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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Memory, Social Authority, and Composition in Damascene Dhikr

  • Author(s): Piatt, Jeffrey McCullough
  • Advisor(s): Pandolfo, Stefania
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the contemporary paradoxes, impasses, and new possibilities negotiated by Syrian Muslim men who practice the musical group worship of dhikr. Dhikr is group activity often associated with Sufism, and has long been an important part of Islamic practice in Syria and many other societies. Its historical tendency to rely heavily on song, movement, and affective expression within its ceremonies and discourses uniquely situate it as a site where questions are raised concerning the role music and emotion are to play in the building of ethical lives. Likewise, this dissertation takes dhikr as a site where modern transformations of society, of authority, and of norms governing the relation of religion and society are framed, and stances toward these issues worked out.

Dhikr does not cleanly map onto the categories that are typically deployed to describe and study it, including the categories of mysticism, orthodoxy, and music. This research therefore also examines the way these categories, which inevitably must be discussed to understand dhikr, introduce their own particular distortions. By addressing these distortions, I am able to make better sense of the input of the men I got to know at dhikr events, in listening to their stories and memories, and in informal discussions with them. These men make keen observations regarding the radical transformations and disenfranchisements which the modern state has visited upon Syrian society over the last half-century and more. Together with these men, I explore a specific case of the possibilities and limits generated by the transformation of societies along lines established by Western modernity and its norms.

Ethnographic research was conducted in Damascus, Syria among three main groups of Sunni Muslim men: dhikr participants and singers, Sufi sheikhs and others with formal and informal leadership roles within the dhikr community (including a prominent composer of dhikr music), and men who did not practice dhikr but who had serious and illuminating views on the practices and the questions I was researching. Part of my aim has been to explore the ways that certain modern Western framings of spirituality, mysticism, music, and art, which in many ways serve within liberal sensibilities as catchalls for the highest good, serve to obscure other modes of religious practice, ethics, and creative production. To the extent that these Western framings become normative or exert a normative force within modern configurations of life, they also extend the outer reaches of state power, despite not typically being considered part of it. In the interest of this question I have focused attention to the notion of musical art, and the types of social configurations and modes of creative production that, due to recent social change, are either no longer viable or have just recently become so.

I have written this dissertation during the years of horrible conflict which began after I returned to Berkeley from the field, and I want nothing more for this research than for its themes to be once again relevant to the lives of the men who helped shape it, whose sets of concerns and questions have been tragically reduced to the scope of bare survival.

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