15th century poem reimagined in 21st century Andalusia

Classic Persian Poem sung in English, Arabic and Farsi to Celtic tunes

Abdal Hakim Murad returns to Andalusia with his Alborán ensemble to join Ali Keeler and Abdallateef Whiteman in Órgiva for their latest recording session.

by Bob Shingleton

“If the featured album was pitched as the world premiere recording of a newly discovered 16th century Celtic a capella setting of the liturgy uncovered in a remote Calvinist church on the Isle of Lewis it would, doubtless, attract attention. But as Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ is a contemporary setting of excerpts from the 14th century Islamic dhikr – litany – by Husayn Vayiz Kashifi of Herat in Afghanistan sung in English, Arabic and Farsi to Celtic tunes in Irish, Manx and Scottish modes, it has been consigned to the lost baggage area where it is waiting to be reclaimed.

At a time when bridges between the Muslim world and the West are urgently needed the neglect of this bridge-building project is unfortunate but predictable. On the album the illahis – sacred songs of praise – are sung in nasheed style reflecting a tradition shared with Calvinism of minimal instrumental accompaniment, and the settings for five male voices use only judicious percussion – daf – as accompaniment. Sacred Muslim texts in the vernacular set to Celtic tunes are noteworthy enough, but the musicians involved are also worthy of note*.

“let’s put on record that Timothy Winter considers the views of Muslim extremists as religiously illegitimate, inauthentic and contrary to the classical canons of Islamic law and theology.”

One of the singers is Abdal Hakim Murad (Timothy Winter) who also made the translations and music settings. He is a British Muslim scholar, Dean of the Cambridge Muslim College and Shaykh Zayed Lecturer in Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, and has been acclaimed as Britain’s most influential Muslim. And to lighten the baggage, let’s put on record that Timothy Winter considers the views of Muslim extremists as religiously illegitimate, inauthentic and contrary to the classical canons of Islamic law and theology. He unequivocally rejects suicide bombing and considers the killing of noncombatants as unacceptable in any circumstances. Abdal Hakim/Timothy Winter has been working for many years to bridge the cultural gap between Arab, Persian and Turkish poetry and British musical traditions and sensibilities, and all proceeds from the sale of Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ go towards the Cambridge new mosque project.

Another of the singers on Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ is the British Muslim Ali Keeler. He is the classically-trained violinist who is making waves with his Al Firdaus Ensemble which plays a unique style of contemporary Al-Andalusian Sufi music with a Celtic twist. As recounted in my interview with him, Ali studied tajwid – the art of Qur’an recitation – in Syria and his contribution to the new album includes three exquisite Qur’an recitations.

The distinctive album artwork is the work of Abdallateef who also sings on the album. Abdallateef is better known as Ian Whiteman under which moniker he was multi-instrumentalist for the cult psychedelic folk rock band Mighty Baby in the late 1960s. Ian Whiteman was part of the Bristol Gardens/Wood Dalling Sufi zawiya that I wrote about in a recent post, as was Fairport Convention co-founder Richard Thompson. On Richard and Linda Thompson’s classic Sufi-inspired 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver Ian Whiteman plays flute and shakuhachi in the backing band and as Abdallateef designed the album’s very striking artwork. After making two increasingly Sufi-oriented albums with Mighty Baby Ian went on to form The Habibiyya, an ensemble which produced the forgotten but inspired 1972 album If Man But Knew. The Habibiyya along with Codona and Oregon were pioneers of a music without borders genre that was eventually misleadingly labelled as ‘world music’. Since converting to Islam Abdallateef Whiteman has established a considerable reputation in the Muslim world as a graphic designer. An illuminating interview with him can be read via this link, and the graphic above was created by Ian for a thoughtful article on his blog about the misguided fashion for amplifying all genres of music.

In the halycon years before the advent of dumbingdown BBC Radio 3 broadcast a series called The Innocent Ear which was presented by that polymath Robert Simpson. In his biography of Edmund Rubbra (whose First Symphony was performed on The Innocent Ear) Leo Black describes how the programme “… identified its constituent works only after they had been heard, so freeing the listener’s mind of preconceptions”. Rawdat al-Shuhuda’ demands to be listened to in exactly that way. In the video below one of the one of the illahis can be heard starting at 4’35”. Please check all your baggage at the gate and listen with innocent ears.”

excerpt from “This new album demands innocent ears”, by Bob Shingleton, published May 2017 on his overgrown path site.

The Andalusi Books of Filāḥa

The Legacy of Andalusi Agriculture

While agriculture improved and expanded throughout the Muslim lands, it was in Al-Andalus that it reached its apogee. In the opinion of Scott in his History of the Moorish Empire in Europe the agricultural system of Moorish Andalusia was “the most complex, the most scientific, the most perfect, ever devised by the ingenuity of man”14. Superlatives aside, it surely marks one of the high points in world agricultural history, supporting a 10th century population of about 10 million15 as well as major exporting sugar-refining and textile industries, the latter based on the fibre crops cotton, flax and hemp and dye-plants including indigo, henna, madder and wo
ad. The extraordinarily bio-diverse agro-ecosystem of Al-Andalus was composed of cultivated lands – a mosaic of tree crops, huerto or market-garden crops, and field crops, both irrigated and rain-fed – permanent meadows and pasture lands, and commons with rights of usage by local inhabitants. The range of crops available to the medieval Andalusi farmer was extensive. Towards the end of the 11th century Ibn Baṣṣāl mentions more than 180 cultivated crops and plants, and at the end of the 12th century Ibn al-‘Awwām notes 585 different species and cultivars, though not all of these would have been cultivated. It is worth listing the most important of these:

Tree crops included olives, vines, almonds, carobs, figs, peaches, apricots, apples, pears, medlars, quinces, chestnuts, walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, hawthorns, date palms, lemons, citrons, sour oranges, jujubes, nettle trees and mulberry trees, as well as holm-oaks, arbutus and myrtles.

Kitchen gardens grew lettuces, carrots, radishes, cabbages, cauliflowers, melons, cucumbers, spinach, leeks, onions, aubergines, kidney beans, cardoons, artichokes, purslane and numerous aromatic plants such as basil, cress, caraway, saffron, cumin, capers, mustard, marjoram, fennel, melissa, lemon verbena and thyme.

Fields of cereals and pulses were sown with wheat, barley, rice, millet and spelt among the former, and broad beans, kidney beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, vetch, lupine and fenugreek among the latter; sugar-cane was grown on the coast of Almuñécar and Vélez-Málaga; fibre plants included flax, Asian cotton and hemp; dye plants included safflower, madder, henna, woad and saffron, and sumac was grown for tanning; wild species such as esparto, osier and oil-palm were harvested; numerous ornamental species were planted in gardens and an enormous number of medicinal herbs were also employed16.

It was here too in Al-Andalus that an important development in Islamic agriculture took root and flourished in the form of an Arabic literary genre – the Books of Filāḥa – which attempted to synthesize the accumulated knowledge and theories of the past with practical husbandry on the ground, thereby systematizing a new science of agriculture. The Books of Filāḥa are scattered in hundreds of manuscripts, many of a miscellaneous character and frequently mis-catalogued, in dozens of libraries across the world, and it is only relatively recently that these texts and their authors have been established with reasonable certainty. Nevertheless many questions remain and there is still much work to be done on the corpus of Arabic agricultural literature in general.

excerpt from the Filaha Text Project 

Andalusi Calligraphy


A Beginners Guide to Andalusi Calligraphy. Filmed in and around Orgiva and al-Andalus, this is the untold story of the only European calligraphic script used to write the Quran. Almost extinct, yet it was once a part of the most extraordinary cultural flourishing of the Middle Ages. Trace its journey from Madinah to its pinnacle in Al-Andalus, Spain where we see the rich context in which it evolved.

Directed and produced by Zakariyya Whiteman