Music is the language that everyone understands. As an element of culture, music evolved with the development of civilizations. Some of the religious subgroups produced a unique type of music that echoed in the Arabian Peninsula as well as nearby civilizations, such as Andalusia and Persia. This type of music has survived over the centuries. Nowadays, spiritual music is very popular in Egypt, particularly among youth. New trends like the Egyptian Mawlawya are gaining popularity. Concerts are sold out, hundreds of thousands watch religious and spiritual music on YouTube, and most contemporary pop music singers have at least one religious song. The purpose of this research is to understand whether this surge in popularity has depended more on the needs of audiences or the digital media that has made it more accessible. With this in mind, this study poses two questions: Why have spiritual and religious music recently become widely appealing to Egyptian audiences? And, do media play a role in their popularity?
Religious music, represented in singing and chanting performances, in the first decades of Islamic civilization belonged to public festivals and occurred during holidays such as Feasts and the holy month of Ramadan. Dhikr, which is remembrance of God and his Prophet, was performed by groups of brotherhoods and was limited to places which are mosque-like and called Zawya. In other religious occasions, chanting praise of God, his prophets and his family, Ahl al-bayt, madiḥ or ibtihalat, used to be performed on the top of the minaret of the mosque.
Besides the musical performances of the Muslims, Christians in the regions performed religious recitations especially those who lived in greater Syria. Their performance was also praise of the Christ and the Virgin, but the research will focus on the Muslim spiritual music.
One characteristic of religious music of Arabia is that it was open to neighboring cultures. Thus, allowed for exchange and transmission of its musical style and form. It went beyond borders, while integrating other’s musical style into its own culture. The Andalusian music that originated in Spain during early days of the Islamic civilization, was well adopted in Maghrib countries, and later, became a phenomenal trend in Egypt too until the current days. Galal al-Dina al-Rumy, the art of Mawlawya, Persian religious scholar and musician, with the guiding tunes of flutes and chants of praise, the performer whirls in circular moves.
Andalusian and Sufi music as well as Inshad, Dhikr and Ibtihalat have become very appealing type of music in Egypt. Concerts and musical performances witness large number of audience regardless of their religious orientation. Spiritual music, gained media attention; production companies, started to sponsor video clips for religious songs.
Therefore, the research will pose questions throughout the paper such as why spiritual music has become a phenomenon in Egypt, what is the role of media (marketing) in making it so appealing? The aim of this paper is not to present a historical documentation of religious music in Arabia and how it came to Egypt. Yet, the study will give a glimpse of the religious/musical jargons as well as some background information about this genre.
Religious music is the vocal adornment of religious text, whereas, liturgical music is cantillation of the Quran or called Talḥīn.
Spirituality is “the sense of making individual human experience through dimensions of connectedness whether intra-personally (within the self), interpersonally (between others and the environment) or trans-personally (towards God or any superior power). Music can be a mean to achieve such experience.
Andalusian Music is musical traditions that used to be performed in Muslim Spain during the period from the Muslim conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 92 AH/ 711 AD and still present to this day.
Mawlawya is a Sufi art that was introduced by Jalal al Din al Rumi, and flourished in Turkey. The performer whirls in circular movement, while listening to Dhikr or Inshad, and the tunes of flute.
Mawalid are celebrations held at the tombs of the Prophet, his family or Sufi saints.
In an attempt to distinguish between religious spiritual music, liturgical/church, and ritual music, they are identified as “music performed in a particular place and deemed suitable for that context.” Music is associated with religious rites and contain religious or spiritual themes; this is why they are called religious. Spiritual music concerts have fans from different beliefs coming together to enjoy the performed art. It provides audiences with an aesthetic experience that inspires them and transcend from everyday events to an experience of awe and wonder. Therefore, aesthetic and spiritual become interconnected. Even those who are non-religious, become attached to this type of music. Spiritual music itself has become a ritual, but not necessarily connected to particular religion. It was even suggested that it substitutes religious practice and has become part of cultural identity. Spiritual music is not about anything but the mood it puts the audience in. It is argued that spirituality is an effect that people associate with music, but not an inherent attribute of music. To distinguish between religious and spiritual music; religious is institutional, intellectual, communal, exterior, public, and objective. It is concerned with beliefs and a particular lifestyle or pattern. Spiritual, on the other hand, is an affective, subjective, individual, and mystic experience. It is concerned with the inward rather than the outward effects. This is why spirituality may be obtained through the eye or the ear of a person, but sometimes not through traditional religious practices.
In the later 1960s, a music movement on the west coast of California appeared where artists were committed to the biblical message and thought it could be incorporated into art. Although their emergence did not go viral at the beginning, in the late 1970s, companies allowed modest sponsoring and the Christian artists started to gain popularity. Their popularity remained limited compared to the interest in mainstream music. In the late 1990s, gospel music gained more popularity and in 1994 estimates of CD, cassette, and video sales reached 400 million dollars. Since then, researchers directed their attention towards this trend and posed questions about associations between religiosity or ritual practice and the love of religious music. One study, for example, found that adolescents do not pay attention to the lyrics, some of them do not even understand the meaning of the words but simply love the music itself.
Gospel music in America is a multi-layer
construct; it is understood as a network of interconnected rhetorical and signifying practices. Yet, the study of the subject lacks a broad perspective. To be broadly appealing, gospel music borrowed from church hymns, pop, jazz, and classical music. It primarily attracts a middle-aged audience. Performers chant of God’s mercy and salvation, which strengthen the religious identity. Songs have individual meaning to each audience member, providing common experiences particularly during live performances. Therefore, audiences relate to these songs and create personal associations, memories, feelings, and beliefs with the themes.
An example of religious music is sacred music of African Americans that secretly emerged in the church, where slaves in the United States could express themselves without being watched by others. Songs enabled them to enhance communication with one another, overcome calamities, and be wishful for future freedom. Sixty-five men and women were surveyed in this study and reported that they used to participate in daily religious practices. The types of religious songs they performed were Thanksgiving songs, praise, and memory of forefathers. In brief, the study supported that religious music is very effective for emotional healing.
One study conducted by J.B. Hamilton on a sample of African Americans to explore how religious songs are used to manage stress showed that adults resort to religious songs to overcome challenges. Participants also reported feelings of relief, comfort, ability to endure, and self-strength. For their psychological well-being, participants considered religious songs essential besides their main function as a form of religious expression. The songs were described as source of pain relief, elevation of negative mood, and facilitation of finding meaning in suffering. On the other hand, the literature examined in this study, showed that people who go through depression are more likely to overcome their depression when they engage in religious activities. The study selected a population of African Americans as they reported more affiliation to religious activities than white Americans. Religious practices include reading, watching or listening to religious material as well as listening to religious music and meditation.
The decline in the institutional religion and the drop of actively engaged youth between 18 and 34, made them look for alternatives. This encouraged researchers to conduct study on a segment of British society in order to demonstrate alternative spiritual symbols and ideologies into certain forms of popular music. The question of the research is how listening to music generated alternative identities and ideologies. It was noted that the drop in religious participation was not exclusively among Christian British people. It encompassed synagogues and mosques as well. A large percentage of the British sample reported having “no religion”, while there are widely reported “spiritual practices” that are distinct from “religion”. This spirituality took many forms and was exemplified in education, psychotherapy, youth work, mystical, and esoteric experiences and media. Those alternative spiritualties provide social spaces and cultural resources of religion that are beyond the church walls, synagogues, or mosques. Converged media did not only present spiritual practices, but also introduced new spiritual practices and resources that reinforce one’s identity and refined the religious meaning. Robin Sylvan noted that some music genres were classified as spiritual in meaning but without using traditional explicit religious discourse.
Spiritual music is used to manage people’s environment, emotional state, and identity, and it is consumed in places to direct the consumer’s mood, but is there a physical context for the spiritual music to be used as source for spiritual identity? The setting, where this type of music is heard whether in festivals, public places, or in private, is an essential part of the study because it explains whether it is public or individual consumption, or both. To understand the way spiritual music functions as alternative spirituality, the study examined the physiological and psychological effects of consuming it. Ultimately they found that there are some limitations and there is need for data and theories in the field of ethno-musicology.
The songs reflect suffering, failure, and feeling of happiness through a spiritual experience. The spiritual sensation in the songs has an aspect of beauty. They are entertaining; they inspire, uplift, and transform, especially during live performances. In the past two decades, cultural studies of gospel music suggested that it enjoys little interest among people in areas other than the South, where this music genre originated. This is a fallacy, with the music appealing to a wide audience, not exclusively from the South. Actually, it went far beyond geographical borders and attracted fans from different territories.
India has been mostly identified with Indo culture. Muslim music was somewhat ignored or treated as secular. Therefore, Sufi music and Quranic cantillation have rarely been taken into account in the Indian subcontinent. The problem with religious music in India was in defining the term itself; researchers wondered if Muslim music was a valid term. In the Indian context, Muslim music has been dealt with as Hindu art. This made it a fertile ground for research and Islamic theorists attempted to find a definition for Muslim music. They called it recitation or chanting to avoid theological controversy around its permissibility or prohibition in Islamic traditions. It is a private type that is distinguished from secular music. Furthermore, they differentiated between two types of Muslim music; liturgical and non-liturgical. The first one includes Talhīn or cantillation of the Quran. The second one is divided into three categories: Shi‘a majlis, Sufi or mystic, and Milad or birth celebration. These are commemorational music for figures like the Prophet, imams, and Sufi saints.
Music of the Muslim Arabs started by the religious holidays such as feasts, celebration of the month of Mūharām, the birth of the Prophet Mūhammad or the holy month of Ramadan. Mosques used to be decorated, groups of believers climb the minaret and sing in praise of God and his Prophet. Christian Arabs of the greater Syria, (Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq) also used to sing and play instruments to celebrate Christ and the Virgin Mary during Easter and Feasts. In the 19th century, Arabs were under the Ottoman Empire, which encompassed various subcultures and different religious groups. Arabs exchanged musical styles, texts, forms, and songs with Jews, Kurds, Druses, Armenians, and Syrians. The instruments were not commonly used with songs, but cymbals, hand or barrel drums were more common, and this genre of music was called Dhikr, Qasidah, or Madih in order to avoid the religious debate over the permissibility of music. Andalusian music started to emerge in the ninth century and originally came from the Eastern peninsula in Baghdad, then it settled in the Western peninsula, al-Maghrib in Cordoba and Andalusia, which were the cultural centers at the time. Music schools were established and called Nawbah or Naubah.
Rai music is a special type that appeared in the Maghrib especially in Algeria and Morocco. This genre of music passed to Europe from France and has become very popular especially among immigrants. Rai singers used religious songs and themes to legitimize their music. Regardless of the singers’ religiosity and piety, Islam is part of their identity and this is reflected through their music. The singers “Islamized” Rai by invoking God's name, praising his Prophet, and his awlya or saints. One famous example is the song Abdel Qader for the well-known singer in Arabia and France, Cheb Khaled. In this song, Cheb Khaled calls the Sufi saint Abdel Qader to ease his suffering. The song is spiritual, talks about elements of love, and nostalgia for the homeland.
Other Madīh songs have lyrics that seek God’s forgiveness, the intercession of the Prophet, and the people of his house. Those songs combined the Maghribi identity, Islamism, and secular musical realm. Religious Rai was not exclusively introduced in Algeria; it appeared in Morocco too. The Moroccan Rai combined religious lyrics and throbbing modern beat. An example for this type is the Prophéte song performed by Rabi Youmni. Rabi’s songs introduced Islamic concepts and practices in a melodic mood. In her research about Islam and Rai, Angelica DeAngelis, suggested that singers and consumers of music do not distinguish between religious, secular, or Rai music. Rai connected the cultural and Islamic roots, and presented them in an enjoyable musical style in the Mediterranean, French, Arab, and Islamic world.
This study employs “Uses and Gratification” theory as a reference in order to understand why people choose to listen to spiritual and religious music and what it satisfies in them.
In-depth interviews with experts in the three fields are involved in the premise of the study; religion, music, and media, have been conducted, in addition to a review of the existing literature. Case studies are also presented to provide examples of contemporary religious and spiritual performers.
Why has religious and spiritual music recently become widely appealing to Egyptian audiences?
Is media the main reason behind the popularity of spiritual and religious music?
Are audience needs, such as escape and spirituality, the reasons behind the popularity of religious and spiritual music
Primary Sources – Interviewed experts and practitioners
- Mohamed Tharwat, Egyptian Singer and Munshid.
- Eslam Abdulraouf, Mass Media Assistant Professor at Al Azhar University.
- Zain Mahmoud, Munshid.
- Mohamed Serag, Islamic Studies Assistant Professor at AUC.
- Amer Eltouny, Mawlawya performer and singer.
- Adel Hamdan, Leader of Rifaʽī Tariqa in Upper Egypt
- Islam Mahmoud, Munshid and Singer
- Ahmed Hassan, Supervisor of Projects Unit, Bibliotheca Alexandria-Bayt Al Sinnari
The first question, which is why has religious and spiritual music recently become widely appealing to Egyptian audiences, found answer in both literature and primary sources as this music presented a unique mood to the audience, alternative to the mainstream and aesthetic experience.
The second question, which is media is the main reason behind the popularity of spiritual and religious music, did not find support in this study. Most data showed that media is a contributing factor to the success of religious and spiritual music, but not the main factor.
The third question was supported by both primary and secondary sources. Audience needs such as escape from problems or material life and spirituality are the reasons behind the popularity of religious and spiritual music.
Contemporary religious and spiritual music in Egypt
“Everything in this cosmos praises the Lord.” Many traditional Egyptian musical instruments are made from goatskin, horse hair, or coconut. This is much like the Islamic art and architecture that stimulates nature, flowers, and animal in aesthetic architecture. Music is much like praying and it is needed for self-refreshment. Time passages theory, which suggested that music can transport a person in time to the past or future, inspired physicians to use music in curing diseases. God is the First Master, who taught people aestheticism through the tweets of the birds, the sound of the air and wind. Life is dependent on the soul; music transcends it to connect with its creator.
Since the beginning of Islam, music has been part of the religion. The moment the Prophet Mūammād arrived to Mādina, that later became the center of Islamic rule, he was received and welcomed by the dwellers with a song called talaʽa al-badrū ‘alīna. Songs and instruments were played during wars to enthuse warriors against enemies. On the other hand, music represented elegance. The most recognized and notable Muslim scholars were contributors to music. For example, Zeryab was not only a contributor to music, but he also presented another type of art along with music, which nowadays could be called “etiquette” or the art of social behavior. He illustrated how a person should eat, drink, and treat people in a dignified manner. Kindī and Farabī, who were great philosophers, wrote music and developed instruments. Farabī had a nice voice and sang in general celebrations. Ikhwan al-Sāfa, a group of Muslim philosophers, as well as Ibn Hazm, who was a very conservative faqīh religious scholar, contributed to music through his romantic poem Tawq al-Yamama, where he said beautiful songs ignite the flame of passion. Music even became an integral part of Sufi rituals. Ultimately, there is no conflict between Islam and music in principle.
Yet, religious debate around the permissibility or prohibition of music has been a major issue in Islamic scholarship. It is hard to put an end to these disputes because there is no clear-cut text in the Quran addressing this issue, and there are many interpretations, each with their own supporting evidence. This is why, it is up to the listener to decide.
Most of the experts interviewed for this study defined religious and spiritual music in a very similar way. Religious music includes the use of several instruments and melodies, while Tawashih and Dhikr require special musical and vocal abilities. The lyrics include remembrance of God, sending supplications, asking for forgiveness or praising the Prophet. It is distinguished from songs that mention rituals or physical places of worship. Examples of religious singers are Mohamed El Kahlawyy, who passed away recently, Hamza Namira, Maher Zain, and Sami Yusuf. Maher Zain and Sami Yusuf are not Egyptians, but they are well known in Egypt and have had several concerts. Classical singers such as Abdel Halim and Om Kalthom also had some religious songs. Mohamed Omran and Ali Mahmoud are both known for Tawasheeh and Adhkar. Taha al-Fishni, Naqshabandi, Nasr Tubar, and Yasin al Tuhamy are prominent Munshids. In contrast, Eslam Abdulraouf, Media Professor at Al-Azhar University, suggests that there is nothing called “religious music”. Rather, there is music with lyrics and themes associated with religion. In that sense, songs are made to be suitable for the holiness of words.
Sufi and spiritual songs, on the other hand, are distinguished types of music. The lyrics are composed of poetry of significant mystics in Islamic history such as al-Halaj and Ibn al-Farid. Sufi songs are different from supplications Ibtihalat and religious songs and they transport listeners to a state of ecstasy.
The uses and gratification theory explains that audience actively use media for a goal-directed purpose to gratify specific needs, the proposed hypothesis in this research is that people resort to religious and spiritual music to escape from the material world, for the spiritual atmosphere, and self-transcendence through their aesthetic and esoteric experience. Spiritual and Sufi songs are presented in a very attractive way that is different from mainstream music. This is why Sufism is accepted and well-respected.
According to Mohamed Tharwat, a well-known Egyptian singer and munshid, remembrance has its echo on the human soul; it fills the body and the soul and gives serenity. He added, “Even on the psychological level, people [will] be in a better mood when they listen to this type of music, regardless of their belief.” Munshids appeal to those following rhyming or synchronizing consistency with remembrance. In an interview with one of the leaders of the Sufi order in Qena, Adel Hamdan mentioned that in his village, Inshad is quite common. It is performed during weddings, the celebration of newborns, or in celebration of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. Usually they perform seven to eight times a month. Youth sometimes organize inshad nights. He stressed that “everyone understands and interprets spiritual music the way s/he wants; they would understand the concept of love in the music as love for a lover, love of the Lord, love of the prophet, or love of friend, and this is why audiences are not only Muslims.”
Through listening, spiritual and religious music audiences find a way out of the materialism that dominates their daily life. People are hungry for meaningful art and fresh voices. They seek tranquility and find linkage with religion for its purity and elegance. Due to its popularity, singers leaned toward offering religious songs and nashid along with other music they present. Religious music is attractive for its holiness and spiritual appeal. In general, it is one type of art that is not strictly attributed to specific religions or a category of audience. Rather, it is attributed to aestheticism and personal taste, and this is why it enjoys such popularity. 
Below, five examples will be presented that exemplify current religious and Sufi music in Egypt. The first is Egyptian singer Mohamed Tharwat, who used to present romantic songs, patriotic songs, songs for children, and religious songs. His audience is diverse, with both younger and older generations enjoying his music. Egyptians are used to his performance especially during the celebration of the birth of the Prophet or the Islamic New Year in the Opera house. Additionally, he performs inshad in mawalid, ever since he was young. In addition to his activities in Egypt, he also participated in an international festival for sacred music in Fes in Morocco.
Describing the nature of his music he said, “I present music that has a message and meaning and this is why it reaches people.” People resort to religious music to escape from problems they encounter. Spiritual music is deeply rooted almost in every country in the world, and In Egypt, mawalid are one example of religious songs; from which Ibtihal, Irtijal, and Madh appeared. They are all part of Muslims’ heritage that reflect individuals’ relation with religion. Believing in the messages and popularity of spiritual music, Tharwat suggested to the state to organize an international festival for spiritual music in Tur Sinai; the location where Moses, on the top of the mountain, spoke to his Lord. This will be an excellent opportunity to present religious music of Egypt in spiritual place; and at the same time benefit from the economic and cultural value of the event.
Tharwat believes that media has not been the main reason behind the popularity of religious and spiritual music. The legacy of religious music indicates that this art has enjoyed popularity since it first appeared, with and without the presence of media. Media are simply a means of presenting existing content dominating the scene, with the exception of times that the media is used as a tool for advocacy or introducing something “new” to the audience.
The second example is the Mūnshid Zain Mahmoud, who was born in a village in the governorate of Minya and learned al-Sīra al-Hilalyah. Zain settled in France for years and established an art school that teaches oriental music, Inshad, and Dhikr. He came back to Egypt with the dream to revive and preserve the folkloric heritage of Sira Hilalyah. He established an art school in Sayeda Zainab neighborhood and will inaugurate another one in Luxor. Much like his students in France, who were mostly youth, most of his Egyptian students are youth. Some well-known Egyptian actresses like Mona Zaki are also fans of his music and attend Dhikr sessions.
Attendees come to dhikr sessions, dedicating two hours for God to purify their souls and renew their energy. His regular students are usually 20-25 years old. They find inner peace and self-rest in spiritual gatherings because as he put it: “The true message of Islam is built on peace and tolerance.” Zain and his band are completely self-sufficient. In other words, they do not rely on sponsorship and were successfully able to cover the required expenses to keep their music sustained. He participated in a spiritual music festival in the desert. He also participates in other places like Beit Al Sinnar and Al Rab’. Zain believes that mass media adopts “what is already there and what already gained popularity,” so they are not the reason behind the popularity of spiritual music.
The third example is Amer Eltouny, who graduated from the School of Education with a specialty in Arabic Language in Minya, and worked for several years as an Arabic language teacher. He moved to Greece and spent six years there where he became attracted to their music, which he found to be very close to oriental music. Soon after, he changed his career and shifted to music merging Arabic lyrics with Greek melodies. When he came back to Egypt, he established a film production company that did not last long. He joined the Arts Academy and specialized in Theatrical Criticism for an MA, and as he excelled in this branch of knowledge, his Ph.D dissertation was on the symbolic art performance of Mawlawya.
His music is admired by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Amer said, “the appeal here is for the soul; so if the person is Christian, Muslim, or disbeliever, still his soul gets attached to [the] message.” This is why his music is admired in foreign countries like India, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain. He usually has 10 concerts annually, and five concerts during Ramadan. Foreign audiences often start to ask questions about Sufism, Islam, and Muslims after performances.
Similar to Zain Mahmoud, Eltouny and his band depend on the revenue from concerts in Europe to cover expenses. They do not heavily rely on sponsorship in Egypt. Moreover, the Ministry of Culture provides public theatres free of charge. Eltouny said he manages his social media accounts to be in direct touch with his fans and personally runs his business. He stated that thanks to media, especially electronic media, they have a large audience in Egypt.
The fourth example is Islam Mahmoud, who started as singer with Sama’ band in 2011 and travelled to represent Egypt abroad. When he was in the band, they used to perform spiritual music in Al Ghorya, a cultural gathering place, and the citadel. In addition to the international festivals, the band has arranged local festivals. Mahmoud said that inshad requires special vocal abilities and this is why audiences find very good voices in religious singing. He believes that media is one of several factors that have contributed to the success of spiritual music.
The fifth and final example is Bayt Al Sinnari, which has used social media tools to publicize for its activities since 2010. After the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, it started to use social media heavily to attract audiences and passionate students to its events, courses, workshops, and cultural and musical events. Eventually the number of followers on the Bayt Al Sinnari official Facebook page exceeded the number of followers of Bibliotheca Alexandria’s. The target audience of the page is mainly young generation, but also older people, children, or parents.
Monthly, the location hosts at least one concert in addition to workshops. They offer Inshad, Sufi music, and Mawlaya workshops. Ahmed Hassan, Projects Unit Supervisor at Bayt Al Sinnari, said that audiences become attached to this type of art because of the spiritual atmosphere. Tickets for the concerts are often sold out, and workshops led by munshids are filled quickly.
In conclusion, spiritual and religious music has attracted large audiences in Egypt because of its spiritual appeal and alternative ambiance contrasting mainstream music. People also turn to this type of music to transcend their daily problems, as a spiritual escape. Religious and spiritual music are unique and listening to religious music does not require someone to be religious. This was supported throughout the study not only via the literature in the example of the British attraction towards spiritual practices and spiritual awareness, but also through the primary data collected from the experts interviewed who stated that fans of both spiritual and religious music can be of any belief or even non-religion. If this reflects any quality, it indicates the universality and popularity of this music genre. Importantly, this raises more questions about the uses and gratification of this music genre in uniting people, substituting religious practices, and emotional healing. Yet, those questions need to be meticulously answered in relation to audience characteristics, medium characteristics, and effects. This will open the door for further research within both Islamic and media studies.
There is no doubt that media have contributed to the popularity of this art, but it is not ultimately the main reason behind its broad appeal. Based on the uses and gratification theory and the data collected, audiences have inherent needs that are met by this music. After scanning the modern Egyptian religious, Sufi, and spiritual case studies, it can be concluded that the pioneers and experts in this field have a unanimous agreement regarding the role of media in popularizing this music. Inshad, Mawlawya, Ibtihal, Dhikr gatherings, and the different forms of religious and spiritual music gained momentum, but not only due to media as they have long been in the Egyptian and the Islamic scene.