Suficized musics of Syria at the intersection of heritage and the war on terror; or "a rumi with a view"

Jonathan H. Shannon

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


as is well known among scholars and the faithful, Syria has been home to vibrant traditions of mystical Islam, or Sufism, for centuries. Many of the great Sufi luminaries either came from Syria or settled and taught there for periods of their lives-perhaps the most important being Muhi al- Din Ibn al-Arabi (1165 - 1240) and his near contemporary Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207- 1273). Today there are important mosques in Aleppo and Damascus named after these individuals and animated by weekly séances of dhikr- i.e., ritual invocations of God that are usually accompanied by chanting and bodily movements collectively termed sama. Sufi devotional practices have remained living traditions in Syria and remain so today, as is the case elsewhere in the Arab world. Yet the public performance of Sufi -related song forms in Syria-something more readily identified with the Turkish mevlevi or "whirling dervish" ensembles-is of relatively recent provenance. Although Syrian groups have performed and in some cases even recorded song repertoires taken from the dhikr for many decades, since the 1990s Syrian ensembles have increasingly promoted their recordings and performances of these repertoires as examples of "Sufi music," partly to meet domestic needs but also to meet the growing demand of international audiences for sacred music worldwide, primarily at festivals and concerts devoted to sacred or spiritual musical traditions. The increase in the performance of repertoires based in the dhikr and the practice of marketing this as "Sufi " music raise for me the following questions: What can account for the relatively recent rise and proliferation of so-called Sufi and Sufi -inspired musics from Syria? What happens to ritual performance genres when they become repackaged for consumption in global circuits of performance and commoditization? Perhaps more prosaically, what is "Sufi " about "Sufi music"? This chapter offers an interpretation of recent Sufi music production in Syria and on the World Stage as a response to two interrelated phenomena: Transnational discourses of heritage production and preservation, and transnational representations of Islam, Islamic resurgence, and what we call the "War on Terror," though it's not understood that way in Syria, to be certain. In light of these mutually constitutive discourses, Sufi music in Syria has to be understood as part of a larger process of creating a style of music known as "Sufi music." Artists create this musical genre, as I have argued elsewhere (Shannon 2003), expressly-with an emphasis on the notion of speed contained therein-for performance on the World Stage, that is, for international audiences tuned to the sounds of World Music, and retuned to what, following Kapchan (2008), we can call a "fluency" in sacred music listening. While many of the song repertoires have their basis in ritual practices that themselves are linked to Sufism (even if not all participants would describe themselves as Sufi s), I propose that we need to understand these musics as "Suficized"-that is, constructed for a transnational category of not only sound, but of being in the world, called Sufism that may bear only a passing relationship to practices associated with mystical Islam, or tasawwuf. Indeed, it is through the performance of "Suficized" musics that artists (many of them devout, some members of Sufi orders) aim to capitalize on new markets while sounding forms of Muslim spirituality that reconfigure current debates about Islam, spirituality, and the politics of performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMuslim Rap, Halal Soaps, and Revolutionary Theater
Subtitle of host publicationArtistic Developments in The Muslim World
PublisherUniversity of Texas Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Print)9780292726819
StatePublished - 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Suficized musics of Syria at the intersection of heritage and the war on terror; or "a rumi with a view"'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this