Sacred songs from Nubia and Kordofan

Ensembles al-Mahi & al-Bura’i

In its religious poetry Sudan has married locally inspired themes with those of universal Sufism to create a harmonious whole. In its sung form this religious verse is known as madih. The repertoire is particular to the genre, with its own distinguishing features, and unique in the Islamic world.

This record is the first of its kind to be entirely devoted to the Sudanese madih.

Two prestigious groups perform here: Awlad Hajj al-Mahi from Nubia and Awlad al-Bura’i from the Kordofan province.


1Sal al-rakb/Enquire about the convoy – 7’01
2Shâshâ al-samîr/Hum, mu companion – 6’20
3Shawqaq shawa al-damîr/Your love has made me dizzy – 8’47
4Al-Jihâd fiyâ halfa/O my friends – 4’14
5Yâ habîbî Ahmad tabîbî/My beloved Ahmad is also my savior – 4’42
6Al-Hijâz lâha barqû/Hedjaz appeared like a flash of lightning – 3’43
7Al-Ba‘ûdah/The mosquito – 3’44
8Anta nûr al-gharbi wa-sabâh/You shine forth over East and West alike – 7’11
9Sâqiyat al-layl/Night-time irrigation – 4’34
10La ilah illa lah/There is but one God, Allah – 4’10


Ensemble al-Mâhî
Mohammad al-Makki
Abdallah Mohammad Ahmad Bacha
Abdallah Mohammad Othman Mohammad

Ensembles al-Bura’î
Ibrahim Kamal Eddine Abd Errazaq
Abd Errahim Ahmad Ibrahim
Ahmad Jad Assayid Hamed
Youssef Ibrahim Ahmad


The madih or sacred songs from Sudan

Panegyric is an extremely old practice in Arab poetry. It is known as madih (from the verb madaha, to praise), though this is only one name amongst several. Originally, according to the art of the 11th C. poet Ibn Rushiq , panegyric celebrated the four virtues of the individual, i.e. the power of thought, virtue, justice and bravery. The detailed poems of this genre were declaimed aloud, or perhaps (and this seems more likely) chanted, but exactly when the sung form, the madih (plural mada’ih or amdah, this latter is used principally in Morocco) or songs of praise, appeared and when these songs were grouped together as a repertoire is something of a puzzle. It doesn’t seem to be an age-old practice, and probably dates from no more than just a few centuries ago.  It must have taken form and a place amongst the popular strata of society, where it is still held in great esteem. The centre from which it spread is also difficult to pinpoint, but could well be in Egypt or the Yemen.

From the poem to the composition

The term madih referring to a sung repertoire is not found either in classical religious literature or in Sufi writing; the expression that appears most often in these contexts is the verb unshida (that translates as “lines of sacred verse have been sung or recited to the appropriate melodies [alhan].”). The word madih is first mentioned in the context of the mawlid, the commemoration of the Prophet’s birth. One of the oldest texts about this ceremony is the famous poem known as al-Burda (The Coat) by the Egyptian al-Busiri (13th C.), which enables us attribute the madih’s appearance to this period. We mean of course the madih as a religious poem largely sung or chanted, even though in this particular case the word madih is not used in a generic sense and doesn’t yet represent a corpus of sacred songs. The same applies to another well-known text by al-Barzanji (d. 1766) where the word madih refers to the virtue of offering praise rather than to a series of sung poetic compositions.

Nowadays the madih is found in the dhikr, the ritual of divine commemoration that first emerged around the 9th C. and which is now widespread throughout the Arab-Islamic world. In this context the word applies to a sung poetic form that actually constitutes a formalised part of the modern-day ritual, but which did not exist in the early dhikr.

The 16th C. dictionary Lisan al-arab also includes the word madih with the sense of panegyric poetry, not the meaning of songs or chants of praise. All this would indicate then that the madih as a religious song acquired its meaning and status in the Arab world during the last few centuries, and became synonymous with anashid, another common word denoting the corpus of sung religious poetry. The word madih could also have evolved in vernacular language so that it gradually came to mean the same as anashid, whose second meaning is the composition of hymns. The verb anshada covers the idea of using a certain amount of singing, whereas the verb madaha means “to praise/ speak highly of someone”, without any reference to singing, and is in fact considered more as a poem recited aloud.

To the glory of God and his Prophet

Generally speaking, then, the word madih is to be understood as meaning glorification, praise, a description of someone’s good actions. This praise is given by means of poetry and is embodied in its most typical and widespread form by the qasida (qasid in Sudan), a long poem with a unique rhyme and metre.

Contrary to what might be expected, the madih repertoire has at its source both classical and vernacular poetry, a fact that attests to the dominant role the ‘popular’ class must have played in disseminating it. This is why the word madih is often replaced by madh in Egypt, the latter being in dialect. In the Sudan there are even prose madih aiming to highlight admiration as much as their lyricism or communicative warmth, and which therefore employ meticulously chosen, rich language.

In short, the madih is a way of praying to the glory of God, a doxology (doxology is a hymn of glory to God), a form held in particularly high esteem in the Middle East since the most ancient times. Islam has merely taken up something which already existed and given it an even longer life. Nowadays, the madih with its doxological theme is a very common type of poetry that even shows a tendency to oust the religious love poem, that prerogative of Sufi mystic poetry. Nevertheless, in certain madih there is often mention of love of the Prophet.

The madih is addressed to Allah, to ‘Isá (Jesus), as it is still sung in Aleppo (Syria) or to the Saints of Islam. But the best-known repertoire mostly praises the prophet Mohammed, hence the frequently found expression madih nabawi (in praise of the Prophet). The first praise poems to the glory of the Prophet come from the hand of Hasan Ibn Thabit, a contemporary of Mohammed, who is therefore considered the father of the genre; but once again, we have no way of knowing if these panegyrics were declaimed as poems, sung or chanted, they did not in any case go to make up a real group of sung poems. Whatever the true history, since then the madih nabawi has experienced such a rapid expansion in creation and use that it’s literally taken over the genre. Currently the madih constitutes the most frequent and richest sung para-liturgical genre in the Arab world. Depending on which country it’s found in, it can be approached from many different angles; it can take the form of free improvisation or a measured piece, it can be performed by a soloist or a small choir with or without instrumental accompaniment. When accompanied, the ruling is that the only instruments allowed should be membraphones, represented by frame drums. However, in certain popular events in Egypt, this is put aside, and no-one has any qualms about resorting to a whole panoply of percussion instruments with even a tiny flute in their midst. The famous Algerian musician Mahhiedin Bachetarzi also recorded a series of med’hat (the local pronunciation of madih) with a small instrumental ensemble to accompany him.

The musical rules

As far as its composition is concerned, the madih generally follows the rules of classical music by adopting the names of the different modes. Its terminology differs anyway according to its country of origin; in Syria it becomes the tawshih, whose only distinguishing feature compared with the muwashshah, its equivalent in secular music, is the religious content of its poems. The musical rules are the same for both. It’s also known as ibtihal (“supplication”), in which case it’s generally performed by a soloist in a free style. There’s also a very particular form of the madih in Sudan, known as the munadja, a term borrowed from Persian Sufi literature, and extremely rare in the Arab world except in the Shiite milieu.

In Sudan, the composers of madih are not men of religion and they may compose secular songs as well as their madih. However, the Sudanese madih should not be confused with the secular chant, whose themes and musical structures are not the same as the madih’s, a characteristic that distinguishes it from its Syrian counterpart. This is an important point, for contrary to practice elsewhere, Sudan does not possess a specific learned vocabulary. This means the Sudanese madih has developed parallel to the song, without having borrowed from the latter; when you hear it, it sounds quite different from a secular song.

Another feature that sets the Sudanese madih apart from its other Arab counterparts is the successful synthesis between doxology and Sufism that has been achieved in the poetic content. The theme of love and ecstasy blends with that of the panegyric. Yet another theme, that of the pilgrimage, occurs frequently. Going to Mecca by dromedary only serves to add fuel to the love theme, because it draws the pilgrim nearer to the country where the Prophet lived. Thus many Sudanese madih have a rhythm that imitates the dromedary’s pace.

Christian Poché, ethnomusicologist
Translated by Délia Morris

The recordings

1- Sal al-rakb/Enquire about the convoy – 7’01
A poem by Mahmud Shihub performed by the Awlad Hajj al-Mahi ensemble
The different peoples want to recount the Prophet’s love. To do this, they form a convoy to go to Mecca. The panegyric is inspired by the rhythm of a dromedary, creating a type of melody known as shay-shay. The term al-rakba, convoy and procession, describes the situation that has given the song its title.

2- Shâshâ al-samîr/Hum, my companion – 6’20
Poem by Muhammad ‘Abd Allah performed by the Awlad Hajj al-Mahi ensemble
Samir means  “he who amuses himself”, hence the term samar that still means “a night-time festivity” in the spoken vernacular of the Arabian peninsula. Samir is used here to designate a man who follows the Prophet and remains in his company. He goes all the way to Medina and Mecca to look for him and thus becomes a close friend. Shasha is a dialectal verb meaning to sing sweet melodies that will induce the camel to walk at a calm, peaceful pace.

3- Shawqaq shawa al-damîr/Your love has made me dizzy – 8’47
Poem by Hajj al-Mahi performed by the Awlad Hajj al-Mahi ensemble
The term damir has to be understood slightly differently from its usual meaning (the conscience). It refers here to the spirit of morality and inner reflection that suits Sufism so perfectly. The title then becomes: “I’ve been thinking about your all-consuming love all day.”

4- Al-Jihâd fiyâ halfa/O my friends – 4’14
Poem by al-Hajj al-Mahi performed by the Awlad Hajj al-Mahi ensemble
It is good to become allied with the Prophet and make a pact with Him, the minha. An alliance existed between the caliphs and the Prophet, and the memory of this must be perpetuated amongst the people.

5- Yâ habîbî Ahmad tabîbî/My beloved Ahmad is also my saviour – 4’42
Poem by al-Hajj al-Mahi performed by the Awlad Hajj al-Mahi ensemble
The poem begins by insisting on the osmosis that exists between the Sufi and the Prophet: every element here belongs to the panegyric style. The Prophet is presented as someone of noble character, he is like a sun and leads his followers to success, a supreme guide. In the second part, the story turns to the hagiography, and recounts the Prophet’s birth and the miracles that surrounded it.

6- Al-Hijâz lâha barqû/Hedjaz appeared like a flash of lightning – 3’43
Poem by al-Hajj al-Mahi performed by the Awlad Hajj al-Mahi ensemble
This song tells of the ardent desire to recall the holy places, object of pilgrimages, once again. In Sudan the belief exists that it’s possible to travel in a flash of lightning without moving off the spot. In this vision, the places where the Beloved, in other words the Prophet, lived are evoked. The word barq (a flash of lightning) occurs frequently in Sudanese Sufi poetry

7- Al-Ba‘ûdah/The mosquito – 3’44
Poem by al-Zamakhshari sung by ‘Abd Allah al-Hubr
Managing to distinguish the two wings of a mosquito on a dark night is something of an exploit that makes certain level of awareness and divine mercy accessible to us. 

8- Anta nûr al-gharbi wa-sabâh/You shine forth over East and West alike – 7’11
Poem by sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Bura’i performed by the Awlad al-Bura’i ensemble
A poem stating the Prophet’s greatness, and His omnipresence in our lives. In the darkness of night his presence gleams and remains bright until morning. The Prophet’s lips are compared to the letter sad, the most perfect letter in the Arab language because it is a single curved stroke of the pen.

9- Sâqiyat al-layl/Night-time irrigation – 4’34
Poem by sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Bura’i performed by the Awlad al-Bura’i ensemble
A symbolic song: the invocation of God spreads good deeds and understanding. In a certain way, it acts like wine, even if the poem doesn’t make direct reference to wine as such (though it does mention the goblet, kas).Mystic ecstasy due to invocation is the subject here, whence the theme of the wave that irrigates. This calling upon the name of God happens in the dark and in solitude, both favourable conditions for inducing a state of mystic ecstasy.

10- La ilah illa lah/There is but one God, Allah – 4’10
The Awlad al-Bura’i ensemble
A modern composition that takes up the short, fervent formulae of the dhikr , on which the call to prayer is grafted.

  • Reference : 321.039
  • Ean : 794 881 707 225
  • Main artists : Ensembles al-Mahi & al-Bura’i
  • Year of recording : 2000
  • Year of publishing : 2002
  • Music style: Madîh
  • Country : Soudan
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composerss : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Mahmûd Shihûb ; Muhammad ‘Adb Allah ; al-Hâjj al-Mâhî ; al-Zamakhsharî ; Cheikh ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Bura’î ; Awlâd al-Bura’î
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe

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