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

A picture that captures a meeting between the diva of Egypt and most celebrated singer Umm Kalthoum (d. 1975) and one of the country’s foremost Qur’an reciters Mustafa Ismail (d. 1978).

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 to 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 important to them and should not be desecrated; often things not written in their law books. In this sense, music as part of culture embodies the spiritual essence of a society which 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 contemplated 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 in the Muslim religious life. The sermons at mosques and religious 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, jurisprudence or moral-ethical Sufism. It is not a coincidence that the religious emphasis on these rational sciences correlates with the secular educational direction of the Muslim community to produce an abundance of medical doctors, engineers or lawyers and very few poets, painters or musicians.

However, there exists a fascinating parallel universe that is inseparable from the spiritual experience of God in the middle east, yet one that seems non-existent for the Muslims in diaspora here in the West. Musicians like Ziryab are reincarnated in the likes of Sayyid Darwish and ʿAmmar al-Shiri'i. Likewise, medieval literary masterpieces like Layla and Majnun find a companion in the writings of Naguib Mahfouz, Mahmoud Darwish or Tawfiq al-Hakim. What makes this contemporary cultural production unique is that, unlike their medieval counterparts, the lives and contributions of Naguib Mahfouz and ʿAmmar al-Shiri’i are not deemed worthy enough to be spoken about in mosques or taught at Islamic schools.

While this is the case in both the middle east and America, what separates these two geographical settings is that Mahfouz and al-Shiri’i have both established their importance in the religious and spiritual spheres in Egypt. In the case of Mahfouz, once accused of blasphemy by fundamentalists for his novel The Sons of our Neighborhood, he responded by authoring a series of novels that became representative of the country’s Sufi mystical heritage, such as The Conversation of Morning and Night and Empty Talk upon the Banks of the Nile. As for al-Shiri’i, a musician celebrated for his timeless compositions that were even performed at European opera houses, he regularly interviewed Qurʾan reciters to discuss the art of maqam (Arabic modal music) in Qurʾan recitation.

A cursory study of the content of this contemporary artistic genre proves that the predominant religious discourse in mosques and seminaries does not actually have a monopoly on the plethora of spiritual paths a society takes towards God. Consider, for instance, these verses from an Egyptian sitcom titled The Gate of Halawany, which explores the 19th century history of Egypt:

Valleys, meadows, seas, palaces and ports … Monotheism, contemplation and prayer … The hymns of liturgy and religious praises … and all of this in Egypt!

Or in the epic of social history, The Nights of Hilmiya:

Where does darkness come from? From greed and stubbornness … Where does contentment come from? From believing in divine decree!

Now there are clearly important exceptions to consider. First, not all segments of the religious Muslim community in diaspora are uncultured, nor all those in the middle east well cultured. Moreover, it is to be expected that the Muslim community in diaspora have a dearth of cultural references from the arts in a social setting that differs from their native language and heritage. Taking the first issue into consideration, the second is met with a rebuttal in medieval Sufi mystics like Jalal al-Din Rumi and Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-ʿArabi. The former’s Mathnawi is the most widely translated poetic compendiums in America while the latter has so fascinated Western enthusiasts that they have established an entire society devoted to his life and contributions.

It is precisely in Rumi’s and Ibn al-ʿArabi’s writings that we find the secret formula missing in the modern Muslim religious discourse. These two Sufi masters, and countless others, combine in their spirit the religious scholar and novelist/poet/artist in a perplexing harmony. It is not surprising that they, also, have been excommunicated from the modern mosques and seminaries. This is also why Rumi’s poetry, such as:

Come, come, whoever you are ... Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving ... It doesn’t matter ... Ours is not a caravan of despair ... Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times ... Come, yet again , come , come!

Or Ibn al-ʿArabi’s stanzas:

My heart has become accepting of every form ... A meadow for gazelles ... A monastery for monks ... A house for idols ... The Kaaba of a pilgrim ... The pages of the Torah ... And leaflets from the Quran ... I attest to the religion of love wherever its caravan goes ... For love is my religion and faith!

Find a kindred spirit in Naguib Mahfouz’s Conversations of Morning and Night or Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, more than a modern Muslim scholar’s treatise on law or their theological debates.

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