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The Sonic Ummah: Sound and Presence in Singapore Sufism



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Bin Othman, Muhammad Lutfi 


In this thesis, I present the practices of several Sufi orders in the city-state of Singapore, paying attention to gatherings that are designed to heighten feelings of religiosity and facilitate a state of co-presence with divine figures through sonic acts. This thesis explores the ideas of sound and listening that my Sufi Singaporean interlocutors have cultivated and how such ideas factor into their belief system and are applied as sonic strategies of remembrance (dhikr). I focus primarily on the dhikr gathering but also discuss other practices such as the performance of sacred poems and mystical odes, both in sacred and secular settings, are also discussed. The thesis also investigates how media consumption supports these sounded activities and how the global circulation of sound and video recordings has led to the establishment of a Singapore-based branch of one of the orders that is discussed. The orders presented in this thesis exhibit varying levels of engagement with sound – from forming groups that sing mystical poems to rituals with the express aim of chanting loudly - yet they all employ sound as a tool for spiritual immersion, a strategy that allows the non-Arabic speaking Malay population of Singapore to engage in practices that are based on a language foreign from their own.

Over two periods of research, first informally between 2018 and 2019, and then later between June 2020 and March 2021 during formal PhD research, I observed and participated in gatherings in Singapore and conducted interviews both in person and online. While physical gatherings themselves were limited in the time of COVID-19 due to Singapore’s strict movement restrictions, the latter period of research focused heavily on gaining intimate access to and interviewing the members of the various orders. Drawing on the collective observations and interviews, I offer an overview of Sufism in Singapore and examine the ideas of followers from the Ba’Alwie, Naqshbandhi-Haqqani, Chishti-Qadri, Qadri-Naqshbandhi, and Shadhili Sufi orders. Beyond the question of sound and ritual, I also explore here how members of these communities understood sound on a theological and personal level.

While Singapore appears on the surface as a hyper-modern city-state and textbook example of quick development, a rise that was helped on by the strict governance and cultural sterility for which it has earned a reputation, this thesis brings attention to a local Sufi culture that is thriving, and crucially, to the major role sonic practices play in its flourishing. Sufism in Singapore in the modern era has been relegated below the surface of the prosperous nation even though it had a fundamental role in the history of Islam in the South-east Asia region. Today Singapore is a global city, and as such its Muslim population, and the groups of Sufis within it, are global citizens, giving a renewed meaning to the term the ummah, the global collective of Muslims that the Prophet Muhammad described. The thesis shows that the Sufi orders in Singapore are not only held together by spiritual allegiances that bind them with their masters and companions transglobally and transhistorically, but also by the soundworlds and sonic practices that they engage in weekly. I propose the notion of the sonic ummah to theorise how Singaporean Sufis form a local ummah bounded by sound and sonic practices, one in which sound is a key thread that connects them to other parts of the global Islamic ummah. As this thesis shows, through sound they are not only connected to other members of their spiritual path and with that, other Muslims, but more importantly, they are connected to God and the Prophet Muhammad whose presence they feel in sound and listening.





McMurray, Peter


Ba'Alwie, Chishti, dhikr, hadra, Islam, Malay world, Music, Naqshbandi, Shadhili, Singapore, Sound, Southeast Asia, Sufism


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge