Thursday, April 21, 2011

Siqilliyya Brotherhood at Fes Sufi Festival

If you thought that another night of samaa was was going to be more of the same, you could not be more wrong. The Tariqa Siqilliyya gave the audience a completely different experience from anything we have had so far at the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture. Leaving the uplifting spiritual power of the evening aside, the vocal work was sensational - and very unusual.

Right from the start, the night was different. With the threat of heavy rain, there had been talk of shifting away from the open-air venue at the Batha Museum. Instead the audience walked into a tented space. This was good thinking on the part of the organisers who had erected a number of tents without markedly restricting the sight-lines of the audience.

From the moment the brotherhood started chanting and made their entrance it became obvious that this was a group capable of performing samaa with great force of intensity. However, it was not until they settled onto the stage that it became clear that this was not the usual samaa.

At first the singing seemed to have echoes of something else - a music from another place. There was no mistaking it; what we were hearing was a subtle polyphony - a texture consisting of two or more independent melodic voices, as opposed to music with just one voice The brother's voices rose and fell, others cut in underneath and the effect was what one might have expected from an early Christian liturgy!

The exact origins of Christian polyphony are unclear, but history tells us it was being used as early as the year 900. It was also widely used in secular music and for that reason was banned by the church in the 14th century. Dissonant clashes of notes was labeled as evil, fueling the argument against polyphony as being the devil’s music. Yet, the musical influence on the Siqilliyya has produced a sound that is truly angelic.

So how did such an influence come to leave an echo in Sufi samaa? The name of the brotherhood may well give us a clue to the answer. Siqilliyya was the Arabic name for Sicily, which was a Muslim Emirate from 965 to 1072. Before this time, Eastern Chistianity had been prominent during the time of Byzantine rule, and even under the Muslim rulers.


During the time of the Emirate, Sicily prospered, with Muslims arriving in large numbers, spreading Islamic civilization to its various cities. Travellers and geographers praised the mosques, palaces, bath houses, hospitals, markets, walls, citadels and ports. In addition to the various new industries like paper, silk, ship building and mosaic industries, they also extracted various minerals such as sulphur, oil, ammonia, lead and iron. They contributed to agriculture and trade and spread the Arabic language and culture. They also absorbed the popular music of the period.

But this tranquility and stability in Sicily did not last long. After the collapse of the Kalbid State (1052) internal conflicts laid it open to conquest, from north or south. The Amirs of Tunis failed to achieve that from the south; but the Normans, rulers of southern Italy, managed to capture Sicily from the north under Count Roger I, ruler of Calabria, who exploited the internal strife among Muslims in Sicily and by supporting Amir Al-Qadir Bi Allah Ibn Al Thamna, ruler of Trapani against his rival Ali Ibn Al Hawwas, ruler of Catania. After nine years of war, Roger managed to gain control of the whole island (1092). Because of these unstable political conditions in Sicily, a large number of its scholars and writers left and settled elsewhere.

Though King Roger I (1093-1101) put an end to Islamic rule in Sicily, he did not harm its Muslim people; on the contrary , he provided them with protection, and recognized their religion and legislation and allowed them their own judges, if they chose. He also allowed them to celebrate their religious occasions in public. In addition, he abstained from participation in the crusades in spite of the Pope's pressure.

Al Sharif Al Idrisi - The Fez connection

Roger II (1101-1154 A.D.) succeeded his father and followed his tradition in protecting Muslims through his influence and laws. An example of the King's tolerance and his love of justice and equality is that he inscribed all Sicilian coins in Arabic, Latin and Greek, the languages used by his citizens. He is also reported to have imitated the Muslims rulers in their loose clothes in a clear indication of his lack of bias. His court in Palermo contained a large number of Muslim poets, musicians and scientists including the major Maghrebi geographer Abu Abdulla Mohammad Al Sabti better known as Al Sharif (the noble) Al Idrisi, being a descendant of the Idrisi Kings of the Maghreb and grandsons of the Prophet Mohammad through Al Hassan Ibn Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Al Idrisi (1100-1154) was fond of travelling to acquaint himself with the conditions in various countries and the customs of their people. When he visited his relatives in Sicily, Roger II invited him to his court and was very hospitable to him.


The Tariqa Siqilliyya were not only intense and moving to listen to, but their invitation to the audience to participate was taken up with enthusiasm. Their music, no matter what its origins, is clearly very popular as was demonstrated by the many people in the audience who followed every word.

For others this was the first time that they had experienced the power of Siqilliyya, and judging by the overwhelmingly positive response, it will not be the last.

Reporting and research: Helen Ranger & Sandy McCutcheon
Photographs: Sandy McCutcheon

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