SOAS University of London

Department of Music, School of Arts

Soundscapes - about


Steve Feld (1996) coins the term "acoustemology," to denote "an exploration of sonic sensibilities, specifically of ways in which sound is central to making sense, to knowing, to experiential truth." The notion of a soundscape relates this focus on sound, body and meaning to the wider sphere of the social and physical environment: “as landscape is constituted by cultural histories, ideologies, and practices of seeing, soundscape implicates listening as a cultural practice” (Samuels et al 2010).

A growing body of work on “Islamic Soundscapes” brings this approach to bear on the world of Islam. Charles Hirschkind's work on the reformist movement in Cairo (2006) traces ways of reconfiguring urban space acoustically through the use of Islamic media forms: cassette sermons in taxis, or Qur’anic recitation in cafés. Andrew Eisenberg focuses on the call to prayer, which “defines the spatial parameters of the community, and serves in the production of a broader—global—Muslim identity, both localizing and globalizing” (2009:98). Deborah Kapchan theorises festivals of sacred music, sites where audiences “attend to the sacred through sound”, creating “new transnational imaginaries that mediate religious sentiment” (2008:481).

The Chinese Islamic soundscape
  • The Chinese state seeks to orchestrate the Islamic soundscape, through control over sermons in mosques, organisation of national Qur’anic recitation competitions, local negotiations over, for example, the call to prayer, anti-religious extremism campaigns, and prohibitions on non-institutional religious practices.
  • Aspects of these same practices may be reconfigured as staged performance and promoted as ‘intangible cultural heritage’. What changes have occurred in ways of listening to these reconfigured practices?
  • Discussions of gender and Islam in China, as elsewhere, circulate around veiling practices. Can a focus on women’s voices in Islam help us to move beyond the stereotyping inherent in these debates, and permit a focus on women’s agency?
  • Kandiyoti and Azimova (2004) argue that rural Muslim women are neither ‘hapless victims’ nor ‘preservers of unspoilt Islamic identities’. In what ways can we hear local Islamic practices absorbing or reacting to currents of modernity?
  • Hirschkind (2006) describes the twentieth century Egyptian state’s attempts create a modern national auditory--an ear resonant with the tonalities of reason and progress while deaf to the outmoded noises of religious authority. What can the study of listening practices in religious teaching environments tell us about the production of Muslim citizens in China?
  • Reformist ideologies flow into China through various channels, and a range of actors may take on the role of propagating them. These new forms of Islam provide new ‘visions of transnational ethics’ (Jaschok 2009). How are Muslims in China accessing and interpreting transnational flows of sound and ideology?
  • In what ways can historical perspectives on listening practices shed light on contemporary realities?
Areas of Investigation
  • Listening to religious practices (the call to prayer, Qur’anic recitation, prayers, life-cycle and calendrical rituals, forms of religious expressive culture: stories, devotional songs, religious poetry, etc.)
  • Mapping the pious soundscape: where are the spaces for the production of Islamic sounds, and how are they being reconfigured in contemporary China
  • Ways of listening: embodied responses to religious sound
  • Media forms which transmit religious sounds and ideologies: DVDs or online videos of sermons or recitation
  • Religious education: the oral transmission of Muslim practices and knowledge
  • Blogs and websites: online debates on Muslim identity and faith