‘Music in a World of Islam’ Response

By Joyce Lee. Ms. Lee is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

John A Maurer IV’s essay, Music in a World of Islam discusses the role of music in Islam. He describes that the concept of Islamic music differs from western music. There are followers of Islam who believe that music does not appropriately address the worship of God, as well as followers who believe that music enhances the spiritual connection to God. These notions also correlate to western musical expression. From a Christian perspective, I think that music can be a very spiritual act of worship that connects one to God when cathartics are taken out of the equation.

Music is a display of the Creators beauty that should be recognized and reflected back to the Creator. Some Islamic followers believe that music creates an environment of worldly feelings that detract from the character and tawhid (“unity with God”). Therefore, Islamic music is very detached and repetitive; leaving no space for individuality. I understand that focusing on the creation and beauty of music is the goal, but I also think that there is an intimacy and honor that comes with The Creator giving the creation the ability to create something beautiful. The responsibility of the individual is to recognize their ability and reflect their work as worship to the Creator.

I think the individual should recognize that music is an incredible medium for worshiping a Creator. Many Muslims believe that music is a “powerful intoxicating force, capable of creating excitement in listeners that can potentially cause them to lose control of their reason, diverting them from their devotional life and inviting sinful behavior”. Maurer also mentions that sometimes the “listener’s interpretation of music can be evil”. This is the only way I can see music hindering the worship of God. I agree to an extent that music can evoke many emotions that detract from focus on the Creator and bring attention to how the worshiper feels.

I found it interesting that Islamic music heavily relies on detaching oneself from the music itself. I understand that this allows the creation and beauty of music to be acknowledged and reflected to God, but I again think that we miss out on the value the Creator bestows upon us in order to create art and music. Techno, ambience, and trance follow the idea of detachment and static repetitiveness in western music. However, artists are often recognized for their work or stylistic approaches to music. If we applied this to say, Christianity, one could recognize the gifts and abilities God gave the artist to create something beautiful such as music. I believe that the same concept could be applied to Islam.

Overall, I see the effects of music being detrimental or valuable to Islamic worship of God. Nevertheless, I think that music has the greatest potential to respectfully bring praise unto a Creator without bringing the focus solely on oneself. I do think that some notice should be placed on the artist because their talent is a gift and reflection of the Creator’s beauty. It shouldn’t be in a conceded way or one that seeks attention or praise, but an attitude of humble appreciation and gratitude.

World Music: Changing and Staying the Same

By John Mulvihill. Mr. Mulvihill is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

It can be easy to become trapped in a “safety net” and be stuck in one’s own personal world. A good way to learn about the world is by simply listening to the music of other cultures. Music from other cultures and other parts of the world show how things change and how they sometimes stay the same.

In the western world, music which comes from outside it has come to be known as “world music.” This, of course, is generalizing a multitude of musical genres into one. Yet, the western world is still a large consumer of the world music genre and has greatly expanded the market for it. Western artists such as Madonna, Sting, and George Harrison had started using different sounds from different types of world music in their own songs. This has promoted different types of world music. Yet, they are not the only people who have brought different types of music to a western audience. Groups from across the seas have decided to promote their music to western audiences. A prime example of this is al-Kindi ensemble. “This Syrian based group markets itself to global audiences as an authentic Sufi ensemble and by relaying on Western notions of the sacred and in the Orient the al-Kindi Ensemble has been able to inscribe itself within the global sub-genre of ‘spiritual music’.” (Lovatt, 5)

Despite the fact that their music is constructed for, and consumed by foreign audiences, the al-Kindi Ensemble have nonetheless succeeded in constructing a globally accepted idea of authentic Mawlawiya music by becoming one of Syria’s most famous orchestras. Yet not all examples of world music are like this. Music of other cultures has changed along with the times and technology. Many types of world music have taken a more serious tone, and some of the governments of  respective countries have tried to stop that. In fact, many artist singers had to endure repeated criticism, censorship and even persecution. An example of this is Raï music. Perhaps the biggest source of local criticism that Raï faced were its lyrics which flouted many of the traditional values present in conservative Arab Society. “Raï songs openly discussed subjects traditionally considered off limits, such as prostitution, alcohol, forbidden love and sex, leading to strong criticism from conservatives and repeated violence against Raï artists.” (Lovatt, 9) There were even killings of some artists, such as the assassination of Cheb Hasni in 1994.

World music shows that the world is both static and dynamic. Some types of music change over time and others continue on as they always have been. I feel happy about the fact that the Western World (especially the United States) is learning more and more about different types of world music. Even if this has caused violence in some areas, it is a good thing that people are expressing themselves in new ways and old. The new forms of world music help attract a younger generation, and the old keep more mature generation’s attention. When different people from different parts of the world can come together and enjoy the same thing, it truly is beautiful.

Reservation of Sufi Music

By Grace Sparks. Ms. Sparks is a student in Denise Rotavera-Krain’s FYS Class: Questions of Identity Through World Music.

In the article, Music in the World of Islam, by John A Maurer IV published by I-Epistemology; the author makes a point about music in the Islam culture and its uses. In the religion of Islam, music is not thought of the same way as it is in Western culture. Some types of Islamic culture believe that music is too passionate and only detracts from worshipping God. Other “sects” of Islam, like the Sufi’s, trust that music is just another form of worship, as long as it is done right. I think that the Muslim culture promotes self-reservation and that is reflected in their music but I think that music should be more celebratory.

Music is portrayed in Islamic culture as “handash al sawt.” This means the art of sound. Some Muslims think of their music this way in order to distinguish it from Western culture. Some groups in Islamic countries believe that music is sinful and evil. The main reason for not liking music is that it can be so powerful that it could drive the listener to desert their reason and logic. I think that it is difficult for someone to believe that music can be such a terrible influence. This viewpoint has stemmed from religion but many religious texts cite song and dance as a way of expressing ones love for God. This is a shared view of the Sufi’s.

However, some believe that, if done right, music can be a manifestation of God. This is an opinion put forth by the Sufi’s. The nature of the music depends on the intentions of the listener. Music is a good thing as long as it’s views also stem from the Qur’an. For example, there is a Qur’anic chant.  The point is to express the importance of unity with God. Muslims even have a word for unity with God: Tahwid.

Some music does express violent and hurtful aspects of the world. However some music is joyous with worship. For example, the musical Godspell written by Stephen Schwartz explores the different features of Christianity. Whether it be sinning, worshipping, or the death of Jesus Christ; Godspell features the power and passion that singing can have in religion.

There are many aspects of Islam that reflect the religions devout and reserved ways. This is expressed through the terms and the static of the music. Abstraction is a term meaning that God can be found in non-physical things, never in nature or an idol, but instead in things like music. The point of this is to avoid the focus on worldly concerns and draw the focus to God. Another term used is nonprogrammatic which means that music must not be associated with human emotions either.

Maurer compares Sufi music to Bebop in the West. Bebop was a sect of 1950’s jazz and it was often perceived as full of passion and energy. However, Bebop was actually a cold and impersonal style of jazz. It had a characteristic that was also present in Sufi music. This was the lack of form. Both types of music were considered non-developmental or static. This meant that they didn’t have a concrete end, beginning, or climax. To jazz musicians, this didn’t mean much, but for the Sufis it meant that the song was eternal and therefore divine.

While I agree that music is a valid way of expressing ones religion, I do believe that not associating music with human emotions is unhelpful and nearly impossible. Human emotions are what fuel the writing and thought process behind a song. A song cannot be written without a human emotion. I am of the opinion that the devoted and religious feelings are human emotions and being inspired to create music that worships God is a passionate ever-moving presense. While I respect Muslims for their ardent and pious love of their God, my view is that loving God should be a celebration of song rather than a hidden melody. 

The Rough Guide to Sufi Music

Sufi music varies substantially across the world in terms of form. However, from LA to Kolkata or from Turkey to Senegal or South Africa, the poetry embeded in the songs has a universal message. In many ways, whatever the form, we are yearning to be closer to the Divine. If you want to purchase some of this music, here is one place you can get some Sufi music.

In this Rough Guide CD, one interesting musician is Moudou Gaye. Modou is from Senegal. He plays the “hang”, a metallic percussion instrument physically related to the steelpan. He uses this instrument to “cross borders instead of a passport…Modou tries out these new tonalities in improvised concerts and meetings with musicians. While singing Sufi poems with ephemeral jazz bands, Modou takes us into his “Soufi Jazz” universe where languages, instruments and cultures mix amongst each other. A remarkable person, he draws the East and the West closer together, thanks to his unique and witty music.” (Virtual Womex). Here are examples of him playing.



Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

I found this really neat recording of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing Allah, Mohammed, Char Yaar. The punjabi lyrics are here. This song is a Qawwali.  “Qawwali can be classified as an ecstatic ritual. One of Qawwali’s primary functions is to guide its listeners–those who understand the poetry and meaning–into a state of ecstatic trance (wajd). The music of Hindustani Sufi Muslims, it guides its listeners towards a spiritual union with the saints, with the Prophet, and eventually with God” (Ari Gold Films). Here Nusrat recites the names of the four (char) Indian Sufi saints: “Haji, Khawaja, Qutab, and Farid (Khan 1989). Khawaja is a title for Chishti, the founder saint of Chishtiyya Sufism in India (13th century), supposedly a direct descendent of the Prophet; Qutab was Chishti’s disciple; Farid was Qutab’s (see Begg). Farid, in turn, taught Nizamuddin Auliya, whose disciple Amir Khusrau is credited with many Qawwali compositions and innovations, including the use of Persian and Rekhta (proto-Urdu) languages (Thakur 275, Referenced in Ari Gold Films ), and who gave sama‘–the song–its legitimacy in the face of Orthodox Muslim opposition to music, with the words, “May GOD bless this tribe of music-makers who make even the day of retribution stand by when they perform” (Sarmadee 264). This song which Nusrat performs, then, connects the man who asked God to bless the sama‘ with a line of sainthood leading directly to the Prophet and to God. The Qawwali song affirms the spiritual legitimacy of Qawwali.” (Ari Gold Films)