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Debunking myths about music and Islam

  • Anne Rasmussen
    Anne Rasmussen  Author of Women, the Recited Qur'an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia.  Photo by Joseph McClain
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‘Women, the Recited Qur’an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia’ by Anne Rasmussen

In her new book Women, the Recited Qur’an, and Islamic Music in Indonesia, Anne K. Rasmussen explores the musical phenomenon of qur’anic recitation in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, while taking on several myths about music and Islam.

DebThe first myth she sets out to debunk holds that Islam and music do not get along. In fact, qur’anic recitation, performed in Arabic, is a highly stylized, artistic form of musical interpretation of verses from Islam’s holy book, Rasmussen explained. During a recitation, groups or individuals present different verses from the Qur’an that may be determined before performances or on the spot. These qur’anic recitations are sung to melodies imported from Egypt, even though Indonesia, with hundreds of ethnic groups, has characteristically different music from the rest of the Arab world.

Indonesia combines the highest Muslim population of any country in the world with a unique culture, distinctive in many aspects from Muslim countries in the Middle East. Rasmussen, associate professor of ethnomusicology at William & Mary, says Indonesians acquired qur’anic recitation through years of migration and trade, picking up the work of the traditional Egyptian reciters from radio transmissions and recordings—then they went on to incorporate the art form into their own rich cultural mix.

“On any day, I might hear qur’anic recitation played on cassettes in a shop or stall, broadcast on the car radio, emanating from the neighbor’s house…or broadcast live from the five or so mosques that were within range of our house,” Rasmussen writes.

A braided cultural heritage

Today, the art of recitation is passed down through a braided Indonesian cultural heritage that encompasses the study of the Arabic in the Qur’an, the traditional Egyptian melodies, opera-grade vocal skills and the ability to perform on a moment’s notice.

The Indonesian government has furthered the exhibition of qur’anic recitations by sponsoring festivals and competitions. Interestingly, she says, 50 percent of participants have been women. In contrast to prevailing views regarding females and Islam, Indonesian women are an integral part of the country’s Islam-inspired soundscape. Rasmussen maintains that women are vital in all aspects of Indonesian culture and society, particularly in their dedication to the values and customs of their communities.

 “There’s an idea in Islam that women are playing secondary roles and are behind the scenes, or that the sound of a woman’s voice is haraam, or forbidden,” Rasmussen said. “Here, I have observed quite the opposite. I write about women who not only work, but are in the business of religion and serve as ritual specialists. Because they use their bodies and voices to spread the word of God—and do that in a loud, virtuosic voice in the public sphere—their work shatters notions that women should be seen and not heard.”

Rasmussen points out that Indonesian women have always been activists and empowering role models to Muslim women around the world. “My book really puts Indonesia on the map in terms of the activities of women as ritual specialists,” she adds.

Performer, professor and student

Rasmussen made multiple trips to Indonesia, including a stint as a Fulbright scholar beginning in 1999. During her time there, she played multiple roles, serving as a student, researcher, professor and performer.  Between playing the ‘ud (an instrument akin to a lute), singing and directing a musical ensemble, Rasmussen had a plethora of opportunities to experience and participate in the Indonesian music scene.

 “Ethnomusicology, like anthropology, has a major methodology: the ethnographic method. You take advantage of any invitations that are extended to you, whether they are to weddings or study groups or to teach a class,” she said. “You try to use your most acute powers of observation just to see what is going on between people, what the goals of a particular event are, and what makes something successful.”

Rasmussen is on sabbatical for the 2010-2011 school year, working on a project that examines how music has been transported and circulated between the Arabian Gulf and the northern part of the Indian Ocean. She is also the director of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at William & Mary, which she founded in 1994.i