INTERVIEW: Sayyed Al-Nakshabandi: Finding the light inside

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 18 Apr 2023

Ahram Online talked to Rahma Diaa about her first novel “Al-Nakshabandi”, which was inspired by her interest in the life of the quintessential voice of Ramadan in Egypt - the late Sayyed Al-Nakshabandi.



Sayyed Al-Nakshabandi was born the village of Demayra in the Nile Delta's Daqahliya in 1920 to a family which was closely associated with Sufism.

At an early age, his father, a Sufi sheikh, put him on the path of reciting the Quran and singing religious songs, (Enshad and Ebtehal).

The surname Nakshabandi could be traced back to a major Sufi order that was founded in Turkey and Central Asia in the 14th Century. 

In 1966, at the age of 46, Al-Nakshabandi was accredited as a senior religious singer of Egyptian Radio.

Since then, Al-Nakshabandi became an essential feature on Egyptian radio and TV stations during the Holy Month of Ramadan.

His various memorable Enshad and Ebtehal songs air around the time of Iftar every day during the fasting month, percolating at prime time on the special night of Laylat Al-Qadr on the 27th of Ramadan.

Diaa, a journalist with keen literary interest, began writing the novel in 2020 amid the pandemic and Dar Al-Shorouk published in 2022. 

The novel follows the parallel lives of Nosra and Al-Nakshabandi as they seek answers to questions of love, spirituality, and life and death.

Ahram Online: Why is your first novel based on the life of Sayyed Al-Nakshabandi?

Rahma Diaa: In 2017, I published a selection of stories under the title of Raqsa ma’ Al-Rumi (A dance with Rumi), in reference to the great Sufi figure Jalaluddine Al-Rumi.

But in 2020, during the lockdowns of the COVID-19, I decided to get on with my long-delayed project which is writing my first novel – something I was not able to find time for given my workload and my duties towards my family and my daughter.

I was looking for an inspiring idea – something that I would find comfort in working on during the time of the pandemic.

Personally, I have an interest in Sufism. I like reading novels that trace the lives of various Sufi figures or read their biographies.

I had previously written a profile on Sayyed Al-Nakshabandi (1920-1976) that was published a few Ramadans back in a newspaper.

I found that his life is so rich with so many captivating details, thus lending it to being literary material.

Al-Nakshabandi was one of the most important figures of Enshad and Ebtehal. He lived and worked at the time when this type of art was most appreciated. He was born into a family with an established Sufi association.

He chose to move from Tahta in Upper Egypt,where he had established a name for himself, to Tanta in the Nile Delta in order to live next to the mosque and mausoleum of Al-Sayyed Al-Badawi, who was a13th century Sufi figure, out of love.

I became very curious to learn more about his life - and to reflect on the human and not just the celebrated religious singer.

One night, I had a dream in which I went on a trip to the mosque of Al-Sayyed Al-Badawi Mosque in Tanta. In the dream, I found myself looking at the mosque while wearing my protective mask. I felt that this was a sign since Al-Nakshabandi himself, as we see in the novel, moved from Tahta to Tanta after he also had a dream about Al-Sayyed Al-Badawi.

So, I started to do diligent research - not just on the life and work of Al-Nakshabandi but also on the very rich presence of great Quran reciters and religious singers such prominent names like Ali Mahmoud and Mohamed Rifaat.

It was a fascinating journey that taught me a lot about those much admired figures as individuals.

AO: Your novel assembles a close up look at the ordinary daily life of Al-Nakshabandi as a son, a husband and father and also as a man who has dreams, hopes and disappointments - rather than just as a Sufi figure and celebrated artist?

RD: Yes. This was not done to demystify the image of this great figure but to shed light on him as a real human who leads a real life.

I reflected on his interest in art and sport. I also reflected on the man who loved God, and, at the same time, enjoyed life in line with the tenets of Islam.

I came under a lot of criticism after the novel came out last year, especially from Al-Nakshabandi’s own family, for reflecting on some private aspects of his life.

However, I guess, the novel has helped in reminding me and people that those esteemed religious singers are humans and not deities. 

In the final analysis, I always say that this is a novel which is based on the life of a well-known figure. Therefore, it contains some factual information in this figure's life but also has a lot of fiction - like novels do!

AO: We find interest in Sufism among your generation who were born in the early 1980s and early 1990s?

RD: I think that this is related in part to a wave of literature that reflected on Sufism. Titles like “Ibn Arabi’s Small Death” (which is a historical fiction on the life of the great Sufi figure Ibn Arabi) and “The forty Rules of Love” (which is about the parallel lives of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz in the 13th century).

These works, I find,  contributed in re-introducing Sufism in a new way that is modern and appealing to someone like me who was born in the early 1990s.

AO: Your novel seems to be offering spirituality - possibly through Sufism - as the path for those tormented to find the light within their souls. Was that the idea?

RD: I guess what I wanted to say was the need for people to find content. Content is similar to love because both help us to live and to find a meaning in our lives.

The novel shows parallel childhood traumas and adulthood issues in the lives of Nosra and Al-Nakshabandi. This created a mysterious connection that enticed Nosra to trace the life of Al-Nakshabandi, who had died long before she was born.

The novel, I think, is about our need to heal our wounds and to find peace and, yes, to search for the light.

AO: When did you personally start getting into Al-Nakshabandi’s work?

RD: It must have been one Ramadan during Iftar on TV. I don’t specifically remember the first time I listened to his religious song. But I know that I always found serenity listening to him and I always felt that deep meaning of loving God and finding refuge in the love of God when I listened to Al-Nakshabandi.

Today, I still have this sense of comfort when I hear his songs, which are on the top of my Soundcloud  playlist.

An all-time favourite of mine is Mawlai [My lord]. Every time I listen to this one - or to any of his other remarkable works really - I am filled with a deep sense of serenity and comfort.

AO: Are you working on a new novel?

RD: Yes. I just finished the manuscript for a new novel that draws inspiration from the world of cooking; something like the Indian novel "The Mistresses of Spices", by the Indian American writer Chitara Banerjee Divakaruni.

I think it is a lovely genre of literature where writing carries the scents of cooking and the smells and texture of the ingredients.

I hope my new novel would come out either later this year or maybe at the Cairo book fair next January.  

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