Ninety-nine names of Allah sung in church
The devout Orthdox Christian composer Sir John Tavener, knighted for his services to music in 2000, premiered his latest work, The Beautiful Names, at Westminster Cathedral last month.
A solo tenor and two choirs sung the famous ninety-nine Names of Allah in Arabic, having quite impressively grasped the difficult pronunciation of the more guttural letters. Each of the divine Names was recited in its own unique style, whilst being split into two distinct groups: those of majesty and those of mercy.
There was, according to Tavener, an “inner logic” to the choice of the accompanying music, which was so natural that it appeared to him “spontaneously”. The flowing tune complemented the exclamations of the ninety-nine Names, which were beautifully split up into nine “tonal zones” of eleven Names each. Repeated outbursts of “Allah” separated each section, constantly reminding us of the central pillar around which this performance was based: “There is one God worshipped by Christians and Muslims.”
In spite of the clear difficulty one would expect in captivating the audience for almost eighty minutes using only a list of Arabic words, Tavener’s work included close to no repetition and constantly surprised the audience with differing styles and sudden subtle changes in the music. This masterpiece was, however, not only about the music; it was about God. It was this, which fascinated the crowd, both in London and in Turkey, where it was subsequently performed.
Tavener, a religious pluralist wanting to create unity across religious boundaries, seems to have reached the perfect equilibrium in bringing together different religions.
This piece was commissioned by the Prince of Wales, the future head of the Anglican Church of England, performed at the chief Catholic Church in the country, was about the Qur`anically inspired Names of Allah, and its structure had its basis in Hindu philosophy. “This is the most important work that I have ever written,” Tavener said. “It is a kind of ‘summation’ of all that I have tried to do over the past 60 years. If the work contributes towards healing a shattered world, then this is of great importance.”