Erbarme Dich Allah

Here is a wonderful re-imagining of the aria Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott from the St Matthew Passion by Johan Sebastian Bach sung in Arabic with intense passion by Egyptian contralto Fadia el-Hage.

Three things struck me when I first heard this on the radio the other night. After the initial surprise when I first heard her voice, I thought how wonderfully well the Middle-Eastern inflections work with Bach. That’s no surprise of course, because Bach’s music is so beautifully constructed that it can be performed in many different ways without diminishing its power. It really is universal.

The other thing was about a different kind of universality, that it seems common to all humans to reach out for whatever it is that lies beyond everyday life and experience, whether through religion or by some other means. We don’t have to agree with each other’s beliefs to see in others the same need as ourselves. This aria in particular (I’ve posted about it before) conveys the feelings of shame and remorse of the disciple Peter after having betrayed Jesus. The point is that feelings such as this are universal. We all – men and women, christian and non-christian – come to know what it is to feel like this, just as we all come to know about pain and death. It’s the fact that we all know that we will die that gives the story of the Passion its tragic power.

Finally it occurred to me that this might annoy some intolerant folk as it translates all these things into an Islamic context. That gives me an additional reason for posting it!

3 Responses to “Erbarme Dich Allah”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Allah means what?

    I am often asked by other Christians whether Allah is Jehovah. I always reply that Muslims believe in a creator god and Christians believe in a creator god and there can be only one such, so the issue is whether the Bible or the Quran is correct about the personality and the actions in history and the personality of the Creator. (The two accounts are not mutually consistent.) Your answer is a matter of faith.

    As for the etymology, “allah” is a concatenation of al-illah which is the Arabic for “THE god”, since “illah” is the generic Arabic word for a deity. It corresponds in Hebrew (a very similar language in pronunciation) to Eloah, of which the plural is Elohim, a word for Jehovah in the Old Testament. (Christians take this plural to be a hint at the Trinity, and Jews take it to be majestic as when a king says “We declare…”)

    So, should translations of the Bible into Arabic use the word Allah?
    1400 years ago, before Muhammad, “Allah” would have been a great translation of some of the words for “god” in the Bible. Today, though, it simply has too many Islamic connotations and would be liable to mislead.

    Musically, this is fascinating.

  2. Tolerance is much preferred over the alternative, and appreciating differences is an enriching experience. Being tolerant of things you approve off is good. Tolerating views I find distasteful is much harder but perhaps some tolerance of the intolerant is not a bad thing. A long time ago I received some emails from a humanistic society which I found bordering on being abusive of religion. Apparently, fundamentalism is not restricted to religion. It is a human characteristic.

    But tolerance can also be used as a tool of suppression (‘what is yours is mine’). In this case, how would it be perceived by a Koptic in Egypt?

  3. Why the chickens?

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