SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Ethnicity, Religion and Gender in Middle Eastern Musical cultures

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 1

This course introduces students to the major popular and religious musical forms of the urban Middle East and North Africa (MENA) through the lenses of media representation and religious practice. The genres covered range from the religious soundscapes of the city to popular protest music, notably hip-hop. We look in-depth at Islamic counterpublics, heterodox ritual, dance aesthetics, and trance/possession with a view to understanding these religious practices and their representation and diffusion in various media. At the same time, we engage contemporary discussions of nationalism and gender in the post-colonial Arab world that bear upon the performance and reception of music. We look at the rise of popular musicians in the twentieth century, their role in framing culture, and their status as ambassadors and promoters of political ideologies (pan-Arabism, Baathism). In five short units on soundscape, voice, possession, embodiment, and intimacy students learn the repertoire of the urban Middle East, as well as the media forces behind cultural movements. We will read classic ethnographies of music-making in the Arab world from Morocco to the Gulf, and, when appropriate, examples 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 the course a student will be able to:

  • Explain the mainstream and heterodox religious rituals widely practiced in the Arab world, and identify the musical and performative charateristics of those rituals;
  • Understand the role that popular media plays in distributing music, and in innovation of musical style;
  • Articulate the dialectical relationship between religion and media in the Arab world through the lens of musical performance;
  • Connect issues of geopolitics and economic development to musical taste and style in the contemporary Arab world;
  • Express in writing the role that gender, religion and nationalism play in the development of Middle Eastern music.


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

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 1,000-word annotated bibliography (worth 30%)
  • One 2,000-word essay or podcast (worth 70%)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules