Gnostic Chants of North Africa

by Prof. Ephraim Weinherz,
Coordinator of the Harvard Commission on the Wadi al-'Irfan Texts

During the first weeks after the discovery of the ruins at Wadi al-'Irfan in southern Morocco in January, 2000, it became clear that the texts found there were of far-reaching significance. To say the least, the mere juxtaposition of scriptures in Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek was most surprising especially for a dervish monastic library in such a remote region.

In the months following the archeological excavations by Prof. Hafiz Abdul Wajid and his team, studies of photocopies of these texts by specialists from all over the world have established beyond any reasonable doubt that the Wadi al-'Irfan materials, though not as old, are at least as startling in their implications as those of the Dead Sea, or the Nag Hammadi sites. But I am happy to be able to point out that this Moroccan discovery has been spared the fate of the previous two: years indeed, decades of concealment from the general public by misguided authorities who allowed themselves to be swayed by a mixture of scholarly territorialism and religious politics. My esteemed colleague, Prof. Wajid, is to be congratulated for swiftly making photocopies of all the Wadi al-'Irfan material available to scholars worldwide. This was proof not only of the extraordinary professional skill of his archeological team, but of his own courage as well. Exactly as in the case of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea discoveries, certain powerful influences would have preferred that this material be restricted only to a tiny scholarly elite for an indeterminate period but Dr. Wajid was bold and resourceful in his refusal to bow to such influences. Over the course of the last year, beginning with our work at Harvard, numerous translations and commentaries have become publicly available. Recently, several Internet sites have appeared where these may be consulted and downloaded in multilingual versions.

We now know that this community housed at least 300 persons in a location which in those days was a large, verdant, and flourishing agricultural oasis, before climatic changes and shifting sands reduced it to barren and almost featureless desert. Who were the original custodians of this remote library, this singular treasury of scriptures, hymns and poems in all the liturgical languages of the Middle East and Europe? Before attempting to answer this difficult question, let us consider the general nature and dating of these texts.

Most of them are chants, many with musical notations of one kind or another. All of them are based on various canonical, as well as non-canonical, writings from the Judaic, Christian and Islamic traditions. The oldest of the manuscripts the Hebrew scroll and Aramaic fragments date from the first century of the Common Era. This is very old indeed, especially when we consider that the Hebrew scroll may have been copied from older versions, perhaps reaching back to Old Testament times. A few Latin and Greek chant manuscripts date from the 8th century, which make them the oldest originals yet discovered of their type. The remaining majority (a total of fourteen codices and thirty-seven fragments and letters) are more recent no older than the 10th to 12th centuries, C.E., with a small group of the latter (mostly correspondence) of even later date. Yet these also point to much older originals, reaching in some cases back to the middle of the first century, C.E.

It is unlikely that the site was established before the 10th century, and the overall evidence enables us to confidently place the inhabitants of Wadi al-'Irfan in the period of the Western Ummayad dynasty. Several pieces of correspondence in Arabic referring to the court of Caliph Abd er-Rahman of Cordoba prove that they had links to al-Andaluz. But even without this evidence, the multi-cultural, polyglot, ecumenical spirit of the texts would suggest such a link. Where else in the medieval world was there such a high degree of confluence of the three great Abrahamic religious currents, in an atmosphere of tolerance and lively exchange? No outside confirmations of this important link between Cordoba and Wadi al-'Irfan have yet come to light, at least as far as we know. But the hypothesis of Cordoba as the origin and cultural matrix of this ecumenical desert community certainly imposes itself, at least for the present. Assuming this to be the case (as most specialists provisionally do), we may begin to formulate some notions of who these people were, based on the evidence of the texts themselves.

They were certainly a group composed of many different ethnic and racial origins, and their religious beliefs and practices reflected an intermingling of the streams of the three great Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This of course evokes the atmosphere of mutual tolerance and freedom of religion which prevailed in Cordoba. But unlike the intermingling of the streams in Andalusia, where the three religions remained very distinct from each other, it is certain that at Wadi al-'Irfan they were blended together into what amounts to a common liturgical practice.

Perhaps just as unusual was the presence of women in the community. Though no one disputes the overwhelming evidence for this, there is at present considerable scholarly disagreement as to their relative numbers, as well as their role and status. Hypotheses vary widely: from that of very small numbers of women whose roles were restricted to those of servants and/or wives of sheikhs; to the other extreme, which interprets certain evidence as indicating large numbers of women, and their full and equal participation in ritual (even as officiants) and their co-habitation on an equal basis with the men something which would have been outlandish in any social context of that era (though, as its proponents point out, no more outlandish than the explicit content of many of the texts themselves). Pending fuller studies and greater scholarly consensus, it would be prudent to avoid both extremes for now, and simply note that women played an important role here, though we cannot yet specify exactly what it was.
What we do know is that this was a kind of pan-Abrahamic religious community who lived, studied, prayed and chanted together in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Greek and to some extent in Aramaic. Besides these major languages, there also appear brief passages in a surprising variety of vernacular tongues, ranging from Spanish dialect to Provençal and even Gaelic, as well as Berber and other African vernaculars as far-flung as Yoruba, which indicates important commerce with sub-Saharan peoples.

This was an astonishingly cosmopolitan desert retreat, indeed, and one must wonder whether there were others like it. It is hard to see how such a phenomenon could have arisen in this remote place without substantial ongoing support from Andalusian civilization, probably through the medium of travelling dervish brotherhoods. Various documents leave no doubt that the inhabitants of Wadi al-'Irfan formally regarded themselves as pious Muslims. Can this be taken at face-value, or was it simply an adaptation to the social climate of the Maghreb? As far as one can judge, they were quite sincere in this profession of faith, though of course they also professed to be Jews and Christians. Certainly this was a branch of Islam of an ecumenism without parallel in any other time or place as far as we know. Is it possible that other such centers existed? A Celtic cross inscribed with the opening words of the Qur'an has been found there, and this is an almost perfect duplicate of another famous cross of this type from 9th-century Ireland. The nature of the connection between the two (and surely there must be one) is a question for future research.

Leaving aside any theological problems for now, how were these people able to construct a liturgy which made sense, given so many different languages? From the evidence of the three hundred or so chants themselves, it would seem that this variety of tongues was something which they not only allowed, but positively welcomed and savored. As well as monolingual chants in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Arabic, there are many chants which combine these liturgical languages in almost every possible permutation.

With the exception of the older texts, which employ a hitherto unknown musical notation, the majority of the chants employ a European system of neumes similar to that of St.-Galle (with staff notes appearing in later editions), which is most often associated with so-called "Gregorian" chant. However, preliminary findings by musicologists who are still examining these manuscripts (the earliest of which predate all existing European chant manuscripts) show differences as well as strong similarities with Gregorian chant. Dr. Marie-Madeleine Masihi, chief musical consultant on our Harvard committee, assures us that the "eastern" flavor of these variants, as compared to most Carolingian and Roman chants, is not really eastern at all, but an indication that the Latin Wadi al-'Irfan chants are actually closer to the original, unknown source of the chant which later came to be known as "Gregorian" (mostly because of religious politics of the Carolingian era). It is important to note that even the Arabic chants, as well as many of those in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, were written in this Western European notation. This is highly significant, for it indicates something far beyond a mere mixing of traditions. It means that this was a concerted, cooperative effort to construct a new pan-Abrahamic liturgy yet one which preserved very ancient elements, some of which had been neglected or suppressed by mainstream traditions. The use of European notation is primarily a reflection of its flexibility and practicality. It does not indicate any dominant influence of European music or texts per se. Besides, as Dr. Masihi points out, European music had not yet begun its concentration on vertical harmony and polyphony, so that the notion of "Western" vs. "Eastern" music had no meaning in this era.

The Content of the Chants and Hymns

This brings us to the most controversial aspect of the Wadi al-'Irfan texts: the presence of heterodox material, often inserted into known scriptures of Judaism and Christianity. This material is very frequently of a nature which would surely have been regarded as heretical by the vast majority of Jews and Christians of that era or of today, for that matter. The Islamic texts, however, are by contrast essentially in accord with both the Qur'an and the Hadith. Some might interpret this as a sign of caution with regard to the reigning religious and political climate in which this community existed. But it could also simply reflect the relatively solid scriptural consensus of this youngest branch of Abrahamic religion, whether or not one accepts Islamic claims that the Qur'an has never been edited since it was uttered by the Prophet Mohammed, and that Judaic and Christian scriptures have been extensively altered and corrupted. In any case, the nature of the apocrypha leaves no doubt whatsoever that we are dealing, not with a heresy concocted in the 10th century, but with an older tradition which is directly descended from the ferment of gnostic writings and sects in the Eastern Mediterranean in the centuries just before and after the time of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the most striking confirmation of this is a group of chants and hymns in the original Greek, taken from the Gospel of Thomas. Although brief, they are many times longer and more complete than the Oxyrhynchus fragments, and provide an invaluable comparison with the later Coptic version of the text from Nag Hammadi. In spite of the 8th-century, C.E., dating of these manuscripts, there is no serious doubt as to their authenticity. It is thought that the full Greek copy of the Thomas Gospel from which they are extracted dates back to the middle part of the first century, and there is some hope that it may yet be found in further excavations of the ruins.
Even more heterodox, and highly significant for comparative religious studies, is the singular Hebrew version of the Shir ha-Shirim, or Song of Songs. The later Latin version is mostly a translation of the Hebrew, dating from the 12th century C.E., with some surprising interpolations in Yoruba dialect. At first glance this association of Hebrew and Yoruba seems odd, to say the least. Yet mythographers have found it especially exciting in the light of the recent archaeological discovery by Dr. Patrick Darling (spring, 1999; see or search: Nigeria + pyramids) of vast earthwork pyramids in Nigeria, and the associated legend of the Queen of Sheba as of West African origin, identified with the ancient Yoruba Queen, Bilikisu Sungbo. But our Hebrew scroll is much older, contemporary with some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Each of these chants (the Latin version longer, and with different music) interposes passages from the Book of Kings, which yields a highly heretical reading of the Old Testament. If we are to take these texts and commentaries at face-value, then they would be nothing less than a survival of lost, pre-Deuteronomist editions of the Bible. Certainly this chant's fervent praise of Solomon for his generosity in allowing the foreign gods of his wives to be worshipped in the Temple, is totally at odds with the canonical Bible. But it could also be a later gnostic reaction, entirely in keeping with the date of the scroll, as well as with the tolerant ecumenism of its stewards in Wadi al-'Irfan. Be this as it may, the impressive age of this Hebrew version at least shows that such opposition has an ancient lineage, though obviously forced underground over the centuries, to the point of virtual extinction from the historical record.

In sum, the men and women of Wadi al-'Irfan formed a vigorous, international community of gnostics who, in spite of their physical isolation, were part of a vast and secret network which embraced the entire Mediterranean, including parts of northern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. (I deliberately refrain from using the capitalized term Gnostic, a problematic word at best, which typically implies adherence to certain metaphysical doctrines which are absent here.) That they were connected with Sufi orders is certain. Indeed, it might not be too far-fetched to see them as being a survival of some original gnostic impulse which later became known as the Sufi way, or tasawwuf, under the protection of Islam. Far from being an insular, alienated group of refugees from orthodoxy, these were a highly resourceful, skilled, and educated people who were not only able to maintain a thriving community, and practice their heterodox religion in peace for centuries, but were politically adept enough to obtain continuous protection from Islamic authorities, despite several upheavals of regimes. There is no evidence for their harboring armies or garrisons of any sort. Apparently they were revered and protected by all neighboring nomads, even those who were at war with each other.

How is it, then, that the mystics of Wadi al-'Irfan left so little trace in the historical record? This question demands a much longer discussion than is possible in the notes to a record album. But now I shall allow the artists who have created this recording to answer this question in their own way. Their way of answering it involves speculations and risks which a scholar cannot afford to take yet it is often these artistic risk-takers, historically accurate or not, who suggest new directions for research.

A Note on the Making of this Recording
by Yusuf Malamati, Musical Consultant for the Credo project.

We wish to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Weinherz and Dr. Masihi for their open-mindedness and support in making these texts available to artists as well as scholars, as well as for their patience and help in deciphering the complex and often cryptic musical notations. We are also extremely grateful to Dr. Wajid for allowing us to tour the site of Wadi al-'Irfan, a visit which had a wonderful surprise in store for us.

Of course no one can ever really know how to interpret an ancient music whose living practice and transmission from master to disciple has been lost. Therefore one is faced with the choice between a cautious, dry, museum-like approach; or a bolder and riskier one where one hopes to be guided by creative inspiration in a kind of artistic communion with this lost civilization. Rather than trying to reproduce the past, we seek to become contemporary vehicles of the spirit and soul of this past.

In choosing the latter course, we stumbled upon a very unexpected source of help in the Wadi al-'Irfan region itself. While camped as guests of the Masmudi, we shared our project in a very open way with them and other tribal peoples with whom we came in contact. We were astonished at the response: they solemnly proposed to help us interpret this music. At first we did not take this seriously, but we soon changed our minds. Even though ignorant of the content of the texts, or of any facts regarding the ancient gnostics and their beliefs, it turned out that these people have an old body of legends, proverbs, and musical traditions regarding Wadi al-'Irfan, which they consider to be a holy site. To our amazement, some of their songs (very special ones which they normally never share with outsiders) showed distinct musical echoes of the very chants we had been working on! Furthermore, the proverbs and legends contained much useful material and food for thought.

Who would have suspected it? Right under the noses of a team of international experts excavating and puzzling excitedly over the ruins of Wadi al-'Irfan, were living a people (a few of their young men even worked as laborers on the project) whose oral traditions would provide an unexpected piece of the puzzle.

But there is no space here to go into further detail. On behalf of everyone who worked so hard on this creative research, I want to express our deepest thanks to the many clans of the Masmudi, for their generous aid and hospitality. As to the mystery of how it is that the gnostics of Wadi al-'Irfan appeared and disappeared, seemingly leaving no traces on history, I would like to close by offering a Masmudi proverb in answer to this: "Wadi al-'Irfan is not a dry river, but an invisible one. Its source is in your heart."

[Those who are knowledgeable about Middle-Eastern religions will already have suspected that the above essay is fictional. But notice the effect on yourself as you were reading it. Did you perhaps feel that it could be true, or even "should" be true, perhaps in spite of your justifiable skepticism? That feeling of openness, of suspending one's most deeply-held notions of "history", is the key to the nature of writings (like those of Borges, Gurdjieff, or Idries Shah) which explore the boundary between fiction and "faction". Holy scriptures also fall into this category. It is a category which challenges the modern mind, with its demand for an impossible separation between fiction and "faction." Such a mind is too quick to place the label of fraud upon certain redacted gospels, upon the likes of Shah and Gurdjieff, and perhaps upon the author of the above essay as well. In doing so, this kind of thinking largely misses the point. Perhaps one could say that it is capable of being playful only on officially approved playgrounds.

A final note: when we presented this essay to several Arab friends, they were convinced that something like Wadi al-Irfan did exist, in spite of being told it was a fiction. One sufi friend from Morocco even said he had heard a legend which specified its location! Also, the pyramids in Africa and the legend of the Nigerian Queen Sheba are very much a part of the consensus-reality --- curiously, this was only made public after this essay and the version of Solomon on the CD had already been written. Indeed, life imitates art.]

[© 2000, Joseph Rowe]