SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Music, Religion and Society in the Middle East and North Africa

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 1
This half-unit course is a survey of the religious and popular music of the urban Middle East and North Africa. It aims to examine the relationship between music, religion and media in everyday life in Arab societies. We examine religious rituals from Morocco to the Gulf, looking particularly at heterodox religious practices that facilitate ecstatic experience, and at the soundscapes of urban daily life perpetuated by powerful religious institutions. We also look at music as it is mediated by the figures who dominate the popular imagination, and the musical styles incorporated into popular protest via social networks. The course includes short units on soundscape, voice, possession, intimacy and embodiment, connecting religious experience with its expression, representation and diffusion through various media. Through discussion of voice and the body, we explore key debates around gender (masculinity, motherhood, queerness, transgender) and nation (such as ethno-symbolism, failed states and non-states) in the context of music-making through local case studies that explore sacred and popular musical styles in-depth. We will draw primarily from ethnographic case studies from Arab and Berber culture, and occasionally, from Turkey and Iran. Since a Jewish music module is dedicated to Israel/Palestine, we will look at Palestinian music only briefly.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this course, a student should be able to demonstrate…

  • identify local religious and popular musical styles from across the Middle East and North Africa
  • Understand the religious and socio-political issues that affect the development of local musical styles;
  • Think critically about the connections between public and private sphere in musical performance
  • Apply theories of religion, gender and nationalism to music cross-culturally;
  • Explain the multiple meanings of "music" in the Islamic world;
  • Articulate the connections between musical style and geopolitics.


Two hours Lecture per week

Scope and syllabus

Over the term, we will examine five basic concepts through which music shapes both religion and the media: soundscapes, voice, embodiment, possession, and intimacy. We will examine each concept through the lenses of religious ritual and media in alternating weeks. Topics include:

  • Religious authority and cassette sermon soundscapes
  • Moroccan Hip-Hop Counterpublics
  • Quranic recitation and the Sama' polemic
  • Transgender singers and constructions of womanhood
  • Dhikr: Sufism, Sainthood and heterodoxy
  • Music of the Syrian Civil War from Dabke to Nasheed
  • Shia pilgrimage
  • Palestinian Rave culture and trance
  • Mothers of the Nation from Umm Khulthum to Fairouz
  • Beirut's music scene from the Rahbanis to Mashrouleila.

Method of assessment

  • One 800-word essay: Artist profile (worth 30%)
  • One 12-minute podcast: Ritual analysis (worth 70%)

Suggested reading

  • Burkhalter, Thomas. 2013. Local Music Scenes and Globalization: Transnational Platforms in
    Beirut. New York: Routledge.
  • Danielson, Virginia. 1997. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian
    Society in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hirschkind, Charles. 2006. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic
    Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: the Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject.
    Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  • Marcus, Scott L. 2007. Music in Egypt: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. New York:
    Oxford University Press.
  • Nelson, Kristina. 1985. The Art of Reciting the Qur'an. Austin, Texas: University of Texas
  • Nooshin, Laudan (ed.). 2009. Music and the Play of Power in the Middle East, North Africa
    and Central Asia. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate.
  • Sabry, Tarik (ed.). 2011. Arab Cultural Studies: Mapping the Field. London: I.B. Tauris.
  • Stokes, Martin. 2004. “Music and the Global Order.” Annual Review of Anthropology 33: 47-
  • Stone, Christopher. 2007. Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: the Fairouz and
    Rahbani Nation. New York: Routledge.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules