Devotional voices

November 07, 2021

Many religions have employed the sur in the execution of their mission

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The Council of Islamic Ideology has finally taken note of the poor quality of recitation of holy texts rampant in our part of the word. As is often the case, religion is being used as an alibi. A stamp of approval is affixed and sanctity granted most of the times in total disregard to quality.

Many religions have treaded this fine line between the use of the sur that is predicated upon the text. Some may argue that the sur goes beyond the text, transcends the medium and takes precedence over the text.

In Islam in particular, a whole body of critique has evolved about the use of instrumentation even in the rendition of the religious texts. There have been various points of view about it, even about the nature of the instruments where the religious text is being set to some form of compositional mode. There have also been extended debate and discussion about the performer. There has been mortal fear among performers of it being dubbed no more than lahv o la’ab (a pleasure of the senses) rather than a more wholesome activity.

Without getting into this debate, many religions have in various forms employed the sur in the execution of their mission – mostly due to the appeal that the sur holds for humankind. Cantillation was one form used in rendering the Hebrew bible. Christians used the church and Hindus the temple for the propagation of the humanistic values embedded in their religious orders.

Cantillation was one form used in rendering the Hebrew bible; Christians used the church and Hindus the temple for the propagation of the humanist values embedded in the their religious orders.

In Islam, too, the text has been the main driving motivation. The best example of that is the azaan and the recitation of the Holy Quran. Now the saying of the azaan has been found in violation of aesthetic principles. The task has sometimes been entrusted to those totally unfamiliar with the craft of rendition. When the azaan is properly rendered it is one of the most moving and appealing experiences. It is not enough to say that the one fulfilling a religious obligation should have the entire wherewithal. The difference between a good and a poor rendition is not the text because it is the same; it is the way it is being said that makes the difference - qualitative difference. It must have been meant not only to inform but also to draw people to the prayer mat.

Tremendous liberties are taken in the rendering and recitation of the hamds, the naats and other religious/ devotional texts. At times one is forced to question as to why it is being allowed. It is no service to any cause, either the religion or the craft of rendition. Actually, it is a great disservice to both. It should not be forgotten that the religious teachings place aesthetics on a very high pedestal.

Using a religious tag does not allow us a compromise on quality; actually it should be the other way round. The inspiration should raise the bar. However, what we often come across is a lowering of standards. Everybody seems to have a licence to play havoc with the rules prescribed for it. It should be a pleasing and moving experience that melts the heart and makes us better human beings.


The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore



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