Barzanji – a test of our creativity

© Muhammad Haniff Hassan, June 2003

Reading the Barzanji has become part and parcel of our community’s tradition. In the past, it was often read on Thursday evenings at mosques. At other times, it was read on special occasions such as Aqiqah ceremonies, “shaving of the head” ceremonies for new-born babies, circumcisions and other cause for celebrations in Islam. The nature of its contents also makes Barzanji hold a special place during events to commemorate the maulid of the Prophet p.b.u.h.

In Singapore, the practice of reading the Barzanji is not as popular as it used to be. Besides being limited to only a few functions, Barzanji is practiced mostly by the elderly within the confines of their homes.

Barzanji is a book that documents the life of the Prophet p.b.u.h, in the form of Arabic prose and poetry. It was written by Syed Jaafar b. Hassan b. Abdul Karim Al-Barzanji during the reign of the “Fatimides”. Please visit to listen to a sample of Barzanji being read.

The tradition of reading the Barzanji is very strong among the Malays in this region. Often, it seemed that the book of Barzanji was regarded as the second “holy book” in the homes of past Malays, after the Quran. While this situation may not be too evident in Singapore, it still persists in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

There could be no doubt that the book of Barzanji was produced as the artistic manifestation of a person’s deep love for the Prophet p.b.u.h. A love that emanates from his desire to emulate the Sunnah of the Prophet as enjoined in Islam. It was also an effort to plant and propagate the seed of that love among the community – a truly noble cause in Islam.

So exquisite is the result that anyone who understands Arabic could not possibly be unaffected by its words. Hence it was quickly able to gain popularity, till it spread and firmly rooted itself in the Malay Archipelago.

Nonetheless, the practice of reading the Barzanji is not without its controversy. Arising out of the differences between the traditionalists comprising the older generation, and a reformist movement consisting of the younger generation, the controversy was also partly the result of the reawakening of Islam that brings with it, “tajdid” in Islam.

It is not the purpose of this article to highlight further the debate on Barzanji whether from the Fiqh or Usuluddin aspect as it is an extensive topic. It also involves the issue of khilafiyah that has been deliberated upon by past ulama, one that is unlikely to be resolved by today’s ulama.

Instead this article would like to highlight how this controversy reflects the stagnation and complacency in the practice of Islam. Why is this so?

Barzanji is merely the expression of an artiste’s love for Rasulullah (pbuh). It is a product that stems from a noble intention even though it is wrought with controversy.

Why this particular “work of art” hold such a special status in the hearts of the Muslim community reflects the stagnation and complacency pervading and inhibiting our creativity. These cause Muslims to be more comfortable with using the products of other’s creative work rather than to exert efforts in producing something that is comparable or better as an alternative.

The inflexibility that has plagued the group that defends the practice of reading the Barzanji makes them perfectly happy to preserve it and not attempt produce any alternative artistic works. And yet Islam has urged its followers to compete in the pursuit of goodness. Allah taala says;

“So hasten towards all that is good.” (Al-Baqarah : 148)

Stagnation and complacency also plagues the group that is prone to criticise this practice without offering an alternative that has an equal appeal – an alternative ‘consistent with the sunnah’ in expressing the love for the prophet while having public appeal. Islam advocates that its dai provide alternatives instead of merely criticising. Allah says in the Quran;

“Whatever a Verse (revelation) do we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring a btter one or similar to it. Know you not that Allah is able to do all things.” (Al-Baqarah : 106)

Is there a better alternative to the book of Barzanji? Or would it be sufficient for us just to recite Allahumma salli `ala Muhammad wa `ala ali Muhammad?

An example is the works of P. Ramlee which has yet to be challenged, a reflection of his strength and the weakness of subsequent artiste. This is the same situation for the book of Barzanji.

Whether the ulama are in agreement of the practice or against it, both parties are in consensus that the Muslim community should return to its glorious day. But an excellent and charismatic Muslim community can only be achieved when the community is not satisfied with merely being users or being short of ideas on how to attract the soul of mankind.

Imam Al-Barzanji made history by producing a popular artistic work that is widely accepted by the community for which he will be justly rewarded. But it will not change today’s community unless they have the desire to work hard and create their own history.

Allah taala says,

“That was a nation who has passed away. They shall receive the reward of what they earned, and you of what you earn. And you will not be asked what they used to do.” (Al-Baqarah : 141)

We should try learn from the spirit of Imam Al-Barzanji by producing our own artistic work either individually or collectively. This would be better than repeating the same thing just like the repeat telecasts of Do Re Mi, Bujang Lapuk or Tiga Abdul.

Do the Muslims today not love the prophet as much as Imam Al-Barzanji? Or does that love exist in the hearts of the ummah but their minds are frozen and uncreative?