Brief Account of (previously Islamic) Song in Egypt

Brief Account of (previously Islamic) Song in Egypt

Hassan Al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood group, was the first Islamic leader to resort to songs. Al Banna was a member of a generation that believed in social arts, considering them as means for moving and formulating political tendencies. His involvement in Sufism formulated his view towards music. Al Banna was seemingly seeking a new kind of art that can be called “constructive art”. From this perspective, Al Banna brought in many means of artistic expression in the programs of forming cadres of his movement, topped by religious songs and sketches and then the Islamic theatre that his brother Abd Al-Rahman established.
This was in a period in which no Salafism declared its presence in the Muslim Brotherhood ranks. Women had a considerable presence not only in the ranks of the movement but also on the Muslim Brotherhood stage, specially the then famous theatre star actress then Fatma Roshdi who worked in the Muslim Brotherhood theatre.
Thus, the nashid (or religious chant” was following a social movement in the making. It was therefore completely depending on politics: Its militant words written by sheikh Ahmed Hassan Al Baqouri, others written by Abdul Hakim Abdin, the founder”s brother-in-law. The nashid (religious chant) was used in and gatherings and festivals in religious events like the Prophet”s birth, the new Hegira year and the feast. All members were during these occasions doing the same movements and were jointly raising their hands towards the sky.
In all cases, if we want to search for the general Sufi roots in the concept of the nashid (religious chant), we will found first that the content of the words was new without any real relation with the traditional forms of music. This was the beginning to politicize the nashid (religious chant). It is true that we can find a relation between it and the Sufi chants, but we will also find several differences between them, the first of which is using the religious song to serve politics, the clarity rhythm in the music of the religious song which is done using several musical instruments, so that the religious song eventually becomes a midway between the national anthem and the military March.
The religious chant written by Al Baqouri entitled “O messenger of Allah” is closer to be the Main religious song of the Muslim Brotherhood, it says:
O messenger of Allah does it please you that we
Are Brothers in Allah move to raise Islam
We give up sleeping
And never fear death, wishing that
Allah sees us in battlefield of martyrdom
The message of the Muslim Brotherhood in us rekindled
Spirit of honorable conquering ancestors
Who for some time pleased the world with Islam
And we responded to the call of duty with excitement
Competing on leading the ranks

Any one accepting Islam as a religion
Then chooses to do nothing
Or sees Islam humiliated
Will never be deemed a faithful Muslim

The time of confrontation has seemingly came and there was a complete conviction that victory is near in the song the battalions written by Hassan Al Banna”s brother-in-law. It says:
It is Right monopolizing its troops
Preparing for the showdown battle
So queue up brigades beside ir
To level the state of falsehood
To victory in the showdown battle

Tragedy of the years of bullets
But the wished for moment of victory hasn”t come. There were instead years of fires under the rule of (president) Abd Al-Nasser. The oppression that the group faced in the years (1954 to 1973) and its moving to underground work hindered the Muslim Brotherhood”s artistic growth. The religious song was thrown behind bars. While songs of the 1930s and 1940s were full of the optimism of the first beginnings, the religious songs of the 1950s and 1960s under the rule of Abd Al-Nasser was tragic. In this stage there emerged figures like Sayed Qotb, the icon of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt , and Hashem Al Rifaie, a student in the Faculty of Dar Al-Ulum Cairo University who was killed in still-unknown circumstances.
Hashem was close to the Muslim Brotherhood but he wasn”t a member. He reflected the pain and despair of this stage in his poem “my father”:
Oh my father what shall my hand writes
While I am in the deathrown chamber
This letter is from a cell
Which is deep and of rocky walls
I have only one night
Whose darkness is my shroud

We notice that the tone of the poem isn”t the only change. Its content also has changed. In the time of Hassan Al Banna, the dominating topics revolved around exerting efforts for the sake of good, unifying Muslims or the return of the Islamic caliphate. In the 1950s, under the era of Abd Al-Nasser, the religious song witnessed more details of concepts dominated by two things:” jihad in its military sense, and the second is alienation, this feeling of the presence of an internal exile in the heart of every pious believer in a society which is kept away from Islam. This feeling created a branch of literature: the alienation literature, based on the prophet”s words:” Islam began strange and will return to being strange and Tuba (a field of heaven) to the strangers”.
Saad Sorour, Gamal Fawzi and Zakariya Al Tawabiti are names of poets who were close to the Muslim Brotherhood and faced prison under the era of Abd Al-Nasser. They wrote about torture, adhering to belief and principles in spite of suffering and life in prisons. This moved under the writings of Sayed Qotb from just a description of the state of alienation to glorifying the idea of isolation from Jahili or ignorant societies, or the so called “emotional isolation”. This appeared in Sayed Qotb”s song entitld Ghurabaa (Strangers):
Ghurabaa` do not bow the foreheads to anyone besides Allah
Ghurabaa` have chosen this to be the motto of life
If you ask about us, then we do not care about the tyrants
We are the regular soldiers of Allah, our path is a reserved path
Thus, this time was a time of patience and perseverance a time for adhering to principles and ideals in time of weakness, according to the song ” man you are free ” :
My brother you are free behind bars
My brother you are free within these chains
If you adheres to your link with Allah
You won”t be harmed by plots of schemers

With the generally weak Muslim Brotherhood- although its members and leaders were released from prison in 1973 and it reorganized itself- and with its coming closer to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism started impose its rules on the Islamic song: All musical instruments except for Doff (the tabor) were banned. And songs of Syrians escaping from the Baathist regime”s savage repression to the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamah in 1982, were added to Sayed Qotb”s songs. Fundamentalist political and military themes imposed themselves on the religious chants of singers of this period topped by Abu Mazen, Abu Rateb and Mousa Mostafa, like the song “coming victory” which was chanted against a background of sounds of horse hooves hitting the ground and the chant Thuwwar Thuwwar (revolutionaries):
Thuwwar Thuwwar
O freemen, adhere to Sword and Quran
We should how long it is
With the help of omnipotent Lord
Daylight will follow darkness
From a political organization to Establishment
The Islamic movement was again controlled by a banner of the Muslim Brotherhood, in all places: in student unions, professional syndicates, local councils and parliament. They were organizing conferences, celebrations, demonstrations and public prayers to mark the feast in open areas. A new generation that did not suffer from the ordeal of prisons appeared and sough to get out of the culture of underground work tat dominated former generations to start extending the Islamization project to outside the political milieus.
The Muslim Brotherhood gatherings doubled with the religious chants always accompanying them. Singing bands started to take shape between Cairo and Alexandria : Al-Huda band was founded in 1989, followed by bands of Al-fath, Al-Nada, Zahratul Madaen in early 1990s, a new profession spread in Egypt , the job of a religious singer who sings religious songs. People close to or belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood adopted this new way of singing, missionary singing.
Another factor played a role here, it was the factor of singing festivals held to support Palestinian cause, starting from 1987 under supervision of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood which was heavy in number in gulf countries specially Kuwait which had a huge Palestinian presence at that time. This mainly emerged from Hamas leaning bands, bands which had a military tendency and were at the same time distant from Salafism. This allowed using musical instruments in Gulf countries while Salafist pressures in Egypt prevents singing to be associated with any musical instrument except for the tabor. Since 1989, as the cassette market opened up, pro-Intifada festivals had a strong resonance in Egypt . These festivals restructured themselves under supervision of the Muslim Brotherhood in the universities, especially in Alexandria University . These festivals continued to be held on an annual basis until 1993 when the regime started its repeated strikes and blows on Muslim Brotherhood.
Then came the third factor that contributed to turning these bands into establishments divorced from politics. It was the decision issued by the administrative offices of the Muslim Brotherhood in governorates specially Cairo and Alexandria , giving these bands the right to be independent of the direct organizational supervision of the group, allowing them to develop themselves outside the Muslim Brotherhood”s control and without obliging themselves to adhere to the classical mission”s rules.
Starting from 1992, religious singing bands were freed from the ideological control of the Muslim Brotherhood, and started to keep away from politics. Since then, the supply and demand logic-not the political problems or the Muslim Brotherhood-regime relations-has been controlling the development of the religious chants. The religious songs started to be under the control of the market”s mechanisms.
Al-Hudaâ From university to five-star hotels
For example, Al-Huda band appeared in the singing festivals supporting the Palestinian Intifada (uprising). It was under supervision of sheikh Abbas Al Sisi in 1989- Al sisi was the first member of the Egyptian military to join the Muslim Brotherhood group in King Farouk”s era. The actual founder of the band was Amr Abu Khalil, a great activist in the Muslim Brotherhood in the Alexandria University in the 1980s. He is currently a psychological expert in the website
The group comprised- at the beginning- members of the artistic committee of the Muslim Brotherhood, a committee assigned with managing all means of expression for the Muslim Brotherhood”s views, including slogans in demonstrations, theatrical sketches in universities and religious songs. The number of the members of this committee was ranging between seven to eight individuals, mostly Alexandria University students. It was active at first in the classical fields of the Islamic movement like conferences, demonstrations and religious ceremonies. Then, it started also to perform in weddings in spite of the movement”s Salafist wing that reluctantly accepts forming Islam in words of songs words and more reluctantly accepts receiving money for such songs.
Islamic marriages started to impose themselves in the Muslim bourgeois. Five star hotels and Smoha Club- the refined bourgeoisie club- started to offer performances for such a kind of marriage that has Islamic features and moral appearance more than it has in specific religious pracrtices.
(it is worth noting that in Alexandria only Sheraton hotel refused to hold such a kind of weddings that insists on no mixing between men and women)
Al-Huda started after that to enter the cassette market. At the beginning, it was singing in weddings and selling its tapes to guests. After that, Islamic stores started to release these tapes, then mosques. Finally, the band recorded a series of albums entitled “Al-Huda Weddings”.
Al-Huda stood restive in front of Salafist pressures which were strong inside the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid 1990s. What helped it at that time was that independent enough of the Muslim Brotherhood to the extent that it can”t be dealt with through the Islamic group. Thus, Al-Huda started to use all musical instruments in its performances, disregarding all Salafist views, to produces melodies ranging between rap and folk music. As for the content, the songs became softer and revolutionary calls have disappeared.
Then came the second generation of the band in late 1990s, a more professional generation which was close also to the Muslim Brotherhood, turned its back to politics, opened its arms to romanticism, gradually pushing the band towards folk singing culture which Salafism has been fighting for more than 25 years. This was clear it its last album, “from Al-Huda Weddings ” that had no revolutionary poetic theme and included songs like “Paradise Swallows”, “Weddings Nightingale ” and “Paradise Nymphs”.
Sondos, Religion and Culture
The tale of Al-Huda is more or less similar a girls band called Sondos (referring to silk from which dresses of the companions of Paradise are made) It all started from group of Cairo University female students, mostly from Faculties of Engineering and Medicine. They were organizing prenuptial parties at university to “cheer up the girl heart that plans to be married” said Rehab Salama, the band chief.
In late 1990s, demand increased on the band to perform in weddings outside the campus. Then surfaced issues of becoming professional and making financial gains. The band accepted first to take money to cover costs of making the performance without taking any money for its female members. This allowed them to enhance their musical instruments, made a special uniform and finally chose the name: Sondos.
Thus emerged the first female Islamic band. Being under fire from other female bands, that receiving money contradicts with the mission, Rehab Salama said:” Is it necessary that every Islamic project be a charitable project? Does Islam oppose profit taking?.
The success of this band made it perform five star hotels. In summer, it was presenting five performances a week starting from Henna nights (the night before the marriage night) to engagement parties and even veil weddings). This made them use the electric organ after drums exhausted them. For the same reason- of fatigue- they started to use amplifiers.
This led to doubling the number of band members and made the band open up to new fans through a variation in its agenda within the limited rules of Islamic songs that lacks what is women-oriented. Consequently, the band found itself obliged to insert Islamic words into classical Arabic songs or sing these very songs after deleting religiously unacceptable stanzas. This was what the band actually done in its first album entitled “Like Girls”, the title of a famous song that famous singer Sayyid Darwish wrote and the most famous person that sang it was seductive actress Maha Sabri in Naguib Mahfouz”s trilogy.
From Nashid to Islamic Song
The nashid (religious chant) imposed itself as a new form of music, a landmark in the dynamisms of turning into Islamization. The nashid was rediscovered to become an element in the revolutionary movement, in the imagined Salafism and in the crisis of identity, all these at the same time. It was the nashid (religious chant) that surfaced in the musical arena (there more than 50 bands shared the market in Egypt) accompanied by the veil in the fashion arena, charity tables in the arena of good deeds, and finally the modern preachers.
All these were landmarks for turning into Islamization that entered a public thought free of political trends in the 1990s, evaluating itself with the logic of the market and culture of the public.
It was the nashid (religious chant) that inevitably turned into the Islamic song, its name after the early showdown with the Salafism system. Other bands of Islamic songs appeared in the cassette market. They were specialized in performing special parties, like weddings, Soboue or seventh day ceremony and circumcision parties. They had attractive names like Andalusiyah, Zahratul Andalus (flower of Andalusia), Konouz (Treasures), Taghrid (Singing), Al-Siraj (The Lamp), Al-Zamanul Gamil (Beautiful Time), Al-Nada (dew) and Marhaba (Welcome). The Islamic bands were extremist when they first kicked off, insisting on preventing the mixing between both sexes. Female bands like “Sondos” and “Zahratul Banat” were performing and singing only before women in their celebrations. They were thus prevented from entering the cassette market (as the woman”s voice is seductive and causes lust which leads after that chaos, therefore men shouldn”t hear their voice). The female band exceeded this obstacle through recording songs of the album songs in the studio with the voice of young tween girl.
Islamic marriages were- at the beginning- preventing any mixing between sexes, then it became a one-hall celebration with a mild confirmation on a respectable form of mixing. This became a criterion of respect among the religious bourgeoisie that was not ready to accept the Salafist view of preventing the early form of mixing. It appeared that the unity and match up of the Islamic movement was the first victim of its success and spreading.
As for the education-oriented bands that do not perform in weddings- like Al-Geel (The Generation), weddings did not oblige them to move towards romance and they remained able to adhere to their educational methodology. However, liberating itself from the logic of direct demand allowed it to be more creative in the field of music. A band like Al-Geel mixes in its last album between the New Age Arab rhythm and the jazz, in a method which is closer to the style of the famous singer Rabih Abu Khalil. It is expected to release an Islamic video clip for the first time in the history of Islamic songs*.
Here the atmospheres of weddings have no big role in development, as the upper hand is fully to rules and professionalism of the musical performance. For Al-Nour band musicians fully devote themselves to music because music needs professionals, which contradicts with the idea of struggle. Evaluating current bands in the cassette market, skill will certainly be in the second lace after ideological affiliation. As for the composers, they are sought regardless of their religious trend or appearance, like Hassan Ish Ish and Baher Al Hariri, both of them are well-known composers who dealt with great singers.
Islamization did not perish, but it reformulates itself on nonpolitical bases, on moral bases like reputation, respect and piety. That is, it is extracted from the society, not from the spirit of groups comprising it.
Innovations in the content of the “Islamic song” haven”t stopped. They are rather increasing as long as the bands got out of the cloak of direct supervision of the Muslim Brotherhood organization. Classicists of the militant songs were among the first to lose part of their splendor. Poems like “At your service O” Islam of championship ” and ” Thuwwar” and ” I am a coming” by Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, were sung without music. Then a militant rhythm music was added like any revolutionary song. However, the recent development, the rhythm of the members of the new singing bands eased and softened, like bands of Al-Geel and Konouz.
Konouz band released a series of albums entitled Bashaer Al-Nasr or “Signs of Victory” and dedicated them to Palestine. These albums included songs like “Take Care” in which easing the public tone of the revolutionary enthusiasm was clear. Konouz recomposed the classical revolutionary song “Repeat O” Mountains” with a quiet voice associated with music.
The content of the nashid started to be softer and romance made its way into it (take for example Call of Love of Al-Sirag Band), and sarcasm and humour were on the increase; A band like Al-Wa”d released and album jokingly entitled “We Married him and got rid of him!”, while Konouz band starts a song starting with:” what a good-looking groom who is walking in beauty”.
It was clear that the overlap between the Islamic song and public culture increased in the 1990s, with a similar increase using rhythms of popular Arab songs which can be amended through inserting Islamic words takes. A song of singer Amr Diaab beginning with”: For many years have I been adoring you, and I your love has enslaved me” has been performed in Islamic celebrations with the same rhythm but using other words says ” For many years have I been adoring Islam, my path is Sunna and Quran”. Even the popular childrens”” song” Where is father” was turned into “where is Muslim”. Zaharat Al-Andalus band recompose the song “On Return” performed by Lebanese singer Sabah , while there is under preparation an Islamization of the song of young singer Shirin “One More Wound”.
In traditional wedding ceremony or songs, key relatives or neighbors or associates of the bride or the groom were praised. Islamic songs followed suit but they replaced such names with names of the big Islamic figures:
We are the Muslim Brothers, we have coward
Brothers of Al-Banna, aspire to be martyred
Al Farghali is a member, he is no chicken
And Al-Telmsani, a divine man
And Al Zaafarani..a second generation
Al Farghali – or Mohamed Farghali- was a founding leader executed by Gamal Abd Al-Nasser. Omar Al- Telemsani is the third chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood. As for Ibrahim Al Zaafarani, he is a medium level leader in Alexandria.
Thus, a new form of singing started to take shape on the front of Islamic nashid and mass culture: this form is the Islamic Folk Song that borrows its style from various agendas, starting from traditional nashids to the jazz and even the reformulation of Egyptian pop or youth music that gradually started to be closer to religiosity.
While politics preoccupied all the world all during the Intifada (uprising), it is different in the Islamic singing bands. The interest in political issues takes place within framework of an open mass culture in which politics is taken from the song not through the disappearance of political issues from titles and words but through generalizing the style with which politics is handled. In other words, we are back again to a picture of the Arab nationalism that carries to the whole world a religious touch where all differences are melted in the same pot to the extent that a great band affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood group- Al-Geel band- borrowed the melody of a song of Christian Lebanese singer Gulia Boutros entitled “Boucott ” because it calls for boycotting Israeli goods.
With the increasing popularity of the song- nashid that extended outside Islamic circles in thr literal sense, the content and music of such songs became more general. With a general restructure of the criteria governing conditions surrounding religion, Arab pop singers started to take a religious line. Singer Amr Diaab released his first Sufi religious nashid (O Messenger of Allah O Mohamed), singer Mohamed Fouad recorded his song on the religious praising of the prophet ehtitled “Right”, singer Mostafa Qamar recorded his first prayers song entitled “Merciful”, and singer Mohamed Al Helw who released the song “A cry of Birth ” about Palestine for which he allocated a complete album entitled “Jerusalem Screams” that included a number of religious songs. Also released was a cocktail album that included 12 religious songs by top Egyptian singers like: Mohamed Roshdi, Ali Al Haggar, Mohamed Tharwat, and Hani Shaker.
As for Mohamed Monir , Egypt “s most popular singer, he allocated a recent album ” Land of Peace ” altogether to the Sufi prayers invocating heritage of both Al-Shazliya and Al-Mirghania Sufi orders. Both of them are deep-rooted in Nubia , his birthplace, which means a nostalgia to the past and the roots through religion. This very album gave Monir a wide popularity in the West, as it was his first to be recorded in the West. His message of “Cultural dialogue and the call for a peaceful Islam” put him in the core of successive international incidents in which Islam is a common factor.
Thus, the nashid was restructured in the core of a Salafiist Islamic movement which is- however, opening up again to the surrounding culture which is Arab singing. The (previously Islamic) nashid has become a part and parcel of the mass culture that leans more to multiplicity than to Islamism, as Islam has a place among other youth cultures without fully canceling them. It seemed again that the extension of Islamization takes place at the expense of Islamists, because it moves away from the imagined Salafism and politics after it.
More Culture with Globalization
Undoubtedly, the New Fundamentalism whether in its military or peaceful images is still the ideal road to get out of Islamic national movements. It offers an international Islam which is applicable in any place and at any time because it has no deep roots in any specific place and because it adapts to globalization circumstances and is consequently opposing local cultures in the name of the universality of religious source of authority.
There are several means for getting out of political Islam and remaining inside the frame of Islam and joining getting involved in dynamics of globalization. Reformulating Islamization through mass culture may be one of these means. That brief account about the history of (previously Islamic) nashid has explained how an Islamic agenda- used by the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool in political confrontation- managed to become independent from Salafism. This is because the idea of hobby and beauty undoubtedly contradict with Salafism.
Culture imposes itself again on the margins of the dynamics of Islamization that it has confronted for many times. International Islam and Salafism contradict with local traditions under the claim that it is not close to well-known intellectual bloc of truth. At the same time, this culture is not the traditional culture shunned by Salafism. It is a young culture that witnesses the rhythm of its age. There nearly no presence of classical Arabic music in the various uses the nashid bands. Amr Diab and Shirin and  Arab youth singing stars are sought, but there is no Islamic version of Um Kalthoum”s songs for example. This is the mass culture that counters the classical culture, i.e. subsidiary cultures of young men who coexist with globalization and accept multiplicity.
The nashid has proved that it can impose its rules again in all youth cultures. It is- in America for example- deep rooted in the Hip Hop music, used as an expression of a new embracing of religion, an element of a new black culture that restructures itself around Islam. In South East Asia, the nashid touches indications of the New Age music with names of bands like “Rihan” and “Qatr Al-Nada”. On melodies of music of Indian movies, ex-Indonesian rock singer Roma Irama lays down words of his call. In The Netherlands, there is Al-Huda band- formed by a number of Moroccan emigrants- adopted the Rock Music to express itself. While the Islamic rap emerges in France in suburbs by new African poets for example. They are old defenders of the union between Islamic institutions in France who today kept away from slippery politics.
In other phrases, the culture that lays down cornerstones of Islamization everywhere testifies not the failure of political Islam but the failure of the universality of Salafism that describes itself as an attempt to lay down the pillars of an Islam without a homeland and without a land according to French researcher Olivier Roy.
*Egyptian news researcher and a Swiss researcher respectively
* After the study, the first Islamic video clip Al-Mu”alim (The Teacher) by British singer Sami
Youssef and is continuously aired by Arab satellite channels and Egyptian TV