Invoking Love in search of God: The heritage of Egyptian inshad

Fatemah Farag , Monday 26 Apr 2021

As Egyptians celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, our traditions of hymnody captivate the heart and speak the secrets of love and the creator

photo by fatemah farag

Time preserved nothing of it
save one last breath,
concealed like a secret
in the chests of wise men

Omar Ibn El-Fared, In Memory of the Beloved

Lenhart and Landrock
Courtesy of Lenhart and Landrock

The air is still, except for the occasional rustling of bird’s wings as they fly across the sandstone hill-face that fences in the Southern border of Cairo’s great medieval necropolis, the City of the Dead.

It is a pompous thought, but I can’t help thinking that in this very area, some 800 years ago, the Egyptian mystical poet and Sufi master Omar Ibn El-Fared was known to retreat for spiritual reflection, fleeing his studies of law and contemplating the nature of faith. It is said that most of his poetry was written when studying under the tutelage of Iraqi Sufi Sheik Al-Suhrawardī when in Mecca; but it is here that his memory is enshrined under the dome looming in front of me against the Cairo skyline.

Photo by Fatemah Farag.

It was here just last year in March that the renowned religious singer Sheikh Yasin El-Tohamy filled the stillness in praise of the Prophet Mohamed and the love of God at the mulid of Ibn El-Fared, known on these streets as Sidi Omar and written down in history as the Master of Lovers.

And it is here at the same mulid in 1993 that Michael Frishkopf, Professor of Music and Religious Studies and Director of the Canadian Centre of Music Ethnomusicology experienced one of his first and most poignant moments of inshad.

“[T]he first time I attended the mulid of Ibn El-Farid and heard Sheikh Yasin perform, in the open saha adjoining the maqam, from midnight to fagr..I certainly didn't understand the words, but the overall experience: Sheikh Yasin, Ibn El-Farid, and his poetry, zikr, music, friends and acquaintances, the night sky overlooking the shrine and Muqattam looming just above — while all were unified, uplifted in communal ecstasy — was so powerful! Later, when Sufi friends would ask me, did you understand? I would say, ‘well, not the individual words, but the feeling, yes’...and they would nod knowingly,” Frishkopf recounts to me.

Sheikh Yassin El-Tohamy. Photo by Sherif Sonbol

Islamic hymnody; Sufi and beyond

So, what is Islamic hymnody within the context of a religion that often classifies music as “unorthodox”? There are the traditions of tilawa (Quranic recitation) and the azan (call to prayer). There is the standard madih (eulogy), ibtihalat (supplication) — performed before the dawn prayer — and tasbih broadcast on radio — in addition to seasonal forms of the above, including those related to Ramadan.

“Where the poetry gets more esoteric,” says Frishkopf, “talking of khamra (alcohol) as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication for instance, or erotic love as a metaphor for spiritual closeness […] or praising sheikhs and saints in devotion to them. [T]hat's where it crosses more definitively over to the Sufi realm.”  

There is also the context such as the hadra and the ritual of zikr.

According to Marwa El-Bishier in her book ‘The Art of Religious Inshad’ “Egypt is the first country in the world to know religious hymnody […] and the most famous of these [ancient iterations] were those of the Pharoah Akhenaton.”

She documents the inshad of the Coptic Church and indicates that Islamic hymnody gained popularity “in the time of the Fatimids because of the concern of the state with religious and other festivals and because of the proliferation of Sufi sects at the time. This saw a new phase in religious hymnody in connection to the hadra and then its connection to the mulid of the Saints.”  

In Egypt today, it is estimated that there are approximately 15 million Sufis who follow 77 ‘turuq’ (orders). The biggest of the orders are Al-Rifaaiya, which has about two million followers. But the influence and relevance of inshad goes beyond the orders.

“Performance of inshad dini has been widespread in Egypt throughout the twentieth century, crossing all geographical and social boundaries. Focusing primarily on the supplication and glorification of God, praise and love for his prophet, expressions of spiritual experience, and religious exhortations. Inshad practice is not limited by region, economic class, or religious perspective. Inshad expresses the affective dimension of Islam, most pronounced in mysticism (Sufism). While inshad is always Sufi in the broadest sense of that word, and though some Sufi orders are rightly famous for their liturgical inshad (while others include none), inshad has been appreciated in a broad social domain far exceeding the borders of the Sufi orders,” according to Inshad Dini and Aghani Dinia published by the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin.

Frishkopf points out that “a Sufi in the popular Egyptian imagination is often broader too — not professing unity with God or experiencing ecstatic trance-like states triggered by highly musical settings or anything like that, but simply a particularly pious good person who isn't concerned with accumulating wealth but prefers to spend time in worship and contemplation. So, these terms are slippery.”

In an interview years’ ago Sheikh Yasin El-Tohamy told me “Sufism is appreciation, chastity, acceptance, clarity, and the elevation of one’s soul. The Sufi is one who is devoid of violence, he is the lover.”

Photo by Fatemah farag.

The lover and the word

The genius of the masters of incantation such as El-Tohamy, a classification that includes the late Ahmed El-Tuni and Ahmed Birien, is no small feat. “These masters are the last beads in a strand that extends back to the old ages and is an essential element in the formation of [the Egyptian] people,” wrote the late author Gamal El-Ghitany.

“The ability of these masters to learn from the sheiks before them, memorise the most difficult Sufi poetry charged with symbolism, and perform these to an audience most of which does not know how to read and write. This is another Egypt; one where an emotional and deep-rooted understanding is concerned with the most beautiful and the most poignant.”

In El-Tohamy’s interview with me, he expressed his disdain of the argument that Sufi poetry could be too difficult for the average person to understand. “There is a culture of the senses; not all culture and education is related to books. To have this thaqafa hissiya is to have a soul and sentiments that are present and alive, but not the ability to articulate them.”

According to Friskoph, “This is the beauty of Sufi poetry - the same themes of love, longing, praise, supplication, and mystical unity circulate in a continual flow, because the sentiments are timeless; the true Sufi ‘poet’ doesn't regard him or herself as poet but simply as Sufi, and a vessel for that flow.”

He recounts “one of the contemporary sheikh-poets I met, Sheikh Abdel-Alim, would scribble poems on scraps of paper as they came to him, then hand them to disciplines or munshidin to perform. He might or might not get credited — it didn't matter. The negation of the self is part of the practice, and in any case he's only channeling what's endlessly repeated before and after.”

Photo by Fatemah farag.

Part religion, part society

The great masters learned directly from masters previous to them, from rural religious schools (kuttab) and often the trajectory of their teachings would cross boundaries from hymnody to song; from religious to secular. There is Sheikh Ali Mahmoud, who headed the Conference on Unifying Scales in Arabic Music in 1930 and was also the famous mu’zen of the Hussein Mosque. Taha El-Fashn became his student and went on to become a radio favorite and an ‘ambassador’ of Egyptian Quran recitation. And Sayed Mohamed El-Naqshabandi who was resistant to the use of musical instruments in inshad until he met and worked with the famous secular composer Balligh Hamdy. There are the secular composers and singers such as Sayed Darwish and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, who began their training with inshad, as well as the most celebrated singer of them all: Umm Kalthum.   

This by-passing of traditional boundaries of inshad — for example its connection to space such as the zawiyakhanqa, or saha — and time such as the timing of the mulids of the Saints has of course been taken over by the constant presence of recordings, beginning with the cassette tapes and now with the internet and MP3 files, live streaming, Soundcloud, and YouTube, among others. You name it, inshad old and new is now available at the press of a button.

This has also meant that what is traditionally an act of religious devotion has also been trapped into a context of commercialisation including copyright protection and online revenue generation tactics. How do you get used to a telecom company advertisement leading into your spiritual experience of listening to your favorite munshid?  

And some of the Egyptian munshids have also become global superstars in their own right — perhaps the foremost example is Sheikh Yasin, who until the time of COVID would be booked for performances from Paris to Brazil. Not to mention Sufi music and poetry is now trendy and up for fusion, for example some of the music of Egyptian Project and the flamenco iterations of Ahmed El-Tuni’s Allah Mahaba (God is Love).

Of course, this has also been a liberating context for the work of inshad. According to Frishkopf, for years, state control [of radio, TV and recording] meant that only LPs of ‘acceptable’ works would be reproduced. Hence, the Qur’an would be issued, along with mainstream religious inshad, and recordings of the great popular singers like Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab and Umm Kulthum. But not Sufi munshidineven, when at the height of their popularity. This can no longer be the case.  

The challenge of conservation

And yet, in spite of the deep roots and global access, to find the shrine of Ibn El-Fared is no easy feat. The necropolis is sliced into pieces with highways and cement bridges; informal housing has for years grown within the nooks and crannies of the resting places of the dead. “Now, how to get to Sidi Omar?” wonder people as they look about them bemused at the tangle that is their neighborhood. They know, and don’t, and the confusion is evocative of the strained relationship we often have with our heritage; a heritage that is often rendered unrecognisable.

In compiling her book on the history of Egyptian inshad, El-Beshir laments that lack of documentation and difficulty of finding sources and resources. In building up a school for inshad, Mahmoud El-Tohamy, the son of Sheikh Yasin, looks for ways to replace traditional spaces of reteaching to younger generations, and munshids have resisted their classification as “folk arts” for years, calling for an independent status that recognizes them for who they are and the complexity they represent.

There was no mulid this year — COVID-19 having restricted access and activity around shrines and mosques across the country. But these are hills that reverberate with the emotions of the past, and if you listen carefully there is perhaps a whisper as heart-rendering as a last breath:

I swear to God, the sun has never risen or set

Without Your love being entwined with my breath

Neither have I confided in anyone 

Except to talk about You

(Persian mystic poet Mansur Al-Hallajsung here by Shaykh Yasin ElTohamy)

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