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“Not a Penny in my Pocket!”: De-cultured Religiosity and Death of Spirituality

A powerful epiphany descended upon me today while attending a local jet-ski show named Livin’ the American Dream! … the band Pilot, whose voice serenaded the loud speaker, sang the line that brought me into deep introspection:

Not a penny in my pocket, Keep on but not alone, Keep the flags flying at home!

I was immediately taken back to my Oud practice earlier in the day, when I was learning one of the oldest Arabic folk songs titled This beautiful One! by the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish. In that song, the same line above reincarnates in a similar context:

The pocket does not even have one penny, but the mood is happy and peaceful, the door of hope is yours oh merciful one!

Of course, such a verse is quite common in folk music in all cultures, but this is hardly the point. The important fact here is that culture and arts are the best representation of a people’s conscience. It highlights in focus what is sacred and should not be desecrated. These are the things that cannot be found in the law books.

From this perspective, music as part of culture embodies the spiritual essence of a society that transcends the boundary of the language of the law. In other words, arts define us poetically while laws contain us within the ink of prose.

As I reflected upon this meeting between the deep roots of America and Egypt in their folk music, I also reflected upon pre-modern Muslim societies where musicians were celebrated figures and revered by mystics, sultans, lay people and even some religious scholars.

Consider, for example, Ziryab (b. 789) the famous musician, astronomer, fashion designer and gastronome who was so respected by the Andalusian Muslim caliph ʿAbd al-Rahman II that he was allowed to establish a school of music in Cordoba with a monthly salary of 200 gold dinars. For the sake of comparison, this works out to anywhere between 11,000 and 35,000 dollars today, depending on the gold value.

Meanwhile, in our day and age, we are faced with a drastically different reality, especially in the Western Muslim religious life. The sermons at mosques and lectures given at Islamic schools or conferences restrict the reality of experiencing God to what we have termed the ‘ink of prose’. The only books taught at these institutions, and in turn what forms the spiritual-literary ethos of the Muslim laity, are books of theology and jurisprudence.