'We are all creatures of God': Sheikh Mahmoud El Tohamy on Sufi music’s message of tolerance

The Egyptian chanter will perform as part of Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation virtual concert series

You don't have to pay to be a student of the acclaimed Sufi singer Sheikh Mahmoud El Tohamy.

The only thing you need is some talent and a hefty amount of patience.

It is always the latter where people slip up, El Tohamy tells The National from his home in Cairo, Egypt.

“A lot of the time, there is an expectation to come and learn how to sing these religious songs and then be ready to perform when they graduate,” he says. “That’s not the way I do things; 70 per cent of the actual course [I teach] is dedicated to spiritual exercises. I want them to understand the spiritual states they are singing about.”

It is for this reason that his Madrassat Al Nashad, which translates to chanting school, has been at the forefront of building a new generation of singers who perform devotional songs, also known as nasheeds.

On Saturday, May 9, we are going to see the master at work himself, as El Tohamy, 41, will deliver an online concert for Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation's Ramadan series.

It promises to be a stirring affair, with the performer singing key devotional tracks taken from Islamic history, such as Al Burdah, written by 13th-century Egyptian poet Imam Al-Busiri, as well as some of his own compositions.

The show follows his sold-out concert in Abu Dhabi in February, which took place at New York University – Abu Dhabi Arts Centre.

El Tohamy says the goal with the virtual concert is more than to simply entertain.

“I have been fortunate to travel and perform in many places to showcase the culture and tolerance of Sufi music,” he says. “And with us being in Ramadan, I am even more keen to show the spiritual beauty of the form. This is something that I am aware of, especially during this blessed period.”

The 'commercialisation' of nasheed music

The balance between faith and art has always been prevalent throughout El Tohamy’s career. His father is renowned nasheed singer Sheikh Yassin El Tohamy, and he received his theological training from Egypt's prestigious Islamic seminary, Al Azhar University.

He credits that experience for providing him with spiritual framework in which to view and build his performance career. It is a journey he hopes will remain immune from the growing fame and celebrity culture surrounding the nasheed industry.

“While I am not worried at all about the state of the music itself, what concerns me is the commercialisation surrounding it,” he says. “I have been seeing a lot of people entering the field and thinking more about the ends than the means. By that I mean they are focusing more on the fame and prestige than the goals of the music.”

It is for this reason that El Tohamy has built a rigorous spiritual syllabus into his music school. You can’t be an effective devotional singer, he states, without excellent character.

“One of the key lessons I give the students is to make them not just memorise the words of a particular nasheed or poem,” he says. “But I want them to live it and feel it. I want them to spend a long time thinking about what these words mean and embody the noble qualities it talks about. That way when they perform, they do it with knowledge and passion.”

When it comes to his own career and spiritual path, El Tohamy says the nasheeds and poems he recites have not only been a source of nourishment, but have also played a key role in building bridges with other cultures.

“It has certainly opened my mind,” he says. “The performances I do are really all about promoting tolerance of each other. The more I travel and see the world, I realise that we are all the same. I don’t treat people based on where they come or who they are. We are all creatures of God and we share a common humanity. It is always from this point that I begin.”

Sheikh Mahmoud El Tohamy performs on Saturday, May 9 at 9.30pm on the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation Facebook page

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