Mawlid at Abbey Road

This year Mawlid - the Muslim festival celebrating the birth of the Prophet Muhammad - falls just before Christmas*. It is a Muslim tradition to perform nasheeds - sacred vocal music - at Mawlid. In 2004 the British nasheed group Shaam recorded the album seen above in the famous Studio 2, Abbey Road, which was the venue for historic recordings by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush and many others. Other nasheed albums in my library include Chants du Mawlid by the Sufi group Taybah from a city close to my heart, Avignon. Both albums are notably well presented: Taybah's Chants du Mawlid has extensive French documentation which includes exquisite Arabic calligraphy - see artwork below - while Shaam's Mawlid at Abbey Road is accompanied by an erudite essay by the British Muslim Timothy Winter (Shaykh Abd’ al-Hakim Murad), who is dean of the Cambridge Muslim College, and director of studies, Wolfson College, Cambridge.

In his essay Timothy Winter draws parallels between Gregorian Chant and the art of the nasheed - samples via this link. Yet there is a real risk of nasheeds being condemned as contemporary Entartete Musik (Forbidden Music) because of recent appalling outrages committed by ISIS/Daesh terrorists. A 2010 interview with Timothy Winter in the Independent is essential reading for anyone who really wants to understand the current global predicament; while the following extract from his essay for the Mawlid at Abbey Road album provides a valuable perspective on an important and overlooked difference between Islam and its Abrahamic cousin Christianity, with which this year it shares a festive season:

A striking feature of this music is that it is sung a capella, with only a vigorous beat from the Arab drum, the daff, to contrast with the versatility of the voices. This immediately invites a comparison with Gregorian chant, whose richness has been rediscovered of late by many Western listeners. The resemblance seems strengthened by the almost complete absence of polyphony. In keeping with the almost universal tradition in Islamic music, the voices soar and descend on a single line, the unison receiving only occasional complexity from a deliberate inconsistency in the duration of some of the notes. But here the resemblance to plainchant ends abruptly. The sound of the monks is redolent of shadowy Gothic spaces, and, like the Gothic style which it inhabits, proposes a world of darkness to which the sacraments alone can bring light. There is a mysterious quality to Gregorian chant which is profoundly foreign to these Muslim Syrian sounds, with their insistent, often exuberant syncopations. The root of the difference is, in the last analysis, theological: Islam has no doctrine of original sin, and its arts and music do not emerge de profundis, but form part of the larger song of creation. ‘Have you not seen,’ says the Koran, ‘that God is hymned with praise by all who are in the heavens and the earth, and the birds in their flight? Each knows its prayer and its form of praise.’ The Muslim believer is invited not to set creation behind him, but to join it, and therefore to experience something of its beauty and joy. ‘I rejoice in the world,’ says one Muslim poet, ‘because the world rejoices in Him.’

* Mawlid falls on the 12th of Rabi' al-awwal in the Islamic lunar calendar. As the moon sighting varies in different countries Mawlid may be celebrated on different days in different countries - December 23rd or 24th this year. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the date of Mawlid moves against the Gregorian calendar. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


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