FYI: Of Muslims & Music – from the National Post

Egypt’s Leading Islamic jurist has issued a fatwa that declares the exhibition of statues in homes un-Islamic. The religious edict by the Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, overturning a ruling issued more than 100 years ago, did not mention statues in museums or public places but aroused fears among art lovers that it might prompt extremists to attack thousands of ancient statues on view at tourist sites across the country, Agence France-Presse reported.

“We don’t rule out that someone will enter the Karnak temple in Luxor or any other pharaonic temple and blow it up on the basis of the fatwa.” said Gamal al-Ghitani, editor of the literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. “It’s time for those placing impediments between Islam and innovation to get out of our lives.”

The ruling by the Grand Mufti was based on a passage in the Hadith, sayings of the Prophet, that reads, “Sculptors would be tormented most on Judgement Day.” He said the text left no doubt that sculpture was “sinful” and that decorating homes with statues was forbidden.


(MY comments are in parentheses. I don’t necessarily agree with *everything* he has to say, but there is much here it is necessary to know – Morocco)

by Geoffrey Clarfield/ National Post / Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Music and dance are integral to culture. Can one imagine Jewish life in the West without Klezmer, Fiddler on the Roof or the hora? Or the Black American experience without jazz and gospel?

And yet there are parts of the Islamic world where it is a crime to dance and dangerous to sing in public. As a result, millions of Muslims are being denied the right to express their religion’s rich cultural heritage.

On May 18, an unknown gunman shot and killed Shaima Rezayee, a 24-year-old TV presenter in Kabul, Afghanistan. As the host of a popular program called Hop, she was one of the country’s best-known women. (More than one famous Rai singer was murdered by “fundamentalists” in Algeria recently & a well-known dancer was deliberately assassinated in the Swat region of Pakistan by Taliban.)

Hop has now been discontinued. But when Shaima was alive, it was an hour-long program on which male and female presenters, dressed in Western clothes, presented foreign music videos.

Her death occurred shortly after Afghanistan’s conservative religious Supreme Court declared that Hop was “un-Islamic.” Before her murder, she had received numerous death threats. Last year, this same court protested when Shaima’s employers, Tolo TV, screened Cecil. B. DeMille’s epic film The Ten Commandments. Representatives of the Supreme Court complained to Afghani journalists that “it showed the prophet Moses with short trousers among the girls.”

Shaima’s death is but one example of how the rise of Islamic fundamentalism threatens singing, dancing and every other mode of expression deemed by extremists to be tainted by “infidel” influence.

In August, Iranian authorities sentenced a female journalist, Banafsheh Samgis, to one year in prison. Her crime? She had written a book arguing that female musicians had been a part of Islamic civilization since its beginning and were appreciated by none other than the prophet Muhammad. Prosecutors accused her of “distorting Islamic history.”

Iranian men are at risk, too. Five years ago, in the eastern Iranian city of Meshed, authorities led a crackdown on pop music. This was prompted by numerous sightings of young, unmarried Iranian men playing loud music in their parked cars. One local judge said the perpetrators could receive up to 75 lashes. (More than enough to be fatal or at least crippling!)

Western movies are also officially forbidden in Iran (though hundreds of thousands of Iranians evade the strictures through the use of bootleg video rental services). The regime has also officially banned Western rock music; and when entering Iran, visitors are required to present all CDs and tapes for inspection. As one Iranian official explained, “If the music makes you want to jump up and dance, it is not acceptable.” No doubt, many Beatles and Rolling Stones CDs are lying in warehouses waiting for liberation under a more tolerant regime.

The institutional source of Iran’s cultural monitoring activities is the Council of Music, a distinctive creation of the Islamic revolution. Before a bar of music or lyric may be performed or broadcast, the author must obtain written approval from the authorities. There is also a Council of Poetry that has the same rules, as well as an equivalent film authority.

These councils are all branches of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture. The fact that this ministry is, in fact, suppressing true Islamic culture rather than promoting it should remind readers of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four — in which the “Ministry of Truth” is charged with propaganda and censorship, and the “Ministry of Peace” is charged with waging war.

(Mideastern dancers all over the world were made aware of the horrendous repression of and hostility towards the Arts when Mohamed Khordadian was arrested in Teheran for *dancing* in front of a mixed audience. It took an international outcry & LOTS of “behind the scenes” maneuvering, etc. top get him out.)

(Farzana Kaboli & all her female dancers were arrested, for performing “movement to rhythm” – couldn’t even dare to call it dance – for an all-female audience, even though they had the *official permission of the Ministry of Culture*. Her dancers had to sign affidavits that they would never dance again as the condition for their release!!! It took months longer for her husband to get Farzana out)

Given that Iran is still a fundamentalist state, and Afghanistan has only recently been liberated from the Taliban (who had declared almost all music to be illegal), one might expect them to be culturally backward. Unfortunately, more liberal, partially democratic regimes such as Lebanon and Egypt also serve up disturbing examples in the same vein.

On Dec. 14, 1999, the Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife was cleared by a court of the crime of blasphemy. Khalife was at risk of being imprisoned or fined, and the case made the headlines of newspapers all over the Arab world.

Khalife had been charged with insulting religious values by using a verse from the Koran on his 1995 CD, Arabic Coffeepot. (The song in question was inspired by the Koranic version of the Biblical story of Joseph and his brothers.) The Sunni clerics of Lebanon ruled that singing verses from the Koran was “absolutely banned and not accepted.”

(Excuse me?!?!? There are thousands of records, tapes, CDs of sheikhs singing verses from the Koran. What’s the difference? Are they afraid of losing their monopoly?!?!?)

Egypt’s regime portrays itself as an enemy of fundamentalism. Yet as far back as the 1950s, the government declared belly dancing illegal. At the time, there was such a popular outcry against this time-honoured cultural tradition that the declaration was rescinded with one condition: Belly dancers had to cover their stomachs.

(& no floorwork, no quiver – yeah, sure! – & when being photographed, they had to stand stock still … What idiot has so much time on his hands that he can dream up all that malarkey?)

Now the government has decided it should no longer give support or exposure to belly dancing — bellies covered or not. And so belly dancing has been taken off TV.

In 1977, 12 out of the 14 nightclubs that feature belly dancing on Pyramid Street in Cairo were burned to the ground by angry mobs. This was part of a larger effort by religious activists who view nightclubs as dens of corruption and vice.

(They were rebuilt & Oriental dance flourished for the next 16 years, but the Oriental dance business has been in such a slump since mid 1993, that most of the Pyramid Street clubs are closed or turned into cheap hooker joints & the 5-star hotel night clubs are closed or not featuring “name” dancers more than one or two days a week, if that much.)

In southern Egypt, particularly in the Minya and Asyut areas, Islamicists have succeeded in banning female entertainment and alcohol from weddings. Activists occasionally break into wedding celebrations, destroy the musicians’ instruments and force the female performers off the stage. To appease these mobs, many female dancers and singers in Egypt have “repented” and made the pilgrimage to Mecca to atone for their allegedly sinful behaviour.

(Read Van Nieuwkerk’s “An Hour for God an Hour for the Heart” re the same “atoning” among Mohamed Ali Street dancers)

In 1976, I left Toronto to live in Morocco, a traditional Arab Islamic state ruled by a Sultan who claims descent from the prophet Muhammad. I went there to study the oud, the Arabo-Turkish stringed instrument that is ancestral to the European lute. I spent many months playing and studying with a variety of musicians, and had the privilege of listening to a concert of Andalusian music in one of the Royal Palaces of Marrakesh. (The term “Andalusian” refers to the Arabic classical style brought to North Africa by the last Spanish Muslims and Jews expelled from the peninsula by Ferdinand and Isabella’s reconquest.)

The musical traditions of Morocco have a tribal (nomadic Bedouin and mountain Berber) style as well as peasant, urban and elite court styles, such as the Andalusian tradition. In Moroccan society, music informs all aspects of life. The general level of musical talent and expression is roughly comparable to that of the Celtic peoples — above average in all respects. In Morocco, the Sultan is both the commander of the faithful and the patron of these arts.

The diversity of styles that make up Moroccan music are part of what musicologists call the pan-Islamic tradition, a multi-ethnic, multicultural, but distinctive soundscape with roots that go back to the Hellenistic and Byzantine cultures later incorporated into medieval Islamic life.

These musical traditions include the music of the Sufis, or the Islamic mystics, made famous by the whirling dervishes of Turkey (the Mevleviyya sect, whose tekke, or centre, is in Konya in eastern Turkey). In the courts of the Iranian Shahs, Ottoman Sultans and the Sultans of Morocco, some of the best musicians were Jews, Greeks and Armenians. And yes, some of the singers were women.

Over the centuries, the music of Islamic countries was the music of a tolerant, multifaceted civilization — unlike the sacred music of the West, which was often rigidly church-based. Ironically, “Islamic music” had little connection to the mosque. So, why are we now hearing so much about religiously inspired persecution of Muslim music and musicians? The answer lies in militant interpretations of Islamic law, or Sharia.

Islam is characterized by clear commands regarding many aspects of life. But music is not among them:
There is no direct mention of music in the Koran. Over the centuries, it has therefore become a highly divisive subject, with various authorities arguing over the words and phrases they believe indirectly govern the issue.

When deciding whether music or belly dancing is permitted or forbidden (haram) in Islamic law, scholars begin with a verse of the Koran, then proceed — in descending order of authority — to the sayings, or hadiths, of Muhammad, then to the quotes of his companions, then to the quotes of the friends of the companions, and then to the fiqh, which are the dissertations of the four schools of Islamic law.

The final link in the chain of authority is embodied in the fatwa, a pronouncement, injunction or ruling by living Islamic scholars who interpret the traditions of Islamic law for the present day. We now have many fatwa-issuing Muslim authorities who believe that a wide variety of musical expression is permitted; as well as many other authorities, such as the Councils of Iran, who do not. The struggle between the two sides is part of the larger culture war playing out in Islam, of which the 9/11 attacks and other spectacular terrorist outrages are but the most visible part.

It is interesting to note that when the Sultans were strong and confident, and minorities such as the Jews and Christians were not persecuted, music of all kinds was accepted and flourished in the Islamic world. Such tolerance has usually corresponded with periods when Islamic societies were expanding and open to the world. Now that Islamic societies are being outpaced by the Christian West, reactionary elements have taken control and are seeking to expel any hint of infidel influence.

As a result, the affected Muslim nations are literally losing their culture. And ironically, it is the Great Satan that is benefiting. In Iran, for instance, most of the most popular musicians left the country after the Mullahs took over. Many of them found refuge in California, where there is now a thriving revival of the Iranian musical tradition. Much of the recorded material is clandestinely smuggled back into Iran, where many of these “expatriate” musicians are underground stars.

(The same thing happened with Khordadian’s dance videos, but IMNSHO, he must have been suffereing from a real case of cranio-colonic inversion to have actually performed with a mixed group in Tehehran!!! Talk about walking directly into the lion’s mouth, never mind just his den!!)

Liberal democracy, as we know it in the West, is a way of life, not simply a way of electing governments. It includes the right to free expression — including music and dance. When that freedom is suppressed, it is not just artists and their audience who suffer, but the wider culture. The goal of fundamentalist governments and activists is to replace the vibrant, historically rooted cultural traditions of Islamic nations with the sterile, artificial culture of modern, militant Islam.

It is a world with all of the appeal of Orwell’s.
© National Post 2005

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