We are living in times where the value of understanding the culturally diverse life of Islam, as a worldwide but variegated community of faith for more than a billion people, has become self-evident. In the midst of religion's undeniable re-entry into geopolitical and cultural discourse at all levels, Youssou Ndour, a popular singer whom some think of as "Africa's Sinatra", others as its Bono or Madonna, others as its Bob Marley, has stunned his admirers both in Africa and abroad with the release, on the eclectic Nonesuch label, of an album called Egypt - an album entirely devoted to praise for the modernizing Sufi saints and sages of his country, popularizers of Muslim mystical faith and builders of a legacy of ecumenism, tolerance and inter-community activism.
"Religion is not meant to be sad, you know," Ndour likes to say, "but joyous," and, as if to support his claim, The New York Times has called his album Egypt "a public demonstration of a modern Islamic culture that changes wherever it spreads, with a beauty that is open to believers and nonbelievers alike."
This judgment reflects the historical power of Sufism Islam's curiously melded mystical movement with both esoteric and popular roots to transform everyday life for Muslims and to create the conditions for Muslim integration within the communities with which Muslims have come in contact, from North Africa to Golden Age Spain, from Arabia to India and Persia, from Turkey to Indonesia, or from China to Nigeria and Senegal. At this juncture of world history when the Western perception of Islam is still too often a monolith of fundamentalism and violence, Youssou Ndour has succeeded in crafting what the Times says is "a thoughtful, quietly radiant corrective."
The "Egypt" in Youssou Ndour's Egypt is a conceptual one not the modern nation built by Nasser and Sadat, but its historical, Platonic ideal as a place of encounter, of spiritual reckoning, of timeless awareness of Time's limitlessness: perhaps it is the "Egypt" of monotheism's crucibles.
It is at the same time at least partially a musical "Egypt", as Ndour has married Senegalese rhythms and a palette of Senegalese musical colors with the essentially Egyptian arrangements of his masterful Cairene arranger, Fathy Salama, whose string orchestra and soloists provide the layered musical background for some of the most delicate yet powerful singing of Ndour's career.
Apart from its intrinsic power as a performance vehicle for one of the world's truly great singers, Egypt as a live event is a unique spectacle which presents an unprecedented opportunity for interdepartmental collaboration between universities' performing arts centers and their religious studies, political science, comparative literature, music, art, Middle Eastern studies, European studies, African studies or other academic departments or curricula.
Youssou Ndour's Egypt project highlights the richness of contemporary Muslim artistry musical and otherwise as a subject of potential academic interrogation as well as sheer onstage celebration. There might be great intellectual profit to be had in integrated events on campus where lecturers from any number of disciplines might join filmmakers, writers, plastic artists and others in single or multi-day explorations of the roots of contemporary Muslim creative consciousness, with Youssou Ndour's Egypt as a compelling centerpiece.