The Sacred Polyphony: Voicing Community in Jahriyya Pilgrimage

There is no doubt that voice is central to the practice of pilgrimage among the Jahriyya Sufis in northwest China. With their name so proclaiming – jahr means ‘to be loud’ in Arabic – the Jahriyya boast melodious recitations of Sufi poetry as integral to their rituals of pilgrimage; such pilgrimage mainly being their annual visits to the tombs of the venerated Sufi saints in the Jahriyya genealogy. In this paper, I examine in great detail a series of vocal rituals the Jahriyya perform with impressive devotion during their pilgrimage, and reveal how the organised use of human voice both re-configures the pilgrims’ perception of time and space, and create specific forms of sociality. This acoustically generated sociality contends at once with the global hegemony of Islamic sound often funded by petrodollars, and with contemporary attempts among the Jariyya elites at ‘standardising’ an otherwise remarkably heterogeneous ritual soundscape. Sound thus becomes for many Jahriyya a contentious site for forging identity, cultivating piety, sustaining sanctity and building community.

This presentation draws on a total of sixteenth months of fieldwork among China’s Jahriyya Sufis conducted from 2011 to 2018, complemented by continuous online communication. I will use video and sound recordings along with manuscripts to demonstrate the import of voice to the construction and configuration the Jahriyya Sufi sensibility.

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