An artist as philanthropist : Umm Kulthum as an exemplar

For those who know Umm Kulthum , the Egyptian singer and iconoclast, they are also familiar with her role in rallying the entire Arab world together, in times of great need. Her role as the ‘voice of Egypt’ is well known. Not so well known may be her role as a philanthropist.

Umm Kulthum
Photo credit : Al bustan culture center, Philadelphia

 

We recently  attended an event honoring Umm Kulthum in Washington D.C. organized by the National Museum of Women in the Arts, that organized an event as an homage to the great artist. Here are some interesting vignettes from the panel discussion that discussed not just her philanthropy, but also her life, her  career and the forces that shaped it.

  • Umm Kulthum was a peasant girl, who made the transition to Cairo, the big city, with a lot of grace
  • As she did this, she remained true to her roots, often referring to her humble origins
  • While maintaining a dignified presence, Umm Kulthum was a trendsetter of sorts – both in terms of style of singing and her own image
  • She contributed to the post-six day war period through her own salary  and her own wealth, towards the Egyptian state, which needed all the money, for its war efforts
  • She also encouraged women to donate jewelry, towards the war efforts
  • Her greatest contribution was to showcase Arab unity, when it was most needed, through Art
  • She was a businesswoman, diplomat and an artist.

As an exemplar of the value of giving oneself, and one’s time, Umm Kulthum demonstrates that an artist can make a difference. And it is perhaps fitting that she is celebrated, to this day; almost 40 years after her death, as one of the most important singers in Arabic language.

Music and the Mullahs – can the twain meet?

The debates about the use of music in Islamic practices specifically and music as entertainment are perhaps as old as Islam itself. These debates are not new reminds a scholar of Amnan Shiloah (1997). In the absence of clear injunctions about music in the Qur’an, secondary texts such as Hadith and other texts written by scholars of Islam have become important in interpreting the role of music in Islam and how permissible it is. Given that many Muslims around the world do take their religion seriously, when it comes to matters of practice, this is an important issue that needs to be addressed. With rap and metal being used by revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia – to get their message across, Sufis organizing music festivals in Morocco, mainstream actors and actresses dancing to Bollywood tunes in India and Pakistan, is music really haram? I will try to address this intricate and complex argument here.

Let’s start with the basics. Music is not totally forbidden in Islam. Even the most die-hard Salafi will admit that the Prophet Muhammad ( peace be upon him) was known to enjoy some music from dhaf, a drum like instrument, on special occasions. Shiloah says “Some authorities, for instance, tolerated a rudimentary form of cantillation and functional song, but banned any instrumental accompaniment; others allowed the use of a frame-drum but without discs, forbidding all other instruments, particularly those be-longing to the cordophone family. The mystic orders, for whom music and dance held a vital part in the performing of spiritual and ecstatic rites, were seriously concerned with the debate and participated ardently in the polemics.” This debate is really not part of daily life, with tolerance being the norm in most Muslim societies. It is only in extreme cases such as Saudi Arabia – where public performances are banned that this debate gains salience. Shiloah shows that the first authoritative attack on music came from Ibn abi al Dunya (823-894) A.D., who was in the court of Caliph Al Muta’did (892-902). Dunya’s argument in his book Dhimm al Malahi and the use of the concept of Malahi or distraction (from religious obligations) is key to the development of the notion that music is a distraction from religious observance (since it was associated with gambling, drinking and merriment). On the other hand, Sufis and those mystics who saw benefits of Sama and the use of music argued that music stirred the emotions to worship and brought the believer closer to Allah. As Shiloah further argues “ Another early Sufi scholar al-Sarrij (d. 988) who set forth the true principles of sufism in his Book of the Sparks, distinguished between the sama of the vulgar and that of the elect, which includes various degree.”Sufis were pious, practicing Muslims, for whom music was but one way of expressing their spirituality. The modern day subversion of Sufism for commercial purposes is another matter, and I will address that in another article.

Growing up in India in the 1990s’, the early musical influences in my life were Michael Jackson, Bryan Adams, Backstreet boys and a plethora of Indian musicians including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami, Ustad Zakir Hussain, Sabri Brothers and others. Though my father enjoyed Bollywood music and we heard lots of Qawwali on Fridays, music was somewhat of a taboo, despite being loosely accepted. I remember my father disconnecting the cable TV at home because MTV was too ‘rebellious’ and ‘decadent’ in his opinion. My mother was the more liberal among my parents, who had a greater level of tolerance for things that were not too orthodox or ideas that would be considered rebellious. As I grew up and became more cognizant of the world around me, I realized that indeed Music and the Mullahs – orthodox leaders of Islam- did not get along too well. My father was a Mullah himself, though he did not practice as a religious leader full time, but was trained in theology and finer points of religion, but so was my mother. So, at an earlier age, I got my first education in the value of interpretation of religious laws and social norms – much of it did depend on human agency and aql, or reasoning. While media portrays extremists such as the Taliban as the authoritative agents of interpreting laws on Islam, there is a vast range of interpretations of whether music is permissible or not – from those who embrace Music fully to those who negate it.

Contemporary Music culture around the ‘Muslim world’

Across the ‘Muslim world’ – defined as any country with a significant Muslim population – one can find a rich and thriving music scene – the Qawwals in the Indian subcontinent, the Sufi singers in Turkey, traditional singers and Griot singers in Senegal, Africa. Even if it is not devotional music, music is tolerated in many forms, as long as there is no lewdness or immodesty involved. Youssou Ndour, a griot singer from Senegal is one of the latest global sensations, who has taken the music world by storm and has also taken a firm stand on music in Islam. The success of his album Egypt, around the world, which is chronicled in a film I bring what I love is a testament to the broad appeal of his music, both within and outside of the Muslim world. Another globally renowned singer is the late Nusrat Fatehali Khan, a Pakistan qawwali singer, who branched into mainstream music and is known for his melodious voice as well as his rendering of spiritual classics such as Allahu Allahu. Then there are others like Sami Yusuf, who have captured the imagination of the faithful with their rendering of religious songs. His music is for the Western Muslim, educated, well-traveled and often well-heeled. The market for the faithful is making space for techno-savvy beats and slick music videos, it seems.

          This is not the entire picture, as there are egregious bans on music performances in some other parts of the Muslim world. When certain legislators or governments in the Muslim world ban music, it is coming from a sense of duty to ‘preserve’ religion. In this logic, anything that the prophet Muhammad did not do it not permissible and this includes music, which he perused in a rather limited way. While there are prophetic traditions that permit music, the line of agreement it thin. There is a tension between the two human tendencies – of Rahmah (grace and beneficence) and hawa or desire, which can translate into personal opinion in practice, argues Fatima Mernissi in her book Islam and Democracy – Fear of the modern world (1992). This tension manifests in all debates that we hear about the clash of creativity and the need to conform to the current rules or authority. Artistic expression in all ways, including music falls into this category of tensions, one that can be interpreted as being ‘wayward’ or out of Islamic bounds by those in power, who can accuse artists and performers of promoting hawa or desire – an evil notion indeed. And when the state is based on maintaining order, this becomes less tolerable. The ‘collective good’ becomes more important than individual agency or freedom and hence some sorts of creativity gets banned. Mernissi further argues that since many of the Muslim majority countries have not fully signed onto the principles of Universal Declaration of Human Rights that guarantee human freedom in all its manifestations, this can lead to a lot of tensions.

           

Conclusion

            The Fes festival of Music in Morocco is considered one of the biggest music festival in the world. As the festival website says, “The aim of this Festival is to harness the arts and spirituality in the service of human and social development, and the relationship between peoples and cultures,” so to this extent, music has become, over the centuries a common language. There is a rich tradition of poetry in the Persian Gulf too, considered the bastion of orthodox Sunni Islam. In fact, there are popular TV shows like the Millionaire Poet, which has been a hit for the past few years. In effect, the Arabian tradition is all about celebrating the spoken word in various forms. During my stint at a PR firm in Dubai, I managed the account for Dubai International Poetry Festival, a celebration of poetry and performing arts – which included several Sama preformances as well.

The power of music to bring people together endures. This has not stopped the youth from using music to express their anger, sense of freedom and demands to the leaders of the country and to their own countrymen. If there is one thing that can be said confidently, it is that music is an expression of the deepest passions and cannot be curtailed by laws or religious edits. While the mystic traditions such as Sufi orders used music for religious purposes and justified it, other puritanical scholars were harsh in their condemnation of music. This tension has continued to this day and we see the same debates being played out, in various forms. If anything, this debate shows the plurality of interpretation of the laws concerning music and the various ways different Muslim societies have chosen to interpret them. With increased connectivity, greater access to media and proliferation of cheap media technologies, one can only imagine that music, in all its variants will continue to grow and proliferate. While the Mullahs may not be able to ban music everywhere, there are bound to be movements who will try to stop the use of music for religious as well as entertainment purposes. But at the same time, one must not forget that those who are opposed to such puritanical and rigid interpretations are also fighting a battle – and are often in the majority. With the success of stalwarts like Nusrat Fatehali Khan, Sami Yusuf and others, perhaps the Mullahs will realize that music can actually serve faith in a positive way and it can be a force for good. In the meanwhile, we can hope that tolerance prevails.

 

References

Shiloah, A.(1997).Music and Religion in Islam, Acta Musicological, Vol 69. P.143-155.

 

Mernissi, F.(1992) Islam and Democracy – Fear of the modern world, Perseus Books, Cambridge: MA.