By Mark D.
Because the Arabic world embodies such a broad collection of lands, languages and ethnic groups, Arabic sacred music has drawn on many diverse religious cultures, including the Jewish Pizmonim and Bagashot, as well as Coptic Christianity, and the Maronite, Greek and Syriac orthodox Christian orders.
Arabic Music and Islam
While each of the previously mentioned religious traditions has made an important contribution to Arabic religious music, it is fair to say that the dominant force in marking out appropriate ways of expressing the relationship to God has been Islamic worship.
From Sufi invocations of the names of God (part of a series of worship customs known collectively as dhikr, though distinct from Muslim Sunni dhikr, which is performed in silence), to strictly controlled recitations of Qur’anic passages and modern worship songs, the sacred in Arabic music takes many forms and represents a rich tapestry of devotional practices.
Firstly, and vitally, is the role of the human voice in musically interpreting core sacred texts. For many Muslims, as for the Christian Gregorians, the chanting Tibetan Buddhists, aboriginal Australian nations and, indeed, pervading cultures across the globe over millennia, the voice is considered a particularly direct channel for communicating with God.
Some Islamic traditions consider all music to be forbidden, while others restrict it to the use of certain instruments – and the human voice is the greatest of these. The human voice represents the unadorned expression of the soul in worship of God. As such, a large body of Islamic music is built around lyrical constructions of passages from the Qur’an.
Arabic Music for Private Worship
There is also an important distinction to be made between music that is performed in public, and that reserved for private worship.
Sufic Mevlevi ceremonies – the famous “Whirling Dervishes” – were banned by the Turkish government for thirty years from 1925, pushing them underground and encouraging the musical and dance traditions to be taught covertly at the expense of the traditional ethical teachings. In fact, the ecstatic dancing of the Mevlevi Sufis was considered a Turkish secular heritage, to be performed only publicly, until as recently as the 1990s.
Today, Sufis, Mevlevi and otherwise, sometimes perform ceremonial songs and other devotional music (and dance) in public, but while the atmosphere at these events might be called pious, the audience is not strictly participating in any formal service.
Conflicting renditions of the Prophet Muhammad’s position on music continue to encourage a varied, and often tense, cultural landscape, and while on the one hand this presents difficulties to establishing any meaningful sense of unity, it is also responsible for one of the world’s most kaleidoscopic artistic cultures.