Berlin Islam as Acoustic Ecology: An Ethnography in Sound

How can sonic phenomena best be represented in academic discourse?  While the question has long preoccupied music studies, recent developments in technologies of sound recording and dissemination have given rise to new possibilities for the inscription of knowledge through digital sound recordings.  With the growing discipline of sound studies, the role of knowing-through-sound has moved from periphery to center, challenging the ocularcentric tropes of modernity in favor of a more multivalent notion of sensation and knowledge.  The study of Islam has mirrored this development as well, as scholars have turned their attention to the rich acoustics of Islamic practice, underscoring the aurality of the Qur’an, devotional practices (salah, zikr, etc.), Islamic architecture and even a more general sense of a Muslim (counter)public.

In this paper and audio presentation, I explore the sonic idiosyncrasies of Islam in Berlin, especially in the context of migration from Turkey in the past half century, through the process of audio recording.  Through sound recordings I have made in the past two years, I argue that Berlin’s various Muslim communities (specifically Caferi Shi’ites, Halveti-Cerrahi Sufis, Alevis, and Hanefi Sunnis) articulate significant differences between one another through sound.  This sense of heterophony—a simultaneous sounding of difference and oneness—is critical to the formation of an acoustics of Islam, especially in contexts of migration and transnationalism, as groups that previously inhabited distant geographical homelands are now placed in close proximity.  While the sounding of these differences can be detailed verbally—that is, inscribed with words—they are in fact natively acoustic arguments, represented more directly and emphatically through sound itself.

Author: Peter McMurray (Harvard University)