“Sounding Islam in China” project will be presenting at the AAS Annual Conference in Chicago

The “Sounding Islam in China” project will be presenting a dedicated panel at the Association for Asian Scholars (AAS) Annual Conference in Chicago, March 26-29, 2015.

Panel abstract

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, nor the anxieties of the state concerning these changes. These developments are occurring against a backdrop of great diversity in local histories of transmission, socio-economic factors, language and life-ways. This panel proposes that a focus on the local production of meaning provides clearer insights into the nature and ideology of religious belief and practice. It brings together a multi-disciplinary group of scholars whose work encompasses a fieldwork-based approach to sound, experience and meaning, and who seek to move beyond the habitual academic focus on text-based and visual narratives.

The panel’s remit is broad: it will focus on sounded religious practices, forms of religious expressive culture, Islamic soundscapes, and simply the ways Chinese Muslims talk about their faith. Our focus encompasses ‘live’ practices and the mediated transmission of religious sounds and ideologies. We aim to examine the genealogies of ideas and practices which are circulating in China today; to examine the relationship between particular sounded practices, religious ideologies power and political authority; to unwrap the micro-politics of marginalized ideas and practices, and to examine the experiences through which individuals develop and cultivate their own understandings of what it means to be a Muslim in China.

The Silent Loud: Voice, Faith, and the Practice of Listening in China’s Jahriyya Sufism

Guangtian Ha (SOAS, University of London)

China’s Jahriyya Sufism is marked by a characteristic juxtaposition of opposites: on the one hand, the long history of pain and suffering at the hands of the powers that be has rendered silence and concealment the dominant strategy for tenacious survival and secret expansion. On the other, however, the very name Jahriyya means “loud recitation,” and the training of voice – its pitch and rhythm, its duration and timbre – is intrinsic to its daily ritual performance. Deliberately raised and amplified by a chorus, the voice of Jahriyya constantly re-enacts its presumed continuity. Yet voices are not discourses, though they can be turned into discourses under specific conditions. Voices slip and shift, often changing in ways hardly perceptible to some yet highly significant to others. The materiality of voice possesses specificities that cannot be subsumed under the discursive order. How is genealogical continuity “narrated” through the voice? How has the voice changed among the Jahriyya Sufis? How are differences told and what meanings are given to these often minute acoustic differences? How can we do justice to the specificity of the acoustic register in embodying faith, staging history, and lamenting loss? This paper aims to address these questions by focusing upon the vocal and auditory practices of a group of Jahriyya Sufis in Ningxia, Northwest China. It attempts to unravel the complexity and multiplicity of voice in a concrete ethnographic context and explore a broader meaning of anthropological listening.

Internet rumours and the changing sounds of Uyghur religiosity

Rachel Harris (SOAS, University of London)

Over the past few years, the region of Xinjiang in China has been caught in a spiral of rising religiosity, police crackdowns, and interethnic violence between Muslim Uyghurs and Han Chinese, a situation which is widely blamed by state media on ‘online Islamic extremist propaganda’. In this remote region which is rather effectively shielded from international media attention, there are particular problems with the dominant state narratives and lack of credible alternative voices. As Panagia (2009) argues, an exclusive focus on reasoned debate misses the wider picture of political life and creates a de facto partition between those who can and cannot speak, between appropriate and inappropriate sounds. How might a focus on alternative ways of listening disrupt the dominant narratives and enable new understandings of changing patterns of religiosity and the rising violence in the region? This paper focuses on “inappropriate sounds”: examples of religious media which operate “beyond text” to capture the popular social imagination and challenge social norms in often disturbing ways. Recent work in the Anthropology of the Middle East explores how online forms of imagery and vocal performance accessed by Muslims shape new forms of religious sociality and impact upon religious structures of affect (Hirschkind 2012). Developing this approach to sound and religious affect, I trace the paths of selected religious media items as they travel across different platforms amongst the Uyghur community, provoking powerful affective responses and accruing conflicting layers of meaning.

Diverse Islamic Sounds in Tibet: a comparison of Chamdo, Lhasa, Shigatse and Ngari

Min Wenjie, Northwest Minorities University

There are around 5300 local Tibetan Muslims scattered across Lhasa, Chamdo and Shigatse, and nearly 5000 Hui Muslims are residents of Tibet. In addition, there are at least 100-300,000 migrant Muslims from Gansu, Qinghai, Henan and Sichuan provinces who are doing business, working and labouring in Tibet all the year round. They can be found in more than 60 counties in Tibet. These Muslim groups have been changing the Tibetan Islamic environment year by year. The official mosques established for local Tibetan Muslims are now greatly outnumbered by the temporary mosques established by urban migrant Muslims.

This paper presents an overview of the mosque soundscape in four different sites in Tibet, based on field investigations in 2010. In Chamdo, Muslim names are given in Arabic, Tibetan and Chinese; mosque sermons are delivered in Chinese; and rituals demonstrate features of inland China. In Lhasa, people’s name are given in Arabic and Tibetan; sermons are delivered in a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese, and rituals mix features of Indo-Pakistan style and inland China. In Shigatse, names are in Arabic, sermons are in Tibetan and rituals share features with Kashmir. In Ngari prefecture, in the far west of Tibet, sermons are in Uyghur and rituals share features with Central Asia. What are the implications of this diversity in sounded religious practices in Tibet’s mosques?

Different Arab Springs: The Soundscapes of Chinese Muslims in China and Egypt

Shuang Wen (National University of Singapore)

Historians have finally started listening to events. There is now a growing recognition that by analyzing how people sonically experienced the world, a richer and more holistic grasp of the events become possible. This paper explores the soundscapes of Chinese Muslims from within and without China during the Arab Spring, an on-going series of revolutionary events in the Middle East that have had profound impact on Muslims around the world.

Due to state policies on the use of media, Chinese Muslims living in China and Egypt had different experiences with the Arab Spring. The soundscape of the latter are richer and more complex: Chinese Muslims studying at al-Azhar University in Cairo could simultaneously access a range of narratives through radio, TV, video clips on Facebook and Youtube, revolutionary songs and jokes, neighborhood conversations, interpretations by the Azhari University ‘ūlama’, and talks by Chinese officials in Egypt. These various tones make up the keynotes of their experiences with the Arab Spring and left an acoustic imprint on their lives. Exposure to different rhythms of the same events led to their disparate understandings about the Arab Spring. They came to distinctive conclusions about the world around them and their position in it. Ultimately, they all lived through different Arab Springs.

This paper focuses on selected individual experiences to illustrate the larger issues involved: the sounds of public and private spheres, the mediated transmission of sounds, and how this vocalized transmission of ideas differs from the text-based discourse.

Panel Discussant: James Millward (Georgetown University)

Panel Organiser: Rachel Harris (SOAS, University of London)


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