COOL CLASSES: “The Sense and Senses of Islam”

This religion course introduces students to debates about the senses in Islam, including exploring the relationship between sound and the sacred.

Class name: The Sense and Senses of Islam

Taught by: Assistant Professor of Religion Guangtian Ha


Here’s what Ha has to say about his course:

Despite misguided assumptions about Islam being an austere religion, Muslims around the globe are known for their intense engagement with the senses in their practice of faith. Imposing architecture and enchanting images have been produced over the course of a millennium to demonstrate the force of faith. While the Islamic visual has been amply explored, the sound of Islam has often been left unexplained. And yet from South Asian qawwali to Central Asian muqam diverse practices of sound pervade Muslim societies. This course introduces these practices and the theological debates surrounding them. We ask the following questions: How many categories of sounds are recognized in Islam? What counts as “music” and what doesn’t? What is the relationship between sound and the sacred, between the sensorium and the meanings of Islam? Students read both classical legal texts (in translation) and contemporary ethnographies; we also explore the general significance of sound and recitation across different religious traditions. The ultimate goal of the class is to prompt students to reflect more critically on the essential role of the senses in our engagement with faith and politics in an age of mass mediation.

I wanted to teach this class because for centuries now our understanding of religion, especially monothestic religion, has been centered on the interpretation of texts. Cerebral and intellectual, this stress on text reflects a range of biases that mark as much processes of learning indigenous to the societies under study, as it does Western Orientalist scholarship. Our hermeneutic practice relies essentially on silent reading and sedentary writing, while most ordinary practitioners of faith are illiterate, engaging with texts often through attentive listening and verbal recitation. The more we turn to the social life of faith and away from its constricted intellectual interpretation, the more prominent becomes the role of a multifarious sensorial engagement. By turning to sound and recitation, we can therefore take a more critical position vis-à-vis both traditional Orientalist scholarship and the often intellectual, elitist bias in religious societies. Besides, a 100-level course on sound and recitation would also be a more interesting and accessible introduction to Islam for students with no prior knowledge of the religion.

One of the highlights of the class is a collaborative media project where students are required to form small groups of three to four people to make a short film about a local religious community. Students are to travel to a community of their choice on a regular basis throughout the semester to establish connections, observe and participate in rituals, interview leaders and ordinary practitioners, and film their religious practices with professional-level equipment. The idea is to have students pay more attention to the minor details in religious rituals that showcase how the senses are integrated into practices of worship. Teamwork, openness, and candor are the qualities this project celebrates and hopes to facilitate among the students.



See what other courses the Department of Religion is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience.