A Dip in the Ocean: the Complete Recordings – Now on Spotify.

In the summer months myself, like many who work independently, have down time when clients go on holiday and not much happens. Which is why it’s when I trawl through my files looking for uncompleted projects to work on and breathe new life into. The first of those to meet the light of day this summer of 2019 is a recording I made in 2001, three weeks before 9/11, at a small gathering in the coastal town of Laraiche on the Atlantic coast of Morocco just south of Tangiers. An old Moroccan friend of mine from Laraiche, Sidi Mustafa Mesamri, wanted to hold a gathering of the best singers and musicians he could muster for no other reason than love of the great Andalusian tradition still very much alive in Morocco. It brought together principally the Andalusian Orchestra of Tetouan and the Fes Singers as well as many individuals from Tangiers, Khenifra and other cities in Morocco. As well as many guests from Britain, Spain and America.
Our recording (assisted by Peter Sanders) was in two segments. The longest segment was released on a 2CD set in 2002 by Ihya records in Canada and had a limited distribution in North America and Europe. The first segment, which preceded the main recording was before the Fes Singers had arrived. It needed careful editing but after 18 years is now made available on this release. It is now on Spotify and soon on Itunes.

Being pre 9/11 lends the recording a kind of innocence of what was to come and because of its spontaneity and an unplanned location (the house we were staying in) avoided the use of loud PA amplification which now makes live recording in Morocco almost impossible. It is also a wonderful example of how the Moroccans from different cities and often with slightly varying traditions can all fit seamlessly together with no rehearsal and produce ecstatic classical music and singing in this ancient tradition.

Posted in typography / design | Leave a comment

Moussem 1974 Meknes

It’s 1974 and the great Moussem is happening in Meknes a week after the actual Mawlid celebrations have taken place throughout Morocco. It is in the zawiyya and now the final resting place of Muhammad ibn Al Habib, may Allah be pleased with him. He had passed away two years previously on his way to Haj in what was possibly his 102nd year. Many of his followers – his fuqara – had arrived from all over Morocco, desert dwellers dressed in white and city dwellers in fine jellabas and silhams. Also a large contingent of Algerians had arrived in an old grey Citroen van and other cars traveling also from the desert in the south of Algeria and from cities in the north like Oran and Boufariq. Ibn al Habib had died in Bleda in western Algeria near the coast, but was brought back to Meknes to be buried which was his wish I believe. A large contingent of new fuqara had also arrived from England. A mixture of English, Americans, Iranian as well as other nationalities. All immersed in this great gathering.

Uploaded now to this blog is a recording I made of this Moussem which I made on a not very professional cassette player. It’s not a great recording and the tape congeals in places but it’s listenable and more important it is unique – you won’t hear this anywhere else. This is a Morocco which has largely disappeared now although these celebrations continue in Morocco to this day. Nowadays it is all smaller and with the unavoidable blasting PA system, set to extreme reverb! This was the last time a contingent was to arrive from Algeria as the border was closed the following year because of a war in the Western Desert. Some of the singing on this recording is uniquely Algerian, tunes and qasidas only sung in Algeria. But seamlessly included. Also the instantly recognisable voice of Si Fudul Al Huwari can be heard conducting the Mawlid itself. Occasionally nearer the microphone is the bull-like voice of Moulay Qudur from Taza who was singing along and who encouraged me to sing so much that I lost my voice. This is only an hour or so of the event which went on all day interspersed with the prayers and large meals of couscous set out on low tables. It was at one of these tables that two old faqirs said to us that we will eat this meal again one day. I can only hope.

I’ve add the recordings here but I will add them to my audio files page on the home page of this blog.

MOUSSEM 1974 project part 1

MOUSSEM 1974 project part 2

Posted in typography / design | Leave a comment

Cleary with Arabic

CLEARY p281•

Above: A sample page from the forthcoming English Qur’an translation by Thomas Cleary with parallel Arabic.

About a year ago I reached blog saturation level which means I simply ran out of ideas to blog. My lightweight involvement with narcissagram probably diverted my energies elsewhere. Other factors meant I had no time to write. But I have had time to reflect on many things from architecture to music and all points between. One of the most interesting projects which arrived out of the blue was a fresh publication of Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Qur’an for a client in, of all places, Kabul, which now has a thriving community of young entrepreneurs who have decided business is a better option than the bloodthirsty pursuits of some of its older generation.

I had designed a first printing of Cleary’s English translation around 2002 for Starlatch (in a record 3 weeks) but it was now out of print. The project was to put together a new version with parallel Arabic text. No mean task and it meant inventing novel ways of marshalling the text onto the pages without interfering with the Arabic which could not be touched. It hasn’t been published yet but I include a typical page here to give a foretaste of it. This Ramadan I have been carefully reading it on an Ipad partly to absorb Cleary’s unique translation, which I love by the way, with the Arabic close at hand for reference, and partly to spot any little typos which may have slipped in. It’s like reading the book fresh for the first time. I’ll keep this blog posted on its progress.

Cambridge mosqueC A M B R I D G E   C E N T R A L   M O S Q U E

The other major event over this last year was the opening of the new £23 million Cambridge mosque. I’ve followed this with interest since the year 2000 when Dr Abdal Hakim Murad aka Tim Winter first toyed with the idea of, at that time, a madrassa in Cambridge for which I was asked to come up with some designs. The brief : Anglo-Ottoman! Nothing came of this idea as land was notoriously difficult to find in Cambridge. In the end the madrassa idea became the Cambridge Muslim College which is celebrating it’s 10th anniversary this year. The Mosque idea persisted however and in 2009 Tim Winter had an option on some land in the middle of Cambridge for a mosque which he managed to purchase with a loan from a Lebanese bank to beat the property developers all waiting ready to pounce with deep pockets. By this time I was firmly located in Andalusia but Tim asked me to come up with a design (also to be Anglo-Ottoman) for a thousand worshipper mosque on his purchased site with underground car park. I was given three weeks and it had to be fully costed. I’ll expand on this in a future post as it is quite a long story but the drawings managed to help raise the necessary funds to pay off the loan (of several million). After I’ve actually visited the new building later this year I’ll go into this in more detail and give a review deo volente.


Posted in typography / design | 2 Comments

The Enigma of Language


Forthcoming issue 4 of Renovatio

Published in Berkeley CA. Designed in Orgiva, Spain.

A paradox at the root of the question “What is language?” is that the answer will be expressed in language. Is language merely speech? Is it thought, or an expression of thought? In modern intellectual life, these are unsettled questions.

What other word today so escapes a consensus definition, yet is made to carry so much conceptual weight? Everything, from computers to genes, has “a language.” Rationality and language have become almost interchangeable, and to understand something means to understand its language. But if language is a new axis around which we organize philosophical questions about our world—superseding being, and then knowledge—what are the implications of remaining uncertain about the relationship between language and reality?

In the believer’s view, the free and virtually limitless nature of human language remains the stubborn holdout to the concept of the world as a machine without spirit. Also, in the tradition of Abrahamic faiths, the three language arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric have always ultimately represented a spiritual nature because they enable the mind to conceptualize quality from quantity.

Can the persistent enigma of language, perhaps, help us discover the path back to a more settled intellectual culture, wherein we can begin to once again place our trust in both words and things?

Available shortly.

To purchase contact Zaytuna College Bookshop


Posted in typography / design | Leave a comment

Letters on the Spiritual Path

We’re pleased to announce that a new translation of the Letters of Moulay Al-Arabi Darqawi has been scheduled for release this coming May. The following blurb by the translators, which will accompany its release, is self explanatory and hints at the importance of this new and complete edition as published by al-Madina Institute.

Letters on the Spiritual Path 

Mūlay al-ʿArabī al-Darqāwī (d. 1239/1823)
Translated and annotated by Mohamed Fouad Aresmouk and Michael Abdurrahman Fitzgerald 356 pp.

Around the year 1182/1769, shortly after Mūlay al-ʿArabī al-Darqāwī’ had received the litany and invocations of the way, his shaykh, Sidi ʿAlī al-Jamal, said to him, “Whenever a spiritual insight comes to you, be quick to write it down before it escapes, because it comes to you first as huge as a mountain, and if you are quick to write it down, you will seize it as came to you. But if you hesitate, it will return like a camel, and if you hesitate again, it will return like a swallow, and if you hesitate again, it will escape you altogether.” Later, when the young disciple became a master in his own right, his record of those initial insights were put into the form of letters that he would share with his own students throughout the mountainous Jbālī region of northeastern Morocco, adding to them and expanding upon them over the period of fifty years during which he called people to God. Eventually, the letters themselves would be assembled by students and representatives among the tens of thousands who had entered the ṭarīqa by the time Mūlay al-ʿArabī passed away, and hand-made copies of the collection were kept and regularly read in the scores of zawiyas of the Darqāwi order in both Morocco and abroad. 

These letters include teachings which cover nearly every conceivable aspect of spiritual practice, conduct, and doctrine. They are also the personal record of a man in search of a life in God, confronting the both the mountains and valleys of that path, as well as living with and participating in the lives of the people around him.  From an even broader perspective, they are also a picture of Islam in late 12th/18th century Morocco, a land that was in the process of becoming a nation, seeking to deal with factionalism and political unrest from within and an influx of foreign ideas from without, including the teachings of the Wahhabī movement in Arabia which had just begun to preach its point of view to other Arabic-speaking countries.   

Letters on the Spiritual Path is the first complete translation into any western language of all 272 of these letters. Besides a meticulously researched translation based on both manuscript and printed editions of the letters in Arabic it includes an introduction to the times and place they were first taught and a summary of their main theme, as well as abundant footnotes on the contents, a biographical index to nearly all the persons mentioned, and a general index of terms, places, and books. 

One point of interest is in the image on the cover (above) which is of part of letter 271, an important letter ignored in other earlier editions. The authors are 99% certain this is in the actual handwriting of the shaykh. The letter was discovered on a journey to the Sahara in 2008. Within the book the whole page will reproduced full frame.

This book is now available from Mecca Books


Posted in beauty, calligraphy, language, miscellaneous, Publishing, religion, sacred knowledge, Sacrilege, tassawuf, tradition, typography / design | 7 Comments

The Problem of Ornamentation

 After all, what is beauty?
[Looking through old drafts of blog posts I found this one. Not perfect and a bit of a rant but it has some good bits in it.]
When looking at Muslim prayer apps the other day I couldn’t find one which was just data, functionally and simply displayed. All of them to different degrees were lathered with trefoils, embellishments, horseshoe arches and geometrical borders etc., made much worse by a tsunami of harsh colours and graphic effects. I can’t bring myself to reproduce any example here. From one view this doesn’t really matter much when put beside some of the big issues of this time. But it is symptomatic of a malaise which has infested our lives which is how modernity has strangled tradition and which has filtered into the creation and the design of many types of things and made a nonsense of it all and idiots of all of us. It’s become a cut and paste effects culture and I don’t see quite where it will end except into some kind of chaotic soup.
    The Arabic speaking world (and elsewhere of course) has allowed itself to be strangled by modernism. Possibly because modernism came late to much of it so their cultures became utterly enamoured of it. Such is my horror of most of what I see emanating from the modern Arab universe, be it architecture or city design, calligraphy or typography, I’m beginning to believe there is a hidden third world Photoshop plug-in called ‘now make it look really ugly’ or ‘dog’s dinner effect’… egregiously laid on gimmicks. But obviously someone somewhere thinks it wonderful unless this is just a case first world cultural snobbery.
    We ARE traditional after all, whatever a hardened modernist would say. The modernist’s general motto is ‘tabula rasa’– a ‘clean slate’ and at any price. Stuff history. Our hands, feet and eyes, our very bodies are traditional, inherited ancient and beautiful in form and function, all mysteries of perfection. Life itself is nothing if not traditional. So it is with the intellectual, spiritual and cultural pursuits of a people. Which is why we have writing, language, ideas and so on which we inherit and then evolve into new and beautiful forms to suit the times. It is the atheist arch-evangelist Richard Dawkins (to quote from  Cambridge scientist Rupert Sheldrake, in his book The Science Delusion) whose evolutionary theory is akin to someone who has set about grinding a sophisticated computer into dust and then sets about rebuilding it from scratch with no instruction manual.  I see a link here between modernism and evolutionary theory.
    But is my understanding of beauty subjective? How is my idea of beauty different from yours or is there some absolute criteria? Is there such a thing as objective beauty? An ongoing discussion in all circles but if you do the work that I do, you are dealing with this on a daily if not an hourly basis. To my shame somewhat, I admit to plundering online libraries of antique art or photos and occasionally buying or taking photos to adorn whatever job I am working on. At times I do have to create original artwork where none can be found or commission original calligraphy from an expert in this field. The purpose is to get to something different that communicates and is essentially elegant and pleasing to the eye. Quickly. The ateliers of yesteryear were no different I expect. Just without electricity. If I walk into a Persian carpet shop I know in minutes the carpet I want. My companion will be drawn to and buy a completely different item. All of the rugs are in a general way beautiful but what I like is different from his. So what’s going on?
    When art is mixed up with commerce there are always some ethical conflicts at work. Is it art for beauty’s sake or is it just to make a buck? In my case of course it’s both, and in truth sometimes something beautiful can come out of having to deliver something, often in a hurry, to a client. The same could probably be said of a medieval calligrapher or artist doing some project for his Baronial Lord, or even for the King of the realm. Meeting the deadline meant inspiration had to arrive to order, on time as it often does. “Sire, does my heraldic design pleaseth thee?” “No, Sir Gawain, it does not. Do it again by tomorrow otherwise you will die.” So not much has changed.
    I’m not sure quite what life would be like if I didn’t have people knocking on my door asking for quotes or requesting work in a hurry. After all I don’t play golf and I don’t drink but it seems this is how many retired men and women eek their life away once they reach 70 and if they’re fortunate and don’t need to work. In fact I’ve never played golf in my life or been to a football match even if I did once drink. Did I miss something? Anyway I love to work.
    Everything man made reveals an intention of some sort, his or hers spirit is imbued into it and what we can agree is beautiful has more than likely emanated from a beautiful intention, a beautiful soul, like a beautiful tune plucked out of the ether. God is beauty and He loves beauty. This famous truth we are all familiar with but is what permeates this subject. So when we experience beauty and exclaim ‘Ah, isn’t it beautiful’, we are recognising the traces of this Divine eternal and infinite attributes which were planted with love in the artwork, the building, the poem, the Tadjik rug.
    The point is that beauty is recognised, not some commodity that can be guaranteed and strapped on afterwards, like plaster or a photoshop effect. It’s an ineffable moment which you can’t analyse too deeply be it subjective or objective.
    Beauty of course is its own advocate and doesn’t need explanation really. It lingers behind many veils like some enchanted woman, only to reveal itself by Divine decree. I could show a piece of authentic original Qur’anic calligraphy from the 13th century to one person who would see nothing but odd shapes and colours, but to another who would gasp at its manifest beauty. Is their any logic to this? Just because something is designed on the proportions of the golden section does not guarantee beauty, but might help it to get there. The same with the proportional arabic calligraphic systems developed by Ibn Muqlah and Ibn al-Bawwab in 10th century Baghdad. Or not. I’m sure something quite ugly could be constructed around the golden section if one tried. Similarly Ibn Muqlah’s proportional system of dots wasn’t a guarantee of ravishing beauty.
     I’ve seen the Alhambra Palace in Granada many times and it’s a wonderful and beautiful place, a gift that goes on giving, but how much more beautiful for someone whose never seen it before. I wish there was a prayer ‘Oh Lord don’t let me ever take anything for granted.’ For that is what I (i.e.all of us) do too often, be it people, beauty, wisdom whatever. And I’ve seen the Alhambra too many times. Like a beautiful woman’s face, it’s best to look once and move on. I guess if we could live in the instant, nothing would ever be taken for granted and be eternally beautiful. Like an animal’s lunch. Every time it’s their first ever meal.
    So most artists, designers, poets, architects, musicians or craftsmen develop an intuition about beauty which they incorporate into their work. We all know the adage: know the rules, then you can break them. Although there are always rules to all creative arts the more experience you have the more you judge matters intuitively only falling back on the rules and technique to check you got it right when there is some doubt. And that is the path to inspired art and spontaneous beauty. And it saves a lot of time.
Posted in architectural, beauty, calligraphy, Comment, evolution, House design, language, miscellaneous, modernism, peace, politics, Publishing, religion, sacred knowledge, science, tradition, typography / design | 1 Comment

The Swedish connection


Remarkably one of the earliest men in the Western world to embrace Islam and enter a Sufi order was Swedish, born Ivan Aguéli aka Abdal Hadi. He is famous in Sweden as an artist (featured above) and recently shared an exhibition of impressionist painters in Stockholm with Paul Klée. His combination of art and Sufism is not unique which is why I have also featured in this post the wood art and Arabic calligraphy of a young Swede AbdelKarim Cederberg, now a resident of Andalusia, who has explored Nordic art and scripts and woven them into a kind of authentic fusion with traditionally Arabic design motifs. When I interviewed him for this blog he pointed out the significance of Aguéli and his pioneering life and work.

Ivan was born in 1867 in Sala, Sweden and died in Spain in 1917. There are various accounts of his life available but here is a brief one: 

Ivan Aguéli was a Swedish mystic, painter and student of Islam. As a painter he is acknowledged as the grandfather of impressionism, a student of an Émile Bernard, who also happened to be a close friend of Vincent Van Gogh of all people and Paul Gauguin.  He was active in anarchist circles in Paris in the 1890s and was apparently responsible for shooting a Spanish matador at a bullfight in Paris, but not fatally, for which he was briefly imprisoned. He avidly supported animal rights and feminism. A pionering 21st century man by all accounts.

Aguéli became the first Westerner to study at the famous Al-Azhar university in Cairo where he studied Islamic philosophy. He had taken the name Abdal Hadi and seems to have become a Sufi mystic, studying under a mentor figure, a Shaykh Muhammad Ilaysh. He is credited with having introduced Rene Guénon to Islam in the Ibn Arabi study group he founded in Cairo.

Aguéli died in 1917, being run down by a train at a railway junction at L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, a town in Spain, near Barcelona, a town close to the French border. The circumstances surrounding his death are confusing, and some claim he was pushed. The British believed he was an Ottoman spy. We shall never know. He is buried in Sala, Sweden, his birth place where his remains were interred.



Ivan Aguéli aka
Abdel Hadi pictured left and right (top left back row)




Wikipedia has  a longer bio. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Agu%C3%A9li#Egypt

Exactly 100 years later after Abdal Hadi’s death in Spain another Swede has arrived on the Iberian peninsular namely AbdelKarim Cederborg. Explore his work here:


He has blended both traditional Islamic motifs and Nordic designs into a uniquely Scandinavian take on both wood carving, calligraphy and geometry. Some of his work is pictured here.




Posted in typography / design | Leave a comment

The Sky is Filling Up


I have had for some time now an app called Flight Radar 24 which some readers may be familiar with. This isn’t a plug for it, but a little perusal of this app will doubtless surprise you. It did me. In the screen shot above you will see in real time the exact position of every plane (the little yellow things) in the air at the time of the screen grab  – in this case North America. And the app covers the whole world. The app collects the flight data every civil aviation plane has to broadcast once it is airborne and even on the ground. If you get up close you can see each plane’s movement and with the correct settings, its flight path as well. Plus all available information about the carrier, the plane type, speed etc. It’s mind boggling to think of this many planes in the air at any given time. 5000-10,000 is one figure mooted and that doesn’t include military flights. And that is at any moment in any day, depending on whether the USA is awake or not. Over Africa there appear to be almost no planes at all which speaks volumes. A simple graphic of the disparity between the excessively rich nations and the excessively poor. Read on, it gets worse.

Yes it’s a beautiful picture but don’t be deceived. I don’t want to be alarmist (or maybe I do) but it’s not really beautiful at all.  

During take-off, a jumbo jet can devour 2 million litres (528,344 gallons) of air per second. In the first five minutes of flight, a commercial airliner can burn as much oxygen as 49,000 acres of forest produce in a day. According to Department of Transportation figures, flying a Boeing 747-400 from Washington, DC to San Francisco burns 17,232 gallons of jet fuel. (Fuel efficiency: 6.7 mpg.) A Boeing 747 averages 32 minutes taxiing, taking off and landing. During this time, it can generate 190 pounds of NOx – equal to the amount produced by driving a car 53,500 miles.

Research by NASA proved that in the North American corridor there are major climatic changes taking place, more than anywhere else. One of the world’s most troubled routes, the North Atlantic Flight Corridor (NAFC) lies between 45 and 65 degrees north latitude and runs almost entirely over water. In 1990, between 700 and 800 aircraft traveled this route between the US and Europe each day – amounting to more than 200,000 flights per year. 27 years later, do you think this has declined?

I haven’t had time to sit in front of FlightRadar24 and count them.

Aside from the air pollution aspect of this which is serious considering that even a recently engineered plane spreads a blanket of toxic gases miles wide, the sheer size of what is going on reflects the huge corporate and commercial activity going on at a global scale and which dwarfs the petty political squabbles taking place in the world which we get hypnotized by. So you get an idea of who is really running the show for their own advantage basically. For example, no mention recently of the $15 billion airplane contract with Iran being cancelled by Trump who pre-election vowed to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran. They know too darn well that if they did, the order would go directly to Europe or even China. The White House is often called the east coast office of Monsanto for good reason. The Americans, having elected their lower self to the Presidency now have a rather unpredictable and potentially dangerous person running the show and they are having to live with it. Much of this information here is probably known to you all, and is all available on-line but I thought the app mentioned above might give you a tangible perception of what I have been discussing and why it’s worth a quick look. The global media drama serves to distract you from what is really going on. 

So much is hidden from us and maybe just as well as I think the big picture might just be too much to take. About ten years ago I was traveling over the Oakland bridge in the Bay Area of San Francisco with friends just before sunset and suddenly we saw the enormous awesome plume of a space rocket moving silently and slowly into the upper atmosphere emitting a strange light. Up and up and up it went till with a big blast it vanished. I found out later it was a Star Wars test over the pacific from Vandenburg Airforce Base (the picture above is of a recent test by the US military of an unarmed nuclear missile from Vandenburg). What we witnessed was a $100m firework display by the American military – all over in a few seconds. On the west coast of America you get some idea of the vast and secretive world of the American military industrial complex that is given all it wants from the Federal purse, – whenever it is wanted. It is said that when the US is at war there is full employment on the West coast. In computer software and weapons research, the Federally funded Lawrence Livermore labs just inland from the Bay Area, is where even now research is being made into neutron bomb warfare amongst much else of strategic interest to the US.

Don’t lose sleep over it as you can’t do much about it.

Posted in typography / design | Leave a comment

Long Hopes and Personal Choices

I wrote this in late January after some outrage in the US by a white supremacist but sadly it applies now and probably for the foreseeable.

I would rather be writing on a more creative theme but current events seem to have interposed themselves unfortunately. I was sent the following article today by a friend which coming from a US Catholic professor I thought an excellent if alarming analysis of the state of play.


In September 1962 I was playing football on an Essex sports field when enormous USAF B52s began screaming overhead above the grey wintery clouds. We shuddered. This was the height of the Cold War and on that day the high point of the Cuban missile crisis. The referee, who was our music master in fact, a rather nervous soul, went white as a sheet and went inside the school buildings and left us playing on.

Well I’m still here over 50 years later to tell the tale. Today, 1 February 2017 we are entering another rather perilous stage in our shared history but maybe there are some lessons to learn from my first teenage protest experience. 


A year before the Cuban missile crisis I had been on an anti-war CND march from Wethersfield USAF base in Essex to Trafalgar Square in central London (photo above). One would have thought 100,000 people would make some kind of difference but actually it changed nothing – outwardly at least. But it did change me as I am sure it changed others. I was suddenly made aware of the outside world, grubby, wet, shouting and political. But it also highlighted new realities to do with civil rights in the USA and a whole new horizon of humanity in the world we were in at that time but ignorant of. We had been all shut up in our towns, our schools, our families, our country, pretty unaware of what was going on in the outside world. It was challenging to figure out where I fitted in that new world and who I really was. That world was suddenly a slightly frightening place but full of new and fascinating things nonetheless. Much transpired from that four day marching experience, sleeping rough with little or no money and being amongst the rain sodden anoraks, ordinary folks, the left wing politicos et alia. It was all full of portents.


Pretty much like the million man/woman march in 2003 (above) when central London was flooded to overflowing with the incredible sight of an ocean of people protesting the imminent invasion of Iraq chanting and singing …”War, what is it good for..absolutely nothing“. I walked on that protest march as well and was dismayed that it made absolutely no difference at all. It seemed that political realities and the fate of thousands of souls was all going to happen regardless of our protestations and on the meretricious whim of a power drunk egotist. We were just the escape valve. The faceless war mongers and their military machine would do whatever they wanted even if it meant lying about it. The dismay was accentuated because many of those marching had voted for Blair a few years earlier. The sweeping realities of war seem to happen in spite of humanity’s hatred of it. Man proposes but God disposes.

Individually of course the effect of the dramatic events of history are posing us all with a question. Much as we might be affected by the big news and the actors in the drama with our hopes vainly pinned on outcomes, we have in fact absolutely no influence over them other than a well directed prayer. The question each person is being asked is …..’Who are you and what to you choose to be?’ …..that is, forever, for all eternity. Each human soul is taxed with this test at any given moment but particularly in times of oppression or war. Are you going to be generous to the refugee, or even to your next door neighbour, or harden your heart and repeat to yourself the corrupting slogans and mantras of the arch-inciters who infest the newspapers, TV channels and web sites. Or at best do nothing.

For surely as night follows day, whatever is in your heart is what you will take with you, should death come upon you. Which is why so many people who cherish and nurture hatred in their hearts are in such a perilous position but are unaware of it. And if they don’t believe that then they will find out soon enough. Maybe they just lack imagination. 

(This was not much to do with typography but I thought it would be of interest.)

Posted in Comment, miscellaneous, peace, politics, religion, sacred knowledge, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Music to my Ears

My Ramadan afternoons, when the blood sugar reaches low levels, have been spent watching some of the lectures by Abdal Hakim Murad (Tim Winter) on YouTube given in his college’s annual retreat last year. I can strongly recommend his lecture on Riding the Tiger of Modernity, something which we are all trying to do in this strange period of history. 

Ottoman Music Therapy. Pictured possibly in the Erdine Therapy Clinic illustrated below.

But today I just watched his talk on Music in Islam which is a subject close to my heart about which I’ve already blogged a few times in recent years. His lecture is worth watching as he explores some of the finer points and secrets of the Islamic musical traditions from the medical benefits of music therapy to the some of the different legal positions scholars have made over the past 1400 years. To those unfamiliar with this particular discussion it is because over past centuries every single aspect of the human situation has been filtered through the minds of Muslim scholars endeavoring to apply their knowledge and wisdom of the Qur’an and the Sunna to guide people aright in their lives. The use of instrumental and sung music being one of them. Abdal Hakim also outlined some of the technical details of the maqamats, harmonic frameworks which could be described as the empirical auditory harmonies of this created universe. Man’s knowledge of them predates Islam and is most likely what the Pythagoreans called the music of the spheres. My understanding of them is likened to the example of the western concept of major and minor, the listener comprehending happiness and sadness respectively. But there are many more maqams than major and minor and which can also involuntarily affect and inspire the listener. 

This is a vast subject and Abdal Hakim was obviously not going to cover all the ground available. The broad range of scholastic opinions on this subject is proof of how vast the subject is and why the differences of opinion is a mercy, as people can legitimately fit in wherever they wish. It’s not black and white. Unlike matters of law, music is a qualitative thing, fundamentally about the emotions of sound and how it affects the heart. What people do with it is another matter. Applying law to what is essentially art is tricky ground and given the limited practical knowledge and experience most people have of music, any strong legal statement against music by a scholar is going to very likely shut some people’s ears to something of beauty in God’s creation for fear they may be doing wrong. 

As I understand it, the four schools of law generally rule against instrumental music and I’m pretty sure the reasons for that are based on the premise that it is better to avoid doubtful things though I would need confirmation of that. I’m well aware that there is ugly music as well as beautiful music and in these times just too much music altogether so if you do music then you have to do it with care, beauty, discrimination and a good intention. But how often I have heard of people denied musical education for legal sharia reasons who end up listening to the worst kinds of music or worse still have no music in their lives at all apart from their phone ringtone. I’ve seen how it diminishes people. You cannot just say no, if there is nothing else to fall back on. But the important subject of music education, which you won’t see in any Muslim curriculum, is for another day. To me music is like a language and there are many such languages and if you wish to speak something profound to people you have to speak their language and not be looking over your shoulder all the time wondering if someone is going to catch you out on some legal point. Everyone these days is bombarded with these myriad musical languages (or genres if you like), unaware of their effects as they don’t know the language and their often malign meanings. Another reason to educate not legislate.

MT hospital
Music Therapy in action in a Turkish hospital.

The prophetic traditions invoked to forbid instrumental music (the Qur’an doesn’t specifically mention it) generally linked it to lewdness and alcohol and these are well known and always trawled out in this debate. But one scholar I know pointed out that the use of profanity does not invalidate language so why should the use of a stringed instrument in a dubious situation invalidate musical instruments when the same instrument could be used to spiritually inspire and beautify? A good point. I want to suggest a different approach. Are we not to be judged by our intentions, if God judges us thus?  Not using instruments in a spiritual gathering is no guarantee of it’s worth if it is done with bad intentions. There could be much good in a whole orchestra of instruments if the intention was to uplift the spirit and to better humanity or to heal sickness. Are we to deny the value of music therapy, which is exactly that?

Music Therapy Erdine
The Music Therapy Chamber, Erdine, Turkey. Now a museum.

In earlier posts on this blog I’ve inveighed against vacuous mindless music, and how in these times it’s linked to money, advertising, drugs and alcohol and worse. I know how the music business works. But there is an artistic component to this debate. How do we define beautiful music when so much of the appreciation of music is subjective? The technological noise that surrounds modern man is a terrible intrusion on his birthright to a bit of peace and tranquility. It’s noise without art. Like the noise of war. All the environmental noise of this age, inside and outside our houses, is seriously desensitizing us which is why I value silence most of all these days. I’ve said it before on this blog.

Tunes and musical ideas all have history and if some pedants query the use of maqams as being from a time prior to Islam (which they do), then stop to consider that much of culture and language has passed down from disbelieving but extinct civilisations. A real spiritual culture takes what has been inherited and refines it. The same with music. All of life is grafted on to the tree of our ancestry. Even the Celtic maqams beloved of Abdal Hakim are likely to have some alcoholic origins but that doesn’t mean when they are used in Qur’anic tajweed they aren’t beautiful, for they are. In Abdal Hakim’s CD the Rawdhat as-Shuhudat, Ali Keeler breaks new ground with his Qur’an recitation in Celtic modes. It’s the one thing I most appreciate on that album. We have left Damascus and are nearer home, now safely in a Scottish glen. •

Posted in miscellaneous, music, music in Islam, religion, sacred knowledge, Sacrilege, tassawuf, typography / design | Leave a comment