Asma Allah, Du’a jameelah, Imam Ghazali, and music in Islam

Dear Readers,

Assalamu alaikum! (peace be with you all)

Continuing on the musical tradition in Islam, a topic I posted before on here where the Quran is recited musically, and here introducing the genre called ‘salawat’, I want to talk today about another form of singing that is common. And that is the singing of du’a. Du’a (=supplication) is more akin to prayer as the word in understood in English. And Muslims often ‘recite’ or you could say ‘sing’ their prayers. Often invoking the Divine by what we call the Asma ul Husna, the names of beauty, while so doing.

Before I begin though, it may be a good idea to re-iterate something I mentioned before, WRT to the status of music in the Islamic tradition. Islam, as anyone who practices it will know, is a way of life rather than a religion per se. Yes, we have religious institutes and scholars etc., but they are not ‘instituted’ nor ‘ordained’ in anyway. Institutions grow out of a community coming together to formalize one, and scholars are born out of their learning and productivity. Both, gain and maintain credibility only as per their acceptance by the Muslim populace. Now, there certainly are state-sponsored scholars and institutions in the Muslim world, but traditionally these have not been held in as high an esteem as those out of government regulation. For there is  well known maxim in the Muslim world that goes;

“The best of rulers are those at the doorsteps of scholars, and the worst of scholars are those at the doorsteps of rulers.”

And indeed it is well known, that the majority of all the great scholars of the Islamic tradition underwent torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Sultan of their time. And you can guess why. Some interesting posts on the topic are from our brother Muhammed Ghilan a neuroscience PhD from Victoria University in Canada and budding intellectual in the Islamic tradition here, and another from an author I do not know, but beautifully titled ‘scholars of Al-Sultan (the traditional title for rulers in Muslim lands) or scholars of Al-Rahman (=The Beneficient, one of the names of God)‘.

I have digressed, so I will come back to my post. Suffice to say to wrap up the above that now you can surmise what ordinary Muslims think of scholars who are on a government payroll (!).

I wanted to re-iterate that there is a difference of opinion on the status of music in the Muslim life. I blogged it about in detail here. In a nutshell, a variety of opinions are present, from scholars who frown on any form of music except the human voice, to those who allow the use of any type of instrument. All, though, emphasize that the content of the music itself must be beautiful, i.e., engendering God consciousness. Needless to say, lewdity, vulgarity and narcissism etc are not considered allowable. One of the most common and well known sayings of the prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) is

God is beautiful and loves beauty 

[Sahih Muslim]

Divine beauty is a topic of extensive discourse in the Muslim tradition. See here for an informative series on it by Jinan Yousuf. From that blog, a saying from another very well known scholar of yore, Ibn Al-Qayyim (raheemahullah alai) who said,

“And it is enough to realize Allah’s Beauty when we know that every internal and external beauty in this life and the next are created by Him, so what of the beauty of their Creator?”

And indeed, all of creation is beautiful, including the wonder of sound. A miraculous method to know the Divine. Music is after all, mathematics in motion, and is not mathematics the language that can capture the concept of infinity, which is a window to understanding the Divine.

Imam Ghazali (raheemahullah alai = God have merciful love upon him), the only scholar in the Sunni Muslim tradition who is given the title ‘hujjathul Islam’ (=the proof of Islam), lived close to a thousand years ago and faced many of the same problems the Muslims of today are facing –  an overly puritanical view of Islam, focused on exoteric practice, on one end that threatens to suck out all the joy of life, and on the other an overly lax view, that focuses only on the esoteric and so may lead to a loss of all the practice that makes up the Islamic way of life. His life story is well worth getting to know and inshaAllah I will blog on that sometime.

Imam Ghazali was asked what his opinion was on music from the more conservative camp (yes, this question was asked even a thousand years ago!), and he replied that if music were a bad thing, God would not have created the beautiful bird song!

So all that said, I can continue to post on the myriad musical genres present in the Muslim world and variety of sound and style they capture. For this post, I want to end by posting a few videos of one of the most favourite recitations or ‘songs’ as it may be more suitably translated to a western audience, is that of singing the 99 ‘names’ of God. The Asma Allah (Names of God), also often called Asma Al-Husna (Names of Perfection/Beauty/Goodness)

God is not limited in any way and so also the names of God are unlimited, but we definitely know of 99 (some give different numbers..)  that have been revealed in the Quran or have been taught by the prophet (peace be upon him). They capture Muslim theology in totality, and are sung in various forms and recited and invoked during prayers as well. My beloved grandmother, would sing them to me as a baby to put me to sleep, using a form of their recitation that is very beautiful. It is called ‘du’a jameelah’ (the prayer of beauty)

I won’t go into theology here, but in brief according to the Muslim belief; God is one (indivisible), without partner (does not have any likeness – nothing is like him. We use ‘him’, but God is beyond any concept of gender and is not male and not female), is unlimited (therefore does not change, as change implies moving from one state to another and this implies limits as states have limits), without beginning and without end (i.e., beyond the concept of time). And there is more, but I am not a scholar so I will stop 🙂

These ideas are captured in the 99 names which when analyzed, roughly divide as half being feminine in their essence – these are termed the names of beauty, or ‘jamal’, and half being masculine in their essence – these are termed the names of majesty, or ‘jalal’. For example, Al-Lateef (= The Gentle, Subtle, Delicate) would be ‘jamali’ (=of beauty), and Al-Adl (=The Just) would be ‘jalali’ (=of majesty).

Many are the renditions of the Asma Allah. I will give some below.

Here is du’a jameelah. May Allah increase and bless my beloved grandmother for each and every breath she expended singing the du’a jameelah to me, and may God increase the times I get to sing it to her.

 

Here is a modern rendering of the Asma Allah, by Sami Yusuf, perhaps the modern Muslim world’s best known traditional artist. He has received numerous accolades for his brand of music that builds bridges among the east and west including an honorary doctorate, he has served as an ambassador for the World Food Program, and is a household name in the Muslim world. His version is a modification of the traditional Asma Allah du’a.

 

Here is a cover of the above, by a young lady who God has blessed with an amazing voice, and also placed her in city where she may benefit from all the resources needed to develop and train that voice. What makes her unique is that she is very much trained in the ‘western’ style of singing, so it is very sweet to hear her sing traditional pieces. Her name is Saida Muhamedjan, which has a beautiful meaning (Saida = happiness, Muhammedjan = the beloved of Muhammed, or one who loves Muhammed I think). She is Tatar, and lives in Kazan in Russia. The Tatars are predominantly Muslim, and part of the Turkic tribes of Central Asia. I think you will enjoy her rendition. There is a bit of interference on the audio, I hope it won’t distract. May God preserve, protect and elevate her. Her sweet voice has helped me through many a difficult moment in life, and inshaAllah (=God willing) I must blog more about her and Tartar culture sometime.

 

Here is a more tradition version, here the entire Asma Allah are recited, and as the video gives the meanings of the names in English, I thought you would find it enlightening. This is how we would usually recite it at gatherings. As usual for all du’a, we end with asking God to send his choicest blessings on the beloved, Muhammed (peace be upon him), though the translation is not quite accurate at that part.

 

And finally the same traditional version again, from a Ilma Plojovic, a very talented munshidah (= a lady who sings songs religious in nature), may God increase and protect her. I shall leave you with this.

Peace be with you all