A Symposium on Morality and Musical Practice in the Abrahamic Traditions

A multi-disciplinary conversation of performance and scholarship | November 2017

This symposium took place in the fall of 2017 with the goal to stimulate an intercommunal and interdisciplinary conversation about the moral and social meanings of music as expressed in the opinions of musicians, theologians, secular leaders, and social critics within each of the Abrahamic traditions.

The vast accumulation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim repertoire over the centuries—both sacred and secular—stands as proof of the long-term commitment to music in each tradition. But within Judaism, Christianity and Islam there is also an historical legacy of polemic, in ways unique to each tradition, about the appropriateness of musical practices both in devotions and in the life of the community.

This is a legacy which waxes and wanes throughout the centuries, and which continues to evolve. The Israeli scholar of Islamic music, Amnon Shiloah, has described the role of music in the Muslim world as “polyvalent”, an idea which may be applicable across the Abrahamic spectrum—that is: music in all three traditions is respected for its power, and it is given cultural space in which to survive and even thrive, but it does not get a free ride. It must continually argue for its usefulness, and for its place in the spectrum of religious and secular values of its own culture, right up to the present day. 

Schedule and Event Details


CONCERT - Let Us Repeat the Names of God | 7:30pm | Brown Hall 

Holy Cross St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir, Dr. Gramenos Karanos, director

Choirs of the New England Ghanaian Seventh Day Adventist Church (Worcester, MA, Isaac Gyamera, pastor

Jazz quartet: Nedelka Prescod, (voice), Brian Levy (tenor sax.), Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol (piano, voice), Dave Santoro (bass) and Bertram Lehmann (drums) 

Choirs of the New England Ghanaian Seventh Day Adventist Church (Worcester, MA, Isaac Gyamera, pastor) 


MORNING SESSION in Williams Hall [Jordan Hall Building, Gainsboro St.] (8:30 AM – 1:00 PM)

8:30-9:00 coffee, light breakfast, gathering

9:10-9:15 Welcome: Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, co-director, NEC Intercultural Institute

9:15-11:00 || Session 1 || Moderator: Ben Braude (Boston College)

“A Thousand Years of Abrahamic Polemic about the Morality of Music: What’s Going On?” - Robert Labaree (New England Conservatory)

Ethics, Gender, and Musical Form in Tunisian Islam: The Silsila of Sayyda Mannūbiyya” Richard Jankowsky (Tufts University)

The battle for first place between words and music: the curious case of twin manifestos by Rabbi Samuel Archivolti in Venice (1602) and Giulio Cesare Monteverdi in Mantua (1607)” Joshua Jacobson (Northeastern University)

11:00-11:15 *coffee break*

11:15-1:00 || Session 2 || Moderator: Katarina Markovic (New England Conservatory)

Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi on Music and Dance” - Ali Asani (Harvard University)

The Virgin Mary’s Lullabies: Verbal and Musical Meaning in Byzantine Chant” - Gramenos Karanos (Hellenic College)

“Music as Un-Creation: The Theology of Tawhīd vis-à-vis Historic Writings about Persian Music, c. 1200-1600” - Ann E. Lucas (Boston College)

1:00-2:00 *Lunch Break (lunch provided)* 

AFTERNOON SESSION (1:00-5:30 pm) In Burnes Hall - [Student Life and Performance Center, St. Botolph St.]

2:00-3:00 || Workshop in African-American Spiritual Music with the NEC Jazz Department Gospel Ensemble - Nedelka Prescod (New England Conservatory)

3:00-3:15 * coffee break *

3:15-5:00 || Session 3 || Moderator: Felicia Sandler (New England Conservatory) 

“Tradition in Transition: Musical Change in the Current Liturgy of the Abayudaya (Jewish Community of Uganda)” - Jeffrey Summit (Tufts University)

“Music and Ethical Assemblage: Mali's Neba Solo - Ingrid Monson (Harvard University)

The Curious Case of the Dancing Boys, Zeki Müren and Turkish Islam: Changing Ottoman Views on Morality, Dance and Music ” - Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol (New England Conservatory)

5:00-5:15 * coffee break *

5:15-6:00 Discussion panel with all presenters - moderator: Robert Labaree

6:00-7:00 * Dinner Break * (on your own) 

7:00 Pre-concert talk by Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, Jordan Hall

CONCERT - DEVRAN: Music of Islam, Turkey & Renaissance Europe | 7:30pm | Jordan Hall 

Ottoman Jewish and Sufi music with the Dünya Ensemble: Beth Bahia Cohen (bowed tanbur, violin), Burcu Güleç (voice), Robert Labaree (çeng, voice), Bertram Lehmann (percussion), George Lernis (percussion), Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol (voice, ud, ney) 

Music of Josquin dez Pres (16th c.), Salamone Rossi (17th c.) and Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol (b. 1974) by the New England Conservatory Chamber Singers, Erica Washburn, director 



Ali Asani. A specialist of Islam in South Asia, Professor Asani’s research focuses on Shia and Sufi devotional traditions in the region. In addition, he studies popular or folk forms of Muslim devotional life, and Muslim communities in the West. His books include Celebrating Muhammad: Images of the Prophet in Muslim Devotional Poetry (co-authored) and Ecstasy and Enlightenment: The Ismaili Devotional Literatures of South Asia among others. For more than 30 years, Professor Asani has dedicated himself to helping others better understand the rich subtext and diverse influences that make religion — in particular, Islam — a complex cultural construction. He is particularly interested in the interaction between religion, literature and the arts in Muslim societies. Professor Asani’s use of the arts in his pedagogy is part of his broader educational effort to challenge stereotypes of Islam and Muslims, one of the consequences of “religious illiteracy.” Professor Asani is the recipient of the Harvard Foundation medal for his outstanding contributions to improving intercultural and race relations at Harvard and the nation.

Joshua Jacobson is Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities at Northeastern University and Visiting Professor in the School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College. He is founder and artistic director of the Zamir Chorale of Boston. Over one hundred of his choral works have been published, and are performed by choirs around the world. He is the author of Chanting the Hebrew Bible, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, and co-author of Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire—Volume IV: Hebrew Texts. Dr. Jacobson holds degrees from Harvard College, New England Conservatory, University of Cincinnati, and Hebrew College.

Richard Jankowsky is Associate Professor of Music at Tufts University. An ethnomusicologist, he is author of Stambeli: Music, Trance, and Alterity in Tunisia (University of Chicago Press, 2010) and editor of The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World Volume X: Genres of North Africa and the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2015). He currently holds a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for his research project Ambient Sufism: Devotional Pluralism and Music as Everyday Mysticism in North Africa. 

Grammenos Karanos is Assistant Professor of Byzantine Liturgical Music at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, artistic director of the Boston Byzantine Music Festival, and director of the St. John of Damascus School of Byzantine Music of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston. He is also Protopsaltis of the Holy Cross Chapel and director of Holy Cross St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir. He has lectured and performed as a soloist or member of various ensembles, including Dünya, the Archdiocesan Byzantine Choir, and the Psaltikon Ensemble, throughout the United States and Europe.

Robert Labaree is an ethnomusicologist and performer specializing in Turkish music, with writings on improvisation, music and biology, and Ottoman-European musical interactions. Since 1984 he has been a member of the musicology faculty at New England Conservatory in Boston. He is founder of the conservatory’s Intercultural Institute, and leads the conservatory’s 2050 Music Project, which explores the future of music in the context of changing climate, economics, demographics and technology. In 2003 with Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol he co-founded Dünya (“the world” in Arabic, Turkish and Greek), an ensemble and non-profit educational institution that produces concerts, workshops, recordings and films exploring the shared traditions of the former Ottoman region.

Ann E. Lucas is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at Boston College, where she also teaches in the program for Islamic Civilizations and Societies. Prof. Lucas specializes in music and culture in the Middle East: both historiography of music in the Persian-speaking world and the relationship between music and dance in the Arabic-speaking world. Her short works include contributions to Journal of Asian Music (University of Texas Press, 2012) Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print (University of California Press, 2013) and Theory and Method in Historical Ethnomusicology (Lexington Books, 2014). Her first book, Music of A Thousand Years, is due to be published with the University of California Press next year.

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol is a Grammy nominated composer, a faculty member at New England Conservatory’s Music History & Musicology Department and the co-director of NEC Intercultural Institute. Sanlıkol presented papers and talks at International Conference on Analytical Approaches to World MusicSociety for Ethnomusicology and Sohbet-i Osmaniye series at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies among others. His book, entitled The Musician Mehters, about the organization and the music of the Ottoman Janissary Bands has been published during 2011 in English by The ISIS press and in Turkish by Yapı Kredi Yayınları. He has been praised by critics all over the world for his unique, pluralist, multicultural and energetic musical voice, as both composer and performer.

Ingrid Monson is Quincy Jones Professor of African American music, supported by the Time Warner Endowment, and Interim Dean of Arts and Humanities at Harvard University.  She is a former chair of the Music Department, a Guggenheim fellow, and a Walter Channing Cabot Fellow of Harvard University.  Monson is the author of Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa (Oxford University Press, 2007), Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), and an edited a volume entitled the African Diaspora: A Musical Perspective (Garland/Routledge 2000).  Her article, “Hearing, Seeing, and Perceptual Agency” (Critical Inquiry 2008) explores the implications of work on cognition and perception for poststructural theoretical issues in the humanities. 

Nedelka Prescod is a vocalist, arranger, songwriter, choral director, vocal coach, educator, social activist and a mother. Nedelka has performed or shared the stage with such living legends as Kenny Garrett, Danilo Perez, Fred Hersch, Jason Moran, Jowee Omicil, Ben Eunson, and with the Omar Thomas Large Ensemble. Nedelka can be found on the recordings of and/or with Kenny Garrett, Danilo Perez, Marcello Pelliterri, Jowee Omicil, Pharoah Saunders, Brian Blade, Mulgrew Miller, Lionel Loueke, Anti­Pop Consortium and Radamiz, as well as her independently released solo recording project, Manifest (2008). Nedelkahas also performed background vocals for Alicia Keys, Jonathan Nelson, Jason Nelson and Dorothy Norwood.

Jeffrey A. Summit, Ph.D. holds the appointment of Research Professor in the Department of Music and in the Judaic Studies program at Tufts University, where he also serves as rabbi and Neubauer Executive Director of Tufts Hillel. He is the author of Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary Judaism (Oxford University Press) and The Lord's Song in a Strange Land: Music and Identity in Contemporary Jewish Worship (Oxford University Press). His CD Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) was nominated for a GRAMMY award. His CD with video Delicious Peace: Coffee, Music and Interfaith Harmony in Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) was awarded Best World Music CD by the Independent Music Awards.


Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi on Music and Dance - (Ali Asani, Harvard University)

Music and dance have been controversial in Muslim communities. Many theologians and religious scholars do not approve of them, particularly because they fear their “intoxicating” impact on humans. Some go as far as to regard them as the principal means by which Satan infiltrates humanity. On the other hand, many Sufis, or Muslim mystics, have been in favor of incorporating music and dance within rituals, particularly the sama’ or concert of spiritual music and poetry. They regard them as a valuable means to enhance and develop a person’s spiritual sensitivities and ultimately provide release from the material bondage of the nafs or ego-self. This paper looks at the central role that music and dance play in the theology of the renowned Sufi master, Jalal ad-Din Rumi (d.1273), one of the greatest advocates of the power of music and dance. Based on the esoteric interpretation of certain Quranic concepts, Rumi regarded music and dance to be fundamental to the human-divine relationship. He also considered them to be powerful means by which humans can communion with the Divine. 

The battle for first place between words and music: the curious case of twin manifestos by Rabbi Samuel Archivolti in Venice (1602) and Giulio Cesare Monteverdi in Mantua (1607) - (Joshua Jacobson, Northeastern University) 

In most cultures sacred texts in liturgical services are chanted or sung, rather than spoken. But often there are battles about what kind of music is appropriate for the sacred service. Does the music enhance the spiritual experience or does it distract? We will examine two remarkably similar documents that were published within a few years of each other and within a 90-mile radius of each other—one by a rabbi in Venice and the other by a Christian composer (who happens to be the brother of a very famous composer) in nearby Mantua.

Ethics, Gender, and Musical Form in Tunisian Islam: The Silsila of Sayyda Mannūbiyya - (Richard Jankowsky, Tufts University)

Can musical form reflect, or even encourage, particular ethical stances? This paper approaches this question through a consideration of the devotional and healing rituals held at the shrines of Sayyda Mannūbiyya in Tunisia, which have been high-profile targets of militant Islamist vandalism and threats in recent years. The women’s trance healing ritual is based on a musical form called the silsila (lit. “chain”), a flexible succession of songs dedicated to different saints in the local devotional landscape. The silsila references the “home” traditions of these different saints, including those of Sufi orders that may have competing claims about the appropriateness of music and trance, while also bringing these disparate traditions into the distinctive, unified soundworld of the Mannūbiyya. Sayyda Mannūbiyya is also unique in the local context as the only female saint to have inspired a men’s devotional ritual. Male members of the Shādhuliyya Sufi order perform their liturgy immediately following the women’s trance ceremony. The men’s liturgy revolves around the dhikr (chanted repetitions of religious formulas), which has ritual objectives, aesthetics, and priorities that, at first glance, seem to stand in opposition to those of the women. Yet ethnographic and musical analysis reveals fissures that complicate binaries of male/female or dhikr/silsila to show how they each constitute a devotional niche within a shared ecology of saint-based ritual practices and espouse distinct yet complementary ethical work at the individual and community levels.

The Virgin Mary’s Lullabies: Verbal and Musical Meaning in Byzantine Chant - (Grammenos Karanos, Hellenic College)

Byzantine chant is often called the vestment of sacred hymnology used in the Greek Orthodox liturgy. Text and music have historically worked hand in hand as channels of communication between the worshipping community and the divine. The verbal meaning conveyed by the biblical and hymnographic material is clarified, enhanced, and ultimately transformed by the melodies, which are carefully crafted upon the fundamental goal of combining textual comprehensibility with aesthetic appeal. This centuries-long balancing act resulted in the development of several types of text treatment, ranging from simple recitative for “the word of God” to highly ornate, meditative settings of “words to God.” The balance started to tip during the 13th-14th centuries when the expansion of melismas by virtuoso cantors led to the creation of ecstatic textless compositions, known as kratimata. Despite the apparent correlation of kratimata with ascetic methods of intense prayer that employ minimal or no text, post-Byzantine commentators denounced them as irrational products of Ottoman corruption. Proponents of kratimata resorted to theological speculations, calling them the Virgin Mary’s lullabies or the songs of the angels. In the midst of ongoing debates on the suitability of melismatic settings and kratimata for worship, composers and cantors have continued to compose and chant them, strongly advancing the notion that sacred music is not a mere servant, but rather an equal partner of the text, communicating layers of non-verbal meaning that can help cultivate a more direct and intimate relationship with God than mere words ever could.

Nearly Two Thousand Years of Abrahamic Polemics about the Morality of Music: What’s Going On? - (Robert Labaree, New England Conservatory) 

As the opening set of remarks in this gathering, the goal of this paper is to suggest a framework of topics and questions which may serve as points of departure for the performances, presentations and discussions in the symposium. It will put on the table a broad sampling of commonly-held ideas recflected in the writings of Jewish, Christian and Muslim writers since at least the fourth century CE. The observations of European travelers in the Ottoman domains beginning in the Renaissance will add a layer of context for the religious polemics; likewise, the parallel controversies in all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean on non-musical topics such as the regulation of tobacco, tea and coffee consumption, and the changing sexual norms. The main points of departure for the musical discussions derived from these examples will include the following:

• an emphasis on the human voice as appropriate for religious devotions (and the special moral implications of musical instruments)

• a tension in sacred song (and by extension, secular song) between the primacy of words and the primacy of music

• a concern for music’s potentially risky association with sensuality and the body (often linked to the role of women in music and to questions of manhood and effeminacy)

• a concern that music can be a conduit for irrationality (either sacred ecstasy or profane drunkenness, with or without intoxicants)

• a concern for the potential influence of non-believers through music

Music as Un-Creation: The Theology of Tawhīd vis-à-vis Historic Writings about Persian Music, c. 1200-1600 - (Ann E. Lucas, Music Department, Boston College) 

Historically, multiple schools of Islamic law and Sufism concerned themselves with understanding the fundamental attributes of God. Chief among these was the unity of God (tawhīd), an attribute at the heart of Islam’s understanding of monotheism. The Qoran’s division of God into distinct attributes (compassion, mercy etc), and references to God as a physical being (he) both presented challenges to understanding God as a single entity while also providing a basis to ponder the problem of anthropomorphic limitation vis-à-vis un-created, divine existence. This paper examines how the valuation of music in premodern Persian writings can be understood in relation to these concerns. The legitimization of music via its lack of corporal existence is a consistent factor in both technical and mystical writings about music in Persian c.1200-1600. This concern with avoiding corporeality in music mirrors concerns with God’s divine nature as both non-corporal and un-created. Yet this legitimization also met with anthropomorphic challenges beginning in the sixteenth century, both from the distinct anthropomorphic divinity of Safavid Shi’ism and the interface between Islam and Hinduism in the Mughal Empire. These challenges affected discourse about music’s valuation and suggest some distinct theological factors at play in Persian musical change over time.

Music and Ethical Assemblage: Mali's Neba Solo - (Ingrid Monson, Harvard University)

To participate in music in Mali, is to enter a world of songs laden with exhortations to be a good person, to live up to idealized Mande values such as horonya (nobility), danbe (dignity), tilenya (integrity), and hine (compassion), as well as to be good Muslims on the right personal path. Traditional animist religious and ethical beliefs live side by side with Islam, such that it is often difficult to tell where Islam begins and animism ends. Through looking at the compositions of Neba Solo and how he navigates the overlapping ethical universes of Islam, Senufo religion, and Mande values, this paper explores the rich aesthetic and ethical combinations existing in Malian music, both before and after the coup d’état in 2012.

The Curious Case of the Dancing Boys, Zeki Müren and Turkish Islam: Changing Ottoman Views on Morality, Dance and Music - (Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, New England Conservatory)

Until the second half of the 18th century, the köçek (cross-dressed dancing boys) and their music, especially among the Ottoman upper classes, were more associated with a variety of Ottoman art and ceremonial music ensembles. The köçek were key figures in dance in court arena, based on a general culture-wide acceptance of sexual ambiguity. However, during the second half of the 18th century, under growing Western influence, significant changes occurred in the moral values of the Ottoman society overall, and the art of the köçek came to be viewed as immoral among the Ottomans. Eventually, the early köçek was replaced by a new tavern köçek and this association with the tavern led to the decreased status of the köçek as immoral, which seems to have also distanced dance and certain styles of music associated with them gradually from Ottoman art music. Although the köçek were officially banned altogether in 1856 a conflicted legacy of this institution still lives in contemporary Turkey where several gay and transsexual superstars are hailed even among the Muslim conservatives. In this paper I will analyze how moral values changed in the Ottoman society between 17th and 19th centuries, and what consequences this change had for music making and musicians in contemporary Turkey.

Tradition in Transition: Musical Change in the Current Liturgy of the Abayudaya (Jewish Community of Uganda - (Jeffrey Summit, Tufts University)

The early liturgical traditions of the Abayudaya were developed -- and in many cases, invented -- by their founder, Semei Kakungulu in the 1920s. However, since the 1980s the Abayudaya have endeavored to bring their Sabbath liturgy in line with their understanding of mainstream Jewry practice, both real and imagined. These changes have been more pronounced since their increased contact with North America Jewry after the end of Idi Amin’s rule. In this paper, I consider recent developments in their liturgical traditions and consider how various global factors—the education of their rabbi in an American institution, the commercial success of a GRAMMY nominated CD of their liturgical music, and increased tourism from North America and Israel—have impacted the development of the music in their Shabbat (Sabbath) worship.

For further information contact NEC Intercultural Institute co-directors

Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol (mehmet.sanlikol@necmusic.edu) Robert Labaree (rlabaree@necmusic.edu)