Qur’an and Symphonic Music — Miscellaneous Comments 001

In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth

Lester A. Knibbs aka Doctor Hakeem

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ –

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).
(Qur’an 49:13)

Uhn! What does this mean? The Arabic language of the Qur’an is clear, simple, and straightforward. The attempt to render this into English is clumsy and awkward. Among other annoyances are misplaced parentheses: the parentheses around “pair” should encompass the phrase “a single pair of”; and there should be no parenthesis before the word “each”. Bad editing.

The parenthetical phrases are insertions by Yusuf Ali, the translator. Assuming that these are attempts to clarify, I disagree with all of them:

  • The phrase “a single pair of” is either unnecessary or interprets the original in a way that narrows its potential meanings. Allah is telling us that he created us from a male and a female. This has more than one possible meaning. Leave it alone; Allah knows how to express himself.
  • The phrase “not that ye may despise each other” ruins the meaning of the original and allows those who are simply not interested in other cultures to slip through the loophole by saying, “We don’t despise those who are different from us.” That’s not the point. Clearly, Allah intends for us to know each other (the meaning of ta`aarafoo); not despising each other is not enough.
  • The phrase “he who is” is simply unnecessary.

Yusuf Ali (1872-1953) was an anglophile, specifically in his love of the language of Shakespeare and of the King James Bible. (He was also an anglophile in his love of the English way of life, living much of his life in England.) The languages of Shakespeare and King James are no longer spoken today. We say “surely” instead of “verily”, and “you” instead of “ye”. There is nothing — nothing — religious or sacred about these words (and many others); they are simply archaic. It is virtually impossible to render the Arabic of the Qur’an into English, but using the archaic language of King James only makes matters worse.

Yusuf Ali was born in Bombay, British India (now called Mumbai). His mother-tongue may have been Hindi (the national language of India) or Marathi or Gujurati. (Hindi, Marathi, and Gujurati are Indo-European languages, along with English; they are distant relatives of English, and not related to Arabic.) He was fluent in English and was a barrister (a form of lawyer in the UK). In order to translate the Qur’an, he must have mastered Arabic to a great extent. But Arabic was neither his first nor his second language. He learned Arabic the same way you and I do, and he never lived in an Arabic-speaking society. His translation of the Qur’an is a monumental and very helpful work — and may Allah reward him for it — but it is not the Qur’an, and reading it is not obedience to the command, “iqra’!” (“Read/Recite!”), to which we are all subject.

The Qur’an and the Cultures of Symphonic Music

Allah wants is to be familiar with other cultures. This helps us to grow.

Symphonic music is not white. Culture is not white. Culture is colorful. There is joy in the great varieties of culture. And there is growth.

I am particularly fond of the music of German composers — the “three B’s”, Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, and others. Among other virtues, their music was multi-cultural. Bach wrote “English Suites” and “French Suites” for keyboard (usually harpsichord). Each of these suites include an allemande (German dance), a courante (French version; also known as corrente, Italian version); a sarabande (a Spanish/Arab dance), and a gigue (based on the British jig).

My research into the word “gigue” indicates that it originally referred to a bowed string instrument in Northern Nigeria (goge); carried across the Sahara, in Arabic this became ghooghaa. Crossing the Mediterranean Sea, this word became giga in Italian, still referring to a string instrument. In Germany, this word became Geige, a name for the violin.

In its various forms, this word — goge, ghooghaa, giga, Geige, jig, and gig — came to refer to the musical instrument we call a violin or a fiddle, or to a lively dance, or to a musical performance (in the form gig, a performance for hire, and by extension, any task performed for pay). Thus, a the name of a musical instrument in Northern Nigeria traveled to Europe and North America, as the name of a musical instrument, a dance, and a task performed for pay.

Of particular interest that the primary instrument of African Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries was the violin. The primary function of African American fiddlers in the 18th and early 19th centuries was to provide music for white Americans to dance the jig.

In addition to the gigue, and the other dances mentioned above, Bach wrote a notable chaconne as the last movement of his second suite (called a partita) for solo violin. The chaconne and the sarabande are virtually the same musical type. The primary differences are that the sarabande is normally a member of the Baroque suite and is in binary form, whereas the chaconne almost always takes the form of an extended series of variations. According to Janheinz Jahn, in his book Muntu, the chaconne was originally an Afro-Cuban dance. The chaconne and the sarabande are based on a traditional and primary African rhythm (which is also heard at the beginnings of the 37th, 51st, 77th, 79th, and 100th surahs of the Qur’an). You cannot make Afro-Latin jazz without it; it’s the claves beat (called clave). And it is heard throughout African American music — in the traditional spirituals, the blues, ragtime, jazz, rhythm-and-blues, hip-hop, and others (and therefore in country music and other varieties of white American music, as well). In other words, the rhythm of the chaconne is pervasive in the musical life of our society.

The harmony of the chaconne, which is frequently characteristic of the sarabande, is pervasive in the harmonic system of symphonic music — so pervasive I cannot even begin to discuss it here. This fundamental and inescapable aspect of European symphonic music came from Africa.

The “32 Variations on an Original Theme” by Beethoven are based on the harmonic scheme of the chaconne. The rhythm of the theme is also based on the chaconne.

In addition, Beethoven wrote music based on Russian dances, Italian arias, Turkish marches, and music from other cultures.

The fourth and final movement of Brahms’s fourth symphony is a chaconne. The second theme of the first movement of this same symphony is an habanera (an Afro-Cuban dance).

Throughout the period from Haydn and Mozart, through Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, and beyond, there was a craze for Turkish marches.

So, this is the variety of cultures that we become familiar with when we listen to symphonic music. Allah created this variety of cultures for us to become familiar with. You may notice, in the ayah of the Qur’an quoted above, that Allah associates this with taqwaa (righteous regard for Allah). This is no small thing

Symphonic music benefits us in four aspects of our development:

  1. the physical (especially muscle tone, but also other aspects of our physiology)
  2. the emotional (wide range and subtlety of interacting emotional expressions)
  3. the intellectual (listening to symphonic music increases intellectual strength, acuity, and attention span)
  4. the spiritual (music is spiritual expression by nature; we are not human without it)

Mastering the skill of hearing symphonic music will help us to appreciate the symphonic structure of the Qur’an — which is a fundamental aspect of its benefit to us. This is no trivial aspect of this great blessing from Allah.

Available for presentations/lectures/conversations.

Contact me:

Lester Allyson Knibbs, Ph.D.
lecturer / composer / pianist

History | Music Composition & Theory
serious music for serious times

P.O. Box 661
Pinebluff, NC 28373-0661



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