Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1395, (24 - 30 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Reviving the art of inshad

More and more people are attending performances of inshad, or traditional religious poetry, but this has not necessarily translated into more stable careers for singers, writes Rashda Ragab


Inshad has flourished recently attracting more audience in both moulids and concerts

Using very simple words that touch the heart, sheikh Mahmoud Al-Tohami, a performer, or munshid, of traditional religious poetry called inshad, sings Qamaron (Moon), a traditional Sufi song in which the poet compares the beauty of the Prophet Mohamed to the beauty of the moon.

“Sufi inshad depends on insijam (harmony) and tabadul al-shour (the exchange of feelings) among poet, singer and listeners,” writes academic Michael Frishkopf in his “Tarab [feeling] in the Mystic Sufi Chant of Egypt” (in The Book of Colours of Enchantment: Visual and Performing Arts of the Middle East, edited by Sherifa Zuhur). Frishkopf has carried out six years of fieldwork in Egypt on inshad and its singers, the munshid, or plural munshideen.

Many munshideen believe that because of the renewed interest in this musical tradition, inshad could be an important weapon in fighting extremism, guiding especially young people to the tolerant soul of Islam and raising the profile of Muslims worldwide. A munshid is considered to be an Islamic preacher who uses songs instead of words and a preacher who can play a more important role than many others.

“Through inshad we teach the prophet’s own morals. These are reflected in the students’ behaviour, from keeping places clean, notably the places where we give lessons, to spending their time on good activities that will help them in their work and life,” says famous munshid Sheikh Taha Al-Eskandarani, a trainer in maqamat, or musical modes, and tawashih (religious songs) at the School of Inshad in Cairo.

Al-Eskandarani’s grandfather Fathallah was a Quranic reciter to former king Farouk in Alexandria. He came to Cairo in 1938, where his 11-year-old son Ibrahim’s (Taha’s father) voice and excellent performances attracted the admiration of famous Sheikh Ali Mahmoud during the Sayeda Zainab moulid (the birthday celebration of Sayeda Zeinab, the prophet’s granddaughter) in 1942. He was enrolled in Mahmoud’s betana, or singing group, and taught tawashih, ibtehalat (calls on God before prayers), and songs in praise of the prophet, or madaaih nabaweya. Later, he became a famous munshid on Egyptian radio.

When he was a child, Taha used to stay up late to listen to his father’s rehearsals. Later, he became not only a student of his father, but also one of his chorus members who sung with him in radio performances and moulids. In his second year of secondary school, he decided to leave regular education and join the free study section of the Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo.

“I wanted to make sure that I was learning the inshad and maqamat in the right way. Surprisingly enough, I found out later that my father was the real professor of the teachers,” he said.

After his father’s death in 2000, Sheikh Mohamed Al-Toukhy advised him to teach the art of tawashih, mastered by his father, in order to instruct the next generation of munshideen, particularly as there were fears that the art of inshad was deteriorating. Al-Eskandarani started teaching young people at youth centres and sporting clubs. His students performed on some religious occasions, and he chose some of them to be members of his new company “Rawhaneyat” in 2001.

In 2014, with Al-Tohami, Ali Al-Helbawi and others, Al-Eskandarani established the School of Inshad in Cairo. The lessons are given at the Amir Taz Palace in Islamic Cairo with the permission of the Ministry of Culture. According to Al-Eskandarani, the most important condition to join the school is “a good sense of music.”

It offers a free three-month course in which students take regular music lessons as well as more specialised lessons in maqamat and tawashih. Lessons take place at weekends to give a chance to everyone who wants to join. With no age conditions, an old man of 70 may find himself sitting side by side with a 10-year-old boy.


INSHAD COMPANIES: Sheikh Ibrahim Hassan, a Quran reciter, joined the School to learn maqamat. “I used to listen to great Quran reciters, and I thought something was missing from my own style, namely knowledge of maqamat. A friend advised me to join the school,” he said.

Hassan, who has passed the inshad exams set by Canal Radio in Ismailia, dreams of one day becoming a famous reciter and a munshid.

Unfortunately, Al-Eskandarani and his companions have not been able to fulfil all their dreams for the school. “We intended to have four levels of courses through which students could get enough exposure to become good munshideen, but we get no financial support from the Ministry of Culture. That support could have helped us to hire teachers to continue with the other three levels,” he said. As it is, with just three volunteers, Al-Eskandarani, Al-Tohami and Mustafa Al-Nagdi, it has been impossible to establish schools in other governorates as originally planned.

The one-level course is not enough to train a good munshid, though graduates can of course continue studying. Dozens of students have graduated from the school, in which the sixth group is now studying. The school has managed to put together a company of its best students that performs on religious occasions.

However, with the renewed interest in inshad among the wider public, the School Company is but one of many independent and state companies that have started to take steps into the world of inshad. Moreover, two Syrian inshad companies, Al-Merashli and the Brothers Abu Shaar, have been performing in Egypt over the last few years. Al-Eskandarani believes that the presence of the Syrian companies with their well-educated members will lead to greater competence in the field.

“Inshad has flourished over the last three years, and it has succeeded in attracting many young people as well as its older audience,” said Ahmed Abdallah, a trainer and programmer at the Opera Inshad Company in Cairo. This was established in 1972, when late president Anwar Al-Sadat asked composer Abdel-Halim Noweira to form a special company to perform inshad.

“The company aims to conserve the Egyptian religious musical tradition,” Abdallah said. Noweira and his assistant Abdel-Moneim Al-Hariri collected 86 tawashih from sheikhs Mohamed Al-Fayoumi, Abdel-Samie Bayoumi, Hanafi Mahmoud and Sayed Moussa who were students of Sheikh Ali Mahmoud, the father of inshad across the Middle East. Starting in 2000, it has been giving special performances instead of participating in Arabic music performances.

“I had to increase our repertoire in order not to repeat songs. I decided to add the religious songs of famous singers Yasmine Al-Khayam, Soad Mohamed, Mohamed Roshdi, Mohamed Al-Ezabi and so on, in addition to the 440 poems of the Al-Hugra Al-Nabaweya by Sultan Abdel-Hamid Khan. I collected 550 religious songs in total,” Abdallah said, a number that can amply cover the 40 annual performances at the Cairo, Damanhour and Alexandria opera houses.

However, with this expansion have come difficulties, and declining numbers of properly trained voices have been a problem for the Opera Company. Over two or three years, Abdallah has trained 60 students, and a committee made up of composers Helmy Bakr, Heba Ragab, Mohamed Ali Suleiman and singer Afaf Radi chose 15 of them to be members.

 “Unfortunately, only six or seven are still members today. A munshid in the company earns LE1,100 per month, while an independent munshid can earn between LE5,000 and LE10,000 for one private performance.” Even with his title of “great artist”, Abdallah will only get LE1,400 as a pension, whereas well-known munshid Sheikh Saadeddin Al-Wahashati, 38, from Assiut can easily earn LE3,000 for a performance in the Upper Egyptian governorates. For a performance in Cairo, he can earn between LE5,000 and LE7,000.  

Conscious of such problems, in 2014 Al-Tohami, Al-Helbawi, and Al-Eskandarani established a Syndicate for Munshideen that would look into pay and pensions. Unfortunately, the syndicate, which has some 3,000 members, has not been formally approved, and it is waiting for a new law to be issued regulating its work.

Most munshideen are members of the existing Syndicate of Musical Affairs, and some are members of Quran Reciters Syndicate. These offer few services and pensions of less than LE500 per month, however. “Probably the minister of waqf [religious endowments] believes that inshad does not deserve to have a syndicate of its own,” Al-Eskandarani said, though this was denied by media spokesman of the ministry Ahmed Zaatar.


HISTORY OF INSHAD: The munshideen should have had their own syndicate decades ago, particularly because of the great age of this art form.

According to Abdallah, it began with praise of the Prophet Mohamed by poet Hassan bin Thabet during the prophet’s own lifetime. Talaa Al-Badr Alaina, or “The Moon has appeared to Us,” was a religious song that young women in Yathrib, now Medina in Saudi Arabia, chanted to welcome the Prophet Mohamed. According to Abdallah, inshad at the time had two sections praising the prophet, or madih, and calling on God, or doaa.

In the Ummayid period, the poets Ziad and Ishaq Al-Mawseli introduced music for the first time into inshad and used lutes and tambourines (dofouf) and Arabic music from Andalusia in southern Spain to accompany the madih. The Fatimids then developed inshad through religious celebrations at the beginning of the new year, the anniversary of the Prophet Mohamed, and the moulids of Hussein and Sayeda Zainab.

In Ottoman Egypt, the imam Mohamed Al-Manawi was famous for his works on the history of Islam and the history of Sufism. The Moroccan imam Al-Busiri, who lived in Egypt, was famous for his qasidat Al-Burda, or “Poem of the Mantle”, a masterpiece that munshideen are fond of chanting up until today.  

Inshad, as it is now practised, started more than 150 years ago. Through the efforts of Sheikh Ali Mahmoud (1878-1943), the father of inshad across the Middle East, the art is still alive, Abdallah said. Among his students were Taha Al-Fashni, Sheikh Mehrez, Nasreddin Tobar, Bayoumi, Al-Fayoumi, Al-Menshawi, and singers Um Kulthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab,  all of whom contributed to the art.

In her book The Art of Inshad, writer Marwa Al-Bashir even dates the art back to the Pharaohs. Religious songs accompanied rituals and prayers in Old Egyptian temples, she says. With the rise of Christianity in Egypt, hymns or traneem were introduced into the Orthodox Coptic Church.

Today, munshidat, or female singers, are also becoming active in the field. “Our syndicate hasn’t got formal approval yet,” said 22-year-old Hagar Al-Tohami, a student at Helwan University near Cairo. She learnt inshad through the three-month course at the school in Cairo, and at her first performance she was the only female munshid chanting side by side with famous sheikhs Al-Helbawi and Al-Tohami on the stage at Cairo University.

She is the only female member of the Ministry of Culture affiliated company Halaket Zikr, where she works with five older male members. She has felt the need to continue with her inshad studies and enrolled in the Syrian Inshad School established in Cairo by Mohamed Yassin Al-Meraashli. She was also chosen as a member of the new Al-Halaka Company set up by Al-Meraashli. She sings not only in Arabic, but also in Turkish, English, Chinese and Azerbaijani with other Egyptian munshidat in the company.

Hagar’s family helped her develop her career. “The performances end late at night when it can be difficult for a girl to go home alone. Either my father or one of the drivers takes me home. We work with respectable people who make sure we are safe,” she said. “The munshidat haven’t fulfilled all their dreams yet. Success in a field dominated by men is not an easy task. Inshad is also more difficult than other kinds of singing. One has to be very well-educated, have good articulation, and good understanding of the words in order to transmit the feelings to the audience,” she added.

She hopes that more women will join the field and receive social acknowledgement, and she also dreams of establishing a school to teach the subjects a good munshid needs. Thanks to the Al-Hour independent all-women company and the Al-Batoul Company for women of the School of Inshad, her dreams have started to come true. Al-Batoul was launched to encourage female students to continue their studies, and there are hopes that other all-women groups will now be formed.

However, women are not altogether strangers to inshad, since Haneyat Shaaban and Rawia Younis are already well-known munshidat. Famous singer Zeinab Younis also had a religious group Al-Thulathi Al-Dini (Religious Trio) with her sisters Gannat and Samia that was giving performances until 2000.


INSHAD HERITAGE: Other families have also inherited inshad traditions, and while the Al-Helbawi and Al-Tohami families are famous names in the field, Ali Al-Helbawi inherited the art from his father Sheikh Mohamed Al-Helbawi, and Mahmoud Al-Tohami is the son of sheikh Yassin Al-Tohami, a legend of inshad.

Sheikh Yassin is from the village of Al-Hawatka in Assiut, and he left his formal Al-Azhar studies in the second secondary school year. A big fan of Sufi poetry, he was interested in the zikr nights, or Sufi evenings, held by his father. His talent was discovered by chance when he chanted at one of them, and for two years he did little else but read Sufi poems by classical authors Omar Ibn Al-Farid, Al-Halag, Al-Sahroudi and Ibn Arabi. He later chanted some of these at moulids.

“Sheikh Yassin claims he never selects his poetry prior to a performance, but all of his words emerge naturally from the ihsas, or the feeling he has the moment he says them. Due to the improvisatory nature of Sufi inshad, he won’t sing a text he doesn’t feel. Even within a poem, he might repeat or skip lines. For him, it doesn’t matter if people don’t fully understand the words, the jawhar (essence) is in the ihsas (tabadul al-shour),” Frishkopf writes.

According to Sheikh Al-Wahashati, audiences in the Delta and Lower Egypt like ammeya, or Egyptian colloquial Arabic, to be used in the singing, while Upper Egyptians prefer fusha, or classical Arabic. Most Upper Egyptians have studied the Quran, and even illiterate people understand fusha from their studies of religion.

 Al-Wahashati, a graduate of Al-Azhar University in Assiut, started to chant Arabic poems written for him by Nagat Al-Maged, a Saudi poet. Inshad, he said, is very important in Upper Egypt where people hold performances at weddings, ceremonies marking new births (sobou), and religious occasions. His own performances cover many governorates, including Sharqiya, Menoufiya, Gharbiya and Cairo where many Upper Egyptians now live. He established an inshad company at the Assiut Cultural Palace as the first state company in Upper Egypt.

From Upper Egypt, the renowned artist Intessar Abdel-Fattah has taken inshad worldwide. Although Yassin Al-Tohami and others had already toured Europe, Abdel-Fattah added a more formal style to performances abroad, and his company, Resalat Salam, has performed in Austria, France, Germany, China, Italy, the Vatican and the UK, among other places.

It performs both Islamic and Coptic heritage songs, as he believes both express the Egyptian character. The company has a group for singing Islamic Sufi inshad and two groups for Christian hymns enrolled with the help of the late Coptic pope Shenouda and a group of Indonesian students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo.

 It is not an easy task to organise collective and solo pieces, but Abdel-Fattah’s training of the 60 members played an important role. This started in 2006 when he was chosen to head the Al-Ghouri Sufi Centre in Cairo and established the Samaa School for Sufi Chant. He then trained a group of deacons, or shamamesa, to sing Coptic religious poetry.

His enrolling of new voices continues, even though for a decade he has also organised the Samaa Festival for Sufi and Spiritual Music hosting groups from more than 30 countries. Very proud of his achievements, Abdel-Fattah says that “we are an Egyptian cultural production and embrace all cultures, seeing that love, tolerance and peace are the essence of all religions.”

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