Sufi Chants from Cairo

Sufi Chants from Cairo

La Châdhiliyya

The word “ Sufi ” can be translated by “ mystic ”. At first it was used to denote the habit of wearing clothes made of wool, a symbol of poverty at the time. To dress in this way was to make a public declaration of one’s disdain of ornamentation and outward show, in favour of an inner, spiritual quest. Sufis practice religious exercices, one of which is the dhikr, where the initiates repeat one of the names of God or of the profession of faith whilst a hymnodist recites sacred verses in the background. This technique is accompanied by breathing exercises which increase the supply of oxygen to the brain, sometimes resulting in a state of trance.
The current head of the Shadhiliyah order, officially recognised in 1906, is Sheikh al-Gundi, whilst its chief hymnodist is Sheikh al-Halbâwî. The latter is accompanied by nine auxiliaries who like to remain anonymous for reasons of humility.


1 – “Al-Adhân/The Call to prayer followed by Al-Inshâd al-dînî/The saced recitation” – 2’57
2Tajwîd al-Qur’ân al-karîm/Koranic cantillation – 6’31
3Yâ rabbî, mâ lî fî l-wujûdi siwâka/O my Lord, there is no-one I can turn to in life save You – 2’36
4Qulûbu l-‘ârifîn/The hearts of the initiated – 4’20
5Al-Hadra/Ritual of invoking God – 23’34
6Asmâ’u l-Lâhi l-husnä/The beautiful names of God – 3’44
7Udhkurhâ wa-nta mâshî, lâ tulhîka amthâlahâ/Be mindful of God’s majesty, even as you walk – 5’11
8Yâ rabbî, bi-l-Mustafä balligh maqâsidanâ/O my Lord, guide us to the Prophet in a state of purity – 3’49
9Al-Mawlid al-nabawî al-sharîf/Excerpts from the Birth of the Prophet – 19’14

Interpreters and instruments

Cheikh Mohammed El Helbawy (solo)
Amgad Al Atafy (choeur)
Yehia Salama (choeur)
Mahmoud Shahin (choeur)
Samir Abdelhay (choeur)
Elsayed Youssef (choeur)
Ahmed Youssef (choeur)
Mahmoud Abdelwaly (choeur)
Kamal Hassan (choeur)
Abdelshahid Shanab (choeur)
Abdelazim Amer (choeur)
Ibrahim Mohamed (choeur)
Saïd Ibrahim (choeur)
Ismail Ismail (choeur)
Khaled Megahed (choeur)


The word “Sufi” can be translated by “mystic”. At first it was used to denote the habit of wearing clothes made of wool (sûf in Arabic), a symbol of poverty at the time. To dress in this way was to make a public declaration of one’s disdain of ornamentation and outward show in favour of an inner, spiritual quest. The word first appears in Islam in the second half of the 8th century with Abû Ishâq and Jâbir ibn Hayyân, mystics from Kûfa. The adjective “dervish” (darwîsh, plural darâwîsh) from the Persian “dâr vesh” was also used; it meant “one who looks for doors”, and thus by extension, indicated mendicant mystics. Its sense is more limited than the word sufi, which eventually, towards the early 11th century, came to be applied to all the Islamic mystics. This in turn was followed during the period from the 12th to the 14th century by the establishment of the brotherhoods or orders known as Shâdhiliyah, Rifâ’iyah, Kâdiriyah, Badawiyah and Mawlawiyah. But the spread of mysticism was not without conflict, as the government had to make constant efforts to try and dominate these associations and use them for their own ends. As far as the rituals are concerned, halaqât-s (literally circles or meetings) were formed in Bagdad as early as 864, though we have no precise detail of what they contained. In the 11th century the word tarîqa (a path, a way) appeared, to denote all the recommended rites to be practised by the Sufis during the halaqât. In musical terms, their meetings took the form of samâ’ or listening to songs of praise to the Prophet together with the recitation of verses from the Koran, both designed to heighten the adept’s concentration and spiritual awareness. Between the 9th and 14th centuries other religious exercises and practices were instigated, amongst them the dhikr, which has a double meaning, one limited, the other much broader.

Its original meaning in Arabic was remembrance, the act of remembering. By extension it came to be applied to the oral account of the thing remembered, its repetition and the technique used for this repetition. Its usage in Sufism refers to the repetition of one of the names of God or the oral profession of the Islamic faith by the initiates, against a background of sacred poems recited by a hymnodist. This is a technique to be practised in a group, accompanied by breathing exercises which increase the supply of oxygen to the brain, producing a state of trance or dizziness, or even total blackout. Movements of the body — swaying, turning and other movements —  are also recommended, giving the impression of a dance. The ‘dancers’ are sometimes called tafqîr, from the root “f/q/r”, which gave rise to the adjective faqîr (fakir), a poor or ascetic mystic. In the end the word dhikr has come to denote all the Sufi practices used during the halaqât al-dhikr.

Several different types of dhikr exist: the dhikr jalî, the ritual of invoking God’s name out loud, the dhikr khafî, or inner ritual, the dhikr al-munâwaba , a group practice where each member chants or dances in turn, and the dhikr al-hadra or group ritual, divided into several stages, each devoted to one of the attributes of God – Hû (Himself), Hayy (Living) Qayyûm (Erect) etc. The dhikr-scan be either fast or slow, and are sometimes accompanied by hand-clapping or a snapping of the fingers. As soon as the blackout point seems imminent, the sheikh of the tarîqa imposes silence on the group. The word hadra in its multiple sense of the presence of the Divine or the Prophet and the assembly of the devout, is considered to be synonmous with the dhikr al-hadra. All in all, the general sense of dhikr can be defined as a ritual in which God is invoked together with a litany of His divine attributes, justified in the minds of the mystics by certain Koranic verses (XVIII-24 and XXXIII-41). The dhikr-s are generally held in a room adjoining the mosque, or in the meeting place of a brotherhood (zâwiya or takiyya), in a tent or a marquee.

We owe a debt of thanks to King Fu’ad 1st of Egypt, Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith, for it was they who assured the first recording of a dhikr al-hadra during the 1932 Cairo Conference on Arab Music, with Sheikh Ahmad al-Basâtînî (1850-1935), hymnodist with the Badawiyah Laythiyah brotherhood. In the 20’s the firms of Odeon and Baidaphone and the Aleppian firm Sudwa managed to record certain Egyptian hymnodists such as Ismâ’îl Sukkar (c.1850-1925), Mohammed ‘Abd al-Hâdî, ‘Alî al-Qasabjî (c. 1860-1926), ‘Alî Mahmûd (1878-1946), Mohammed Rif’at (1884-1950), Ibrâhim al-Farrân (d. 1949), ‘Alî al-Hârith and Muhriz Suleimân. The most famous ones alive today are ‘Abd al-‘Azîm al-‘Atwânî (b. 1931), Nasr al-Dîn Tûbâr (b. 1935) and Mohammed al-Halbâwî.

As for the al-Hamîdiyah al-Shâdhiliyah brotherhood, it was founded by Abû Hamîd Salâma Hasan al-Râdî from Egypt (1866-1939), a former member of the tarîqa-s makkiyya fâsiyya and qâwuqajiyya in Bûlaq, near Cairo, and Minieh in central Egypt. It is one of the branches of the Shâdhiliyah order, founded by Abû al-Hasan al-Shâdhilî (born in Morocco in 1197, died in Egypt in 1258) the author of two books of teachings. This brotherhood, officially recognised in 1906, but criticised by the fundamentalists for its tolerance and open-mindedness, now manages several Koranic schools as well as various charitable institutions. The current head is Sheikh ‘Abd al-Mun’im al-Gundî (b. 1933), a descendant of the founder. His chief hymnodist is Sheikh Muhammad al-Halbâwî (b. 1938), accompanied by nine auxiliaries who usually like to remain anonymous for reasons of humility. 

The hymnodists are known as munshid (plural munshidûn), a classical term that comes from the root “n/sh/d”: to ask for something one has lost, to recall a promise, to implore God, to raise one’s voice and finally to sing or chant. The inshâd shâdhilî consists of both the recitation and chanting of religious poems in either responsory or monodic form; this is done by soloists and choirs and always a cappella. The munshidûn, usually accompanied by a male-voice choir (bitâna), lead the devout into the samâ’  which will include pieces taken from the repertory of the Great Mosques, the dhikr-s of the various brotherhoods and chants on the nativity of the Prophet. Behind this art lies a detailed and meticulous knowledge of the Holy Scripture together with all its lexical variations, as well as a very precise knowledge of music. Their means of expression (hiss) are basically serene, always inventive, and rigourously structured in rhythm so that they gradually lead the assembly of the devout towards a state of trance (inkhitâf) or meditation (ta’ammul), according to what the head of each order chooses. The hymnodists lead the faithful in repeating the litanies or anaphora in a low hum or drone, whilst in the background, and slotted into the group chant, a solo hymnodist chants some monorhyming or monometric poems (qasâ’id) in a high register in praise of God or the Prophet. Measured choral chants (tawâshîh) may also be used, and some of the qasâ’id are scanned and sung in unison just like the tawâshîh, in classical literary Arabic, according to a centuries-old tradition. Note the not infrequent absence of declensions, due to the demands imposed by the rhythm of the melody, just as happens with certain diphthongs which have to be elided. Hymnodists from the popular class who use a dialect, sometimes together with some musical instruments, are known as maddâh-s because they extol the merits of the Prophet and the great mystics. The best known hymnodists of this kind practising today are Yâsin al-Tuhâmî (b. 1949), Muhammad al-Tûni (b. 1932) from Assiout and Ahmad Barrayn (b. 1935) from Esna.

The two thousand hymnodists who belong to the Hâmidiyah Shâdhiliyah tarîqa undergo a traditional training based on the rules of the Sunnite school known as shafi’ite (al-madhhab al shâfi’î). This entails learning the phonics of the Koran (‘ilm al-makhârij wa-l-sawâmit) and the different calls to prayer: al-adhân al-mâliki, almost recto tono and practised in North Africa; al-hanbalî, similar to the preceding example but with inflexions in a higher key, in use in Saudi Arabia; al-laythî or al-shâfi’î, with very little ornamentation, used in Egypt; al-shar’î, with more flourishes than the previous version, considered legitimate by all the different schools and used throughout the whole Islamic world; al-umawî, whose use is confined to Syria, highly ornamental, in memory of the Omayad caliphs; al-sultanî, again highly ornamental, this time in memory of the sultans of the Ayubid, Mameluk and Ottoman Empires – it is familiar in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Turkey (where it is also known by the name of al-muhammadî). The different styles of recitation (al-tartîl), psalmody (al-talhîn) and cantillation (al-tajwîd) of the Koran, as well as the canonical pronunication (al-qirâ’ât al-sab’) of the Holy Scripture hold no secrets for them. They have a profound and intimate knowledge (‘ilm) of the classical modes (anghâm or maqâmat) and rhythm (‘ilm al-durûb, al-awzan or al-iqâ’at). Indeed, they are absolute masters in the art of vocal improvisation (irtijâl), as they show by using their skills in modulation (al-talwîn) and transposition (al-taswîr) to the full. The rituals also include the ibtihâl (an invocation in verse dedicated to God), various kinds of exaltation to the glory of God with variants according to different formulae, awrâd and ahzâb, subdivisions of the Koran supposed to favour all supplications and cure the sick, different kinds of prayer (salawât) for all and any kind of circumstance, the psalmody of the ninety-nine traditional attributes of God (the asmâ’ Allâh al-husnâ), the birth of the Prophet (al-mawlid), his journey through the night (al-isrâ’), his ascension into heaven (al-mi’râj), his most glorious deeds (al-manqaba), his miracles (al-mu’jizât), his words and deeds (al-hadîth) and finally the story of his life (al-sîra).

Traditionally the Egyptians also make reference to the great mystical poets of the classical era such as Abû al-Atâhiya (748-825), Ibn al-‘Arabî (d. 1240), Ibn al-Fârid (1181-1235), Muhammed al-Ju’barî (d. 1240), ‘Abd al-Rahîm al-Bura’î (d. 1250), Sharaf al-Dîn al-Busîrî (1213-1295) as well as the prose writers ‘Abd al-Ra’ûf al-Munâwî (d. 1721) and Ja’far al-Barazanjî (d. 1763), authors of two versions of The Birth of the Prophet, written in rhyming, metric prose. It is often difficult to date the poems of later Egyptian authors with any accuracy – we have in mind Abû Hamîd Salâma Hasan al-Râdi – because their works are included in anthologies without any precise dates or where one work has been interwoven with another. Even the hymnodists have certain reservations on this matter. In fact what we have here is a corpus of poetic works where poems and layers of poetic writing from different epochs are placed next to each other, the common denominator being their rhetoric (with its origins in the Koran), where every possible verbal and rhetorical device is called into play. Thus every ritual includes some very old compositions together with some more recent ones, all blended together in a single mould – the manipulation of language becomes a positively Machiavellian exercise ! The chants are based on the modes (maqâmât). This term goes back a long way, and comes from the three letter Arabic root “q/w/m”, particularly rich in the mutiplicity of meanings it evokes (to rise or be erect, to remain motionless, to ressuscitate, to resist, to achieve etc. etc. ) It provides the root for many nouns as well as verbs: qawm (tribe), qâma or qawâm (waist), al-qiyâma (the Resurrection), qayyûm (an attribute of God: He is eternal, He exists by His own being), iqâmat al-salât (reciting the prayers) etc. …The basic idea behind all these variations is one of a memorial or altar of worship erected on a particular spot, from the actual “scheme” of the word which in the simplest verbal form is that of a place name: maqâm, muqâm or muqamâ (maqâmât or muqâmât in the plural). It was first used to designate a stay, before denoting a place where a prophecy had taken place (cf the maqâm of Ibrahim at the Kaaba in Mecca); then it took on a new meaning in 11th century literature where it was used to designate a specific learned form in the art of rhetoric (maqâma: meeting, assembly). Mystics also use the term maqâm for the different stages of inititation into the brotherhoods: tahzîm (entry), inkhitâf (the transport of the senses), hâl (ecstasy), wajd (enstasis) …

Finally – no doubt in the mid-15th century –  the word passed into the vocabulary of music, thanks to the work of the Syrian music theorist Shams al-Dîn al-Saydâwî al-Dimashqî, who used it to refer to certain fingerings on the strings of an instrument, whence its application to the melodies and modes these gave rise to. Egyptian modes are based on tetrachords, tonics and sensitives. They blend together along a highly structured passage of scales and precise melodic formulae. No other rhythms or modulations apart from certain traditional musical phrases can be imposed on or introduced into this fixed structure. There are about ten main modes. Quarter tones are used, but without any equal subdivisions. In sacred music it frequently happens that only the tetrachords are intoned and the whole piece can close on a modulation instead of reverting to the opening mode. During the course of a concert the hymnodists’ chanting will gain in power and strength, thereby raising the register so their voices change key. This tendency is found with all singers from the Orient, whenever there is no accompanying instrument that can be tuned according to the vocal changes. The timing is generally 4/4, easily altered to a 2/2 time with or without the aid of percussion instruments. 

This marvellous vocal tradition is one of the most noteworthy and remarkable facets of Arab-Islamic art. With its complex poems and intricate flourishes underlined by a deeply sincere religious faith, detached from all material contingencies and the common run of everyday life or the vulgar gloss of outward show, its contribution to this rich heritage is outstanding.

“Inna l’Lâha — Ta’âlâ wa Tabâraka — jamîlun wa ya’shaqu kulla jamîlin.”

God – may His name be praised – is beautiful and He loves all that is beautiful.

Bernard Moussali
Translated by Délia Morris

The recordings

1- Al-Adhân / The call to prayer followed by Al-inshâd al-dînî / The sacred recitation – 2’57
in sultânî style, a group chant, original modal composition. 

2- Tajwîd al-Qur’ân al-karîm / Koranic cantillation – 6’31
a chapter from‘Imran, III, 31, solo by al-Halbâwî, in bayyâtî mode.

3- Yâ rabbî, mâ lî fî l-wujûdi siwâka / O my Lord, there is no-one I can turn to in life save You – 2’36
Ibtihâl (song of praise), solo by al-Halbâwî, in râst mode. 

“O my Lord there is no-one I can turn to in life save You and my most cherished desire is to obtain Your mercy.”

4- Qulûbu l-‘ârifîn / The hearts of the initiated – 4’20
Ibtihâl (song of praise), a chant with responses and background drone (“Allâh, Allâh”) by al-Halbâwî, in bayyâtî, tâhir, bayyâtî shûrî and hijâz modes. 

5- Al-Hadra / Ritual of invoking God – 23’34

– 5.1- Al-Fâtiha / Chapter from the Prologue (Koran, I) recited in silence, followed by the monodic chant “Lâ ilâha illâ l-Lâh” accompanied by hand clapping and finger snapping, to become “Allâh, Allâh“, taken first more rapidly, then more slowly again with a series of  poems sing either in chorus or solo by al-Halbâwî:
– 5.2- Ishrab sharâba al-safâ’ / Drink the wine of purity
– 5.3- Yâ Sayyida l-khalqi hâlî anta ta’lamuhu wa-man siwâka li-hâdhâ l-‘abdi yarhamuhu ?

O Lord of all worlds, You know my state: who other than You can take pity on me, wretched slave that I am ?

in hijâz, nahâwand and râst mu’allaq modes.

– 5.4-The stage (Hû being an special personal pronoun, an apocope for the word God)

Nasamâtu l’hayyi habbat li-rubû’i l-‘Amiriyya / The soft breezes of the camp have blown as far as the tents of Layla al-‘Amiriyya (the beloved of the legendary 7th century poet Majnûn Laylâ and a mystic symbol of divine love), with an invocation to the brotherhood’s founder, in râst mu’allaq and ‘ajam modes. 

– 5.5- The Hayy stage / The Living One

Tal’a n-nahârû ‘alâ l’aqmâr
Kullu l-qulûbi ilâ l-habibi tamîlu wa-ma’î bi-hâdhâ shahîdun wa-dalîlu

Dawn has broken over the stars and All hearts are drawn to Mohammed the Dearly Beloved, I have seen it with my own eyes, I have proof.

Chorus,  in râst mode.

– 5.6- The Qayyûm stage / The Eternal One
a cantillation of the chapter from the ikhlâs (the Cult in its purest form) from the Koran.
solo by al-Halbâwî, with a background hum of “Lâ ilâha illâ l-Lâh“, then “al-Fâtiha” recited in silence. 

6- Asmâ’u l-Lâhi l’husnä / The beautiful names of God – 3’44
chorus, litanies, then prayers in bayyatî, sabâ, bayyatî shûrî and huzâm modes.

7- Udhkurhâ wa-nta mâshî, lâ tulhîka amthâlaha / Be mindful of God’s majesty, even as you walk – 5’11
Ibtihâl (song of praise) with hum or drone “Lâ ilâha illa l’Lâh“, chorus and al-Halbâwî solo, in râst mode.

8- Yâ rabbî, bi-l-Mustafä balligh maqâsidanâ/ O my Lord, guide us to the Prophet in a state of purity – 3’49
Ibtihâl (song of praise) by al-Halbâwî solo, in huzâm mode.

9- Al-Mawlid al-nabawî al-sharîf / Excerpts from the Birth of the Prophet – 19’14
attributed to the order’s founder:
– 9.1- Yâ rabbî sallî ‘alä l’habîbi Muhammadin khayrî al-wujûdi, al-Mustafä, nûri al-hudä

O God, have prayers said for our beloved Mohammed, the best of all living creatures, the light of the true Path

– 9.2- Al-Hamdu li-Lâhi l-ladhî azhara al-akwân / Glory be to He who made the worlds appear
Solos by al-Halbâwî and the choir with an invocation to the order’s founder and finally the refrain:

‘Attiri l-Lahûmma rawdahu sh-sharîfa bi-‘itrin / Perfume, O God, his noble tomb with sweet fragrance in bayyatî, sabâ, bayyâtî shûrî, râst, sûznâk, nahâwand and sîkâh modes.

  • Reference : 321.023
  • Ean : 794 881 489 725
  • Main artist : La Châdhiliyya (الشاذلية)
  • Year of recording : 1996
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music style: Sufi Music
  • Country : Egypt
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe