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Book Review: Let the music play on

29th Apr 2022
Book Review: Let the music play on

The Awakening of Islamic Pop Music by Jonas Otterbeck, Edinburgh University Press, 2021, 224 Pages, HB. £75

Music has always aroused varying emotions amongst Muslim religious scholars, academics and the broad strata of ordinary Muslims. It is either accepted with certain conditions, or it is prohibited outright, no grey areas. Like an elongated musical note that hangs in the air for as long as the musician is able to hold it, the contestation around music stretches through time and space to the very dawn of Islam. This reverberating note of accord or dissent resonates in all matters of religious arts of Muslims – art, literature, music, architecture and photography.

Sacred music is devotional, whether it is the Gregorian chants of Benedictine monks, liturgical worship by Buddhists, Sufi poetry put to music (qawwali) or African spiritualists regaling their ancestors. It is music that can invoke deep feelings of joy, nostalgia, tranquility and peace. And in the case of qawwali, it can arouse the passions driving the devotee to religious ecstasy.

In The Awakening of Islamic Pop Music, Islamic scholar Jonas Otterbeck enters the rocky road of Muslim religious anxieties – the battle between the spiritual versus the secular, the prohibition versus the permissible. In addressing these vexing debates upfront, Otterbeck acknowledges that “popular music is a widely debated, notoriously slippery concept”, but in the world he traverses it is “not problematic”.

The Islamic pop he refers to is music “made with the goal of being perceived and accepted as Islamic, often with the specific intention of celebrating Allah, Muhammad, Islam or Islamic values and lifestyles in lyrics, images and, at times, sounds”.

Otterbeck centres his fascinating study of Islamic popular music within the context of an emerging global Islamic music production company called Awakening Music.

Awakening manages Muslim artists from across the globe, has a You Tube channel where its artists music videos, fan videos, live shows and the meetings between artists and fans are posted. Nashid websites, artists’ personal webpages, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are also part of Awakening’s offering.

As a media company, Awakenings Music is slowly evolving into a mega commercial enterprise that is capturing young audiences from around the world. While Otterbeck profiles the company and the artists it represents, one of the key issues that he addresses throughout the book is “how the making, marketing and performance of a particular new Islamic music genre relate to Islamic discourse (in its diversity)”.

Otterbeck takes a broader approach in distilling the very nature of Islamic discourse. It is the grey area that is of particular interest to him. Instead of grappling with the halal or haram status of the sacred, Otterbeck research focusses on “how Islamic discourse and the music in question challenge and change each other. It is not a relationship isolated from everything else but, rather, one that takes place in several different contexts of socio-economic and political change”.

This scholarly quest accepts the present reality where music is a priori permissible amongst a far greater number of devotees than a minority whose readings of Islamic texts renders the sacred as sacrilegious.

It is Otterbeck’s view that “both music and Islamic discourse are diverse and processual, and must be understood in relation to the actual people envisioning them.” The music that Awakening promotes is traditional, devotional, Islamic songs that now easily fall within the genre known as Nashids (Arabic for song).

Otterbeck provides a lively and vivid description of the various big name celebrity artists in live concert, the audience reactions, the growing fan base of the likes of Maher Zain and Sami Yusuf and the continuous challenge of commercialisation of the sacred.

The carefully choreographed concerts and videos on-line point to a meticulous commercial vision that promotes a hyper masculinity of well groomed, marketable young men whose religiosity is embedded in the lyrics and demeanour on stage or on-line.
Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr reminds us that “Islamic civilization has not preserved and developed several great musical traditions in spite of Islam but because of it. It has prevented the creation of a music, like the post-classical music of the West, in which an “expansion” takes place without the previous “contraction” which must of necessity precede expansion in the process of spiritual realization.

Islam has banned music which leads to the forgetfulness of God and forbidden those Muslims from hearing it who would become distracted from the spiritual world and become immersed in worldliness through listening to music.

But Islam has preserved music in its most exalting and yet sober aspect in its psalmody of the Holy Qur’an and the like for the whole community, while in its inner dimension it has made of music the ladder to the Divine Presence with a contemplative quality which is an echo of paradise where are combined the sensuous and the ascetic, the otherworldly and the beauty of the here and now. It has made of spiritual music, a vibration and echo of that Reality which is at once transcendent and imminent.”

Otterbeck’s book is a must read for all interested in the assured and ambiguities of Islamic discourses on the ever-changing landscape of Muslims arts. What Otterbeck’s research highlights is that a new theology of Muslims’ arts needs to be imagined.

This awakening of the Muslim mind to a new rhythm of life, rooted in the glorious creative legacy of the past, is needed now more than ever.

Mahomed Faizal

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