David and Da’ud

The singing of psalms, as mentioned at the home page, is a longstanding and wide-spread tradition.

The psalms, like the Torah or Tawrat, are recognised in many major religions besides Christianity (1):

  • As tehillim they appear, of course, in the Jewish scriptures.
  • In Islamic writings frequent reference may be found to the zabur.

PsalmArabicThe zabur are often referred to as those of the Prophet Da’ud, who was generally revered in Islam after Mohammed, Jesus and Moses. There’s a nice story of Sir James Lancaster as commander of the first English ship to reach the East Indies for trading in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He visited Aceh in Sumatra in 1602, Islam having spread through many parts of Asia by then. He met the Sultan several times discussing matters of state and, importantly, trade. During the ceremonies associated with Lancaster’s departure, the Sultan is reported to have asked him if they would sing a psalm of the Propher Da’ud. This they did and were rewarded similarly by Acinese singing their versions of a psalm.

Unfortunately, we cannot know what they sang, words or music, nor even if it was truly a psalm of David. However, from early times there are several recorded instances of use of the psalms in Islam.  According to David Vishanoff, texts were drawn from early sources, probably around 800CE, and rewritten. He provides an example of Psalm 2 we sang recently. The first verse is as follows:

Why do the nations surge forth and the peoples blaze up in their zeal to conquer what is rightly the Lord’s? The Lord says: what is rightly mine cannot be conquered, and my might cannot be brought low. (2)

NRSV says: Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?

In Sura, a chapter of the Qur’an, there are mentions of Da’ud, his instruments and the echo of praise from the mountains and birds around. Other records appear in disparate places and contexts, for example:

  • Mohd bin Abd al-Wahab Ghassani (d.1707) describes David accompanying himself with the harp

    Ali Ufki’s psalms. Image: The King’s Singers. Star, cross and crescent!
  • Evliya Çelebi (1611-82), an Ottoman Turk whose extensive travels resulted in ten-volume travelogue, describes the organ or blown pipes as associated with David’s song
  • François Pyrard de Laval in a report of his visit to the Maldives in 1602-07 says people were singing psalms all night long
  • Ali Ufki’s adaptations of the 1565 Genevan Psalter may be found in the British Library (3) and in modern recordings

On other pages and posts this web-site mentions synergies with Catholic, Orthodox and other traditions and their attention to sung psalms, often in the same or similar liturgical structures.

We can thus be assured that ours has proven to be a practice widely followed and valued around the world in various eras and various forms.


1. The author, no expert on these matters, is indebted to a lecture by Dr David Irving at the ANU School of Music entitled Psalms, David and ontologies of music, March 2014.

2. Translation by David Vishanoff from Ove Chr. Krarup, Auswahl Pseudo-Davidischer Psalmen (Copenhagen: G. E. C. Gad, 1909), Arabic pp. 11-14.

3. Considerably more detail of these people may be found on the Internet. Ali Ufki was particularly prolific in arranging the psalms. See a paper ‘Between Calvinism and Islam: Mimicry, Hybridity and Ali Ufki’s Ottoman Psalter’ by Lucas G. Freire (Exeter, 21 May 2011)


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