International Conference Responds to 21st-Century Challenges to Traditional Muslim Religion

An unusual international conference that organizers say has never been held before, which examines the challenges and transformation to the traditional Muslim faith, starts April 29 at the University of Alberta.

Michael Davies-Venn - 28 April 2011

(Edmonton) An unusual international conference that organizers say has never been held before, which examines the challenges and transformation to the traditional Muslim faith, starts April 29 at the University of Alberta.

The conference, entitled "Sounds and Spaces of Muslim Piety: Tradition and Transformation," will try to find answers to such broad-ranging questions as why musical instruments, such as the piano, are not used in Muslim religious practices; how traditional Muslim practices can be preserved and should they be, and what happens when Sufis-practitioners of Islamic mysticism-migrate away from their shrines in India to the west.

"Delegates and Muslim community members are very excited about this conference; everyone is saying it is important with respect to the languages and sounds they use in their religious practices," says Regula Qureshi, U of A music professor who is organizing the event.

"We [are hosting the conference] because here at the U of A we have a special group of scholars, five of them, who in one way or another work in Muslim societies and who are interested in spiritual Muslim practices, such as recitation and sounds. Together, our work covers India to Morocco, and that's a big part of the world."

The three-day conference, organized by the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology at the U of A and co-sponsored by the United Kingdom-based Association for the Study of Ginan, brings delegates from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Central and North America to the university.

Qureshi, who is also the director of the centre, says that studies on the Muslim religion have largely been limited to particular Muslim communities. She says this conference, which explores the diverse traditions of Muslim devotion, is different from other meetings.

"Studies of the Muslim religion tend to be on particular languages and religious texts, especially on the Qur'an, or on how the religion is practiced in India, Pakistan and other places," said Qureshi. "At this conference we go beyond particular cultures to look at the practice of the Muslim religion through sounds. Instead of music, we like to say sound, because most Muslims feel that music, as generally understood in the west, is something that is very worldly. Chants of the Qur'an could be considered songs, but they are not because, conceptually, it is recitation of the Qur'an and other spiritual texts. So this conference brings people here from different Muslim backgrounds, or who're studying sounds of Muslim piety, from different places."

Community members are also playing an active role in organizing the meeting, including logistical support provided by Edmonton's Ismaili supporters. "Ismailis are an amazing people, with their own faith and kind of Islam," she said. "They guard their tradition very well but at the same time, are open to modernity. Their tradition isn't really well known because for many centuries, Ismailis were persecuted. And so they developed a way of keeping their spiritual expressions among their own members. Today they are celebrating their traditions with us."

The conference, which will feature a concert of sounds and expression of Muslim devotion, is a celebration of an unusual value in Edmonton, says Qureshi. She says Muslims have different cultural backgrounds and represent diverse groups, and in Edmonton, unlike many other places, that diversity is celebrated.

"Something very different has happened here in Edmonton; in this city, there are eight different communities of Muslims, and several years ago they came together to create the Edmonton Council of Muslim Communities and, later, a chair of Islam at the U of A.

"This group continues to cultivate a relationship with the university, which helps us look at this conference as a celebration of the pluralism of one religion and its cultural differences and spiritual connections.

"We are saying that all Muslims can celebrate these traditions together, because we share something about how we value the sonic expression of sacred words and the spiritual experience, which is what faith is about."