Music in religious discourse

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Notes for Thursday

  • SC papers - nearly finished! (thanks for your patience)
  • Fieldwork reports: March 30, April 6th
  • Music and Religion in Edmonton project proposal
  • Great news: Smithsonian Global Sound comes to the UofA library.

What is discourse? Broad definition (Foucault, as system of social knowledge); narrower definition (linguistics, as extended linguistic productions). Here we focus on the latter, and ask: how is music represented in religious texts, oral or written?


  • Religious discourse about music
    • Music in ritual: specifications/regulations and value/effects
    • Music in society: Pros and cons of music generally (often: polemics)

  • Religious discourse using music as a source of metaphor
    • Music and cosmological homologies (e.g. Harmony of the Spheres)
    • Musical tropes in poetry as expressions of religious experience (e.g. in Rumi)

Some questions

  • Why is music often a "hot topic" in religious discourse? Why are instrumental forms often proscribed? What is the virtue (often upheld) in the voice? How does the polemic develop? (What features does music combine? Relation to religious authority? Relation to opulence of courts? Islamic irony: religion as nucleus of a civilization which conquers and becomes indulgent...)
  • What is the value of music as metaphor? (emotional, mathematical)
  • What is the relation of such discourse to musical practice and religious experience? (Effects on practice? Contraint? Accentuating certain forms over others, e.g. Iran?)

Reading assignment: music in Islamic discourse

There is an extensive discourse on music in the Islamic tradition, including the use and effects of music in religious ritual (especially the sama`, spiritual audition), and the legality of music generally. While the Qur'an neither explicitly proscribes nor allows music, various passages have been interpreted as implying either position. The second principal sacred source for Muslims, Hadith (descriptions of sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad), occasionally refers to music and singing, but once again passages may be located to support either position. Thus the legality of music depends on the perspective of the interpreter. Such interpretation continues to the present day, as is evident from the large number of web sites devoted to this topic.

Read this article by Amnon Shiloah covering the general topic of music in Islamic discourse.

Examine the following web sites, one generally anti-music, the other more tolerant. Examine the superior sites (, and see if you can figure out who the authors are, and where they're coming from. (This is good critical practice for the web generally.)

Optional readings

Hadith. The definitive collections (e.g. of Bukhari, Muslim, and others) are called Sahih (true).

Search hadith database at USC

  • Hadith often cited to support pro-music position.

Celebrating the Id

  • Hadith often cited to support anti-music position:

Hypocrisy in the heart

Musical instruments

Musical metaphors in mystic poetry:

Here the circle is completed in the connections between text and context, poetry and performance; mystical images of music in Sufi poetry refer to the ritual of sama`; when performed in ritual, such poetic symbolism refers to itself...

Music in the sacred ayin ceremony of the so-called whirling dervishes, the Mevlevi Sufi order founded upon poetry and teachings of the mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273], who so loved the sama`...

Listen to the reed flute and its cry of separation...

Jalal al-Din Rumi's musical imagery:

Remembered Music

Listen to this reed...

We are as the flute

Umar and the Harpist

The Drum of the Realization

Poetry by Shaykh Abu al-Huda al-Sayyadi (19th c), as sung by Shaykh Yasin al-Tuhami of Egypt.

Shaykh Yasin al-Tuhami

Excerpt of poem by Abu al-Huda al-Sayyadi

Another poem sung by Shaykh Yasin

Other religious traditions (your contributions here!)

Your research assignment for this class is to locate examples of "music in religious discourse" on the web, and insert links and commentaries below, following the name of the religious tradition in boldface. For the purposes of this assignment, you may consider any text on the web to constitute "authentic" source material, whether or not the authors properly represent the mainstream of the religious tradition with which they claim affiliation.

Please try to locate source materials from a range of religious traditions. Such materials may range from sacred texts themselves, to discussion groups, blogs, and web sites established by religious organizations.

Please review each others' submissions before class on Thursday, to serve as the basis for a discussion of general issues.

I've inserted a few examples myself to start you off.

Your contributions follow...

The authors of Rock Music: For the Christian or Not? and Demon Possession and Music are dedicated to exposing the evils of rock music, especially Christian rock music of the kind found among last week's submissions (i.e Sonic Flood, Newsboys etc.). I find both incredibly offensive but they usefully reveal a very real and ugly attitude within the "Christian" religious discourse. Rev Bouwman embraces an intensely colonial worldview complete with all of its unashamed racist overtones. His basic premise is that Europe was the first recipient of Christianity and therefore "regeneration" by the Holy Spirit (regeneration is the transforming from humanity's evil fallen nature to one "redeemed" by Christ). Because Europe was "Christian," Europeans created music that is truly Christ-like. People in other parts of the world (basically everywhere that is not Europe), who do not listen to Bach or Mozart are examples of "unregented cultures" of "unregenerated men" left to wallow in their evil. You get the picture and I do not really feel like typing anymore. The other article by Dr. Juanita MacElwain is no better. both articles claim that "rock" music is rooted in evil cultural traditions, is therefore evil sonically (regardless of text), and renders Christian rock and by extension lthose who listen to it suceptible to demonic influence. By appropriating the forms of "evil" , "unregenrated" people, these so-called Christians become suspect.

These articles are obviously offensive to most who read them. It is a sad indication that even though every idea perpetrated by the authors have been sucessfully discredited, colonial racist attitudes persist. In addition, the authors present their cases with little or no evidence (in such a way that assumes the reader's agreement) and cite sources from only their side of the argument.

But hey, whats a bit of hate literature if it serves the greater good? These authors may demonize millions of people but if it can keep at least one good American kid from listening to Christian rock and roll...

I am ashamed that these ideas still inform the thinking of so many of my faith.


Buddhism: Sounds of the Ganges River: North American Buddhist Music Festival and Buddhist Music The latter website provides a general overview of the types of chant, the vocal discipline, instrumentation, and different kinds of chant that are performed in Buddhist music. It also has audio of traditional chant and the more contemporary vernacular chant that uses instrumentation. The first website gives a brief history of Buddhist music. It also showcases one Buddhist choir and it's performance beliefs,with a really clear,very theatrical performance clip.--KellyM 21:44, 13 March 2006 (MST)

Christian Rock: Testimonies of Young People and Christian Rock Using biblical text from Matthew 7:16, "by their fruits, you shall know them..." various youth "testify" to the evils of Christian rock, and how listening to the music was detrimental to them, and once they stopped listening to it, they were once again on the right path. Under "articles," the main site Dial-the-Truth-Ministries has links to the "evils" of Christian rock (with reference to specific artists), and a Biblical guideline to music. -STELLA-

Mennonites Here are a few websites showing the sort of discourse happening amongst Mennos about the music they think they should or shouldn't use in worhsip. (I think this is an argument that will go on for a long time yet). Are all Mennonites good singers? is a basic intro to what music is like in a typical Mennonite church. The future of Mennonite congregational singing is an article posted on a Mennonite college's website about a music conference, and it highlights a number of issues at stake. Finally, A cappella singing in Mennonite worship services is an example of a typical argument between two or more parties about worship music.--Lpauls 21:05, 15 March 2006 (MST)

Christian Thrash Metal Sorry for all the Catholic examples. The lyrics are sometimes militaristic, and nearly always filled with admonishments. This line is from Deliverance's 1989 album "Weapons of Our Warfare." (I actually own this ;0] ) The Holy Book makes it clear as to how we ought to fight / put on the armour of God / not by your might / pray always with all supplication in the spirit / to the pulling down of strongholds and crushing of Satan's plan.

It would seem that in any religious tradition, there is likely to be controversy surrounding the role of music in ritual. .--Andre 21:16, 15 March 2006 (MST)

I found this site, examining Satan's part in the Heavenly choir, while looking for a 'real' article for class. It struck me as rather funny, and somehow related to the accusations of rock music leading people away from God, so I thought I'd share it with you.

Anyhoo, Martin Luther This site looks at the musical reforms Martin Luther brought in, along with his myriad other reforms. It is interesting to see how the music was used to demonstrate/reinforce his ideals. The article is rather dense and historical, so please feel free to skim most of the parts. Of especial interest are the pages dealing with the hymns and chorales.--Meghanbowen 22:10, 15 March 2006 (MST)

Religious Music The African Roots This is an informative web-site that asserts the African inseperability of music and religion, as well as the roots of spirituals in the Gullah's adoption or conversion of Christianity into their African worldview--a refreshing take on typically disempowering victim-based analyses of religious colonialism and slavery. The use of music 'in religion' is entrenched in Gullah prayer practices (an example of African American cultural-spiritual syncretism). Prayer is inclusive of all music: voice, drum, dance-- and the introduction of Methodist/Baptist ideas to the Gullah slaves was adapted into the African-American worldview, resulting in 'spirituals'. Interestingly, the problematization of music in religion only began due to the Christian prohibition of music in the churches, to which the Gullah slaves once again adapted by reverting to clapping and stomping. This is consistent with the reports of the above web-source postings concerning the Christian damnation of music. It has always amazed me that those most demonized and denigrated as 'savages' or 'pagan beasts' consistently demonstrate far more tolerance, compassion and kinly love even for those who would oppress them in the name of God. The clapping, stomping and 'shout houses' were a means of retaining a link to their African oral traditions and coping with oppression (likely praying even for the forgiveness of their oppressors). Again, I see some similarities with other Southern States religious singing practices, even if they themselves wish only to claim a pure European and text-based musical origin....This web-site is, not surprisingly, called "North By South" --the National Endowment for Humanities Web-site tracking African American migration from south to north. Peace~~--Kreisha Oro 00:11, 16 March 2006 (MST)

It's OK to Rock for Jesus! This was actually at the same place as Andre's Thrash Metal and is the counter-argument for the Christian rock discourse in our post as of yet... but the arguments are pretty crappy! ex."In this Psalm we are told to praise God with cymbals(in our days that would be drums) and harps(in our days that would be guitars)." Lame! There's also a spot about why Christian metal is cool; it's not any more convincing. Music as a Demonic Art This article basically recounts the historical duality of music as related to divinities and/or demons, which is pretty easy to find reflected in religious discourse on music. Musical mastery might be considered mastery of some form of control over these 'cosmic' forces. Also, instrumental and dance music have always been particularly inclined to cause offense.--Gloria 01:54, 16 March 2006 (MST)

More Christian related stuff. I was looking for some articles relating to Christian Celtic music and the question over whether its too New Age, but wound up with this instead. this seems to be a list service with a discussion going on about contemporary Christian music, especially popular music. Many of the people posting age making comments regarding the musical qualities/abilities (or lack thereof) of various popular Christian bands. There is a complaint about the lack of good music. This article is also kind of interesting. It comments on the question of lyrics and how explicitly Christian they should be, along with the question of whether a group is selling out to mainstream society if they to not use explicitly Christian language. ~Cari

Seems like we're really sticking to the Christian popular music area. But that's what I've got, too. Last week, after following someone's link to Cross Movement (a Christian hip-hop crew), I found some interesting discussion on one of the artists' web site, mentioning Craig Lewis. Using Google, I tracked down the website of Ex ministries ("750, 000 CD's destroyed and counting. To God be the glory!"), a group that seems to centre around the ideas of the aforementioned Craig Lewis. On the website, they attempt to make a distinction between rap as a mode of musical expression and hip-hop as a culture. They see hip-hop culture as something out of bounds for the Christian, and criticize Christian musicians who use hip-hop as their form of expression. --Jordanv 09:40, 16 March 2006 (MST)

General comments on this topic

Other notes