Music is alive and well in Muslim societies; Arab, Persian, Indian and Indonesian pop stars abound on the satellite channels and perform at weddings and other celebrations. There are also famous music festivals, the Baalbek Music Festival being one of the most known venues. So it should not be a surprise that the Yemeni port of Aden, long a crossroads of Muslims traveling east and west, should be the home of an Arab music festival. The Aden Festival was booked for February 14 with the Syrian singer Asalah Nasri and Egyptian star Issam Karika. As noted in an article in the current Yemen Observer, the director of the Aden cultural office, Abdullah Kudadah, considers the festival as a primary step for creating a tourism culture that will contribute to the economic and cultural renaissance of Yemen.

He further mentioned that this coming concert was among several proposed festivals for singers from different Arab states, as well as the fact that Yemen is launching four new satellite channels.

“Music is an international language. We know how the ancient Arab tribes used to celebrate their poets because they used to believe that their poets would promote the tribe. The success of a poet is the success of the whole tribe,” said Kudada. He added that Ukadh used to be the forum for all Arab poets from different Arab regions.

The director of Aden festival, Marwan al-Khalid, said the festival is the first of its kind organized by the Aden governorate. He said the festival will be held in the 22 May stadium and that more than 400 prizes will be given to the audience. In addition to 400 cell phones and one million Yemeni riyals divided amongst twenty winners, the grand prize of a Hyundai automobile will also be given away. Al-Khalid added that there would be VIP tickets costing $100 each, which include dinner and beverages. Ordinary tickets will cost YR3000 each.

Organizers have also decided to donate 30 percent of the concert proceeds to the aid of the Palestinian people in Gaza and to cancer health care in Yemen.

Al-Khalid expected a great turnout for the festival due to the fame of the Syrian singer.

Cultural expression and tourism: what could be wrong with that? The Devil, quite literally it seems, is in the details, also noted in the Yemen Observer article:

A statement issued by Islah Party Members of Parliament Fuad Dahaba and Haza’a al-Maswari against a festival has raised controversy over singing, politics and theology.

Fuad Dahaba said that a singing carnival is not only prohibited by Shari’a law, but is also a clear violation of the constitution.

“What do we need in Yemen? Do we only lack art and singing, or do we lack for the simplest requirements of living?” asked Dahaba. He added that the basic necessities of life have become impossible to obtain. “Education and health are miserable and dying while we have been spending our money on useless things that do not suit us as Muslims or as Yemenis,” said Dahaba.

A number of religious scholars have been circulating a fatwa to be signed which condemns and prohibits the First Aden singing festival, headlining Syrian singer Asalah Nasri and Egyptian star Isam Carrica planned for February 14. These have come only months after similarly draconian fatwas have been issued calling for the ban of women in advertisements, that girls be removed from school as soon as they are capable of writing and reading the Qur’an, and that women’s rights organizations are un-Islamic. These fatwas were similarly supported by Dahaba and al-Maswari.

Meanwhile Sheikh Yahya al-Najar, head of the guidance unit of the GPC, criticized these attempts to issue fatwas and said there is no article in the Yemeni constitution that prohibits festivals. He added that Islam never prohibits singing unless it includes pornographic material, adding that the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, had attended singing with Daff.

Sheikh al-Najar stressed that issuing fatwas is the charge of the Fatwa House only and should not to be issued by those who like to trigger conflicts. He further mentioned that such campaigns are aimed at stalling the development process and damaging tourism and other activities that build the economy.

“They have been trying their utmost to hinder the activities of improving the economy either through issuing fatwas, inciting the public or through shedding doubts,” said al-Najar.

The debate over music is not new within Islamic communities. It is not hard to find the hard-liners. One googled website prominently displays the views of Ibn Taymiya, a Salafi hero who was born over seven centuries ago when the caliphate had just been overthrown and Baghdad laid to waste by infidels from the east.

If you regard Ibn Taymiya as the last word on worldy acts, here is what he wrote:

Imam IbnTaymiyyah said, “Listening to music and sinful fun are among what strengthens the satanic ways the most. This is exactly what the disbeliever’s used to do. Allaah said, And their prayer at the House (of Allaah) was nothing but Muka ‘an and Tasdiyah. [8:35]. Ibn Abbas, ibn Umar and others said that Tasdiyah is clapping of hands, and that Muka’an is whistling. This was the Mushrikeen’s way of worship. The Prophet and his companions worshipped Allaah , according to His order, in their prayer, reading the Qur’aan and Dhikr (supplication). It never occurred that the Prophet and his companions gathered to listen to singing that is accompanied by clapping or using drums.”

Imam Ibn Taymiyyah also said regarding the person, whose habit is to listen to music, “His state of emotions becomes less passionate when he hears the Qur’aan. On the contrary, when he listens to instruments of the devil (music), he dances a lot. If the prayer is established, he either prays while sitting down or performs it as fast as when the roaster picks seeds. He dislikes listening to the Qur’aan and does not find beauty in it while reciting it. He has no taste for the Qur’aan and feels no love for it or pleasure when it is read. Rather, he finds pleasure if he listens to Mukaa’ or Tasdiyah. These are satanic pleasures and he is among those whom Allaah mentioned in the Ayah, And whosoever turns away from the remembrance of the Most Beneficent (Allaah), We appoint for him Satan to be a companion for him. [43:36].” [Awliyaa’ Ar-Rahman].

The bad news is that some old men with henna beards think just about everything in popular culture is evil; the good news is that others, some with equally long beards, do not. The irony is that this debate, medieval-headed as it usually becomes, is not unique to Muslims. Born-again Christians frequently rail against “rock” music as a tool of Satan. Just take a look at the “Rockumentary” for a taste of that. Carlos Santana sings for the Devil and not just because his name rings so like Satan. Ironically, some give the devil his due, with the rising popularity of “Christian rock” as a tool for conversion and images of Baptist candidate Mike Huckabee strumming his guitar and pardoning Keith Richards. Muslims are not far behind, with several rap artists using their hop-hop cadence to praise Allah.

So what’s the real issue? My parents hated Elvis; their parents had suspicions about Frank Sinatra; I don’t own any Puff Daddy cds. Part of the problem is generational choice. Nostalgia sells, but there is something about the latest fad in music that goes beyond, perhaps not by much, the commercialism. Often the criticism is less about the human voice per se than the message in the song. Music can become the beguiling siren for the ways of the flesh that distract from the call of the spirit. Much of pop music does this, as does much of life. But music in the broad sense can also be the ultimate expression of devotion. While the debate over how to do Quranic recitation has long been engaged, it is hard to imagine the Quran as a text that is not lovingly voiced out loud.

Singing is one of the universal aesthetic expressions of human societies. It would be impossible to find a culture that did not highlight the voice as more than everyday, ordinary language. Our vocal chords, in league with our creative imagination, produce every variety of music and chant. In many cases voices are a major part of religious worship and praise. “O sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord, all the earth,” said the Psalmist in a text revered by Jews, Christians and many Muslims as well. As the pious pragmatist might say, if God did not intend for us to sing, the creator would not have given out beautiful voices. The Italian in me thinks that if God had not intended for song to give pleasure, there would never have been a Pavarotti. The Arabist in me wonders how Umm Kulthum could have commanded such love, if music in this world must be banned as haram.

The world is full of temptation, whether you believe in a literal Satan or not, but spiritual strength is better measured by choosing what to listen to rather than mandating silence. The chador does not prevent lust, nor does a pop song create zinna.

Daniel Martin Varisco