Sufism, Ritual, and Modernity in Egypt: 
Language Performance as an Adaptive Strategy



Michael Frishkopf

Doctor of Philosophy in Music

University of California, Los Angeles, 1999

Professor Ali Jihad Racy, Chair


Fulltext available from UMI ProQuest Digital Dissertations  


Sufi orders became increasingly widespread in Egyptian society from the 12th century to the 19th, despite criticism directed particularly to ritual performance.  But with the advent of modernity, various social transformations began to undermine the orders’ traditional bases for support, while increasing the influence of critics. While the majority of older orders sharply declined in scope and influence in the 20th century, certain orders founded in the modern period have been strikingly successful.  How have newer orders succeeded in adapting to modern conditions?

As is the case for ritual generally, Sufi ritual–mainly language performance, including chanting, singing, speaking, lecturing, and praying–is a powerful social tool. The discursive purposes of Sufi practices are primarily spiritual and individualistic; ritual brings the mystic closer to God. But rituals may also fulfill a social function for the order as a collectivity, when language performance–via textual, sonic, and behavioral aspects–serves to attract members, defend against critics, maintain identity, or uphold social centralization and cohesion.   However, the strategic use of language performance as a social tool is limited by social structure itself.  Centralized, cohesive orders containing strongly committed members can better formulate, disseminate, and apply group strategies controlling language performance which help to maintain the group.  Thus there is a complex interrelation between social structure and the strategic use of language performance in the orders.  Ritual language performance  is also shaped by the historical context of group formation. 

Using both diachronic and synchronic analysis, this dissertation shows how ritual control helps the Sufi order to adapt, and why such controls cannot be effectively applied by the older orders.  A history of the orders in Egypt underscores the importance of ritual control in the modern period.  Subsequently, an ethnography shows that the identity of an order is primarily social and ritual, and that development of social structure over time tends to decrease the tariqa’s ability to employ language performance strategically.   Finally, detailed analyses of particular orders shows how modern groups control language performance strategically so as to adapt to modern conditions.  In older orders, lacking the social apparatus prerequisite for strategic control, and formed in response to premodern conditions, language performance reflects tradition and individual interests, but does not support the group as a social unity.

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