Our Music Our Selves

Commentaries, 23 Rabee`ul-Aakhar (February 12, 2015) — al-Mursalaat (again) // Suggested Listening: More Overtures

Posted in Miscellaneous Essays by Lester Knibbs on the February 12th, 2015

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

As-Salaam alaikum! Peace!

I bear witness that there is nothing and no one
worthy of our devotion and service except Allah,

and I bear witness that Muhammad
is the servant and the messenger of Allah.

Our Music Our Selves is an exploration of the symphonic structure and message of the Qur’an and an exploration of the symphonic structure and message of our serious music, and of the role of both in shaping our human history and identity.

What is the message of the Qur’an?

According to Canadian journalist Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980):

The medium is the message


Symphonic Qur’an:

077 al-Mursalaat

Soorat-al-Mursalaat — the 77th soorah (chapter) of the Qur’an — displays two of the three essential characteristics of ancient, traditional and modern African music and of African-American music: riff, and refrain.

This soorah opens – after “bismil-Laah-ir-Rahmaan -ir-Raheem– with five aayaat (verses) in an ancient rhythmic pattern — a riff — fundamental to African and African American music. I call it the chaconne (after its Afro-Cuban form, which was carried to Europe, where it became a musical form and a fundamental aspect of symphonic music).

The refrain (the repeated passage) in this soorah is one ayat (one verse) — “Wailun yauma-‘idhin lil-mukadhdhibeen” — repeated as the 15th, 19th, 24th, 28th, 34th, 37th, 40th, 45th, 47th, and 49th aayaat.

The third essential characteristic is response — often called “call-and-response” — which is found elsewhere in the Qur’an. These three chacteristics — RIFF, RESPONSE, and REFRAIN — found both in the Qur’an and in traditional African and African-American music, are also fundamental methods of education.

These are the most effective methods of learning. And there they are, in the Qur’an. Allah knows best, doesn’t he?

I call on my fellow Muslims to read/recite the Qur’an (which is in Arabic and only in Arabic) regularly and often.


Symphonic Listening — More Overtures

I don’t know how or why I overlooked the following overtures in the previous blog, but with the exception of Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman, they are every bit as excellent and exciting as the others. (I am particularly fond of the opening theme of the Flying Dutchman overture. It was used for a TV show — Captain Video and His Video Rangers — which I remember loving, but cannot for the life of me remember anything of its content. This overture, however, is not one of Wagner’s best works. Still, you might enjoy the whole thing more than I do.) (Click on the duration for the YouTube performance.)


I continue to suggest that you listen to at least one symphony every week. The later symphonies of Haydn and Mozart, any of the Beethoven and Brahms symphonies, Schubert’s eighth or ninth, Mendelssohn’s third or fourth, Tchaikovsky’s fourth, fifth or sixth, Borodin’s second, or Franck’s only symphony. There are others we might suggest. If you are ambitious, you might listen to Mahler’s second, fifth or sixth. Dvorak’s seventh, eighth and ninth are also excellent.


I also suggest that most of us become familiar with one or two symphonies in particular, so that they becomes a sort of common currency. I suggest, first and foremost, Beethoven’s fifth symphony — perhaps the most famous symphony ever composed. The first movement is fairly compact, for a symphonic movement, and exciting. If you are not familiar with listening to symphonic music, this might be a good start. Dvorak’s ninth symphony (“From the New World”) is another symphony that we all might become familiar with — especially since it is influenced by African American themes.

Good listening!


Dear Brothers and Sisters, please check out my other blogs from time to time. They are:

Doctor Hakeem: African-American Commentaries


Word-to-Word: A Comparative Study of the Bible and the Qur’an


Take it easy.

As-Salaamu alaikum! Peace!

Brother Lester

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