Music, a bridge over troubled waters

Mar 19

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 17 March 2009

Jacksonville, Florida – The noted Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore said, “Music fills the infinite between two souls”. I experienced this while attending a recital by Choir Al Farah, a musical group that aims to highlight the reality and the possibility of Christians, Muslims and Jews living in brotherhood and peace. Through a fusion of Assyrian, Byzantine, Muslim and Latin musical traditions, Choir Al Farah, in the words of its founder, Elias Zehlawi, seeks to “glorify the one God that we all believe in and that makes all of us brothers and sisters.”

Choir Al Farah, a Syrian Christian group, was touring America to take part in the “Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World” festival organised by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, presented in cooperation with the League of Arab States.

Washington Post staff writer Ellen McCarthy wrote in an article a few weeks ago, “It will be a momentous occasion…. Unshackling ourselves from blurry stereotypes and half-formed conceits, we will step into their world without leaving the borders of our city. We’ll give ourselves over to the rare and precious opportunity to see, hear and taste the flavours of Arab culture through the intimate dialogue exchanged between artist and audience. The veil is about to be lifted.”

The veil was not only lifted in Washington, DC, but also in Detroit, Michigan, and here in my home city of Jacksonville, Florida, where – thanks to the generosity of my friend Yazan Khatib – Choir Al Farah delighted a diverse crowd of over 400 at the Ritz Theatre.

But why was Khatib, a Muslim, sponsoring a Christian choir group?

He was simply fulfilling a Qur’anic command: “Help ye one another unto righteousness and pious duty. Help not one another unto sin and transgression” (Qur’an 5:2).

At their Jacksonville recital, Choir Al Farah sang not only traditional Christian hymns but also gave voice to the most popular Muslim nasheed, “Tala al Badru Alayna” (Oh, the White Moon Rose Over Us). This Islam-inspired vocal music was originally sung by the children and residents of Medina as they welcomed Prophet Muhammad to their city over 1400 years ago.

The choir also sang “Amen”, a word that Jews, Christians and Muslims all use in prayer.

Their music celebrates the nostalgia of Arab culture, which – like other traditional cultures – is trying to retain its relevance in an increasingly globalised world.

Perhaps the most inspiring part of this group’s effort lies in its vision and composition. The singers, 120 children between 12 and 17, are all Christian, while most of the musicians are Muslim adults.

How did this cooperation come about? I asked the founder, Father Elias Zehlawi. He said that Choir Al Farah is the result of a dream he had about using his church to bridge the gap between ethnic and faith groups. His goal was to build a common platform to communicate the universal message of love and peace. He believes that all religions share the same spirit of mutual love and mutual respect. Unfortunately, politics and economics have driven a wedge between these groups that extremists on all sides are exploiting.

Zehlawi’s aspiration was reciprocated by the Grand Mosque of Damascus, known more commonly as the Umayyad Mosque. The mosque contains a shrine said to hold the head of John the Baptist, who is honoured as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims, to whom he is known as Yahya. Choir Al Farah and a group of singers from the Umayyad Mosque have jointly appeared before sold out audiences in Damascus and aspire to go on joint tours across the world.

I asked Zehlawi why he thought it was important to include Islamic nasheeds in the choir’s repertoire. His answer was that God should be a reason to unite us and not to divide us. He articulated a simple but profound idea that resonates in the Qur’an, “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another” (Qur’an 49:13).

Father Zehlawi believes that barriers to mutual understanding can be shattered by the voices of children, which can penetrate even the hardest of hearts. We are part of one human family and we must respect, not just tolerate, each other if we are to ever establish peace and justice.

As the world is buffeted by the sinews of economic and political strife, the voices of the 120 children from Damascus are filling the infinite between souls like a bridge over troubled waters.


Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 17 March 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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