One of the great benefits of Ramadan is it provides an opportunity for a spiritual detox.
In addition to reading and contemplating the Quran, adherents often forgo that daily dose of popular music and, instead, listen to Islamic devotional songs called nasheeds.
These works are composed as songs and chants whose lyrics range from spiritual guidance to stories and character studies of historical Islamic figures.
Dating back to the birth of Islam, nasheeds were initially defined by what they didn't contain: no strings, brass, or wind instruments and no female vocals.
While women artists remain a rarity in the genre today, the accessibility of high-grade recording equipment and the spread of the internet resulted in these songs of praise enjoying a resurgence over the past two decades.
Leading names such as Sami Yusuf and Maher Zain achieved pop star status, selling millions of albums and performing arena tours worldwide.
Here are 15 nasheeds, in no particular order, showcasing the cultural diversity and eclecticism of the popular genre.
1. Burdah by Mesut Kurtis (2007)
An uplifting way to start the day. This song established Turkey’s Mesut Kurtis as a new star of the nasheed genre.
With the lyrics taken from the Burdah, written by 13th-century Egyptian poet Imam Al-Busiri, Kurtis gives these much-loved verses a modern sheen with his soulful voice and smooth percussion. "Islam doesn't clash with art because Islam is art," he told The National in a 2015 interview.
“The only thing we are doing in our existence here on Earth is discovering and getting inspired by creation.”
2. Ya Adheeman by Ahmed Bukhatir (2001)
History will show that the Emirati artist is a trailblazer for the local music industry.
Where 20 years ago, an international tour by an Emirati singer would be limited to the region, North Africa and maybe a London stop, Ahmed Bukhatir has been packing out venues from Australia and New Zealand to the UK and Canada. The Sharjah resident remains the UAE's most high-profile nasheed artist and the aching Ya Adheeman is a beautiful showcase of his style: understated, soulful and with lyrics that warms the heart.
Ya Adheeman tells the story of a troubled soul who finally found comfort in faith: "My soul is brightened by a light in my heart/ When I praised the God of Mankind/ And my soul is cheered up and the tears are flowing."
3. A is for Allah by Yusuf Islam (2000)
An absolute classic of the genre, which went on to become an essential teaching tool for Muslim families. A is for Allah finds Yusuf Islam using various letters of the English alphabet to highlight certain aspects of the faith.
4. Allah Knows by Zain Bhikha (2010)
This tranquil piece of songwriting could stand up as a great ballad for any pop act.
With Allah Knows, Zain Bhikha shows the healing qualities of nasheeds and how their uplifting nature reminds us that all difficult times will pass.
"Some of the best songs that I have written were when I was truly inspired and felt close to Allah and thinking about my life," Bhikha told The National in 2013. "That is what people want to hear, something real from someone else."
5. Assalamu Alayka by Maher Zain (2012)
If the nasheed industry had global charts, then, hands down, this would have been the biggest song of 2012.
During that year, you couldn't go near a Muslim neighbourhood either in Melbourne, Kuala Lumpur or Istanbul without hearing this catchy ode to the Prophet Mohammed. Swedish-Lebanese singer Maher Zain made sure of that, too – he released versions of the nasheed in Arabic, English and Turkish.
6. The Crazy Spots I've Prayed by Dawud Wharnsby (2003)
Nasheeds can be jaunty, too.
This is a light-hearted track that would elicit plenty of knowing nods from the faithful living in non-Muslim countries.
In Dylan-esque fashion, the Canadian singer-songwriter lists all the impromptu places he has prayed in, to fulfil the five daily prayers on time. From roadsides to changing rooms in clothing stores, Wharnsby details how he has left his spiritual mark. “When I think of every path, where I’ve ever trot,” he sings, “I laugh at all the crazy spots I stopped to worship God.”
7. Ramadan is Here by Native Deen (2011)
A perfect tonic if the rigours of Ramadan tire you midway through the month. US group Native Deen keep it pacey and vibrant as they sing and rap about the joys of the holy month.
The track is a timely reminder that Ramadan is about more than simply abstaining from food and drink: “Everybody knows that we gotta fast / But does everybody know how the time is passed? / Is it sleeping all day and the nights a blast? / And forgetting the reward of the month is vast?”
8. Allah Hoo by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1992)
A master of qawwali music – a form of Islamic devotional songs practised mostly in South-East Asia – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan makes you feel the power and significance of worship in this epic 27-minute track.
The poetic lyrics, sung in Urdu, are full of praise to a higher power: "Everything is a reflection of your glory / Everything cries out that you are the Lord / It is the distinction of your enthralling visage.”
9. La Elah Ela Allah by Mishary Alafasy (2011)
Initially renowned in the Gulf for his melodious recitation of the Quran, it didn’t take long for the Kuwaiti artist to cross over to the nasheed genre – nearly 20 years ago.
La Elah Ela Allah is one of his most popular tracks and a great example of the subtle yet precise production work that goes into nasheed songs.
Without the use of instrumentation, the rhythm and melodies of this song is done through the manipulation of Alafasy's backing vocals. The video, in which Alafasy sings from the back seat of a car stuck in a traffic jam, is reminiscent of 1992's Every Body Hurts by R E M.
10. Farshi Al Turab by Mishary Al Arada (2015)
There is a considerable body of nasheed songs that looks at life through the lyrical prism of death.
Major artists, from the UK's Sami Yusuf to the UAE’s Ahmed Bukhatir, have all released works urging us to live a spiritually fulfilling life while we can.
Kuwaiti singer Mishary Al Arada joined that list with the soulful Firashi Al Turab.
Translated to ‘Dust is my Bed’ the lyrics and accompanying video looks at the fleeting nature of life and ultimately asks what we are doing with the time we have. The song takes on a haunting turn considering Al Arada was killed in a car collision in Kuwait in 2018, aged 35.
11. Asmu by Muhammad Al Muqit (2016)
The most popular track by the Saudi Arabian artist.
Translated to I Rise, the calming track has Al Muqit going through a list of things, moments and feelings he is grateful for as he wakes up to face a new day.
However, giving thanks is enough. Al Muqit urges us to do our bit in spreading joy and beauty into the world.
"Colour the world with the most beautiful smile,” he says. “Be an example for all that is good."
12. Eid Song by Sami Yusuf (2005)
A great choice to play in the final days of Ramadan to get you ready for Eid. Considered a family classic of Sami Yusuf's rich body of work, Eid Song is full of joyful imagery of children and preparing for and celebrating Eid. "Children are wearing new clothes and bright colours fill the streets," he sings. "Their faces full of laughter. Their pockets full of sweets. Let us rejoice indeed, for this is the day of Eid."
13. Tawakalt Fi Rezki A'la Allah by Mohamed Tarek (2019)
An Arabic song imploring us to seek comfort and protection from the highest, Tawakalt Fi Rezki A'la Allah is a soulful illustration of the modern nasheed sound.
Egyptian singer Mohamed Tarek literally does all the work here. In addition to his rich tenor on the lead vocals, he also provides background vocals that double up as percussion and synths.
What once began as an innovative method to get around the genre’s more conservative artists' distaste for using stringed instruments, this new approach has now become the defining sound of modern nasheed songs.
14. 99 Names of Allah by Omar Esa (2014)
British singer Omar Esa found a global audience with a piece inspired by the 99 names attributed to Allah by Muslims.
From As-Salam (The Source of Peace) to As-Sabur (The Patient One), the near six-minute piece has Esa going through them all in a work that is deeply reflective and soothing.
15. Back to You by Siedd (2018)
The Canadian singer made a big splash with this debut single. Melding spiritual lyricism with RnB and pop music vocal arrangements, Back to You is a winner as it appeals to both younger and older listeners.