My 1998 article, "You Need Beethoven to Modernize," proposed that proficiency at Western classical music can, surprisingly, serve as an index for how well non-Westerners modernize. This weblog follows the theme by looking at the continuing difficulties between music and Muslims outside Iran (for Iran, go to "The Erratic Career of Western Music in Iran").
Before starting, though, a backward nod: For the fate and symbolism of classical music in post-Saddam Iraq, see "'Iraqi Symphony Performs for Bush'" from late 2003.
With the Hamas takeover in Gaza, music, even indigenous, is nearly banned, according to a musician named Salaheddin:
I lead a group of 26 musicians - we play traditional Palestinian music. But for the last two months we haven't been able to work. This group, Hamas, believe they are the leaders of Islam. The violin, piano, flute, all these instruments are banned. Only the drum is allowed. They say any other instrument is not mentioned in the Koran. ... Hamas have already beaten one of my singers for singing for Fatah. He was attacked at the wedding where he went to perform. We had to send him to Israel for hospital treatment. We have to keep our traditional music because it is Palestinian. People without traditions are not civilised, they are nothing.
(August 3, 2007)
May 5, 2008 update: If music is threatened in Iran and Gaza, it has a new opening in Saudi Arabia, reports Donna Abu-Nasr of the Associated Press:
A German-based quartet staged Saudi Arabia's first-ever performance of European classical music in a public venue before a mixed-gender audience. The concert, held at a government-run cultural center, broke many taboos in a country where public music is banned and the sexes are segregated even in lines at fast-food outlets.
The Friday night performance could be yet another indication that this strict Muslim kingdom is looking to open up to the rest of the world. A few weeks ago, King Abdullah made an unprecedented call for interfaith dialogue with Christians and Jews — the first such proposal from a nation that forbids non-Muslim religious services and symbols. "The concert is a sign that things are changing rapidly here," said German Ambassador Juergen Krieghoff, whose embassy sponsored the concert as part of the first-ever German Cultural Weeks in Saudi Arabia. ...
Friday's concert of works by Mozart, Brahms and Paul Juon was the first classical performance held in public in Saudi Arabia, said German press attache Georg Klussmann. It was advertised on the embassy's Web site with free tickets that could be downloaded and printed.
The excitement in the 500-seat hall was palpable as the largely expatriate audience walked in. "We have not done a concert like this before," German diplomat Tobias Krause told the audience at the start of a performance by the Artis Piano Quartet. Those gathered applauded enthusiastically after each piece and were treated to an encore.
Sebastian Bischoff, the German cultural attaché, said the mission had received permission for the event from the Ministry of Information and Culture, which runs the King Fahd Cultural Center, where the concert took place.
Japanese pianist Hiroko Atsumi, the quartet's only woman, said there was some debate before the concert about whether she should perform in an abaya, the enveloping black cloak all women must wear in public. She settled on a long green top and black trousers. ...
For the expatriates, the evening was an opportunity to have a normal evening out in Riyadh, a city with no movie theaters and where women are not allowed in outdoor cafes. One foreign couple held hands, while another husband put his arm around his wife's shoulders — rare public displays of affection in the kingdom. The mutawwa, the dreaded religious police tasked with enforcing public morality, were nowhere to be seen for a change.
Dec. 2, 2008 update: The erudite David P. Goldman, writing as "Spengler," looks at the Chinese cultivation of Western classical music in a way complementary to my assessment of Japan and the Muslim world in "China's six-to-one advantage over the US." Whereas I focused on the cultural dimension, he looks at the mental benefits of mastering this music. Some excerpts:
The world's largest country is well along the way to forming an intellectual elite on a scale that the world has never seen, and against which nothing in today's world - surely not the inbred products of the Ivy League puppy mills - can compete. Few of its piano students will earn a living at the keyboard, to be sure, but many of the 36 million will become much better scientists, engineers, physicians, businessmen and military officers. ...
There is little doubt that classical music produces better minds, and promotes success in other fields. Academic studies show that music lessons raise the IQs of six-year-olds. Elite American families still nudge their children toward musical study. ...
Any activity that requires discipline and deferred gratification benefits children, but classical music does more than sports or crafts. Playing tennis at a high level requires great concentration, but nothing like the concentration required to perform the major repertoire of classical music. Perhaps the only pursuit with comparable benefits is the study of classical languages. It is not just concentration as such, but its content that makes classical music such a formative tool. ...
Something more than the mental mechanics of classical music makes this decisive for China. In classical music, China has embraced the least Chinese, and the most explicitly Western, of all art forms. Even the best Chinese musicians still depend on Western mentors. Lang Lang may be a star, but in some respects he remains an apprentice in the pantheon of Western musicians. The Chinese, in some ways the most arrogant of peoples, can elicit a deadly kind of humility in matters of learning. Their eclecticism befits an empire that is determined to succeed, as opposed to a mere nation that needs to console itself by sticking to its supposed cultural roots. Great empires transcend national culture and naturalize the culture they require.
China's commitment to classical music will have effects that are at once too subtle and too powerful to categorize easily. It is not that classical music helps to train good scientists, for example. ... Until now, the West has tended to dismiss China's scientists as imitators rather than originators. As a practical matter, China had little incentive to innovate; an emerging economy does not have to re-invent the wheel, or the Volkswagen, for that matter. ...
When it comes time to develop the next generation of anti-missile radar, or electric car batteries, Chinese originality may assert itself once again. Chinese who have mastered the most elevated as well as the most characteristically Western forms of high culture will also think with originality. Anyone who doubts this should watch Lang Lang's performance of the Mozart C Minor Concerto once again.
The Saudi oud player, Mohammed Abdo.
The Saudi oud player, Mohammed Abdo.
But the ulema do not win every round:
In May a French embassy-sponsored concert by operatic soprano Isabelle Poulenard, performing with a female accompanist to a women-only audience in Riyadh, was forbidden just two days before the date after gaining full permissions. The concert finally went ahead following an apparent high-level skirmish between religious and other officials, said a person associated with the event.
The former Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam.
The former Cat Stevens, now Yusuf Islam.
With the rigour of the zealous convert, he stopped playing music. The first guitar to re-enter his life was brought into his home in Dubai (where he also runs Jamal Records) by his son Muhammad. "He awoke within me my deep conviction that there was nothing wrong with this. Music has never been forbidden in the Muslim world."
Aug. 26, 2009 update: Some Saudis are trying to develop artistic festivals that include musical performances but the Mutaween, the religious police, are having none of it.
Jeddah's summer film festival was cancelled this year despite the support of local governor Prince Khaled al-Faisal. King Abdullah, who ascended the throne in 2005, is seen as backing the reformers but he must balance the opposing forces. "Unfortunately such actions carried on by religious police do not adhere to the official political will and they sabotage the government efforts to improve and maintain the internal tourism industry," said Mahmoud Sabbagh, a newspaper columnist. This month music concerts were also banned from the Abha tourism festival, in the mountainous southwest of the kingdom.
Apr. 14, 2010 update: The Somali Islamist group Hizbul Islam has just enforced a ban on all music, reports Agence France-Presse, and the fourteen independent radio stations operating in Mogadishu have no choice but to obey.
Mogadishu-based radio stations stopped playing music Tuesday in compliance with an ultimatum issued by hardline Islamists 10 days ago, officials and journalists said. "Today we see an official crackdown on the independent media... The local radio stations stopped playing any kind of music or songs after the deadline given by the Islamists came to an end," said Mohamed Ibrahim, an official of the National Union of Somali Journalists. ... All radio stations in both government and Islamist controlled areas of Mogadishu were affected by the ban imposed by the Hezb al-Islam militants, Ibrahim said. Journalists and radio executives said they had complied with the ban for fear of reprisal. The Hezb al-Islam and the Al Qaeda-linked Shebab groups control much of war-wracked Mogadishu.
AFP also quotes reactions from unhappy radio station staff:
Mohamed Haji Bare, director general of Danan Radio: "We abide by their rules by abstaining from broadcasting music and songs and instead we are using traditional poems from today on."
Osman Gure, director of Radio Shabelle: "No one dares disobey the orders otherwise you put your life in danger."
Abdiaziz Mohamed Dirie, an editor at Simba radio: "This morning I broadcast my program without the music sound bites. Everything is falling apart in this country and if we ignore what they [the Islamists] say, we ignore our safety."
Apr. 16, 2010 update: The Shabab, the most powerful Islamist group in Somalia, have gone a step further and banned school bells in Jowhar, some 55 miles north of the capital Mogadishu.
School principals in the town ... had been summoned to a meeting and informed that the bells could no longer be used because they sounded like church bells, according to one principal. "There was no bell rung in our school today," said Hamdi, a student at the Kulmis Primary and Secondary School, who asked that her full name not be used out of fear for her safety. "Some teachers were hitting the doors as the period finished. It is really confusing."
The news report also updates the predicament of the Mogadishu radio stations that stopped playing music: "The ultimatum left broadcasters scrambling to find creative ways around the ban, leading them to play recordings of horses galloping, roosters crowing, engines roaring or guns being fired — a common sound in the capital — to signal the start of various broadcasts."
Apr. 20, 2010 update: Music on the radio has become a hot potato in Somali politics, Mohammed Ibrahim of the The New York Times explains today in "Somalia: Off Again, on Again Radio":
Two radio stations in Somalia were shut down by the transitional government on Tuesday because they had stopped broadcasting music after threats from Islamist insurgents, but the stations were allowed back on the air hours later. The quick turnaround appeared to expose a difference of opinion in the government, which had earlier warned of shutdowns. Security agents had ordered the stations closed Tuesday, but the Information Ministry, citing the freedom of the press, countermanded the orders. Islamic insurgents had demanded the stations stop playing music because they deemed it un-Islamic.
June 28, 2010 update: This is off topic – no Muslims involved – but it adds a useful perspective on Western classical music. From a review of The Ninth: Beethoven and the World of 1824 by Harvey Sachs (Random House) in The Weekly Standard by Lawrence Klepp:
Toward the end of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, in the mid-1970s, the routine attacks on revisionists and running dogs of imperialism were briefly interrupted by a strident anti-Beethoven campaign. A friend of mine who was a schoolgirl in Shanghai at the time remembers that the reeducation sessions demanded particularly resolute striving against the Fifth Symphony, because the dramatic opening chords had been interpreted as fate knocking on the door, and the bourgeois concept of fate was obsolete. The revolutionary will of the people, reinforced by the collective recital of Chairman Mao's thoughts, overcame all inevitability and could accomplish anything.
But, Klepp continues, "It couldn't accomplish making Beethoven sound bad."
July 21, 2010 update: Again off topic but what a contrast: David P. Goldman reviews the Israeli music scene in "Pioneers: A mix of passion and tradition makes Israel a classical-musical superpower." Israelis would seem to have a classical musical role comparable to their high-tech role:
Improbably, Israel has become a pocket superpower in the arts, most visibly in classical music. ... Israel's contribution to classical music, that most distinctly Western of art forms, has never been more visible. And Israelis take to classical music—the art form that most clearly creates a sense of the future—like no other people on earth, to the point that music has become part of Israel's character, an embodiment of the national genius for balancing hope and fear.
Israeli musicians, clockwise from the far left: Zvi Plesser, Hillel Zori, The Jerusalem String Quartet, Michal Tal, Nitai Zori, Nagai Shaham
The distinctly Israeli take on the European classical tradition has become the country's most notable cultural export, and it has been nurtured by a reverse flow of Israeli performers who are coming back from Europe and the United States to teach at home. In a country where daily life has an intensity that arises from risk, classical music offers an irreplaceable spiritual outlet. And young Israelis bring to it a unique blend of discipline and fervor.
Goldman concludes his moving tribute with an explanation for the outstanding Israeli role in classical music:
The sense of a future in Western classical music evokes the basic emotions with which human beings regard the future, namely hope and fear. When Israeli musicians speak of performing with a sense of risk, they mean the capacity to sustain hope in the presence of fear. It takes a certain kind of personality to do this on the concert stage, with all the attendant artistic and technical demands. Israel, whose existential premise is the triumph of hope over fear, incubates a disproportionately large number of musicians with this sort of personality.
Western conservatories, by contrast, tend to penalize risk-taking. Their graduates are taught to launch careers by winning competitions, and the default strategy for taking a competition prize is to make the fewest mistakes. The conservatory-and-competition circuit tends to manufacture risk-averse savants who play with the spiritual equivalent of surgical gloves.
Comment: The Israeli achievement strikingly confirms the point I argue that "fully reaping the benefits of Western creativity requires an immersion into the Western culture that produced it."
Jan. 18, 2013 update: The Al-Qaeda-affiliated thugs who now rule much of northern Mali, according to Deutsche Welle, "have banned most types of music and forced local musicians to flee for their lives." Confusingly, the article goes on to say that "The Islamists banned music of any kind there - even cell phone ringtones." In all likelihood, the latter is correct. Jan. 28, 2013 update: The French-led victory over the Islamists means some music has returned to northern Mali.
May 20, 2013 update: Sujatha Fernandes of Queens College reviews musical developments in Mali post-Islamist conquest:
It has been almost nine months since Islamic militants in northern Mali announced that they were effectively banning all music. It's hard to imagine, in a country that produced such internationally renowned music as Ali Farka Touré's blues, Rokia Traoré's soulful vocals and the Afro-pop traditions of Salif Keita.
The armed militants sent death threats to local musicians; many were forced into exile. Live music venues were shut down, and militants set fire to guitars and drum kits. The world famous Festival in the Desert was moved to Burkina Faso, and then postponed because of the security risk.
While French and Malian forces largely swept the militants from Timbuktu and other northern towns early this year, the region is still a battleground. Cultural venues remain shuttered. Even more musicians in the north are now leaving the country because they fear vengeful acts by the Malian Army, whom they accuse of discriminating against northern peoples. The music has not returned to what it once was.
July 30, 2013 update: An analysis of Al Maghrib Institute, a Wahhabi organization founded in Texas in 2002 and with many branches, will in late August 2013 run
a seminar entitled, "Fiqh of Chillin'."As part of the seminar, there is a discussion on "how to advise someone to stop listening to music." Somewhat of a tradition exists among Islamic groups with respect to banning or restricting music. The Qur'an, they argue, suggests, for instance, that the playing of musical instruments is as corrupting as wine drinking. There is also objection to the uncontrollable effects that music can have on individuals and the themes that are contained within modern music.
Aug. 13, 2013 update: Sam Westrop wrestles intelligently at "Art as Humanity: Islamism and Music" with the question why "some Islamists choose to use music as propaganda while others ban it completely." His response:
The answer might lie in examining different Islamist groups' approaches to modernity – that is, to what extent can Western methods by adopted and exploited in order to promote the Islamic ideal? One might also ask, for example, why Turkey's Erdogan wears a tie while Iran's Ahmadinejad did not; or why some Western Islamist groups will use the democratic processes, such as libel laws, to attack their critics while others regard such means as sinful.
He then observes:
Ultimately, perhaps, there is little difference between absolute proscription and selective censorship – both, essentially, are systems of control. Truly free expression only serves to embolden and liberate the individual, at great risk to the all-consuming higher ideal.
Jan. 12, 2014 update: The fate of music in Iraq since its peak in the 1970s again points to a utilitarian approach. Ali Abdulameer, an Iraqi journalist in exile, notes that Saddam Hussein saw music as a mechanism to mobilize the masses, and so – to a lesser degree, to be sure – does the Maliki regime today.
in Iraq, particularly since the former regime of Saddam Hussein took over the cultural and artistic institutions and used them for war propaganda and internal and external incitement, the quality of music and songs has declined from being a social product that expresses natural human feelings to merely a government-affiliated sector. ...
Just as propaganda via songs was dominant when the former Iraqi regime controlled the country's cultural institutions, that phenomenon is back today. Nationalist songs have become propaganda tools glorifying the "victories" of the Iraqi forces against terrorism, as in the song "The Golden Team" by the duo Hussam al-Rassam and Mohammed Abdul-Jabbar. There are songs praising the "heroic acts" of the Iraqi army commander and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The songs have lousy melodies and no artistic value. They are frequently broadcast on state television and other pro-government outlets. Also, the singer Qassem Sultan used to make songs praising the former Iraqi leader and now makes terrible songs glorifying Maliki.
In the old days, Iraqi songs expressed "deep feelings, including passion." Now, "a song is expected to provide the listeners instant gratification, satisfy their feelings and satisfy their simple awareness patterns."
Jan. 20, 2014 update: How much things have changed in Saudi Arabia in a few years. Arab News carries a story by Habib Shaikh titled "Italian pianist mesmerizes audience in Jeddah." Excerpts:
It was a sheer magical evening at the Italian Consulate when gifted Italian pianist Orazio Sciortio set poetry in motion from the moment his nimble fingers descended on the keys. Just 29, Orazio, is already considered an icon among the new generation musicians from Italy, and this was evident from the standing ovation and cries for encore from the audience after every rendition. ...
Italian pianist Orazio Sciortio playing at the Italian consulate in Jeddah.
Consul General Simone Petroni, speaking to Arab News, said the concert was part of the initiative to deepen and strengthen relations between the two countries. "It was planned as a small gathering, but requests flooded us and we tried to accommodate all." Petroni said the consulate was working on organizing three to four programs in future focusing on arts, design, and fashion. ...
Sahar Abujadail, a Saudi, said it was the first time she attended a piano recital. "I am happy I did. It was amazing. I loved it," she added.
Comment: This recital took place, it bears noting, in a consulate, not a public hall, and was planned as only "a small gathering" but demand made it something larger, perhaps in part from Saudi nationals wanting to participate.
Jan. 21, 2014 update: The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) conquered the province of Raqqa in the northeast of Syria on Jan. 14 and six days later issued commands banning music and taking other steps (no smoking, burqas on women, public quiet for women, stores closed during prayers). It specifically
"banned music and songs in cars, at parties, in shops and in public, as well as photographs of people in shop windows." The organization urged shop owners to remove photographs of men and women from their shop windows, warning that "whoever violates these rules will subject themselves to the necessary Sharia punishment." "Songs and music are forbidden in Islam, as they prevent one from the remembrance of God and the Koran and are a temptation and corruption of the heart," the statement added.
Jan. 26, 2014 update: An article at Al-Monitor by Mehrnaz Shamimi points out that music is one thing and showing the music being made another. Surprisingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting has allowed some musical instruments to be shown as they are played.
Feb. 9, 2014 update: In January, for the first time since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iranian television showed music being played on instruments.First came a traditional Persian music band, Avaye Parsian, followed a few hours later by The Pallett, a contemporary music band, which pantomimed playing instruments.
Reactions to the TV appearances reflected the hopes many Iranians feel after the election of a new president, Hasan Rouhani, in June. ... In subtle ways, Iranians said Mr. Rouhani's government has tried to ease the most zealous enforcement of Islamic codes and create space for more personal expression in public.
The Pallett pantomined playing on instruments during its unprecedented television appearance last month.
Apr. 19, 2014 update: The Madani Schools Federation in Leicester, England, a state-funded Islamic school, has placed a poster "Music is Haraam" on its official noticeboard. The poster declares:
- "Stay away from evil acts such as listening to music and encourage others to do the same too."
- "Music is a tool of Shaytan (Satan)."
- "Music sows hypocrisy in the heart like water causes seeds to grow in soil" (a hadith)
Feb. 18, 2015 update: ISIS in Libya released pictures of its militiamen burning musical instruments, especially drums, near Derna. These, apparently, were confiscated by its religious police.
Drums burning near Derna, Libya.
Aug. 3, 2015 update: Writing for the Indian website New Age Islam, Naseer Ahmed asks "Is Music Prohibited In Islam?" No, he concludes:
Self-prohibition of music, when musical ability and talent is clearly a gift from God, and the Quran does not prohibit it, amounts to ascribing falsehood to God and makes one a zalim (wrong-doer), and therefore someone who will never prosper.
Sep. 24, 2015 update: A video shows Rachid Houdeyfa, the imam of the mosque in Brest, telling his congregants in a sermon that "Whoever enjoys music will be turned into a monkey or a pig" ("Celui qui aime la musique sera transformé en singe ou en porc").
Mar. 14, 2016 update: In a mildly surprising development, Hamas has permitted a female singer, Rawan Okasha, to perform in public in Gaza City. But she had to stand still, cover all but her face and hands, and limit herself to "patriotic music."