Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Books and music reflect the crisis of Islam


A report on Arab Human Development in 2002, prepared by a committee of Arab intellectuals and published under the auspices of the United Nations, reveals some striking contrasts. “The Arab world translates about 350 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece translates. The cumulative total of translated books since the Caliph Mamoun’s time (the ninth century) is about 100,000, almost the average that Spain translates in one year”

Islam is one of the world’s great religions. It has given dignity and meaning to drab and impoverished lives. It has taught men of different races to live in brotherhood and people of different creeds to live side by side in reasonable tolerance. It inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world. But Islam, like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that we have to confront part of the Muslim world while it is going through such a period, and when most – though by no means all – of that hatred is directed against us.

Two reflections from The Crisis of Islam by Bernard Lewis,(Phoenix ISBN 0753817527). This concise book is an expansion of a New Yorker article first published in November 2001. Bernard Lewis is the Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus at Princeton University. His books have been translated into more than twenty langauages, including Arabic, Persian and Turkish.

Now playingThe Fall of Constantinople sung by a veritable fixture On An Overgrown Path, Cappella Romana directed by Alexander Lingas. The ancient capital of Byzantium was caught between Latin West and Islamic East, and this CD captures the peak of that civilization with Byzantine chant and polyphony from the majestic ceremonies in the great Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia. But the music also reveals the paradox of the Near East as it triumphantly asserts the dominance of the west, while fervently pleading for the healing of religious divisions.


It was this very paradox that was the downfall of Byzantium, and on 29th May 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and that jewel of Eastern Christianity, Hagia Sophia, became a Muslim mosque. The fall of Constantinople is recognised on this inspirational CD with laments by Manuel Chrysaphes and Guillaume Dufay. Chrysaphes was the Lambarios at Hagia Sophia at the time of the fall, and he expressed his desolation by setting the verses from Psalm 78 using kalophonic chant, which are sung on the CD by Cappella Romana. My header picture, from the excellent Byzantine.net, shows Hagia Sophia as it might appear today, had it not become a mosque, and later a tourist attraction. In this visual reconstruction the minarets have been removed and the life-giving cross restored to the dome.

Professor Lewis’ book and Cappella Romana’s CD shed much needed light on the crisis of Islam. But before anyone gets too self-righteous about those thought-provoking statistics on book availability in the Arab world, they should dwell on the fact that this important CD from Cappella Romana’s is not available in Europe, I had to import my copy from the US.

Tonight the Overgrown Path literally leads to Constantinople and we fly out to Istanbul. Tomorrow I will be standing under the great dome of Hagia Sophia. There will be a few day's break in posts while we revel in the legacy of Byzantium, so please visit some of the other excellent music blogs in my sidebar until I return.

Now, read about the composer who set the psalms in Ottoman Turkish, and hear the result
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3 comments:

Mark said...

Thanks for your comments about the Fall of Constantinople. Actually, the CD is becoming available in Europe. Our distributor is making new arrangements with a number of Amazon sites, in the UK, the Low Countries, France and Germany. For example :

http://tinyurl.com/2wrjsc

Again, thanks for your interest in our work!

Best wishes, (and good lent)

Mark Powell
Executive Director
Cappella Romana
http://www.cappellaromana.org

sfmike said...

I envy you. Istanbul is the one place in the world I want to visit before leaving this planet.

Pliable said...

Mark, many thanks for your comment, and it is good news that Cappella Romana's CDs will be available via Amazon in Europe.

I would also urge your distributor not to neglect the many fine independent stores here. It was the chance find of Cappella Romana's wonderful recording of Ivan Moody's The Akathistos Hymn in a Christian bookshop here in Norwich that introduced me to the delights of this Portland based choir.