“The last phrase [of the Muslim call to prayer] is drawn out in a sustained, emotive cadence. It embodies the Qur’anic sound quality of huzn, or existential sadness at the separation of humans from their source. The reminder of that separation is also a call to turn back to home.”
—Michael Sells, Hearing the Qur’an: The Early Revelations

The imam’s plaintive call rises to the third floor of the Quba Institute of Arabic and Islamic Studies, where swift vacuuming has transformed a classroom decorated with posters on the Bill of Rights and the Constitution into a place for prayer. An orange sign on the door warns: “Proficiency is not optional.”

Up in the front of the room, a cluster of young boys do their best not to squirm. Behind them sit women cradling babies, and schoolgirls wearing headscarves of plum, black, and azure. Additional worshipers occupy separate floors below: women unaccompanied by children, and then men and older boys. Imam Luqman Ahmad, who’s leading this Friday’s prayer service, addresses them all with urgency:

“The way that Islam was revealed and practiced by the Prophet has been turned inside out,” he says. “All of the things that are important to the believer, all assets that mean something, are internal: … patience, piety, perseverance, kindness, goodness, justice, mercy.” But Muslim society now focuses on external actions to measure success. “Gotta condemn that! And grab that! … Talk about that! Dress like that! ”

I’m sitting in the back with Andaiye Qaasim, one of the Penn graduate students from Dr. Carol Muller’s Field Methods in Ethnomusicology course. We scribble in our notebooks. Our heads are uncovered. But our presence here—at this Islamic school and mosque on Lancaster Avenue, a trolley ride from Penn’s campus—is greeted with only a few curious stares.

Muller’s students spent the spring semester here working on projects about the school’s history, Qur’anic recitation, children’s song, and even the role of hip-hop in Islam. As they learned to write field notes, transcribe interviews, and create videos, they got a condensed view of the dissertation experience ahead of them. In turn, they paired up with Quba students in eighth through twelfth grades for what Muller, associate professor of music, called a “mutually beneficial” collaboration. “What we’re trying to do,” she explained at the beginning of the semester, “is help this community of students come to campus and feel that a place like Penn is not out of their reach.”

The course was part of a broader research, teaching, and service project on music and spirituality that Muller started five years ago with the support of Penn’s Center for Community Partnerships. In a series of classes alternately taught by Muller and assistant professor of music Tim Rommen, undergraduate and graduate students have ventured into West Philadelphia churches and a retirement community to collect the stories and sounds of gospel music and to interview jazz musicians.

As an ethnomusicologist who grew up in South Africa and studied music and dance performance in its black townships during apartheid, Muller sees such “local knowledge” as vitally important and hopes to eventually combine the material in an online archive that the public can use to research their own communities.

Music Lessons By Susan Frith

Photography by Sabina Louise Pierce

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Quba’s Saida Abdul Aziz (front) and Penn’s Carol Muller pose outside the Quba Institute building on Lancaster Avenue.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/10/06