Sounding Islam in China
An AHRC Research Network, SOAS, University of London
Over 20 million Muslims live in China, but there persists a deep-seated view of Muslims in China as marginal to the Islamic world. In recent years, however, the topic of Islam in China has become of greater interest to policy makers and to academics. There is now little doubt of the rising global connectedness of Muslims in China, nor of the changes that are occurring in Islamic religious beliefs and practices across China. Such changes are occurring against a backdrop of great diversity in local histories of transmission, socio-economic factors, language and life-ways. Many of these diverse local religious practices are currently under pressure from the forces of change.
Sounding Islam in China draws on the methodologies of aural ethnography in order to map the Islamic soundscapes of contemporary China. The approach is interdisciplinary in nature, but arises out of recent trends in anthropology and ethnomusicology. Aural ethnography indicates a fieldwork-based approach to sound, experience and meaning, which may be applied not only to formally recognised types of musical performance but to any “humanly produced sounds”. This approach impels an emphasis on the insights afforded by embodied, sensorial knowledge. The notion of a soundscape situates this focus within the social environment, assuming that sounds are both produced by, and implicated in, the shaping of social practices and ideologies.
Areas of investigation include forms of sounded religious practices, such as the call to prayer, Qur’anic recitation, prayers, sermons, life-cycle and other rituals, and forms of religious expressive culture such as stories or devotional songs. Our focus encompasses ways of listening, and embodied responses to religious sound and emotion. The project of mapping the pious soundscape takes as its central questions: where are the spaces for the production of Islamic sounds, and how are they being reconfigured in contemporary China? How are Muslim practices and knowledge being orally transmitted in China today? As well as ‘live’ practices, we focus on media forms which transmit religious sounds and ideologies, such as DVDs of sermons or Qur’anic recitation, home-produced cassettes of zikr, and online videos.
The project promotes collaboration between Western and Chinese researchers through joint field research, and an international conference. It also seeks to disseminate current theoretical approaches to postgraduate students in China through a series of training workshops in the Anthropology of Sound. It aims to reach out to the wider public, especially to Muslim communities in the West, amongst whom there is growing interest in Islam in China, and to preserve an audio-visual record of the diverse religious practices and oral histories of Muslims in China, mediating this material for English-speaking audiences.
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