Islamic performance genres

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Islamic vocal performance traditions: LANGUAGE PERFORMANCE IN ISLAM - with a focus on Egypt

short link:

Michael Frishkopf


In Egypt, the primary genres of ritual performance are: Tilawa, ibtihalat, adhan, ad`iyya, tawashih, dhikr, aghani diniyya, inshad dini, inshad sufi, nashid, khutba. But every part of the Muslim world has these too, or something similar to each of them, though often under a different name.

Islam centers on sacred texts, recited in ritual. Because the text is always central so is the voice; melodic vocalizations are designed to beautify and extol texts, to draw the listener's attention to them, to facilitate retention, to clarify meaning, and to develop appropriate emotional responses. In Egypt one hears tajwīd, adhān, and ibtihālāt (supplications to Allah) in ornate melodic style every day. Attending corporate ritual (hadra) of a Sufi order (tariqa) one hears additional forms: inshad, madih, and dhikr.

Note that the semantic scope of each genre term is different, and in the Arabic speaking world (except for aghani diniyya) none of them overlaps with either musiqa ("music") or ghina' ("singing")- indeed to imply an overlap is somehow sacrilegious:

  • musiqa: (a) theoretical-philosophical tradition (historical definition), or (b) melodic instrumental music, possibly combined with vocals (contemporary definition).
  • ghina': singing (for entertainment or aesthetic pleasure)

Nevertheless, "music" is involved in Islamic performance, because

  • it is possible to categorize instances of these genres under an etically-defined English word "music", even if this categorization cannot be transferred to translations of "music" in languages of the Muslim world, and (related to this point), and because
  • for the most part, these religious genres include, or even center upon, a use of the maqamat (melodic modes), often in sophisticated ways. These maqamat include not only scalar patterns, but also melodic materials.

Not only that, but
(a) because religious genres center on solo vocal performance (in order to highlight the text), often ametric (to better express and beautify it), and
(b) because there is a preference for spontaneous expression of emotion in reaction to spiritual texts and contexts and the transmission of that emotion to others, and
(c) because in the case of the Qur'an there is also an aversion to any melodic composition, which could be considered an "association" (shirk) with God), therefore...

...vocal performance tends to feature melodic flexibility (~improvisation), developing the maqamat, and audience responses reminiscent of secular tarab (though that word may be rejected in favor of something more spiritual, e.g. nashwa ruhiyya, spiritual refreshment, or wajd, spiritual ecstasy).

FINALLY, for all of these reasons Islamic performance genres offer excellent vocal training, particularly:

  • Pronunciation; Makharij al-huruf
  • Breath control
  • Improvisation in maqamat
  • Use of cadences (qafla)

while performance contexts (pedagogical or public) provide opportunities for the best voices to be recognized and rewarded (explicitly in today's Qur'an recitation and adhan competitions).

Formerly many secular singers therefore started out as reciters, first of all in the kuttab or madrasa (Islamic school); some of these retained the religious reciter's title, "shaykh" (e.g. Shaykh Sayyid Darwish of Egypt, a noted secular composer). These days such religious training is less common; musicians attend conservatories and meanwhile Salafi currents have turned against musical arts in Islam. But many singers of the modern era received their training in Qur'anic recitation and Sufi ceremonies, from Shajarian in Iran to Sabah Fakhri in Syria. Meanwhile, maqam figures prominently in Qur'anic recitation, religious song, and Sufi ceremony, from Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, to Indonesia.

Metered singing appears in corporate inshad dini (primarily in the Sufi orders, as a technique for the liturgical unification of the group), and in some religious songs (aghani diniyya) straddling the boundary of "singing" and "religion".

All genres may be categorized under what I call "Language Performance" (see Frishkopf 2013, Frishkopf 1999).

Typically one finds a process of localization: certain themes (and even texts) are more universal - supplicating God, praising the Prophet and saints, exhorting the people (and among texts there is the fixity of Qur'an, adhan, and certain widespread poems such as Busiri's "Burda"), but these thematic, textual and oral textual forms adapt to local culture, absorbing in particular local sonic styles - vocal timbres, scales, melodies, musical systems - of the particular region in which they are implanted. Sonic diversity, because it is harder to classify and isn't strictly denotational, emerges as a continuity, unlike the linguistic messages of text, which are more fixed.

From here, the local can also migrate, even become global, particularly in the modern era of rapid travel and mass media - from recordings to radio and television, to satellite TV and internet - straying far from the original site of localization, or agglomerating additional local features. These localizations are coupled with some distinctions in local practice, and sometimes even local doctrine, but more often they are sonic differences. This traditional pattern suggests the inner unity of belief (most preeminently tawhid, monotheism) underlying an exterior diversity of forms.

Here are some examples:

Mainstream sounds of Islam

These have always been heard across the Muslim world, limited by neither region nor historical period.

Qur'anic recitation (tilawa). The performer is called muqri' or qari'. This recurs everywhere, often in an Egyptian style; more recently Saudi styles have surged, but there are local versions too.

Call to prayer (adhan). The performer is called mu'adhdhin. Again, there is variety as vocal style, timbre, melodic patterning vary according to local sensibilities. Listeners respond quietly by repeating phrases, and reciting "la hawla walla quwwata illa bi Allah".

Supplications in prayer (ad`iyya). The performer is called da`i; the congregation responds.

The prayer rite itself is a complex of genres, including Qur'anic recitation and adhkar, often repeated in a melodic fashion by the muballigh, while all worshippers respond quietly in the same way. (see at 3:34)

The dawn prayer rite (salat al-fajr) (one of five) presents a particularly interesting complex of genres in Egypt.

One functional genre are the sounds used to wake people for their Ramadan pre-dawn meal, called suhur in Egypt. The performer is called misahharati in Egypt. The misahharati traditionally wanders the neighborhood just before dawn, using voice and small portable drum (baza) waking the people to take their pre-dawn meal (suhur), since fasting will begin with the first glow of the night sky. Ramadan: the pre-dawn misahharati (recorded 20 July 2015 in Cairo).

Inshad dini: traditional chanting/singing of religious poetry. This is a broad category, distinguished by the fact that its basis is poetry. The performer is called a munshid (and is often given the title "shaykh"). One frequently hears "madih" (praise) as an alternative term for "inshad dini", though "madih", properly understood, should refer to praise poetry. These words are Arabic, sometimes used outside the Arabic-speaking zone. Other Muslim societies use different terms for what is more or less the same thing, e.g. in South Asia: "qawwali" for inshad and "na`t" for "madih".

Islamic rituals and festivals often carry particular sounds, for instance: Hajj and Eid al-Adha.

  • Other soundscapes: At particular times of the day, week, or year, a number of sound sources converge on the listener, producing a rich and evocative soundscape.

Listen to a few examples of such Islamic soundscapes.

Sufi sounds

Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam. While it is not always called thus in every cultural setting, one can generally observe a gradient from more to less experiential approaches to Islam, and religion generally. The experiential domain tends, for a variety of reasons, to include more music. This music varies greatly around the world, though many of the themes are constant. Sufi orders are often adapted to local culture, and in many ways - including sonically.

The following links pertain primarily to my own research on Sufi music of Egypt:

Inshad sufi: part of a larger ceremony called hadra or dhikr

Five Sufi Hadras from my fieldwork

The weekly Saturday hadra at the saha of Sidi Ali Zayn al-Abidin (Cairo, Egypt, 1998)

Sufi music in Egypt tends to be far from religious and musical authority, and is often closer to "folk" music.

In Ottoman Turkey, however, there was a highly elite form, contrasting with others:

  • The elite Mevlevi order, supported by the Sultans; their listening ceremony (sama`) called the Ayin, was an extended composition. Example.. Form of the Ayin. Commonly performed for tourists.
  • A more popular form, that of the Shia Alevis, related to the singing of the asik (lover) - a wandering minstrel-bard, typically affiliated with the Bektashi order See Alevi-Bektashi samah, a form of cem (Alevi ritual)

In complete contrast, consider the African-inflected forms of North Africa. These groups often trace their lineage to Bilal, the first muezzin.

This African-sounding music is commonly performed folkloristically. Here the two related forms of Gnawa and Zar have been combined.

Popular Islamic sounds (in the "Muslim world" and elsewhere...): the local and the global

Traditional localization

Localization within the Islamicate zone: localizing to the local...migrating to become global?

In a sense all Islamic music (by which I mean extra-liturgical sonic performance, typically what I call "language performance") is "popular" to some degree, but under this heading we may file types that aren't accepted as either entirely traditional, or entirely liturgical - they mix, to a greater or lesser degree, Islamic themes with contemporary features of music more generally - whether sonic (e.g. instruments, styles, sounds) or social (the ways the music is promoted and produced, the position of the artist...), in every location.

These are in some sense all instances of "localization" - Islam becoming rooted in specific locations through absorption of new sounds, and sometimes new practices and beliefs as well. But the local doesn't always stay that way; a localization in one place can easily move to another, via media. And in this case the "local" is also the "modern". The local can be mobile, can even globalize. But it starts with an uptake of the local. A good example is Egyptian Qur'anic recitation, making use of Egyptian musical styles (not least because they also derive from it), including the system of maqamat. Yet this style of recitation has been imitated globally due to Egypt's prominence in the Islamic field, and particularly in recitation, first through travel of famous reciters, and later also through distribution of recordings, verging on the "contemporary" style of localization...

Contemporary localization through global media

Modern media and attendant modes of production and patterns of fame produce a different but related set of patterns. Popular Islamic music that localizes while drawing on contemporary modes of dissemination through media or -- in live settings -- ticketed concerts can be divided into two types by performer identity and intention.

Some performers are wholly devoted to religious performance, identifying as "Islamic performers" locally (e.g. "munshid" in Arabic), but bring contemporary standards of popular music production to bear on their work (usually they are studio-produced), often along with some stylistic mixing, e.g. complex arrangements, harmony, counterpoint. Nasheed (nashid, nasyid) is the common term for a more contemporary genre of inshad, sung religious poetry, influenced by popular music production standards, but developing out of traditional Arab inshad.

Popular Islamic nashid occurs in a variety of languages e.g.

4shabab, a music video TV channel carrying Islamic themes, including nasheed. Watch on YouTube, e.g. [3]

While the origins of nasheed are usually traced to Arabic sources, in fact there's a wide variety of styles, drawing on local Islamic and musical traditions. Much of this material is closely linked to Sufi groups, though floating free of Sufi social structures (tariqas) to mix with the broader soundscapes of Islam and popular music in any particular place. Thus in northern Ghana and Nigeria is a style called "akwashi rawa", associated with the Tijaniyya Sufi order, but accepted as a popular style of music outside any Sufi or even specifically religious context.

The work of others is closer to contemporary popular music, often incorporating melodic instruments, and featuring contemporary arrangements, in keeping with local popular styles, and differing primarily in the texts used, along with the intentions with which they are delivered, and sometimes the context (e.g. a performance for a Muslim student group will carry a particular Islamic meaning, even if it takes place in an ordinary concert hall).

Often artists performing in these veins do not portray themselves as carrying a primarily Islamic identity, though sometimes they do. Usually they bring together a range of styles (including Islamic) and typically do not perform in religious contexts, such as mosques or Sufi hadras. They tend to be heard through the media, or in concert.

Unlike nasheed proper, such music builds in part or in whole upon contemporary non-religious genres, whether local or western-- from older Arab art music to hip hop and neo-soul to folk, metal and even country -- or upon other more localized genres. The boundaries are somewhat arbitrary, but one can say that generally speaking nasheed is an extension of traditional inshad genres (e.g. ibtihalat, or Sufi dhikr), whereas the newer popular genres move beyond those into other musical domains.

In the Arab world, aghani diniyya, literally "religious songs", are performed by a secular artist, or by a munshid in a secular setting. In the past such songs adopted a tarab (traditional emotional) musical style representative of elevated art music in the region.

Islamic popular music is a global phenomenon today. Celebrated performers include the British Iranian-Azeri Sami Yusuf. In one album (My Umma) he scrupulously avoided use of musical instruments, but later made use of them as in this clip, though not without invoking criticism. In his song My Umma he deploys music and rich harmonization; in You Came to Me he deliberately makes use of several languages, emphasizing unity of the Muslim Ummah (community). Sami has recently sought to move to a more "universal" musical category, beyond the limitations of Islamic pop; he calls it spiritique.

Other performers of Islamic popular music include Zain Bhikha from South Africa, Mesut Kurtis from Macedonia (here he performs a contemporary version of the Burda), the Indonesian Haddad Alwi and the phenomenal Malaysian boy band, Raihan, performing what is locally called "nasyid". Some southeast Asian nasyid contains elements of local music, e.g. gongs.

Islamic Western genres: "localizing" to global popular forms

Islamic versions of Western popular music genres have been developed by Muslims living in the West, born in the West of Muslim heritage, or by converts, growing up in an entirely western milieu. Naturally they have adopted western musical genres (albeit inflected with Islamic traditions concerning vocal timbre or use of instruments) to support Islamic texts and intentions. But there is also a new element: the structural position of the Muslim minority in the west, linked to racism and ethnocentrism, particularly in recent years as being Muslim is increasingly linked to violence, a fortiori for those who are "visibly Muslim" through dress or race.

Usually these forms of "Islamic" performance, drawing on western popular music--music which is already global--originate in the west - the largely Christian, developed world linked culturally to Europe - but they may easily spread elsewhere due to the global popularity of these forms.

Examples include Islamic performance poetry and hip-hop (Amir Sulayman, who recently performed poetry at the University of Alberta and also raps).

In this case the "localization" of Islamic content consist of absorbing a "global" sonic form, since Western genres -- from rock to metal, soul to hiphop, even country -- are typically found world-wide. And unlike the sound of West African Islam, say, such genres continue to exist in a milieu that is predominantly non-Muslim. In other words, what is new here is that "localization" is happening outside the Islamicate zone, though sometimes also within it. In this case it is understandable that transformations may extend beyond musical ones, and new forms of Islam may emerge centered on a musical subculture. Music becomes, perhaps, even more formative in this diasporic environment.

Thus there is Islamic punk rock (Taqwacore) (e.g. the Kominas, Islamic folk-rock (Dawud Wharnsby Ali, and of course Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens), even Islamic country (Karim Salama) (Buysse, 2007, Swedenburg, 2002, Miyakawa, 2005, Abdul Khabeer, 2007). Many of these musics tend to engage social issues afflicting diasporic Muslim communities, e.g. racism and drug use, addressing non-Muslims as well.

What happens to the Islamic content when the "sounds of Islam" are "localized" to global forms originating outside the Islamic zone? A greater engagement with issues of the diaspora? A greater proselytizing effect? Or greater marginality to the mainstream? Marginality even to Muslim communities? Many issues arise.

Here are some additional links:

A fascinating underground trend is the relation of Islam - especially five percenter Islam (Nation of Gods and Earths) - to hip hop...