Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1379, (1 -7 February 2018)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1379, (1 -7 February 2018)

Ahram Weekly

God’s music

Marwa Al-Bashir, Fann Al-Inshad Al-Dini (The Art of Religious Chanting), Egyptian Lebanese Publishing House, 2017

God’s music
Aida Al-Ayoubi
Al-Ahram Weekly

In this valuable record of the art of inshad or religious chanting, Al-Ahram journalist and writer Marwa Al-Bashir gives a comprehensive account of the history of religious chanting in Egypt from ancient times to the present. A thoroughly researched work backed up by extensive references that took years to bring together, the book traces the traditions of male and female chanting from ancient through Christian and Muslim times, emphasising the role of women in a male-dominated sphere. Prior to Al-Bashir’s book, works on the subject of inshad had been few and often dated, and they tended to address a scholarly readership focusing on one aspect of the subject, such as the musical nature of a particular chanting tradition within Islam. Al-Bashir’s book, by contrast, takes an exhaustive and entertaining approach, drawing connections across disciplines and bodies of knowledge, and providing a powerful picture of the art of inshad in this country. It thus fills a crucial gap in the lay reader’s access to information on and an understanding of this art form, its multifarious manifestations and its impact on Egyptian identity.

Chanting had accompanied prayers in the temples of the Pharaohs for millennia when the famous hymn to Akhenaten was conceived, and there is reason to believe that conceptually and culturally as well as possibly musically the same overriding tradition passed into the Coptic Church and onto Islamic ceremony and is practised to this day. In the early 20th century the British musicologist Ernest Newland Smith described Coptic chanting at the Orthodox Church as one of the wonders of the world, which it has been noted is rather similar to its Islamic counterpart. Poems in praise of the Prophet started in the Prophet’s lifetime (one notable poet was the Companion Hassan bin Thabit) and flourished in the Umayyad era, but it was in the Fatimid era some half a century later that they were integrated into Egypt’s chanting tradition. Saint veneration and the spread of Sufi orders and invocation ceremonies known as Al-Hadra as well saints’ anniversaries carried the tradition forward through the various Muslim eras and all the way into the present time.

At various points in ancient Egyptian history, the author identifies specific texts (many of which have not been deciphered very clearly) as ones that were used for chanting, either sung a cappella or accompanied by the sistrum. Book of the Dead texts were also chanted, usually to the accompaniment of a tambourine. Inscriptions in Amarna contain hymns that show a remarkable similarity to the Psalms, which are known to have been sung. 

The author uses the Psalms as a way into the Christian era, which was especially rich in religious chanting. “With the beginning and the spreading of Christianity,” she writes, “the Christian music that accompanied religious rituals and prayers started to take on new solo and group singing formats.” In the 6th century Severus of Antioch set down a musical system for religious chanting based on eight melodies, which became the foundation of Syriac and Byzantine church music. In the same tradition, the 8th-century Saint John of Damascus wrote the Octoechos, but by then Coptic music was already well-established.Al-Bashir thus ends with present-day chanting as it is practised at saint’s anniversaries or moulids, not only among Muslims (who celebrate the anniversaries of the Prophet’s descendants Al-Hussain, Sayeda Zainab and Sayeda Aisha as well as such Sufis as Ibrahim Al-Dessouqi in Dessouq, Abul-Hajjaj in Luxor, Abul-Abbas Al-Mursi in Alexandria and Ahmad Al-Badawi in Tanta) but also among Christians notably on the anniversary of the Virgin Mary, Saint George in Cairo and Saint Dimyana in Daqahlia. Here as elsewhere in the arena of chanting, Muslim and Christian traditions are closely intertwined. Demonstrating this, and promoting the spirit of peace and tolerance in which the whole project was conducted, the book includes significant interviews with relevant parties such as the celebrated munishid or religious chanter Mahmoud Al-Tohami, the son of the great Yassine Al-Tohami. 

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