The relationship between Islam and music has always been contentious. But neither its association to sinful temptations of the flesh nor its viability to be composed as an expression of devotion to God has stopped music from flourishing on the soil of every nation across the world.
The many cultures that interacted with Islam over the centuries have composed songs, published books, and refined musical instruments. Like how they got the lutes from Mesopotamia, the Arab civilization refined the instrument and passed their oud to Europe, where it becomes the mandolin, letting Vivaldi and Handel compose works for it. These are examples of the kind of interactions that would come to influence even the secular music produced today.
Theology professor and Dominican priest Jacques Jomier had this to say:
Islam is like a clear stream, with well-defined characteristics, which is the same everywhere. But the soil over which the stream flows can be very varied. Moreover, in each case, the water will take on the colour of the shores, the sand or the earth which forms its bed.
via Sacred Music Radio
This is the tale of music and Islam.
Historically, the Muslim world has an incredibly rich repertoire of songs and musicians whose prodigious skill rival their gifted Western counterparts that would come centuries after them. Music flourished even in the orthodox Islamic cities of old that did not approve of it. Musicians received patronage from the royal courts and gatherings, just like Western classical music did centuries later from aristocrats.
Where Islamic jurists discouraged instrumental music, and became strict with permissibility, musicians worked with their voices and percussion to create nasheed, a repertoire of vocal songs that will remain etched in history until the end days. From the Muslim call to prayer to recitations of the Quran, prayer chants to actual hymns – the distinct vibrato, flowery use of language, and melodious intonation has not been diminished. These traits were clearly inherited from a love of written script, and its colourful spoken expression, for the Arabs had a tradition of poetry and calligraphy long before the Islamic era.
Though Islamic song and cantillation are different, they both invoke the same feeling of remembrance. Your Muslim friends anywhere in the world will recognize Ya Nabi Salam Alaika in the same way, and with the same reverence, that your Christian friends do Ave Maria and O come, O come, Emmanuel.
Islamic nations also made great contributions to music theory and academia that are on par with more boring things like algebra. In the 10th century, the Persian polymath Al-Farabi wrote Kitab al-Musiqa (The Book of Music) where he explored philosophical concepts about music – the same kind that explains perfectly why Beethoven was able compose while deaf. He also discussed music therapy in Kitab Ihsa al-Iqa’at (Classification of Rhythms). In the 19th century, Syrian music scholar Mikhail Mishaqa wrote the first detailed account for a Quarter tone scale in music theory.
Renaissance of Islamic Music
The early 19th century birthed a renaissance of Islamic music when it was exposed to Western classical music. Egypt adopted the Western style of conservatories, symphony orchestra and ABRSM music teaching, with places like the Cairo Conservatoire, Royal Academy of Music, and Cairo Opera House. Programs focus on both Arab and Western music. Cairo established itself very early as a centre for serious music pedagogy in the Arab peninsula, when King Fuad summoned international music scholars for the 1932 Cairo Congress of Arab Music.
In the next two centuries, globalization and the Internet will come nurture a growing repertoire of Islamic music influenced by modern culture and musical styles from everywhere. This historically rich blend of music is blossoming once more, incorporating the world’s most popular sounds and genres, carving itself a path into the hearts of millions of people growing more disenchanted with religion.
Let’s see what happens to the music of each nation as Islam touched its shores.
From Mecca To Riyadh
Muhammad did not approve of music in general. However, he did create the melodious adhan call to prayer, to be sung by the muezzin, and had the Abyssinian singer Bilal patronise men with powerful voices that could become fellow muezzin. He also gave jurisdiction for musicians to compose war songs, festivities, and pilgrimage chants. Ya Nabi Salam Alaika is one example of how the prophet’s companions would have greeted him when he visited, in a ceremonious manner.
This is exactly the music of Saudi Arabia today.
In the 21st century, Saudi Arabia is asserting itself as a centre of political and religious power, the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, a hub where the world’s greatest innovators and philanthropists congregate, and a Kingdom with “ambitious but achievable” visions for its future.
The most obvious example of this is Saudi Vision 2030. There’s also NEOM, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion project to create the world’s greatest megalopolis. An achievement for Saudi Arabia is ultimately an Islamic triumph. Like the “rightly guided” orthodox Islamic caliphates of old, it will expand and conquer the world’s territories in medieval fashion, yet in a modern way.
What this means is that Saudi Arabia literally wants to take all these titles from these cities:
*These countries are (roughly) considered “capitals of the world” in each of these sectors.
San Francisco – Biotech
Shanghai, China / Silicon Valley – Technology
Houston, Texas – Energy
London / New York – Media
Paris, France – Culinary
Hollywood, Los Angeles – Entertainment
American Foundations – Philanthropy
You might be surprised at “Hollywood” and “Entertainment”. Well, don’t be. Under the crown prince, who is a millennial, the Saudi kingdom wants Riyadh and Jeddah to be able to profit from things like music festivals as well. Arab music legends like Rashed Al-Majed got a welcoming stage in Riyadh at a concert in 2017. Even he has not been back on stage here since 1988, and he’s Saudi. Music and entertainment is still approached cautiously here, with audiences segregated by gender in concerts and some restaurants. Religious police are very harsh toward foreign bands, and its own musicians have been arrested for dabbing in concerts.
Music teaching is also outlawed, with SAE Jeddah limited to audio engineering programmes. Nevertheless, when Japan held a world-class orchestra performance at the King Fahd Culture Centre in Riyadh, the Kingdom expressed interest in establishing a world-class orchestra of it own, and both countries have been collaborating since.
There’s a pattern here. Foreign bands are more likely to get approval to play in the Kingdom if, firstly, they are world-class, professional representatives of their home country and second, highly recommended by ministers of their home country.
Naturally, music is used to express the glory and prestige of Saudi Arabia. National pride is almost too small a phrase to use for a country that uses such intricate filming and medieval symbolism to show it. Saudi Arabia knows how to execute its festivities, like the Jenadriyah, and love playing host to other nations, like France. Musical motifs are focused on the glory of Saudi Arabia, its wealth, the country’s mega infrastructure, its global rankings on sectors of the world concerned with the advancement of humanity, and the influence it possesses on the world’s superpowers.
The presence of Arab folkloric drums, chants, and dance is a nod to centuries of power and triumph, and classical music orchestra is a display of exquisite taste shared with European aristocrats of old. Even birds of prey, stallion and camels are obedient in the ceremony, horse and camel racing being a thing at the Jenadriyah festival, as if showing the mastery of the Saudi cavalry in having these majestic beasts complicit to the greatness of the kingdom.
Did you enjoy your national day songs?
This music video, salayl سلايل, was played by a Saudi orchestra sponsored by the Misk Foundation, and televised by the Saudi Broadcasting Company for national day. Typically, national day songs from most countries have this level of satisfying production quality. However, sometimes national day songs in other countries end up having cheesy or awkward themes for the year. Saudi Arabia clearly doesn’t have that problem. In salayl, national pride has been executed brilliantly.
Another prominent video, The Feelings of Hajj explicitly shows the faces of pilgrims, across all races from all over the world, sharing the intimate experience of praying and bowing before the presence of God in Islam’s holiest site, laced with melodious but not sing-song Arab vocals, especially paying attention to the fact that it also showed the kindness and efficiency of Saudi officers and medics in tending to people in a way that makes organizers of major festivals around the world look like amateurs.
Donald Trump’s first visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as POTUS, for the KSA-US Summit in 2017 was also celebrated with a grandiose, super televised music video. Once more, we get to witness the ardah, the Saudi swords dance accompanied by booming drums and polemic display of national flags, a sight that’s already somewhat terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time, which Donald Trump performed alongside King Salman.
This is an echo the ceremonial greetings that Muhammad would have received. Be certain that the completion of NEOM would be celebrated in this fashion.
From Persia To Baghdad
Before Islam, Persia was ruled by the Sassanid Empire. Under King Khusrow II, the music of Persia flourished to a “golden age” in his courts, in both musicology and performing arts. The science of music was considered a subject of mathematics, its allure and complex nature studied rather than forbidden. Court musicians earned lots of patronage, allowing them to become extremely knowledgeable, and make their music even more perfect.
The Islamic caliphate under Umar would conquer the highly decentralised Sassanid Empire in the 7th century, merely 12 years after prophet Muhammad’s death, taking over the lands of Mesopotamia completely. However, it seems that King Khusrow’s spirit lingers, guided by the Zoroastrian God of Light for whom music was a potent spiritual power, haunting their new Arab kings, seducing them with song and poetry, promising them love and pleasure in exchange for their souls, and the lives of the Prophet’s senior companions.
Like in all wealthy nations, the rich and idle Arab aristocrats wanted to experience joy, pleasure, and catharsis – especially after they just received so much spoils of war, in booty and women. They also wanted escapism from the highly stressful socio-political change, rapid urbanization and economic expansion that comes with being a conquering nation, still reeling from the sudden death of the Prophet. Despite Umar’s orthodox rule, Mecca and Medina would flourish into cities of fashion, music, and sensual poetry where the rich lived their lives in search of love and pleasure.
And both Umar and his successor Uthman would eventually be assassinated.
Musicians from the conquered Persia, although captives, brought with them a rich history of musical tradition, groomed by their former King. Its effects were apparent on the society of their conquerors. Testament to musical skill and charming personality, they were able to build such relationships with their masters that some were eventually freed, and could finally lead their own lives. Furthermore, they were given the social ranking of freemen-clients, mawali, that included them within the social circles of the Arab ruling class.
These newly minted members of Muslim high society hosted elaborate music salons, or madjlis, in their own gardens. Beautiful, charming, and gifted musicians became objects of envy and competition within these houses. More importantly, music was flourishing as a legitimate art with no limits to its expression and there was the establishment of enclaves for music pedagogy. Furthermore, there were cultural exchanges with the Byzantine Empire in Europe. It was from here that “Islamic music” first sprouted from tradition, born from an invasion that eventually took on the colours of the land they conquered.
This would become a recurring theme through all nations in the world where Islam has been introduced, both as a religion and a governing body.
The late Professor Amnon Shiloah described two of early Islam’s great female musicians:
The music of Persia was straight fire before this was even a thing.
If there was one Islamic nation in history that could be attributed to the greatest musical accomplishments in history, it would be Iran.
From Avicenna to Al-Farabi, Ziryab to Yunus Al-Katib, these people are but a small percentage of Persian scholars and polymaths that lived around the Islamic golden age, that have produced valuable works for music. The rich musical history of sites from Mesopotamia to Baghdad, Medina to Damascus, and the cultural exchanges they enjoyed with other superpowers of the world back then, would influence the world today. Persian scholars like Ibn Khurradadhbih from the 9th century would take notes of the lyra and organ used in the Byzantine empire.
Even the Iranian revolution of 1979 that put Ayatollah Khomeini in power, and subsequently banned music except to a select few men, would not stop Persia’s songstresses from singing – even in exile.
Nothing has changed Iran’s appreciation of music culture in the 20th century. Through television, they quickly adopted pop, rock, metal, jazz, classical and rap music and made new songs in their own language. Mozart and Tupac were played on radio, and today you can still find places like the Hanooz bookstore and Beethoven Music Shop in Tehran selling music CDs from Persia and the rest of the world.
Just like centuries ago, Persians do not see orthodox Islam as a place of musical inspiration, unlike Saudi or Malay countries, so war songs or odes are rare here. Instead, they take inspiration from their own vast history, and from the rest of the world.
Then they preserve this history. Musical instruments from the 6th century Sassanid empire, like the Karna, and a host of other instruments to come later, sit inside the Persepolis Museum. Persian artefacts depicting its music history, like on plates, sit in museums in other countries as well.
Iranian names have also become famous in classical music, and the country’s orchestras have a repertoire not just of Beethoven and Mozart. The Persepolis Orchestra, for example, transcribed notes from ancient Greece – bringing back the music that would have been composed for Greek goddesses of music.
Iranian pop music is preserved on the Internet. The music of love is, once again, dominant here. In music videos such as Dandelion Leaves of Love by Soheila Golestani, it’s hard not to notice Persian folk motifs in its music and culture, from the outfit to the carpet, and themes of love and grace. Avang Music, a major music entertainment label in Iran, labels itself as “#1 in Persian music” and has tracks from lots of popular genres. Examples include Entekhab by Shadmehr Aghili, a song of longing accompanied by violin and piano, and Ghabrestoone by Reza Pishro, where hip hop goes old school.
There’s also the more frivolous Vaghte Eshgho Haale by Kamran & Hooman, set in a lovely masquerade party with amorous belly dances while playing with fire, accompanied by musical elements clearly influenced by retro pop, Persian exoticism and bass boosted dubstep. On YouTube, users like Persian Music Videos keep up a curation of Iranian pop music, and don’t shy away from uploading the sultry side of modern Persia.
Not surprisingly, classical and traditional music folks don’t really approve of its amorous pop music, since this is probably the reason music in Iran is viewed badly by the hardliners.
From India To Pakistan
The Muslim army from Afghanistan led by Muhammad Ghori took over northern India in the late 12th century, and his successor Aibak established a Delhi Sultanate. It was from Muslim conquest that the birth of Hindustani music in the north and Carnatic music in the south, would become two distinct systems that to this day seem to be the music-cultural binary stars of India, one the nemesis of the other and always struggling for dominance.
Even under Muslim rule, skilled musicians found themselves audiences. They received patronage in the royal courts of Firuz Tughlaq, even though he was an orthodox ruler. In the 13th century, the Sufi poet and musician Amir Khosrow would develop qawwali in Delhi, a new genre blending Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Indian traditional music that would come to influence the music of India and Pakistan even to this day.
It was the third Mughal ruler Akbar in the 16th century who would demonstrate what it means when a king loves music. Based on Volume II of Ain-i-Akbari (آئینِ اکبری) which detailed the administrative rule in his courts, skilled musicians such as Tansen received patronage and encouragement as writers did. Akbar himself was a musicologist. Under his rule, Muslim and Hindu musicians received patronage even in Sufi gatherings and Hindu temples. This was because he laid the foundation for a multicultural empire.
Musical genres like qawwali or kafi are foreign to the rest of the Muslim world, except Persia from where they were inherited, a testament to national identity. But those from the Malay Peninsula might find that their percussions sound familiar to their own Islamic folk music. Urdu and Punjabi replace Arabic lyrics, but you don’t need to understand any of these languages to know that this is Islamic music.
Funnily enough, the songs are not always about praising God, his Prophet, or Sufi saints. There’s some Justin Timberlake-esqe love songs too, taking inspiration from the love poetry of ghazal in the same way you’d put lovely romantic poetry in music.
Who better to introduce qawwali to new listeners than the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a man who has carried the tradition in his family for 600 years, made this music known to international audiences and is called “The King of Qawwali”. To give you an understanding of how much people loved his voice, look at the comments section down where a video of his concert is uploaded.
Rolling Stone on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan from August 18, 1997:
Khan was a master of qawwali singing, which combines lyrics from Sufi religious poems with hypnotic rhythms and vocal chants. Considered a superstar in the Sufi community, Khan drew thousands of fans to concerts, where many danced as though lost in ecstatic trances and threw money at his feet while he played.
Next, who better to introduce kafi to the Internet than the Pakistani singer and entrepreneur Abida Parveen, dubbed “The Queen of Sufi Music”. Like the qawwali guy, she’s built up an international repertoire performing in foreign countries in Europe. They’re both examples of Pakistan’s devotion to music, love, and pleasure – but spirituality, not sexuality. At least not explicitly.
My culture – our culture – is rich in spirituality and love.
– Abida Parveen
Madonna was curious enough by the concept of spiritual ecstasy in Sufi music and ghazal love poetry to come up with Bedtime Story (1994) and Bittersweet (1998).
With their YouTube channels, users like Musical Maestros, Sonic Enterprise and Coke Studio preserve the legacy of these singers on the Internet in the exact same way Classical Tunes preserve Western classical music. With millions of views that rival even channels with mainstream genres like Trap Nation and Kyra, it shows the world that Sufi music like qawwali and kafi still have a place in people’s hearts.
The flow of music culture from Western rock bands. In Pakistan later, Salman Ahmad incorporated Led Zeppelin and devotional Sufi music into his electric guitar to help create Sufi Rock. Even though he could literally become a doctor, he chose to keep on rocking despite militants destroying his instruments and death threats. With sheer perseverance, his band Junoon grew to become what the New York Times will eventually call “The U2 of Pakistan” with over 30 million records sold worldwide.
The Girls of Afghanistan
Being part of the Indus Valley civilisation from 3000BCE, the birthplace of Zoroastrianism, and geographically situated between Persia, northern India, and northwest China, Afghanistan surely enjoyed cultural exchanges that once allowed music to flourish within its cities. The enduring raga melodies and rubab instruments, that Afghan musicians still know how to play are testament to its culture and beauty, beyond the media. Zohreh Jooya and the Afghan Ensemble have brought this marvellous blend of India and Persia to Copenhagen, Denmark in 2010 and Castelló, Spain in 2011.
However, decades of recent warfare right up to the 21st century have caused it to be one of the world’s least developed countries, even though it has over a trillion in untapped mineral resources. Even worse, the stigma toward the Afghan people, from its neighbours to the rest of the developed world, is cruel.
It doesn’t help that the country’s rulers impose even stricter bans on music than Saudi Arabia, and most horrifying is Afghan society’s restriction of freedom for its women. Artists like Paradise Sorouri, the first female Afghan rapper, have been forced to leave the country in the face of death threats, being beaten up by men with onlookers that approved of the violence, and the horror of learning their 13-year old cousins chose self-immolation over forced marriages.
Not surprisingly, such outspoken female singers are always in danger in their homes, because they’re seen as a danger to their homes.
Paradise Sorouri in an interview with The Guardian on Dec 2016:
It doesn’t matter if you are a singer, an artist, or a teacher. If you are a woman in Afghanistan, you are a problem. I am speaking out and fighting for women who don’t have a voice.
Women’s resistance from Afghan rap and classical music. Paradise Sorouri’s work has led her to be recognised and her unapologetic attitude in Nalestan have encouraged women to not give up on fighting for their rights in Afghanistan. Then, there is the women’s orchestra led Negin Khpalwak, a lady just about Malala’s age who’s also pushing forward despite death threats and family dissent.
Nevertheless, Afghan pop music does have an industry. Music shows are common on TOLO HD and Ariana, like the popular Afghan Star. On YouTube, there’s also a growing number of channels dedicated to Afghan music, or at least singing for Afghanistan. Barbud Music is a major label based in Kabul, that released a cool video for the Afghan Premier League 2016. Afghan Smart is another commercial label for Afghan music, based in UK.
Music festivals are rare, but Kabul did manage to have a rock concert.
If you wish to listen to the hopes and sorrows of Afghan women expressed beautifully in rap music, you can start with Nalestan uploaded by Paradise Sorouri. This is a succinct, but intimate opening to the harsh reality they face by simply going against the status quo. Then, if you prefer trap music over lyrical misery, you might want to try Afghan Castles and Get Back Up by AFG Stunna.
May Afghanistan preserve its beautiful music.
The Spanish Caliphate
If you listen to the classical Andalusian music of the Maghreb, separating Spain and Morocco only by the waters at the tip of Gibraltar, know that its roots that can be traced back to the medieval Muslim Spain, or Al-Andalus. The Caliphate of Córdoba flourished as a centre of arts, architecture, and medicine, with advancements rivalling Constantinople and Damascus. Cultural exchanges between Muslims, Jews and Christians were common, due to Spain’s prime geographic location to influence both the affairs of the Mediterranean and Iberian Peninsula.
To this end, Spain was an important conduit for the transmission of dozens of musical instruments and records, from the Maghreb to Greece to China.
Spain has its own popular black man who was a hit with the ladies. In the early 9th century, when Muslims in Spain lived amongst a Christian majority, court musicians like Ziryab would help establish Arab music in Iberia, and Córdoba as a stylish capital of fine cuisine, music, fashion, and wine – exactly like how we see New York or Milan today. He’s also the father of Andalusian music. His musical legacy is literally like the Mozart of Iberia, based on how gifted he was and what he did for music.
His musical upbringing in Baghdad, his often mentioned “graceful” personality and “real charm of manner”, and the envy which he drew from upstaging other musicians in the royal court of Baghdad’s caliph, truly mirrors that of Mozart. He completely rebuilt the lute, or oud, adding a fifth string and changing all the materials, improving its sound and durability. This refined instrument would be passed to Europe centuries later as the mandolin, from where Handel and Vivaldi would eventually compose works for.
The Ziryab Musiqa Festival in Kuala Lumpur is named after him, and this is rather significant because they are trying to host “dynamic, creative and artistic displays of posh, classy and exclusive bourgeois music, art and style projection onto urban canvas of Kuala Lumpur” which is literally what Ziryab did in Iberia a thousand years ago.
Spain had more great polymaths that would come to influence music. From the late 11th century, there was Ibn Bajja (or Avempace in Latin) whose works on astronomy would influence Galileo. What’s curious here is his work on music, where it may have influenced the Spanish national anthem, making it the oldest in the world. This was based on the arguments of Andalusian scholars of how similar it was to his composition Nuba al-Istihlál, to the vexation of secular music historians.
Even within Spain’s national anthem, the Flamenco folk music, the solfège (Do Re Mi), and the Great Cathedral-Mosque of Córdoba itself, the medieval affairs of the Muslim and Christian powers leave a historical trace – still vying for dominance to this day.
Andalusian cadences of the 21st century. You may not have noticed, but those who inherit Spain’s musical history and Ziryab’s legacy will recognise what they hear from pop music, including Shakira’s Objection (2001), Gorillaz’ Feel Good Inc. (2006), My Chemical Romance’s House of Wolves (2006), Rihanna’s Disturbia (2009), Muse’s Resistance (2009), Usher’s Scream (2012), and lots of other songs, that the uniquely pleasant musical heritage of Andalusia, from both Islamic and Christian influences, are here to stay, where they have been passed to the iTunes generation.
Both the Alcázar of Córdoba, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Great Cathedral-Mosque nearby have borne witness to the music of Andalusia for centuries, and so will continue to do so until humanity is long gone.
On April 2017, the first ever Palestine Music Expo was held in Ramallah, the Palestine capital. It provided a place of convention where Israeli-Palestine journalists and delegates from many different countries came and witnessed the local music scene. This is how Palestine could develop a proper music industry, and get the network and reach its musicians need to have their voices heard.
Later, a Palestine Expo was held in London on July 2017, a convention of theatre, music, dance and public speaking. It was a place where those in London and Europe could come to experience Palestine on their own soil. This how people outside get to properly learn about Palestine.
Palestine is a case study of how a country of people mired in conflict with Israeli and even troublemakers from their own soil show incredible resilience. The musical heritage they’ve had since the early 20th century has not been eroded. They still know their own wedding dance music dabke and can recount epic musical poetry from the zajaleen. They can borrow elements from foreign genres, like American Hip Hop and Western classical music, yet retain a sense of cultural and more importantly national identity.
From the partition of their land and the birth of Israel in 1948, to the dark days of an Intifada, or uprising, musicians composed songs with defiant lyrics. The lyrics recorded the deeds of Israeli soldiers and the reality on the ground for a Palestinian’s daily life. They made no secret of their dreams to reclaim their nation, citing gunplay, celebrating heroes and martyrs, and calling for a #FreePalestine long before the advent of Twitter. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that they would take the music of The Bronx from the United States, a genre literally born into socio-political strife, and make it one of their own.
Palestine hip hop has become one of the fiercest political genres in the world. At the front line of this musical intifada is Shadia Mansour, a British-Palestinian rapper who bears the title “First Lady of Arabic Hip Hop”. She’s spoken outside the Israeli embassy in front of 15,000 people, calling out the country’s apartheid. She’s called out Hamas and Fatah to stop their political infighting on their own soil. She brought the same attitude to the Palestine Music Expo in London, alongside other speakers.
Even in music videos, from her single AL KUFFIYEH 3ARABEYYEH with rapper M1 to her cameo in Ana Tijoux’s Somos Sur, she makes her political and cultural heritage a priority. Without fail, she consistently ensures that her stage presence is that of a Palestinian identity – from her rapping language to her dress, the words she speaks to who she collaborates with.
Using hip hop as a creative weapon, she’s one of many artists residing across the world representing the very essence of Palestine resistance.
Music pedagogy is alive and well in Palestine. The Edward Said Conservatory has over 1000 students across its music schools in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus, and Gaza. The Palestine National Orchestra and Palestine Youth Orchestra, playing Western classical music, have held performances in the Middle East and European nations. Though they have struggled with unfair treatment by Israeli authorities when applying permits to tour in Gaza, they still managed to work their way around.
Sabreen is another music group formed in 1980, that became a non-profit organization, providing an artist support network and youth talent development programme from their offices in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Al-Kimanjati is another social enterprise that teaches music, with a branch in Ramallah. Julliard, the world’s top music school, also conducted an outreach programme for Arab-Muslim and Jewish-Israeli children, where students taught and played music together with the kids.
International artists have heard the call to support #FreePalestine. Pink Floyd has recorded a heartfelt Song for Palestine. Immortal Technique is more confrontational, calling for Boycott Israel in 5 languages with a group of international rappers. Kofia, from Gothenburg struck right in the heart of evil itself, singing Love Live Palestine, Crush Zionism in Swedish.
In 2011, Coldplay shared a music video called Freedom for Palestine on Facebook. Lorde cancelled her June 2018 concert in Tel Aviv, showing that she takes New Zealand’s stance on the matter seriously, which provoked full-page ads labelling her a “bigot”, naturally sponsored by you know who. On YouTube, dozens of users have uploaded “Palestine versions” of Western pop songs such as See You Again sung by Waheeb Nasan & Kareem Ibrahim.
In America, people tend to be divided, especially artists under management. Like Rihanna, DJ Khaled has avoided any kind of language that would make him a political activist. He’s also expressed his desire to “pray” for “peace”, and tagged #FreePalestine on Twitter – something which Zayn Malik got death threats for. However, because of his Palestinian descent, Khalid naturally gets more flak from his home country. He has been criticized for his seeming lack of awareness of the conflict and outspoken concern for his people.
In 2016, because of Khaled’s endorsement of Sabra, a traditional snack food company whose bosses have financially supported the IDF, Palestinians were swift to accuse him of supporting apartheid and condemning his actions.
They even went out of their way to record a diss track #BoycottSabra to remind him of his roots and steer him back to the right path.
Musicians from Israeli also come to play for Palestine. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, the Israeli pianist Daniel Barenboim described his conversation with a Palestinian gentleman when he came to Gaza to perform, how the man had thanked him profusely for coming, and how what he said next was the greatest compliment the maestro had ever received in his entire career.
Barenboim: Why was it so important to you that I came to Gaza with these musicians?
Palestine Gentleman: The people of the world have forgotten Gaza. The few who remember us send us medicine and food, and we are grateful for that. But you would do the same thing for animals. By you coming here, you reminded us that we are human beings.
We will always be able to hear the music of Palestine.
The Malay Peninsula
Though a large percentage of the young population in Malay states such as Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia have professed their love for K-Pop and Western music in passionate ways, they also acknowledge Islamic hymns with Arabic lyrics – though they may not fully translate them. Nearly every child will know what nasheed is, and will have grown up listening to it. This isn’t just because of parental upbringing.
As Muslim states, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments will have embedded Islamic culture within their countries. Television has slots for religious panels, Friday sermons and Quran reading competition shows. Muslim holidays like Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha here are full of festivities that fiercely rival Christmas season in Western nations. Inside mosques, recitations and prayer commence, but once the morning rituals are over, food and music will take over the entire city. You can be sure that nasheed will play alongside modern local and international songs on the radio, so Ya Nabi Salam Alaika will once again become ubiquitous.
However, what has propagated here is religious motif. Music culture in Malay countries have retained their indigenous roots, including their unique sounds and instruments like the gamelan. The people are also highly appreciative of local bands, even as music from other countries compete for their attention. Like their neighbours, music festivals in Indonesia have this odd paradox of devilish musical taste yet obedience to Islamic dress code. For example, the Hammersonic heavy metal festival in Jakarta has prayer breaks.
Music is written in the Malay language, but the lyrics will ascribe virtues like patience, forgiveness, or conservation awareness to Islam, in some manner. When the singer seeks or wishes for prayer, or refers to God, there’s usually no mistake that Islam is the religion being invoked. A prominent example would be the leitmotif of Maha Esa, or Exalted One, a direct reference to God in Malay, which has become staple in Malaysian songs – no matter who is singing it, from nasheed group Raihan to a musically non-religious rapper like Joe Flizzlow.
Their affection for Western music, both pop and classical, isn’t just a kind of guilty pleasure. It’s also been assimilated into their own songs, including the religious ones, sometimes to the chagrin of religious authorities in both countries. For example, Malaysian nasheed singer Hafiz Hamidun was called for questioning when he added instrumental music, like piano pieces, to Islamic chants in his songs – a practice that usually never seen as it is heavily frowned upon by conservative Muslim authorities.
It’s my choice to cover up my body. I’m not oppressed — I’m free.
– Yunalis Mat Zara’ai
The icons of Islamic feminism in the 21st century. Malaysia’s modern women have an affinity for Islam and fashion, much like their neighbours in Singapore and Indonesia. The Malaysian singer Yuna, based in Los Angeles, is an example of a woman has chosen her own identity. She’s obverse to the demands foreign music industries, like the infamous American and K-Pop ones, that loves moulding the image of young girls to commercial taste – simply by keeping the hijab part of her lifestyle.
At the same time, she’s defiant toward extremely conservative Malays that have given her names like “trashy girl” for exposing her neck in a fashion ad – which was quite conservative already – by criticizing their rudeness on Instagram in a very long post. Funnily enough, women who dress like her are common in Malay countries, and telling them to take their hijab off over there makes you weird. On the other hand, revealing it all gets you “trashy girl” just about anywhere in the world, except for the penguin capital in Antarctica.
In Malaysia, metal musicians like Voice of Baceprot proudly wear their hijab while performing, to a similar, modestly dressed audience. Hijab headbanging to metal is a thing, much to the criticism of religious authorities. Funnily enough, their fellow female Muslim metalheads in Algeria concur, and hijab concert goers are not shy to profess their love, like on Instagram, with the infamous metal hand sign \m/.
In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population, punk rockers like Ahmad Zaki are trying to use the punk movement as a force for good. They still represent the punk elements of rebellion and anti-establishment, sporting the rugged outfits, rad music, mosh pits and funny hair like we’d expect, but are pious Muslims that engage in prayer and charity.
They also avoid alcohol, criminal behaviour, moral degeneracy, and pull others out of that pit. Musical motifs will include things like #FreePalestine and #NotATerrorist. They won’t be the losers of society, but will pick their lives up for a better future – a future of acceptance by religious authorities. As we’ll see later, America did not follow this example.
Hip Hop and Islam in America does not have a pleasant history. The majority of young black men that chose rap as a career stood at the crossfire between virtuous Islamic teachings of purity, charity, kindness and humility and the lifestyle that they lived at clubs with women, alcohol, money, and violence as part of the industry. Rappers like Nas, Rick Ross and Immortal Technique, though not Muslims themselves, have invoked Allah in their verses in some manner, be it in prayer, showing appreciation, or giving a blessing – in the exact same way a Muslim would.
Napoleon, who was part of Tupac’s rap group, observed:
I believe that hip hop and Islam are not compatible because they basically call for two different things. The message may be positive but if it is not according to the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, then it is unacceptable.
Nevertheless, the poetry of Islam is about as far as American hip hop artists in the were willing to go. These young black men were not going give up the pleasures they could afford from the industry, especially not even they just broke out of poverty. This is partly due to the influence of the Nation of Islam, and how close they are to the black community.
Yet there are some who do choose to follow the teachings of Islam, as best as they can, in their own quiet ways. Such people, like DJ Khaled, Akon, and Kevin Gates, among many others, take religion as a personal lifestyle and try to avoid broadcasting it in any political manner.
It’s the next group that would follow the teachings of Islam, in an acceptable way, and find ways to incorporate positive messages borrowed from religion in their music. It was from these particular blends of people that we get to have Islamic hip hop icons like Native Deen and also Islamic trap musicians like Deen Squad from Canada. These are the people trying to undo the damage the media has done to their religion, and show that you can go hard but still have humility, especially for young people.
Taqwacore, the heretics and the false revelation. Give or take a decade around the year 2000, a punk movement was brewing up within urban Muslim communities in America and the UK, calling itself Taqwacore. It was based off the novels of one Michael Muhammad Knight, beginning with The Taqwacores. True to the spirit of punk, these people focused on disenchantment with mainstream Islam and religious authority. However, it was full of controversy.
The Taqwacore gang were exposed as apostates, had utter disregard for North America’s Islamic societies, rejected traditional notions of Islam, interpreted sacred verses according to their own whims (permitting themselves to smoke cannabis) and associated themselves with the Five Percent Nation, a group that will never be accepted by Islam. Thus, they were swiftly branded as heretics by the Muslim community. Compared to the dangerous cocktail of blasphemy and heresy Taqwacore was brewing, it seems even music indulging in naked women were mild guilty pleasures.
Which brings us to the next point.
Harem Pool by Jean-Léon Gérôme c. 1876
The mystics, janissaries, and harems of the Orient. Islamic mysticism really fascinates the fools doing Western art, as shown quite enthusiastically in their paintings. The Orientalist works, as passionate today as they were in the 18th century, displayed their fear of the Ottoman Empire’s military might, desire for their wealth and women, disapproval at its blind submission to the status quo and curiosity toward the inner business of their royal courts. It didn’t paint a complete nor realistic picture, but it did a fine job showing a scandalous side of the Middle East, and as an exotic world outside Europe.
Music has more modest examples. Mozart’s 3rd movement of Sonata No.11 alla turca, or Turkish March, was inspired by the Turkish Janissary bands that were in fashion. In 1804, Beethoven angrily scribbled off Bonaparte’s name of off Eroica, when he heard that the man he once saw as a hero was now drunk with delusions of power.
Verdi’s opera Aida in 1871 goes back to the time when Pharaohs still ruled Egypt, but the timing of his composition and its themes of women slavery, military conquest and forbidden love makes its allusion to the Ottoman Empire apparent. In Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes in 1656, considered the first English opera, it was the fleet of Suleiman the Magnificent doing the siege.
Just the harems of the Orient will do, да. The Russians took the melodies, harmonies, and rhythms of Orientalist music to create a distinct identity for their friends from Arabia. They wanted this music to evoke the romantic, seductive, alluring, and exotic side of life, one that you can only get at the Far East – what the Russians simply called nega. Like how Jazz is a kind of sexy romantic music too. Borodin’s Prince Igor is a fine example of this sexy opera. Musicologist Richard Taruskin says it has “quite simply the 19th century’s sexiest music bar none, not even Bizet’s Carmen.”
So why do people tend to confuse Oriental music and art with modern Islam?
It’s when Orientalist art merges with Arabic music, set in backdrops like Dubai, confused with a little Egypt, a yacht, with some naked girls, that we get a modern 21st century aesthetic for the exotic paradise in the desert. The ease of which one can continuously consume music videos isn’t helping either. With the lack of Muslim friends to make fun of and dispel stereotypes, this image sinks in quite fast, not forgetting the commercial music industry that loves to sell guilty pleasure.
Take Katy Perry’s infamous Dark Horse music video from 2014, that most likely accidentally put an Allah (Arabic for God) pendant on a poor bloke then zapped him. The video’s concept was not even Islamic to begin with, but Egyptian, complete with Cleopatra, Anubis, and friends, though the Orientalist influence is there – from tyranny to naked female.
As conservative Muslims took offence enough to file a complaint Change.org style, their actions reinforce the belief that Muslims are sensitive and that the pop industry has an agenda against Islam. Don’t let that cloud your perception of her, however, because in real life Katheryn Elizabeth Hudson is somebody who would stand for Muslims.
Another good example from 2017 is Bodak Yellow by Cardi B, a music video that really indulges in the guilty luxuries in Dubai – from the cars to the pet cheetah, camels and her dressing up in an abaya, non-Arab sheiks drinking wine and throwing money around vixens. This song has received columns from Al Jazeera and Refinery 29, criticizing the use of Orientalist imagery, arguing it as an American problem, and bringing up the issues of cultural appropriation and stereotypes of the Arab world.
Unfortunately, even American Muslims can fall into this. Adam Saleh, a Muslim YouTube vlogger famous for showing us how friendly Muslims are and dispelling stereotypes about Islam, released a track with Australian-Lebanese singer Faydee titled Waynak in 2017. While the music video was much more modest than Bodak Yellow, and perhaps wanted to focus on the American Dream, there was still Orientalist imagery in there, namely verses on materialistic desires like “stacking paper” and visuals showing exotic white cubs, posh apartments, yachts, Ferrari, and girls in sultry Arabian outfits.
The American Dream treads dangerously here when it attempts to coy with religion, because the latter is usually an escape from greed and hedonistic pleasures.
If you’re like the Russians and just want naked females, да, then this Romanian babe INNA has you covered in her music video for Yalla. There’s zero religious connotation here, from her music to her persona. All is borrowed from history, culture, and passion. The influence from Persia is clear and the theme of romantic love is flagrant. Even though it is Iran, nobody will watch this thinking of Islam.
As such, the distinction is clear.
Using such exotic art for Muslim advocates and singers is tricky for their image, because Islamic virtues like chastity and purity do not match the imagery. Furthermore, Islam itself is strict with permissibility on hedonistic pleasures – something which conservative Muslims do not fail to keep reinforcing.
A prominent debate goes on between Muslims all over the world as they discuss the permissibility of Deen Squad’s music, which preaches good virtues but hijacks the melody from mainstream trap music. With millions of views and grateful messages from fans, it’s clear that the Canadian duo seem to be on the right path.
Between what is right and what is permissible, Muslim music lovers will be divided.
Internet Memes of the Levant
With the Internet’s obsession with crude memes, one shouldn’t be surprised that users like ZwiReK Beats have uploaded multiple incarnations of Allahu Trapbar on YouTube. Incorporating Trap music with the already infamous Allahu Akbar Vine compilations, this video sits at over 50 million views on YouTube. You can bet the comments are blowing up with explosive puns.
Also, you cannot forget the notoriously racist Arab People Song, which is based off the notoriously racist Black People Song. It does not help that these songs are devilishly catchy and musically pleasant to the ear, while they sing joyfully about horrible things. Thankfully, reaction videos exist.
As captivating as they are revoltingly inappropriate, these videos share a kind of dark humour that rivals even the cesspool that is Twitter. How you should react to these videos, and any of their kind that will inevitably be produced in the future, especially if it directly concerns you, is to be positive and indifferent. Remember, everything and everyone that has ever lived in the universe, no matter how sacrosanct, has been made fun of in some manner by someone in the most perverse way possible.
Once more, be positive and indifferent.
Anyways, don’t let that colour your perception of Arabic Trap and oriental music in general. One of the most aesthetically and musically pleasing tracks in this genre is Bad Girls by M.I.A, surely a classic to celebrate to the day Saudi women are allowed to drive freely. YouTube also has its share of pleasant music – tracks uploaded by users like Arabic Trap جبهة العربية, Bass Boosted India, THAIBEATS and even the nasty meme lord ZwiReK Beats are Oriental trap specialists.
If you’re looking for Islamic music with modern and virtuous Muslim singers on the mic, neither corrupted by fiction like punk Taqwacore nor influenced by a need to portray harems in royal courts, you can find them quite easily. This time, the clear stream that is Islam flows through the internet, producing music that we have never heard of before yet is hauntingly familiar. Music that takes on the colour of classical music, trap or hip hop with lyrics that pull you away from hedonistic pleasures. Music that would chase the devil away from Paganini, and let his skill be attributed to God instead.
Music that is full of political commentary, folk instruments, uplifting songs, fancy ghazal poetry, spiritual ecstasy, musical intifada, and cool historical dialogue.
Islamic music is an entire world in itself.
Internet Renaissance of Islamic Music
Today, Islamic music has carved an impressive niche on the Internet.
As part of the iTunes generation, we get to see music videos from UNICEF and commercial labels dedicated to Islamic music like Awakening Records, with amazing production quality. Music videos are easier to find, and with their marketing reach Google ads will bring it to your browser the moment it registers your interest. While a little bit of digging and monitoring independent music news sites is required to dig gems by aspiring artists, it’s only a matter of time and recommendation.
Muslim World Music Day is a testament to the global effort to keep the all music born from the soil under Islamic rule and patronage.
Someday music will be the means of expressing universal religion. Time is wanted for this, but there will come a day when music and its philosophy will become the religion of humanity.
– Hazrat Inayat Khan, 19th century Sufi musician
Like music usually does, Islamic music on the Internet has brought the Muslim community together across the world on a scale that would otherwise have been more difficult.
Just EN albums I feel are important to what Islamic music should be today:
*I am biased toward classical desert instrumentals
Classical / Instrumental
Various Artists, Egypt. This is fantastically good background music for a variety of things, from playing for guests during Eid house visits and celebrations, to listening while studying or playing video games. The very essence of Egyptian Arab music is here, right from its birthplace, from where a ridiculous number of composers have studied when trying to put together their own Egyptian Arab music for movies and video games.
Expect world-class, original desert tunes with extremely satisfying sound quality.
R&B / Soul
Listen: Insha Allah
Maher Zain – Sweden. His songs will bring a hopeful smile to sad or depressed Muslims, Christians and just about anyone. They pull you from succumbing to the cruelty of reality, and encourages the listener to trust everything they can’t control to a higher power. Therefore, to just do their best. Incredibly warm and uplifting.
Insha Allah you’ll find your way.
Afghan Star (2009)
Film / Documentary
Watch: Full Documentary
Kabul, Afghanistan. I can’t begin to tell you how much the Afghani people, from children to adults, love Afghan Star since it started in 2005. The one music show where they can sit together and watch, live on stage or at home on TOLO, the country’s best young singers compete to become music Idols loved by all of Afghanistan.
What does it take to become an Afghan Star?
Blues / Soul
Sami Yusuf – Britain. The essence of his music is sentimentality and longing, so expect to have some sad, emotional songs. This is the Muslim perspective of belonging, love, appreciation of one’s mother before she’s gone, basically songs that will make you cry.
This is perfect for catharsis.
Hip Hop / Hardcore Rap (Explicit)
Listen: Voices of The Voiceless
Lowkey – UK. Lowkey is a frequent collaborator with Shadia Mansour and Immortal Technique, so expect this to be confrontational. This album is the British Muslim echo to Hopsin’s Ill Mind gangsta rap, a middle finger to Zionism and the media making Islam the enemy, with lyrics calling out injustice and corrupt systems.
This is hardcore Muslim rap.
Instrumental / Classical Folk
Ramzi Aburedwan – Palestine. This man is a classical musician from the Edward Said Conservatory in Palestine. Therefore, expect the music to be a beautifully complex, traditionally diverse, emotionally provocative, and deliberately intricate composition from the hearts of people living with conflict in the Levant.
This is the classical folk music of Palestine for modern ears.
Deen Life (2016) – Free Download
Hip Hop / Trap
Listen: Deen Life
Deen Squad – Canada. The heavy commercial trap music and Migos-espe rap cadences we always bang our heads to dominate the repertoire of Deen Squad, but the lyrics are a completely different story. Not a single word of profanity, all kinds of hedonistic pleasures are denounced, and verses go hard and clean, or rather, halal.
It’s in English, though a lot of Arabic greetings and terminology are used, so grab a Muslim friend if you need explanations. If you’re already Muslim and still need explanation…then I got bad news for you, friend. If you’re Muslim and love trap music, this is perfect.
The musical messengers of peace.
In this era, it is imperative that musicians use their voices and the Internet to purge negative assumptions and stereotypes about the religion they hold dear.
Most people attacking religion are either blinded by anger from what they see on the media, or lead astray by voices of hatred on the Internet bringing up its bloody history. With enough malice, it’s very easy to provoke hurtful responses. This should be countered with kindness, understanding, education and nihilism toward unfair or hateful labelling. They must show that the past does not determine what they become in the future.
The musicians singing for Islam today must bring a completely different attitude to punk rock or radical feminism. They are not supposed to be anti-establishment or anti-patriarchy. Except for the narrative of a Palestine-esqe musical intifada, they should not focus on creating a rebellious movement. Instead, they are watering down Orientalism in all its cultural bias and reversing the damage the media did on Islam. In all cases, painting their artwork on silence, telling their side of the story, and showing the world what the Muslim world really is – bigger and kinder than Western fantasy.
Performances must have a warmth that makes people comfortable. Dignified but not haughty like Western classical music, passionate but not riotous like rock, hard but not vulgar like trap, and loving but not solemn like a sentimental ballad. They must bring to the stage what the mosque provides for visitors – a sanctuary.
Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever has not kindness has not faith.
As the Catholic Pope travels the world spreading kindness, so too can Islamic musicians tour around the globe with a genuine heart, promoting peace and understanding. The masses they reach out will eventually come to see that religion is not the cause of their distress. This is not something that will happen overnight. It is a continuous effort that must be made in the face of unrelenting hate and misunderstanding.
Perhaps the day may come when you mention the word Islam to people, and instead of having an image of Osama bin Laden pop up in their heads they see the smiling faces of Sami Yusuf or Maher Zain instead.
Perhaps instead of terrorism, they think about love, music, and charity instead.
Here’s an Islamic music playlist from Musiceon.
Do you have Islamic music albums, songs, festivals, or musicians close to your heart? Tell us in the comments.
May the tale of music and Islam continue to a brave future.