Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Islam and Hindustani Music

One of the reasons I cannot think of Islam as being a fundamentally intolerant religion is that almost all of my Hindustani music teachers, and many of my favorite Hindustani musicians are Muslim. These men are extremely devout, and see their music as their spiritual practice. They also frequently combine their Islam with reverence for various Hindu deities. Salamat Ali Khan came from a four hundred year old lineage that was commissioned by the Emperor Akbar to perform and preserve Hindu religious songs. Ali Akbar Khan and his father Allaudin Khan were both devotees of the Goddess Saraswati, and there are several portraits of her at the Ali Akbar College of music, including a stained glass window. Bismillah Khan was a devout Shia Moslem. He prayed five times a day, abstained from pork and alcohol, took the pilgrimage to Mecca, and regularly gave alms to the poor. He also abstained from beef to honor the values of Hinduism. However, his family has played in Hindu temples for generations. He is also a devotee of Saraswati, and he onced received a vision of a Hindu avatar while playing. And how does he justify this to the fundamentalist Shia who claim that all music is haraam? (damned). The following quote (from INDIA TODAY, July 15, 1986, pp. 122-131) expresses his integrity and devotion with an eloquence that requires no further comment.

“When maulvis and maulanas ask me about this, I tell them, sometimes with irritation, that I can't explain it. I feel it. I feel it. If music is haraam then why has it reached such heights? Why does it make me soar towards heaven? The religion of music is one. All others are different. I tell the maulanas, this is the only haqeeqat (reality). This is the world. My namaaz is the seven shuddh and five komal surs. And if this is haraam, then I say: aur haraam karo, aur haraam karo (if music be a thing of sin, sin on)."

“I was once in an argument with some Shia maulavis in Iraq. They were all well-versed in their subject and were making several effective arguments about reasons why music ought to be damned. At first I was left speechless. Then I closed my eyes and began to sing Raga Bhairav: Allah-hee....Allah-hee....Allah-hee...I continued to raise the pitch. I opened my eyes and I asked them : 'Is this haraam? I'm calling God. I'm thinking of Him, I'm searching for Him. Isn't this namaaz? Why do you call my search haraam?' They fell silent.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The TaqwaTour

My second article on Muslim punk from India Currents

Writing a review of a book or recording is much easier than writing about the reality that produced it—or in the case of Michael Muhammad Knight’s the Taqwacores, the reality the book produced. Knight’s book is full of surprises, but at least it sits there quietly in your hands and doesn’t protest any of your descriptions of it. Real-life Taqwacore musicians are an independent lot, and resist anyone’s attempt to create a pigeonhole for them. The New York Times and the Rolling Stone both said that Muslim Punk was created in response to Knight’s book. Marwan Kamel, whose band Al-Thawra takes its name from the Arabic translation of "The Revolution, explains that the truth is more complicated. “ We were not the first Muslim punk bands, even if we were the first Taqwacore bands. Punk bands have existed in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the rest of Southeast Asia since the 80's. The idea of "Muslim punk" isn't that important there, because the vast majority of people are Muslims. As Mike said in a conversation with me once, ‘What do you call Chinese food in China, it's just food.’ So, likewise Muslim punk is just punk for them.”

So what is Taqwacore, if not Muslim punk? I tried at first to answer that question quasi-scientifically, by sending out a generic questionnaire to several bands that identified themselves as Taqwacore. I got some friendly and informative responses, but some band’s reactions varied from suspicious to overtly hostile. “Look, there are plenty Muslims who don’t know s—t about Islam.” replied Saag Al-sistanti of the Saag Taqwacore Syndicate “Just like the back country good ol boys who don’t know s--t about the bible. But they still consider themselves Christian, and they are not put to a 'Christian Litmus Test'..... Are we not Muslim enough? Is that it?” He had my agenda wrong, but he was right that I had an unconscious agenda. I was trying to make Taqwacore represent a new Muslim ideology. Taqwacore is more interested in questioning all ideology than creating a new one. “We (the real-life taqwacores) are really just putting our identity conflict on display for the world to see” says Kamel, “Taqwacore means we can be complicated Muslims and complicated punks... as long as we stay true to ourselves.”

No one wanted to use ideology to divide or unite the “good” and “bad” Muslims. The Secret Trial Five is a Canadian All-female Taqwacore band, whose lead singer, Sena Hussain, is openly gay. I thought she would have felt some solidarity with gay Islamic reformer Irshad Manji, but instead Hussain criticized Manji for her support of “Apartheid states like Israel.” “I know some very conservative Muslims who treat me as a brother, even though I've made all kinds of crazy rebellious statements about religion” says Knight “They humble me with the way that they live their Islam. I've spoken at mosques and Islamic events and have been received with decency.” Real-life Muslims, unlike their media caricatures, often agree to disagree, and tolerate their differences even when their disagreement is strong and passionate.

When Michael Muhammad Knight painted camels on the side of his green bus and began his “Taqwatour” of both Punk Clubs and Moslem community centers, he traveled with five Taqwacore bands that shook up both Muslim and Punk Orthodoxy. Only the Secret Trial Five exemplified the raw angry adolescent energy of traditional hardcore punk. Al Thawra uses sophisticated sampling and mixing techniques that combine drum machines, violins, and middle-eastern instruments with what they call “heavy sludgy crust punk”. The Kominas use dramatic changes in tempo, orchestration, and musical style that create political playlets reminiscent of Brecht and Weil (Only louder, most of the time.) Vote Hezbollah repeatedly point out that their name is a joke, but their song “Poppy Fields” pulls no punches in its criticisms of American foreign policy. It features a gritty Tom Waits-style vocal, and closes with an impressively frantic hi-hat solo. Omar Waqar performed without his former band Diacritical, perhaps because certain members were ambivalent about being exclusively identified as Taqwacore. (There is a long discussion about this issue on his blog.) His style with that band was closer to being heavy metal than anything else, but his numerous other influences defy easy categorization. The evening’s entertainment was thus definitely not for the purist, whether punk or Muslim. Despite the Taqwatour’s deliberately controversial style, however, the mainstream American Muslim reaction was admirably restrained.

Perhaps the most crucial moment of the Taqwatour was their performance at the national convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). Undeniably, they freaked out lots of people. The Secret Trial Five’s blog reports that many walked out when they heard the group’s “scratchy punk vocals”. There was an off-stage argument between the “head dude” and Mike Knight. The police were called, which inspired Knight to lead the crowd in a chant of “Pigs are Haram”. But hey, nobody threw any bombs, or stones, or crashed any airplanes into the side of the green bus. The Taqwatour set up a booth at the ISNA conference and the public reaction was summed up as “a few people looking at us funny…overall a controversy free day.” At the ISNA open mike, the Taqwatour shared the stage with Muslim rappers, beat boxers and poets who used almost as much profanity as they did. There are online videos of the event which show girls in hijabs smiling, screaming, and giving devil-horn hand gestures. The organizer of the event eventually admitted she made a judgment error in calling the police, and that it would have been better to have talked things out. It is not always a peaceful relationship, but the Taqwacore sensibility is an integral part of modern Moslem culture, and not just in America. The Dead Bhuttos live in Pakistan, and record in Punjabi. The Kominas have toured Pakistan. Personally, I’m looking forward to the time when Christian and Moslems parents can sit down together and mutually commiserate over their crazy Punk Rock children. If that won’t shatter old boundaries, I don’t know what will.

(The Myspace pages of these groups can be found through the search engines at www.myspace.com)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Islam and Forgiveness

I saw a post underneath a video trailer for the new movie "The Stoning of Soraya M." This post said among other things. "I believe the Muslim society shows no forgiveness". This is just plain wrong. Forgiveness is recognized as a virtue in the Koran, and there are specific criteria explaining when it is permitted and encouraged. The famous commandment about cutting off hands for stealing, for example, is supposed to be carried out ONLY if the thief refuses to ask for forgiveness. It's true that there are lots of people raised as Muslims who do not live up to this ideal. There are also Christians who called out for the Blood of Tookie Williams, and would not let him live out his life sentence in prison, even though he had clearly repented his past actions and was doing everything he could to make amends for them. The worst Muslims do not define Islam, and the worst Christians do not define Christianity.

One of Islam's great contributions to moral reasoning is that they use a three part distinction where most other religions use two. Instead of dividing actions into Good and Evil, Islam make a distinction between actions which are 1) Forbidden 2)Permitted and 3)Blessed. When someone has been wronged, they are permitted to ask for justice, but it is considered blessed to forgive.

I really like this distinction. When I was a Christian, I was frustrated by the fact Christianity required far more from us than anyone could ever possibly give. As Nietzsche and Ayn Rand pointed out, being a good Christian seemed to be a formula for self-mutilation. Muhammad perceptively realized that there are certain things that people must never do under any circumstances, such as murder or theft. However, he also realized that there was more to being a spiritual person that just being a respectable citizen. With the concept of blessed action, he gave people the opportunity to be called to moments of spiritual greatness, recognizing that this opportunity would encourage people to frequently rise above the minimum. It was one more example of his recognition of the principle that there should be no compulsion in religion. If you give people an opportunity to be exceptionally good, they will often take it. If you try to force them to be good, all you produce is backsliders and hypocrites. It's a shame that so many contemporary "Islamic" states have forgotten this.

Reading articles and comments on The Roman Polanski case reminded me of this distinction. Many people have pointed out that Polanski's victim has publically forgiven him, and said that she sees no reason to send him to jail. Others have replied by saying that this makes no difference. According to Western Law, he has committed a crime against the state, and therefore her forgiveness is irrelevant. I am told, however, that according to Sharia Law, if a criminal asks his victim for forgiveness, and the victim grants it, sentences can be reduced or eliminated. Is this why so many people say that Western and Islamic values are incompatible? Because Muslims are not as violent and vengeful as Westerners?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Muslim Punk Rock?

This article first appeared in India Currents May 2009

In 2004, Michael Muhammad Knight wrote an extraordinary novel called the Taqwacores, which conceived the idea that Islam and Punk Rock “aren’t so far removed as you’d think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way---the energy perhaps, that comes with knowing the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sell-outs and hypocrites, but also from true believers whose devotion had crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified cohesive communities when nothing can be further from the truth”.

If you’re not completely blown away by the audacity and insight of the passage quoted above, I suppose it’s possible you might not like the rest of the Taqwacores either. You also might not like the fact that this is probably the longest passage that can be quoted without deletions in a family magazine. Knight is an American scatological vagabond poet, in the tradition that began with Walt Whitman, and includes Hunter Thompson, William Burroughs, Henry Miller, and Allen Ginsberg. These writers all value experience over accomplishment and respectability, and thus are often heavily involved with drugs, sex and alcohol. Their attitude towards authority, and to the very idea of literary style, varies from indifference to hostility. The best of them, however, have styles which emerge from a single-minded devotion to telling the truth as they see it. When such a writer emerges from a social milieu whose story has not yet been told, there is an opportunity for greatness if the writer is up to it.

Knight is such a writer, and his milieu is the world of Moslem-American youth, suspended between two contradictory value systems they can neither fully accept or reject. On one hand there is Punk Rock, mixed heavily with the fratboy slob world portrayed by filmmakers like the Farrelly Brothers and Judd Apatow. On the other hand, there is the puritanical world of fundamentalist Islam, held up as an ideal by their parents and overseas relatives, and clearly out of sync with the ideals of self-determination (and self-gratification) taken for granted by most Americans. Because neither value systems works well for them, each of the characters in the Taqwacores is attempting to construct their own personal code with different fragments from each.

At one extreme is Umar, who embraces both puritanical “straight-edge” punk and orthodox Salafi Islam, but would be condemned by the latter because of his many tattoos, and his tendency to burst into obscenities when his housemates smoke dope in his pick-up truck. At the other extreme is Jehangir, who repeatedly declares that “Islam can take any shape you want it to.” He wraps his Mohawk in a turban when visiting his relatives in Pakistan, and uses marijuana and alcohol to continually keep himself in an ecstatic Sufi-like trance. There is Rabeya, whose face no one has ever seen because she always wears a burqua. She also sings Iggy Pop songs, reads Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, and blacks out passages she cannot accept in her copy of the Koran. In the middle of all of this is Yusuf, abstaining from drugs and alcohol, who is studying engineering because his parents told him to. He is also trying to resist being seduced by blonde dreadlocked Lynn, who once wanted to become a Muslim because she loves Rumi’s poetry. All of these people live together in a house with a hole knocked in the wall that faces towards Mecca, and a Saudi flag with a spray-painted “A” for anarchy.

Yusuf’s character is what distinguishes Knight from his literary forebears. Ginsberg, Miller, and Thompson were always the center of a self-created chaotic circus. Like Whitman, they celebrated themselves and sang themselves. Yusuf, in contrast, is the still center around which all other action revolves, clearly touched by it but not the initiator of it. It is as if Tropic of Cancer were written from the point of view of Henry Miller’s best friend. Nevertheless, Yusuf is not a mere passive observer, for he hopes and believes that somewhere in this spiritual chaos a new form of Islam is being born. This is what makes him a searcher, not just a spectator, and this search is what provides the subtle dramatic flow beneath the book’s episodic, free-form surface. Despite their differences, all the characters come together as Muslims when they pray. They may use pizza boxes instead of prayer rugs, and need sandalwood incense to cover the smell of beer and vomit in the living room. But Knight’s descriptions of the prayer scenes reveal something authentically spiritual that triumphantly coexists with the excess and the hedonism.There is also Jehangir’s love for a new style of music called Taqwacore—a name derived from the Arabic word for “blessed” and the punk genre called Hard Core. The evocative names of the Taqwacore bands—Burning Books for Cat Stevens, Osama Bin Laden’s Tunnel Diggers-- create a sense of curiosity and anticipation, which reaches a shattering climax when Jehangir produces a Taqwacore concert and meets his favorite bands face to face.

A westerner who reads this book will find his stereotypes about Muslims shattered and turned inside out. Could there be any truth to this portrayal? Young Muslims all over America think so. Many of them deluged Knight with letters, telling him that he spoke to them and for them, and asking where they could find recordings of Taqwacore music. And now for the punch line which begins the articles on Taqwacore in the New York Times and the Rolling Stone: Knight had to say that these bands were a product of his imagination, and many of his readers responded by starting Taqwacore bands of their own. Some even named their groups after the formerly imaginary bands in the book. A few years later, Knight was driving an Islamic green tour bus with five of these bands, nurturing the fruits of his own self-fulfilling prophecy. The reality which is Taqwacore music deserves, and will receive, an article of its own in my next column. But I wanted to devote this column to the book itself, because Michael Muhammad Knight is not only a force for social and musical change. He is also a literary talent of the highest order.

The Taqwacores is available at www.softskull.com

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Salman Ahmad on Islam

A few years ago I interviewed Pakistani Rock Star Salman Ahmad (of the Band Junoon), and asked what Islam meant to him. Here are a few of his comments from that Article.

"Those planes were not the only thing those terrorists hijacked on 9/11. They also hijacked my religion. They call themselves Moslems, but they only bow to the gods of hate, fanaticism and bigotry.

I may look like a long-haired musician, but I know Islamic Logic. I studied the Koran as a child, and I continue to go back to it as a source of inspiration for my music. There is absolutely nothing in the Koran that forbids music. On the contrary, the Koran says that the prophet David was given the gift of singing and that when he sang the mountains swayed. Why would God give a prophet such a gift if it were evil? And the Hadith they cite as banning music criticizes things like “idle talk”, which obviously only refers to gossip, not music. I researched and studied this topic and spent two and a half hours discussing it with the most prominent Mullah in Peshawar. But instead of responding to my arguments, he just fell back on apocalyptic imagery. I saw through him, but I still treated him respectfully. In fact, he ended our discussion by entreating me ‘from the heart’ not to be angry with him, and asking me to come and see him again. Then he sang a song to me, and asked me to perform at my next concert. After 2 and a half hours of saying music was sinful, he was standing there singing to me.”

“The fact is, these mullahs don’t really believe what they are saying. They’re attacking music because they are afraid of losing their gig. They see a long-haired musician getting thirty thousand people at a concert, and they see us as intruding on their market share. In Pakistan, 50% of the population is under twenty-five, and they are the ones who are attracted to Rock music and videos. When I starting interviewing the students at the Madrassahs, all they wanted to talk about was Junoon’s music. They knew all the songs, and were asking for my autograph. But once the cameras came on, they all mouthed the same preprogrammed commentary, saying that music was forbidden.

“ The kids say what they say because they’re poor and they get free food and education from the Madrassahs. Their parents leave them there and say “raise them”. There’s no other social safety net, so the kids have no choice but to echo the party line. But when the mullahs aren’t watching, they watch satellite TV, discuss cricket matches, and do all the other things that normal kids do. If they were provided with any other economic opportunities, they wouldn’t be there. Even though all music is banned in Peshawar, there are three or four rock bands from there who have made videos that are running on satellite music channels in Pakistan. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t be sure, but I think the Mullahs are losing.”

Nevertheless, Ahmad strongly believes that a defeat for the extremists will result in a rejuvenation of Islam at its best.

“They are trying to recreate seventh century Arabia in our time, and they are not even recreating it accurately. They say that women shouldn’t work outside the home. But the Prophet Muhammad was married to a working businesswoman who was fifteen years older than he was. And she proposed to him.”

“They try to avenge any action they think is disrespectful of Islam. But here is a story that all Moslem children hear from their mothers. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, first began to preach his message, there were many people who reacted hostilely. There was a woman who used to see Muhammad walk by her house every day, and she always dumped garbage on him from her window. Not once did he protest this, or try to get revenge. One day he walked by and she didn’t dump garbage on him. So he went up to see her, and discovered that she was sick. He stayed with her, nursed her back to health, and eventually she converted to Islam. He used persuasion and gentleness, not anger and force. He knew that the only way to win over people is through truth, humility, and compassion. There are so many stories in which his followers wanted him to act aggressively, and he would say ‘the truth will prevail, as long as we’re true to ourselves’. The self-appointed spokesmen for Islam who claim they want to emulate Muhammad’s character erase this whole side of his story.”

“Being a Good Muslim is having faith in a higher power. Once you have that faith, it strengthens you against the fear of humiliation, poverty, and death. The Koran says only God has the power to exalt you. No one else has ultimate control over when you die or how much financial success you have. Once you accept this, it frees you from all the mind games we play with ourselves. It’s an empowerment which comes from submission. We think of submission as implying weakness, but it really means tuning in with the frequency of the universe. Once you’re in harmony with that frequency, then you can imagine your own destiny.”

“Strength of faith is not in veils or beards or trouser length, it’s a matter of the heart. This was perfectly expressed in a poem by Bulleh Shah, which I used as the lyric for my song Masjid/Mandir (the mosque and the temple) “destroy the mosque/tear down the temple/ break all that can be broken/but don't ever break anyone's heart / that's the true house of God.”

Information about Junoon recordings, concerts etc. can be found at www.junoon.com