Monday, March 21, 2016

Singing the Qur'an

Blasphemy or religious devotion?

By Brian Whitaker


Yesterday I wrote about the case of a student and two teachers in Bahrain who were charged with "violating the Islamic religion and insulting its rituals". Their arrests were the result of a video which showed the student reciting (some say "singing") verses from the Qur'an while one of his teachers played a cello in the background.
This allegedly disgusting behaviour "shook the nation to the core" according to one news report and Bahrain's parliament set up a special committee – the Committee for Investigating Improper Recitation of Quranic Verses – which then spent a year deliberating on the matter.
Most Arab countries have laws against blasphemy or the "insulting" or "defaming" of religion which are used alarmingly often, especially in the Gulf states and Egypt. I have documented a lot of these blasphemy cases in the past and very few of them have involved anyone who deliberately set out to insult Islam. Most "blasphemers" are in fact believing Muslims and the charges against them are usually initiated by someone with an axe to grind – either against the accused personally, or against the strand of Islamic thought and practice that they represent.
The latter seems to be what happened in Bahrain, as a result of differing attitudes towards music in Islam. Some Muslims, most notably in the Gulf, say music is totally forbidden and some say it is forbidden in certain circumstances – for example, when reciting the Quran. Others, however, are much more relaxed about it.
The video above, from 2014, shows an Indonesian opera company giving the Qur'an a full choral and orchestral treatment. And – horror of horrors – it even includes female singers.
In Islamic terms, or at least the more puritanical interpretations, this is certainly controversial but it is difficult to argue that the intention behind it is in any way irreligious or disrespectful. 
A few months later, Egypt's highest religious authority, al-Azhar, issued a ruling on the Indonesian performance, describing it as "a deviation and a distortion". Recitation of the Qur'an differs from singing, it said – and singing the Qur'an to a tune is forbidden. According to al-Azhar, adding a tune makes the Qur'an comparable to songs and reduces the capacity of the readers and listeners to understand the true meaning of the verses. (The full Arabic text of the ruling is here.)
Al-Azhar, of course, has no control over what happens in Indonesia, though its ruling was cited in the case of the Bahrain "singer".
Below is a musical rendition of a Qur'anic sura ("Maryam"), from the Tunisian film, Bab'Aziz. Although some might consider this blasphemous, other Muslims admired it: the film won awards at the Muscat festival in Oman, the Fajr festival in Iran and the Golden Minbar Islamic festival in the Russian republic of Tatarstan.
The film, described as "a visual poem of incomparable beauty", tells the story of a blind man and his granddaughter travelling through desert in search of a great gathering of dervishes which takes place only once every 30 years.
Director Nacer Khemir said in an interview that his aim in making the film was to show "an open, tolerant and friendly Islamic culture, full of love and wisdom ... an Islam that is different from the one depicted by the media in the aftermath of 9/11".

More experimentally, below is a recording of the Italian cellist, Paolo Beschi, playing Bach's Cello Suite Number 5, mixed with a recording of Sheikh Saad al-Ghamdi, a Saudi, reciting three suras from the Qur'an. There's an explanatory note from the person who mixed them, here.
I would be interested to hear from readers about any further musical renditions of the Qur'an.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday, 21 March 2016

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