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The Discourse of Arabic Religious Music

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 07.10.2011:

Dhikr, Mawlid, and the Praise of God

By Dr. Ali Qleibo


October 2011

“O you who believe! Celebrate the praises of Allah, and do so often; and glorify Him morning and evening.” (The Holy Qur’an 33:41-42)

“Remember me, I shall remember you.” (The Holy Qur’an 2:152)

Religious music overtakes profane reality, imparting life with visionary moments that dissolve the barriers of memory, and conjures the past in the eternal sacred moment of now.

Aida and I had reluctantly accepted a Ramadan breaking-of-the-fast dinner invitation, iftar, at the home of one of my former students. The immense number of brothers, sisters, first- and second-degree cousins and their offspring who were invited to join in the customary iftar dinner was overwhelming.

We had barely finished breaking the fast when young men started setting up microphones, loud speakers, and music mixers. Chairs were set up, and twelve djallabieh-garbed men took their places in a semi-circular group. The lead cantor cleared his throat, tapped the microphone, and began reciting verses of the Qur’an. The garden-cum-parking lot – where all the dining tables were set up – was turned into a theatre. The two hundred relatives listened solemnly as each of the twelve cantors recited verses, showing off the beauty of the Qur’an and of his voice. Within minutes the singers modulated the theme to al-Madih al-Nabawi, songs in praise of the Prophet Mohammad. I was transported to my childhood … whence Friday family reunions were invariably followed with dhikr, the remembrance of Allah.

Fridays at my grandmother’s are closely associated with music. Following lunch and upon Grandma’s insistence, my father, who had a mellifluous voice, would recite selected verses from the Qur’an. There are seven traditional ways of chanting the Qur’an, and my father was a proficient cantor. A descendant of over seven centuries of sheiks, theologians, and Sufi masters, my father knew the Qur’an by heart. We would hush as he recited selections of his favourite verses that showed off his mastery of the art of tajwid, the traditional styles for the recital of the Qur’an. We marvelled at the music scales that interweave with the syllables, even the letters, in harmonic beauty to enhance the meaning of the words of Allah. Following the Qur’an he would move to the Madih al-Nabawi songs, which are of a Sufi nature.

I grew up in a traditional family in which dhikr Allah, the invocation and remembrance of God, was hardly interrupted except by the necessary chores. The image of the prayer beads in my grandmother’s hand as she praised the glory of God, enumerating his ninety-nine names, has left an indelible image. Each name would be marked with a brief stop at a bead before slipping it to the next in her 33-bead rosary knotted with a perfumed tassel.

The devotional act of praying with the beads, tasbeeh, reaches its climax in al-Mawlid, the chanting of the Qur’an followed by singing the Madih al-Nabawi, variants of dhikr as a means of carving a space for the sacred in profane everyday social life in addition to the ordained five prayers. Traditionally al-Mawlid ceremony accompanies most rites of passage and celebrates the return of pilgrims from Mecca, a new-born infant irrespective of gender, the recovery from illness, the graduation from high school and college, the return of loved ones from a distant long journey, and any social occasion in which family and friends gather, including regular Ramadan iftar.

The concept dhikr takes on a wide range and various layers of meaning. To engage in dhikr is to practice consciousness of the divine presence and to heighten one’s own awareness of God. All words of praise and glory to Allah extolling His perfect attributes of power and majesty, beauty and sublimeness, whether one utters them by tongue or says them silently in one’s heart, are known as dhikr. On a more philosophical level dhikr has also been interpreted to indicate God as the subject and the creation as the object of dhikr. Moreover, the Holy Qur’an refers to Mohammad as the very embodiment of dhikr of God (65:10-11).

In al-Mawlid, the songs following the recital of the Qur’an are addressed to Prophet Mohammad, who is proffered as the embodiment of dhikr and as the first Sufi. They are the same songs that are chanted during the Mawlid al-Nabawi in celebration of the prophet’s birthday المولد النبوي which occurs in Rabi’ al-Awwal, the third month in the Islamic calendar. Ironically the date is observed as a holy day in most Muslim countries, except for Saudi Arabia and a few other Muslim states. Other songs express longing for the places associated with the life and early struggles of the Prophet, namely al-Ka’ba and Medina.

Celebrating the prophet’s birthday is a tradition that originated within the direct family of the Prophet in the privacy of their homes. Only in the Abbasid Period in the tenth century AD did it become public through Zulikhah, the wife of Haroun al-Rashide, who was active in transforming the Prophet’s home into a public shrine. As such the established musical scales and format of the songs in praise of the prophet originated in Iraq.

The Madih al-Nabawi represents the principal Arabic religious musical discourse. It is a song form devoted to eulogising and alternately praising the Prophet Mohammad, his family, and the cities where he was born, lived, died, and was buried. Though the elegiac music discourse began immediately after the death of Prophet Mohammad in 632 AD, the performers address the Prophet as if he were still alive. The music and poetry of al-Madih al-Nabawi is predominantly a Sufi discourse of belletristic Arab literature.

In Sufism al-Madih al-Nabawi becomes the most frequent form of dhikr, where it is instituted as a ceremonial activity. In the orthodox Sufi schools, dhikr encompasses the full adherence to Muslim law (al-Shari’ah), to the commandments of Allah (e.g., prayer, fasting, hajj, and charity), the observance of al-Sunnah (traditions established by Prophet Mohammad), and dhikr. It is because there are many types of dhikr that there are many paths towards Allah. These paths, known as Sufi Orders, vary primarily on the type of dhikr chosen to lead the disciple to the internal knowledge of God.

A typical musical performance features a skilled solo maqam singer assisted by a chorus of eight to sixteen men. The chorus sings in unison and new verses of poetry and prayers or blessings for the audience are added at certain places during the chorus. In North Africa, it resembles ma’luf or andalusi nubah, in Egypt the dur, in Syria the muwashshah, and in Iraq the maqam al-iraqi.

Musical genres or subgenres in the Madih al-Nabawi discourse include tanzilah (revelation), ibtihal (supplication), tawassul (beseeching), tawshih, and muwashshah. A typical performance includes a solo singer accompanied by a chorus of men a cappella or by the rhythm of drums and cymbals. The chorus sings a refrain that the soloist answers in an improvisational way through variation, paraphrasing, or transformation of the refrain, emphasising the characteristics of the respective maqam, music scale.

In popular folk Islam the term mawlid is also used as a generic term for the birthday celebrations of historical and mythological religious figures such as Sufi holy men, the awliya, whose sanctuaries dot the Palestinian landscape, some of which are centres of local pilgrimage. The reading of the Qur’an and the songs in praise of the Prophet are central to the procession and celebrations of the various holy men during the seasonal local pilgrimages. These mawlids are of a Sufi nature and assume different guises in the various Muslim countries invariantly shaped by previous pagan beliefs such as that of al-Hajjaj held on the grounds of al-Karnak Temple in Luxor.

Saladin played a major role in delineating the seasonal Palestinian pilgrimages to the local saints which are known as mawsim, literally translated as season, and which are celebrated as a mawlid (a prophet’s birthday). Following the various truces with and victories over the Crusaders, Saladin’s role is similar to that played by Constantine and Queen Helena in mapping Palestinian Christian geography. A practicing Sufi, Saladin assigned each newly liberated geographic area its own local holy shrine as a pilgrimage centre to accommodate the needs of the Bedouin tribes, the urban populations, and the peasants, and which encompassed both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. Al-Nebi Saleh in Ramlah and Lod stands as a prime example due to the mystical dual Muslim and Christian aspects of the legendary al-Khader/St. George, who is regarded as an eternal Muslim spirit of which Saint George is an historical manifestation. Other seasonal pilgrimage centres include the shrine of Rubin in Jaffa and the shrine of Sayedna Ali in Reshef, known now as Herziliya. The name of Saladin is associated with Mawsim Deir al-Rum, which he renamed Deir al-Balah. It is also known as Mawsim Daron or Darom, depending on the dialect of the tribes and peasants in southern Gaza. Mawsim al-Mintar was the local pilgrimage for the Naqab Bedouins and eastern Gaza.

In colloquial Palestinian Arabic, both terms, mawlid and mawsim, are used interchangeably. In addition to the local pilgrimages to shrines instituted by Saladin, the veneration of ancient holy Canaanite shrines survived under the veneer of Christian iconography that associated the Baal cultic centres with St. George and those of Asheroth with the Virgin Mary. Invariably the shrines associated with Baal are built on the rocky threshing floors in the high places; those associated with Asheroth are linked to water wells and springs. Baalic gorens (sanctuaries) provide an interesting example of syncretism. For although the Greek Orthodox Church in Christian villages canonises the Canaanite goren, holy sanctuary, by building a church in its place, the local Christian supplicants continue to offer blood sacrifices, i.e., the traditional ancient Semitic ritual slaughter of the lamb in fulfilment of vows in the various St. George churches. In Muslim villages these same gorens become, through the mediation of Sufi Islam, holy shrines associated with the holy men of God, Awliya’ Allah bearing new Muslim names. Significantly, in the mountains of Hebron innumerable holy shrines associated with Biblical figures such as Noah, Esau, Matthew, Jonah, Lot, etc., stand in the Palestinian countryside as patrons and holy men of the various villages.

The local pilgrimages and high religious esteem of the innumerable institutional and folk shrines drew the various Sufi sects (that flourished in the Ottoman Period) to celebrate the respective seasonal mawlids with dhikr in which al-Madih al-Nabawi played a central role. This spiritual Sufi religious musical discourse nourished our parents and grandparents and inflamed their spiritual pathos with a rich repertoire of sacred music. These mawlids, coupled with the Sufi gatherings in the zawaya (Sufi retreats) and the private family salons, provided the context and the source of the religious songs with which my generation has grown up and which were widespread throughout Iraq, greater Syria, and Egypt.

Whereas in the rest of the Muslim world dhikr and mawlid musical discourse have developed into a highly developed public performance, Palestine lags behind and, until quite recently, the ceremonies have been confined to the few private occasions that celebrate birth and death; the same cantors in the funeral ceremony are also the performers in the dhikr.

I was born into a bereaved Palestine already destroyed by the Nakba (the loss of Palestine and the massive deportation of the Palestinians in 1948) and in the grief following the Naksa (the defeat of the 1967 War.) The centres of local pilgrimage had already been lost to Israel, and the Jordanian and Israeli governments had already stopped the famous Mawsim al-Nebi Musa.

I grew up in an impoverished city where luxuries such as a ceremonial mawlid were economically unthinkable. My only first-hand experience of Qur’anic recitations and Madih al-Nabawi songs outside the family context was in the three days of aza, when people gathered in the house of the deceased to console the bereaved family and when special cantors were summoned. The reciting of the entire Qur’an for the soul of the deceased would continue for the first three days following the burial of the dead. More recitals would follow the first Thursday, the first forty days, and the first year following the burial. The khitmeh, the finishing of the reading of the Qur’an, would be followed by Madih al-Nabawi songs so as to end the evening on a joyful, hopeful note … followed by invoking blessings on the Prophet and his family. The main refrain still echoes in my memory.

Allahumma salli ‘ala muhammadin wa ‘ala ali muhammadin wa sallim

O Allah, send blessings upon Mohammad and upon the family of Mohammad, and grant them peace.

Men and women from my generation remember the three blind sheiks, tightly holding each other’s hands, with their red turbans and flowing dark-grey kiftans (dresses) going from funeral to funeral to play their role as the chorus for the main cantor who would have two or three permanent assistants to help him cover the Qur’an in the three nights of al-aza.

During my two-year sojourn in Cairo I was often asked if Sheikh Yaser Qleibo is related to me. Egyptians, I realised, would even tune in to the Israel station with the express desire to hear his voice. They assumed that, as a famous cantor, he would also be very rich because Egyptian cantors of his artistic calibre, such as al-Sheikh Abdul Baset Abdul Samad, were as famous and rich as Umm Kulthum and Abdul Wahab, the reigning Egyptian divas.

I knew him as a humble sheikh leading a modest life.

In the new economic conditions, dhikr and al-Madih al-Nabawi have been revitalised. Various groups have been formed, among which Al-Anwar stands out. The performance group participates in international festivals representing Jerusalem’s spiritual musical heritage.

Ramadan Kareem.

Al Anwar’s music performance that followed the Ramadan festive meal brought back to life the stoic image of my grandmother. She would never waste an idle moment without the remembrance of God. Their spiritual candour transported me to our former family reunions and our rapture as we huddled around to hear my father’s joy in reciting the Qur’an and al-Madih al-Nabawi, and reminded me of the simple though rich spiritual life I was born into.

Religious music overtakes profane reality, imparting life with visionary moments that dissolve the barriers of memory, and conjures the past in the eternal sacred moment of now.

أذكروني أذكركم

“Remember me, I shall remember you.” (The Holy Qur’an, 2:152)

How exhilarating! How Sublime!

To celebrate the gifts of God!

To celebrate life!

And to praise God!

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at

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