The following article was written for the ‘The Homeland’ journal around the years 1997-98. It contained some observations of mine regarding a cultural crisis in the forging of Muslim identity in the West and in some respects that were taking place in the wider Muslim world before popular Nasheed artists of the likes of Maher Zain and Sami Yusuf. At the time I felt that it was only a matter of time until those Muslims – particularly those understanding the effects of the popular western culture on younger generations – challenge the Islamic revivalist forces opposed to all things musical and artistic and create a third way. A school of thought that sought to restore balance and equilibrium in the Muslim psychic. You will therefore notice that only mention was made of Yusuf Islam formerly, Cat Stevens. This is simply because he was the only Nasheed artist that I would follow his only battle with the question of Islam and music and so mentioning him is purely the fact that he is an icon from my generation.
The article written during a time when my writing style was in the early stages of its development begs for my editorial attention, but I have decided to leave it largely untouched and instead add some context to it.
In the original copies there were footnotes and references, but I have decided to leave those out in this published version, for mainly technical reasons. May Allah forgive us any trespasses.
Is Muslim literary and artistic expression poised to defend the realm against Western cultural saturation and its affect upon Muslims in the West? Malick Elias writes in defence of music and entertainment and argues that Muslims at the cross-roads of a crisis need to begin expressing themselves and asserting their identity.
Experiencing the crisis:
ANY MUSLIM living in the real-world will know by now or at least have experienced the results of a deepening cultural crisis facing Muslims in the West and to a lesser extent those in the Muslim world today. The affects have been felt most by Muslims families who daily experience injury to their self-esteem bringing up children in a cultural environment unsympathetic to their moral choices. When the feeling strikes – that they either have to integrate within main stream Western culture to be accepted or to opt out with a confused sense of identity and suffer isolation – then you know they are in crisis. These stark choices can be crude and depressing.
“What can I do? I am only one person, and I have myself and family to think about -” is a thought each of us will have muttered at some time in dark moments of our frustration. Alternatively there are those of us (exploding with self-assurance) who refuse to suffer injury to their self-confidence only to face the imaginable frustration of having to communicate their aspirations to their children. These feelings of disappointment are borne out of a widening cultural-gap between the old and young generations which undermines a parents’ ability to communicate their moral concerns to their offspring, positively and assuringly. As a parent it is easy to forget that our children will soon reach the age when they too have choices to make on their own. They should not have to cross our (sometimes foolhardy) moral boundaries to make choices such as; the type of entertainment they are allowed to enjoy, at the expense of “declaring war on Islam”. As the great Andulusian Muslim scholar pointed out: “I have tried to find one goal which everyone would agree to be excellent and worthy of being striven after. I have found one only: to be free from anxiety. When I reflected upon it, I realised that not only do all agree in valuing it and desiring it, but I also perceived that, despite their many different passions, aspirations, preoccupations and desires, they never make the slightest gesture unless it is to expel anxiety… People eat, drink, make love, wear clothes, play games, build a shelter, mount a horse, go for a walk, only in order to avoid the reverse of all of these actions and every other kind of anxiety.”
Ibn Hazm does indeed make an important point. And it relates especially to the bouts of boredom we experience going through the daily cycles of our psychological development. It seems to begin at the earliest periods of the human species; as children we continuously want to be entertained and as grown-ups we become sophisticated attention seekers. Why then do some adults – when anxiety and boredom could be at its worst – think that the need to be entertained is less natural or that serious matters cannot be made amusing?
Alright, we live our lives constantly ducking calamities, unnecessary hardships and dull moments. In what ways do our parents, elders or community leaders help in cushioning our headlong fall into the consequences of quick fixes and solutions? Many mosques and Muslim community centres though adequately providing for the spiritual needs of the elders within their communities are still failing the increasing needs of our youth. Boredom, the lack of excitement and the unavailability of avenues of expression are exposing Muslim youth to undesirable options. Young teenagers going through difficult phases during poignant periods of their psychological lives are likely to find expression of their teenage frustrations and anxieties in the company of morally delinquent and hapless peers. Muslim scholars, community leaders and activists are still not doing enough – as in opening the bag of ‘could dos,’ to counteract the demands of nature and nurture (society).
Added to these inefficiencies, there are already mounting pressures on parents to be earners in times of inadequate child care and without the support structures suited to one’s moral choices. Muslim children will be left unsupervised and without quality time spent with their parents. Does it matter who they are left with? It does. Already, even under our supervision, they are left to the mercy of prime time entertainment television-viewing to shape their creative faculties, develop their social skills and cultural values. Two out of every three Muslim households can accurately name, if not all the star players of their local football team, at least one of their Holly-Bollywood movie idols. How else can Muslim parents or indeed any other parent with specific moral choices exercise their right to shape the expectations of the next generation in the crucial years of their childhood?
The solution is neither in deciding to exclude a television or in forbidding a radio whilst pushing a book of purposeful instruction into their hands. To either choose not to listen to broadcasts or watch television programmes (because it is accompanied by music or songs or portraying the wretchedness of some peoples lives) fearing the influence it may have upon our children is to retreat and; is not a way forward out of our crisis of living in a society that does not focus on the specific needs of Muslims.
Fine, you may want to retreat and do nothing to rectify a problem that will not go away. Sitting back and hoping that your children will always be there at the Mosque with you will not eradicate the opposite possibility – that they might not have any interest in your moral choices. Children grow up, they become independent individuals and in a society like Britain, their rebellion against the restrictions and fears of parents is met by support from the state. Every Muslim parent (except to whom Allah has been merciful) will face one of these scenarios or are already experiencing it in one form or another. Giving our boys their freedom and keeping the girls under house arrest will work no longer. Both must be armed with a strong sense of affiliation to Islam as a way of life, code of practice and an alternative system of moral choice but not detached from their societal experiences.
To overcome the cultural void we need role models to show us how to articulate their experiences and achievements of living in two worlds. Muslims are in no need of the Secular-Mufti-Mullah types; those who tell us how important it is to gain an education or that we should practice what is stated in the Quran and prophetic traditions, but are themselves unable to bridge the gap between the dictates of old institutional practices and the new ones we now face. Role models are needed from amongst those who are able to express their Islamic and Muslim identity through contemporary literature, art, the intellectual and academic sciences, and in the fields of sport and entertainment.
Our future generations of role models will set the standards of achievements in shaping the future conduct and aspirations of Muslims in the West. Moreover, they are the ones that can bridge the cultural gap and fill the void that Muslims today experience in the search of ‘the Muslim identity.’ We have to arm them with the information necessary to harmonise Islamic ideals with the harsh realities in order to allow them to release their potential.
It is not accurate to claim that there is a cultural void spanning the various sections which constitute the ethnicity of the Muslim Community. In Britain, for example, Muslims of the Asian sub-continent, Africa and the Middle East each have a semblance of a cultural identity which they have tried to maintain against all odds. I attended the recent launch of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) – which was set up to speak on behalf of Muslim interests in Britain and forge stronger links among them – and was greeted with poetry from the Indian sub-continent! Not that I am not an admirer of Muhammad Iqbaal or any poet from the Muslim world, but his time has ended and along with him his experiences. It is now time to listen to poems reflecting the experiences of Muslims in Britain and the West IN THE LANGUAGE OF THE WEST. It is those who have accepted Islamic values from the background of Western indigenous culture who find it more difficult to make claims of having any Muslim identity. Therefore it is worth noting that when one speaks of Muslims in the West and a cultural vacuum a distinction must be made between the particular cultural background of various ethnic minorities and the void that exists among them as a Muslim collective.
Collectively, and at any one time, there may be a least three competing identities seeking recognition in one ethnic group. Take for instance, a Pakistani living in Britain – not withstanding the fact that he or she maybe of first or second generation – in his/her cultural identity there is certain to be remnants of the Indian sub-continent (in his food, clothing, symbolism) interacting with his sense of Britishness. Extra complications arises if one happens to be ‘practising Muslims’ – maintaining certain traditional religious practices and values exclusive to their Islamic orientation. This can either act as a filter for determining what is acceptable behaviour from the dominant culture (its values, beliefs, role models and practices) as well as is can act to counteract it.
This sub-conscious mechanism which either acts against or allows acculturation to the overpowering culture is innate to any ethnic group. It is especially strong among those consciously committed to an Islamic way of life who sense unacceptability from the dominant culture and thus help create the very feeling of existing in the cultural vacuum which we mentioned earlier.
Speaking to women who have decided to integrate within main-stream culture by taking off their head scarves for example; it was constantly the case, that their anxieties were being made to feel un-accepted or on equal par with members of the dominant culture. It is often because the pressures of the dominant culture are so overwhelming – by its constant projection of itself as a more exciting, upwardly mobile and freer way of life – that feelings of fear, isolation and rejection are targeted at it. Other responses – which now seem to be a growing trend as seen from the sitcoms and satires of minorities in the film industry, aimed at making comedy of their own cultural backwardness, are having the reverse effect. However, the majority of people have chosen to forget about it all and maintain their ethnocentricity and Islam in their domestic life and on festive occasions whilst continuing to reap the benefits of living in the way they can.
Thus, is the state of Muslim culture in Britain and in the West; somewhere in between shades of duplicity and struggling for recognition and self-confidence. Having a double identity is not so bad if one is conscious of his or her responsibility bearing the Muslim identity and as the verse states the, “heart is tranquil with faith.” What is abominable is to become one of the new breed of dominant-culture prototypes who exploit the misfortunes, frustrations and anger of their own kind to secure a position in the world by portraying their other half as a loony and a misfit.
The complexity and diversity of Muslim culture in lands not indigenous to their belief and value systems are bound to give birth to unique problems and crises. There will always be a price to pay, whether one decides to integrate, isolate or dissimulate. It is more difficult to safeguard one’s household from the fears that we hope will pass it by, than to engage in bashing other Muslims who end up misfits of either culture; the dominant host culture or the weak sub-culture. Let’s face it, there isn’t such a thing as Muslim Culture in Britain. There are Asian, African, and Arab Muslim cultural trends but there isn’t a culture which reflects the experience of Muslims in the West. The Prophet’s traditional practices (Sunnah) do not constitute the whole of Islamic culture. They are only a constituent of it. They make up the essential beliefs, values and virtues to aspire for – which are in themselves universally acceptable by reasonable minds. It is the continuos experiences of a people or individuals; their admirable achievements, the memorable days in their history the good times and the bad, in a particular time and place, which complete their culture. These we have to forge for ourselves and make known to others through literature, film, poetry, paintings, music and so on.
Stepping into the Front-line:
The role of the entertainment industry has grown immensely in public importance during the last decade. This has been partly due to the active role which governments now play in promoting entertainment as devices for diverting the urge for power and the grievances of the masses into channels which are not threatening to society. This trend is being adopted by Muslim governments themselves. Now, not only are Muslim indigenous cultures and its Islamic values under threat from the West’s global culture but the daily lives of Muslims increasingly becoming overshadowed by it.
Islamic communitarian ideals have fallen victim to the individualistic culture produced by modern technology, the television, and other multimedia systems. It is now enough for us to interact with one another in the same village through cables and the satellite systems. So much so that a concerted effort has to be made to find the time to meet publicly in common venues and gatherings. There is much talk among some Muslims about opening theatres and public houses for the sharing of cultural interests, this is an admirable step in the right direction. Such public venues would certainly assist in addressing the anxieties created by the host culture. At the least it would give adults and youth a forum for expression. However, a revolution does not come about without brave-hearts and people willing to sacrifice their honour. Artistic mediums are the best way to promote Culture. In the West it is generally about entertainment and amusement and Islamic conservative forces are resentful of this. What is first needed is a change of attitude towards a more moderate position and rationalisation of amusement on the whole in Islam.
The recent decision of Yusuf Islam, formerly the pop singer Cat Stevens, to return to music ‘for Islam’ is a brave and decisive step towards doctoring the problem. His decision to change his approach to music and musical instruments which was made back in 1977 following his embracing Islam has come at the right moment when so many Muslims are crying out for a means of expression. It will also be a great relief to the many Muslim artists and musicians who have been operating in the shadows of the underground scene for some time. What follows is a treatise which the author hopes, will rationalise and justify a change in attitude.
The Muses, between Passion and Resentment!
The debate among orthodox scholars on music stem from the mixed feelings among the companions of the Prophet (saw) with regards to الغناء; the Prophet’s granting of permission to sections of the people of Medina to indulge in the playing of some localised musical instruments and; also his clear consent to localised forms of entertainment in festivals such as Eids, weddings… These instances within which no conclusive Quranic text or prophetic statement on what forms of music were allowed or forbidden mean that the issue was one left up to the conscience of individuals, and of the collective leadership to lay down specific checks and balances to regulate its affects upon society.
The first two Khalifs, Abu Bakr as-Siddeeq and Umar ibn al-Khataab, were too busy expanding the interests of Islam and possibly had, little love for, or any interest in, music. Under Abu Bakr, his noted dislike for muse and his determination to maintain political stability within renegade and new territories, would have contributed to the general suppression of any artistic expression that had existed before Islamic expansion northwards. Henry George Farmer in his book (History of Arabian Music), makes this point saying, that in spite of the austere regime of Abu Bakr, the wealthy and the nobility may have indulged in forms of amusement in private. He suggests that Umar may have been a little different than his predecessor and may have had a taste of listening to singing girls providing their songs did not go beyond moral confines.
Under Umar, the newly expanding Muslim empire with large influxes of people from the former Byzantine and Persian civilisations forced artistic expression to the fore towards the end of the first century Hijriyyah. Fresh cultural contacts found expression in new types of singing that added to the simple caravan songs of the Arabs of the “Days of Idolatry”. Combined with the non existence of conclusive doctrinal inhibition or directive from the prevailing Muslim leadership banning or regulating people’s artistic tastes, the general public had become divided between those known to be indulging in the listening of music and those who frowned upon such activities.
By the end of the reign of the first four Khalifs what was once beneath the surface became widespread among the affluent and the nobility so much so that the renowned scholars of the day decided against its legality. Abu Haneefah is said to have “disliked singing, and classified it as a sin.” Imam Malik was asked about the endorsement of the Prophet (saw) to the people of Medina to indulge in entertainment they were accustomed – among which was listening to music on festive occasions – to which he replied “only the abject (al-Fusaaq) among us do that.” Imam Shafi’i writes in one of his treaties on the Etiquette of Judges, “al-Ghinaa is a detestable (Makruuh) entertainment and resembles that which is false; he who excesses in it is an half-wit (Safeeh) and his testimony in Courts is rejectable.” And Imam Ahmad is said to have replied when asked about al-Ghinaa by his son: “It creates hypocrisy in the heart and I dislike it.”
Their decision to speak out against music was in fact recognition that the issue had previously gone unchallenged; but, by then had now became widespread and identifiable with sections of the populace which demonstrated moronic and morally lax behaviour.
What is also clear from the many statements of these great scholars was the absence of mechanisms of enforcement or of any proscribed penal or public reprimands (Ta’zeer) for the people of muse. The problem was so entrenched among the masses, particularly the nobility and the Khalifs of that period that the best they did was to default musicians (and any one engaging in detestable artistic professions) the right to claim liability if the tools of their trade had been deliberately damaged. Perhaps they feared causing an upset among the ranks of the nobility or maybe did not think about the impossibility of eradicating the problem and of ways of effective regulation?
Looking at the wider picture it is not difficult to see that the views of those Fuqahaa (legalists) aforementioned, and those that sharing their sentiments, had little impact upon curbing the artistic tastes of the wider society. Subsequently they did not go unchallenged by later legalist who were still faced with the social problems resulting from an abuse of the muse. So it leaves one to wonder how could the Fuqahaa (legalist) reach a consensus when the issue itself was inconclusive during the Prophet’s lifetime, and was continued to be publicly challenged throughout Islamic history? In spite of this, some still argue in a manner as if the matter had been settled.
Moreover, music among many other forms of entertainment were important issues of “public concern”. Classical Muslim scholars gave great importance to issues of public concern in the belief that issues of this type had to be addressed by the Prophet as part of his duty in executing his mission. If such an issue was not made conclusive (Qat’e) by the Prophet it was considered to be speculative (Masalatuz-Zanni) and judgement was either left to the authority of juri-consult, the head of state to pass legislation or left to the conscience and personal piety (Taqwa) of individuals in regulating their tastes and choice of entertainment.
Music, Entertainment, Sport and Culture in the Balance:
The manner in which music is discussed by those opposing it gives the impression that it should have had the same status of that of alcohol consumption, fornication and adultery. If this be the case then the issue would have had to have been conclusively addressed by the law (Shar’) — music, poetry, sport, the arts and so on are matters that do constitute “public concern” — instead what we see from the data presented to us is that neither did the Quran nor Prophet (saw) cast a blanket judgement over entertainment, including music. Even in the few significant traditions that are used as proof of prohibition on the question of music, those of Hisham Ibn Amar: “From among my followers there will be some people who will consider illegal sexual intercourse, wearing of silk, drinking alcohol and the playing of stringed instruments as lawful …”and Abdur Rahman Ibn Saabit: ” Verily from amongst my Ummah there would be disgrace, transformation (of people) into animals and false accusations of adultery. Some companions asked:“ O Messenger of Allah!, are these people (Muslims)? ” He replied: “Yes, if string instruments and wines and the wearing of silks become prominent in society. ” one cannot conclusively claim that they refer to the total prohibition of all forms of music.
Thesetraditions demonstrate a concern for the effects of ma’aazef and doplace it in the public domain. However the menace of stringed instruments must be seen from the perspective of its use of it in the Prophet’s era as ameans for inciting seductiveness. This is clear from the Prophet’s statements in that stringed instruments are pitched together with other lavish, sensuous and above all, misplaced and immoral acts. Sexual intercourse, the wearing of silk and the drinking of alcohol are only wrong and immoral in so far as their purposes are misplaced. Sex is great, but not promiscuously or outside of the full commitment to one another in marriage, for instance. Neither is silk or alcohol forbidden in themselves when both can be used in medicine and one looks better on women and the other can be used in so many other utilities within the chemical industry. Therefore matter, in itself, is not forbidden. Similarly stringed instruments, the gun and television are to be judged upon the basis of the purposes they serve at a particular point in time.
Could it be then that many classical scholars overlooked that fact that it may have been “excessive amusement and entertainment” of a “base type” that was morally unacceptable. “Excessive,” because it was not conducive to the focusing of the minds to engage in the promotion of Islam and the defence of the realm? “Base,” because there is sufficient evidence to prove that the Prophet did not intend to ban اللهو (amusement of sorts), providing it served the objectives of the community – as poetry did at that time – and were in accord with Quranic moral guidelines?
Furthermore Quranic texts which are seen by the advocates of the non-permissibility of al-Ghinaa as “conclusive proof” for forbidding music are themselves the same evidence used by those advocating its permissibility. For example the verse “And of mankind is he who pays for mere pastime of discourse, that he may mislead (others) from Allah’s way without knowledge, and makes it the butt of mockery. For such there is a shameful doom” is seen by some Quranic commentators (Mufassireen) to be linked to a contemporary of the Prophet (saw) who bought girls to sing for him night and day. The assumption of ‘conclusive proof’ is set upon the opinions of a number of companions of the Prophet (saw) who viewed this verse as referring to music.
Al-Qaysarani, in his book as-Simaa’, disputes that the term اللهو refers to الغناء (frequently translated to mean music). He argues that the Prophet himself would not have used the term اللهو (amusement) had there been an immoral stigma attached to it. In hadith Hishaam Ibn ‘Awrah on the authority of his father that ‘Aa’esha, the Prophet’s wife, related to him that after she had attended the wedding of an Ansaar couple the Prophet asked her,“…wasn’t there any اللهو; the Ansaar are ecstatic about it (When there is lahwu in the festivities)?”
Furthermore the above verse explicitly stipulates a particular type of lahw; that which was deliberately aimed at misguiding or instigating immorality of any sort. How then could it – the most important for the prohibitionist – be used to cover all forms of entertainment, particularly الغناء?
Al-Ghinaa covers many different forms of entertainment from various forms of poetic chants such as wedding eulogies, work and war melodies, many of which have strong foundations in Arabic culture and Muslim tradition. The Prophet was welcomed into Medina with a now famous eulogy – طلع البدر علينا , he encouraged his wife to witness a war dance accompanied by chants in the Holy Mosque at Medina. The Prophet rebuked Abu Bakr remarks on al-Ghinaa, when he entered upon (visited) ‘Aa’isha’s and the Prophet on the day of Eid, while they both were in the presence of two singing girls singing songs about the battle of Bu’ath. And it was also reported that the Prophet (saw) himself commissioned a singer to sing for Aa’isha, later showing disapproval of the sentiment and seductiveness in her singing.
Al-Ghinaa then is not Lahw, though it is from it, and has to be distinguished from al-Ma’aazif – which altogether are used synonymously to mean music. Music is best defined as the art of combining sounds in a melodic or harmonic order for aesthetic effect. The specialization of the word’s meaning began in Greek (Mousike) first referring to ‘poetry sung to music,’ and subsequently to ‘music’ alone. As an art it has two sections, the art of the composer and that of the performer. However today, the word is commonly used with special reference to the section on performance, and to the instrumental execution rather than the vocal. The ArabicAl-Ghina which is used today equivocally to mean music, was a mode of recital of poetry or verse, that was uttered with a trilling, quavering, or prolonging and a sweet modulation of the voice. There were three known styles of Ghina, the Nasb, the Sinaad, and the Hazaj. The Nasb was the music of the riders (Rukbaan) and the singing girls (Qainaat). The Sinaad, was of a heavy style and the Hazaj a lighter grouping. The Nasb, in which the voice was raised and elevated, was originally used for urging and exciting camels and later applied at the opening of odes (Qasi~dah) for creating a form of nostalgia and yearning in the heart of the listener. For instance, the opening of the ode of ‘Imru Al-Qays, a famous pre-Islamic poet:
“Stay! let us weep, while memory tries to trace
The long-lost fair one’s sand-girt dwelling place..”
This is what Ghina meant in particular, later on it adopted a more general usage, meaning the combination of poetry, mode, and instruments, now known as music.
At the time of the Prophet (saw) this was accompanied by few instruments such as the ‘uud, duff, tabl, ma’aazif, jalajil and the mizmaar, all of which were instruments that had deep roots in pre-Islamic Arab culture.
When trying to ascertain the Islamic legal opinion on music one must be clear as to which form is referred to and debated. To confuse contemporary trends of music, identified with the instrumental execution rather than older forms, distinguished by its poetry, prose, and the powerful use of words and meaning, is a recurring error made when debating this subject.
The point I am making here is clearly demonstrated from the collection of texts used previously. While there is a stronger case for the Prophet’s resentment of al-Ma’aazif and Mizmaar (stringed and pipe instruments); lahw (amusement) of any sort cannot be said to be forbidden providing it retains the Islamic moral ethos. Take ash-Shi’r (poetry) for instance which on the face of certain Quranic verses speaks disapprovingly of it. When contrasted with the Prophet’s expressed opinion of the legible use of poetry in his media. The Quranic statements in chapter (26) and (31) can only be correctly understood from the background of the evil effects it can have upon society in enforcing purposelessness.
However these Quranic verses also speak for themselves. If one were to read the complete statements one would discover that they are stressing the good use of these arts and are not leaving the issue ambiguous. By extending this reasoning to stringed and pipe instruments, which may have been used in the Prophet’s day for conjuring up the sensuality and hype of baseless sentiment, they too should be viewed in the light of not being harmful in themselves but harmful on the basis of social aimlessness and irresponsibility.
Islamic Culture is Chivalrous and Competitive!
Islam encourages all types of artistic expression the abundance of data in Muslim historical tradition confirms this claim. Such as the Prophet’s participation in competitive sports running races, his encouragement of horse and camel-racing for wagers and his rebuking of those who neglected the skills of archery. He loved wrestling; and also acknowledged the theatrical in his presence. In each of these arts one has to judge its morality on the basis of the purpose its serves within the view of looking at the larger picture and not on the basis of casting blanket judgements.A better criterion then, than saying all music or instruments are forbidden is to use the criterion deduced from combing the exceptions made in chapter 31:6 and 26:221-7.
Entertainment, amusement and sport (lahw wa la’ib) according to the Quran are to be motivated by a desire to preserve the Islamic existence and conditional to promoting its ethos and way of life. Living a good and upright life should at all times be paramount in the minds of the Muslims. And this cannot be achieved without accountability for one’s actions in this world. The Quran explicitly states, that the life of the world is nothing but amusement (lahw) and play (la’ib) this is true in so much as it is speaking about an apparent reality. However it is also true that this is the reality we have to deal with in the course of our life on earth and the conscious Muslim artist should guard against losing that perspective on life.
Secondly, Allah endowed His creatures with the capacity to enjoy activities that are artistic, sensuous, and luxurious. Shouldn’t these urges be directed to enhance society and our life in this world? This is not injustice on Allah’s behalf. It would have been if humans were not given the opportunity to redirect their animal instincts to doing that which is better. It would be best if humans could immediately recognise and avoid the many distractions which make up the essence of life. It would be ideal not to marry so as to give in to desire and lust; or the juxtaposition, not to have desire so as to avoid making the errors of love. However some of us have to settle for the good alternatives presented to us through the opportunities presented before us. If you have a personal dislike for the muses leave it to those who incline to such pastimes. People need only be aware of the moral limitations and if they are truly ‘believers;’ they will not steal, commit fornication, or seek to deliberately corrupt others with their voices. Every nation needs forms of entertainment and expression and the Prophet acknowledged amusements to be an important social feature: “…to let other nations know that Islam is spacious,” as he once said.
The muses can be a powerful tool for social comment and changing people attitudes about Islam, Muslims, their lives, hopes, visions and experiences. Social commentary through painting, poetry, creative writing and so on, need not only be defensive – always having to justify oneself or moral standpoint. It can be used either to highlight or put to record significant achievements of Muslims in the West or even to praise the collective or individual efforts made in the name of Islam. If these mediums are popularised and exhibited, Muslims and non-Muslims can begin to identify with the experiences of others and not feel so isolated and alien. The Prophet (saw) when quizzed by Ka’b Ibn Malik for his views on morality of poetry, he said: “The believer strives with his sword and his tongue. By Him in Whose hand my soul is, it is as though you are shooting at them with it like the spraying of arrows.”
The Prophet (saw) throughout his life had at his side a vanguard of spokespersons, the equivalent of a Public Relations team who defended his character against his enemies, challenged their propaganda and publicised the victories and experiences of the Muslims (bil-Hijaa wa al-Madh). They were the Prophet’s media and were also the new generation of poets who were responsible for taking pre-Islamic Arabic ode to new literary heights. Among this new breed of poets were the likes of Hasan Ibn Thaabit, Ka’b Ibn Zuhayr and a few remarkable women such as Al-Hasnaa who it has been said, that the Prophet was bemused by her poetry . They were new because they accepted Islam and most of them incorporated Quranic concepts and precepts into their poetry styles.
Today, few are beginning to rise to the challenges of asserting Muslim identity in the West. In this context Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and the many other artists have to be commended for recognising the crisis and taking a stand to address it by practical means. What made him do it I ask myself? Did he always have doubts about the prohibitionists stance regarding it; or was it simply the fact he is a father who has witnessed the impact of the INDIGINOUS-MUSLIM-CULTURE VOID upon his own children. It cannot simply be accepted that his decision was academic or as a result of witnessing the sufferings of the Bosnian people.
“The cognitive dissonance,” that Yusuf may have experienced after his encounter with victims of the Bosnian crisis and the urge to raise awareness and express empathy, are of the same feelings increasingly felt by Muslims living in the West today. Parents are hopeless in staving off the forces of ‘popular culture.’ There are many reasons why this sense of hopelessness besets us; ignorance, the tendency to interpret everything dogmatically without looking at the complete picture, and our obvious rejection of the values of our societies which we seek safety from in becoming believers – only later to reassess our positions. Why not change now and commit ourselves to pushing back the frontiers which invade our spaces and overshadow our destiny.
There is nothing wrong with re-valuing one’s views and opinions providing that one is conscious of the moral dilemmas underlying one’s choice. As Muslims we never lose sight of the belief that life is not without purpose. We are constantly re-evaluating our position in the world. The real test of taking control over the lives we have been given, and of being wholly accountable, is to uniform our beliefs with our actions. ‘The poets’ mentioned in the Quran were accused of lying on the grounds of their irresponsibility for the culture they were its creators, and if they did recite a verse that urged righteousness, they themselves were un-righteous in conduct. If it is all a question of righteousness what’s your comment?
Hassan Ibn Thaabit said (in reference to the Victory at Badr):
- Thanks to Allah we fear not an army
- How many they be with their assembled troops.
- Whenever they brought a multitude against us
- The gracious Lord sufficed us against their swords;
- At Badr we raised our spears aloft,
- Death did not dismay us.
- You could not see a body of men
- More dangerous to those they attack when war is stirred up,
- But we put our trust [in Allah] and said:
- ‘Our swords are our fame and our defence.’
- With them we met them and were victorious
- Though but a band against their thousands