Muslims around the world are using multiple media to express their identities. For many Muslim artists, music has become an important space to talk about their faith and the struggles they face. The music ranges from the overtly political to the spiritual. The focus of this post is Maher Zain, a Swedish Muslim of Lebanese descent who rose to fame in 2009 and just released his most recent album Forgive Me this past April. Zain’s music is influenced by his faith and has strong religious overtones.
Zain immigrated with his family to Sweden when he was eight years old. After college, he entered the music industry in Sweden and found RedOne, a Moroccan-born Swedish producer, to work with. When RedOne went to New York, Zain followed to continue his pursuit of becoming a music producer. Initially, Zain’s interest in music was not to produce music with religious influences; however, after a visit to Sweden, he became more interested in his faith and decided to stop his career as a music producer and to begin writing and singing songs that demonstrate his commitment to his religious identity.
Zain sings in English and Arabic. His songs are not prescriptive, but emphasize the spiritual aspects of the faith. For example, in his new song Mawlaya on the album Forgive Me, he sings about the Prophet Muhammad and his characteristics, especially his role as example to be emulated. In another song on the same album, he sings a song about his mother called Number One for Me.
Zain is part of a group of Muslim musicians, like Sami Yusuf, who have become very well known around the Muslim world. Their work draws from numerous musical influences and often are multilingual. They focus mainly on the compassionate nature of Islam, love of God and the Prophet, and the importance of treating women with kindness. They do, however, also have songs that address political issues. Yusuf, for example, sang a song with the Danish hip-hop group Outlandish called Try Not to Cry that highlights the Palestinian plight. In 2011, Zain released a song called Freedom that was inspired by the events of the Arab Spring.
Artists like Zain and Yusuf have tapped into an important need in the Muslim community: to have music that reflects their religious commitment. Even if all Muslims do not appreciate their music because of their use of instruments (some Muslims believe that only the voice and a specific type of percussion can be used for music), their music offers young Muslims an alternative that they can relate to.
Have you heard Maher Zain’s music? What is your reaction? Do you think that music is a medium to express identity? Why do you think artists like Maher Zain and Sami Yusuf have a large following? Who are other artists like Zain and Yusuf? Who are some examples from other faith traditions? Please share your comments below.