It might seem to be a lot sober at first, but if you go deeper into the expressive sounds, you will come across a genre of music that is rather vibrant and diverse.
Originating from what Saudi Arabia, amidst the era of the Prophet Mohammad (P.B.U.H), the Islamic music genre initiated in the form called ‘nasheed’ or ‘anasheed’ which in Arabic refers to “chanting.” These ‘anasheed’ were usually sung in the form of a cappella (solo or group singing without the use of instruments), or were accompanied with drumming instruments to tribute the religious life of Islam. These conventional songs were similar to the hymns or sacred songs used and recited in Christian and Jewish worship.
With the gradual spread of faith worldwide, many worshippers started employing their own musical components from their traditions. This included the use of different and new musical instruments to preach the teachings of love, brotherhood, peace and harmony. Eventually, this made way to the birth and expansion of numerous new sub-categories or sub-genres of Islamic music spreading across continents. The young generation of today has integrated latest styles like pop and hip-hop music in order to build their own contemporary odes to Islam.
Initially, Islamic music was only defined by what it didn’t include – no strings, brass, wind instruments or female vocals were allowed. The only instrument that was allowed at that time was a type of a minimal percussion of the Arabic drum known as ‘daf.’ Even today, this minimal form of the drum is widely used and practiced in the Gulf and even in other parts of the Arab world.
Though, a number of modern styles of religious songs have been developed in places such as Turkey and South-East Asia. In Turkey, there are Sufi believers who integrate music into worship. Among them, the most well-liked are services carried out by Mevlevi Sufis. These services include chanting and the very popular whirling dervishes.
As far as South-East Asia and particularly Pakistan is considered, Qawwali is the most renowned form of devotional music. Qawwali is performed by a group of 9-10 men who employ different musical instruments such as a harmonium (a type of keyboard) and drumming instruments like a dholak and tabla. In a qawwali, the song is often 15-30 minutes long and contains instrumental introductions, repeated phrases and vocal creativeness.
Lately, nasheed artists around the Gulf discovered inventive ways to prevail over the strict rules for using no instrument at all. Ahmed Bukhatir from Sharjah and Mishary Rashid Al Afasy from Kuwait have released albums which include different studio tricks like manipulating vocals to sound exactly similar as a synth piano or a particular string section. In western countries, Australia’s The Brothahood and America’s Native Deen are music groups that use hip-hop music to deliver their religious message to the young Muslim generation. South Africa’s Zain Bhikha sung English nasheeds which gained him immense popularity and following in Europe and Middle East.
The adage for the musicians of this genre is ‘to keep it clean.’ Today, Islamic music is considered to be a decent alternative to the spicy lyrics found in contemporary pop music. The lyrics in Islamic music usually focus on Islamic history, beliefs and rituals as well as on the on-going events.
Arabic nasheed ‘Tala’al Badru Alayna’ is one of the oldest and most popular Islamic songs of the times. This beautiful song was originated and sung 1400 years ago in Medina, Saudi Arabia. It was sung to celebrate the arrival of the Prophet Mohammad (P.B.U.H) in the city (which was then called Yathrib) to build the first community in Islam. Yusuf Islam has covered the nasheed quite beautifully accompanied by the classic singer from Egypt, Umm Kulthum.
The nasheeds of Zain Bhikha are delivered in a such a melodic voice that one can’t simply resist playing it again and again, typically focus on keeping and holding the faith through hard times in life. In the song ‘Allah Knows’ Zain advises “He knows every single gain of the sand in each desert land. Every palm shade, every hand, He knows.”
The genre’s biggest name is none other than the very good looking British artist Sami Yusuf. Yusuf truly has an international fan base as more than 9 million of his albums have been sold up till now and he has sung and delivered both instrumental and percussive songs in English, Urdu, Farsi and Arabic. TIME magazine has declared him to be the “biggest rock star of Islam.”
Another popular name in the Gulf region is Ahmed Bukhatir who has gained immense popularity in Europe through his nasheeds in English and French. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the late Pakistani qawwali singer, is well-known for introducing the form to global ears. One definitely needs to hear Khan’s amazing range to believe his astonishing six-octave voice. Detroit’s Seven8Six is also an interesting Islamic music group that performs English nasheeds in the style of a boy-band – just imagine the Islamic version of the Backstreet Boys!
Here are a few recommendations to start off with your Islamic playlist this year:
Ahmed Bukhatir: Da’ani (2005)
This one is a truly soulful Arabic album featuring Bukhatir’s top English track ‘Forgive Me’ which is a song that urges assistance for the disabled.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Intoxicated Spirit (1996)
The album by Khan was even nominated for a Grammy Award – it has collections of highly charged and ruminative qawwali compositions that simply take you to another level.
Sami Yusuf: My Ummah (2005)
Yusuf released the album both with a music and percussion version in order to please both his liberal and conservative fans. 4 million copies of the album have already been sold right now only because of his magnificent voice.