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April 8, 2010

Western literature and music inspired by the Qur'an

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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The Qur'an is the 1,400-year-old divine book of Islam, revealed to its Prophet Muhammad by Almighty God. This unique scriptural revelation, entirely in Arabic, took 23 years to complete.

To Muslims, and many non-Muslims the world over, the Qur'an is a classic book of Arabic literature whose poetic language and style lend the text itself to a special, and very moving, genre of music that is distinctly its own.

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to hear the spiritual art of Qur'anic chanting will never forget it.

Ever since the early 7th century AD, the Qur'an has inspired countless literary writers, novelists, poets, composers and visual artists to study its pages, emulating its forms and themes to create many generations of beautiful classics.

The romantic masterpiece, "Layla and Majnun," was written by the Persian poet Nizami during the 12th century and became one of the most popular love stories, inspiring later dramas such as William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet.

Some of the best-loved Islamic literary works throughout the West include The Thousand and One Nights (8th century AD), the Sufi verses of Rumi (1207 –  1273), and the lyrical poetry of the mathematician-author Omar Khayyam(1048 – 1131); all are still read today in many languages by countless millions around the world.

These and other Islamic masterpieces influenced European writers such as Dante, Shakespeare, Boccaccio, Defoe, Swift, Goethe and many other Western literary giants. And they also continued to provide abundant themes for traveling storytellers and singers of the Islamic world, as well as Spain, southern France and Italy at the dawn of the Renaissance.

Another great Muslim literary work, although not as well known in the West, is Firdusi's (935–1020) "Shah-Nameh," the partly legendary and partly historical epic of Persia; it is longer than Homer's Iliad and Odyssey combined.

The writers of the Islamic world also excelled in various forms of poetry, such as the epic, historical narrative, romance, and allegory, creating thousands of classics over the centuries.

Not only the literature, however, but also the form and fabric of Western music have been interwoven with many Islamic strands.

Muslim artists developed vocal and instrumental music rich with flourishes of rhythm and melody unknown in the West prior to Europe's first contacts with the Islamic world.

Al-Farabi's (870-950) Grand Book of Music was the first work ever written about musical theory.

In fact, the lyrical, tonal, harmonic and rhythmic sophistication of Islamic music was so developed at Al-Farabi's time, that it took several centuries for the patterns and structures of European music to fully absorb and adapt elements of the Islamic style.

But with the gradual east-to-west movement of musical innovation, the resulting effect was eventually a great surge in Islamic-inspired creativity that took on the distinct and exuberant forms of Renaissance style.

The eastern influence was especially felt in courtly dance styles whose music bore titles such as Mourisque or Morisca, and other European variations on Arabic words.

Western instrumental music, including the hand-crafting of more and better instruments, was also profoundly affected by exposure to Muslim musicians and artisans.

Those traders and crusaders who preferred cultural exploration over combat, discovered - and brought back home -- a fascinating variety of stringed, percussion and wind instruments that made their European counterparts seem primitive by comparison.

The delicate curved body of the long-necked Arabic ‘oud influenced the development of the European lute and theorbo; these in turn inspired some of the finest accompanied songs of the Renaissance, particularly in Elizabethan England.

The guitar (from Arabic guithara), a close cousin of the lute, also traces its ancestry to Muslim artisans and became a leading component of Spanish classical and folk music.

Similarly, eastern bowed stringed instruments, such as the three-stringed rebec, spread throughout Medieval Europe, developing into the diverse family of fiddles, vielles, violins, and viols; some were played on the shoulder and larger ones played on or between the knees.

They were often used in families or "consorts" of different scale ranges and their modern descendent is none other than the familiar classical string quartet!

Small bowl-shaped drums of pottery or metal covered with stretched leather skins, called nakirs, added yet another dimension to Western music. Often played rapidly in high- and low-pitched pairs, and frequently accompanied by finger-cymbals and bells, they introduced a delicate and exotic texture that went far beyond simply keeping a beat.

More often than not, Muslim instrumental music was intended primarily to accompany the human voice, thus its subtle delicacies of melody served the classical Arabic language - the language of the Qur'an -- so honored by all Muslims.

But although Western musicians were eager to copy the free and fluid Islamic style, centuries would elapse before they truly succeeded in weaving melody, rhythm and text as intimately as their eastern mentors. In fact, many musicologists point to the 19th-century European lieder or art-songs of composers like Schubert, Brahms and Wolf as being the greatest evocation of vocal-instrumental technique that had its true birth in the Middle East more than a millennium earlier.

Today, the urge to bring all the voices and textures of humanity together in powerful words and music continues in the creative work of contemporary artists and groups such as Enya, Clannad, Loreena McKennitt, Arvo Part, Vangelis, Kitaro, Philip Glass, Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), the Kronos Quartet and many others. Only a few are well known names, but they are all part of the continuing journey of cultures in dialogue.

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