Sacred and Profane: A False Dichotomy in Arab Music

Sponsored by the Spring 2016 Ethnomusicology Colloquium

Tuesday, April 5

Taoufik Ben Amor

MESAAS, Columbia University

Followed by a short performance of Arab Sufi repertoire with: 


Zafer Tawil

Vocals, Oud, Nay, Percussion 


Ramzi Eledlibi

Vocals, Percussion 


Time: 4:10-6:00pm

Location: 701c Dodge Hall, Columbia University, 

2960 Broadway, New York, NY 10027 

For a century, and despite the many criticisms waged against it, Durkheim's dichotomy of Sacred and Profane remained a dominant tool in the study of music in the Arab world and elsewhere. Through several examples from poetry, lyrics, melodies especially from the Sufi music tradition, this paper shows that the categories of Sacred and Profane are inadequate in understanding a porous situation in which the Sacred and Profane flow into one another. Instead, I propose the notion of Jidd and Hazl (The Earnest and the Jest), which overlap and intersect in occasion and space. 

Unlike the category of the Sacred, which dominates the Profane by setting a boundary of taboos, Jidd and Hazl are equal and constitute a continuum that depends on a ranking of taboos. In both categories, a declaration of the author's intention and that of the text, in a wide sense of the word, allows the audience to judge it according to different sets of norms. Thus, Hazl gives the author tremendous freedom in tackling taboo subjects, often using Jidd in the form of Hazl. The paper also raises wider theoretical questions about other related categories such as the secular and religious, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, religion and ideology, as well as universality and cultural specificity.