Music / Popular Culture

Pop Goes Islam

With Mubarak gone, Ahmed Abu Haiba no longer has to worry about the infamous SSIS (Egypt’s Secret Police), but his 2-year-old Islamic music channel’s future is anything but certain. Haiba’s Cairo-based 4Shbab TV aims to instill Islamic values in Arab Muslim youth around the world, but some conservative Muslims think that its programming is polluting young minds with “inappropriate” presentations of makeup-wearing women in music videos. A few key Gulf-based financiers have responded to these criticisms by divesting from the channel. A popular Arab sheik even accuses Haiba of promoting “American Islam.”

In a recent Al Jazeera documentary, Pop Goes Islam (trailer embedded above), Haiba explains his reasoning behind the channel’s creation–offering Islamic values in the language of 21st-century youth–and notes that the only women who have appeared on his channel have worn headscarves and occasionally even niqabs. No female musicians or vocalists have ever been broadcast.

The documentary also demonstrates how the Gulf’s socially conservative influence is affecting Muslim women in increasingly conservative Egyptian society. Pop Goes Islam follows the daily life of Yasmine Mohsen, Egypt’s first  hijab-wearing model. Mohsen approaches Haiba about her interest in hosting a talk show on 4Shbab, but their business partnership is interrupted by accusations of programming immodesty and subsequent withdrawal of financial backing. Independent of 4Shbab’s critics, Mohsen herself says that she receives abusive and threatening phone calls from random Arab men and women, accusing her of disgraceful behavior for using the headscarf as a “fashion accessory” and not for the intended purpose of respecting God.

Despite the harassment Mohsen receives and the criticisms she faces as a hijabi model, she continues on with her professional goals. She started the Veiled Models Association, a mentoring program for other Egyptian hijabis pursuing careers in modeling and the media. Members learn how to walk down a catwalk, pose in a photo shoot, and interview for job opportunities, all in a modest way. Mohsen thinks that modest Islamic fashion is becoming a trend around the world, and is anything but discouraged by the opposition that she, Haiba, and others face as professionals in the media and the arts.

Haiba and his all-male staff are more discouraged than Mohsen. They discuss strategies to acquire Egyptian funding for the channel, fearing that 4Shbab might “turn into Saudi Arabia.” Haiba tries to motivate his team and reminds them of 4Shbab’s mission–to attract non-religious or less pious Arab Muslim youth to a more devout path through morals and Islamic messages in music videos.

Throughout the documentary, there is conversation, dialogue, and debate about modesty, sexuality, and gender, but in the end, that’s not what struck me most. The film offers a unique, relatively non-romanticized perspective of what Cairo’s like, who Haiba and Mohsen are, and how each of them fit into a chaotic, yet relaxed city of 7 million. Both characters’ worlds are far from what I experienced when staying with a middle-class family in an outer Cairo suburb last January, and that’s another reason why I liked it. The outline of the story is about Islam, society, and 4Shbab, yes, but its through that frame where the real story pops.

Muslim World Music Day

Recently, the ARCive of Contemporary Music organized Muslim World Music Day. The project coordinated live concerts andarchived a variety of musical traditions, creating a database of knowledge and resources on music related to Muslims and Islam from dozens of countries. Scholars, artists, and music collectors from around the globe contributed to what is truly an amazing catalog of information on music composed by Muslims and non-Muslims over hundreds of years. There’s even a section of photos of album covers from various decades of the 20th century, showcasing a diverse set of music.

The impressive amount of material available on the website also includes a wide array of photos, videos, and articles depicting a disturbingly frequent orientalist notion of Middle Eastern women–Arab belly dancers. Sheetmusic, or popular song sheet music books kept inside lift top piano stools in late 19th and 20th century American parlors, provide further insight into previous western conceptions of the “exotic, eastern other,” many of which continue on today.

I don’t want to overemphasize the material that the project dedicates to highlighting western depictions of the “eastern other,” because this was only one aspect. Take a look for yourself and find your favorite artist from their long list of musicians, or learn about the varieties of musical instruments used around the world. The project also offers a great menu selection (on the right side of this page) of various genres of music if you’re not sure what you might like.

More than anything, Muslim World Music Day showcases a variety of musical art forms and clearly demonstrates the great diversity of influences that go into creating these pieces. While some of the musical works offered are clear representations of Islamic religious interpretation and expression, a vast majority are produced by people of Muslim origin, unrelated to Islam. When one hears the words “Muslim” and “Islam,” many people immediately access a particular image or notion in their mind. This project is yet another subtle example of the false nature of monolithic conceptions of “Islam” and “Muslims.”

Denmark I Was Born

by Charlie Webster, Center for European Studies

This song is performed by the Danish hip-hop group Outlandish.  Isam Bachiri, shown in this video as the lead singer, was born in Denmark and is of Moroccan background.  The text is a poem, written by the great Danish author Hans Christian Andersen: “Danmark, mit fædreland”, meaning “Denmark, my fatherland.”  The group does not perform the poem as an 19th-century hymn, but rather in a modern hip-hop style.

This video shows a blending of cultures.  There are scenes of familiar streets and landmarks in Copenhagen, juxtaposed with symbols of immigrant culture and Islam.  Outlandish uses a text familiar to all Danes, performed in a novel way, to convey a clear message: I was also born in Denmark, and I also love my Fatherland.

My Unborn Brother

by Charlie Webster, Center for European Studies

This song, “Min ofödde bror” (my unborn brother) is in a reggae style and shows the differences between Sweden and Iran.  The lead singer (Navid Modiri) sings about his unborn brother, who is still living in Tehran.

Despite its upbeat sound, the song discusses serious issues, including war.  As the refrain states: “When you hear this sound [simulated bombing and gunfire], it is time to move somewhere else.”  The singer is able to enjoy his life in Sweden, whereas his unborn brother has more to worry about.

The video also contains symbolism: the eating of a sausage.  Sausages are a very typical Scandinavian street food, but because they contain pork, they are not permitted by Islamic dietary rules.  This is a demonstration of assimilation into the Swedish culture; the singer is a Swede and no longer an Iranian like his unborn brother.

Music and Islam in Indonesia

Music and Islam have a complicated relationship. Even though religious chanting is allowed–even encouraged–in Islam, there is an ongoing debate whether other music is permitted. Some Muslim communities ban non-chanting music all together, while others allow it as long as it doesn’t contain messages (e.g. sex, alcohol) that go against the teachings of Islam.

The Muslims in Indonesia adopt the latter attitude. As Prof. Anderson Sutton told Inside Islam, Islamic music is not only allowed but is also a huge part of the popular culture in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. You can listen to the whole interview below. (more …)

(11:20) mp3