Why We Must Chant

It was 5:00am and I’m sleeping in a hotel in Bodrum, Turkey, a secularized Islamic state as far from fundamentalism as one can imagine. This is a thoroughly modernized country with universal rights. I heard something strange and mysterious, a voice of some sort, a song. I rolled over and went to back to sleep and woke an hour later to the sound of a rooster. I figured I had dreamed the whole thing.

The next day, however, the same voice came on at 5:00am and this time I listened. It was chant of some kind of religious nature. Then I realized. This was coming from the local Mosque. The cantor was singing on the loudspeaker and it was heard through this sector of town.

At first, the sound puzzled me. Too foreign. I couldn’t understand the words. But then I became curious and heard melodic and textual similarities to the Gregorian chant. Surely there is a common ancestor between Quranic chant and the Gregorian tradition. They both use scripture. They both proclaim the word. They both date from the first millenium. They are both unmistakably religious.

By the fourth day, I was hooked. I got up just to hear it.

Come to prayer
Come to success
Prayer is better than sleep
Allah is the greatest
There is none worshipable but Allah

Every day, it is the same. It sung with great power and lyrical interpretation. The better the cantor, the more elaborate the embellishment. To the ear of the faithful Muslim, it must be incredibly familiar but also essential. It is the chant that starts the day. It is the chant that ends the day. The word is with the faithful throughout the day, and throughout their lives.

The manner in which it is chanted is unchanged from the 8th century. It is chanted in a high version of Arabic, a form of the language studied in school and understood by everyone. It is a language that is technically dead in the sense that it does not change. The vernacular is different because it adapts to changes. The language of prayer is stable like the faith itself.

So prominent a role does this chant play, even in secular Muslim countries, that it is broadcast everywhere, like the bells of the local church that play on Sundays. The chant shapes the culture. It instills the faith. It gives evidence of belief that the word that came down to us so long ago still speaks to us in daily life.

The people might leave the faith but the faith never leaves them. The chant is a major reason.

The people who sing are enormously talented. They train. They take pride in what they do. A Mosque would never exist without the cantor, who, according to Wikpedia, is called muqri’ , tālī, murattil, mujawwid, or most commonly a qari. They obey the rules of chanting. It would be inconceivable to simply make something up or replace the chant with a popular song. In private life, Muslims can do that, but not at public worship.

There is no demand that the people sing along, as if only the collective makes it worth doing. The demand is that people participate in the prayer through listening and praying.

I can’t but help but compare to the Christian world. We have chant. It is fixed and unchanging, though scholarship to perfect the editions continues as befits the Western idea of progress. It was stabilized as early as the 8th century, the same period in which Islam developed. The language is from scripture. The language is liturgical. The chants are assigned for a reason. They give music to prayer and thereby ennoble it.

Christians today are inclined to think that the Muslims are religious freaks because they have regular prayer throughout the day. Don’t they know that religious stuff is only supposed to go on one hour per week on Sunday?

Even most Catholics are oblivious to the fact that Christianity and Islam share this idea of prayer throughout the day — sung prayer. But apparently the new version of such prayer that was cobbled together in a reformed way after the Second Vatican Council still doesn’t have music. The reformers forgot or delay that point. And we are still without, 50 years later. Fortunately we do have all the chants for Mass.

We all live in what might be called a secularized Christian country, meaning that the clerics do not run the government but the overwhelming majority adhere to some Christian idea. But strangely, people use this fact — and I heartily approve that the clerics do not run the government! — as an excuse to not practice their faith at all except in the most superficial possible way.

We have chants in the Roman Rite. They are embedded in our tradition. But we hardly hear them except in movies and on CDs. We heard them torn from their natural habitat. Then we go to Church on Sunday. The first song we sung does not announce the day or even come from scripture. It was put together by some guys writing stuff in the 1970s. We call these hymns. For many people, when they hear them, they think the opposite of the Muslim call to prayer: it would have been better to have slept in.

But then we look at our official prayer books. What’s this? There is an entrance. It comes from Scripture. It is chant. It is complex but distinct and beautiful. When you hear it, you know where you are. You know what you are doing. This is about giving praise to God. And you prepare yourself for what is going to happen. Then there are the unchanging chants like Kyrie and Gloria, followed by a reading, followed by that the glorious thing, the Gradual Psalm. This is the piece of music that has the most in common with Quaranic chant. Islam too embraces the Psalms.

Each piece in the official books serves a distinct liturgical purpose. To live with these chants is to live the life of faith through them. They become the theme song of our prayer. The melodies mark the seasons and the passage of time as seen through the life of Christ.

And yet: we’ve thrown it all away. Not entirely, but almost. And the faith suffers as a result. Somewhere along the way, we got this idea that the music at Mass is not really prayer and not really the word of God. It is just music. So of course if it is just music, we should play and sing music that we like most, music that makes us happy and feel just the right way. Nothing is given, everything is chosen.

Then we look around the world and see Islam making huge advances. We wonder why. We blame crazy people and crazy governments. We call out the troops. We impose restrictions. We sit at the dinner table and wring our hands about the coming of Sharia law.

Here is a better solution. Let’s shore up Christian tradition — particularly our public prayer. Let’s rediscover our own native chant, the sung prayer that built civilization. It’s right there waiting for us. We too can make a joyful noise when we pray. We too can chant praise to God. It can become part of our lives. It can make us more faithful. And it can attract more people to the faith.