temporal transformation that participants narrate as "ecstasy." Performing dhikr also conditions a musical self, which in turn allows for the habituation of spiritual states. This suggests the importance of investigating the interface of embodied practices, temporality, and the aesthetics of spiritual practice. (Aesthetics, temporality, music, Islam, Syria)


Although much has been written on Islamic art (Grabar 1973, 2003; Naef 2003), most studies have focused on the aesthetics of the word and image, the sound and texture of sacred texts and prayers, and the graphical depiction of divinity in, for example, the arabesque (Nelson 1985; Behrens-Abouseif 1999). However, less attention has been paid to the relationships of Islamic art to specific forms of Muslim piety, specifically the sensory techniques of Muslim worship that condition and enable spiritual states. According to the great twelfth-century Muslim scholar al-Ghazzali (1901-02, 1991), the spiritual life of the devout Muslim is formed not only through prayer but also through aesthetic practices. Among these are the art of sama' (audition), which denotes acts of listening and bodily practices associated with the achievement of ecstatic states.

Following recent anthropological literature that strives to understand Muslim spirituality as mediated by bodily practices (Mahmood 2001; Hirschkind 2001), this essay examines the interplay of aesthetic and spiritual practices in Aleppo, Syria. It focuses on the dhikr, or ritual invocation and remembrance of God through prayer, incantation of sacred texts, song, and bodily motions that form a dance--practices generally associated with Sufism. Many participants in Aleppo understand dhikr to be an orthodox Sunni practice, and not something associated primarily with Sufism (Shannon, In press; Pinto 2002). Through the practice of dhikr, Muslims in Aleppo fulfill a Qur'anic obligation to invoke God and at the same time they may seek to attain physical and emotional states that promote spiritual transformation. Two musical processes, melodic modulation (tarqiyya) and rhythmic acceleration (kartah), structure the dhikr and, in conjunction with specific kinesthetic, visual, olfactory, and tactile cues, affect the sensate body to inculcate experiences of transformation and condition a spiritual and musical self. They do this by promoting transformations in participants' experience of temporality in the course of performing dhikr. In the context of debates within Muslim communities concerning the permissibility of music in Islam, this analysis reveals that musical practices are at the heart of this form of Muslim spirituality.


Scholars have addressed the inadequacies of anthropological studies of ritual that emphasize the element of belief (faith, doctrine, ideology, meaning) while neglecting the importance of the sensate body in ritual. In their analyses of ritual, anthropologists have tended to adopt a Cartesian mind-body dualism and promote a distinction between ritual thought and ritual action. Aside from the problems of cultural translation that studies of ritual and religion raise (e.g., Asad 1993), the effect of the British and American semiotic traditions of ritual studies has been to maintain an analytical separation between religious meanings, found in myths and sacred texts, and bodily experiences, understood as a neutral template upon which mythical and sacred meanings are inscribed.

Similarly, Bell (1992, 1997) notes that anthropologists and other scholars of ritual and performance, such as Turner (1986) and Schechner (1985) have not only based their analyses of ritual behavior on the mind-body, belief-action distinctions central to Western epistemologies, but that in doing so they have also perpetuated constructions of ritual as a peculiarly thoughtless type of action, requiring the beliefs contained in myths to provide it with meaning, as in structural-functional anthropology's definition of myth as a charter for ritual action (Malinowski 1926). …

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