Let’s look at religion and music, after the events in India of this week.
A group of teenage Kashmiri girls apologised, promised to disband their rock group and stop practising music after a fatwa referred to the band as un-Islamic. Mufti Bashiruddin Ahmed, famous for his Shariah court verdicts against missionaries, called the girls’ actions blasphemous, according to the Hindustan Times, a strong word and a reckless charge.
Though there was some support for the girls from inside Kashmir, including from chief minister Omar Abdullah, they could not resist the cultural consensus, which was against them.
The band’s guitarist Aneeqa Khalid was quoted as saying, “We respect mufti sahib who said it is haram and so decided to quit music. We did not know that people of Kashmir were unhappy with what we were doing.”
Their potential is now lost to us, and there’s no point in stating the obvious: Mullahs should not be bullying children. The more interesting aspect is examining the tradition where this should have become an issue.
No music has been heard in the mosque for 1400 years, an astonishing fact. This separates it from the church, especially after Christmas eve 1192, when Perotin demonstrated four part harmony at Notre Dame, an event that transformed culture and history.
The temple in India has always been a place of music, from the militant cadence of the Vedic chant to the soft melodies of the bhajan. Hindustani classical music is performed as a devotional offering, and we just finished a big concert series last month in Orissa’s Konark sun temple. In the Sikh’s gurudwara, the entire scripture is lyrical and is sung.
In Islam, more I suspect from the desert cultural traditions rather than the scripture, music is outside orthopraxy.
What did Aurangzeb, the great Indian champion of Muslim orthodoxy, think of music? We know from Maasir-e-Alamgiri, the chronicle that the court bureaucrat Saqi Mustad Khan kept secretly for 49 years.
At the end of his chronicle, when like Plutarch he adds a chapter on the ‘character of Aurangzeb’, Khan writes: “Mirza Mukarram Khan Safavi, who was an expert in the musical art, once asked ‘What is your majesty’s view of music?’. The emperor answered in Arabic ‘It is mubah (allowed), neither good nor bad.’ Safavi asked ‘Then what kind of it is in your opinion most worthy to be heard?’
Aurangzeb said ‘I cannot listen to music without the pakhavaj and flutes. But instrumental music is unanimously prohibited, so I have left off hearing singing too.’”
Akbar of course had Tansen, but in Jahangir’s autobiography, the Tuzuk, I cannot remember many references to musical performance. The Baburnama has plenty of poetry and drinking and consuming of the drug maajun, but little about music.
When Niyamat Khan Sadarang composed his masterpieces for Muhammad Shah Rangila, he wrote about Hindu gods because the other option was blocked.
When today’s performers sing a traditional Kirana gharana khayal in, say, Raag Bhairav, you get Sadarang’s ode to Mahadev (Shiva).
The Indian Muslim who wanted to go to his pagan roots produced the music of the shrine. Qawwali is sung at the highest possible pitch, and with abandon. There is an aspect of it that comprises rebellion. I’m not referring to its theology, about which I know little, but its musical performances.
In many ways, Muslims have sought to bypass a specific prohibition by either inventing an art form or taking another route. If no music was to be had in the mosque, the dargah would become a part of the religion.
If painting animate forms was forbidden, then the artist would turn to calligraphy. If drinking was prohibited, it resulted in the invention of a form of poetry, ghazal, which has allusions to intoxication.
Music mitigates the uniform message of monotheism, which constantly reminds its follower of hell. So does poetry. The learned Pakistani scholar Daud Rahbar says the ghazal form was used by Persians to resist the harshness of monotheism, which was alien to them till their conquest by Arabs.
The prophet of Islam did not even like poetry. When asked who was the greatest poet, he named Imru al Qais. He then added that al Qais would lead the poets on their march to hell on the day of resurrection.