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The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual

Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India

By Shemeem Burney Abbas

Publication Year: 2002

The female voice plays a more central role in Sufi ritual, especially in the singing of devotional poetry, than in almost any other area of Muslim culture. Female singers perform sufiana-kalam, or mystical poetry, at Sufi shrines and in concerts, folk festivals, and domestic life, while male singers assume the female voice when singing the myths of heroines in qawwali and sufiana-kalam. Yet, despite the centrality of the female voice in Sufi practice throughout South Asia and the Middle East, it has received little scholarly attention and is largely unknown in the West. This book presents the first in-depth study of the female voice in Sufi practice in the subcontinent of Pakistan and India. Shemeem Burney Abbas investigates the rituals at the Sufi shrines and looks at women’s participation in them, as well as male performers’ use of the female voice. The strengths of the book are her use of interviews with both prominent and grassroots female and male musicians and her transliteration of audio- and videotaped performances. Through them, she draws vital connections between oral culture and the written Sufi poetry that the musicians sing for their audiences. This research clarifies why the female voice is so important in Sufi practice and underscores the many contributions of women to Sufism and its rituals.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page

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Author’s Note: Translations, Transliterations, and Conversation Analysis Transcript Notation

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pp. ix-xi

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pp. xiii-xv

Western scholars have described Islam as a ‘‘male’’ religion, a characterization that continues to be repeated well into the twenty-first century. As evidence for this position, commentators state and restate that no women are observed in the mosque for prayers, that only boys appear to be students in the Quranic schools, and that female participation is lacking during the major religious feasts...

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pp. xvii-xxvii

This book documents the place of women in Sufi practice in the subcontinent of Pakistan and India. Samā', or the context where devotional Sufi poetry is sung and heard,1 is almost unknown in the West but is widespread in the Muslim cultures of South Asia and the Middle East. Although it is a significant dimension of Sufi Islam, samā' is poorly documented and scarcely understood among the wider...


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pp. xxix-xxx

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1 History and Economy of Women in Sufi Ritual

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pp. 1-51

Although there is a long history of women’s participation in the many dimensions of Sufi life, that is, in the traditions of Islamic mysticism, there has been no adequate documentation of it in the literature. In general, little ethnographic investigation of rituals at Sufi shrines, where both women and men participate, has been done. It is only in recent years that some studies have been published,1 and even...

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2 Ethnographies of Communication

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pp. 52-84

In this chapter I describe performances of Sufi poetry sung to music in sociolinguistic terms, looking at both qawwālī and sufiānā-kalām. Briefly, these are contexts where devotional poetry is sung to music. The speech events may take place in a Sufi shrine, on the outskirts of a shrine during 'urs celebrations, or in a concert setting. The participants of the events are the musicians, who are the...

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3 Female Myths in Sufism

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pp. 85-107

The complexities of race, gender, class, and caste figure prominently in the narratives of the qawwāls and sufiānā-kalām performers. Sufi poetry in Pakistan and India was sometimes composed in opposition to the religious establishment and was expressed in subtle ways. It survived through representation in myth and the complex tropes of the female voices.Whether or not the Sufi poets were ‘‘feminists’’ cannot be...

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4 The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual

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pp. 108-128

In this chapter I discuss the evolution of the female voice in Sufi poetry as it developed over the centuries, especially in the narratives of the musicians who sing it now. I discuss Amir Khusrau (d. 1325 AD), whose poetry and compositions were sung in United India in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and continue to be sung even today.1 This is true of the poetry of the other Sufi literati who wrote in the subcontinent. How these texts have been adapted to other genres outside...

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5 Closing the Circle of the Mystic Journey

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pp. 129-145

Women’s participation in disseminating Islamic principles through the Sufi shrines is common and may be seen in the daily rituals and special events held on Thursday evenings. Their presence as devotees and caretakers is visible during the 'urs (the death anniversary of the Sufi saint). For instance, at the Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine at Sehwan Sharif, the woman...


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pp. 147-159


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pp. 161-182

Primary Sources

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pp. 183-204


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pp. 205-209

E-ISBN-13: 9780292792395
E-ISBN-10: 0292792395
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292705159
Print-ISBN-10: 0292705158

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 29 halftones, 2 maps, 5 graphs, 6 tables
Publication Year: 2002

OCLC Number: 703158786
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Music -- Religious aspects -- Sufism.
  • Sufi music -- Pakistan.
  • Sufi music -- India.
  • Sufism -- Rituals.
  • Muslim women -- Pakistan -- Religious life.
  • Muslim women -- India -- Religious life.
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