Andy Morgan talks to the Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi about her mission to portray Islam’s philosophy of love, peace and tolerance by the way of Arab-Andalusian poetry and calligraphy
A few weeks ago, an article called ‘What can Ibn Arabi do against Daesh?’ appeared in the pages of the Algerian daily El Watan (one of Souad Massi’s favourite newspapers). The question neatly summarises the ideological struggle that rages in almost every corner of the Muslim world; it also lies at the heart of Souad Massi’s new album El Mutakallimûn, although she might balk at avowing as much in public.
Many readers might know the organisation Daesh by the acronyms more commonly used by non-Arabic speakers: ISIS or IS. This latter-day ‘caliphate’ is preparing the ground for the ‘prophesied’ annihilation of all infidels and apostates by occupying large swathes of Syria and Iraq and putting anyone who doesn’t agree with their brutally literalist interpretation of Islam to the sword. Though it professes a desire to rewind the human clock back to the seventh century AD, the organisation has turned a local conflict into a global battle of hearts and minds with its gruesomely brilliant manipulation of modern digital media; in fact, IS is a paradigm of modernity, as much a part of the age we live in as Grand Theft Auto or Taylor Swift.
The name Ibn Arabi requires a little more clarification perhaps. It belongs to a Muslim mystic and philosopher, many would say ‘saint’, who was born in Murcia, southern Spain, in 1165 and died in Damascus 75 years later. Among Ibn Arabi’s many works is the seminal al-Futuhat al-Makkiya (The Meccan Illuminations), which comprises over 7,000 pages of densely packed manuscript that elucidate, in language both complex and beautiful, his metaphysical philosophy of Oneness, the nature of faith and reason, the unknowable essence of God and the divine role of love and mercy in human existence.
Ibn Arabi was both venerated and reviled in the centuries following his death; venerated by those who admired the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his mystical insight, and his conviction that inspiration, even answers to some of life’s most basic questions could be sought outside Islam; reviled by those, such as the 13th century scholar and jurist Ibn Taymiyyah, who adhere to a strict, literal and unquestioning (though selective) interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Ibn Taymiyyah’s teachings are still revered by Sunni literalists and followers of IS to this day.
The article in El Watan was a report of a conference held in Algiers to mark the 850th anniversary of Ibn Arabi’s birth. The event gathered together eminent professors of philosophy, history, poetry and linguistics from all over the Arab world to venerate the great man, and contemplate the hotly topical question of how his philosophy of love can be deployed against the bigotry and hatred of IS and their ilk. The path to enlightenment propounded by Ibn Arabi is poorly suited to modern lifestyles and expectations; it demands silence, solitude, contemplation and self-abnegation. What, apart from silence, disconnection and boredom, can Ibn Arabi possibly offer today’s ardent young Muslim minds in comparison with Daesh’s venomous brew of adventure, brotherhood, martyrdom, guns and, above all, certainty?
Well, we could start with peace, tolerance and love. Ibn Arabi and the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam in al-Andalus (southern Spain) are like beacons that shine a light across the centuries into Islam’s current heart of darkness. They offer examples of how not only Muslims, but all human beings, can live in a state of peaceful coexistence and tolerance. Ibn Arabi is the guide and poet of what is often referred to as ‘the Greater Jihad,’ in other words, the struggle to master the self. Beheading innocents in northern Iraq is, at best, a lesser jihad. It’s this message that those who gathered in Algiers wished to convey. ‘One left the hall astoundingly relieved and calmed,’ wrote the El Watan journalist, ‘with the gentle conviction that another discourse is possible.’
Ibn Arabi’s writings stress the importance of the inner journey, and of the night as the best time to pursue it. Souad Massi admits that she is often attracted to the silence of nocturnal contemplation. This was especially true when she was a young teenager living in Algiers during the late 80s and 90s, a time when her homeland was being ripped apart by political turmoil and religious fanaticism.
“I was always very solitary,” she tells me. “For me the night was an important time. If you wanted to cry, no one could see you. Because I lived in a large family and you can’t do anything during the day, everybody can see you, but in the night I spent hours looking at the stars, sometimes until three in the morning.”
Many years later, after she had moved to France, she chanced across a documentary on TV about the Spanish city of Cordoba and its golden past in the early middle ages. She was immediately “bewitched by the city,” to use her own words, and fascinated by its former intellectual grandeur, sophistication and spirit of tolerance. She started reading books about the place, wondering why she hadn’t ever paid much attention to its history and legacy, despite her early love of flamenco and Spanish culture. “I was ashamed,” she says. “I’ve been all around the world but I’ve never been there.”
She read about a sort of cultural assembly that existed in Andalucía during the early medieval period, frequented by wise men who were called El Mutakallimûn (Masters of the Word). The word is the plural of mutakallim, which means a scholar of Ilm al-Kalam, the Islamic science of discourse. The object of the mutakallim is to defend the word of God by means of reasoned argument. The kalam is an attempt to reconcile faith with pre-Islamic traditions of deductive philosophical reasoning. As such it was, and still remains, highly controversial. Strict Sunni scholars, of Salafist or Wahhabist tendency, consider the kalam to be a dangerous innovation; they generally forbid their students to indulge in it.
To Massi however, her personal discovery of Cordoba and the tradition of kalam served as a gateway into Islam’s glorious intellectual past and the accumulated cultural wealth of the Arab world. She was infused with a missionary zeal to share what she discovered, and, by celebrating the beauty of Islamic philosophy, poetry and calligraphy, to find “another discourse.”
“How come nobody ever talks about those wise men? Avicenna, Ibn Arabi, great men of learning, writers?” she asks, “Why do people always talk about little hoodlums who’ve stolen some nonsense?… We don’t have the right to marginalise and hide away this treasure, and emphasise all the stuff that’s happening right now. We can’t reduce Arabic culture to that.”
Massi says she set to work creating her album “like a police investigator.” She read widely, surfed the net, visited archives and libraries, posted requests for information on Facebook and corresponded with professors of Arabic literature and translators. She came across the work of the calligraphers Mohamed Bourafai, and his son Aymen.
Despite her longstanding love of poetry by Leonard Cohen, Mahmoud Darwish and Victor Hugo, she had never considered herself a very ‘literary’ person. Grappling with early medieval Arabic wasn’t easy. But the rewards of discovering ‘masters of the word’ like the ninth century Iraqi poet El Moutanabi were immense: “He auto-proclaimed himself a prophet, and went to prison. When you read his poems, it makes you feel humble. You think you’ve written, you’ve composed, but you’ve done nothing at all. They were geniuses who left traces, marvels. We’re nothing in comparison to them.”
“I have a lot of respect for people who can put themselves in danger of death to tell the truth,” Massi says. She cites modern Iraqi poet Ahmad Matar as a luminous example. She set his poem ‘El Houriya’ (Freedom) to music and included it on El Mutakallimûn. It’s the tale of a teacher who writes ‘Freedom’ up on the black board only to be met with the blank stares of his pupils. ‘It’s heartbreaking to see the youth/Who understand nothing about freedom’ says the teacher. The calligraphy by Mohamed Bourafai that accompanies the poem looks like the manuscript of a poem that has been saved from the flames, with the word ‘freedom’ glowing bright at its heart.
Another fine emblem of modern politically-charged Arabic poetry is ‘Hadari’ (A Message to the Tyrants of the World) by the Tunisian poet Abou El Kacem el Chabbi. Although he died in 1934 at the age of 25, his verses stoked the passion of those crowds that occupied Tahrir Square in the spring of 2011. ‘You dare to defile the magic of existence/And scatter the needles of misfortune at will,’ wrote el Chabbi. ‘Beware! That the springtime doesn’t trick you/Nor the clarity of sky, nor the light of day.’ To illustrate those incendiary lines, Bourafai father and son have created a calligraphy set against a chain and barbed wire fence. “What’s interesting about this man (Mohamed Bourafai) is that he has a very open spirit,” Massi says, “and dares to do contemporary things. I discovered a whole new world thanks to him.”
It’s clear talking to Massi that she prefers to play the role of educator, sharing the beauty of Arabic culture, rather than risk career, family, life by taking the fight to the bigots and the haters. Her adopted home of France is one of the fiercest battlegrounds in the war of words and ideas that rages through Islam and the Arab world. As a public figure, she already stands exposed. She doesn’t want to become another Charb. Even though the passion with which she talks about the injustices perpetrated against Arabic culture and Islam is palpable, her strategy is seduction rather than confrontation.
“All I’m trying to do is to make people aware [of all this beauty], by means of pop, of a beautiful poem,” she says. “Then perhaps that person will be attracted by that culture and will make his own way. That’s my aim. I have nothing to prove. I did it for love, really, and I was very well supported by musicians. Then again… I’m sure there’ll be those who say that poems are sacred; but poems aren’t sacred. For Muslims, what’s sacred is the Qur’an, and I won’t tamper with that, that’s for sure.”
(Calligraphy: Mohamed and Aymen Bourafai’s calligraphy of the poem ‘El Houriya’ featured on Souad Massi’s album)
This article originally appeared in Songlines #110. Souad Massi’s album El Mutakallimûn is out now on Wrasse Records