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Bulletin d’Études Orientales 71

A sound history of medieval Islamic societies

For several years now sounds and noises —tenuous, evanescent phenomena— have been attracting the interest of researchers studying ancient and modern societies. Witness the work of Nicolas Offenstadt and Didier Lett (2003) on the cry in the Western Middle Ages, the proceedings of the SHMEPS on the voice in the Middle Ages (2015), or the work of Sybille Emerit and Alexandre Vincent on the notion of soundscape[1] and its uses —critical uses— for ancient Egypt and Rome (2015). Research on medieval Muslim worlds is only just beginning to venture into this field of study (Benhima 2018, Frenkel 2018, Hibon 2018, Bill 2019). The acoustic dimension of the history of medieval Islamic societies is certainly far from absent in scholarly production, but it is rarely addressed for its own sake. Researchers have been looking beyond auditory history, at the experiences that medieval Islamic societies had of sensory phenomena, going across disciplines, examining different types of sources and using different approaches. The BEO dossier on odors edited by Julie Bonnéric in 2015 shows the fruitfulness of such an approach, as does that of Christian Lange (2022), who argues for a cultural history of the senses in the Islamic world, in the wake of the ‘sensual turn’ put forward by David Howes. However, the perception and reception of sound are barely represented, unlike sight, touch and, above all, smell.

Sociologist Anthony Pecqueux (2012) points out that if the analysis of sound outputs “proves to be heuristic, it’s because they have the particularity of referring to activities or the effects thereof”. With Les Cloches de la Terre [The Bells of the Earth], published in 1994, Alain Corbin gave impetus to this approach, in which the history of societies is written based on their aural aspect. Bells and the sounds they make are the historian’s starting point for a study of local conflicts in 19th-century rural France. Sounds are thus understood not for what they are, but for their interaction with those who emit them and those who hear them in changing spatiotemporal contexts (Vincent 2015; Offenstadt 2013). These sound emissions, their production, their uses, the listening to and the hearing of them thus have their own diachrony that needs to be reconstituted. The study of sound also involves the study of hearing. Like the other senses, hearing is a cultural and social construct. Actors invest auditory sensations with “social and cultural values” (Battesti, 2013), which in turn need to be historicized.

The aim of this issue on the theme of the “social life of sounds” (Vincent, 2015), their perception and representations, is to bring together contributions on social and political history, on the history of the senses and the sensible, on anthropology, literature, law, philosophy, art history, musicology… The study of sound and its environment allows an exploration of subjects as diverse as commercial communication, social conflicts, spatial and social control, political communication, urban expansion (through the saturation of sound space), rituals, revolts and war, from a new angle and at different scales. Nevertheless, writing a history of sounds and their perception raises methodological questions. There are difficulties to be contended with, arising from the nature of the sources, which are essentially written and visual, the heterogeneity of the corpus and the resulting dispersion of data. To overcome these documentary limitations, it is necessary to decompartmentalize approaches, to bring different disciplines together, and to access and cross-reference a wide range of sources, both narrative and normative, in prose and in verse.

There are a number of avenues that could be explored, including:

  • Qualification of sounds: categorization of sounds, their volume, definition of what constitutes a noise nuisance and tolerance thresholds are all areas to be explored. The vocabulary used to define and categorize sound phenomena can be studied: this would reveal social and moral evaluations of what is considered a good or beautiful sound, or on the contrary, a nuisance. The types of sounds and noises that are tolerated could be examined. Noise tolerance fluctuates because it is “subject to the simultaneous influence of several norms” (Corbin 2017). The values conferred on silence in different contexts could also be of interest.

  • Spatial control and the aural manifestations of power: the control of space by the authorities involves mastery of its sound environment and of its configuration. Heralds, proclamations of measures to maintain order, truces or attacks during armed conflicts, aural expressions of sovereignty (ḫuṭba, nawba), the shouts of the forces of law and order, political or military rallying cries, the imprecations of public humiliation parades or even the cries of the victims of punishment are all traces that provide access to this sensory dimension of the control of space. The sonic consequences of changes in political domination, or rivalry for control of aural space, are also areas that might be explored.

  • Sound order: sounds play an important role in building power relationships, helping to delimit zones of influence and domination (Alain Corbin speaks of “sound territories”). Noise can also be a form of social protest. Of interest would be the sounds of revolts and riots, and their political and social uses, revealed by studying the sound repertoires used by those involved.

  • The legal framework for sounds and sound practices: sounds and their productions are the subject of reflections by lawyers, as evidenced by certain ḥisba treatises (Bill, 2019). An analysis could be made of the ways in which sound practices are regulated and framed according to regions and eras, and of what legal treatises tell us about these practices and the contemporaneous reception of sounds. One might also question the possible specificity of reticence and prohibitions linked to the use and hearing of music (samāʿ or “mystical concert”), in general or in religious ceremonies.

  • Sound and social identification: sounds contribute to the definition of identity. The aural dimension of the process of categorization and social distinction (volume, texture, language level) could be examined, as well as legitimate or illegitimate uses of sounds and noises according to one’s place in society.

  • Sound professionals: a look at town criers (the herald, munādī, of the judge, police and urban authorities), sermonaries (quṣṣāṣ, wuʿʿāẓ), street vendors but also poets, singers and musicians, studying the spaces they occupy, their sound performances and how they are received by their contemporaries.

  • Articulating sounds: an investigation could be made into the place and value that authors place on the “literary” (Hablot, Vissière 2015) writing of sounds, particularly when the texts are intended to be spoken aloud (poetry, popular literature such as the Baybars sīrat). This could include an enquiry into the writing strategies employed by authors to produce and reproduce sound effects, but also to give the reader and listener access to the sound experience as lived and felt.

  • The place of hearing in the hierarchy of the senses: care should be taken not to exclude the other senses when considering the place of hearing in the hierarchy of the senses. An attempt could be made to understand what specificity medieval authors accorded to hearing in relation to the other senses.

This special issue of the Bulletin d’Études Orientales will welcome articles focusing on one or more of these aspects of the subject in the context of the medieval Muslim worlds (7th–15th centuries). Proposals for articles (one page maximum), in French, English or Arabic, should be sent by September 15 2023 to the coordinators of the dossier: &


« La leçon des cloches. Entretien avec Alain Corbin », Revue de la BNF, vol. 55, no. 2, 2017, p. 12-19.

Battesti Vincent, « “L’ambiance est bonne” ou l’évanescent rapport aux paysages sonores au Caire. Invitation à une écoute participante et proposition d’une grille d’analyse », dans Candau Joël et Le Gonidec Marie-Barbara (dir.), Paysages sensoriels. Essai d’anthropologie de la construction et de la perception de l’environnement sonore, 135e CTHS, 2013, p. 71-96.

Benhima Yassir, « Le paysage sonore en temps de guerre dans l’Occident musulman médiéval (XIIe-XIVe siècles) », dans Baloup Daniel (dir.), Les cultures politiques dans la péninsule Ibérique et au Maghreb, VIIIe-XVe siècles, 1. Le recours aux armes, Bordeaux, Ausonius éditions, 2018, p. 85-94.

Bill Alexandra, « Le contrôle de la voix et ses enjeux dans les mosquées d’al-Andalus d’après deux traités de ḥisba (première moitié du Xe et début du XIIe siècle) », dans La voix au Moyen Âge : Le Congrès de la SHMESP (Francfort, 2019) [en ligne]. Paris, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2020.

Bonnéric Julie (dir.), Histoire et anthropologie des odeurs en terre d’Islam à l’époque médiévale, numéro thématique du Bulletin d’Études Orientales, 64, 2015.

Candau Joël et Le Gonidec Marie-Barbara (dir.), Paysages sensoriels. Essai d’anthropologie de la construction et de la perception de l’environnement sonore, op. cit.

Chauvaud, Frédéric et Prétau Pierre (dir.), Clameur publique et émotions judiciaires : De l’Antiquité à nos jours, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2013.

Emerit Sybille, Perrot Sylvain, Vincent Alexandre (éd.), Le paysage sonore de l’Antiquité. Méthodologie, historiographie et perspectives, IFAO, RAPH 40, 2015.

 S. Emerit, S. Perrot, A. Vincent (éd.), De la cacophonie à la musique. La perception du son dans les sociétés antiques, BdE 180, 2022.

Frenkel Yehoshua, « Mamluk Soundscape: A Chapter in Sensory History », ASK Working Paper 31, 2018, p. 1-26.

Hablot Laurent et Vissière Laurent (dir.), Les paysages sonores : Du Moyen Âge à la Renaissance, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2016.

Hibon Élodie, « Essai d’histoire sonore. La reconquête de Jérusalem par Saladin », in De Bagdad à Damas : études en mémoire de Dominique Sourdel, textes rassemblés par Jean-Michel Mouton et Clément Onimus, Genève, Droz (Hautes études orientales Moyen et Proche Orient, 7), 2018, p. 183-212.

Lange Christian, « Introduction: The sensory history of the Islamic world », The Senses and Society (« Sensory history of the Islamic world »), 17:1, 2022, p. 1-7.

Lett Didier et Offenstadt, Nicolas (dir.), Haro ! Noël ! Oyé ! : Pratiques du cri au Moyen Âge, Paris, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2003.

Offenstadt Nicolas, En place publique, Jean de Gascogne, crieur au XVe siècle, Paris, Stock, 2013.

Offenstadt Nicolas, « L’histoire auditive, un nouveau chantier, quelques remarques » dans Clameur publique et émotions judiciaires : De l’Antiquité à nos jours, op. cit., p. 29-34.

Pecqueux Anthony, « Le son des choses, les bruits de la ville », Communications, vol. 90, no. 1, 2012, p. 5-16.

SHMESP (dir.), La voix au Moyen Âge : Le Congrès de la SHMESP (Francfort, 2019), Paris, Éditions de la Sorbonne, 2020.

Weinrich Ines, « Sensing Sound: Aesthetic and Religious Experience According to al-Ghazālī », Entangled Religions, 10, 2019.

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