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Ramadan Blues: Debates in Popular Islam during

Ramadan in Amman, Jordan

Sarah A. Tobin, PhD
Freie Universitt, Berlin
Within the context of the contemporary Middle East and the post-Islamic
Resurgence, avoiding music has become associated with a rise in religiosity and nor-
mative Islam. As a result, residents of Amman, Jordan actively avoid consuming
music during Ramadan. A large-scale survey and ethnographic data, including par-
ticipant observation with employees in an Islamic bank, conrm that avoiding music
is a public ethic of Ramadan that is temporally specic and in wide use during the
month. In this article, I argue that the tensions surrounding the debates of musics
compatibility with normative Islam are enacted in terms of a conict between cul-
tural and Islamic authenticities. These tensions are resolved temporarily during
Ramadan through altered consumption in which one ethical, Islamic framework
that regards music as haram, or forbidden, eclipses another, more diverse cultural
framework, and does so largely without inducing crisis or controversy. This is
because the two realms are not articulating with each other; rather, claims of a nor-
mative Islamic authenticity overwhelm the possibilities for a more diverse cultural
authenticity. Outside of Ramadan, however, these two competing authenticities
often spark tensions and conicts between family members, neighbors, and cowork-
ers. This article concludes by exploring the implications of ordering morality
for religious life in this assertive, even illiberal fashion for diversity in belief and
slamic practice during the holy month of Ramadan is often considered a
matter between believers and Allah. At the same time, it is also a matter
between believers and others in society, which is subject to a substantive shift in
public ethics and morals. These public ethics and the morality at play during
Ramadan are temporal, collaborative, and even assertive and illiberal. They are also
justied as part of a normative real or authentic Islam. Certain norms of public
behavior and of personal religious practice during Ramadan become amplied in
communion with the coworkers, friends, and family around whom one is sur-
rounded and even over and above them as well. This results in a moral and ethical
standardization, often bringing otherwise marginal or relatively unimportant
debates about elements of the normative or real Islam to the front and center.
Heightened piety is the larger, abstract notion exemplied by the month.
Ramadan is considered a time for inner reection, self-control, cultivating ones
Digest of Middle East StudiesVolume 22, Number 2Pages 292316
2013 Policy Studies Organization. Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
religious practice, and giving to the poor. Ones mind and body should be focused
on Allah. In addition to fasting, individuals pay careful attention to ensure they pray
the required ve times per day and try to pray more often, often in the taraweeh
prayer. Based upon the example of the Prophet Muhammad as reported in the
Sunnah, taraweeh prayers are extra, optional prayers, in an order and number pre-
scribed each by the various schools or mathaahib, which take place during the month
of Ramadan. Known to be physically exhausting, the taraweeh prayers nightly
contain up to 40 series of prostrations. In addition to prayer, a popular belief is that
each night, one should recite a part of the Quran, culminating in a reading of the
entire book over the course of the month. Personal comportment changes during
Ramadan, as many avoid gossiping, slander, and backbiting. Men avoid looking at
women lustfully, and women typically avoid wearing provocative clothes, cosmetics,
and perfumes that would otherwise attract a man. There is a focus on charity and
charitable giving, with ones mandated charitable giving, zakat, due at the end of the
month. Additional charitable donations and gestures, such as giving money to
beggars on the street, known as sadaqa, are valued. It is commonly asserted that if
one dies during Ramadan, ascension to Jenna, or paradise, is expected. The month
ends with Eid Al-Fitr, or the Little Feast, which often includes days o from work
and time spent with family and friends.
According to Salamandra (2004), the religious precepts of Ramadanpraying,
fasting, and repenting, as well as expressions of popular religiosityare the primary
focuses of many anthropological studies of Ramadan authored prior to 1990. In
more recent anthropological studies, however, the socially signicant meanings of
the month and the extra-religious meanings have begun to receive attention.
Salamandra, for example, demonstrated that the cultural practices associated with
Ramadan serve to perpetuate social hierarchies rather than promote structural egali-
tarianism. For Abu-Lughod (2005), Ramadan soap operas serve as a reections of
and perpetuators for cultural knowledge of the nation-state in Egypt. Armbrust
(2000a, 2000b) has taken on the commercialized aspects of Ramadan as both a
signal of the penetration of capitalist modes for markets and for a mass consumer-
ism that accompanies the secular rituals associated with the month in Egypt.
Ramadan also emerged as a period of time in which the tensions surrounding
the debates of musics compatibility with normative Islam are enacted in terms of a
conict between cultural and Islamic authenticities. These tensions are resolved
temporarily through altered consumption in which one ethical frameworkan
Islamically authentic frameworkthat regards music as haram eclipses another,
more diverseculturally authenticframework, and does so without inducing crisis
or controversy. This is because the two realms are not articulating with each other;
rather, claims of a normative Islamic authenticity with regard to music during
Ramadan overwhelm the possibilities for a more diverse cultural authenticity.
This article explores the relationship between alternative authenticities and
altered consumption, particularly of music, both during and outside of Ramadan.
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Tobin 293
Specically, this article examines the role of temporality in these explicitly Islamic
and Islamically derived practices. Furthermore, extra-Sharia and extra-religious
rationalities enhance the justications of altered consumption practices as part of
Islamic piety during Ramadan, only some of which continue after Eid Al-Fitr at the
conclusion of the month. This article concludes by exploring the important implica-
tions of ordering morality for religious life in this assertive, even illiberal fashion, for
diversity in belief and practice.
Ramadan in Amman, Jordan
Regardless of ones personal religious belief, practice, or status, all people in Amman
are required to uphold Jordanian law, which prohibits public consumption of any
kind during the daytime hours of the month of Ramadan. Smoking cigarettes,
eating, or drinking on the street or in a public spaceall ways of breaking ones
Ramadan fastare all strictly illegal and enforced by local law. These strictly
imposed rules of law have had detrimental consequences for those who choose to
violate them. In one example from 2007, a 30-year-old man was rumored to have lit
up a cigarette on the street, then arrested and imprisoned. According to rumor, he
died that night in prison. Although it is not clear if this actually occurred, gossip and
such discursive treatments further enhance the rule of law on this point and empha-
size that dire consequences are in store for those that opt not to uphold the fast and
the law.
To further legislate an environment conducive to heightened Islamic piety, all
alcohol sales are forbidden in the country during the month of Ramadan. When
interviewing a member of the Abu Jaber family, distributors of Amstel Beer, about
this, I was told that they are not legally allowed to sell alcohol during Ramadan.
The informant indicated that it negatively impacts sales during the month of
Ramadan. He also reported that alcohol sales the month before Ramadan are
always very good. This is because, typically, before the month begins, there is a
rush to stock up on alcohol to have on-hand throughout the Ramadan, particu-
larly by Christians and also by some Muslims. The Christian Orthodox Club, for
example, is forbidden from selling alcohol during Ramadan. However, they are not
forbidden from serving alcohol. As a result, they have developed a system by
which one brings in ones own alcoholhard liquor, beer, or wineand then have
it served to you throughout the month. In a kind of legal ction, the Orthodox
Club sells no alcohol, in adherence to the letter of the law. However, Christians
and others who want to feel as though they are having a night out, as they would
outside of Ramadan, are able to have alcohol served to them and to consume it
without violating the law.
By default, businesses in the food industry are not allowed to serve food or
drink for public consumption during daytime hours unless they have a special
permit to operate. Special permits are most frequently granted to businesses that
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 294
have a large foreign, and presumably non-Muslim, clientele. If a business violates
the terms of their Ramadan agreements, the government has been known to shut
them down for the remainder of the month. In Ramadan 2007, there was a rumor
that the Gloria Jeans Coee shop next to the University of Jordan served coee to
foreign students without the special permit, resulting in the business being shut
down for the remainder of the month and in the arrest of the managers.
Four- and ve-star hotel restaurants, along with a few other establishments that
typically cater to foreigners and tourists, have special licenses to operate food and
alcohol services throughout the month, including oerings of daytime consumption.
They are, however, closely regulated through special permit. Additionally, for those
unable or unwilling to refrain from smoking, these same hotels provide a safe and
legal venue for lighting up. The Intercontinental Hotel in Amman was one such
space. On my way to meet another American for lunch at a restaurant in the hotel
restaurant during Ramadan in 2008, I witnessed the hotel lounge full of Jordanian
men smoking cigarettes.
The legal requirements for adhering to the law and upholding this assertive
morality in play go beyond rumors of imprisonment and altered practices for
serving alcohol and allowing smoking, and extend to all businesses that sell food or
drink. During Ramadan 2008, an American friend visiting from the United States
and I picked up a few cupcakes to snack on during the afternoon. After we were
told that we could not sit in the caf to eat them, I asked the cashier, What do
pregnant women do when they need to eat? Pregnant women, of course, are
exempt from religious requirements for fasting. The employee answered that they
sit in their cars. We, too, sat in my car to eat the cupcakes. Likewise, the Starbucks
Drive-Thru was open, but one had to be careful not to drink when at a stoplight,
under the watchful eye of the people in the neighboring car for fear of receiving
disparaging looks and comments. Individual choice in an enclosed, private space,
even for those individuals who are not required to fast, is superseded by a dominant
public ethic that frequently invokes line-of-sight as the threshold criteria for public
As the above examples indicate, the publicly recognized and authorized ethics
for piety during Ramadan shift. The list of acceptable public practices extends well
beyond prohibitions against alcohol sales, and eating, drinking, and smoking during
Ramadan. In addition to those governable prohibitions, heightened social norms
alter public behavior. Men and women refrain from touching each other in public;
chewing gum; applying anything to the lips such as ChapStick or lipstick; dressing
in a way that reveals or suggests ones shoulders, elbows, or legs; wearing cosmetics
and perfumes; and even carrying unopened food and drink. I was frequently advised
to wrap the water bottle I carried around in a black plastic bag, so as not to draw
attention to a substance with which one could break a fast. Line-of-sight is
invoked here: the general rule is that if someone could struggle to maintain their
own fast by seeing someone else engage in the behavior or even remind them of the
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Tobin 295
behavior, if not illegal, it is in violation of public ethics to consume it within the
public eye. Such kinds of ethics are usually discussed in terms of respect or ihtiram.
That is, people of all religious faiths and kinds of personal practices are implored to
adhere to keep their consumption out of sight out of respect for those fasting and
out of respect for Islam.
This normativity of restraint by respectlegitimized by both the government
and the publicis illustrative of a central tenet of Islamic ethics, the concept of
commanding right and forbidding wrong, or Al-amr bil-maruf wal-nahy an
al-munkar (Cook, 2000). In fact, Umar ibn al-Khattab has identied the com-
manding of right and the forbidding of wrong as a primary tenet of Islam (Cook,
2000, p. 71). The Prophet Muhammad said, Whoever sees a wrong, and is able to
put it right with his hand, let him do so; if he cant, then with his tongue; if he cant,
then in his heart, and that is the bare minimum of faith (Cook, 2000, p. 32, note 2;
the references in the Sunnah and the accompanying isnad, or chains of transmission,
on this are extensive). This injunction to put right the wrongs with a hand, a tongue,
and then a heart, solidied in the second century, plays out in this case. The multi-
layered support for these norms and ethics here include the hand of the govern-
ment, the tongue of the public, and the heart of respect. That is, not only did one
need to abide by the letter of the law and refrain from public consumption or bear
the repercussions by the hand of the government, one also had to avoid situations
such as drinking in a car that would prompt a chastisement with a tongue, and fur-
thermore, one had to adopt these behaviors with respect, or with an attitude of
heartfelt deference and support for these norms.
This sentiment serves to arm that nonfasters must alter their public comport-
ment to adhere to this legislated and normative sense of Ramadan ethics. In fact,
Muslims in particular can and will be subjected to the injunction of commanding
right and forbidding wrong. Normativity here is strong and clear: Muslims should
be fasting and, by extension, they should be promoting these public ethics of a nor-
mative Islam. The injunction to command right and forbid wrong, as justied by
respect, on the part of nonpracticing Muslims and minorities, further gets to the
encompassing and illiberal nature of this morality.
Even if behaviors in public or semipublic spaces are not, strictly speaking,
illegal, the tenor for these highly normative Islamized public ethics is already in
place; the governmental regulations further produce and legitimize a morality and
public ethic about proper comportment during the month. Statesociety collabora-
tion enforcing certain Ramadan practices as real or authentically Islamic is over-
whelming and permeates all public and semipublic spheres that one may encounter.
Civil society theorists have discussed the important impacts of statesociety dynam-
ics on public norms and ethics, particularly in the realm of democratization eorts
(Hefner, 2000; Norton, 1995, 1996). In this instance, however, we see that the state
society dynamic is overwhelmingly collaborative during Ramadan. Furthermore, this
collaboration often carries illiberal ends.
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 296
Popular Music and the Real Islam
In addition to more central elements in contemporary, authentic Islamic practices of
Reciting the Quran, keeping the fast, wearing the veil, avoiding alcohol, giving
alms; not necessarily anything strictly political (Hefner, 2005, p. 21), music has also
emerged as an important and controversial subject. Debates about the compatibility
of music with a contemporary normative, real, or authentic Islam are relatively mar-
ginal outside of the month of Ramadan, as compared with the practices discussed
above. However, during Ramadan, debates about music become amplied and much
more central to understanding an authentic Islamic practice.
The debates regarding whether or not music is forbidden, or haram, date back
to discussions that derive from the sayings and traditions of the Prophet
Muhammad, or the Hadith and Sunnah. According to these early sources,
Muhammad himself witnessed a performance of Ethiopian dancers and musicians
using a hand drum, or du, in the mosque, even shielding his youngest wife,
Aisha, with his cloak in order to witness the event. Aisha said, The Prophet was
screening me with his rida (garment covering the upper part of the body) while I
was looking at the Ethiopians who were playing in the courtyard of the mosque.
(I continued watching) till I was satised. So you may deduce from this event
how a little girl (who has not reached the age of puberty) who is eager to enjoy
amusement should be treated in this respect, (cited in Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 7,
Book 62, Hadith 163). This earliest example has also been used to justify the idea
that only music that uses the du is acceptable. The Prophet said, What dieren-
tiates between the lawful and the unlawful is the du, and the voice (singing) for
the wedding (cited in Sunan an-Nasai, Vol. 4, Book 26, Hadith 3371). Some
scholars say that no instrument is acceptable. The Prophet said, From among my
followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, the
wearing of silk, the drinking of alcoholic drinks, and the use of musical instru-
ments, as lawful. And there will be some people who will stay near the side of a
mountain and in the evening their shepherd will come to them with their sheep
and ask them for something, but they will say to him, Return to us tomorrow.
Allah will destroy them during the night and will let the mountain fall on them,
and He will transform the rest of them into monkeys and pigs and they will
remain so till the Day of Resurrection (cited in Sahih al-Bukhari, Vol. 7, Book 69,
Hadith 494). In fact, some go so far as to indicate that the musicians are from
Satan and music is an innovation in Islam (cf. Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 14,
Hadith 2550; Sunan an-Nasai, Book 38, Hadith 4140).
Musical instruments are not the only ways in which music can be produced. As
for singing, Imam Nawawi (n.d.) said, it is permissible to speak and to sing poetry,
unless it satirizes someone, is obscene, or alludes to a particular woman
(p. 152). In another instance, Aisha arranged a marriage and the Messenger of
Allah came and said, Have you taken the girl (to her husbands house)? She said,
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Tobin 297
Yes. He said, Have you sent someone with her to sing? She said, No. The Mes-
senger of Allah said, The Ansar are people with romantic feelings. Why dont you
send someone with her to say, We have come to you, we have come to you, may
Allah bless you and us? (cited in Ibn Abbas, Vol. 3, Book 9, Hadith 1900). As this
Hadith demonstrates, singing is, at times, endorsed during a holiday or other cel-
ebration. Others have indicated that singing is never acceptable. According to Salam
ibn Miskin, quoting an old man who witnessed AbuWail in a wedding feast, said,
They began to play, amuse and sing. He united the support of his hand round his
knees that were drawn up, and said, I heard Abdullah (ibn Masud) say: I heard
Muhammad, the Apostle of Allah, say: Singing produces hypocrisy in the heart
(cited in Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 42, Hadith 4909).
Some point to the exclusive male role in the call to prayer, or athaan, as a sign
that women should not sing (cf. Saalim bin Ubayd Radiyallahu Anhu, Book 53,
Hadith 379; Sahih al-Bukhari 664, Vol. 1, Book 11, Hadith 633), and that singing
belongs only to men and in Quranic recitation, or tajweed, as a means to avoid
lusting after women by hearing their voices and, therefore, avoiding any hint of
haram practice (cf. Sunan Abi Dawud 941, Book 2, Hadith 0). There are frequent
prohibitions against employing or trading in singing girls (cf. Abu Umamah, Vol. 3,
Book 12, Hadith 2168). Singing is considered at times to be that kind of idle talk,
which is mentioned in Quran 31:6, And among the people is the one who buys idle
talk in order to lead them astray from the path of Allah by way of mockery. For
those there will be a humiliating punishment. Others disagree: Aisha reported that
Abu Bakr came to see me and I had two girls with me from among the girls of the
Ansar and they were singing what the Ansar recited to one another at the Battle of
Buath. They were not, however, singing girls. Upon this Abu Bakr said, What is
(the playing of ) this wind instrument of Satan in the house of the Messenger of
Allah (may peace be upon him) and this too on Eid day? Upon this the Messenger
of Allah (may peace be upon him) said, Abu Bakr, every people have a festival and it
is our festival (so let them play on) (cited in Sahih Muslim, Book 2098). Ulti-
mately, the Sharia scholars have never reached consensus on the permissibility of
Those that permit music (including Hadith of A.H. al-Ghazali, al-Darani, and
Ibn al-Rajub; for a longer discussion, cf. Hirschkind, 2006) often cited the potential
for enhancing piety and a closeness with Allah. Those that oppose music and
singing often point to musics dangerous ability to arouse unruly passions, stimulate
sensual pleasures, and distract one from thoughts of God (Hirschkind, 2006, p. 35).
Ultimately, the scholars point to a particular kind of agency on the part of music and
the predisposition of the listener: according to al-Darani, a ninth-century mystic,
Music does not provoke in the heart that which is not there (Hirschkind, 2006,
p. 35). During Ramadan, emphasis shifts to heightened levels of personal piety,
and the threats to and fears of breaking ones fasta highly central tenet of contem-
porary, normative Islamby way of illicit lyrics or unattended passions. Out of
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 298
respect for those that fast and for the religion itself, music during Ramadan is often
largely avoided.
Outside of Ramadan, however, Muslim-majority societies of the Middle East
have not been willing to turn away from their historical engagements with music. At
the same time as these textual and theological debates have occurred, music has
remained a salient element of popular culture in the Middle East, particularly for its
ability to communicate cultural and symbolic messages. Traditional Arab music,
tarab (lit. ecstasy or enchantment), was used in presenting music, poetry, the Quran,
and in other traditional forms of verbal, melodic recitation (Hirschkind, 2006; Racy,
2003; Shannon, 2003). Traditionally, the aim of the music involved improvisation
for the purposes of establishing emotive relationships between the listeners and the
Arab performers (El-Shawan, 1984). On the part of the audiences, listening was an
active experience with physical responses (Baily, 1988; El-Shawan, 1984; Racy,
2003; Shannon, 2003). The responses ranged from deep and contemplative listening
to extroverted, acting out. Additionally, the lyrics most often served as metaphors for
divine encounters and included topics such as love, nature, various holidays and fes-
tivities, and even intoxication.
Tarab music played an important role in the creation and maintenance of pan-
Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s. Thursday night radio broadcasts of Umm
Kalthoum, the quintessential tarab singer in 20th century Arabic music, were known
to clear people out of the streets and into their homes to listen (Danielson, 1987,
19901991; Racy, 1982). In fact, during her Thursday night radio broadcasts, life in
the Arab world came to a stop (Danielson, 1987, p. 29). Umm Kalthoum, colloqui-
ally referred to as The Voice of Egypt and The Arab Worlds most popular
modern singer captured the nation in the Thursday night concerts, following which
Nasser would come on the broadcast and espouse his Pan-Arab agendas for the
region (Danielson, 1987). As one ethnographic vignette recorded, When a vocalist
sings a beautiful phrase or a line . . . the audience doesnt just react with himthey
are prepared to do anything as a result of the tarab (Shannon, 2003, pp. 7677).
Combined with the messages of Nasser for Pan-Arab nationalism, Umm Kalthoum,
unabashedly pro-Nasser, contributed to the popularity of Pan-Arab nationalism
by facilitating an emotive environment in which her voice of cultural authenticity
and heritage brought Arabs together in political unity (Danielson, 1997; Stokes,
Tarab has also played an important role throughout the region in exerting a
localized aesthetic, or Eastern spirit (ruh sharqiyya) and cultural authenticity
(Shannon, 2003). Cultural authenticityas opposed to Islamic authenticity in the
normative formhas been dened in terms of the diverse emotions that the tarab
brings forth (Shannon, 2003) in the shared, Arab, historical background of the
listeners (Danielson, 19901991), and in the knowledge and recognition of the
tradition of Quranic recitation in a musical form (Danielson, 1987). Regardless of
ultimate denitions of authentic tarab music, the localized sensibility of cultural
Fall 2013
Tobin 299
authenticity has taken precedence over singular and unitary denitions, as elements
have changed dramatically since 1967 (Danielson, 1987, 19901991; El-Shawan,
One way in which the elements have changed is through the development of
contemporary, pop music, or shaabi music. Evolving from the tradition of tarab,
shaabi music diers from tarab in some important ways and simultaneously main-
tains the traditions of tarab in other ways. One similarity is the content of the
music. There are lyrics on shared topics such as love, nature, and intoxication.
Additionally, there are popular songs by explicitly Islamic performers such as Sami
Yusuf. Sami Yusuf is an Azeri-British singer known for such songs as Al-
Muallim (The Teacher) and Supplication, which appeared in the major
motion picture The Kite Runner. He is among the most pronounced of elites
that bring an integrated and updated message to young people in Amman. One
informant indicated to me that Sami Yusuf is really a singer for the younger
people, in part becausealthough his message is of Islamhis presentation and
performance distances him from the bearded sheikhs that often hail from Saudi
Arabia. Singers such as these often maintain the tradition of Quranic recitation
found in tajwid and in a capella chants of Islamic beliefs, histories, and stories in
nashid (Eid Nashid ). These forms of music often elicit a physical response,
including dancing (Gordon, 2003).
At the same time, new kinds of experiences have been created with Arabic
music and the popular life (Gordon, 2003; Swedenburg, 2004). A large number of
songs have emerged in political protest, often against Israel or as part of the Arab
Spring. We Will Not Go Down by Michael Heart was a particularly popular one
in light of the Israeli bombing of Gaza in 20082009. Tamer Hosni, a notable
Egyptian pop singer, has seen his popularity rise and fall in recent years based on his
self-proclaimed, pro-Mubarak national political alliances. Despite political or eco-
nomic inections, both form and content in contemporary music are often measured
against some notions of a normative Islam, as part of the contemporary context of
the post-Islamic resurgence. Although, at times, this renders cultural authenticity
and Islamic authenticity in music pitted one against the other in contemporary
debates, they are typically in coexistence and most notably at odds during Ramadan.
To complicate this evolution of Islamic and localized cultural forms, music is
now mediated by new technologies such as music videos, the Internet, and cell
phone ringers. This has created a new on-demand culture that did not exist previ-
ously in the age of Umm Kalthoums radio shows (Gordon, 2003; Rasmussen,
1996), and further complicates these debates and their resolutions. Authenticity of
music is no longer only measured in terms of form and content, but also in terms
of mode of transmission. In this way, modernization proceeded using a variety of
indigenous models as a foundation, to which were added appealing sounds
(Danielson, 1987, p. 35). In other words, as Arab music has become part of the con-
temporary Middle East in a variety of fashions and forms, indigenous models of
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 300
tarab have remained, even as new forms adapt to make the music more appealing to
a larger, more generalized, and Western-inuenced audience. Shaabi music still
plays a role in exerting localized aesthetics and cultural knowledge as cultural
authenticity, which is directly challenged by understanding normative Islam during
There are, of course, those singers and musicians who attempt to bridge the
divide between cultural and Islamic authenticity. Sami Yusuf, the most prominent
of these among Muslims around the world, sings Islamic nashids and commentary
on contemporary Islamic practices such as donning the hijab (one song is entitled
Free). He discusses the Prophet in a song entitled Al-Muallim, and political
events such as the IsraeliPalestinian conict in a song entitled, Forever
Palestine. There are many others in this genre that grows in popularity and
visibility. The popular Danish hip-hop group Outlandish has reached number one
on the music charts in multiple countries with their song, Aicha. Most of the
year, concerns about authenticity of these musicians do not dominate local discus-
sions, and most of these musicians are able to integrate cultural and Islamic
authenticity with relatively little diculty. During Ramadan, however, technical
details of lyrics, types and numbers of instruments, the emotive qualities of the
music, and their modes of transmission are highly scrutinized, and often rejected
in the name of authentic Islam. As survey and ethnographic data reveal, during
Ramadan, public consensus in Amman, Jordan says that musiceven Islamized
pop musicis haram.
Is Music Haram? Survey Data
During Ramadan 2008, I conducted a survey of 475 respondents regarding
Ramadan practices and consumption patterns using snowball sampling. Of the
respondents, 252 said they resided in Amman, including 14 dierent neighbor-
hoods around West Amman. Seventy-six indicated they were from East Amman
and the surrounding areas. One hundred and three were students at the University
of Jordan and Petra University, listing their universities as their homes, and 44
were enlisted members of the Jordanian military who were working away from their
In terms of the ages of respondents, 38% were between the ages of 18 and 40,
as demonstrated in Fig. 1. The large number of respondents in the 1823 age
range (n = 180) is attributable to over 100 students surveyed at the University of
Jordan and Petra University. As such, this survey does carry a slight youth bias.
Although this is consistent with the larger demographic of Jordan where the
median age is 22.1 (CIA, 2013a), and 70% of people are under the age of 30
(Save the Children, 2013), a survey of people over the age of 25 may produce dif-
ferent results. Figure 1 demonstrates visually the breakdown of respondents by
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Tobin 301
Ages and Numbers of Respondents
In the survey, I asked the following demographic questions:
1. Are you Muslim? YES or NO
On a scale of 1 to 10, how religious do you consider yourself? (1 is the lowest and
10 is the highest)
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
2. Male or Female? MALE or FEMALE
If femaledo you wear hijab? YES or NO
When combining the responses to these questions together, the results reect that
447 respondents were Muslim or 94% of survey respondents, 28 were non-Muslim,
or 5.8%, which is reective of non-Muslims in the larger population, which are
approximately 8% (CIA, 2013b). Two hundred and sixty-six males constituted 56%
of the survey respondents, while 209 or 44% were females, of whom 61.7% wore the
hijab. Though exact gures of what percentage of women in Amman wear the
headscarf are unknown, estimates place the overall numbers in Jordan at around
60%, which is only slightly less than those reported by the survey. Overall, hijabi
women constitute 27.2% of all respondents.
This gender demographic breakdown becomes most salient, however, when
combined with the responses to the question, On a scale of 1 to 10 how religious
do you consider yourself? (1 is the lowest and 10 is the highest.) When compared
visually, the results are surprisingly similar. Figure 2 demonstrates these.
Combined Self-Reported Gender, Hijab, and Religiosity
Notably, there is an overall percentage increase in respondents from lower numbers
of self-reported religiosity of 1 and 2 to higher numbers, which peak at 5 or 6,
12 15 17 19 21 23 25 27 29 31 33 35 37 39 41 43 45 47 49 52 59 63 70 82


Age of Respondents
Figure 1: Ages and numbers of respondents.
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 302
and then more gradually decline, until tapering o at between 5% and 10% of
respondents in the 9 and 10 ranges. Regardless of reported gender and the presence
or absence of the hijab among women, the patterns are quite similar. The bell curve
of these responses indicates that across demographic dierences in gender, and even
while accounting for the donning of the womens headscarf, the spread of an under-
standing of religiosity remain relatively similar.
It is particularly interesting to note that women who wear the headscarf view
themselves as only marginally more religious than women who do not at the mid-
range level of 5, with the largest gap between women with the headscarf and those
without at only 6%. That is, 21% of hijabi women reported their religiosity level of
5, while 15% of non-hijabi women reported their religiosity at level 5. Inversely, at
the higher levels of self-reported religiosity of 9, 10% of non-hijabi women
responded with a religiosity level of 9, while only 6% of hijabi women rated their
religiosity the same level. This demonstrates that there are times when non-hijabi
women consider themselves especially more religious than those that don the
headscarf. Nonetheless, both groups of women reect the same bell curve pattern in
self-reported religiosity as men, who do not have such a visual symbol for religious
life as women do. Sixty percent of women in Amman wear the headscarf
(McDermott, 2010), which is roughly the same rate as what Smith-Hefner (2007)
discusses in Indonesia.
Combined, Figs. 1 and 2 demonstrate that the survey respondents aredespite
some predictable variability with a weight toward youthrelatively homogenous in


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Rate of Reported Religiosity
"% of Muslim, Non-Hijab Wearing Female Rates of Self-Reported Religiosity"
"% of Muslim, Hijab Wearing Female Rates of Self-Reported Religiosity"
"% of Muslim Male Rates of Self-Reported Religiosity"
Figure 2: Combined self-reported gender, hijab, and religiosity.
Fall 2013
Tobin 303
questions of self-reported religiosity. This indicates that the survey results would
likely approximate larger patterns in society. Furthermore, the results are consistent
with ethnographic data, which are discussed below.
When asked if Ramadan is more expensive than other months, 80.4%, or 382
respondents indicated that Ramadan is more expensive; while 93 respondents, or
18.5% indicated the oppositethat Ramadan is not more expensive than other
months. Figure 3 demonstrates the self-reported breakdown of personal spending
both during Ramadan and outside Ramadan in four common consumptive catego-
ries of food, clothing, travel, and music/entertainment.
Self-Reported Spending and Activities Conducted during and outside the
Month of Ramadan
Consistent with a common complaint that food prices are high, and the growing
trend for Jordanians to prepare large, elaborate meals on a daily basis during
Ramadan, spending on food is more than 30% higher during the month
of Ramadan, with 224.35 JOD (1 JOD = 1.41 USD = 316.33 USD) during
Ramadan, and 170.81 JOD (240.84 USD) during other months. Spending on
clothing, often a gift for children and family members, was almost 40% higher in
Ramadan (112 JOD, or 157.92 USD) than after the end of the month in Eid
al-Fitr (80.31 JOD, or 113.24 USD). Spending on travel was signicantly lower
during Ramadan (59.79 JOD, or 84.30 USD; and 290.70 JOD, or 409.89 USD),
as most people reported using the month to spend time with family. They also
reported that travel days are not required fasting days, but must be made up later
when others are not fasting. As a result, most Jordanians preferred to fast with
other family and friends during Ramadan, when it is easier. Spending in the
music/entertainment category showed a 20% decrease during Ramadan, from
290 70
200 00
59 79
59 91
59.79 49.98
t n e m n i a t r e t n E / c i s u M l e v a r T g n i h t o l C d o o F



Spending During Ramadan Spending Outside Ramadan
Figure 3: Self-reported spending during and outside the month of Ramadan (in JOD).
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 304
59.91 JOD (84.47 USD) to 49.98 JOD (70.47 USD). This becomes a particularly
salient category later in the survey.
When asked, What kinds of things do you only buy during Ramadan?, there
were 653 references to food and drink, typically referencing the special holiday foods
such as getayif, which is also colloquially known as qatayef and atayif. It is a
Ramadan sweet of a small pancake stued with walnuts and cinnamon or cheese.
Also referenced was tamarhind, which is a sweet tamarind drink served during
Ramadan. Both of these items are largely uncommon outside Ramadan. This ques-
tion and the subsequent questions had blank spaces where the answers were free-
listed. Therefore, there are more responses than responders, as one person may list
three or four items. The data account for all free-listed responses, rather than ascrib-
ing one response to one person. There were 38 additional references to nonfood
items, which were also specic to the season, such as Ramadan lights and
Ramadan decorations. The purchasing of festive holiday food and nonfood items
is relatively unreective of whether one is fasting during Ramadan for reasons of
personal piety or not.
However, what did reect an overt pursuit of heightened piety and religiosity
were the responses to the questions, What kinds of things do you especially do
during Ramadan? And why? Figure 4 demonstrates the responses. They reect a
broad basis for explicitly religious responses with 291 references to prayers of
various kinds, 160 references to reading Quran, and 142 references to engaging
in other forms of worship (ibada). At the same time, seasonal celebrations (106
references) and nothing dierent (51 references) are not explicitly religious and
may reect those that fast for nonreligious purposes and conform to the public
ethics and expectations without engaging a personalized piety. They may also
include responses of non-Muslims. Giving to charity had the fewest references
at 44.
Prayers of various kinds Reading Quran Other forms of Seasonal celebrations Nothing different from Giving to Charity


y g
any other time
g y
Figure 4: Things people especially do during Ramadan.
Fall 2013
Tobin 305
Things People Especially Do during Ramadan
A potential aw in this survey is related to this point. When respondents are asked
what they especially do during Ramadan, it is dicult to avoid a kind of survey
bias that respondents may have reported what they should do during Ramadan. The
discourses of normative Islam and normative piety are particularly powerful during
the month of Ramadan. It is notable that 51 responses were in reference to nothing
dierent from any other time. Although these responses were free-listed, nothing
dierent from any other time would be a mutually exclusive response from the
others. Therefore, 51 responses of nothing dierent from any other time would
reect 51 responders. Even accounting for the 28 non-Muslims, there are still 23
self-reported Muslims who are not engaging in any specic Ramadan behaviors or
eorts, including those that would explicitly enhance their piety or those that visibly
adhere to public ethics during the month.
When asked what people never buy and especially avoid during Ramadan,
the answers veer sharply in one direction: music. Again, this question and the subse-
quent questions had blank spaces where the answers were free-listed. Therefore,
there are more responses than responders, as one person may list three or four items.
The data accounts for all free-listed responses, rather than ascribing one response to
one person. Figure 5 shows the kinds of things that people never buy during
Things People Never Buy in Ramadan
In Fig. 5, it becomes clear that media entertainment is the largest category
of items that people are avoiding purchasing during the month of Ramadan, with
112 references made to some sort of media entertainment. Following media
Foods Alcohol
Cosmetics &
Clothes Haram
Expensive things Non-Religious


Figure 5: Things people never buy in Ramadan.
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 306
entertainment, certain types of salty foods and foods that make you thirsty were
avoided (n = 86), followed by alcohol and tobacco (n = 81). The remainder of the
references numbered 28 (cosmetics and perfume) and less. Media entertainment
is clearly the most avoided category of good during Ramadan. Figure 6 breaks down
the category of media entertainment more specically and examines what types of
media entertainment people never buy during Ramadan.
Media Entertainment Never Bought during Ramadan
Of all the references, music exceeds any other type of media not purchased during
Ramadan by 80% (music n = 84; movies n = 17). Music is, by far, the primary type
of media entertainment and the single most common item that people never buy
during Ramadan. These results become compounded, because consuming it is the
second most common item especially avoided during Ramadan, as demonstrated
in Fig. 7.
Items Especially Avoided during Ramadan
In Fig. 7, the most common behavior especially avoided during Ramadan is doing
haram things (n = 90). After this vague and abstracted notion, listening to music
is the most common practice avoided during Ramadan, followed very closely by
gossiping (n = 66 and n = 65, respectively). As Figs. 6 and 7 demonstrate, not only
do people overwhelmingly avoid purchasing music, they also avoid specically lis-
tening to it. Avoiding consuming musicboth in its purchase and by listeningis
the largest commodity-based avoidance. The consumption of music is actively
avoided during Ramadan. The survey results conrm that consuming music is a
public ethic of Ramadan that is specic and marked during the month and one that
diers from other months. As such, it raises the question as to why, in localized
logics, musicboth purchasing it and listening to itis avoided during Ramadan.
2 2


Music Movies Music Video Clips Video Games Pornography Electronics
Figure 6: Media entertainment never bought during Ramadan.
Fall 2013
Tobin 307
Is Music Haram? Ethnographic Data
After I developed the results of this survey, I interviewed a number of people in
Amman, Jordan, seeking an answer to the question. The most common responses I
received to this question included use of sarcasm, eye rolling, and statements that
revealed an assumption that everyone returns to pre-Ramadan practices as soon as
the month is over. The cynical perception of these informants was that Ramadan
prompted altered forms of consumption more generally, as demonstrated in dier-
ences in food consumption and travel patterns above. At the same time, music spe-
cically, is one way in which the tensions surrounding the debates of musics
compatibility with normative Islam are resolved, at least temporarily, with altered
consumption in Ramadan.
The aged debates regarding the appropriateness of music are amplied during
Ramadan, and ethnographic stories abound as to how Ammanis deal with such a
moral and ethical shift during the month. One particularly pious informant indi-
cated that he utilizes new technologies and enjoys his iPod. However, he now calls it
The Islamic iPod, which has become fully Islamic by placing only Quranic reci-
tation on it. Technology, it seems, was not an obstacle to enhanced piety, but in fact
has helped facilitate the complete shift away from popular music during the month.
I asked him if music is haram, and he responded that it is haram. He then asked me
if I had seen the music videos and listened to lyrics of Haifa Wehbe and Nancy
Ajram, who are popular Lebanese singers. He proceeded to discuss the ways in
which these popular music artists dance, which prompts him to think about sex.
This prompting of sexual feelings, he indicated, is what is haram. He went on to
describe the ways in which it took away from his focus on Allah, and indicated
thatas a resulthe nds the music to be disgusting.
I pushed him a bit on his response, which focused on music videos and sexually
explicit lyrics, and probed, What about Sami Yusuf? Or some of the other singers
who dont sing about that? To this, he responded that even Sami Yusuf uses instru-
ments and rhythms that the others use. As a result, it t his understanding of
!" !# !" !#
&& &'
(# "%


"& "'
#* #*
9-8:;.-./ :,
?,88-@-./ 9A-./ B3:>7-./ 6C DE>,7,E F;-./ D./4A D./;4-./ ?,G 9,,H-./ 3:
J-..-./ <3H-./
Figure 7: Items especially avoided during Ramadan.
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 308
sexually enticing music that prompts the same forbidden feelings. To this informant,
it did not matter that the lyrics were dierent. It was the instrumentation and
rhythms that prompted his feelings.
This response that music is haram because it lls your head with impure
thoughts, reminds one of impure things, or simply detracts from a focus on Allah
was a very common response. During Ramadan, in particular, the smallest technical
detailsin this case, Sami Yusuf s choice of instruments and rhythmic sexiness
are not ignored even if the lyrics are dierent. Another friend reiterated this point
when she discussed the ways in which music can often get stuck in ones head. She
added that, during Ramadan, it should be the Quran playing over in ones head
rather than the sexied popular music. This, she indicated, would prompt one to
focus always and only on Allah.
In one of the more conservative neighborhoods of Amman, one known for a
high number of Sus and of foreigners studying the Quran and Islam under the
guidance of a Western convert and established Sheikh, music is widely unpopular
and morally regulated by the community throughout the year. Electronic music is
widely forbidden. For example, taxis turn o the radio when entering or exiting the
neighborhood. Local convenience stores play Quranic recitations. Even the small,
local womens-only gym keeps the music turned o. As for nonelectronic music,
women will sometimes gather in a home to sing a capella in small, hand-drum or
du-led Islamic songs during the Eid holidays, weddings, and for other various cel-
ebrations. During Ramadan, these gatherings are not held. I never heard of musical
gatherings for the men. The narrow interpretation of acceptable music by this Su
community diers from those found in other Su communities, such as those in
South and Southeast Asia. The Qawwali music of some Sus in India and Pakistan
(Baily, 1988; Qureshi, 1986) is notably dierent, as is Susm in Afghanistan (Baily,
2011); and others such as found in Indonesia and Egypt (cf. Hirschkind, 2006;
Rasmussen, 2010).
A story from this neighborhood that was often repeated among the non-
Jordanian Su mureed, or followers of the Sheikh, was about the Sheikhs wife, also a
non-Jordanian. One night, a few Jordanian neighbors were hosting a high-school
graduation party outside of the month of Ramadan. The family and their guests
were playing Arabic pop music loudly, and it could be heard some distance from the
house. The Sheikhs wife went to the door of the neighbor, knocked, and then
admonished the host by reiterating that music is haram. She then went on to repri-
mand them by reminding them that they themselves turn music o during
Ramadan, and that they knew better than to turn it back on for the graduation party
outside of the month of Ramadan. It was then reported that the Sheikhs wife indi-
cated that there is special place in hell for them for listening to the music. Then she
simply turned around and went home.
This story was often retold for two reasons. First, it was recounted as a way to
describe the personality of this particular Sheikhs wife as a brash, hard-line, and
Fall 2013
Tobin 309
uncompromising woman, which was frequently a topic for discussion in this com-
munity. Second, and more to the point, it demonstrated the localized understanding
of music both during and outside of Ramadan. It demonstrates the coexistence of
two competing authenticities. First, for the foreign and austere Su community, the
avoidance of music was something highly regulated as part and parcel of religious
observance and practice. The norms of this religious and demographically larger
community dictated the ethics of the public sphere in the neighborhood. Second, at
the same time, localized Jordanian ethics pointed to music as haram only during
Ramadan, even in the presence of a more conservative demographic majority.
Outside of Ramadan, musicin this neighborhood and othersis not something
that people avoid purchasing or listening to en masse. Though debates may abound,
it is really only during Ramadan that this major shift in public ethics and, by exten-
sion, personal practice extends to music. As such, this dierence can raise conicts
between Islamic communities outside of Ramadan, which highlights the tensions at
play between an understanding of cultural authenticity and Islamic authenticity.
During Ramadan, the tensions are resolved as diverse Islamic understandings shift
to reject music and adopt a stricter interpretation of an authentic Islamic practice.
It is not only the consumers of music that support this idea. I went to the
downtown area of Amman where most music and video sellers have shops. I asked
employees and owners if it was true that people avoided buying or listening to music
during Ramadan. The employees and owners all agreed that, during Ramadan their
music sales dropped anywhere from 40% to 80%. Some said they close their stores
for days at a time because there are so few customers. However, as soon as Ramadan
is over, many shopkeepers reported to me, then customers come back. They reported
that the customers want to make sure they get caught up on all the music that came
out during Ramadan.
Authenticity, as justied in both cultural and Islamic terms, comes to the fore
here. Islamic authenticity refuses to accept popular music, and the refusal is based
upon religiously informed justications such as found in the Sunnah and Hadith,
such as those described above. This perspective gains wide acceptance only during
the month of Ramadan and through public ethics exerted during the month. The
understandings outside of Ramadan do not see popular music as interfering with
ones daily life or pursuits of piety, however piety plays out. As the example above
with the Sheikhs wife shows, when the two competing authenticities come together
outside of Ramadan, a kind of uncertainty and rejectionrather than integration or
eclipsingcan occur. An often cited example (Adely, 2007, p. 1670; Stratton, 2006)
is that of the music video of Egyptian pop artist Haitham Said, Homa Malhom
bina ya Leil or They Have Nothing to do With us, Oh Night.
In this video, a
young, veiled woman is sitting on a bridge overlooking the Nile in Cairo, swaying to
the beat while being serenaded by a young, male Egyptian singer. Compared with
most other popular Arabic music videos, it is quite tame. There is no touching
between the male singer and the female being serenaded. She is not moving in a
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 310
provocative way, particularly when compared with other videos. Her hands and face
constitute the only esh shown. Other videos reveal far more skin, contain touching
and physical interactions, even include controversial themes such as tying up a
woman, adulterous meetings, and spousal abuse. However, this video was, despite its
seeming wholesomeness, highly controversial. This is because, in essence, it brought
together these two competing authenticities in one moment. The video was contro-
versial because it tried to lay claim to both Islamic authenticity and cultural authen-
ticity, which was widely rejected. By contrast, during Ramadan, Islamic authenticity
supplants cultural authenticity, and does so without inducing crisis or controversy;
the two realms are not articulating with each other during Ramadan, one temporar-
ily eclipses the other as part of practicing the real Islam.
This temporality, when one form of authenticity subsumes the other with
regard to music, is also witnessed during the athaan, or call to prayer, both during
and outside of the month of Ramadan. Whenever the athaan sounds, the most
common response is to turn o whatever music is playing. When I asked why
people did that, the most common response I received was that this was out of
respect for Islam. It seemed a habitual practice, and if someone failed to turn o the
music in a caf or restaurant, often people would alert the waiters to do so, to which
they would typically comply without hesitation, as part of the injunction to
command right and forbid wrong.
There was a particular moment where, one Friday afternoon, I was sitting at the
rooftop pool at the all-womens gym I attended. Women were scantily clad in string
bikinis, smoking cigarettes, and gossiping. The music was playing loudly. As soon as
the athaan or azaan sounded from a neighboring mosque, the music was turned o,
but everyone continued their other behaviors without interruptionbikinis
remained on display, cigarettes were still smoked, and the gossiping continued. This
phenomenon of temporal switching between authenticities is particularly notable in
the sphere of music.
Is Music Haram? A Case Study at an Islamic Bank
As I was processing these survey results and interviewing people about how music is
perceived and used both during Ramadan and outside Ramadan, I asked the
employees at the Islamic bank to explain what music meant for their religious lives.
Throughout the month-long discussion, which occurred outside of the month of
Ramadan, I kept a record of the music that played in the oce from one of the
employees computers. Here is one of the playlists in the oce:
1. Fairouz, a famous Lebanese singer often played in the mornings, unknown song
2. Unrecognizable classical music without lyrics
3. Air Supply, Making Love, Out of Nothin at All
Fall 2013
Tobin 311
4. Celine Dion, Falling into You
5. Unrecognizable instrumental music, such as one would hear in an elevator
6. Kenny G, Unknown Song
7. Unrecognizable instrumental music, such as one would hear in an elevator
8. Classical Arabic singer reminiscent of Um Kalthoum
9. Unrecognizable instrumental music, such as one would hear in an elevator
** At this point, the athaan sounded, and the employee turned o the music.
** He turned it back on when the athaan was nished.
10. Unknown artist and song; a Spanish language love song
11. Christopher Cross, Sailing
12. A 1980s remix and cover of I Cant Help Falling in Love with You
13. Chris De Burgh in a cover of Crazy, originally by Patsy Cline
14. Unknown artist, cover of Jackson 5s Ill Be There
15. Luther Vandross, When I Need You
16. Dolly Parton, Because I Love You and When You Tell Me that You Love
17. Josh Groban, unknown song
18. Michael Bolton, Said I Loved You But I Lied
This playlist demonstrates that Jordanians in Ammanspecically, professional
employees of the Islamic bankare listening to English-language music and to
Arabic music of a wide variety, as well as to classical music and to elevator music.
One style of music not represented here are the controversial Arabic tunes by Haifa
Wehbe and Nancy Ajram, who make up some of the most racy and scandalous
music videos. Rather, this music selection tended to be predominantly sentimental,
slow songs with lyrics that are more often oriented toward love than sex, and
contained rhythms conducive to a working environment. Additionally, as discussed
above, turning o music during the athaan is common practice both during and
outside Ramadan.
As this playlist went along, I was sitting with three employees in this oce
Zeinab, Nuh, and Ibrahim.
We began talking about music:
Zeinab: Do you know rai music from North Africa? I dont understand
their Arabic, but you dont have to understand the Arabic to like the
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 312
Author: Well, rai will keep you working [laughing, making hand gestures as
though beating a drum, referencing the beats of the music].
Nuh: Yeah, I used to listen to heavy metal. Now I listen to other stu.
Zeinab: Yeah, like Sami Yusuf.
Ibrahim: Its all haram, anyway.
Zeinab: Sami Yusuf bardu (also)?
Nuh: No, Sami Yusuf is not haram. Hes mish mafrood (not decided or not in
Nuh then reached over and turned o the music. I turned to him and said, So thats
it? Musics haram? Then he reached over and turned it back on.
This oce interaction demonstrates that there is a tentativeness with which
people enter this discussion, primarily because it draws attention to the competing
authenticities that existand are largely overlookedoutside of the month of
Ramadan and create tensions between dierent variations of Islamic practices and
pieties especially during Ramadan. Here, Ibrahim made his understanding that all
music was haram clear, which prompted Nuh to turn it o. However, when I probed
So thats it? Musics haram? my question continued to push the discussion into
what was likely an uncomfortable moment: the meeting of two competing authen-
ticities. Rather than allowing an Islamic authenticity to prevail over a cultural
authenticity, which was a position taken by Zeinab, I pushed Nuh, whose hedged
position that music is mish mafrood kept him from having to choose one or
another and declare music haram or not.
The working notion is that family, friends, and colleagues will turn o music
as a gesture of respect and to accommodate those who see it as haram, as wit-
nessed both during the month of Ramadan in general, and also more specically
in temporally bound cases such as the oce setting or during the athaan. The
same principle of commanding right and forbidding wrong by way of respect
applies when the athaan sounds, when your neighbor complains about your music,
and when your oce mate rejects it as morally and ethically forbidden. Even
at moments of competing authenticities, the assertive moralities and ethics of
a normative Islam can overwhelm otherwise diverse understandings justied as
culturally authentic.
Ramadan is a temporal shift in legislated practices of Islam and public ethics that
dictate acceptable Islamic practice and, by extension, results in shifts in personal
behaviors across legal, civic, and public realms. As a result, Ramadan both restricts
some behaviors and also adds opportunities for increased commercialization,
heightened and altered consumption in order to create an Islamically authentic
Ramadan. In fact, consumption is a primary means by which the practices
Fall 2013
Tobin 313
associated with Ramadan are embedded and entrenched in the social and cultural
Such debates come to the fore with regard to music, where temporal adjust-
ments are made to diminish tensions and accommodate the communitythe
ummahin commanding right and forbidding wrong. While the commanding of
right and the forbidding of wrong during Ramadan creates moralities and ethics
that are assertive and even illiberal in their focus and outcomes, it does not create a
single, unitary pious response either in support of or in opposition to this context:
ethics and moralities inevitably change back after Ramadan. The authentic
Ramadan experience is subject to not only the contextual constraints of the morali-
ties and ethics at play, but also the myriad responses to those outcomes witnessed
after the Eid.
One of my informants summarized this shift in public ethics and practices
during Ramadan. In her perspective, she prefers the moralities and ethics dictated
and enforced during Ramadan over those witnessed at other times of the year. She
wishes that they did not change back after the month is over. She said that
Ramadan is a time when things change, citing that people fast and avoid music. She
went on to underscore that Ramadan is the period of time in which she feels the
most comfortable; she ultimately hopes people will stop listening to music alto-
gether. She indicated that refraining during Ramadan is a way to build good habits,
which she would like to see continue after Ramadan is over.
Though certain elements of society may be keen to see these ethics of Ramadan
continue beyond the month, the temporality of such kinds of accommodations
passes, the majoritarian ethics and moralities shift, and the piousin their diverse
cultural and Islamized formsgo back to listening to music or skipping prayers or
any measure of shifts until the next Ramadan.
It is important here to highlight that such shifting and temporary forms of
consumption represent a kind of exibility and responsiveness in contemporary
Islam. This is particularly true in situations of illiberality in public moralities and
ethics: they often do not last beyond a liminal period of time and space. As such,
these altered forms of consumption also represent a kind of help in the perfor-
mance and constitution of certain types of agents. These shifts in ethics and
moralities are easier to sustain when they are conducted with friends, family, and
coworkers in shared, altered consumption. By doing it together, they can sustain
such a shift.
It is in these moments that attempts to assert a normative Islama real
Islamis addressed and confronted, and accommodated or rejected, and all within a
considered temporal framework. The discourse of respect as part of the injunction
to command right and forbid wrong is one that carries a particularly powerful
weight during Ramadan. However, the limits of such kind of discursive power and
justications are revealed at the end of Ramadan when the push to fast and pray
ends, or when the athaan is over and Michael Bolton is played once more.
Digest of Middle East Studies
Ramadan Blues . . . 314
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