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

Al-Jabbar (the Compeller) and a NCCM op-ed

Assalamu alaikum (peace be with you) dear readers,

NCCM (the National Council of Canadian Muslims), published an Op-Ed in the Toronto Star. It addresses the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the rise in Islamophobia since (I was surprised to find the police visit our local small mosque in the middle of Vancouver on Friday after prayers – they came to check if all was okay, and I was glad they did). It is a well written piece, and in my opinion, balanced. It is also vital to share. Here is a link. I will append the text below as well. And here is a related article that came in The Star titled ‘Using free speech as a cloak for anti-Muslim bigotry‘ well worth a read.

My views on what happened I gave in the previous post and they are clear and unequivocal. I will never accept any killing of the innocent in the name of Islam. This is completely condemned by the example of our prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and will always be by myself, a proud follower of the way of life he taught. I owe every good thing in my life to Islam and to his sunnah (=way of life/example/teaching) and God is my witness to the truth of that statement. May his good name be cleansed of all the dirt thrown upon it! by those who call themselves Muslims especially, and otherwise.

And that dirt thrown is nothing new. I was contemplating to share some stories of the many abuses he faced during his lifetime in a post. But I was lacking the energy to begin, the news makes one have to fight dejection you see… when by God’s grace, I came upon this, an old post on joymanifest that really was a re-posting of an article from SuhaibWebb.com, now virtualmosque.com (great site to bookmark by the way).

The post talks about one of the ‘names’ of God, al Jabbar. And it gives one of the most memorable stories from the life of the blessed beloved (peace be upon him) of when he was vilified, persecuted and tested the most. From that post

The root of al-Jabbar is ja-ba-ra and has a wide variety of meanings indicating Allah’s strength and majesty, which Sr. Amatullah explained to us in this excellent article. One of the basic meanings of this name is the One who compels and restores, and demonstrates Allah’s Majesty and Strength over His servants. This is a Name for the tyrants and oppressors to be aware of, because their misdeeds will not go unpunished.

Yet this Name has another dimension: al-Jabbar is the One who is able to restore and mend what is broken. Some of the great scholars would supplicate “Ya Jaabir kul kaseer” when they were faced with overwhelming difficulty, meaning “Oh You who mends everything that is broken.” The Arabic word for a splint that is used to help an arm heal when it is broken is “jibeera” from the same root ja-ba-ra. Thus, when we feel broken, we need to go to the only One who can mend our state–al-Jabbar.

Muslims believe there is only one God, but He has many ‘names’ or attributes. He is, in His attributes the same as in His essence, He is one and nothing is like Him, He is eternal without beginning and forever without end, utterly limitless, ever-sustaining but not-sustained. So His attributes are like His essence – they are not sustained, not limited, and none equals Him in them. For example, His love is not like human love, it does not tire, does not need, does not flag nor wane, does not grow impatient. He is utterly exalted above any defect, for defect implies limit and God is limitless. So the same in Allah’s quality of ‘jabara’, hard to translate but commonly translated as ‘compeller’. When we let go of our ego’s drive to control and let God take over, then we truly see this quality manifested. I have encountered (in my own life and that of others) so many examples of this, it is too numerous to mention. But we must let go completely for this to happen and we must trust completely too.

And the story,

The example of the Prophet ﷺ is a beautiful one. Imagine being 50 years old, having just lost both your wife of twenty-five years and your uncle who took care of you as a child. Imagine walking into a town in order to ask people for their protection, and instead have them throw stones at you until your feet bleed. How would you have felt? How exhausted, both spiritually and physically, would you have been? And yet, the Prophet ﷺ calls out to Allah in one of the most beautiful and heartfelt du`a’ (supplication):

“O Allah! To you alone I complain my weakness, my scarcity of resources, and the humiliation I have been subjected to by people. O Most Merciful of those who have mercy! You are the Lord of the weak, and You are My Lord too.

To whom have you entrusted me? To a distant person who receives me with hostility? Or to an enemy to whom you have granted authority over my affair?

But as long as You are not angry with me, I do no care, except that Your favor is a more expansive relief to me. I seek refuge in the light of Your Face by which all darkness is dispelled and every affair of this world and the next is set right, lest Your anger or Your displeasure descend upon me.

Yours is the right to reproach until You are pleased. There is no power and no might except by You.”

Read those words carefully. The du`a’ of the Prophet ﷺ was not “O Allah, please give me x and y.” It was literally the call of someone broken– complaining to Allah of his situation and expressing to Allah how he felt. What did Allah give him? A young boy by the name of Addaas saw the Prophet ﷺ, came to him with some grapes and kissed his bleeding feet. That is al-Jabbar. Imagine how the Prophet ﷺ must have felt after that, the relief he must have felt after the cruelty he was subjected to. And al-Jabbar healed the broken heart of the Prophet ﷺ in another way – He bestowed upon him the miraculous journey of al-Israa wal Mi’raaj (when the Prophet ﷺ traveled from Makkah to Jerusalem, and from Jerusalem to the Heavens in one night).

Arabic is considered a divine language, able to capture meaning unlike many others. A language created as all things are, by the Creator (nothing comes from nothing after all, and the One Sustainer is never sustained but all else is sustained, as there is nothing like the One) in order to communicate truths in amazing layers of meaning. I am a novice student of it but I am completely overwhelmed by its depth and grandeur. In Arabic, the word for patience, ‘sabr’ can be traced to a ‘mother quality’ that implies courage. It is not the passive letting-go of the English ‘patience’. But rather the hard ‘I will keep it in’, the ‘stoicism’ of the English. We Muslims need to be more patient. We need to make more du’a, clean up our hearts more, help our youth, teach our children, mend our homes. Let us also pray the rest of the world lets us get on with our work in peace.

Here is the article from NCCM below, I want to second them on this line especially, and note my gratitude to CBC for their principled approach – “Much of Canadian media should be lauded for their principled stand in declining to print the magazine’s incendiary cartoons. We can take a cue from their decision. As democratic societies we need to demand mutual respect and understanding, and reject the purveyors of intolerance.”

God’s peace and blessing be upon you all.

Charlie Hebdo just meeting demand for Islamophobia

By: Abbas Kassam Published on Sun Jan 18 2015
Charlie Hebdo has long operated on the fringes and is now only popular for doing what seems to be in vogue — being Islamophobic. Many of the magazine’s cartoons were plainly bigoted and unnecessarily inflammatory. They depicted Muslims as brown-skinned and turban-wearing violent misogynists. The cartoons reinforced harmful stereotypes about Muslims and were designed to shock.
But let’s be clear: nothing is more offensive and denigrating to the conscience and to Islam than murdering people for their views. Canadian Muslims have categorically condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The killers despicably claimed they were avenging the Prophet Muhammad — but they betrayed the Prophet’s message of mercy and peaceful coexistence.
Freedom of speech protects Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish all of its cartoons, even if highly offensive. The magazine should be critiqued in the same forum, the media, using the same weapon, the pen.
But the debate should not be focused around freedom of speech. Free expression is a near-absolute in our western democracies. It is a protected right and for good reason. It is premised on a free market of ideas. Speech is allowed to enter the market, where it can be analyzed, debated and then accepted or rejected.
Yet, the magazine and its supporters are just meeting the market demand for Islamophobia. It is now popular in our discourse to pitch western values against radical Islamists (no matter how empty these terms are). Charlie Hebdo met this demand in the worst possible way.
It is questionable whether the cartoons were even satirical. Satire is a classical tool of those without power to shed light on the weaknesses of the powerful. Satire is not about perpetuating negative stereotypes about a disenfranchised minority. Ultimately, Charlie Hebdo was promoting the very stereotypes it was supposedly trying to satirize. This might work as a business model, but it is detrimental for society.
French Muslims, by all indicators, are a stigmatized community. Close to half of the prison population in France is Muslim, even though Muslims make up only about 8-10 per cent of the French population. A large portion of French Muslims are immigrants who have trouble integrating into society due to systemic barriers such as employment discrimination.
Publishing incendiary cartoons that perpetuate the “otherization” of a minority in France leads to social divisions and is disgraceful to the genre of satire.
The Muslim community in France does not have a strong voice in the marketplace of speech. Contrast this with criticism and caricatures considered to be anti-Semitic that were published in 2008 by then Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Maurice Sinet. Sinet was asked to issue an apology, which he refused to do, and he was subsequently fired by the magazine.
There is similar precedent in Canada. In March 2014, federal Justice Minister Peter MacKay asked a local Nova Scotia paper to apologize for printing a cartoon of a flag with a Nazi swastika flying over the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. MacKay called the cartoon “deeply offensive, outrageous, insulting and completely inappropriate.”
It is essential that we also collectively reject the demand for Islamophobic material because it harms our valued social cohesion. As Canadians, we are living in a society that promotes tolerance and cohesion, not discrimination. However, Islamophobia stigmatizes Muslim communities, disenfranchises and isolates them from the mainstream. This creates conditions ripe for extremist radicalization, which has proven to be a danger to all of us, including Muslims themselves. And violence then creates demand for a response. This reaction can sometimes lead to the erosion of civil liberties and decreased freedoms for everyone.
Much of Canadian media should be lauded for their principled stand in declining to print the magazine’s incendiary cartoons. We can take a cue from their decision. As democratic societies we need to demand mutual respect and understanding, and reject the purveyors of intolerance. This may not sound as interesting or exciting as the clash of civilizations framework, but it is a long-term investment in our shared future.s
Abbas Kassam is on the Human Rights Committee at the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

The Sustainer – Ar-Razzaq

Assalamu alaikum (peace be with you)!

Copyright http://www.joymanifest.com (c) 2012

MashaAllah (by God’s grace) almost a year since I began it, today I finished a painting that is rather special to me. After days and days of carefully controlled hours with not much free time, finally today it was a day of nothing scheduled to do and therefore the luxury of being able to paint. This piece is special because I began it at a time I needed to be reminded that God indeed is in control of everything. It was a time when much I had built my hopes on was falling apart around me, a lot of it due to my own wrong doing or that my own best efforts were not enough. I felt like a bird, adrift over an angry sea, trying to keep my wings held high and keep going without the waves washing over me, trying to ride the storm.
I was reminded of the Albatross, that amazing bird, the true master of the seas… a bird some say once airborne over the oceans does not come back to land for over a year if not many years. And I was reminded of one of the names of God, what we Muslims call the ‘asma-ul-husna’ (the names of beauty or goodness). We say God has 99 names. Actually what is meant by names is more like ‘attribute’. For each of the attributes, God is the ultimate, the absolute sense of it. For example, one of the names is ‘al-wadud’ which means ‘The Love’. So God is THE love, all love come from Him, His love is the purest and truest sense of love. One of the things I love the most about the Asma-ul Husna, is that half are considered names of ‘Majesty’ or ‘Jalal’ and the other half are names of ‘Beauty’ or ‘Jamal’. You can see the first half are essentially masculine in quality and the second half are essentially feminine in quality. To illustrate, ‘Al-Lateef’ meaning ‘The Subtle or near’ would be a name of Jamal (beauty = feminine) while ‘Al-Jabbar’ meaning ‘The Compeller’ would be a name of Jalal (majesty= masculine). Without going in to too much detail, let me end by saying that many Muslims have these 99 names memorized and sing them or chant them as a form of worship or remembrance. We say we must try to live our lives embodying as many of these names as we can and in the best way, not many of us can do all, but it is a good to pick a few we want to focus on building in to our character and manifest that 🙂

The name I was reminded of during my time of difficulty is ‘ar-Razzaq’ meaning ‘The Provider’ or ‘The Sustainer’. We say all provision is from Allah. Indeed it is true, for we cannot create energy. All that we need and we take is already made. The source is the One. And on the less metaphysical but more everyday sense, we say every animal and tree has it’s provision assigned by God. Same for us, whatever we need, has been assigned. There is a beautiful article on this majestic name here. Do read it, It is much more descriptive than I can manage.

So the painting is about that. That for every bird out there in the ocean, each albatross on its solitary journey for miles and miles and months and months, ar-Razzaq, The Provider, is watching over and will sustain and nourish as needed. This reminded me of a beautiful ayah (verse) in the Quran, which mashaAllah I put at the end of the painting. It is ayah 19 of one chapter 67. A chapter that is considered to have many healing properties in its recitation.

أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا إِلَى الطَّيْرِ فَوْقَهُمْ صَافَّاتٍ وَيَقْبِضْنَ ۚ مَا يُمْسِكُهُنَّ إِلَّا الرَّحْمَٰنُ ۚ إِنَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ بَصِيرٌ
Yusuf Ali Interpretation
Do they not observe the birds above them, spreading their wings and folding them in? None can uphold them except (Allah) Most Gracious: Truly (Allah) Most Gracious: Truly it is He that watches over all things.
Quran (67:19)

I will end with a link of a version of the recitation of the 99 names so you can listen to what it sounds like. And to end as always, to acknowledge that any good in me is from God and God alone.

Peace to all!