It’s been over a year since the cold winter morning when I picked up my phone to the buzz of a WhatsApp call from an unfamiliar number.
It was Brother Ismail Hachim, originally from the Comoros Islands off the coast of East Africa but a DC-area local for the past several decades. He had heard me play the oud and recite nasheeds (Islamic songs) as part of an interfaith arts event at the Diyanet Center of America in Maryland, then got my number from a mutual friend. With excitement he explained his dream of an organization in the DMV area dedicating to “teaching our children our culture” and “calling people to Islam” and “love for Allah and His Prophet (S)”.
And thus, Al Qamar Ensemble was born – Qamar meaning “moon” in Arabic – named both after the moonlike beauty of Prophet (S) as well as Ismail’s beloved “Juzur al-Qamar” (Islands of the Moon) home country, where traditional Islamic practices have been particularly well-preserved.
I had been looking for something like this, myself – as a singer-songwriter inspired by both Deen and Dunya (the sacred and worldly), I needed an outlet for my art to help me increase in love for Allah and that which He loves, something beyond my usual musical pursuits. But Ismail – or “Bomzay” meaning “Sir” in Comorian, as many know him – had a bigger purpose in mind than simply a creative outlet.
So, what is this purpose behind forming an Ensemble to sing nasheeds here in America – for that matter, why do nasheeds exist at all? Why is there such a strong tradition across the Muslim world of writing poetry and songs to praise Allah and Prophet Muhammad (S), with or without instruments based upon the difference of opinion amongst scholars? Is it just something that the ummah historically liked and deemed permissible, or did it serve some societal purpose?
To answer this, you have to look at our history, and what I would call the Heart-Routes of Islam. People often look at how Islam spread across the Indian Ocean rim, or the Sahel border of the African Sahara, or the Asian Silk Road, merely as trade routes. While these trade interactions facilitated many societies’ adoptions of Islam, people didn’t simply embrace the faith because they were buying and selling goods with Muslims. The enthusiasm with which they developed their own Islamic traditions show that the faith truly reached their hearts through these routes.
One of the ways this embrace occurred was through Islamic scholars, Sufis and righteous saints, who traveled to remote places for da’wah or calling to Islam. Bomzay once told me, “When the Arabs first came to the Comoros, a shaykh would come to the village to give da’wah to the locals, the Africans. But he needed to grab their attention from their daily activities, so he might bring a drum and hit it in the town square while reciting his da’wah. The people would enjoy this ‘poetry’, whether in their language or not, and would pass it on to each other just as a relaxing entertainment, but all the while the words slowly entered their hearts and they accepted Islam!” Similar stories of da’wah through poetic language exist throughout the Muslim world, whether these teachers were calling non-Muslims to Islam, like Sheikh Hussein of Ethiopia, or were reviving the iman (faith) of Muslims, like al-Shushtari of Morocco.
All of this brings us to the qasidah: the metered Arabic poem, which was what these teachers may have been reciting in the village square. The qasidah was a part of Arab culture before Islam, but with the spread of Islam it became popular across the Muslim world as a religious genre. Many qasidah works such as Imam al-Busiri’s famous Burdah became tent-pegs in the spiritual life of developing Islamic societies, used in celebrations, aqiqahs, weddings, funerals, dhikr gatherings, prayers for healing – likely even recited by farmers working in the fields.
What makes a qasidah so memorable and useful as an iman-strengthening tool, beyond the blessings in their meanings, is the structure and rhyme. Each line of a qasidah often ends on the same rhyme (some are even named after that rhyme like a “Hamziyya” which ends on the letter hamza), and each line usually has the same number of syllables. This makes the words easy to memorize and easy to chant rhythmically, naturally causing the reciter to sway with the beat. Relaxation, enjoyment, and sometimes even that spine-tingling shiver of God-consciousness (called everything from “dhawq” to “khushu’” in Arabic) ensues.
The source of this effect, I would argue, goes deep into our fitrah (preborn nature). Babies love rhythm and repetition, and nearly all religions have the concept of rhythmic chants – perhaps a vestige from an early revealed source. In fact, I would go further to say that the primordial qasidah, before any other metered verse was ever recited by humanity, has only one verse, one with which all prophets were sent:
“La ilaha illallah.” There is no god but God.
Why would I consider this the universe’s shortest qasidah? Because it has 7 syllables, enabling it to be recited over and over in a rhythm, rhyming with itself (Allah!); and just try to recite it repeatedly without falling into that 8/8 rhythm (LA-i-LA-ha-IL-al-LAH-*breath*). I would argue that all other Islamic qasidahs throughout history were influenced by the light and structure of these beautiful words from the Book of Allah, which is higher than any human poetry.
Take the Burdah, for example:
“Maw-la-ya-sal-li-wa-sal / lim-da-i-man-a-ba-dan / a-la-ha-bi-bi-ka-khair / il-khal-qi-kul-li-hi-mi”
My Lord, send your eternal peace and blessings upon your beloved, greater than all creation.
14 syllables per line, but it can be broken up into 7 syllable sections, just like the first kalimah. Subhanallah! We can see how the people of “la ilaha illallah” became a civilization which – at its best – was greatly concerned with structure, harmony, and balance in everything it did.
Another benefit of the qasidah is that, counterintuitively, its structure breeds creative expression by allowing for swapping melodies and lyrics between qasidahs. And here is where we get to the forgotten qasidah – a story of cultural diffusion in the Indian Ocean.
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One of the first qasidahs our Ensemble learned was “Assalatu alan-Nabi” from a mawlid text (recitation praising the birth of the Prophet) called “Sharaf al-Anam”, popular in the Comoros islands and elsewhere. It has the same 7-beat meter and is in maqam Rast, a uniquely Arabic and Middle Eastern melodic scale which is often said to evoke feelings of power and courage. As an oud player I was instantly attracted to the melody. Here is a recording of us playing the qasidah:
Ma sha Allah, what a beautiful gathering! Recitation of a traditional qasidah at our Mawlid at MakeSpace a week ago, at the start of the blessed month of Rabi' ul-Awwal. May Allah reward all who attended, cooked, organized, recited, and all who were with us in spirit. More photos and videos from the Mawlid coming soon, to warm your hearts through the cold winter until our next performance!
Posted by Al Qamar Ensemble on Monday, November 19, 2018
The melody is distinctly Arab; Bomzay once said that “the Arabs came to the Comoros, brought their culture, then they went back – and we ended up preserving some things which they later forgot! We were too far away on our islands for other influences to reach us.” Given the use of maqam Rast, I thought to myself, it’s likely that this little-known melody used in the Comoros has its origins somewhere in the Arab world or Middle East.
Sure enough, one day several months later, I happened to be listening to a recording of Shaykh Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki (may Allah have mercy on him!) reciting the Burdah…when I heard the same melody! Here is the recording, from blessed Makkah:
These Arab reciters and their Comorian counterparts likely learned these melodies from voice to ear, through the centuries, all the way back to the same reciters. A while later, I was once again listening to nasheeds on YouTube, and I clicked on one by a group of women reciters from Malaysia, led by Hajah Nur Asiah Jamil:
Once again, I immediately recognized the melody! Now I was starting to see a picture; a melody (so far) only found in Arabia, Comoros, and Malaysia…here we have an audial footprint from those Heart-Routes of Islam.
The same communities, perhaps even the same scholars, along the Indian Ocean rim were likely trading qasidahs and melodies amongst each other, along with their cloves, cinnamon, coffee, rubber, dried fish, and frankincense. And they got creative, mixing lyrics and melodies such as how the Makkan version uses the same tune but recites the Burdah instead.
This creativity was also present in other places beyond the Indian Ocean, of course; in fact it happened wherever Islam spread. For example, non-Arab cultures mixed Arabic lyrics with local styles, or vice versa, or used entirely local lyrics and styles, resulting in nasheed genres like menzuma (Ethiopia), gnawa (Morocco), qawwali (India), and more.
You might think these are trivial details – who cares what style is recited, and with what melody? But the truth is, aesthetics are important. The Muslim world has had its own aesthetics for centuries, and sometimes we neglect our valuable, complex traditions for simplistic modern solutions. Meanwhile, many Westerners have fallen in love with our traditional music, our food, even our faith itself. The neglect of Islamic style has some part to play in the neglect of Islamic content.
This doesn’t mean we American Muslims should not see ourselves as American; rather, we should know that it’s not un-Americanto follow the culture of one’s heritage! All of these cultures have value to add to American culture. Young Muslim kids in DC should know Arabic maqams to recite Qur’an, plus menzuma if they are Ethiopian, gnawa if they are Moroccan, qawwali if they are Indian, etc. Neither should black and white Americans’ cultural contributions be left behind. And on top of learning one’s own culture, we should all learn each other’s traditions as well! That – if coupled with the meanings behind these traditions – I believe will preserve our faith and identity in this country. I believe it was the same way we became Muslim in the first place.
So, that’s our purpose as an Ensemble – in a word, I would call it “culture”. Culture can be good or bad, but no matter what, it surrounds your senses and changes who you are. And when songs about Allah, His creation, the Prophet (S), his family and companions, righteous saintly people, and other topics related to Islam permeate a society, then Islam itself permeates society.
Bomzay would call it “to teach our children,” or “a da’wah,” or “a Sifaat un-Nabi” (praising the attributes of the Prophet to gain Allah’s favor).
But whatever you call Al Qamar Ensemble, we hope you will call us to your local masjid or community event, attend our mawlid and majlis (gathering) events, and give us your support, in sha Allah. In return we hope our Ensemble will benefit our community and descendants and bring us all reward and blessings from Allah.
To enjoy Al-Qamar’s past performances and stay updated for the future, visit our Facebook page below:
To support the Ensemble, consider visiting our LaunchGood campaign below. We hope to cover Ensemble expenses, from catering to rental space to printing to instruments. We are hoping to raise $1,000 between now and Milad un-Nabi in November, so that we can host a proper Mawlid, in sha Allah:
Finally, if you would like to work with us in any way, please reach out to us! Members and friends of the Ensemble hail from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and all over the world. We are exploring all regional Islamic music traditions, and in all languages – any help on this path for the sake of Allah is appreciated. For bookings, collaborations, support, and general information, please contact: email@example.com
Thalib Razi is a multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter living in the DMV area who aims to create wholesome, uplifting music on both religious and worldly themes. His latest solo album, The Fire Inside, was inspired by traditional East and West African music, and is available at atrazi.bandcamp.com. He is also the oud player for (and co-founder of) Al Qamar Ensemble. By day, Thalib “daylights” as an analyst for energy efficient building programs.